The salmon-eating wolves of Alaska: Tongass film shoot captures, for the first time on video, wolves catching salmon at night

A wolf caught on a game camera in the Tongass National Forest. Photo courtesy of Bjorn Dihle

by Mary Catharine Martin

It was past midnight one night in August, 2018 that the film crew and their Alaskan guides, out shooting for a Netflix documentary series called “Night on Earth,” found themselves sitting in the dark, surrounded by wolves. 

They were next to a salmon stream in the Tongass National Forest, wearing night vision goggles and filming with thermal imaging cameras, attempting to capture something that hadn’t yet been previously captured on film: wolves catching salmon at night.

Back in Juneau, I was waiting to hear from them, because this is a personal story, too: the lead guide, Bjorn Dihle, is my partner. He’d been excited to scout out locations for wolves, but was also measured in his optimism about their chance of success. No matter how hungry a wolf is for a salmon, they’re generally exceptionally wary of humans.

Dan Kirkwood is the manager at Pack Creek Bear Tours, where Bjorn works. When Dan first got the call inquiring about the possibility of a night shoot, he was hiking down from a Southeast Alaska mountain, checking a camera trap he’d set up for wolves. At first he thought, “This is impossible. The odds are just insanely long.” 

But they agreed to try, and Bjorn headed down early to scout the area they’d chosen.

“I didn’t know where or if I would find the right spot, so I scouted the majority of the watershed as far as the salmon were spawning,” Bjorn told me. “Because it was also on a stream with brown bears, I was looking for an area that was relatively open, so that we could mitigate bear encounters by having some time to communicate with them.”

Eventually, he came across a spot that seemed pretty promising: he not only saw a wolf there, he saw wolf tracks, wolf scat, wolf beds, and 50 or 60 salmon with their heads removed. (Wolves are more sensitive than bears to parasites that can live in the rest of the salmon.)

All of that was no guarantee, however, that the wolves would emerge when the team of three was there.

When dark fell, the alpha male and the alpha female showed themselves at dusk about 100 yards away. When they saw the three men, the wolves retreated.

“And then as soon as it got dark, the wolves came out and felt comfortable coming within 10, 15 yards of us because they believed we couldn’t see them,” Bjorn said. “Without the goggles, you would have said ‘Oh, there was a bird there.’ They’re so quiet — you wouldn’t have known.”

“You can see the animals like they’re lit up with the night goggles, because they’re just glowing against nothing,” Dan said. “Without them, you can’t see anything. The trickle of the stream, the finning of the fish as they’re swimming upstream, and pretty constant wolf howling all night… it was very surreal, because I was seeing it through a screen the whole time, with the exception of the wolves that came out at dusk and in the morning.”

The next morning, as they were hiking out, a small female wolf trailed them.

“She kind of turned the tables on us,” Bjorn said. “When we finally stopped and realized she was trailing us at literally 20 yards, she just hung out for several minutes. Even lay down.”

“I was really surprised at how some of the wolves decided to really not be too bothered by us,” Dan said.

As a guide, Bjorn pointed to the growing importance of experiences like this, and films like this, to Alaska’s economy. Bears also feature in the filming.

“Wildlife and wild places are going to be a way bigger resource in the future as the world becomes more industrialized, and I think we need to have way more of an emphasis on preserving these wild places,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that Southeast Alaska only has a couple of bear-viewing places. That’s why people come here. It’s huge, whether it’s hunting, fishing, wildlife films or just tourism.”

Salmon, he said, were also central to the shoot.

“The only reason why we were able to get the footage we were and be safe around bears is because we had such a good salmon run,” Bjorn said. “It’s all about salmon.”

Mary Catharine Martin is the communications director of SalmonState, a nonprofit initiative that works to ensure Alaska remains a place wild salmon thrive.

How to watch

“Night on Earth” is streaming on Netflix. This shoot is part of the last episode in the series, at minute 35.