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Sightings: a skier’s perspective

The elusive wolverine first became something more-than-myth for me back in the spring of 2002. I was ski guiding in the eastern Chugach Mountains, within Wrangell-St.Elias National Park in Alaska. Our group’s outing for the day consisted of pioneering a new single-day traverse route, as yet unexplored, but soon to become a classic. I had skied to the bottom of a glaciated cirque, and turned to gesture to my clients with a wave of a ski pole, indicating that they could ski to my location, one at a time.

My attention was focused on the skiers descending towards me, but, peripherally, my eye captured movement, along the distant slopes of the treeless basin. Once everybody had arrived, I turned, focusing attention on the surrounding terrain. I soon discerned a dark, low-slung form moving with frantic rapidity. It could only be a wolverine. It simultaneously seemed to investigate every nook of the landscape, while covering ground with amazing efficiency. Snow-mounded boulders, glacial moraines, and cross-loaded gullies soon bore the tracks of the speedily loping mammal. Wordlessly, our group watched the wolverine’s progress as it eventually slipped from our view-shed, passing through a tight notch of dark, vertically bedded schist rock.

The sighting imbued the ski tour with a deep, irrevocable sense of wildness, more so even than the solitude, the silence, the scramble to meet the ski plane at our pre-planned pick-up, amid the descending chill of the northern dusk.

That superb sighting in the late-March Alaskan mountains was the first, but not the last, encounter with Gulo gulo. In 2003, my wife imported me to the east side of the Washington Cascades, where I eagerly began exploring the new-to-me landscape and extensive ski terrain. In the North Cascades, I was anticipating a degree of ruggedness. My expectations for the range were not so much a vast wilderness, as a defiant stronghold of craggy rock peaks and small, shadowed glaciers, retaining wildness on the cusp of urbanity, due less to scale than difficulty of access. This expectation proved, in some ways, to be true, as I learned to accept variable snow quality, thick vegetation, and steep approaches as the reality of Cascadian ski touring.

In time, as Steph and I made the region a more-permanent home, we began to hone-in on the wilder refugia within the range. Seldom traveled ridgelines, deeper valleys, or the delightfully ordinary, existing with silent anonymity, in the midst of the iconic. We learned to recognize the snowed-over tracks of winter carnivores – cougar, wolf, lynx, and, of course, the wolverine. Indeed, my next encounter with the Gulo gulo came not in the Wrangells, but in the backyard Cascades in 2007, in sub-alpine forest, south of Lake Chelan. It was brief, but somehow intimate. A mid-sized female, plowed straight at me, to within 10 meters. We both stopped in our respective tracks. She stared for a blink, scrabbled indecisively up and down a nearby spruce tree, and disappeared. As it should be.

IMG_9640Two sets of wolverine tracks side-by-side on Big Jim Mountain, Central Cascades.

There are certainly places, among the mountains and boreal reaches of the world, where capturing imagery of wolverines would be far easier. Places where the landscape opens out to yield expansive views, or where such animals exist just beyond the human impact of remote settlements. But, at present, the Cascade Wolverine Project is focused locally, on the wildlife of the Washington North Cascades. Here, in a place where wildness is closely aligned with rugged terrain and deep obscurity, the wolverine is not particularly abundant. But it is living, moving, scavenging, denning – finding a seemingly fragile existence – beyond that next ridgeline. Closer than we may all realize.

Cascades Wolverine Project begins

Last fall a small group of Pacific Northwest skiers, field biologists, mountain guides, and conservationists got together to put extra effort into winter wolverine monitoring.  Winter wolverine monitoring in the Cascades is currently limited to citizen science, and under-funded federal monitoring, yet land managers and  biologists continue to need basic occupancy and abundance data for the Gulo gulo.  Currently, there is little federal money allotted to monitoring rare species in the Cascades.

What could be considered expensive and dangerous winter field work, is made significantly more doable when you combine field biologists with mountain guides!  This winter’s field season is already underway and we’re excited to share field updates- stay tuned for images and stories from the field.