Walking the Wolverine Dream

Just outside of the town of Kharkhorin, Mongolia, the dun steppe begins to rise in a series of rolling golden hills capped by ovoos, shrines to the Owners of the mountains. The hills rise further into forested slopes to the west, and then further still into ice and snow-covered rock, the entire length forming Mongolia’s central mountain range, the Khangai Nuruu. The range reaches its zenith at Otgontenger, one of the most sacred mountains in Mongolia, whose name – roughly translated – suggests “The Younger Sky.” (Or “The Sky’s Hearth,” depending on how far back you follow the Turkic roots of the language.) Otgontenger was the axis mundi for almost all of the proto-Mongol empires, which clustered their capitals around or near Kharkhorin, the gateway to the rich pastures of the Khangai and to the myriad rivers that lead, eventually, back to the snows and glaciers of the great mountain. Chingis Khan himself chose Kharkhorin – known as Karakorum to the 13th century world – as his capital, and although he always lived in his ger, his descendants built palaces and temples and, for a brief century, turned the city at the edge of the Khangai into the center of the known world.

As the empire fragmented, Karakorum collapsed back into the steppe. Today, a single monastery remains, along with four stone turtles that once guarded the gates of the city. This now-unassuming town was my home for two years when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I spent every spare moment of the spring, summer, and early fall – before it got so cold that I was blinded by my eyelashes freezing together, which usually happened in November – wandering through the mountains. I daydreamed of walking all the way from Kharkhorin to Otgontenger on a vast pilgrimage in search of snow leopards and birds and wolves. The furthest I ever got was about 50 miles out, a week’s trek with my dog.

The Orhon River as it emerges from the foothills of the Khangai, near Kharkhorin, Mongolia.

Last July, my colleague Lydia Dixon and I walked from Kharkhorin up the first valley of the range. The valley is just a nick in the earth, but if you follow it far enough – as I did countless times when I was living in Kharkhorin – it will eventually lead you up onto a high ridge from which the first forested waves of the range spread out like a green sea. At one time, a small Buddhist temple sat against the southern wall of the valley, but it was destroyed in the Communist purges of the monasteries in the 1930s. Today, the shrines are all shamanic – two large ovoos on the hillsides above, dozens of smaller ovoos, and a spring surrounded by a rock wall adorned with blue khatag scarves. The valley also marks the eastern edge of the Khangai Nuruu National Park, a much-ignored entity that encompasses the entire swath of mountains across a straight-line distance of about 300 miles. Conservationists and climbers are more enamored of the bigger ranges to the north and west – the Altai, the Sayan, the Khoridol Sardag, and the Khentii, where Chingis Khan is supposedly buried. And the UN is more enthralled with the recently-designated Orhon Valley World Heritage Site, which honors the cultures and empires that flourished in the region. But the Khangai Nuruu Park is likely to be important to any widely-dispersing alpine species; it is the central connection zone among all of Mongolia’s mountain ranges, and it deserves more attention than it gets.

As a volunteer, I’d taught ecology and English in the schools, and spent my summers surveying for snow leopards and their prey species in the Altai and the Horidol Sardag, towering ranges that commanded awe and respect. But the Khangai owned my heart, perhaps simply through familiarity. My students and I formed an ecology club and conducted bird surveys for the park, and when school wasn’t in session I took off for days at a time, sometimes following the Orhon River beneath the mountains, sometimes back into the mountains themselves. Hunters left offerings at the big ovoo outside town, mostly deer skulls, the occasional ibex, a full lynx pelt, and once, the skin from the head of a snow leopard. I always hoped to see some of these species, alive, during my hikes. My dog and I saw wolves once, but never anything more. My friends scolded me for my long walks, telling me that I would be eaten by a wolf, attacked by a camel in rut and, when those warnings failed, cautioning me that the Khangai was home to even stranger things than wolves and camels, that almas – yetis – had been known to kidnap human women.

Ovoo, at which offerings are left for the Owners of the mountains. Ten years ago, these included pelts of endangered wildlife. Today, with the intervention of the town shaman and the Buddhist lams from Erdene Zuu monastery, offerings consist mostly of tea and incense.

A Mongolian dog is good protection against marauding yetis. Georgia, companion of many Khangai treks, and Degiimaa, close friend, in Kharkhorin, 2009.

The Khangai was also home to creatures almost as legendary as yetis, with feet almost as big, although I was barely aware of them at the time. When I left Mongolia, my friends gave me several gifts – a bright blue silk hat adorned with fake pearls, a Buddhist thangka stitched in silk thread, a hat trimmed in lynx fur, and the pelt of an animal. The friend who gave me the pelt said, “It’s because you like wildlife. I don’t know the English name of this animal, but it lives up in the mountains.” In my memory, the pelt was thick-furred, brown and a paler golden, the head and feet gone. I turned it over and over in my hands, my fingers sinking into the luxuriant fur. I had no idea what it was. We had been lectured about the problem of tourists taking wildlife products out of the country. I didn’t know what the animal was and I didn’t want to get stopped with a CITES species in my backpack. I left the pelt in Ulaanbaatar.

Four years later, I was driving through Sunlight Basin, Wyoming, with Jason Wilmot, who I had just met the day before. He and his wife and daughter were staying in a cabin in Sunlight for the winter, running wolverine live-traps for the Absaroka-Beartooth Project. I’d come out from New England to talk to him about my master’s research, which was about wolves, but since running wolverine field research is a full-time job, we were discussing the finer points of wolf conservation conflict while en route to rebait the traps. The talk turned to wolverines, and when I asked where they lived, he listed their range countries, and then mentioned that there was a weird, unstudied population in Mongolia, that he and his wife wanted to go there, but that it was hard to get access to a country like Mongolia. Like an avalanche, the memory of that pelt washed over me, the texture of it against my hands, the deep brown and the gold. “You aren’t going to believe this,” I said, “But I lived in Mongolia for two years. I think I may know where some wolverines are, actually.” I had finally identified the pelt.

On Jeff Copeland’s snow map, the Khangai contain scattered denning habitat, most of it in the high mountains to the west, although the entire range is within the temperature model. There are at least five big swaths of the mountains inhabited by ibex and argali populations, and until a recent spasm of overhunting, marmots were abundant across the range, offering plenty of food sources. A cousin of a close friend of mine shot a wolverine near Kharkhorin in 2008, and last year I saw photos of another wolverine that had been killed about 75 miles to the northwest in 2010. Both of these animals were male. They might have come south from Khentii or the Sayan, or even east from the Altai, but the herders in the region know far too much about the species – its gait, its tracks, its diet, its denning habits – for the animals to be passing vagrants. Somewhere in the Khangai, a breeding population of wolverines is probably turning out kits. I dusted off my old dreams of walking west to Otgontenger and revised them: instead of snow leopards, I would go in search of wolverines.

Last July, as Lydia and I walked up the valley outside Kharkhorin, we joked about how great it would be if we stumbled upon a wolverine and a wolf, the latter her species of interest. We rounded a bend and a new shrine came into view, a pole surrounded by a ring of stone and topped by a horse tail standard. Just in front of the shrine, a new sign had been erected; it read, “The Khangai are home to ferocious spirits. If you come into this place with bad intentions or a black spirit, be warned.” I knew that the town shaman had put these things in place; he was an old friend from Peace Corps days and was committed to protecting the natural resources of the region. I smiled at the sign, and then looked towards the standard, and grew light-headed. Tied around the middle of the pole was a pelt, brown and light gold, flecks of white across the chest, oversized feet dangling, desiccated nose pointed at the sky. The shaman had chosen to evoke the guardians of the Khangai through the ferocity of the wolverine.

I don’t necessarily believe in fate, but I do sometimes believe in coincidence, in the older sense of the word – that events coincide with some form of coherence, if you pay attention. Multiple times, it seems, the Khangai and wolverines have coincided for me. The wolverine at the gate of the mountains prompted me to try to fulfill that old dream of walking west. I wrote two grant applications, and both were funded by the American Alpine Club, the organization probably best suited to appreciate the overlapping needs of wolverines and humans whose aspirations involve being out in the mountains. This summer, a friend and I will head out into the high country to interview herders, take pelt samples for DNA if possible, and perhaps find tracks or other sign. Along the way, we’ll also conduct occupancy and behavior surveys for pikas, record marmot sightings, and look for snow leopard sign. We’ll be on the trail for at least a month, covering a distance of about 300 miles. I’m excited, and a little intimidated, and above all grateful for the amazing opportunity to not only make a contribution to wildlife research, but to fulfill such an old and cherished ambition. So huge thanks to the American Alpine Club for their support and enthusiasm for wolverine research and for mountain ecosystems all over the world.

Shrine with horsetail standard and wolverine pelt, Khangai Mountains, Mongolia, 2011. Photo by Lydia Dixon.

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7 thoughts on “Walking the Wolverine Dream

  1. Wow! I’m excited to be able to follow your adventures on your blog, Rebecca. What happens to the dog when your are not there
    I’m heading for my China maps to get the big picture in Mongolia. I recognize Karakorum.
    Enjoyed talking with you last week in Florida. I will follow your blog It’s great. . Beautiful pictures, too.
    Love, Nancy

    • Thanks, Nancy. It was great to see you too, to hear about your adventures, and to realize again how fortunate I’ve been to have so many outstanding, adventurous women around me since childhood. Looking forward to hearing about Brazil and further travels on your part 🙂

    • Oh, and Georgia the dog stays with my friends. I was going to bring her back to the US when I left, but it would have been really hard for her to go from carefree Mongolian dog life to suburban Massachusetts. It was pretty hard to leave her but my friends (the lady in the picture and her family) have been amazing. For a 12 year old Mongolian dog, she’s doing really well.

  2. Amazing post. I appreciate so much your writing all this down and posting it in the public like this. Also much appreciated is the photo of the ovoo and the wolverine! I hope that some day I’ll have the opportunity to publish a photo of the ovoo I visit and the mine behind it, but it isn’t right yet I feel.

    • Thanks. I went back and forth about the photos and some of the written content, but in the end it seemed like a respectful way to acknowledge an important relationship with place and landscape. Definitely had the most concerns about the pic of pelt tied to the standard, but it’s meant to broadcast a particular message about the mountains, so why not broadcast that message more widely?

      After the past few months of dealing with people’s shenanigans around “Animism,” I also had a strong impulse to write about the topic in a way that doesn’t mysticize it, that just deals with it as the everyday reality that it is, that acknowledges the cultural context without making it into some twisted, weird feminist post-modern critical theory “I-know-things-through-my-body-because-I’m-a-woman-and-the-Enlightenment-sucks” BS. (Yep, I’m annoyed. I’m having a moment. It’ll pass.)

      Thanks again for the feedback!

  3. heh, yeah. I think this is a really good job of giving a sense of both the everydayness and extraordinariness of it all 🙂 And I’m pretty much always having that kind of moment so always glad to have some company…

    • Yeah. It’s always good to keep other anthropologically-trained people around, to prevent oneself from developing a drug habit or some other unhealthy coping mechanism 🙂

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