Hunting at the Top of the Food Chain
By Dave Britt
My hunting partner, Don Blackwelder, and I have been hunting together for 26 years. We first hunted together when we were both stationed in the Pentagon as Air Force staff officers. Our first hunting adventure was in 1992. I had been hunting in Pennsylvania and needed someone to hunt with, so I invited Don to come along. We have hunted together in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Canada, missing only the 25th year when I was ill. Together, we have taken elk, mule deer, whitetail, antelope, Hungarian partridge, sharp tail grouse, coyote, and now wolf.
I had never really thought about predator hunting until we hunted coyote in Montana at the conclusion of a successful mule deer and whitetail combination hunt. The guide asked us if we wanted to coyote hunt after we filled our deer tags, and we immediately said yes. However, that is a different adventure and not the reason for this “hunter’s story.”
I wanted a different kind of challenge, and Don agreed to accept the challenge as well. I searched Huntin’ Fool's website for opportunities to hunt wolf and found an outfitter, Ernie Westling of Elk River Outfitters in Ponoka, Alberta, Canada about an hour south of Edmonton. I contacted Ernie, and after a couple of texts and emails, we set up the hunt and were ready to go. Don and I had never taken a weapon across national borders before, not to mention ammunition, and this part of the trip turned out to be the most stressful. Suffice it to say that knowing the requirements of traveling with firearms does not mean that you will not have issues. It seems that not all airline agents know and/or adhere to the law and requirements found in print. I recommend you take a copy of the airline instructions printed out along with you to show the airline agent. Agents in Canada do not allow a separate locked ammunition box to be placed in the same locked container in which your weapon is shipped. If you do not have a second bag to check, you have nowhere to put the locked ammo box to ship it back to your destination in the U.S. Fortunately, I had a roll-on suitcase which I was able to check with the ammo box inside. Don’s experience was different, so do not assume the agents know the requirements for shipping unloaded weapons. When you leave Canada, you must show the Canadian Non-Resident Firearm Form (CAF 909) issued to you upon entry into Canada, so keep it handy.
We flew to Edmonton and stayed in a hotel, and Ernie picked us up the following morning. The drive to our hunting area was two and a half hours west of Edmonton in the middle of the oil/gas fields of west Canada, about 150 miles north of Banff National Park. Ernie has two cabins at the camp from which we hunted, and we stayed in the austere “trapper’s” cabin, built by hand by Ernie and his family many years ago. It is cut into the hillside above a small lake and is heated by a propane stove, which allows the regulation of heat, but the cabin has no running water. We had a large drinking water container and brought a large teapot with hot water from the main cabin, which we kept warm by putting it in the center of the stovetop. The cabin had two beds and was adequate as we only slept and changed clothes there. An outhouse, 30 yards from the cabin, provided a place to “do paperwork.” It was an adventure to use it in mostly single digit temperatures Fahrenheit. Most of our waking time, eating and telling hunting stories and solving the world’s problems occurred in the main cabin. About 10 hours a day, we were in the woods or transiting to different blinds to hunt. Ernie supplied us with a hearty breakfast each day, provided sandwiches, snacks, and drinks for the time in the blinds and an ample tasty supper each night after the hunt day was over.
The area was almost entirely wooded, and the woods were mostly too thick to navigate through, in bog-like land, with many unnamed lakes that are simply depressions in the bog filled with water. Our blinds were insulated with Styrofoam and heated with portable propane heaters. The floors were carpeted to cut down on noise, and the windows were plexiglass. After 10 minutes of heater time, I turned the heater off as the box blinds were warm enough to take jackets off. Each blind was just large enough to accommodate an office chair on rollers, which provided comfortable seating for the nine hours of watch time. The blinds were situated on the edge of the Muskegon lakes, and Ernie supplied carcasses of road kill deer supplemented with the discarded remains of animals butchered locally. Huge flocks of crows, magpies, ravens, and even bald eagles feasted on these animal remains throughout the day, almost every day.
We sat in the first set of blinds for four days, watching birds and seeing nothing else, despite the abundance of wolf tracks near our blinds. The blinds were not close to each other, with transit time from one to the other being about 30 minutes. Ernie dropped us off and picked us up after dark each day. Ernie worked hard to put us into a position to see and take a wolf.
On day five, Ernie took us to different lakes 45 minutes north of the first set. I estimated that Don and I were seven to eight miles apart in these blinds as transit time was 45 minutes from his blind to mine. Ernie had told us that most of his clients had taken wolves between 1 and 2 p.m., so Don and I were on high alert from 12 to 3 p.m. I relaxed at 3 p.m. and settled down to wait the final two hours plus for darkness on another uneventful day.
After having stared at the frozen lake 600 yards to the far shore for the entire day, I knew every foot of it at a glance. Suddenly, there was a dot on the surface I had not seen before. I had already practiced the motions in my head I would make if I saw a wolf. I got the window down immediately with a thin camouflage net Ernie had provided inside it to mask my movement. I had folded the net into an irregular triangle so I had gun ports out of the bottom corners that would allow a rifle barrel to be pushed out without revealing movement inside the blind. The wolf was coming straight on to my blind, so it had a small profile and I estimated seeing it for the first time at about 200 yards. It was just at dark when I first saw this wolf. I got into the scope and could see it was a gray wolf, and as I leaned forward into the rifle, I saw movement off to my right behind the window support divider. I drew back slightly to conceal myself as there were two wolves coming directly toward me on my right, mere dots at this point but closing the distance. I watched them separate, one going right and the other coming left into my sight picture. This wolf became my primary target as he was going to present the best shot opportunity. I estimated his range at 150 yards, and as he continued to walk right to left, I could see him broadside. I put the crosshairs on his shoulder. It seemed to me he sensed something was amiss. Ernie warned us that if you stare at a wolf they will sense it, so I decided I had to take the shot then as he might not stop. I fired my Sako 30-06, and he went down. As I chambered a second round, he got back up, biting the air behind him. I fired a second round, and he went down for good. I tried to transition to another wolf, but the one on the left was last seen increasing the distance to over 200 yards was nowhere in sight. Looking to my right, I saw a dark profile of a running wolf disappear into the forest at the edge of the lake as darkness fell. The position of the window divider made attempting a shot in that direction impossible.
The first shot took out his lungs, passing between his ribs two inches behind the shoulder, and the second shot was a shoulder shot, killing him instantly. My wolf was down at 134 yards. I ranged him before Ernie arrived with the ATV to retrieve the carcass.