This moose, seen on the Nisutlin River, wanted to get in the boat. Photo by Mary Catharine Martin.

This moose, seen on the Nisutlin River, wanted to get in the boat. Photo by Mary Catharine Martin.

Breath of Wilderness

In September of 2014, my girlfriend MC and I met a First Nations man at a gas station in the Yukon village of Teslin. We gave the man a ride home and told him our plan—to float the Nisutlin River and, then, ride bicycles seventy miles back to where we left our car. He became concerned, and grew more anxious when we admitted we didn’t have a gun.

It was dark when we dropped him off and turned onto the Canol Road. The dirt road was intended to open oil development in the Northwest Territories, but the project was abandoned. A few miles later our headlights illuminated a sign that read “Breath of Wilderness” in front of a well-kept cabin. The place was home to Claudia Huber and Matthias Liniger, who owned an adventure tour company.

A month later an old, skinny, deranged grizzly would break through a window in the couple’s cabin. There are articles online – I won’t go into the terrifying details – but Huber lost her life.

A month before all that, though, MC and I drove on, rarely going much faster than 20 miles per hour due to how rough the road was. In the moonlight you could see that the willows had turned yellow and fresh snow dusted the mountain tops. We pitched our tent just off the road and settled in for a cold night.

The next day, as we floated down the Nisutlin, we came around a bend and saw a young bull moose at the water’s edge. The bull studied us, small pieces of velvet hanging from his small red antlers, and ran into the woods. He crashed through the brush paralleling the river. After he had traveled a few hundred yards he moved to cut us off. Nostrils flaring, he was acting like he wanted to get into our boat. I went so far as to pull out the pepper spray and speak sternly as he stared at us with bulging eyes. He followed for a while longer before letting us be. His odd behavior was likely explained when, not long after, a movement in the shadowy taiga caught my eye.

“Wolves!” I whispered.

A pack of around a dozen ran and leapt over fallen logs in near silence. For a few seconds the forest was alive with wolves. A minute after the pack disappeared, a half grown gray pup with his tongue hanging out came running along the river bank.

That evening, while we were setting up our tent, wolves began howling. They were close. Maybe fifty yards back in the forest. Soon, others answered on the opposite bank of the river. For several minutes the two groups communicated. Their song, one of beauty and terror, reverberated in the forest, in the mountains, and in us. Slowly, as the wolves receded deeper into the forest, their howls faded to silence. For a long while we sat by a small campfire and listened to the whispering of the river as darkness eased onto the land.

A year later, MC, my dad and I returned to the Canol Road to float the Big Salmon River. The dark taiga hemmed in both sides of the road. The Breath of Wilderness sign, looking a little worn, still stood in front of the cabin. I watched in the rearview mirror until the sign, shrouded in a cloud of dust we left behind, disappeared.

 


 

• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.

 


 

A wolf pup tries to catch up with its pack on the Nisutlin River. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.

A wolf pup tries to catch up with its pack on the Nisutlin River. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.

A vista of forest and mountains surrounding the Nisutlin River. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.

A vista of forest and mountains surrounding the Nisutlin River. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.

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