Over the years, for better or worse, people have attempted to advance knowledge of the animal world by integrating themselves into an often dangerous wild environment, trying to become assimilated into animal culture. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Timothy Treadwell come to mind. In Three Among the Wolves adventurer Helen Thayer braves the Canadian Arctic to learn about the much maligned Canis lupus.
Thayer, along with her husband and their dog Charlie, spent most of 1994 in the company of a few different packs of wolves, living alongside them and photographing and documenting some of the intimate aspects of their complicated social lives. The first part of the book describes their summer in the northern Yukon Territory, camping near a wolf's den, getting to know the individual members of the pack and watching them raise their pups. Once winter descends the skis go on and the trio ramps it up a notch, tracking packs of wolves out on to the Arctic sea ice as they follow the seal hunting polar bears and subsist on the leftovers.
Before I discuss the book further, I have to tell you more about the author. Helen Thayer may be the most accomplished adventurer of whom I'd never heard. In 1988 - at age 50 - she was the first women to hike solo and unassisted to the magnetic north pole, accompanied only by a large sled and Charlie, a gift from the local Inuits. She documented this feat in the book Polar Dream, and has gone on to numerous other daring adventures, recently documenting a 1600 mile desert hike in Walking the Gobi. In 2002, she was named one of the great explorers of the 20th century by the National Geographic Society.
Spanning just over 200 pages, her wolf story certainly lives up to her acclaim, describing her frightening encounters with nasty weather, hungry bears, angry moose, deadly sea ice and hordes of mosquitoes. It's a miracle that she ever made it to age 51.
But the real star of the book, and the key individual who makes it such a success, is the dog Charlie. Despite spending most of the book on a long leash, he succeeds as the ambassador between the human and wolf species. During the summer, Helen and her husband play submissive to Charlie's alpha role in their small "pack" of three and the wolves bought it, allowing the humans admittance into the wolf world and permitting them to view many intimate aspects of wolf society from their campsite just 100 feet from the wolves' den. In the winter the threesome goes mobile, searching out other packs and Charlie is essential as guard, scout, protector and chief negotiator.
While Thayer writes in a direct, concise, unadorned style that comes off as rather dry at times, she does a fine job of revealing some truly amazing details of wolf life. Much of her focus involves the details of wolf communication, both between the wolves within the pack and between Charlie and the various wolves. Charlie's ability to straddle both wolf and human cultures is quite incredible. Thayer also discusses wolf communication with other species, describing the sophisticated cooperation that occurs between wolves and ravens during hunting excursions. I also admire her detailed analysis of the various personalities within the summer pack, including a complicated division of labor - lead hunter, pup care expert, pack defender, disciplinarian and others.
Overall, Three Among the Wolves is an absorbing account of a year up close and personal with an amazing social animal. It's an excellent choice for anyone with an interest in wolves, but with marvelous Charlie at the helm it's also sure to please most dog lovers as well.
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