It was early December and our cameras were packed up for the season. The few weeks remaining in the month were booked with meetings and time with Simon’s family in Vancouver, and our last couple of days at home in Alberta were focused on hosting Jill’s family, in from Ontario. Going into the field to document wildlife was nowhere on our agenda.
Yet everyone who visits is keen to see what a day in the field is like for us and the visiting Cooper clan was no different. Specifically, they were hoping we could find them a moose and show them the roads less travelled. Both of us were a bit burned out on heading into the mountains and exhausted from trying to build the foundation for Nature Labs, our new project that is aiming to tackle environmental literacy in Canada’s high schools. But field trips is part of who we are and what we do – and we couldn’t never say no to the Cooper enthusiasm.
So, in the frigid darkness, long before sunrise, we set off to the Rocky Mountains determined to reach one of our moose hotspots before first light. But the stunning scenery along new routes never travelled by the Coopers meant that our moose hope was dwindling. It was beginning to feel like an animal-less morning, frustrating for us both as we wanted to show Jill’s family the best of the Rockies.
Then Jill looked over at Simon. Moose don’t really excite him, but there he was putting on extra layers, pulling on gloves, getting his camera out and checking its settings.
“I’m quite literally vibrating”, Simon said. “We are going to see something exceptional. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be amazing. I just know it.”
To be clear, Simon is usually a pessimistic soul when it comes to believing we’ll find animals and here he was calling the shot, Babe Ruth style.
Two minutes later, we both see a dark spot lingering near the side of the road. It was still quite far away, and around a bend, so we assumed it was the hump of a moose, hidden behind a snow bank, licking salt on its belly. But a second after we declare “MOOSE!” (to the eternal excitement of Jill’s sister Candace, whose long running dream has been to see the awkward ungulate up close and personal) we start to see legs and realize it absolutely not a moose.
What could it be? In this area? At this time of year?
Wolf? A black wolf? Maybe…
Then Simon aims his camera through the windshield to get a better look at the same moment the creature notices our car. And in that millisecond Simon and the animal lock eyes, there is no doubt as to what we’re seeing. A Wolverine.
We lose it.
Jill is swearing so much, a longshoreman would blush. Rumour has it, Jill’s parents never knew she swore. Until the wolverine.
Simon – while locking eyes with one of (if not the most) elusive creatures in North America and maybe even the world – is yelling, “WOLVERINE. YOU ARE A WOLVERINE!” Maybe the wolverine was unaware of its taxonomy.
Jill’s dad is slowly taking the lens cap off of his camera – his camera that is nicely equipped with his widest landscape lens.
Jill’s mother is mostly focused on us, not quite sure what the big deal is. After all, it’s just a dark, waddling critter walking across the road.
And Jill’s sister? She’s getting a great view, but is clearly a bit deflated that it turned out to be a wolverine and not a moose.
But as quickly as madness descends, it evaporates. Everyone goes quiet and watches what might be the best view any of us will ever have of a wolverine.
As it lumbered across the road and disappeared into the forest, we were left with but a few images, most a bit soft from the heat waves of the car fighting with the rising sun in the minus 30 degree Rocky Mountain morning. But really, the images don’t matter. Simon has seen a wolverine on three other occasions and Jill once before (we know, we have ridiculous luck with the weasel family, having seen every Mustelid found in Canada this year, minus the long-tailed weasel…which is shocking in and of itself). But this encounter with a wolverine was the first time for both of us that the animal lingered long enough to appreciate its beauty, its power and, quite frankly, its fragility in this unforgiving landscape.
Though the largest member of the Mustelid family and notorious for strength that far outweighs its surprisingly small frame (rarely weighing more that 55 lbs, they’ve been known to give grizzly bears a run for their money), the wolverine’s future is uncertain, with the species being listed in Canada as one of special concern. Climate change will diminish valuable habitat and the heavy industrialization of the west means that the large home ranges required for survival are becoming increasingly fractured.
For all that we know about the wolverine, we also have so much to learn. To be able to spend a few brief moments with this iconic creature was incredible, but mostly we hope that it allows us to make this Mustelid more relevant to students across the country. Through Nature Labs, we hope these images can help inspire a curiosity that moves the wolverine from the pages of a comic book and into the daily discussions of how we can balance people and nature to ensure the wolverine is forever wild and free.
- Simon & Jill
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