Toklat

Marybeth Holleman

 
My husband drove the five hours to Denali National Park, where he met up with the park biologist. The biologist brought him to the hunting guide’s house, and the guide’s wife showed them to the shed, where the carcass hung on a rusted nail. While my husband loaded it into a plastic bag, he made small talk with the guide’s wife. Then he drove back with the biologist, stopping to see where the guide’s client had made the kill shot, right next to the road. He drove home; he flensed the carcass; he buried the soft tissue up in the mountains and the bones down on the beach.
     I walked down to the beach with him a week later, and he showed me the spot: several large boulders on top of the burial site, a yellow line tied around a silver-gray stump that had washed up years before. Some dog, or bear, had discovered it, and partially dug it up. A dark red skeletal paw reached up through the sand. Without fur or muscle, each toe was very long, like a finger, each articulated joint visible.
     He reburied it deeper, found two more boulders to place on top, and we left.
     I had planned on doing some sort of ritual, some kind of funereal speech, but I didn’t. The last alpha male of the most well-known wolf family group in the world was now just an ordinary pile of bones.
 
When my son James was eight years old, he started a petition asking our governor to stop predator control in Alaska. The petition was for kids only, no voting-age adults. He gathered over 100 signatures, from King Salmon to Fairbanks. I typed it up just as he dictated it, and drove him places to post it. And I met with his principal after she took the petition off the school’s community bulletin board and called me to her office. She had received calls—some at home, at night—from several people in the town of Tok who were upset that her school in Anchorage would take a side on this issue. They were angry and rude to my son’s principal, but it was my son, and the wolves, who would pay. The petition was not allowed to be circulated on school grounds, she said.
     What’s more, she said, she didn’t see how an eight-year-old would be able to come up with this on his own; it must have, she said, looking straight at me, come from the parents.
     Oh, I wanted to say, of course my son could not possibly have that much intelligence and compassion, that much ability to think for himself and that much empowerment to act on his own beliefs—not coming out of this school system, where instead he was being taught obedience and cleverness, how to keep out of trouble and do well on standardized tests.
     But I didn’t say it, because I knew my son. In spite of the education she was providing him, my child had retained his perceptions of the world’s interconnectedness. He could still see beyond the walls of the school building, through the worksheets and report cards. He still saw wolves as part and parcel of the whole, as seamlessly related to him as his friends on the playground.
 
When the Toklat alpha male was shot and killed by a trophy hunter who wanted only the hide and the head, my son, now 13 and in eighth grade, was behind in his schoolwork, so he and I couldn’t take the time to go with my husband to retrieve the wolf’s body. My son was constantly not turning in homework, forgetting assignments, screwing up left and right—and his grades plummeted as his teachers clamped down with late work policies.
     James had started middle school with high hopes. He was excited about having different teachers for each class, about having electives so he had some choice in what he learned. He’d be a big kid, he’d have some freedoms, he could chart his own course. But it quickly boiled down to an endless list of small tedium, seven different classes, seven different teachers, all of them handing out a stream of little assignments, which did not add up to anything more than a lousy report card. Every morning I once more heard the refrain that I had hoped would fade with the new school: “I don’t want to go to school. I hate school. Please Mom can I stay home from school today?”
     He didn’t fall into the malaise of lowered expectations immediately. At the start of his second year of middle school, he learned that his social studies class was doing a citizenship project; they would pick an issue, learn about it, take a position on it, and take some action. The first step was for the kids to pick an issue—not the teacher, the kids. James thought of the wolf control issue, or of bear baiting, or even of what to do about Maggie, the solitary elephant at the zoo, depressed since her companion had died. But instead the class chose school lunches. Evidently there was some debate about school lunches, something about nutrition. So that’s what his class worked on all year, school lunches. James was not an enthusiastic participant, and his grades showed it.
 
Meanwhile, wolf control amped up way beyond our wildest nightmares. The Board of Game opened up more and more of Alaska’s state lands to trapping, snaring, and aerial gunning. They’re allowing methods that haven’t been legal since before statehood, back when there were bounties on bald eagles, Steller sea lions, bears, and wolves. Now, state biologists are gassing wolf pups in their dens. They’re gunning down entire family groups from helicopters, a method that was outlawed in the 1960s. They’re going after bears now, too. Hunters can bait and snare both brown and black bears, and can climb into bear dens with lights to kill cubs and sows while they hibernate.
     The Board of Game, which makes these decisions, is comprised entirely of hunters, trappers, and guides. One member of the Board of Game, who makes his living selling wolf traps and “processing” hides, posted a video on YouTube discussing the Toklat wolves while skinning a wolf at his tannery. He explained that the book of Genesis in the Bible tells us we should subdue nature and control it, for God gave us dominion over nature.
     Already, over 95 percent of Alaska’s land was open to trapping and hunting, and several thousand wolves were killed every year. But that still didn’t produce enough moose and caribou to satisfy the Board of Game. Now over 70,000 square miles are open to state-funded predator control; with four new programs approved, including two on the Kenai Peninsula, that number will grow by at least a third. The Board of Game is also attempting to spread predator control into national parks and wildlife refuges, even though federal land managers struggle to keep it at bay in order to uphold their management mandates.
     But there’s more. There’s a hidden predator control program that’s much worse, hidden under the guise of legalized hunting and trapping. It’s far less expensive to have private citizens kill wolves. Increasingly liberalized hunting and trapping across the state is now the largest de facto predator control program Alaska’s wolves have ever endured. Ever.
     Hunting seasons now run as late as June and as early as August 1, even though late summer wolf hides are virtually worthless. These liberal seasons also mean hunters kill adult wolves when their newborn pups are still in the den in June, and when their pups are still entirely dependant on the adults in late summer—this effectively kills untold (and unaccounted for) numbers of pups.
     This hidden wolf control kills as many as 1,700 wolves each year. What’s more, this annual number only includes kills reported through the sealing process; most villages traditionally don’t seal wolf pelts, so these kills are not reported. In addition, the number of pups that die because the adults are killed is entirely unreported but certainly high.
     And the Toklat wolf, the one my husband retrieved, he lived in a protected wilderness, in Denali National Park, alpha male of a long-lived family group. First Adolph Murie and then Gordon Haber had studied this family group, a continuous 70 years of research, making them the most well-known wolf group in the world. But there’s a sliver along the northeast boundary of the park, the Stampede Trail, where the caribou migrate in winter, and the wolves follow. This area, just outside the park, is part of the Toklat’s territory. And unprotected.
     Two men trap in the Stampede area. Two men, one of them a state employee, neither of them relying on trapping for a living, lie their traps in wait along the park boundary, take out the wolves that hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world come to Denali every single summer to see.
 
James wrote letters to the Board of Game at every oppor­tunity for public comment; he asked them to please stop killing wolves and bears, to instead reign in human hunting pressures. But they didn’t stop; they sent back a form letter, and dispatched more gunners in airplanes and helicopters.
     James slipped behind in class again, missing assignments, failing to write the thank you letter to his social studies class guest speaker, a salesperson from a local bookstore.
 
I didn’t want Rick to get the Toklat wolf carcass. And I didn’t want him to bury it in our yard, as he had planned. I didn’t even want to see it. It was hard enough knowing the story of how the wolf was killed; to then have to look upon its skinned, headless body, to then have those sorrowful remains buried in the yard where my son and dogs played, where I grew vegetables and flowers, was not something I could handle.
     I didn’t want James to do poorly in school, either. I had been a straight-A student all the way, a good test-taker and compliant note-taker. I’d taken those top grades all the way to the bank, getting a full four-year scholarship to college. I was always a well-behaved student—except in seventh grade, when I simply took a strong dislike for the teacher, and refused to do anything he asked of us. I was expelled, the same week that our family dog, Pepi, was hit and killed by a car, and was buried in our back yard.
 
Still, I wasn’t surprised that Rick went to get the carcass.
     “I just can’t stand the thought of it being thrown in some dump in Healy,” he said. On that point, I agreed. And for that sentiment, I loved him.
     When he and I were first seeing each other, he lived in a small town, in a small untidy house, and worked as a marine biologist in a shack on the docks. In his little house, which was once the home of the church minister, there were so many bones, so many skulls. Of a black bear, found on a forest trail. Of a Steller sea lion, found on a beach, complete with the bullet holes to the head that had killed it. Of a wolf. The wolf, I asked how he got it.
     His secretary had come in one day and told him that she and her husband had trapped a wolf. She was proud that they’d taken such a grand animal, and told him all about the hunt and the gorgeous brown skin they now owned.
     “What did you do with the carcass?” he asked her, prob­ably with a polite smile pasted to his face.
     “In the town dump,” she replied.
     In the dump. Rick couldn’t stand the idea of that wolf tossed into the dump, so he left immediately, went to the dump, climbed over the trash, dug and found that wolf body. He carried it with him, took it to his office—late, after she had gone home; he never told her what he did—slid it into a mesh bag and dropped it into the water below the dock. He knew the sea would clean it, and thought those bones might have something to teach. Then the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, and his world turned upside down.
     A year passed before he remembered that wolf in the water. He pulled it back up and found a full clean skeleton. Over the years, he gave away different pieces of it. A few ribs to a friend who had cancer, to help him heal. A few ribs to another friend, who ground them up and drank them. Some to a friend’s son, who wanted to study wildlife. All he now had left was the skull.
     Rick did not retrieve the skull of the Toklat alpha male. The hunter took it, head and skin. It was a black wolf, which evidently made the hunter even happier with his trophy.
 
I didn’t want that wolf in our yard because I didn’t want to remember every day how we had failed that wolf, how some guy from Pennsylvania had jumped out of the guide’s pickup and shot him, so excited he at first forgot to unbuckle his seat belt, right beside the dirt road of the Stampede Trail, shot the last remaining adult male of the Toklat family group. I didn’t want to think of the gorgeous black fur of that young wolf on some guy’s wall in his den, overlooking his pool table and wet bar. Didn’t want to think of how he must brag to his buddies over a cold one, brag about whatever kind of skill or courage he thinks it takes to fly on a plane to Alaska, drive out in a pickup truck, and shoot a wild animal that, having lived within the boundaries of Denali National Park, was so used to people who wanted only a glimpse of that black beauty, he didn’t run from the sight of two men in a pickup. I didn’t want to think of how his mate had been trapped and killed in that same area a few months earlier. I didn’t want to think of how he had stayed by her side, wandering that area nearly two months after she had gone. I didn’t want to think of the remaining pups, who would likely not survive, unable to get food on their own. Didn’t want to wonder which wolf would be next, and how it would go down, and how that death would be trivialized by our government, our media.
     I was saying no to what I thought I couldn’t change. I had been so busy teaching my college students and trying to help James get all his assignments in on time, that when the wolf was shot I barely let myself think about it.
 
Somehow, I knew my son’s failing was our failing. He’s a bright boy; he tested into the gifted program in third grade. Once he decides he wants to learn something, he does, and he never forgets it. Ask him to explain how a camera works; ask him the latest on electric cars. Ask him what percentage of Alaskans hunts (fourteen); ask him the success rate of wolves hunting moose, of the time it takes a wolf pup to mature. By the age of eight, he’d read books on wolves that most adults would find too dense and difficult, but for James, they were like candy.
 
Did this Toklat wolf’s life matter any more or less than any other wolf that has died in these years of widespread trapping and aerial hunting? Predator control has wiped out entire families of wolves. State workers have cleared thousands of acres of wolves. There are wolf dens that this summer lie idle, the flowers growing up around the entrance, the interior dry and dusty, empty. There are moose and caribou that stand around, watching, but never see that slink- ing shape, and begin to change how carefully they walk the woods. I wonder if this makes them easier for the human hunters who will descend upon them come fall.
     There are tourists on the buses in Denali National Park right now, looking through binoculars for sheep, moose, caribou, brown bear, and most of all, for wolves. But they won’t find the Toklats, who had become so immune to the sights and smells of humans in vehicles that they often trotted down the road right past buses loaded with gape-mouthed tourists, gasping and clicking their cameras. They’d become so oblivious to us that even their little fur-ball pups would stand by the road. The Toklats, most often-seen wolf family group of Denali, the wolf family that Adolph Murie studied, and Gordon Haber studied, for seventy consecutive years, are gone.
     What we do know is that wolf family groups can only sustain so much killing before the entire group fragments, dissipates, disappears. The Toklat male was killed almost two months after his mate, the alpha female, was trapped in the same area. She suffered in the trap for two weeks, and all that time he stayed near her. When she was gone, he continued to frequent the area, often seen howling all alone. When he was shot, all that was left of the Toklats were six two-year-olds and yearlings, inexperienced young wolves that hadn’t yet learned the boundaries of their territory, the hunting traditions of their family group.
     For we also know that each wolf family group has unique behaviors and traditions that they have passed down from generation to generation, behaviors that are finely tuned to their specific territory. To the east of the Toklats lived the Savage family group; Gordon Haber documented several unique hunting traditions the Savage wolves routinely used, traditions that disappeared for good with the Savage wolves in winter of 1982–83, when the entire family group was killed by illegal aerial hunting.
     Do the Denali guides tell the tourists what happened? Or do they ignore the truth, let the tourists believe they still might get a close-up view of a wild wolf? The tourists may not know that those lovely photographs they sell in the Denali gift shop, of wolves, and wolf pups, that one we have hanging in our hallway of the dark wolf pup standing along the road, are images of animals who are dead. If they did know, would they still buy them?
 
My son’s eighth-grade Language Arts teacher was a clever woman. She made them read some excellent books: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Tale of Two Cities, The Martian Chronicles, Farewell to Manzanar. Good classic reads. She broke things down into bite-sized pieces for them, too—quizzes, vocabulary, summaries. And she was strict: by midpoint in the year no late work was accepted. Not even one day late. This was more strict than the graduate school where I teach. But her late policy was grooming them for high school, and she chose what they read and wrote and discussed based solely on what they needed so as to do well on standardized tests.
     Her intentions are good, and for these intentions, her plan works well. But all she was preparing them for was more school. She is an eighth-grade teacher preparing kids for high school. In high school teachers prepare kids for college. In college, where I teach, we prepare them for jobs. My son’s teacher was not focused on helping James enjoy the books, the learning. Not helping him discover what he was passionate about, his true calling. Not helping him fit what she fed him into the real world, the one we all inhabit, where wolves pad tundra and men shoot them from heli­copters.
     The park biologist that Rick spoke with didn’t think the loss of that particular male wolf meant a thing. He is a systems manager, and he is concerned only with the popula- tion of wolves, not the individuals. He is a clever man; he knows a lot about wolf biology, probably as much as in all of James’s books. He knows the body of a wolf inside out. But he was trained to view the park ecosystem as only so many moving parts. Studying the park wolves, he doesn’t concern himself with family, lineage, the particular behaviors and traditions of a cohesive long-lived family group. He wasn’t interested in the unique character of this dead wolf, of what this wolf did and learned and survived in his seven-year lifetime.
     He was not even concerned with the significance of a black wolf to Native Americans. And he wasn’t concerned about what the tourists who saw that wolf last summer and the summers before, alive and well and padding down the Toklat River with his family group, might feel knowing the wolf they saw, and took pictures of, and dreamed about months later, was now dead.
 
Eight-year-old James did finish that petition drive, and sent his hundred signatures to Governor Knowles. The governor didn’t alter his course; he didn’t reply to James, not even with a polite form letter. Nothing.
     But a local group, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, asked James to speak at a rally they held in downtown Anchorage. It was a panel discussion of opponents of predator control—two biologists, a tourism representative, an attorney, and my son. I sat behind him up on the stage, and Vic Van Ballenberghe, who has studied moose in Alaska for 25 years, leaned over and whispered to James, “Lucky you. I wish I had my mother here.” James just smiled brightly, wiggling in his seat.
     When it was his turn, he walked up to the podium, stepped up on the stool they’d put there for him, and took two small stuffed wolves out of his pockets. He put one on either corner of the podium, looking out at the audience of well over 100 adults, and began to speak in a clear voice.
 
I didn’t bring James to see the wolf bones buried in the beach sand. There have been so many wolves killed, so many losses of any sort of restrictions on hunting and predator killing, so much silence by so many people, that I fear he has forgotten what he knew at eight years old. I fear he is dis­connecting from the wolves, through his disillusion with school, with the factoids they spew at him and expect him to catch and keep, cluttering his mind and edging out any room for compassion, for intelligence, for the wisdom found in the green fire of a wolf’s eyes.
 
James’s teacher and the park biologist walk into their offices every morning and focus on standardized tests and school ratings, on population numbers and data points. It doesn’t matter if they’re staring at a computer screen entering pop quiz grades or radio-collared records, doesn’t matter if they’re talking to a new student or watching a wolf shepherd her pups across a river. They are focused on the parts and not on real life, not on the way we feel and think and walk through our days.
     I don’t blame them. They are not horrible people. They are simply products of their educations. They were trained for a particular career, maybe even one they thought of as a calling at some point, but whatever might have been the passion behind that calling—to help kids grow and learn, to pursue a fascination with wolves—is so long gone that they probably don’t remember it.
     Wolves know no boundaries of national parks, of state land, private land, farmland, wilderness. Learning knows no boundaries of biology, math, seventh grade, seventh period, school, house, woods. The more we try to place boundaries over everything, the more we compartmentalize the world in an attempt to make sense of it, the more we only distort it and make it impossible to understand.
     Like a pile of bones buried in a beach. Like ground bone drunk in desperation. Like a pop quiz on Shakespeare. Like a skin hanging on a wall in a house a thousand miles from a wolf’s natal den. Tests, grades, reports, numbers: all runes without a code.
     When Rick and I returned to the beach the next spring, the Toklat wolf’s bones were gone, washed out with the winter ice.

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