Gudrun Pflueger believes that a buried instinct to handle predators saved her in a wilderness meadow
Gudrun Pflueger sat alone in a meadow near the coast of the British Columbia rainforest, her knees bent in front, holding binoculars, scanning the fringes of the forest for coast wolves she hoped to glimpse. For several weeks, Pflueger and the scientist for whom she was working had been seeking signs of these predators that are so hard to spot in the coastal rainforest that researchers can only estimate their numbers. Pflueger, a former world champion trail runner and cross-country skier, had spent weeks on the wolves’ likely trails, eager to watch them on the move or at least to capture them on film.
Suddenly, her wish was granted so completely that she was in danger. Out of the forest, a small pack of wolves came trotting straight to Pflueger, circling her. She had no time to think. She already knew that at this time of year they were hungry because the nearby Salmon River had no fish at that time of year. She believes that she smelled the animals. They definitely smelled her. They were curious. We can say this now calmly. But they were wolves. In coastal British Columbia, the bush is so thickly vegetated and no towns or settlements interrupt it, that it was possible that they hadn’t ever seen a human being. Pflueger sat very still and then, as they sniffed at her, lay down in the grass. At first, they looked and sniffed at her—her blond head, red sweater, leather vest, and black pants, her black pack. Then they ignored her. The wolves began to frolic around in the grass, two adults and a baby circling around Pflueger, who lay motionless in the soft, tall grass. Eventually and very slowly, she sat up and just watched them. They ran about for a long time before they ran off into the woods, clearly unconcerned about her.
Pflueger said that when she thought about her behavior and the wolves later, she felt that she had unconsciously drawn on an instinct that humans hardly ever call upon, but which she thinks lies buried somewhere in our natures. That is, an instinct to coexist with big potential predators. Wolves don’t attack humans by design, but if they happen to run into one who threatened them in any way, stories show, they could easily kill us.
But with Pflueger, these wolves seemed to sense something unthreatening in her attitude, something that you can’t fake. They knew that she was not afraid and, therefore, that she was not going to hurt them. And that she was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t that she was chummy with wolves. It was that she showed a quiet reverence or respect.
“I think all our senses are really fine-tuned to the thousands of years of coexistence with potential big predators,” Pflueger told me during a long phone talk many months later. “For the last generation, we didn’t need to use that anymore. That’s why it was just an intensive, amazing, just beautiful, beautiful feeling. You feel so alive in this moment because all of your senses—which could sleep for generations, had no more use—and they had to, really. . . . ” She paused. “I smelled the wolf, I heard her, I felt her, a moist floor that was vibrating. I just wanted to let them know that there was no reason for fear from their side. I think how you approach someone, animals included, it will come back.”
There are many of us, probably most of humanity today, who, when faced with a small pack of wolves coming up to sniff them, would not feel concern for the wild animals’ feelings, as Pflueger did. Most people would not, when pushed into this situation, have thought to lie down passively, and then they would not have had a scrap of courage left to sit back up, secure in the knowledge that the wolves were unconcerned and were running circles around us just for fun. How did Gudrun Pflueger come to this moment in her life and find that these survival instincts, however long buried for the general population, lay near the surface of her reactions? The answer to this has to do with her comfort in the wild. This state of being began in the Alps, where she lived for the first 28 years of life.
Pflueger grew up playing in the mountains that were near her back door in the tiny town of Radstadt, about 80 kilometers south of Salzburg. Her father was an engineer who had built tunnels in a long highway constructed through the Alps. He also had grown up in that town, and he and his wife built a new house at the edge of it, backing up to a forest. Pflueger’s early years were marked by hours spent playing in the mountains with her brother, sister, and friends.
By the time she was 18, she wanted to study agriculture and would likely have gravitated to a big university in Vienna, but she stayed in the Alps to attend the University of Salzburg, for a big reason: she was a professional athlete. For the next ten years, she alternated her schooling with racing and training in cross-country skiing and mountain running. Even though by her interest she might have preferred studying in Vienna, she was by 18 skiing professionally for the Austrian national team. She didn’t want to leave the Alps.
In Vienna, “they don’t have snow,” she said. “I’m not a city person, anyway.” Her aversion to city life became more than a preference. She now says, “The city jungle scares me more than the real jungle. People ask me that often: ‘Aren’t you afraid by yourself?’ and I say, ‘No, this is what I am familiar with. And I think that’s what it all comes down to. What you are familiar with, you won’t fear. On all different levels and paths of life.”
Pflueger’s recipe for feeling more at home in a dense forest than in a city is to take small steps, getting used to it from the beginning of your life. That is the life she led, starting from a very young age, exploring the woods and mountain paths near her neighborhood, learning how to navigate those routes until “it becomes such a part of you.”
She used to stay in shape for cross-country skiing by mountain running in the summer. Then she became a champion mountain runner. “I would start in the valley on the bottom of the mountain and really run up there. The finish is on the top of the mountain, on the summit—or down in the valley again; you have to run up or down. There are championships. It’s becoming more and more popular in America. I think it’s a very strange sport.”
She won the Mountain Running World Trophy in 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1997. In the winter, she was part of the Austrian National Cross-Country Ski Team, racing several World Cup races and taking part in two world championships in Canada and Sweden. When the limitations of the national team seemed too much, she became an independent racer, with sponsorship from Red Bull, the energy drink company. It took her nearly a decade to earn her university degree because of her intense athletic training. As satisfying as it all was, she reached a point where racing almost disheartened her. She realized that her life was revolving around racing, nerves, and recovering from races.
In college, Pflueger studied biology and then earned her master’s degree in botany, studying the effects of cross-country skis on farm fields. She wasn’t dealing with wildlife. But she wanted a dog, and then she joined an animal conservation group in Austria that allowed people to sponsor radio-collared wolves in Yellowstone National Park. She became interested in the controversy over bringing wolves back to places where they had been extirpated. Wolves hadn’t been in most areas of Europe since around 1850, and most people associated them with dangerous threats to civilization. She said that most Europeans think of Canada as a place where there is enough room for wolves and people, but then she started reading that wolves were being trapped and killed on the highways.
As she learned more about wolves, she developed the opinion that wolves, as the top predators in nature’s food webs, contribute to the health of the populations on which they prey. For instance, wolves kill the old, the weak, and the very young in the elk populations. “In Yellowstone, when they extirpated the wolves, suddenly the elk exploded,” she says. “They over-browsed the aspen, the beaver went away. Lots of songbirds went away.”
Wolves can’t be replaced by hunters, she says, because hunters will kill the strongest out of the herd, while wolves would choose the sickest and weakest. “The wolves keep the herd fast, strong, and healthy.”
As her career in athletics wound down, and her interest in wolves intensified, Pflueger found herself honing an attitude about racing that she later realized was very similar to the attitude wolves must have, as they live their lives on the move. In her last years as a competitive skier, she had skied 90-kilometer races and won the World Cup for that distance one year. She had learned to be determined and persistent.
“If you see their tracks and you don’t see the animal, you think they know what they want,” she says. “They write their story—their life, or their attitudes—in the snow.”
She told the animal conservation organization that she had time. They assigned her to a volunteer project following wolf tracks. She lived in a little cabin in Kootenay National Park in British Columbia, in the Canadian Rockies. This was 70 to 80 kilometers from a grocery store. Working in tandem with another wolf tracker, Pflueger began her solo hikes looking for wolf tracks in the winter. She quickly saw that wolves travel up to 80 kilometers in one day. She didn’t go that far herself: she used a car to go from end to end.
It was exhausting, but she realized that she wanted to continue this sort of work. After her career as a performance athlete, she was excited about dedicating herself to a greater good other than just winning a race. This was 2001.
Soon she met a wolf biologist named Chris Darimont. He had started a lengthy project on the Pacific coast of British Columbia in the temperate rainforest. Pflueger became his assistant. The landscape near Bela Bela was exotic to her, so much more lush than Austria, and a place where little snow falls. Her job for Darimont was to go alone into the bush and look for wolves. She had to learn to avoid encounters with bears and other animals. “We were in radio contact,” she says. “You have to deal with the consequences of your actions. That’s what the European way is.
“Slowly, you learn to push limits. It’s not because I know I have to deal with my own consequences that I don’t take any steps or risks—not at all. It’s the other way around. I know when I step on this totally rotten log it will break through and I will fall. It’s no one else’s fault. Every step. You know that if you are not totally tuned in to the sounds and your environment and the smell, you will run into a bear. And you don’t want that.”
On the coast, she camped with others, but later, in the Canadian Rockies, she camped alone in wolf country while guarding a huge cattle herd. In Alberta, some ranchers had problems with wolves, and researchers were trying to show them that there were other ways to scare wolves away from the herd than shooting them. She would sit up at night waiting for a pack of wolves that came after the cattle. She would fire off “bear bangers” or toot the horn on her all-terrain vehicle—anything to make unpredictable noise. Finally, the thin light of the dawn would show her the herd. “I’d hear the first bird songs. I’d say, one more night done.”
Her real fear, she said, was the cougars and bears coming after her as she slept in her sleeping bag. And yet, there was a kind of fear that bothered her more than dealing with wild animals. That was the fear she’d dealt with the night before a big ski or running race. And that kind of fear was specific only to the pressure to win.
“I found it more stressful to have a race the next day and you don’t know about the outcome and you’ve invested so much. That is also a kind of fear,” she said. Less concrete, perhaps, than the time a black bear followed her for ten minutes in the Canadian rainforest. “There, I really was afraid. You have to deal with it: ‘OK, this is not a good situation. Now I want to be in Toronto.’” She radioed to the team she worked with that she was trying to get away from a bear.
“I faced it. I looked at it and I retreated. I talked. I let it hear that my voice is going further and further away. It followed me. If they follow you and smell you they know who you are—not good. Then they are probably on a predatory trip. Then I started singing, loud and long and that was pretty effective.” When a bear follows someone who has already retreated, the most important act is to remain calm. “Let it know that you are not afraid.”
A few months after the scene in the meadow, Pflueger was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She has since undergone an operation and several treatments. Her last scan showed no cancer, and Pflueger has continued to be active, working for a backcountry lodge in British Columbia, where she leads ski and hiking tours.
“I had such aftereffects and side effects—headaches and numbness,” she said. “However, every day that’s good is an additional day. I focus on going forward. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s very, very hard. Sometimes I feel it’s too big for me. I have amazing people around here and an amazing pack. You couldn’t do it by yourself.” That is the kind of knowledge a wolf might rely on.