Monday, July 30, 2012

Canis lupus



Like most other cliches, the one about the zoo and the wild is grounded in truth. At the zoo, the wildlife are caged visitors in the world of humans and in the wild, the humans are in theirs, caged or otherwise. My first visit to a wildlife sanctuary after decades of devoted wildlife documentary viewing bore hard proof of that [http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.com/2010/11/real-deal.html]. To expect animals to behave like animals was the whole point of entering their natural domains. Unfortunately it does mean reduced chances of seeing them, especially the sly ones.
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But this was Alaska, proving an exception to that rule. I was on a shuttle bus which made its way to the Eielson Visitor Centre at the heart of the Denali National Park and back out again. On my first day, the 7th of June 2012, I had already seen 7 grizzly bears, two moms (sows) with pairs of cubs and a lone male bear (boar), numerous Dall sheep lounging lazily at the edge of sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high, moose and caribou in the 6 odd hours I had spent on the bus. I was already in sixth heaven of my animal besotted life. But only sixth. As I was telling the couple right behind me, "If only..."
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My co-passengers were in a similar state of euphoria. We were all on the 'lucky bus', we insisted. More than a few of us were enthusiastic eagle-eyed lookouts for every minute of the ride and quite often managed to pick out something in the brush that didn't quite look like a rock. That would turn out to be another animal. In the seat just ahead of me were a couple of French speaking teenagers who looked like they had just stepped out of an anime movie with electric blue dyed hair and more piercings than I could care to count. They yapped incessantly, as would be expected of two girl pals irrespective of nationality. I wondered, without making much headway, what might have brought them here. This corner of Alaskan backcountry, decidedly not gritty urban chic, didn't seem like where their scene was at.
We were already winding our way back to the borders of the park to the Wilderness Access Centre from where we had started. Alaska had already made my day, year and life for everything it had shown me on this trip, the breathtaking beauty of its landscapes and the lives of its residents, animal and human. I was simply being greedy when I wished for that one last thing. Everyone knew that 'they' were the ultimate team, smart, tenacious and fearsome - all attributes that would make them really unlikely to come posing in front of a busload of humans.
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In the powerful final chapter of "The Call of the Wild", after the human master he loved with heart and soul is murdered by the Yeehat Indians, Buck the massive sled dog, hero of the story breaks his final bonds with civilization, running out into the forests of Alaska, never to return to the warmth of human protection, turning into a creature of legend, stalking and terrorizing the Indians. He answers the 'call of the wild', becoming the leader of a pack of his wild brothers. It was his brothers that I was on an as-yet-futile lookout for.
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The Alaskan tundra in summer is a feast for the eyes by itself. The many hues of natural colours and the short stubby bushes that stretch out on undulating land before rising into snow clad gigantic mountains in the distance could easily put a paint company's shade card to shame. To know that it also hold such an abundance of wildlife made it twice as scan worthy for my hungry touristy vision. But it was some other excited voice in our bus which shouted "STOP! 3'o'clock! 3'o'clock". The bus stopped abruptly and its passengers looked sharply to the right out of its windows.
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"There they are. Five of them!" said someone else as I scrambled to my knees, scrabbling around in excitement on my seat for my binoculars. I was sure of what I would see because it had indeed been that kind of a glorious day for me so far, yet I wanted to look closer. The anime sisters in front of me went super ballistic with their French chatter in excitement as they planted their faces on the bus window. All I could distinctly hear was "Loup! Loup! Loup!" 
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A smile of intense happiness broke across their faces and one of them went as far to clarify for those who didn't understand French or hadn't spotted the five powerful grey shapes playfully gambolling across the grass yet. One of the brochures for Denali referred to it quite accurately as the 'signature sound of the wild'. Against the backdrop of a large full moon, it would bring a chill down the spine or a smile on your face depending on the kind of person you were or how adventurous you might be feeling right then. Pursing her lips, she howled to no one in particular "Aaaoooo...aaoo...aaoooo" Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.


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