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Wolverine

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I watched an episode of Nature on PBS the other day. The title was "Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom." The episode was a very good look at an unusual and rarely seen animal. It got me to thinking about my single sighting of a wolverine in the wild. That was a number of years ago on Alaska's North Slope. I was waiting for an airplane.

The North Slope is aptly named, although in places the slope is hard to discern. The area between the mountain foothills and the Arctic Ocean is especially so and contains many lakes. The larger lakes are sometimes used for aircraft landing strips. In the winter, a strip is cleared down the middle of the lake using a bulldozer to push the snow to the sides in an alternating herring-bone direction, scrapping off the snow and exposing the relatively smooth lake ice at the center. This creates a usable landing strip that's lined on both sides with piles of snow.

Because of the extreme winter cold, the airplanes spend little time on the runway. They land, they kick out the cargo and they take off. If the engine ever cools, it won't start again until summer.

When it's dark, and of course in the winter, it usually is, the person waiting for the cargo situates his vehicle at one end of the runway so the head lights shine and illuminate the landing strip. Or at least they show where the runway starts and what direction it runs. Sometimes and especially if he's new or unsure of the runway length, the pilot requests lights at both ends of the runway.

Our crew was camped about 5 miles from one of these air strips and a plane had just made a mail and supply run and had left. The gofor guy had returned to camp, unloaded, and was sitting down to a late dinner when the party chief came in.

The pilot had aircraft problems and was returning to our air strip. He needed some hydraulic fluid and someone to light the runway. I'd already eaten and had nothing else going on that evening so rather than have the guy interrupt his meal, I volunteered for the trip. A friend agreed to accompany me. Our transportation was a blazing fast Nodwell. (I googled Nodwell Ours looked like the one in this video, except ours was red, had a flat bed behind the cab, and looked a lot newer and nicer.} Speedy, the tracked vehicle was capable of making the trip to the air strip and back in an hour or two.

Sometime later we were at the appointed place with our lights shining down the runway waiting for the airplane. We'd only waited for twenty or thirty minutes when we noticed a shadow near the far end with eyes that would glow when the animal turned just right. The flickering eyes and the bulky crouching shape made the animal seem a bit creepy. The Nature episode is aptly named. Then the animal disappeared. We spotted it several times more as it stealthy worked its way through the snow piles along the edge of the runway. Deciding what kind of animal it was made for good conversation. Suddenly, it was beside us not more than twenty feet away, hesitating, nose in the air, testing the vapors and checking us out. Wolverine. For seconds we stared at each other. Then it was gone.
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