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|Producer/Director John Howe Shares the Making of The Snow Wolves|
PREPARING TO FILM
"Like ghosts from a long ago forgotten past, wolves haunt the forests of our imaginations. A howling on the wind silences shapes which quickly vanish in the stillness. Or is it the illusion of such undefinable wildness that captivates us?"
And so begins the national PBS film, The Snow Wolves. The Snow Wolves is the continuation to the
film which KUED/7 produced for PBS in 1989 called Return of the Wolves (see American
Cinematographer, August 1990). KUED/7 is the PBS affiliate station in Salt Lake City.
At that time, wolves were being considered for reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park and other suitable areas of the West. Wolves were eradicated from most of the lower United States by shortly after the turn of the century. Many feel wolves are symbols of the wilderness and should be returned to their original homelands.
Ranchers and others feel wolves are a threat to their way of life and
oppose reintroduction. In Yellowstone National Park, virtually every species has been preserved
except wolves. Return of the Wolves examined these points of view.
In 1995, wolves were actually reintroduced to Yellowstone and Idaho. The Snow Wolves picks up
where the first film left off and follows the reintroduction efforts over a period of a year and a half
as wolves were transplanted from Canada to Yellowstone.
This story idea was the beginning of a exciting adventure that took the filmmaking team from the
borders of Mexico to the high Arctic of Canada. The story is a filmmakers dream with strong
dramatic elements and characters painted upon the scenic canvasses of the American West and the
Practically everything about wolves is controversial. But, what I really hoped to make was an
educational film. I wanted to take the rhetoric out and put information in it's place. The film should
be encyclopedic in scope where the viewer could find virtually any information desired about the
natural history of wolves.
And that became the premise of the film. The problem was how to achieve this. Wolves are one of
the most elusive animals in the world and filming them truly in the wild is one of wildlife filmmaking's
most difficult challenges. For the first film, we traveled to Alaska's Denali National Park and worked
with biologists with some success. But, we were never able to document the story of an entire pack.
This time, we had to do better.
With funding in place from the Pacific Mountain Network, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,
and the Dumke Foundation, the filmmaking team was assembled. It consisted of myself as
producer-director-cinematographer, Jeff Elstad as associate producer/field sound, Bill Gordon and
Mike Miles in audio post-production, editor Bill Lauer, and a cast of promotion, development, and
engineering professionals from KUED/7.
Jeff and I worked as a two-man band in the field. We don't normally work with such a small crew,
but it was much easier to travel and saved money which we could put back on the screen. It also
allowed very unobtrusive filmmaking. I wanted to approach this story with the highest of wildlife
ethics and a two-person crew really helped. We've made films from the Arctic to Mexico many times
for PBS, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, etc. and hoped we could pull it off one more
An Arriflex SR 16mm camera package was used. The SR is extremely reliable in the most remote
and challenging of locations. It always seems to work from conditions of harsh arctic cold to blazing
desert heat. The SR has earned our trust. The lens complement consisted of an Angenieux 10-150mm, Canon 150-600mm variable prime, 500mm Century, and 5.7mm wide angle. Our "B"
camera package was a Cinema Products GSMO with 12-120mm and 12-240mm Angenieux zoom
The GSMO is also an exceptional camera that we've had great luck with. It's incredibly small with quick change magazines and built in tachometer to 64 FPS. The CP battery system is small and lightweight. It's a very portable camera package and great for packing into remote locations. I think it's an underrated camera and quite versatile.
The Canon 150-600mm f/5.6 was extremely valuable to the production. It's great for wildlife
shooting because of its versatile range. Sometimes its very difficult to photograph a running wolf
with a 600mm prime. The field of view is so narrow that you can't find the wolf. The zoom allows
you to find the animal at a wider angle and then zoom to the composition desired. It also gives a
variety of shots rather than just a closeup etc. as a fixed prime might. The 5.7mm wide angle was
very helpful for shooting in tight places like the cramped cockpit of bush float planes.
Time lapse photography has become a staple of our films. Time-lapse shooting sometimes gives a drama and eloquence to scenes that they otherwise would not have. An approaching thunderstorm or a dramatic sunset gives punctuation to the film. We shot numerous starfields over the course of an entire night which is quite dramatic on film showing the rotation of the stars and moon. A Norris intervalometer was used on the SR to capture these images.
Virtually all of The Snow Wolves was shot on kodak 7245 16mm stock. It's an excellent daylight
stock and looks great for film transfer. It's 50 ASA is a bit slow for dark arctic days and f/5.6
telephotos, but more than makes up for it with such superior imaging. 7298 was used for night time
lapse sequences because of the needed higher ASA 500.
The sound package was a Sony Pro DAT recorder with Sennheiser shotgun microphones. The light
weight was especially helpful as was the small size of the DAT cassettes and sixty minute recording
time. The audio quality is excellent and allows CD quality recording in the field.
The adventure begins in late summer in Yellowstone National Park. Our story treatment had been
carefully crafted, but would the wolves cooperate? Of course, they wouldn't!
The Yellowstone summer is one of grandeur; sparkling sunsets set against the bluest of skies with
steaming geyser basins. Except for the crowds, it's heaven on earth. Most of the wolves have their
home territories in and around Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.
At first, it was difficult to distinguish coyotes from wolves. Many times I would watch coyotes
through binoculars often thinking they were wolves. Sometimes I would rush to setup the camera
gear only to find that what I thought was a wolf was in reality a coyote.
Yellowstone coyotes are very large, but once you've seen a wolf it's hard to mistake them. Many
of the Yellowstone wolves are black in color. Coyotes are reddish-brown. Wolves are tall and rangy.
Most coyotes are broader with shorter legs. People often say they've seen a wolf, but usually it turns
out to be a coyote.
The Yellowstone summer passed into fall without seeing wolves. The time was spent shooting the
canvas on which the story would be painted.
Fall is the time of the rut for elk and Yellowstone is one of the best places to film this drama. Bulls
gather harems of cows which they defend from other males. Snow was just beginning to dust the
high country elevations. This mating ritual was filmed against towering snow-capped peaks with long
telephoto lenses. With the 500mm on the Arriflex SR, a bull was photographed in close-up. As if
on cue, he turned to the camera and bugled the high symphonic notes of ancient rhythm. Like so
much of nature photography, this was pure luck and couldn't have been planned. You have good
days and bad days and hope for a good average.
One day while driving to Yellowstone from Salt Lake City, I went through Teton National Park.
Just above Oxbow Bend, a large bull moose was walking through willows at the edge of an aspen
grove burning with the orange colors of fall. This is probably only a story that other
cinematographers will appreciate.
I raced to set up the camera and long lens and walked for close to a mile through a wet, swampy meadow. My lungs were bursting from the race to get in position and I was wet and cold. I looked through the lens and framed a close-up of the majestic bull in full autumn splendor. Just at that moment, he looked directly at me. I hit the camera start. Nothing happened. No, I must be dreaming. I hit the camera start again. Nothing. I looked at the camera. What's wrong?
In my frantic rush, I had forgot the camera battery. It was a very humbling moment. Luckily, I was
alone at the time saving some embarrassment. I slogged the mile back to the car and retrieved the
errant battery. Fortunately, the bull moose had bedded down in the aspen grove and I still got my
shots but not without a little adventure. Every cameraman knows to be meticulous and if you slip
evenly slightly it can be the difference between success and failure.
Days and days pass like the falling leaves of autumn. I still couldn't find the wolves. At times, the
wind was my only company, stinging my face, telling me lies of the promise of better days. The chill
of winter was in the air, frost on the meadows. Whispering brooks soothe the obsession, running
fervently as if predicting the soon to be frozen ice statues of an unforgiving winter.
Along the way, the film was progressing with a natural history portrait of Yellowstone. Running
antelope were filmed against prairie grasses. A large buck posed majestically with the blueness of
the Gardiner River as backdrop. Massive buffalo grazed contentedly in the Hayden Valley.
Trumpeter swans took flight, skimming along the river currents, until the winds lift them to the sky.
I had spent years trying to film Yellowstone grizzly bears. With only about 200 bears in the
Yellowstone ecosystem, they are almost as elusive as the wolves and considerably more dangerous.
Wolves are not dangerous. They avoid humans. Grizzlies are another story. If you make a mistake
with bears, you may die. Grizzlies are very territorial and if you get too close you put yourself and
the bear in jeopardy. Most bear incidents or attacks come because the human has made a mistake and
often that mistake is simply getting too close.
One day, appropriately near Grizzly Lake, I spotted a young grizzly digging for roots in an open
meadow. Grizzlies are omnivores meaning they eat both plants and animals. I filmed the bear with
the 500mm from a high elevation, but it really wasn't the dramatic shot I had hoped for. I knew this
was exactly the situation that gets photographers in trouble, because to get the shots I wanted I
would have to approach closer. I calculated the situation. The wind was in my favor. There were
no cubs to defend. There were trees nearby that I hoped would rescue me if need be.
It wasn't a decision to be made lightly. The grizzly behaves as he is genetically programmed to do
from countless previous generations. Humans make a mistake and the grizzly is killed for it.
I slipped down to the treeline and started filming making certain that I wasn't too close. But looking
through the 500mm, the bear seemed right in my lap. Every time he turned his head and came closer,
I wanted to run which is the absolute worst thing to do. Running motivates the bear's chase instinct.
Grizzlies can run at 40 miles an hour, so you won't outrun a bear.
The filming worked out well and provided a dramatic sequence in the film. I filmed the same bear about a week later where he had just killed an elk. It was a great filming opportunity and a thrill to share the moment with the great bear.
Wolves are symbols of an ancient time. They are characters in a violent, dramatic prehistoric play
that continues to take place under fiery skies and silvery moonlight. Wolves have traits we consider
human such as intelligence, loyalty, and a social structure built around family. But, they are predators
that must kill to survive. This legend of being evil has led to their demise.
The film crew traveled to Montana to film captive wolves and document their behavior. Wolf society
is based on dominance. The pack is led by an alpha male and female which is usually the older
animals. Younger wolves are more submissive. The omega is the lowest ranking member of the
A deer carcass was put out for the captive wolves. The pack was led by Queenie, a beautiful blue
alpha female. The other wolves were black and silvery gray in color. Queenie dominated the other
wolves as we filmed the activity. Her snarls kept the other wolves at bay. They would only feed
upon her approval.
The wolves were very inquisitive about the camera and especially Jeff Elstad's shotgun microphone
encased in a furry windscreen on a boom pole. The wolves had a great time jumping for "muffy" that
Jeff would hold high off the ground. To them, I'm sure it looked like some sort of furry animal.
From there we moved on to West Yellowstone, Montana. The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
allows people to watch these master predators in natural surroundings. It's an education center that
hopes to teach about the natural history of grizzlies and wolves. On a chilly fall morning, we filmed
an interview with Dr. Gale Ford who runs the center. Dr. Ford repeated the fact that healthy wild
wolves have never killed a human in North America. We also filmed the wolves as they played with
each other in the one acre or so enclosure.
Many of the grizzly bears have been rescued from dangerous situations. Two orphan cubs were
filmed that had been rescued from Canada after their mother was shot. The spectators seemed to
enjoy the experience. For most, it was the first time of seeing these animals up close.
By January, the Yellowstone winter was in full effect. Arctic winds blew in and dropped the
temperature to under -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The film crew stayed in small wooden cabins in the
middle of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.
We awoke to the calls of elk which surrounded the cabin. High-pitched cries would fill the frigid
nights with haunting starry skies in a sea of blackness. Huge herds of bison and elk migrate to the
Lamar Valley in winter looking for escape from deep snows.
Buffalo plow with massive heads through snowbanks to get at the grass below. The buffalo were our
constant companions trudging through camp at a slow walk with snow and ice frozen into their
shaggy coats. The sound of hooves crunching through snow was sometimes the only sound breaking
the silence of a winter's day.
The harsh winter kills many of the animals. Coyotes and red foxes follow as do many of the wolves.
The coyotes were so numerous that we sometimes filmed them by using our vehicle as a moving dolly
and the camera held out the window. The coyotes simply walked along with the car using the ice-bound road as a travel corridor. In the dying twilight of magic hour, we filmed two coyotes huddled
together in the snow snuggled together for warmth. The wind howled at their backs ruffling their fur.
It was an endearing scene filmed in the ruthless time of a Yellowstone winter.
Most of our time was spent glassing for the wolves. Once, while coming around a bend, we spotted
a beautiful red fox. His red coat was spectacular against the white snow. We hiked further up the
mountain, huffing and puffing our chilled breath, carrying the heavy camera equipment. Finally, the
fox filled the frame in closeup with the 500mm.
The fox posed for us on a rock outcropping and then laid down and went to sleep. He soon woke
with a start and became agitated. A quick look below confirmed a coyote stalking him. It seemed
like unusual behavior. Eventually they both disappeared into the trees keeping their secrets.
The cameras continued to work well in the frigid environment. We were very careful about bringing
them inside uncovered to prevent lens fogging. As would be expected, battery life was a bit less than
normal in the cold. Occasionally our capping shutter for the intervalometer would freeze, but the
camera problems were minimal.
On a cold winter's day with snow falling, a large horse trailer pulled by a truck pulled into
Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. Additional wolves had been captured in Canada for release in
Yellowstone. The wolves were in large shipping crates. We filmed the process as park service
personnel loaded the wolves on horse-drawn sleighs.
The wolves were taken to acclimation pens where they would stay for over a month. After the acclimation period, the wolves were released to begin a new life far away from their original home.
We weren't able to see the wolves inside the silver crates. Even here the wolves wouldn't reveal
themselves. They remained an apparition of the wilderness. Perhaps they only exist in our
Over the time of several days, we began seeing the wolves. We watched them many times through
spotting scopes. They displayed all the behavior we hoped to film, but always out of camera range.
We primarily watched the Crystal Creek and Rose Creek packs. The Crystal Creek pack consisted
of three wolves. Rose Creek had eight wolves including the first wolf pups to be born in Yellowstone
in over sixty years.
It became extremely frustrating, but at least the wolves were showing themselves. The ghosts had
taken on shapes of reality. I hoped eventually the chance to photograph them would come.
In January, a report came of sheep killed by a wolf on the northern edge of Yellowstone near
Emigrant, Montana. We traveled to the area and filmed a story segment with the ranchers. Number
Three was a black yearling which dispersed from the Crystal Creek pack. The biologists didn't know
he was out of the park because of the shutdown of the federal government. All the Yellowstone
wolves wear radio collars and biologists track their movements. A compound of captive wolves
exists near the ranch where the sheep were attacked. Number Three was probably seeking their
company when he came upon the sheep.
Number Three was relocated by helicopter deep back within Yellowstone National Park. Only a few
days later, he returned to the ranch and again attacked sheep. Following policy, Number Three was
shot and killed by animal damage control agents. The segment made a poignant story in our film
which defined the wolf reintroduction issue; two sides poised for confrontation with wolves in the
The endless searching for wild wolves continued with more natural history filming. A river otter
popped through the ice holes in the Lamar River fishing for cutthroat trout. The light was perfect
and rendered a revealing portrait of the otter against blue water and snow.
A bald eagle fished along the banks of the Gardiner River. He had just posed for his closeup with the
500mm when he took flight. Follow-focusing the telephoto was quite a challenge but it turned out
to be a dramatic shot in the film as he flew low over the river toward a blue sky filled with fluffy
Rocky mountain bighorn sheep occupy the steep ledges of Yellowstone's high country. On one of
the sharp bends of the Lamar River, four trophy rams grazed along with several ewes. Each ram was
larger than full curl. A squall line of snow rumbled in with black clouds quickly obliterating the sun.
The light turned from inspiring to ominous with the wink of a howling wind. In just a moment the
f/stop changed from an f/11 to an f/2.8.
But, the rams didn't seem to be in any hurry about leaving. Luckily, they were so close I was able
to film them with the 10-150mm at f/2.8. It certainly wasn't the sharpest stop for the lens, but did
result in great images with the rams in the snowstorm. They posed for the camera as the snow pelted
them and us without mercy.
We filmed several time lapse sequences as clouds thundered across the Lamar Valley. Blazing sunsets
with clouds on fire often look great in time lapse. A Norris intervalometer was used with the Arri
SR camera with 7245 stock. Most of the outdoor time lapse sequences were shot with the Angenieux
10-150 with an ND12 filter at a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second. The interval used is 1 frame every
ten seconds which is a speed which yields dramatic cloud movement. If the clouds move too fast
simply use a shorter interval. Time lapse sequences offer dramatic story transitions and punctuation
for the film.
Time lapse star fields were filmed over the course of an entire night. The stars arc in rotation. An
interval of 1 frame every two minutes was used with the lens at f/2.8. 7298 stock was used for the
higher ASA. The long winter nights often lend themselves to dramatic starfields. Since the summer
nights are shorter, they may not be quite as dramatic.
Finding the right exposure was a bit of an adventure. When I first started shooting the night
sequences I didn't use a long enough exposure time and the stars weren't properly exposed. The long
exposures create a bit of streaking but not overly so.
The wolves were still being elusive until one cold winter day that dawned with blue skies. It was
actually somewhat warm for mid-February with temperatures in the twenties. Near Slough Creek in
the Lamar Valley, all the members of the Rose Creek pack were crossing an open snow field.
|The pack consisted of the alpha male and female and the first pups to be born in the Yellowstone area in the last sixty years or so. The pups had been born the previous spring and were now almost of fully grown size. The original alpha male (number 10) was killed illegally. The new alpha male had dispersed from the Crystal Creek pack to take his place. One of the pups was run over and killed by a delivery vehicle in the Lamar Valley on a dark night.|
This was a rare opportunity and the light and weather was perfect. All the wolves of the Rose Creek
pack crossed the snowfield in camera range. They lounged around and played with each other. Most
likely they had hunted all night and possibly made a kill.
Unbelievably, on the afternoon of the same day I traveled with two biologists and the Crystal Creek
pack appeared as if by magic. First, just dark shapes moving through the glow of an aspen grove,
then the unmistakable shape of wolves. Many of the Yellowstone wolves are black with golden
yellow eyes. The Crystal pack only consisted of three wolves; two black and one silver-grey.
The weather changed to clouds and snow. The wolves ran through the deep snow of the aspen
grove, snow flying in their wake. Black ghosts reveal themselves in the misty clouds of a dying
afternoon. The wolves bedded down and looked at us with fiery, glowing eyes; the eyes that define
wilderness, the eyes that have been written about in legend and myth. After an hour or so, the black
yearling walked slowly back through the trees with the others gradually following. The wolves
vanished in the deep woods as the day turned into night.
After months of trying hard to photograph the wild wolves, they had given us a present in a single
day. How strange the life of filmmakers. Days and days come and go only to be defined by single
moments in time. And then quickly on to the next.
April found the filmmaking team shooting along Utah's Wasatch Front. Mace Loftus has a
compound of captive wolves and has learned much about the natural behavior of wolves. Many
of his wolves are rescue and abuse cases. Many are simply held until a place can be found for
them in other facilities.
On a cool spring day, the arctic wolves Storm and Cirrus are filmed in a spectacular canyon
setting. The wolves are pure white, gentle and friendly. The issue of wolves in captivity is
extremely controversial and we wanted to examine this story in the film.
Mace and Terrie Loftus explain what they've learned from living with wolves. Wolves in captivity
are sometimes the gentlest of animals and sometimes the fiercest. It's an important part of the
wolves story because some see the beauty in wolves and want to make them pets. Most experts
agree wolves do not make good pets. They're difficult to impossible to domesticate and can be
dangerous if the owner isn't knowledgeable about wolves.
As we left that day, we turned to see their young daughter Randee getting a big wolf kiss from
Shadow. Shadow is an almost pure black wolf with beautiful yellow eyes. Shadow and Randee
have a special relationship. Shadow's parents were very social and Shadow turned out very
Some adopt pet wolves and are overwhelmed by trying to care for them. Many wolves end up at
facilities like the Candy Kitchen Wolf Rescue Center near Ramah, New Mexico. This was the
next stop for the filmmakers. Most of the wolves here have been abandoned or abused. The
center is run by Jacque Evans and Barbara Berge and is a refuge for abandoned wolves. The
former owners of the ranch sold pinon candy, hence the name.
We filmed several of the sad stories as explained to us by Barbara Berge. The stories of Manu,
Hawk, and Guya were filled with emotion. Many of the wolves had similar stories of starving on
the end of a steel chain in someone's back yard. Others were brought to humane societies to be
We filmed the house pack which sometimes comes inside. Jacque Evans opened the door and
soon the small ranch house was filled with wolves. The wolves were very shy but curious about
all of our camera gear and cables. We had pre-lit the interior with small Lowell Tota-lites for the
filming. Soon running wolves created chaos all around. One of the black wolves jumped on the
kitchen table and accepted a treat from Jacque. This scene provided a bit of much needed comic
relief for our film.
We also filmed a litter of newborn pups that Jacque and Barbara were hand feeding. The pups
had just opened their eyes and were being fed by small bottles. Even at such an early age, the
little pups had the instinct to howl. They were black in color. As if on cue, one of the little ones
lifted his head in a puppy howl. Others soon followed; a wolf pack of pups in the foothills of New
In Salt Lake City, a segment of the film was produced with the ambassador wolf, Koani. Koani is
a socialized gray wolf and meets interested children and adults in an educational setting. Koani is
the centerpiece of Wild Sentry as run by Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide from Hamilton, Montana.
The goal of Wild Sentry is to educate concerning a very misunderstood animal. People learn
about the natural history of wolves. Much of Wild Sentry's work is done in rural communities
where wolf reintroduction might occur. Wild Sentry has had great success by not being an
advocacy group. They explain the ranchers' side as well and address concerns that people may
Indy is Koani's dog companion and accompanies her on her educational mission. Koani is black
with golden, yellow eyes. For most in the audience, this was their first experience of seeing a
wolf up close. The kids were wide-eyed with excitement, not sure whether to be scared or not.
The camera crew had turned away from the small stage where Koani was and filming shots of the
kids in the crowd. It proved to be a memorable day for soundman Kevin Sweet. Wolves are
always curious of shotgun microphones and Koani was no exception. As Kevin recorded sound,
he felt a large paw on his shoulder. Koani wanted in on the action and was giving Kevin a playful
paw to get his attention. Kevin said later that he knew it wasn't Indy the dog by the weight of the
paw. It's a story he'll always have to talk about.
Much of what we know of wolves comes from the stories like Little Red Riding Hood. One of
the little boys provided some comic relief by asking, "What do wolves eat?" It was obvious that
he was concerned. I think he felt considerably better when Pat Tucker explained that wolves eat
big animals like elk and deer. I think our soundman Kevin took some comfort in that answer as
The session ended with a group howl as all the kids became like a wolf pack, howling at an
I still didn't feel that we had documented the natural history of wolves in the wild as well as we
should. The Yellowstone wolves would give us a glimpse of their unknown lives but only briefly.
It really wasn't enough to make a spectacular film. We needed to go somewhere that offered an
opportunity that had never been done before.
We considered Ellesmere Island where Dave Mech and Jim Brandenberg had produced their
pioneering work on the white wolves of the Arctic. But, there were a number of logistical and
other problems that made that site unattractive. Plus, it had already been done. We also
considered returning to Denali National Park in Alaska. We knew from experience that wolves
are hard to find in the vast expanse of the park. On the first film, we had worked with biologists
in both Denali and Gates of the Arctic National Park with some success. But this time I really
wanted to document a wilderness pack and hopefully produce something that had never been
After a tremendous amount of research, we decided on Canada's Northwest Territories. The
Northwest Territories offer one of the last truly wild, vast wilderness areas of arctic and sub-arctic
terrain. It's also the home to a large population of wolves.
The expedition began in late June. We contracted with outfitter Tom Faess to help us with the
logistics and to fly us by small pontoon plane to his wilderness camp deep within the Northwest
Soundman Jeff Elstad and I arrived in Yellowknife, the capitol of the Northwest Territories, on a
cold and rainy day in late June. The wind howled in protest, blowing snowy whitecaps across the
Great Slave Lake.
The weather is a huge problem to filmmakers. Rain makes filming very difficult. Wind makes it
extremely hard to shoot with the long telephotos. At 600mm any vibration is magnified a
thousand fold. The bad weather was especially disconcerting as we had gambled what little we
had left of our entire budget on this shoot. This gamble could have lost everything. We were
likely either to succeed big or fail big. It's the kind of decision that makes filmmakers old before
We spent two days in Yellowknife watching the wind blow boats around on the lake and
worrying. Gradually, the wind died down to a mild gale. The sun peeked through gray cloud
banks offering a bit of hope. Gradually, the weather improved.
Tom Faess flew us out of Yellowknife in a Twin Otter which is the aerial workhorse of the Arctic.
The destination was a fishing camp deep in the wilderness. Wolves were known to frequent the
camp. A starving female wolf had come to the area about twelve years ago. People of the camp
began feeding her and it soon became known that she had a litter of pups. The wolves have
denned at the site for the ensuing twelve years.
We stayed in a small cabin on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. At about 3 AM a pounding knock on the door woke us out of a deep sleep. A still photographer, Michael Francis, had spotted wolves. We quickly gathered our gear and headed into the dim light with him. In early summer in the Arctic, there is almost 24 hour daylight. The sun only sets briefly in orange twilight.
A beautiful white wolf revealed itself only briefly shimmering like a ghostly mirage through the trees. Gradually, the pure white wolf came to a clearing in the brush and sat and looked directly at us. It was one of the most beautiful sights that I've seen in fifteen years of nature filming and one of the most rare. It's a moment which defines wildlife filmmaking and makes all the physical toil worthwhile.
The mosquitos were quickly turning our faces and hands into hamburger but it didn't seem to
matter with the adrenaline of the moment. This was one of the rarest moments in nature but there
wasn't much time to savor it. Cameras quickly rolled to capture it on film. On an early morning
summer day, a white wolf of the Arctic filled the frame of the camera. The wolf posed like the
monarch of the tundra. It was only a brief moment in time of the adventure to come.
On the next day, we were flown even deeper into the Arctic tundra by Twin Otter. Tom Faess
met us at a wilderness camp with a small Cessna plane equipped with floats for landing on the
many lakes which dot the tundra. Landing the Twin Otter was an adventure as ice still covered
most of the small lake. When the Twin Otter flew out, breaking its way through the ice, it was
obvious of just how alone we were. That isolation defines the wilderness.
This is the land of the caribou. Caribou migrate in the thousands across the vast tundra to reach
their calving grounds on the Beaufort Sea. The wolves follow the caribou as well as grizzlies and
foxes. The camp was situated on a glacial esker on an isolated arctic lake. The soil was sandy
from this glaciation. A quick walk around revealed many wolf tracks. The tracks escalated to full
runways and it was obvious that wolves had used this area for years. Tom showed us abandoned
den sites. One den site overlooked a shimmering arctic lake with spectacular views all around.
The setting was perfect. Fluffy white clouds billowed against blue skies without the threat of rain.
Subtle winds blew off the ice reminding us we were in the Canadian sub-arctic. All around was a
sea of sub-arctic tundra blooming with the reds, oranges, and greens of summer. A large caribou
skull and antlers gave punctuation to the endless tundra.
The mosquitos plagued us like a black cloud. Any uncovered skin was fair game. Their bites left
our faces puffy with stings. We soon learned to wear full mosquito face nets and gloves to
On a midnight hike, we saw our first wolf in this area. It was pure white and hunting on the
tundra about 500 yards away. Upon seeing us, the wolf began running away at full speed. We
only got a glimpse of it. The white wolf quickly vanished in the twilight before any filming could
be accomplished. It proved to be an omen of what was to come.
We were hoping to find an active den site on the tundra, but that was proving to be a difficult
task. Wolves were obviously using the area, but the terrain was so vast that finding them was
hard to do. So, we set out to document on film a portrait of the landscapes and animals that
reveal the natural history of wolves.
A large bull musk oxen was spotted from the small plane. Musk oxen are prehistoric looking
creatures that are one of the main prey species for wolves. They look rather formidable with large
curving horns and sharp hooves. Native people call them "Oomingmuk" or "bearded one". A
male may weigh 600 pounds. They run in herds of as many as thirty animals.
Musk oxen often form a tight circle as a defense against wolves. They keep the calves in the
center of the circle protecting them. This strategy has protected them for years until the coming
of man. The circle isn't much help against rifles and has led to them becoming endangered.
Tom Faess quickly landed the Cessna on a small lake. We set out to film the musk ox. He was
still about a couple miles away. We quickly gathered our filming gear and began walking. It soon
became apparent that the terrain was a swampy muskeg flowing with creeks. The walking was
extremely difficult. I took a spill in one of the creeks. This wasn't so bad except that I had the
Canon 150-600mm lens in my pack and was worried that it had been submerged. It was OK.
Dragging all the camera gear through the muskeg was quite the ordeal but paid off with terrific
The day was hot and heat waves shimmered in the sub-arctic desert. This part of the sub-arctic
actually gets less rainfall than the Sahara Desert. The bull musk ox filled the frame of the 600mm
in closeup and stayed around long enough to let us film him in the bright summer light. Every
time he began to leave, Tom would call him back with a series of grunts that I guess meant
something to a musk ox. I was just hoping it wasn't a mating call. That could have been really
In the rush to film the musk ox, I had left my mosquito face net. By the time I got back to the
plane, my face looked like raw hamburger. I always thought these toxins would make me sick or
deform my face for a month or so, but by the next day it was always back to normal.
We also filmed nesting gyrfalcons, one of the swiftest of the arctic bird hunters. A gut-busting
climb up sheer cliffs allowed us to film a bald eagle nest. Two chicks were in the nest competing
for food brought by the parents. The two bald eagle adults watched us warily from a distance
with shrill cries warning us to stay away from their nest.
In the seemingly endless twilight of evening, we came upon a nest of plovers. The male and
female birds had two eggs in their nest. They went into an elaborate dance trying to convince us
that their wings were broken and to follow them. This dance was designed to lead us away from
their nest. It seemed like an act of sheer bravery to sacrifice themselves in this way. Ground
nesters like plovers are easy prey for wolves and foxes.
A wonderful day was spent rowing out to a small island by canoe to examine an Inukshuk.
Inukshuks are rock cairns built in the shape of a man by the native people of the Arctic. They are
used for navigation and caribou hunting. Gulls were also nesting in the small islands. They
swooped at us as we filmed, warning us to leave them alone which we soon did.
The wolves are not the only ghosts of the tundra. An abandoned native people village appeared
out of the misty haze of an arctic morning. The native people of the sub-arctic lived for years
along the migratory path of the caribou. They were subsistence hunters and followed the caribou
much like the wolves. But that way of life has drastically changed as most have moved to towns.
The village is only a ghostly reminder. It looks as though they just quietly left and disappeared
with the long ago times.
Even this land deep in the sub-arctic of the Northwest Territories is threatened. Oil, uranium,
and diamond industries continue to explore these lands looking for wealth. Roads encroach ever
farther into the wilderness. These issues are symbolic of many that arctic regions now face
throughout the world. More and more people have access to areas which before they could never
The wolves were again proving to be elusive. They were obviously using the area, but we had
only seen the one wolf and that one running away from us at full speed. Tom flew us in the
Cessna in wide arcs trying to locate the wolves without success. I hate flying in small planes and
the constant circling and diving motion of the Cessna made me sick to my stomach. Especially so,
when Tom decided to "buzz" the camp. He came in at a low angle and then elevated sharply right
over the camp. My stomach felt like it had been left on the ground. The little lake with the ice on
it was a welcome sight as Tom touched the plane down on its floats rippling the blue water in its
We were forced to return to the fishing camp because we knew wolves were there. It proved to
be a very good decision. It took several tries to lift the Cessna off the small lake loaded with all
of our filming gear. It was a warm day and hard to lift off. The Cessna finally made it on the
third try after two aborted attempts that scared me to death. The little Cessna would run at full
speed toward the end of the lake only to have to stop and not be able to lift with the heavy load.
It was like running out of runway.
From the air, the endless tundra rolled on to infinity dotted with thousands of lakes shining like
jewels in the morning air. I'm sure the wolves were watching us from unseen hiding places,
wishing us farewell.
It proved to be a great decision. On our first evening back we spotted two wolves. Both were
pure white and very skittish. They floated through the trees but allowed us to film them. The
wolves were coming in to scavenge at the camp. It was easy to see that the female was nursing.
Our filming routine started at 2 AM. We determined that the wolves seemed to be most active in
the early morning hours. We would get up and load our gear and travel a couple of miles to the
site where we would usually see the wolves. This was a runway for planes which served the
The wolves were male and female and the alpha or dominant members of the pack. It seemed
likely that a den site was nearby since the female was clearly nursing. The wolves posed for us
time and time again and became more used to our presence. At first, they would quickly vanish in
the trees, but gradually they began to stay in sight for longer periods of time.
The mosquitos feasted on us and the wolves as well. The wolves were constantly tormented by
the hordes of insects.
Both wolves seemed to have distinct personalities. The alpha male was much larger with a big,
bold chest. He would often sit in a clearing and stare at us with majestic eyes. This shot with the
alpha male holding court over his domain became one of the defining shots in the film.
The alpha female was always a bit more wary, slinking through the brush, ever on the alert for
danger. She had black streaks running through her white coat and was quite a bit smaller than the
alpha male. We were soon having the filming adventure of a lifetime as we shot magazine upon
magazine of the white wolves.
We were still hoping to see the pups. We had made a firm commitment not to try to find the den
site because of disturbing the wolves. If humans encroach on a den site, the wolves may move to
a different location. Also, it puts more stress on the wolves who are already having trouble trying
to feed a growing family.
On a warm summer's day, the snow wolves dug small burrows in the sand looking for coolness in
the shimmering heat. Without warning, four furry bundles of brown explode from the brush. The
wolves have decided to trust us with their most precious possession.
The pups are brown, but by the end of the summer their coats will begin to turn white, starting
with their faces. Their coats remain white all year long, not changing as do arctic hares and foxes.
The pups romp with each other already playing games of dominance. The little fur balls play and
play and give us great filming opportunities in the evening light.
Wolf pups are born blind and cannot hear. They weigh about a pound apiece at birth. At two
weeks, their eyes open. Both the alpha male and female are loving parents. All members of the
pack take care of the pups. Males and females secret a hormone called prolactin which stimulates
The pups gradually disappeared in the twilight. It had been a perfect day with warm temperatures
and no wind. Only the shrill cries of gulls broke the stillness.
Filming continued over the next few days and we got to know the wolves even better. The snow
wolves would often come close to where our camera was setup. It was such a thrill to share the
experience with wild wolves and they became almost trusting. The pups remained hidden until the evening of a few days later. A thunderstorm threatened the
calm with an eerie wind turning the light into dark.
The alpha male was running as if in slow
motion to his usual spot in a clearing of willows. Behind him, trying desperately to keep up, were
the four pups. The pups ran comically with their rolly-polly bellies almost dragging the ground.
The pups greeted the alpha male with wagging tails and sniffing noses as if he had been on a long,
We were able to film all four of the pups with the alpha male behaving like a family.
The alpha female appeared in backlight silhouetted against the glow of an arctic sun. Slowly, all
the members of the pack disappeared into the darkness. They were going home, as were we, with
the memories of a lifetime.
Our film was rounded out with other segments that we filmed in Denali National Park and a river
trip where we floated an arctic river through Alaska's Brooks Range ending up at the small
Eskimo village of Kaktovik.
In Denali, we were able to film grizzlies, beavers, and dall sheep. Near Tok, Alaska we filmed a
little black wolf howling on a mountain ridge which also proved to be a memorable moment in the
film. The little wolf kept running away and I asked Jeff Elstad to howl. The black wolf
responded and howled back. The two of them kept howling back and forth until finally the black
wolf came within camera range. He posed for us for awhile, but gradually came to the
conclusion that we were not wolves and disappeared in the tundra.
For an earlier PBS film entitled Arctic Wars, the film crew floated an arctic Alaskan river named
the Hulahula through the Brooks Range down to the village of Kaktovik. The segment was also
used in The Snow Wolves as an example of how arctic regions are now threatened.
The Snow Wolves was edited off-line using the Avid system over a period of six weeks and CMX
assembled on-line by editor Bill Lauer. The audio post-production team of Bill Gordon and Mike
Miles worked for about two months foleying and multi-tracking all the various sound effects used
in the film. We were lucky to have two of the most renown experts on wolves as script
consultants for our film, David Mech and Mike Phillips. Several drafts of the script were written
and endlessly re-written. Film actor Joseph Campanella's voice narration was recorded in Los
Angeles. Joseph Campanella has one of the best voices in the business and really brought life to
With the help of Sandy Heberer and Glenn Marcus of PBS, The Snow Wolves is a national
primetime show for PBS airing on August 27 at 8 PM.
The end of any film is kind of a sad occasion. We learned so much over the year and a half that it
took to make the film and met many wonderful people. We got to know the wolves of snow
personally and developed a deep affection for them. Each had distinct personalities. I've always
wondered how many of the pups made it through the long arctic winter. Most don't survive. The
adults too are very vulnerable to trappers and aerial hunters as well as surviving the elements. I've
avoided following the pack just for this reason in that I expect bad news.
But what I'll always remember is how wolves which have been so ruthlessly hunted and killed in
the most cruel ways possible trusted us, if only for a magic moment in the flickering illusion of a
The wolf's stare looks right through you as if into the soul. Deep within the innermost beings of all lies a place where the songs of wolves carry on a whistling wind. Wolves call us to the wilderness. And what will be our answer? k