In the early 1950s, armed with the rudest of survival gear, a husband-and-wife documentary team touched down in arguably the most remote wilderness in North America, Alaska's Brooks Range. Their mission: to film caribou. The annual migration of vast herds to and from their natal grounds north of the Arctic Circle was considered one of the world's preeminent--if little-known--wildlife spectacles. But on this great animal stage another species of charismatic megafauna unexpectedly one-upped the ungulates. Lois Crisler's 1956 memoir, Arctic Wild
, vividly recalls the couple's 18 months in-country and the wolves that would help her work earn a place among the classics of natural history.
The story opens like many an outdoor adventure yarn: extreme living conditions, the occasional grizzly encounter, no shortage of gut-busting work. Then the Crislers decide to adopt two orphaned wolf pups, a male and a female. The result is a journey through wolf development and behavior they never could have predicted. Assuming their human companions to be part of the pack, the pups go about the business of growing quite naturally into adult wolves. Their progression is punctuated by startling moments described in detail by the author, as in their learning to howl:
Sometimes [the female] ululated, drawing her tongue up and down her mouth like a trombone slide. Sometimes on a long note she held the tip of her tongue curled against the roof of her mouth. She shaped her notes with her cheeks, retracting them for plangency, or holding the sound within them for horn notes. She must have had pleasure and sensitiveness about her song for if I entered on her note she instantly shifted by a note or two: wolves avoid unison singing; they like chords.
The Crislers observe, film, and note every nuance of the wolves' change from playful pups to fully grown wolves--wolves that display individual personalities, exceptional intelligence, and highly articulated physical gestures (one of the pair, for instance, curiously investigates a sleeping human by lifting an eyelid with its canine). Revealed is a highly developed social mammal rather than the bloodthirsty murderer of popular accounts.
While the Crislers' pioneer spirit is by itself a remarkable tale, Arctic Wild's fame derives from its place as one of the first narratives to explore wolf habits in an accessible manner that is free of cant and politicization. In his foreword to the reprint edition, wolf expert L. David Meche (author of the seminal The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species) notes that Arctic Wild introduced to a skeptical and generally wolf-fearing public the animal's "beguiling personality." In fact, one might call Arctic Wild the first voice in the wilderness that, decades later, would lead to a gathering howl and finally the once-inconceivable reintroduction of wolves to former ranges like Yellowstone National Park. --Langdon Cook
"Vivid and enticing. . . an extraordinary contribution."--New York Times