forty thousand years of permafrost, wolves, boreal to arctic vistas, sled dogs, human culture

A forty thousand year old wolf

Courtesy of permafrost, nature’s glacial record: a forty thousand year old wolf head is discovered in the Yakutia region of Russia. Along the Tirekhtyakh — a river, in proximity to the Arctic Circle. That’s way out East, in the right half of the 11 time-zone wide Russia map — far and gone, for most of us.

But this story caught my eye for another reason: there is something about wolves — something almost mythical, and mystical, fascinating, something that somehow civilized humans identify with. It’s startling and different from us — and yet… Yes it’s a harsh and often brutal life, wildness, reliance on instinct — and it’s not just wishful thinking on our part. It’s something we recognize.

Wolves also have a high degree of organization and precise roles in their social structure. They have evolved language and ways of communicating that go unperceived by us. There is a profound history that we intuit in them. I think it is in us too, which is why we recognize it in the wolf.

“All wild animals interest me, each in their own way and for their own important ecological role.,” wrote Dr. Gordon Haber in his book, Among Wolves. “But […] wolves stand above the rest in their unusual intelligence, emotional depth, expressiveness, sensory abilities, physical prowess, and especially their family-based social systems.” The full title of the book is Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal.

Here are three books to feed that interest:

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Thinking twice about outdoor gear

Since everyone reads the Siberian Times (umm….), there is no need to go into deep detail. I mean about the 40,000 yr-old wolf. But there is outdoors, and then there is outdoors!

At Wharf 21 we just did a story on the Jetboil Basecamp Cooking System (click here to read it). Earlier, we had also done a quick story on the “red oil spill” in Siberia — diesel fuel dyed red collapsed because of melting permafrost supporting its container. Makes me wonder what you need for gear in deep NW Siberia… Well, the Jetboil and a Travel Bartender Kit Bag might help.

However, there are extreme conditions. Then, special equipment is the only answer, and Yakutia (where the Tirekhtyakh river region is found) will qualify. I mean, temperatures can sink to -70 C. (-94 F). It is legendary. Engine oil becomes a block; cold-weather clothing feels like tissue paper; moisture in your exhaled breath turns to crystals and showers the snowscape like a collapsing chandelier.

Regarding our wolf…  “Still snarling” said one story. “The head is half the body length of a modern wolf,” it said later on. The head is 40 cm, or about 16 inches long. A 40,000-year-old wolf reminds us of our own heritage and what we still carry in our own genome. I admit my fascination. We are close in time to an unthinkable past — and how fast things change.

Zokhov island and dog breeding

Since we are on this theme, sled dogs on the Zokhov island (Russia, way out NW), are related to the story. First, it’s part of Yakutia. But the island tells a story — evidence suggests it was connected to mainland Siberia. Also, the Zokhov islanders bred dogs for a specific purpose — maybe the first on earth to have done so.

The Zokhov sled dog genome is related to malamutes, Greenland sled dogs, and Siberian huskies.  The genome goes back 9,500 years — 3 times longer than recently thought. And, it is related to the Siberian wolf of at least 33,000 years ago. Those were the days we will not wish to go back to.

Wolf among the stars

In closing — a short book on astronomy. For me it is not a “leap” from wolves. Galileo Galilei was a wild spirit, an explorer, in spite of his scholarly garb. Like Gorden Haber, misunderstood by many around him. I keep recommending this: Galileo’s initial work with the telescope (Sidereus Nuncius, or “Starry Messenger,” circa 1610):

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