WHITEFISH - Author Doug Chadwick's main characters are inevitably long in tooth and claw, with great, hairy, formidable reputations, wild and woolly and fiercely independent.

To bring them alive on the page, Chadwick has tracked the world's last untamed reaches, listening for the growl of the grizzly bear, the song of the wolf and the whale, the silence of the snow leopard. He's been to Congo, Siberia and the Great Barrier Reef, has described the vastness of beetles and the tiniest details of elephants.

A biologist by training, a popular science writer by sheer talent, Chadwick has what appears to be a bottomless curiosity, and a profound respect for the wild critters that form the rugged backbone of his work.

"I'm not doing this for any reason except to learn cool stuff," he said. "Because I'll never understand what makes people go; but with an animal, there's at least some chance I can discover why it does what it does."

Like a kid rolling over rocks just to see what's underneath, Chadwick has rambled the four corners to uncover wonders for National Geographic magazine and for a growing collection of books, the latest of which is titled "The Wolverine Way."

"The wolverine," wrote Ernest Thompson Seton, "is a tremendous character ... a personality of unmeasured force, courage and achievement, but so enveloped in mists of legend, superstition, idolatry, fear and hatred that one scarcely knows how to begin or what to accept as fact."

In other words, a perfect companion for Chadwick, who's a bit "wolveriney" himself.

He probably wouldn't like that comparison very much, considering his self-deprecating ways. In his writing as elsewhere, Chadwick is master at getting out of the way of the story so his characters can shine through.

But he also admits to the appeal of a wild life, what he calls "a simple life, where all you have to do, really, is stay upright on the trail and keep going" - not at all unlike a wolverine.

Chadwick, like the wolverine, prefers Glacier National Park's high mountain wilds - "uncompromisingly harsh but less troubled, physically riskier yet somehow more reassuring and far more free, this was a world that wouldn't lie to you."

***

For the past many years, Chadwick stayed upright on Glacier's trails as a volunteer for a groundbreaking wolverine study. Coordinated by researcher Jeff Copeland, driven by biologist Rick Yates, the ambitious study headed straight into the bright white heart of winter, into terra incognita, with a plan to fill in blank spaces on the biological map.

With beaver bait and log-cabin traps, with radio collars and GPS implants, they hoped to part those mists of legend and superstition to reveal what facts they could.

"We were hunter-scavengers of new information," Chadwick wrote. "Somebody had to get busy scouring big swaths of corrugated terrain the wolverine way, scrabbling across cliff faces, squirming under overhanging ledges, and probing fresh sign to see where it might lead."

Where it led, finally, was into terrain not just uncharted but also unimagined, a wolverine world mapped by scent where Chadwick met the very definition of wilderness, contained in a 30-pound ball of muscle, teeth and attitude.

Forget the solitary wolverine of legend. These animals appear to be downright social, with mates traveling together far beyond the breeding season - apparently for the sheer pleasure of the company.

And that dominant male - Thompson Seton had called him "the little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage" - well, there he was traveling an endless circuit, den to den, visiting and perhaps delivering food to his harem. Later, he traveled miles with his juvenile offspring - not just unknown, and unimagined, but unheard of among mammals.

The data showed wolverines scaling sheer cliffs, making bold winter ascents of Glacier's highest peaks, running the country as if vertical didn't exist.

"At any given hour on any day," Chadwick wrote, "a set of ordinary radio signals could suddenly reveal a side to the animals almost nobody had ever suspected."

What at first seemed to be an anomaly - a male, for instance, traveling with his grown youngsters - turned out to be common, not an oddity at all.

"What seemed odd," Chadwick wrote, "was that in the 21st century we understood so remarkably little about one of the most intriguing creatures to ever walk the wild."

***

Wolverines are tireless and tenacious, wired with an Ice Age metabolism that allows them to travel staggering distances across unbelievably rugged terrain in blizzard conditions, day after day after day. Data showed them roaming territories that extended hundreds of square miles, eating miles the way they were rumored to eat everything else.

And yet, as a species, wolverines are a delicate bunch, running the knife-edged ridge of existence, increasingly cornered by roads and traps and guns and subdivisions and, most of all, by a warming climate.

Glacier's glaciers are melting, and its snowfields, too. That's a bad sign for an animal that likes to den where winter's weight falls early and lasts long.

"The Wolverine Way" introduces the science and the scientists, and takes readers on the tremendous adventure that is life, human and otherwise, and what it proves finally is how all these narratives are tangled together. We affect the wolverine, and the wolverine affects us, and the world is more interesting with these little Tasmanian devils for neighbors.

"If wolverines have a strategy, it's this," Chadwick wrote. "Go hard, and high, and steep, and never back down, not even from the biggest grizzly, and least of all from a mountain. Climb everything: trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes, summits. Eat everybody: alive, dead, long-dead, moose, mouse, fox, frog, its still-warm heart or frozen bones."

An inspiration, of sorts, for a middle-aged biologist-turned-writer who's only now realizing he has more years behind him than before him - and so who's thinking more about what he'll leave than what he can take.

"I will never really know what it's like to be one of these hunter-scavengers," Chadwick wrote. "On my best day, I could never even keep up with any for long. I feel humbled when I'm in the mountains, and I think that's as it should be."

***

"The Wolverine Way" is packed with facts, of course, and also with laugh-out-loud humor and grace and awe, too.

But it's also a call to action; California's wolverines are gone, as are Colorado's. In fact, for wolverines in the Lower 48, Montana and Glacier Park are pretty much it. The animals have twice been considered for Endangered Species Act protections, and twice refused because not enough was known. Now, thanks to Copeland and Yates and the others who collaborated on the Glacier project, the map is filling in.

They need room to roam, and quiet winter-bound peaks, and wild corridors from habitat to habitat, so populations can mingle a bit and exchange genetics. They need security from trappers and poisons, and a place to raise their kits.

And we need to provide all that, Chadwick said, because "within every person's soul lie provinces that refuse to be governed and for freedom's sake ought never to be."

Deep down, he said, everyone wants to be a little bit wolverine.

"Coming to know the wolverines opened up a whole new dimension of wildness," Chadwick said. "We've been living alongside it, ‘managing' it, without the slightest understanding of what it is. We didn't know, until we got radios on these guys, that they were superheroes, that they can cover ground like no other animal on the continent, that they can out-climb a mountain goat and stand down a grizzly bear. Everything we learned was a jaw-dropper."

Chadwick pauses, then begins winding tales about wolverines and people until you're not sure which species he's talking about, and perhaps it doesn't matter, as we both need much the same room to roam.

"There's more to this animal, as always, than we ever imagined."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com.

 

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