Meet Ontario’s very own wolf man

Gordon Harrison has been photographing wolves for more than a quarter-century. TVO.org speaks with the retired teacher about what draws him to the animals — and why they need our help
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Feb 20, 2020
Big Red has been a frequent visitor at Gordon Harrison’s Minden property. (Courtesy of Gordon Harrison)

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For more than 25 years, Gordon Harrison fastened trail cameras to trees on his Minden property. The retired high-school teacher found that his remote cottage — his nearest neighbour is a kilometre away — was the perfect place for him to do what he loved: monitor Algonquin wolves.

Harrison, 83, used a heat- and motion-activated digital camera to photograph wolves and other elusive animals in their natural habitat. (Some of his footage was used in a 2017 TVO short documentary about the challenges facing Algonquin wolves.) His book, Wolves: Ryders in the Whirlwind, published last year, combines his own anecdotes with lessons from thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Jacob Bronowski, and Stephen Jay Gould. In it, Harrison imagines what daily life is like for one of the wolves — Big Red — that frequents his property.

“We’re not friends,” he says of the relationship between humans and wolves. “But we’re not enemies.”

According to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, the Algonquin wolf is “a result of a long history of hybridization among Eastern Wolf, Grey Wolf, and Coyote.” Harrison believes that the government needs to do a better job of protecting the species, which is listed as threatened in Ontario — meaning it’s on its way to the endangered list if current trends continue.

Having captured an estimated 500,000 images on his cameras over the years, Harrison is gradually retiring from his retirement activity. He says that he’s now going to spend more time at his home in Peterborough reading and dreaming about wolves — and that he will have plenty of time sort his photos “if and when” he heads off to a retirement home. He spoke with TVO.org about Big Red, trail cameras, and howling at the moon. 

TVO.org: What’s your first wolf memory?

Gordon Harrison: My uncle owned the property that I eventually bought, and it’s where I was raised. He helped raise me, since my dad had run off in a drunken stupor. My uncle was going back to bring the cows in one night on what we call the “back forty.” He had a small .22 sawed-off gun, and he shot at one, then came back to tell us the story. I don’t think he hit it, but he was always telling us stories about wolves — we didn’t call them Algonquin wolves then. I would say I was five or six years old. It captured my imagination.

Not long after that, I was out with family members picking berries — these small raspberries, good for chipmunks, but not enough to feed people — and when my cousin and I got tired of that, we ran off to explore a spring at the bottom of a hill. We were catching frogs, or thought we were, and wolves came through. Three of them. Why they didn’t see us, or smell us, I don’t know. They took a drink and kept on walking. Then we had a story to tell my uncle which was even better than his. 

What’s the relationship between humans and wolves?

Historically, top predators hate each other. Humans eliminated all grey wolves in the lower 48 states of the United States until they were reintroduced in 1995 with some wolves from Jasper National Park into Yellowstone. So, we basically kill them. That’s the relationship.

However, a lot of younger people, who are more environmentally conscious, wouldn’t think of that. And wolves are, of course, protected now in Algonquin Park. That began in 1965. Before that, the park rangers killed them. So times are changing. Whether it’s too late for them to survive, I don’t know. 

Ontario’s Algonquin wolf population is estimated to be about 500. So how rare is a wolf sighting in Algonquin Park these days?

People go to Algonquin Park for camping and canoeing for 10, 20, 30 years, and they never see a wolf. They're phenomenally rare. So the chances of seeing one are almost nil, which is why they do the wolf howls along Highway 60.

What’s that?

Park rangers, and those who can do the wolf howls, they take people out to places they think there will be wolves, and they stand along the edge of a highway and howl. And wolves — who are possessive of their territory — the males will howl back. If you’re lucky.

And they still do them. I think last year, not a single wolf responded. [Editor’s note: In fact, there hasn’t been a “successful” wolf howl since August 2013.]

When did you start installing trail cameras?

Before they were digital, so that’s at least 25 years ago. I remember my girlfriend said after the first couple of weeks, “Aren’t you tired of this yet?”

At that time, you could put in a roll of 24 or 36, and, generally, you got back nonsense because anything could trigger it — a hummingbird, a mouse, a stray leaf. But once I got a good, digital camera and put one in my driveway — that first night I had 186 worthwhile shots. Bears, turkeys, fishers, and deer. 

When was the first time you photographed a wolf?

It was actually with the film camera. I got a picture of four of them in the field beside my house. Two of them you could see distinctly and the other two, all you could see were a pair of eyes in the distance. As much as I played with it in Photoshop, I couldn't get it much better. It’s pretty exciting stuff. It's like opening a Christmas present. You never know what you're going to get.

There's one wolf that you focus on in your book. What do you know about him?

That's Big Red. A magnificent animal. I've been photographing him for years. And he's still around — at least, I think he is. Wolves live about seven years in the wild. I haven't seen Big Red this year, but I don't have any cameras up. The farm has become too isolated for me in my age. I'm convinced Big Red is still around, but you can't be sure. It's rough out there. I couldn't spend two nights in the wilderness without perishing. But if anyone can, it’s Big Red.

What do you want Ontarians to know about wolves?

How vulnerable they are. It looks like they are the masters of their domain, but not really. They’re open to disease, heartworm, ticks, mange, starvation, fighting with other packs: it’s terrible out there. If an animal doesn't look beautiful — whether it's a fox, a woodchuck, a squirrel, a bear, or a wolf — they’re ill. They all look wonderfully primped, like they just stepped out of a hairdresser, because they spend a lot of time keeping themselves in prime shape. Only the strongest survive; that’s just Darwinian.

I would also want them to know that wolves are another nation. We share the Earth with them. We need to leave them some space to live out their lives. They’re sentient beings. They have feelings. They have family ties. They feel love, they feel hunger, they feel fear — just like us. I didn’t say that first: Charles Darwin did. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.


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