Equipped with the normal complement of outdoors gear, you are snowshoeing across a frozen river when the ice gives way. Plunged into frigid water, you claw desperately at the intact ice but succeed "only in breaking off a piece . . . the size of a card table." The current is sucking you under, and your feet are going numb. What do you do?
Roger Peters remained calm enough to make some elementary connections. He had a knife in his pocket. He managed to extricate it, open the blade with his teeth, and stab it into the ice like a pick. "Miraculously," he writes, "it held. With both hands on the knife I was able to pull the upper half of my body onto the ice. By repeatedly lifting the knife out and driving it back into the ice an inch or two farther away, I pulled myself until I lay across the . . . ice." Once out of the water, he slithered his icy way to shore.
The above is a typical passage from "Dance of the Wolves," Peters' account of his two years studying the animals in northern Minnesota. Typical, that is, of his low-key but highly lucid way with words. (The fall into the river, of course, was a one-shot occurrence that one would hardly wish Peters to have replicated.)
A professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and a practitioner of ethology -- the science of animal behavior -- Peters set out to test the hypothesis that wolves form mental maps of the terrain they cross much as alert humans do. Unrevolutionary as this proposition may sound, almost no work had been done to support or undermine it. Accordingly, Tom Hunt (a pseudonym for the director of the long-running wolf project with which Peters became affiliated) gave Peters a remarkably free hand for a grad student.
Peters tagged wolves, outfitted them with radio transmitters, rigged Skinner boxes to test their ability to differentiate one wolf's scent from another's, extracted scented fluid from their anal sacs, and roughhoused regularly with Hunt's captive pair. He also guided bush pilots on flights to hone in on broadcasting wolves.
Along the way he picked up some enthralling wolf lore. Listening to a zoo wolf's howl -- "It was like a Schoenberg concerto with cadenzas by Coltrane" -- he reflects on the typical follow-up to a howling session, "a 15-minute refractory period during which nothing in the world can get them to howl again. Some speculate that the function of the refractory period is to allow all the packs in an area to hear each other. By remaining silent after a howl and listening for replies, a pack can learn where other packs in the vicinity are." Such awareness, in turn, helps minimize interpack conflicts among these highly territorial animals.
Peters plainly fell in love with wolf-kind. He cheerfully suffered the indignities of being knocked down and fouled by them. He returned howl for howl like a backup singer. He watched wolves tirelessly. In one marvelous passage, he tells of sending his pilot around and around an old wolf and its pup. The pup's "head twisted as far to the left as it would go, then snapped around to the right. After a few more orbits the pup began to pace in circles in an attempt to keep us in sight. This tactic was soon abandoned for a better one: By lying on its back, the pup could swivel its head through a full 360 degrees. It was still watching when we flew off . . . "
Indeed, Peters is a champion observer across the board. One night he gazes into a lake so smooth he can make out the constellations on its surface. He notes how Hunt regards "unradioed packs in his study area with something akin to lust." An aspiring writer endowed with such keen faculties of observation already has half of his first-book battle won.
In the end Peters seems to have made a good case for his hypothesis. For all their olfactory acuteness, wolves do appear to register landmarks visually. In fact, their scent-marking (depositing their urine as an aide-me'moire) may only underscore the visual signposts they have already "noted."
All I would ask of Peters next time is a little more. "Dance of the Wolves" has a vagueness about the edges, a disquieting lack of context. The author withholds the project's exact whereabouts, cloaks his colleagues with pseudonyms, and calls his book "fictionalized." I take it from scattered hints and incidents that wolf researchers are pariahs to local farmers and deer hunters, that all this furtiveness is intended to protect Hunt and his work from outside interference. I wish Peters had made that point unequivocally: unsure of it, his reader experiences disorientation to a degree that his wolves never do.