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Sea Wolf

The zodiac sped away, back across the sound, leaving Marlen alone with the great pile of gear on the shore. Wolves of the sea; it was a fairy tale she was to finally inhabit. After two years of planning and negotiating, schmoozing sponsors, she had secured three months embedded on the island, wooded and windswept, where temperate rainforest still ran right to the shore. The glacier-carved dreamscape had her Northern Hemisphere DNA singing: twisting Sitka spruce, thousand-year-old red cedar, hemlock, alder, ancient stands of Douglas fir, all carrying a presence she could never hope to capture.

But she was there for the wolves. Genetically distinct from other wolves, sea wolves were smaller, with a red tinge to their coarser coats. For centuries they had roamed a limited coastal area, but now the only remaining pack in the wild was confined to one island off British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. The sea wolves were just one part of her project, documenting the last apex predators around the world. Trying to make people care, stop them slipping away. But they were at the centre, somehow.

Nine days in, holed up in her hide through yet another day of mizzling rain, she was beginning to doubt her judgment, travelling to the other side of the Pacific looking for the most elusive of wild creatures. Her tent, sleeping bag, fleece, down jacket and journal pages were all damp, her camera lenses fogged. But then, during a break in the weather, she left the hide to move her muscles, walk the shoreline, and spotted their tracks on a white scallop of beach. Indents bigger than her hand, each pad and claw perfectly defined. They were still real.

The next morning, right on dawn, they came out of the spruce. And Marlen was waiting, camera ready. The wolves loped along the sand with a mesmerising long-legged gait, the blue-green sea behind them. The alpha female came so close to the hide that Marlen could see every detail of her whiskers, the russet fur on her muzzle, ears and forelegs. She stared right into the lens, the depth of her amber eyes stealing Marlen’s breath. Time slowed, she slowed, all the hair on her body standing on end, as if in answer. Close interaction with a wild animal, that shiver of real connection, was like sex, or riding a wave – a fleeting moment, wild and alive. A glimpse into the next dimension. Marlen took the shot. Even in silent mode, with the slick mirrorless camera, the wolf heard the shutter-click, and was gone.

THE PACK MOVED LIKE GHOSTS, appearing and disappearing through fog. Marlen hadn’t quite believed it until she saw it for herself, wolves swimming as easily as running, foraging for crabs and clams in tidal pools, prising shellfish from rocks, combing the beaches for whatever the tide washed up. Like the surfers she used to know, they lived half on land, half in the water.

Those first days with the wolves, Marlen filled memory card after memory card with images. When she closed her eyes at night, she could still see their faces.

She filmed the wolves – adults and cubs – digging for clams on the tideline. Rare footage, even in the day of drones. She swam their world, among the bladderwrack and eelgrass, seaweed-soaked reefs in every shade of green, purple and red-spiked sea urchins and bloated orange sea stars. The camera ate it up, even through the waterproof casing, while Marlen drowned in colour, texture and shapes.

It was the ravens who made the islands, according to First Nations creation stories, by dropping pebbles into the sea. They liked to drop things on the wolves, too. Pieces of driftwood or a pinecone. The wolves would leap and snap at the ravens, but it was all in play. They were colleagues. The ravens located prey – a dead seal washed up on the far side of the island – and called the wolves to tear the carcass open, providing access for their beaks.

The intertidal zone, where the river flowed into the sea, was an ecotone – a place of rare abundance. And a photographer’s dream. Marlen shot mink and river otters, a yellow-beaked osprey seizing a salmon, water streaming from her feathertips.

In the river, the wolves positioned themselves behind the salmon, plunging their muzzles into the water, seizing the flapping fish in their jaws, like a bear. They carried them to shore, dropped them on the riverbank, and used their front paws to hold them still while they devoured their heads. It was the fish’s energy-rich brains they were after, the bodies mostly discarded. The ravens would pick them over, other birds and animals, too, carrying them into the forest. What was left went into the soil, to feed the trees. It had long been called the salmon forest, for its dependence on the salmon cycle. The salmon were the keystone species, depleted but not yet gone. While there were still salmon, there were still bears, wolves and forest.

After the wolves had loped off, Marlen chose a salmon free of teeth marks, carved fillets from one side, wrapped them in fern, and carried them back to camp. That evening, as the sun sank into the ocean, she fried them in butter with fiddleheads and bitterroot, piled them on a bed of watercress, and ate with a wolf’s appetite.

THE WOLVES TRAVELLED SINGLE FILE. Their trails – through the forest, along the beach, or by the stream – always followed the most direct line. When the alpha male decided it was time to move on, all it took was a twitch or half-grunt, and they were off, as if it was a collective idea, a kind of wolf-telepathy. Marlen walked in their tracks, dropping her upright stance to see the world from their perspective, trying to read scent-signals, identify scat, until she began taking on a little of their lope.

The den, when Marlen finally found it, a mossy mound in the base of an ancient western red cedar, looked so warm and homey, she wanted to crawl inside. The surrounding salal bush crackled when she tried to walk through, an alarm system as ancient as the den itself, handed down from generation to generation. Marlen had to crawl on her belly, a few inches at a time, and wait for three hours for a single image of the cubs in the entrance.

She built her own den, a second hide in the forest, from cedar branches and moss. The wolves knew she was there, between the mother tree and nurse log, but went on with their lives. The other adults were scattered around the den, the alpha male on guard from atop a rocky outcrop. Wolves’ faces were more expressive than dingoes or foxes. It was not hard, following their lives, learning their language. Eighty per cent of human and wolf DNA was shared. Each night, when Marlen enlarged her images, staring into the she-wolf’s eyes, she moved a step closer.

With her longest lens, and the extender, she watched and waited, for the light, that moment. The gesture that captured the spirit of the animal, told a story – elevated them, somehow, to speak to the viewer. The alpha male, so fierce when dragging a seal from the rocks, using those same teeth to take a cub by the ruff, holding her as gently as an egg. The she-wolf, after tearing the heads from salmon, encircling her pups with her body, still suckling them.

Marlen set up a camera trap, thinking to return to the beach camp, but she found she slept more deeply among the trees, as if back in the womb. Her dreams were dark and strange, as if adopting the forest’s consciousness. Sometimes she flew over the island, seeing the textured canopy, winding river and jagged shoreline from above, as if a bird.

THE SHE-WOLF WAS STILL GRIEVING. Hunting only for her cubs, eating just enough to live. During the winter, her mate, the old black alpha, had swum over to the mainland. Looking for food or mainland wolves to bring back, to refresh their pack. He wasn’t to know it was holidays, or that a pair of teenagers were loaded up with beer, and their parents’ guns. Parks’ footage showed old alpha male running from the campsite. The boys were no marksmen; most of their shots went wide. But one bullet punctured his lung, and he went down. The boys dumped him in a wheelie bin and left him to die. They’d been prosecuted and would be behind bars until their twenties, but that wouldn’t bring back the wolf. All that majesty, lain to waste.

His cubs, two grey, one almost black, stayed close to she-wolf. She had not taken another mate. The new alpha male brought her food, and played uncle to the cubs, but he already had a mate, and cubs of his own. The other males were too young, probably her progeny. Without a partner, she was technically no longer the alpha female, but still commanded respect.

The pack’s unusual social structure was just another sign that the balance was out: warming waters had sent salmon numbers plummeting, the new pipeline, bringing a shipping lane for oil tankers, had already spilled black.

When the she-wolf’s cubs flushed an island marmot – only brought back from the brink through a wildlife breeding program – Marlen zoomed in, trying to capture cubs and marmot in the same frame, fern fronds behind. But the she-wolf called her cubs off. Leave – weak. The young wolves skidded to a whining stop, turning their frowning faces to their mother, as the marmot disappeared into a rotting stump, safe for now.

Marlen lowered the camera. The high-end glass, metal and plastic suddenly seemed an inadequate vessel for wonder, an intrusion. There had always been something predatory about photography, but now it was as if Marlen was taking their lives. Even her best photos were a requiem, lacking the grace and wisdom of a wolf. Carrying her shame in being human.

She started leaving the camera behind. Her wetsuit, too. Swimming naked in a kelp otherworld, threading through their bright green stipes, bumping against their air balloon heads. When she emerged from the water, pink and shivering, their roles had switched; the wolves were watching her.

Once her plastic packets of dehydrated food ran out, Marlen ate what the wolves ate: salmon, blubbery strips of seal, pollock and perch, mussels and clams. Kelp, too. Her muscles swelled, all body fat burned away, her senses keened. In her dreams, she was on all fours; she ran, swam and pounced with four legs. And in those dreams, she knew what it was to love with a wolf. They ran, swam, and hunted, slept curled against each other, muzzles close, ears ever-twitching. That particular growl, the bite on the back of her neck, thrilling her into submission. It was quick, but not as rough as she had imagined, with all that whining and nuzzling, noses instead of hands and lips, smell so much more than touch, and then her – or his – paws on the she-wolf’s shoulders, pushing with powerful flanks, made for leaping and pouncing but, most of all, made for this. Claws, teeth, withheld – nothing else. And afterwards, grinning, tail-wagging and lick-facing, turning in circles, proud and close. Home.

IN THE OCEAN, THEY WERE ALMOST EQUAL. Marlen followed she-wolf and her cubs at a distance, doing as they did, learning as the cubs did. When the visiting herring laid their fat white roe, she-wolf’s appetite seemed to return. Marlen tried to gather the roe with her clumsy fingers, but she-wolf showed her how to lick mouthfuls from the weed.

When the swell picked up, forming a clean left break at the far end of the beach, Marlen paddled out on the broad plank washed up in the last storm, to ride the wave. The wolves watched as she tumbled off, grinning and whooping, into the wash.

While the sea was calm, the alpha male nosed and pawed the plank into the water at high tide, walking up and down to coax it into the current. It carried him out to a smaller island, where the ravens had found a fresh seal carcass. He fed, and swam back, with a chunk of seal meat between his teeth.

One morning, in the moss-hung forest, jogging soft-footed back to her hide after bathing beneath the waterfall, Marlen crossed paths with she-wolf, her muzzle purple from eating the last of the salal berries. They both stopped still, and while Marlen knew she should drop her eyes, back away, she could not tear them from the wolf’s. They stood there like that, senses keening, currents passing between them, until the wolf dropped her hackles, tossed her head, and vanished between the trees.

Marlen’s body was left tingling, wet, every cell vibrating. The urge to go after her was strong. Nuxalk and Gitga’at peoples said wolves were sacred, and that humans and wolves could exchange form. Wolves had no need for two legs, but Marlen really wanted to be wolf.

It was that evening that the white spirit bear – Moksgm’ol – came, padding out of the forest, near the old fish traps, like a vision. Marlen and the wolves froze, as the bear sniffed, stared directly at them, and drank from the river’s clearwater.

THE FOREST LEAVES WERE FADING from full rainbow, beginning to fall. The salmon were long gone, and the wolves’ coats were growing long, for the winter. Three months had passed, in human time. The moon was full again, the tides pulled high, and the sea calm. The zodiac would come for her in the morning. Marlen packed her cameras, lenses, tripods, memory cards, into drybags. It was not new to become infatuated with her subjects. The field trips were what she lived for; it was always a wrench to return to screens and ceilings, cities and people. Harder now, with the world narrowing in on itself. But this time the pain in her chest was physical, forcing her to her knees, to tears, more than once as she struggled to dismantle the tent. Her hands had grown clumsy after so long swimming and roaming the forest.

Marlen brushed off the tarp and lay out her sleeping bag, to enjoy one last night in the open. She lay awake, staring up at the stars, while the barred owl asked, Hoo, hoo. Hoo are you? From the forest, over and over. She had no answer. There were plans, the next assignment. But Marlen could no longer imagine her old life. There was no-one waiting, anymore. Her long absences were too hard to forgive. That night, the wolves sang, loud and haunting. Marlen could pick out she-wolf’s voice, most beautiful of all, following her into sleep.

THE DAY DAWNED, low and grey. At some point during the night, she had wriggled out of her sleeping bag, but she was not cold. The tarp was still warm beside her, wolf musk and damp fur lingering on her skin. When she sat up, the she-wolf’s prints, fresh and deep, led back to the forest. Marlen heard the buzz of the Zodiac’s engine and the thwack thwack of its hull hitting wind-waves long before it came into view, coming to take her away, back to Gold River, on to the mainland, and then the flight home, through five airport terminals, to her city apartment, to file her photos and rejoin that doomed race. Fight!

‘But how?’ She zipped her clothes, toiletries and journals into the duffle bag, stuffed her wetsuit into the gearsack, while the wolves watched, eye-bright, ears twitching, from safety of the spruce. She-wolf stepped forward, cubs crouched behind her. Her bark carried across the beach, clawing Marlen’s chest. Love-pain – and so fierce.

The grey-feathered raven swooped from the juniper stag, his wing brushing Marlen’s face. The world shifted, as if a filter had been dropped over her eyes. She was close to the ground, earthed. The depth of field was greater, more than three-dimensional – though the colour range had narrowed. Smell was landscape and language. Things she had sensed, half-felt, were all present at once – sand, sea, soil, forest, fish, fur, bear, bird, past, present, future – an overload of information, of knowing.

The ravens had gathered. Their calls had always sounded like talking, but now she understood. One swooped on her tarp, taking a flipper in their claws. Another struggled into the air with Marlen’s mask and snorkel, dropping them far out to sea.

Grey-Raven flew again at Marlen, slashing her cheek with claw. Marlen growled, blood flowing down her face, into the sand. But the bird’s thoughts were her thoughts. She-wolf’s, too. Marlen held a wetsuit bootie to the wound until it was soaked with her blood, and stuffed into the remaining flipper, as if her rear foot had slidden out. Grey-Raven dropped the flipper at the sea’s edge, just out of reach of the tide.

This time, when she-wolf pawed the ground, every creature, every tree, every fallen leaf, heard. Marlen heard. Though it was more than hearing, with all of her senses – all of her being. Morning-mist moved up the beach. Marlen locked eyes with the wolf, an exchange across dimensions. This time, she could not, would not, break away.

The boat slowed as it entered the bay. Clouds of fuel, hair product, machine-washed clothes burned her nose, pushed her hackles up. Marlen found that she could no longer remember the word for going on two legs or the action. She-wolf tossed her head. Run!