A Long Space to Go
Idaho Fish and Wildlife has tracked several dozen wolverines over the past decade, most of them in the mountain backcounty in the northern half of the state. This is the story of W-34. It starts up on Highline Ridge just above the river.
From up on the ridge Thomas could hear the pain in her growl of a cry coming from the river about a mile away. The cry cut through the air. He gathered what he could from the park-service truck—the pair of gloves, a bundle of blankets, the discarded box in the bed of the truck, and a fishing net—as if any of it would help him capture the wounded animal.
Her eyes glowed dim and weak, and she was dehydrated; probably left there trapped to rusted steel for a week or longer, but she was not weak nor desperate enough to let a human touch her. She wouldn’t let anyone get near her, not without a vicious fight. She was an adult female, and Thomas was pretty sure she had a den somewhere between the river and the ridge.
Thomas had never seen a wild wolverine up that close, and this wasn’t how he wanted to. His second winter in the forest he saw an adult and her kit trekking down the steep side of Shadow Pass. Through the binoculars he watched the mom climbing down into the pass, with the kit following, his paws like snowshoes too, but his stride smaller, hesitating where the mom climbed over the rocks. The mom climbed down without looking back, and the kit stumbled to navigate over the rocks. After the kit crossed the biggest rocks, he bounded down to catch up, as fast as he could run. The two small figures were barely visible through the binoculars and then gone.
The wounded animal growled and hissed at him and lunged forward when he took another step. It was an absurd effort. He moved like a man, calculating and slowly, while she moved quickly and with all of the life she had left to keep him away. She ripped off one of the gloves that were open and loose-fitting for landscaping work, scraping her claws into his hand. She stood back victoriously, showing her teeth as a warning. Thomas turned to leave, facing the pines that grew above the river, and in one step he turned to face the animal as if he had forgotten something. The wolverine listened to his movement, and the pain burned through to the bone. He stopped and stood there, ten steps away, and she laid down just like a dog resting, with her front legs bleeding from where she had tried to gnaw through the steel teeth of the trap. She stared at him. He heard the river just outside the pines at the bottom of the gulch.
He knew they had done this. The Century Corp. men drilling for natural gas. They just hadn’t gotten a chance to finish the job yet. That tattooed one wasn’t carrying around that big .338 Winchester to make up for his looks.
The bleeding was getting worse where she had chewed through the flesh, and it made him sick to look at it. That tattooed one was one of the zealous ones who doesn’t think twice about what they’re trying to do, Thomas thought.
“All right,” he said, catching his breath. “You hate me. I get that.”
He knew this was not how you should do this.
“I’m just going to put this old blanket on you,” he said, “and then I’m going to grab you with these hands. You might not like it. But you don’t have no choice. I’m not leaving here without you. All right?”
He thought the wounded animal was maybe listening. Well, she was paying attention as he stood there talking to the cold air. Hunched low, her leg twisted in the trap, her dirty fur caked in mud, the wounded animal started up at him. She closed and opened her eyes. The fight had drained what little energy she had left, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t fight again.
Tift once told Thomas how researchers realized the wolverines could smell the trace of humans left behind on the traps for weeks. Despite their awesome strength and mythological aggression towards humans, they are one of the shyest mammals. Avoiding human contact at all costs, they need wide-open, wild territories. They’re solitary roamers, but an adult female will stay near her den and protect her territory. She’ll stay, and she’ll do what she has to.
They must have wiped down the trap with bleach before they put the bait in it. Must have wiped their scent right off the sharp steel.
“Don’t be too rough on me,” he said to the wounded animal looking at him.
He went up to her like he was just walking up to a wounded dog, he dropped the blanket, and he grabbed the bundle. He clutched his arms around the animal clawing and punching at the old wool wrapped around her. “No, this ain’t how you do this,” he said aloud to himself and the wounded animal, and he hoped the blanket and the flannel on his arms would keep the claws from digging in.
* * *
Just before the sippe hole, he put it down in four low, and the truck barely made it across the deep mud that would be frozen in a few weeks, the box sliding on the seat as the animal tried its darndest to rip the cardboard in half. He held one arm down on top of the box and felt the animal fighting inside trying to break free until they were out on the asphalt park entry road. The seat was covered in blood.
When the all-terrain tires hit the concrete curb stop, he shut it down, stepped out and carried in the bloody box wrapped in the blanket. He carried it gently as the injured wolverine inside kept on scratching and trying to tear through. The vet met him at the door and took the box. With his foot, the vet pushed open the door to the back area of the wildlife animal hospital, and she was gone.
Back out in the cold rain, he shut the truck door and realized how much blood had spilled on the seat and the carpet, a streak of deep crimson from when the truck sank into a sippie hole and he had thought the box was going to rip in half.
It was getting dark, and he felt anger and something else that felt like loneliness maybe. It would get colder soon, he thought. It’s the windy and wet days that make it bitter cold when that wind comes down from the mountains in November. But even in early October, the wind made him close up his flannel. He buttoned it up and stood outside for a moment. Back inside, he lowered into one of the chairs upholstered the same color as that pale gray that soaked through the window. He thought of the things he’d have to do the next day. He’d call Tift. She would want to come to the clinic. She would want to check around where the trap was, too. She would check for boot prints, any litter left behind, or any other sign of whoever did this. She would want to send back what she could to the forensics lab. He would let Williams know too. He knew for sure who had set the trap that could have been out for weeks. It wouldn’t be easy to prove it was the Century Corp. men.
And he knew now what his feeling was. It was something like loneliness because no one could help you. It was the feeling of intense, gnawing hatred that he hadn’t felt since he was a young man, a feeling that comes straight at you before you know it has arrived. It was a feeling that he had worked very hard to leave behind, and after he moved West he had started to forget the feeling that was like genetics, planted in time and another geography.
He sat in the pale gray seat as they amputated the animal’s front leg.
* * *
The first winter storm came early, bringing a foot the week after they closed the gates to the roads at Overlook Pass and up Highline Ridge. The snow was fresh and soft and higher than the laces on his boots. It would solidify overnight if it kept on snowing and the temperature dropped down as low as he thought it was going to.
Tift was leaning against the old shed next to the far corner of the pen. It was a big pen, an acre and a half fenced, but it must have been a prison cell to a wolverine.
Tift leaned against the aluminum siding of the old shed, looking out into the pen.
“Hey,” she said when she saw Thomas.
As the two figures stood there, making noise, the animal wanted to run. Run to the big pines. Run so quickly that nothing would be able to track her. But there was nowhere to go. There was high fence on four sides, metal wires hard, inflexible.
“Has she tried getting out?” Thomas asked.
“No, not anymore.”
She would run as fast as she could. Across the miles in this new territory, snow accumulating on the open prairie earth, run towards the pines over there, shadows and no sound under the big trees.
“How long will they keep her?”
“Till spring probably,” Tift said. “They said she only ate once, more than a week ago. They put something out every afternoon, and she won’t touch it. Soon they’ll put out mice or a rabbit to see if she can feed on her own. She still has a while to go.”
“She can probably smell our scent on the food.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
* * *
In the far corner the wolverine backed further into the pale winter shadows, where she could try to hide from the scent still strong in the still, cold winter air. The one taller than any other moving figure, with his familiar scent heavy. They weren’t moving. They were not the ones who brought the food, their odorous, bad food. Along the fence, behind the trees, they could not see her, although they could smell. Low in the shadows, between the maple and pine, snow coming down and cold, windless air, the animal crouched still. Displacement from a home of dark earth and thick tangled roots is a pain that gnaws like the rusted steel locked down. Yes, the wolverine would run herself free if she could. Run despite the stump of a leg severed. Run and run and run until she lost her way from this pen. She had a wide space to go.
* * *
“We fitted her with a gps trans. She’s W-34 now. But I call her Acacia.” She looked out into the pen and she looked at Thomas. “You think it was the Century Corp. men?”
“I know it was,” Thomas said.
Tift didn’t say anything. She just looked back out into the pen.
“You said she had a den on Highline Ridge up on the northern edge?”
“Yeah,” Tift said. “She had to of. We found all these tracks, and none of them left the area.”
“That’s right where they’re fixing to build a road,” he said.
“They can’t build a road through there.”
“They’re going to try like hell.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked and stood there for a long time waiting for him to answer.
* * *
In the cold, snow-covered space north, almost north to the twin peaks of the lower Selkirk Range, between the ridge and Wolf River, the surveyors embedded another geophone into the ground. Twisting and hammering, they inserted their instruments into the earth.
Only one of the men wore the Century Corp. uniform shirt. The others worn flannel layers and wranglers, and one wore a Packers sweatshirt. They listened to Toby Keith from the jacked-up Expedition.
Their geophones hooked up to cables that ran back to the truck.
* * *
Far from her home, W-34 began tracking south over the folds in the earth. There were stars in the sky, and the snow-melted field was still frozen under the top inch of soft and thawed soil. There was the thick covering of pine needles and then some of the dry, crumpled leaves.
She yelped, just once, and kept her nose to the ice and snow. Time measured by space crossed, cold wind. Turned loose, she kept her nose to the ice and snow, and she trekked back towards the tangled roots and dark, still-frozen soil down in the river gulch.
Tired in her bones now, but not too tired to keep going.
* * *
She had trekked for a long space through the night, and it was just barely morning when she smelled something. A light flashed.
The cold wind came down into the low, interior space of the gulch. She was so close.
“Go get Jim. Hurry. Tell him to bring the rifle,” one of the men in the layers of flannel said. The man didn’t move. The men weren’t accustomed to seeing their prey come so close. Maybe they thought the wolverine was rabid, or sick.
So close. After a long space, so close. The wolverine stopped. She looked at the men dividing her from the den on the other side before she continued towards them. The man fired a single bolt of lightning into her chest. The animal’s body remained in the bloodied earth until someone came by that afternoon and put her in a black trash bag and dropped it into the bed of a truck.