Helen and Bill Thayer set out for a year in the Arctic Circle to study the gray wolf on April 1, 1994.

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 6/30/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9850
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On April 1, 1994, Snohomish County residents Helen Thayer (b. 1937) and her husband Bill Thayer (b. 1926) set out for a year in the Arctic Circle, where they plan to study the behavior of arctic gray wolves. Tagging along with them is their husky mix, Charlie, whose great-great-grandfather was a wild arctic gray wolf. The Thayers observe food-sharing behaviors among various species of the arctic, and  Helen Thayer will turn their experiences into a memoir of the adventure, Three Among the Wolves.

Living with Wolves

The Thayers' plan to study wolf habitat had two parts; during the summer, they would live near a wolf den and attempt to study food-sharing habits among wolves and other land-based animals like ravens and grizzlies. In the winter, they would travel to the cold-weather ground of the wolves along the frozen shore and observe similar behavior among polar bears and foxes.

The Thayers found a den just across the line of the Arctic Circle. (Fearing poachers or environmental disruption, they have not revealed the exact location of the wolves' summer home.)

Charlie proved to be a remarkable go-between from his pack of humans to their neighboring wolves. Showing submission by laying down paws forward and avoiding eye contact, the seven wolves in the pack allowed the Thayers to camp 100 feet from the entrance of their den.

The Thayers witnessed the ordinary lives of wolves; their playful games included tug-of-war and chase. The humans were also witness to new additions to the wolves'  family as two new pups were born. Signaling the growing ease the wolves felt with the Thayers presence, the wolves brought the pups out of the den within weeks of birth.

But they also were present for some of the more difficult lessons that the older wolves passed on. Aerial poachers were a threat, and just as the Thayers learned to monitor the air for low-flying planes, they saw the wolves showing their pups how to listen and watch the sky for danger.

The Thayers witnessed the wolves and Charlie embark on a neighborly relationship. When one of the pups would cross into Charlie's territory to play, the dog would gently lead it back to the line of wolf territory, where one of the wolves would "pick up" their wayward charge. Also, after a hunt, the wolves would leave an offering of meat to Charlie.

In the winter, the Thayers skied north, observing that polar bears seemed to hunt for seals, eating mostly fat, and leaving the rest for wolves and foxes that ate the meat. This kind of food-sharing mimicked what they saw in the summer months as they wolves made a caribou kill, and later shared the carcass with grizzlies and ravens.

Helen Thayer wrote of their experiences in 2004, in the book Three Among the Wolves. 

These experiences helped form the basis for parts of Thayer's Adventure Classroom program, a nonprofit organization formed to educate young people via the Thayers' travel experiences. "We talk about 'enduring cultures,' and one of those cultures are the wild animals. They are a culture. And we have to get along with them," Thayer says of some of the lessons she learned from her year with the wolves (Kershner interview).

Sources: Helen Thayer, Polar Dream (Troutdale, Oregon: NewSage Press, 2002); Helen Thayer, Three Among The Wolves (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2004); Helen Thayer, Walking the Gobi (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2007); Kate Kershner interview with Helen Thayer, May 29, 2011, Seattle, audio file in possession of Kate Kershner, Seattle; Sherry Stripling, "North Stars," The Seattle Times, January 19, 1989 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/).; Rebekah Denn, "Leg Injury Cuts Short Trek to South Pole," The Seattle Times, November 27, 1997 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Diane Wright, "Marriage Has Been an Adventure," The Seattle Times, June 23, 2004 (seattletimes.com); Sherry Stripling, "Honey, Let's Go For A Walk," The Seattle Times, October 10, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); David Brown, "At the Wolf's Door; With a Dog To Break The Ice, A Couple Moves in Next to Some Really Wild Neighbors," The Washington Post, December 23, 2004, p. C-1; KSER radio interview with Helen Thayer, October 10, 2001, KSER website accessed June 17, 2011 (http://kser.org/); Helen Thayer website accessed June 18, 2011 (http://www.helenthayer.com/).

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