The Food Chain

I bought my condo out by the airport, so I was close to the EVAR trail and during our long dark cold nights I wouldn’t actually have to drive anywhere if I didn’t want to. I wanted to be within walking distance of a generally safe and well used trail that was an off leash area so Barksalot could romp around and do dog stuff. I rented a house along Radcliff for about a year, and have lived in my condo for over three years, so I have put in so many miles year round along the wetlands. And so far so good.

We all know that we have black bears that roam around basically everywhere. One time I saw the biggest black bear I have ever seen saunter down our front yards between our cars and our buildings, and then calmly walk past me while I yelled at it and Kiska barked like a crazy person. But that bear had zero cares about us. A little unnerving, but generally an experience you expect to have here. After all, I love our wildlife and our wild land. As a nature photographer, I rely on Alaska being full of furry woodland creatures. I respect and appreciate them. Except for spiders in the house….. I did let that one spider live for quite a while, until I saw a bug and then actually yelled at the spider “I LET YOU LIVE! You don’t even pay rent by leaving change in the couch cushions and you haven’t killed this bug!” Then I squished the bug, then the spider, then felt a little bad; but nobody gets a free ride buddy. #SorryNotSorry.

A common saying I like is “out of the house and into the food chain” and I think that really describes how we live here. We all know that when you leave the house, even in the heart of the valley, it is possible to see large wildlife. I don’t really think there is anywhere in town where there is a zero percent chance of seeing a bear. But, wolves? It is common knowledge that there is a wolf pack on Douglas. There have been wolves spotted back behind Salmon Creek Dam, there is a pack out by Thane (could even be the same one), and obviously Romeo was a perfect example of wolves out by the glacier. But people don’t really see wolves. Not really. Usually we just see the tracks they leave, or pictures on trail cameras.

But things seem to be changing. I had obviously taken the EVAR for granted. I always check the mud to see who has been passing through. Several times I have seen deer tracks, never have I seen bear tracks, and of course a plethora of Tuf and dog tracks. But my false sense of security changed in November. For the record, the EVAR is not a leash required area. Kiska doesn’t really care about people or other dogs, she doesn’t go on walkabouts, and generally only cares about two things: squirrels, and the tennis ball.

But one dark night while walking without headlamps with a friend, Kiska got very stiff, barked a few times, and ran off the trail about 60 yards out into the grass. This is super weird behavior for her. We trail run all summer and hike year round all over Juneau, and even when we have come around a corner and been feet from black bears, Kiska just looks at them, looks at me, and just stands there. I am actually working on her trying to get her to bark to scar it off. I don’t know if she thinks they are just big dogs or what, but she literally just stands there and looks at me. So this behavior was not bear behavior.

My friend had a crazy powerful flashlight, so he swept the field around Kiska to try to figure out what her deal was as she stood out there silently glowing red from her LED Lighthound body harness, and then we saw off to the left about 60 yards was a pair of green glowing eyes attached to a long black lump in the grass. I feel like an idiot now, but my first question was ‘is that a mountain lion?’ Honestly my biggest fear is mountain lions. There was a rumor of a pair out on Mendenhall Peninsula road a few years back. Duh, obviously that was a wolf. I yelled at Kiska like a crazy person, the wolf got up and was suddenly HUGE, then ran down the grassy flats away from us. Kiska came back and I instantly leashed her in case she felt the need to continue to protect us. My Friend led off the wolf just a bit with his flashlight as it ran, and a second pair of eyes looked at us – too far for the black wolf to have ran in that amount of time. I cannot verify 100% it was a second wolf though.

As I watched the black wolf get up and run, I had two thoughts: this is how I watch my dog die and I hope the wolf chokes or breaks a tooth on the metal plates in her knees, and what is the opposite of ground shrinkage because that thing is a beast and it’s how far away? (When you see a deer in your scope and it looks huge so you shoot it, but when you actually get up to it it’s small, we call that ground shrinkage, usually to mock the hunter.) In that instant, I realized that even though we don’t see them very often, predators really are everywhere, all the time. When I didn’t get a shooting opportunity on a massive buck on Admiralty one time, my then boyfriend said that that’s how they get that big, they don’t give you shooting opportunities. And that’s how our sneaky big predators live here, they don’t give you shooting opportunities and they don’t put themselves in situations to get shot – such as being naughty.

And with both sets of eyes well off in the black distance, we walked back along the trail and I told the other people walking their dogs why I was yelling like a crazy person. Because that’s what good neighbors do. The one time seeing the wolf was for sure a crazy experience, but honestly it is a statistical outlier. Of the four years living down the street from the EVAR and walking it all the time, I have never once seen a wolf or tracks before. So, this one chance encounter over hundreds of walks isn’t something that is going to make me never walk the EVAR again. Goodness, if I never did a trail that I had seen a large predator or large predator tracks on, there would literally be no trail left to do. We live in Alaska, and with that comes risk. But that is why we live here: to be in and enjoy nature and all it has to offer, while weighing our risks and rewards. The number of trail miles I have logged without incident, compared to the number of people who get in car accidents is silly when you think about it. I am at more of a risk driving to work or to go get groceries in the winter than I really am walking my dog every night. I hear of way more car accidents than people or dogs getting mauled on our trail system.

Courtney Wendel has lived in Juneau since she was a year old. She has a twin brother and an older brother, and learned to enjoy the outdoors at a young age by following the boys into mischief. Graduating from JDHS in 2006, she attended UAS to receive her Literature of the Environment, BA English degree. When not at work she spends most of her time on the diverse trail system hiking, running, or camping with her spotted pooch and adventure buddies.

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