'Too close for comfort': Former Olympian home after being surrounded by wolves on remote lake
Alain Masson won't soon forget his Easter weekend, and the pack of wolves he faced down, alone, as the animals encircled him on a remote frozen lake.
"I would have expected maybe to see a moose or a caribou on the lake, but I never thought that I would see wolves. Or, not this close, anyway," he said, back home in Whitehorse after his unnerving adventure.
"Too close for comfort."
Masson had set off early Sunday morning, to do something he'd long wanted to do — ski around Teresa Island, near Atlin, B.C. It's about an 80 kilometre trip, and the conditions were right for a beautiful day trip.
He'd gone a little more than halfway around the island when he first noticed some movement in the distance.
"So I took my binoculars and looked, and in a bay about a kilometre away, I could see wolves running," he recalled.
He counted a dozen of them. Then he quickly packed up his binoculars to keep skiing.
"I thought I would just resume my ski and be able to leave without them noticing me. But they quickly saw me."
They were then running towards him "very quickly." Masson is a fast skier — a former Olympian, in fact — but he knew it was pointless to try to flee. He stayed put.
Moments later, they were very close — about 50 metres, Masson estimates. The pack then split up.
"Two of the larger ones went behind me, and then the rest was in a half-circle in front of me, maybe 50 metres in front of me. And then I didn't really know what to do."
'Trying to stay positive'
Masson had heard about other wolf encounters, and even knew someone who'd been approached by a pack while skiing the very same route, a decade before.
Masson tried to stay calm and think rationally.
"I was scared, because they're large animals. And having so many of them so close to me, in the middle of nowhere, I didn't really know what their reaction would be.
"I was trying to think more of it as curiosity — trying to remember that there's very few known attacks on humans by wolves. So, trying to stay positive."
Then he tried something that can work with an aggressive bear — he faced the animals down, standing as tall as he could, waving his ski poles, and making noise.
"Eventually, the one in front of me took a couple of steps back. So I thought, 'I'll try this, to be a bit more aggressive,' and skied towards them.
"They retreated a little bit and eventually I managed to scare them, make them move, and they started to go towards the island."
Masson cautiously carried on his way, still trailed by the two larger wolves for about a kilometre.
"They just kept their distance and followed me for a little bit, and [then] walked towards the other ones."
Not an uncommon story
Bob Hayes, a retired wolf biologist for the Yukon government and author of Wolves of the Yukon, calls Masson's decision to try to scare the animals a "really smart move," though he doesn't think Masson was in any real danger.
Hayes believes, like Masson, that the wolves were simply curious. A skier on a big open lake is easily scented, so the wolves came for a closer look.
"My first thought was, I've heard it before. It's not an uncommon story, especially by trappers in wintertime," Hayes said.
"They all end up in the same sort of story, where [wolves] eventually leave when they discover that it's a human."
Wolf packs tend to stick to their preferred prey, such as moose or caribou, Hayes says. Wolves aren't likely to attack a human just because they spot one that's vulnerable.
"It's possible that people have been killed by wolves with these events, but I don't know of any example ever in the Yukon where a person was actually killed by a wolf because they were seen on a lake and attacked."
Still, Hayes understands why Masson would have been nervous. He suggests bringing someone along next time.
"It's a long way to be away from a place of safety, and being by yourself," he said.
Masson's story also suggests some good news for biologists, Hayes says — a pack of 12 wolves is likely doing OK.
"That's a big pack. That means that there's lots of moose around."