Far from the "lazy, sun-kissed life" of the civilized Southland, Buck's first day on the snowy shores of Dyea Beach is a "nightmare." He quickly senses that this place is not for leisurely loafing, but a perilous frontier where there is "neither peace, nor rest, norÉsafety." "Life and limb" are constantly in danger, requiring one to be vigilantly alert because these are not "town dogs and men," but "savages" who abide by the law of the club and fang.
Buck's initial observation of the contrast between the Northland and the Southland underlines the radical shift in his surroundings. The Northland is not just coated in snow, it is governed by different rules. Whereas the Southland is marked by sunshine and leisure, the North is a perilous place where every dog and man must look out for himself.
Buck observes the cruel ways of the Northland and its "wolfish creatures" immediately through an "unforgettable lesson." Curly approaches a husky in a friendly manner, but the dog strikes at her, ripping her face wide open. The other dogs circle as Curly attempts to defend herself. Yet the husky rushes against her, knocking her off her feet. Because Curly is unable to regain her footing, the surrounding canines join in the carnage, trampling her to death. Buck observer Spitz emerging from the fray with his tongue sticking out; he appears to be laughing. François, with an ax, and three other men, club the remaining dogs off of Curly's lifeless and shredded body. The image disturbs Buck, who recognizes that in the Northland there is "no fair play."
Curly's shocking and sudden death underlines the savagery of the law of club and fang. Her death shows that in the Northland there is "no fair play." Even though François and his men attempt to keep order among the dogs with their clubs, from Curly's death, it is clear that those who cannot defend themselves become easy prey. Buck learns quickly that survival requires one to never let down his/her guard. To do otherwise means certain death. That Spitz seems to be laughing at Curly's death only increases the sense of Spitz's power but also Buck's sense of rivalry with Spitz.
Buck receives "another shock" when François harnesses him to the traces. Having observed horses harnessed in a similar manner to haul loads, Buck's pride is hurt because he's reduced to the level of a working animal. But he embraces his work obediently and quickly learns from Dave and Spitz how to work in traces. Upon returning to camp, he knows to stop at "ho," go at "mush," makes wide turns, and to keep clear when going downhill.
Because Buck is a proud creature, he is shocked and demeaned when harnessed like a mere work animal. Buck's harnessing signals a shift in his relationship with man. No longer a prized pet, but a working dog, Buck must learn how to survive in the traces by obeying his masters' commands and following the lead of his teammates.
On the trail, Perrault acquires two more dogs, brothers Billee and Joe. Billee is good-natured, while Joe is sullen and mean-spirited, confronting Spitz with growls. Buck welcomes the new recruits, while Spitz thrashes Billee in retribution for Joe's belligerence. By evening, Perrault acquires a one-eyed, old husky, called Sol-leks, or the "Angry One." Like Dave, he likes to be left alone and does not like being approached from his blind side, as Buck learns when he gets slashed on the shoulder when he approaches Sol-leks from this angle. Buck learns that each dog possesses a "vital ambition."
From these exchanges, Buck learns to abide by the social hierarchy of the sled dog team. Newer members like Billee, Joe, and Buck should defer to more experienced dogs, like Spitz and Sol-leks not only because the other dogs are more senior, but because they are more dangerous. To cross them is to risk one's very survival. This hierarchy represents every dog's "vital ambition" to master his survival, to become the lead dog.
Night descends upon the trail. Buck, troubled by cold and sleeplessness, attempts to enter François and Perrault's candle-lit tent, but they drive him away. Buck wanders the camp in search of shelter, but finds no warmth or protection, until he stumbles upon a loose patch of snow, under which Billee is sleeping. Billee gives a friendly yelp, inviting Buck to burrow in the snow with him. Buck finds himself a spot, buries himself in the snow, and sleeps soundly.
By driving Buck out of their tent, François and Perrault firmly establish that his place is outside, along with the rest of the working dogs. He is no pet. Thrust out of man's care, Buck must learn to fend for himself by keeping warm during the frigid night. From Billee, he masters an important survival skill: burrowing in the snow to keep warm.
Buck, awakened by the camp's morning stirrings breaks out of his snowy mound. The team breaks camp for Dyea Ca–on—Spitz in the lead, followed by Sol-leks, Buck, and Dave in the rear. Situated between Dave and Sol-leks, Buck receives "instruction" in dog sledding. They correct his errors with little nips, while François administers his whip when needed. A quick learner, Buck "masters his work" after toiling in the traces for only a few days, learning to always keep the traces clear, or else face a "sound trouncing."
The order in which the dogs are placed within the traces reinforces the pecking order of this team. A domineering animal, Spitz is harnessed in the front as lead dog, while Dave, a more submissive creature, brings up the rear. Buck is placed between Dave and Sol-leks because they are more experienced. They teach Buck how to run in the traces. Buck quickly "masters" this skill, confirming his keen ability to adapt.
On the trail, Buck develops a "ravenous" hunger, but learns to eat his food quickly so that the other dogs will not steal his ration. He learns to steal food, as well, after watching Pike, a sly dog, steal a slice of bacon from Perrault. Buck repeats the theft, but this time stealing the whole chunk of pork. He is never caught, nor suspected of the crime. Buck observes that his ability to steal without "moral consideration" marks his adjustment to the competitive lifestyle of the Northland and his "retrogression" into a primitive animal. He recognizes that he does not steal "for the joy of it," but because he is driven by hunger.
Buck's ability to steal food demonstrates his ability to master survival skills quickly. It also signals the start of his steady devolution from a domesticated pet into a wild beast. By pilfering food, Buck shows that stealing transcends any kind of "moral consideration." Stealing for Buck is not a matter of right, or wrong, but a means of survival to ward off hunger. Because food is a necessity, stealing it is a justified action.
As Buck gains experience on the trail, he transforms physically. His senses sharpen. His body strengthens against pain. He learns to care for himself by biting out the ice between his toes and eating anything. His domesticated habits fall away, while his latent instincts awaken. He remembers the days of wild wolf packs frolicking through the woods and begins to fight and howl like a wolf, bringing the wolves' "ancient song" to life.
Buck becomes more wolfish through his experiences on the trail and the awakening of his feral instincts. This manifests through Buck's physical, mental, and behavioral transformation into a more wolf-like creature. He not only begins to look and think like a wolf, but he acts like one, too. Through these changes the "ancient song," or call of the wild comes to life within Buck.