A bloody battle with Russian wolves
In 2011 a so-called “super pack” of allegedly 400 wolves besieged the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk killing dozens of horses and thousands of reindeer. Many a self-pronounced “wolf expert” have since questioned the very existence of “super packs”, dismissing the phenomenon as a myth, but there is many written historical accounts describing the exact same behavior. We found one of the more dramatic ones written for the New York Clipper by Melville Hoskin and published in January 1870.
By Melville Hoskin – edited by Jens Ulrik Høgh
We arrived at Toola, the Birmingham of Russia, on the morning of the 3rd of January, 1868. Our party composed, including myself, some fifteen jolly sporting young bachelors, who had all clubbed together the better to enjoy the winter’s sports. Being all very desirous of engaging in a stirring wolf hunt, having heard that, the winter being very severe, they had congregated in large numbers in the neighborhood of Toola, we had accordingly a few days before set out from St. Petersburg, and arrived as above-mentioned safe in Toola. Immediately upon our arrival we proceeded to the meat market and bought op a large quantity of refuse matter, rotted carcasses of sheep, pigs, etc., which we obtained for a mere trifle. Loading a sledge with it, we ordered the driver to take and empty it out near the roadside, about twelve miles from the town, in an opening between two fir woods. The fact of our intended excursion becoming known, we were the whole day besieged with applications, begging for permission to accompany us, from many or the wealthy citizens and neighboring gentry. Answering most of them with a courteous invitation to bring their ladies and come and sup with us, we soon had our rooms so crowded that we were obliged to engage the large dining hall of the hotel to accommodate our guests. Many and lasting were the friendships made on this occasion between individuals who would otherwise, most likely, never have crossed each other’s path. Brilliant and vivid were the flashes of wit, and lively the repartees, as the champagne went round and round again, enlivening the hearts and loosening the tongues of both men and women. Repeated toasts were drank to the health of Queen Victoria, the President of the United States, the Emperor of Russia, and to us, the jolly young Englishmen, as they styled us, who had come down and made them all so merry.
After supper we commenced dancing, and were about half through a set of quadrilles when we were interrupted by the entrance of the young man we had placed to watch our bait. He informed us that the wolves were gathering together and had already commenced their supper. So, kissing the girls, and promising them nice, warm wolf skins to make rugs for their feet, we hastily mounted our horses, our party now numbering over forty stout, active men and two daring girls, who, notwithstanding all our persuasions, could not be induced to remain behind, so we rode forth to do or die, each singing as we went
“We won’t go home till morning,
We won’t go home till morning,
We won’t go home till morning,
Till daylight does appear,” etc.
It was a beautiful moonlight night when we started, the wind blowing hard, with a keen, sharp frost. Just a night to enjoy a rapid, ringing gallop. We accordingly set spurs to our horses and rattled along as fast as the slippery nature of the road warranted.
Getting clear of the suburbs we for the first time noticed a heavy bank of black looking clouds resting on the horizon at the same point of the compass as the wind blew from, prognosticating a violent storm before morning. Taking no special heed, however, we rode gaily along the narrow, frozen track, which, there being a great quantity of snow on the ground, was nearly level with the lower branches of the trees.
Many and numerous were the laughable scrapes and predicaments some of our party got into on the road. One young girl named Matilda persisted in riding on the extreme verge of the track, and as may be supposed, the snow on either side being, with the exception of a slight upper crust, extremely soft, her horse slipping, they both rolled over and were literally burled, though not hurt. With a good deal of difficulty we dragged her and her horse out, and scolded her well, at which she only laughed, declaring she had enjoyed it much. Seeing she was incorrigible we left off arguing with her and rode slowly and carefully along until within hair a mile of the plain, when, the howling or our victims being plainly heard, we drew rein and held a council of war, the more prudent advising, on account of the coming storm, to postpone our attack until the next evening; they being, however, greatly in the minority, and the ladies dead against them, their objections were over-ruled and we pushed ahead.
On arriving at the edge of the forest, a spectacle met our gaze, which caused the bravest heart amongst us to tremble. Instead of the fifty or sixty wolves we had expected to meet, the plain, as far as we could see in every direction, was covered with moving, fighting masses of dark forms, snarling and howling over pieces of the bait which they were tearing one from the other. Coming to the conclusion that prudence was the better part of valor, we were just about rearing to the nearest village when mad brained Matilda fired her pistol at the nearest group, wounding one severely, and whose howling brought the rest upon us in a body . Falling back about a hundred yards to the place where some decayed trunks of trees had fallen across the road; we halted and formed in square, behind them, awaiting the onslaught.
We had not long to wait. We had hardly formed into line and loosened our revolvers when we were attacked by about five hundred, open mouthed, howling devils, that rushed at our horses’ throats.
Volley after volley we poured in amongst them, every shot tolling in such a mass and covering the ground with writhing, struggling corpses. But as one fell a fresh one occupied its place, and, although the front rank shrunk back in terror as their companions fell shrieking around them, they were forced on again to renew the charge by those in the rear.
Our horses were trembling in every limb as howl upon howl announced the number and ferocity of our foes. Some of those behind at last thinning away, two Russians seized their flasks and, advancing to our breastwork of trunks, laid a heavy train of powder along it.
Just as the front rank again rushed upon us and placed their paws on the train, one of the men snapped a pistol at it.
There immediately arose a bright flash, illuminating the scene of carnage vividly. None or our number had as yet got hurt. The wolves shrank back, conquered by this novel phenomenon, several of their number severely burnt, which they testified by their groans and howls, until their pains were summarily put an end to by their comrades, who invariably worry to death any of their number who may be disabled , and afterwards make a good meal of them, such is their fierce and cruel nature when hungry.
The trick of the train of powder having driven them off for e while, we slowly decamped, and when, as we thought, well out of their hearing, we spurred ahead and made straight for the village of Carachava , where we had intended to spend the night. We had, however, no sooner left our walking gait, and set off at full speed , than we were instantly pursued by large numbers of the persistent devils. We kept on, however, until we reached the village with only one casualty, that of a German gentleman, whose horse slipped and was pulled down and killed before we could interfere to save his life.
The implacable demons followed us right into the center of the village, where we turned and stood at bay, determined to end the business one way or another. The peasants, awakened by our cries and rapid volleys, as well as by the howling and roaring of the cursed wolves, came out in numbers to our assistance. Organizing our body as well as possible, we all dismounted and prepared for the encounter, armed with pistols, scythes, guns, axes, etc.
On rushed the gaunt, hungry looking imps of darkness, open mouthed, with their bloodstained tongues hanging from between their teeth, yelling like the very deuce. Nobly and bravely did the girls then exert themselves, reloading our guns as fast as we fired them, and the peasants dashed manfully into the middle or the pack, murderously wielding their long scythes, mowing off legs and cutting the wretches in two.
Soon it became evident that the wolves were fleeing in every direction , rending the air with their lamentations, and leaving over two hundred of their number on the field of battle, whereas on our side no one was hurt, with the exception of the German before mentioned, whose skull was found a few days afterwards on the road side completely polished.
Thus ended one of the most exciting wolf hunts it was ever my luck to be engaged in. The peasants declared it was seldom they were bold enough to enter so large a village, but they were doubtless mad from hunger.
We all returned home the next day, bearing our promised wolf skins, for which we extorted many kisses from the cherry lips or our pretty mistresses.
All hunting stories – old as new – should always be taken with a grain of salt. There is simply no way to accurately fact check a story like this almost 150 years after the incident allegedly took place. It may be 100% true, it may be a blatant lie and it may be anything in between. It is however remarkable how similar the many old stories about starving Russian wolves in winter “super packs” are in describing the behavior of the desperate predators. It is also worth noting that the “super pack phenomenon” has also been reported in our time although much more rarely than in the 19th century and earlier – possibly due to a smaller wolf population that is weary of modern firearms? The latest “super pack” incident was reported in January 2011 around the city of Verkhoyansk in Siberia. There is plenty of other historical examples – here is a few:
From an article in the “True Republican” February 10th 1877:
“THE immense forests of Russia are the home of vast numbers of wolves , which are the terror of small traveling parties , especially in winter , when hunger intensifies the ferocity of the savage beasts. Cowardly when alone or in very small packs, they appear to be aware of the advantages of combination, and congregate in great numbers for the pursuit of their prey. Hundreds sometimes swoop down at once upon a sledge party, and it may happen, when a long distance must be traveled before a place of security is reached, that they will succeed in tearing down the horses and overpowering the traveler by sheer force of numbers. Half the pack may be slain and torn in pieces, and devoured by their comrades, and still the survivors will keep up the dreadful chase. They mind killing as little as mosquitoes, and as long as there are enough left to inspire each other with courage they will pursue and attack. The falling of a horse, the breaking of a trace or runner, any accident that causes a moments delay, is fatal to the travelers. No courage , no strength , no weapons , can avail if the horrible beasts get the chance to spring upon their prey and fasten their dreadful fangs in the throat , which part they always aim to attack . Men may sell their lives dearly, and many a wolfish foe may fall a victim to the bullet or the knife, but this only furnishes more food for the survivors, who feast upon their human prey and the bodies of their comrades alike.”
From an article in “Chicago Examiner” April 9th 1911:
“VIENNA, April 8.—A terrible story of the fate of a wedding party attacked by wolves in Asiatic Russia is narrated by Die Zeit. The exceptionally severe weather has been the cause of many minor tragedies in which the wolves have played a part, but perhaps none has ever been known so terrible as that now reported, since in this instance no fewer than 118 persons are said to have perished. A wedding- party numbering 120 persons set out in thirty sledges to drive twenty miles from the village of Obstipoff to Tashkent. The ground was thickly covered with snow, and the progress was necessarily delayed, but the greater part of the journey was accomplished in safety. At a distance of a few miles from Tashkent, the horses suddenly became restive, and the speculation of the travelers changed to horror when they discerned a black cloud moving rapidly toward them across the snowfield. Its nearer approach showed it to be composed of hundreds of wolves, yelping furiously, and evidently frantic with hunger, and within a few seconds the hindmost sledges were surrounded. Panic seized the party, and those in the van whipped, up their horses and made desperate attempts to escape, regardless of their companions, but the terrified horses seemed almost incapable of movement. A scene frightful beyond description was now enacted. Men, women and children, shrieking with fear, defended themselves with whatever weapons they could, but to no avail, and one after another fell amidst the snarling blasts. The wolves, roused still further by the taste of blood, rushed toward the leading sledges, and though the first dozen conveyances managed to stave them off for a time, it was only at a terrible cost, since it is asserted that the women occupants were thrown out to be devoured by the animals. The pursuit, however, never slackened, and the sickening carnage went on until the foremost sledge —that containing the bride and bridegroom -—remained beyond the wolves’ reach. A nightmare race, was kept up for a few hundred yards, and it seemed as though the danger was being evaded, when suddenly a fresh pack of wolves appeared. The two men accompanying the bridal couple demanded that the bride should be sacrificed, but the bridegroom indignantly rejected the cowardly proposition, whereupon the men seized and overpowered the pair and threw them out to meet a horrible fate. Then they succeeded in rousing their horses to a last effort, and though attacked in turn, beat off the wolves, and eventually reached Tashkent, the only two survivors of the happy party which had set out from Obstipoff. Both men were in a semi-demented state from their experience.”
An article in New York Times July 27th 1916: