A Hay River man recently had a close encounter with a pack of wolves that left him shaken for days.
Junior Barnes ran into five wolves while hunting for prairie chickens on Oct. 13 just off Highway 5 east of Hay River.
“It was Friday, the 13th,” he noted.
Barnes was hunting on an old CN access road, just past Birch Creek about 25 km east of Hay River.
After walking on the overgrown road with his chocolate lab for about a kilometre – and not seeing any grouse – Barnes turned around to walk back to his truck.
About halfway back, he saw something about 70 feet away on the trail ahead.
“There was a slight bend in the road, and I could see this black thing in the trail. And I thought, ‘Holy crap,'” he recalled of spotting the wolves. “I stopped and when I looked closer, there were two black and three silver grey ones.”
Barnes said his legs went rubbery and he started thinking about what he should do.
One advantage he had was that the wolves all had their noses to the ground – possibly on the scent of his dog – and they had not spotted Barnes.
His next move was possible because of a lucky decision earlier that morning – he had chosen to take a shotgun instead of a .22.
“Had I chosen to take the .22, I don’t entirely think it would have been such a glorious outcome,” he said. “With a .22, I would have absolutely had to shoot them to kill.”
A shotgun, however, gave him an alternative.
“Being that all five of them had their noses to the ground, the first thing I did was I fired off a shell,” he said. “I figured, one, get the jumpstart on them. Of course, that scares them before they have an idea there is even anything around, aside from scent. So with that, three of them took off.”
However, that created another problem in that the pack was now divided and he did not know where three of them – the larger grey ones – were in the woods.
The two smaller black wolves still stood there looking at him.
“So I fired another shot, this time directly over them,” said Barnes. “Only one of the two black ones took off. Now, what do I do?”
The hunter recalled he could hear traffic on the highway to his left, and he briefly considered cutting through the woods before deciding that would make him more vulnerable to the wolves.
So he tried again to scare off the remaining wolf.
“I had to shoot at the dirt right beside his ass to get him to move,” said Barnes. “It scared him good, because he kind of dropped his heels and he took off in the woods.”
Luckily, the hunter, the wolves and the dog – which instinctively ran towards the wolves after the first shotgun blast, but obeyed Barnes’ commands to stop and return, and stayed by his side during the encounter – all escaped none the worse for the experience.
“I don’t like the idea of actually shooting something,” he said. “Had they come at me or had he not moved after that, in a heartbeat I would have shot him.”
However, he said the shotgun shells might have hurt, but wouldn’t have killed the last wolf.
After it was scared away, Barnes walked back to his truck, while shooting a shell into the woods every 30 feet or so.
“Just figuring if nothing else it would keep them at bay,” he explained.
Plus, he hit the panic button on his vehicle keys hoping to create more noise, but it was too far away to activate.
“To be honest, all logic of distance and time went out the window,” Barnes said of the walk back to his truck. “It felt like forever.”
And after all that, he went home empty handed from his hunting excursion.
“I never seen any chickens at all, which is funny,” he said.
The 40-year-old, who works for Highway Patrol with the Department of Infrastructure and is a captain in the Hay River Fire Department, believes he was lucky to escape the encounter, even though he realizes many people say wolves won’t attack humans.
“I got lucky, I think. I honestly do,” he said. “To say they wouldn’t bother you, wouldn’t attack, maybe, maybe not. Do you want to find out? No.”
Now, Barnes said he will not be going into the woods by himself without a gun.
Robert Mulders, a carnivore biologist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Yellowknife, said the wolves were quite possibly following the scent of Barnes’ dog.
“In the NWT, there’s no real attacks on humans,” said Mulders.
However, attacks have been recorded elsewhere in North America, including in Alaska in 2010 when a female jogger was killed by at least one wolf.
“In general, it’s been quite rare,” said Mulders. “Normally, healthy wolves do not go after people.”
However, their behaviour can be influenced by past experience with people, he noted. “In general, I’d say a wild animal that hasn’t been close to people is pretty leery, pretty cautious and stays clear.”
Wolves might be attracted by food or blood, and younger wolves might be more naive and willing to take chances closer to people.
Mulders advises to assume a dominant posture if encountering a wolf.
“You want to sort of be aggressive with the wolf. Stand your ground,” he said. “I wouldn’t be running away. That would probably provoke the wolves to come after you. You basically want to assert your dominance.”
That could include yelling, throwing rocks or even hitting a wolf with a stick if it gets too close, while backing away, but not running.