Anyone who learned French in school is familiar with it — the difficulty of forming an expression with actual meaning, and not just sounding like a waiter with a head cold.
The bumbling attempts to hold a conversation with a native speaker without bringing a look of incredulous mirth to the other person’s face.
The other day, I got to practise my less than rudimentary skills in a foreign language while out with the dogs.
We set out on a walk to a favourite viewpoint.
The dogs were bounding ahead, burrowing their noses into fresh marten and hare tracks in the manner of a person taking snuff, including the tiny sneeze once the nose comes back up.
Old Leshi backed up with a bug-eyed look of disgust when one of the other dogs attended to the call of nature right on the trail.
Squeezing by her and smelly obstacle, a high-pitched whine seemed to catch my ear. Lifting the ear flaps on my toque and whistling for the dogs to stop in their tracks, I strained to hear.
Silence. Then, softly, a low wail began to waft over to us, and the chorus rose into a wavering pitch as more wolves joined in.
The dogs looked at me for re-assurance since the voices of their wild cousins always fill them with unease. Only almost-deaf Leshi heard nothing and was still pre-occupied with the roadblock in front of her.
Cursing the crunch of my boots in the snow, I started walking again, accompanied by the songs from somewhere across the creek.
Wolf howls appear to be an understudied aspect of their behaviour, as far as I can tell from books and the internet.
The information seems slim and general, sorting the different howls into only a few broad categories.
Apparently there is the “lonesome” call when trying to locate the other pack members, a “warning away” of strangers howl, the chorus of the pack before taking some sort of action, as well as aggression and distress sounds.
I am convinced that their communication is more refined than that, after all, even our lowly dogs differentiate with the sound of their barks between announcing a moose, person, black bear or grizzly.
Farley Mowat’s books may well be a creative blend of fact and fiction, but whenever I hear the wolves I can’t help and wonder if a certain story is not the complete truth: where an Inuit interprets the distant howl of a wolf as announcing the arrival of other Inuit with a dog team.
Pondering these mysteries, we climb up the hill and scan the other side of the valley for the wolf pack.
But other than their intermittent singing, there is no sign of them.
Howling back always seems kind of pointless because neither do I know what they are saying, nor do I have an idea of what I might be expressing to them.
After hesitating some more, I decide to just give it a try and throw back my head in what I hope is a close imitation of the wolves’ choir.
The dogs excitedly join in with half-barks and half-howls, apparently I’m finally living up to my alpha status by letting those wild rascals know that we’re a bunch to be reckoned with.
Even Leshi clues in and purses her lips to let out a short soprano note. Waiting for a response of the wolves, I hear nothing. After a while, I try another howl and am again greeted with silence. Maybe I said something insulting, or the dogs did?
Feeling thwarted in my attempts at communicating with the wild neighbours again, I tell the dogs we’re heading home. Too bad, now I scared the wolves away.
After 15 minutes of disappointedly trotting through the snow, I give it one last try and let rip a soulful wail. This is almost immediately answered by very loud howls all around us! Oh. I guess I called them in.
The dogs hop around crazily while I slip off my backpack and hastily pull out the leashes and collars, hissing at the dogs to sit and stay. I’d love to see the wolves, but not at the cost of having a dog become their dinner.
Once the dogs are under control, I wait for more sounds from the wolves, but hear nothing, so I usher the dogs to continue back to the cabin. Silence accompanies us.
Lacking a wolf dictionary or audio course, I can only guess at what I might have said to them.
It reminded me of my high school days when one time, by sheer luck, I managed to bring off a convoluted flawless French sentence, much to the surprise of not only the teacher but myself.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.