On August 13, my friend Nancy Ohm and I went for a hike in my backyard. I’ve been working on a walking trail towards the mountains for 20 years. I am making slow process, using only a small ax and clippers. Lately, I have seen signs of people, probably neighbours, establishing the trail. Great! Still, the trail is only one kilometre long, and it is narrow and log-jammed. After it peters out, there are three kilometres of bushwhacking before you reach the foot of the first mountain. Nancy was up for the challenge.
While bushwhacking the three kilometre stretch, I turned around and Nancy started laughing at me because my face and hair were covered in orange ‘gold dust.’ We had been noticing orange branches on some of the spruce trees. It turns out that Yukon Forestry has a pamphlet about this condition, called, spruce needle rust. The rust is a heteroecious fungi, meaning that it requires two hosts, in this case spruce and Labrador tea, to complete its cycle. The aecial (primary) host is white spruce (Picea glauca) and the telial (secondary) host is Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandiclum). We were hiking along slightly swampy terrain, the kind where Labrador tea grows. Better to follow a moose trail for a while, instead of picking up fungi. (moose trails can be found anywhere where there are moose, but seldom go in the direction I planned to go.)
We circumvented alders close to the foot of the first mountain, and here the spruce trees were large and healthy looking. Climbing over rock rubble, we finally reached some height, after another kilometre or so of weaving our way through buckbrush and, to our delight, blueberry bushes laden with berries.
After three hours, we reached a ridge of the mountain range. Our possibilities were endless. We had the freedom of wide-open spaces and could hike along the relatively flat surface of the ridge, exposed rocks and ground-hugging vegetation.
And then it happened. Nancy spotted dark shapes on top of a distant rock outcrop. At first, we both exclaimed, “Bears!”
But somehow they didn’t seem like bears. We could see a small group of animals, all with brown fur and similar in size. And they were seemingly playing!
We stood frozen and slowly took our cameras out, trying to take it all in while going, click, click, with our cameras, knowing this was a rare event. It was hard to choose what was more important in such a moment: to get a good photo or just enjoy the glory of it all.
We decided that the animals must be wolverines as they were too small to be bears and they had big bushy tails. Their Latin name, Gulo gulo, means glutton. However, we decided that wolverines might be vicious, but not likely to attack humans. We knelt slowly and tried hiding behind rocks, inching closer. The wolverines rolled and tumbled and were having fun. We were too curious, however, and eventually they spotted us and ran off in the opposite direction. As we reached the outcrop they were on, we saw them, now counting four, galloping away, disappearing into a draw leading to the col (also referred to as a gap or notch) in between this peak and the next one.
At home, I read that wolverines measure up to one meter in length and they are the largest members of the weasel family. They are reclusive animals and need large territories, hundreds of square kilometres in size, to survive, eating whatever they can. They are solitary, and so this was most likely a mother with three kits. Litter sizes average about three. The information I read in a book said wolverines grow rapidly and are weaned after only ten weeks.
As it happens, I believe that the wolverine is my power animal, my totem. Part of its meaning is being the keeper of animal secrets. Being true to my totem I won’t write the exact location of where we saw the wolverines. I suggest you take the path less travelled and, as you have now read this article, you, too, might be a glutton for knowledge: to find the truth of life. This is all part of the wolverine’s meaning as a totem.