I’ve just returned from the North Cascade mountains in Washington State where I saw a wolverine! That’s right, I saw a wolverine! Calm down, now, is it that big a deal? Well, to me it is: I saw a wolverine!
Please pardon what might seem like intolerable braggadocio, but even now, several days after the event, the memory still makes my heart race. It might help to know that wolverines are probably the rarest, shyest, most unlikely to meet-and-greet of any free-living native North American carnivore; well, except for jaguars, jaguarundis, and ocelots, of which only a handful can be encountered in the U.S., mostly in southern Arizona, where they’re occasional strays from Mexico. On three occasions I’ve seen free-living cougars: once stalking and killing an Olympic marmot (during my doctoral research), once stalking a small herd of deer on Mount Rainier, and once when I startled a cougar at an elk kill after rounding a bend on a solo backpacking trip. But despite more than four decades in the mountains, never before have I truly and genuinely observed a wolverine. Until now.
Wolverines are the largest mustellid, the weasel family that also includes martens, fishers, skunks, ferrets, otters, and badgers. Of these, wolverines are definitely the top dog, or top wild weasel and—you get the picture—I saw one, a wolverine! It’s an encounter with wildness that I’ll never forget.
Speaking of these extraordinary critters, noted chronicler of North American wildlife Doug Chadwick wrote that
“they are smaller than I. Their lifespan is considerably shorter. Yet whenever they do, they do undauntedly. They live life as fiercely and relentlessly as it has ever been lived. If wolverines have a strategy it’s this: Go hard, and high and steep and never back down. Not even from the biggest grizzly and least of all from the mountain. Climb everything: Trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes, summits. Eat everybody. Alive, dead, long dead, moose, mouse, fox, frog, if it’s still warm heart or frozen bones.”
More than 30 years ago, on the lower slopes of Mt. McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park, I very briefly saw the north end of what might well have been a wolverine heading south. But that sighting was hurried and definitely unconfirmed. This time, there was no question: I saw a wolverine!
I won’t say exactly where it was that I saw a wolverine!, lest the information be used by the vast army of wannabe wolverine watchers out there, a host that probably numbers somewhere in the low two-digits. Wolverines, you see, are notoriously shy and people-averse. Doug Chadwick is absolutely correct: They live undauntedly … except for their interactions with Homo sapiens. So I’ll keep the precise location of our tryst secret.
Suffice it to note, however, that I saw a wolverine! We were both clambering above a wild and gorgeous lake in the western section of the Pasayten Wilderness, probably the largest and least-traveled such wilderness area outside of Alaska.
I was making a head count of pikas, delightful “rock rabbits” that inhabit rockslides and talus slopes above timber line, a species that might be faring especially poorly these days, as global heating prematurely melts the winter snow, thereby depriving them of life-sustaining insulation. That’s when I saw a wolverine! It, too, was on the lookout for pikas, but I suspect its intentions were somewhat less scientific and more immediately practical … in fact downright gustatory (the Latin name, Gulo gulo, refers to “glutton”).
I’d bet that if you told the average American the stunning truth, namely that I saw a wolverine! (did you know that?) he or she would think, “X-Men” or maybe Hugh Jackman. But if you think Mr. Jackman is sexy and compelling, you need to know that he doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing. And did I tell you? I saw the real thing: I saw a wolverine!
No photo, sorry to say. In fact, my mad scramble to access my camera cost me a precious four to five seconds during which I could doubtless have prolonged the encounter. (It’s a problem with photography: All too often, it interferes with life.) And there is a huge amount of life crammed into a wolverine, even into a chance encounter with one.
To my subsequent embarrassment, I was momentarily pleased to have my ice axe in hand, since there are bona fide accounts of wolverines (weighing around 45 pounds) literally driving grizzly bears (something like 600 lbs) from a carcass, but such a consideration was pure foolishness on my part: There has never been a wolverine-human attack. One reason is that even as there are way too many people, there are hardly any wolverines, and almost certainly none in the “wolverine state” of Michigan.
But now I know—deep in my bones—that there is at least one out there. Because I saw it, I saw a wolverine!
[photo from Wikimedia]