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Joseph Van Nurden

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Visiting the wolves
By Joseph Van Nurden
Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A winter encounter with a timber wolf

I had grown up around timber wolves- Canis Lupus. I had seen plenty of them, but regrettably it was always through glass or very far away.  There had been the time that four wolves chased a deer across the meadow behind our house- about two-hundred yards away, or when we had seen them running across the frozen lake in the dead of winter as well, it was at least a half mile away but we saw them clearly when they were out there and got out the binoculars to get a closer look.  There is an old logging road across from our house that wolf scat can usually be seen on, and after a rain there are always wolf tracks in the mud.

Last winter was the first time that I saw a timber wolf up close out in the wild, with nothing between us.  To many, including myself in the crowd, the timber wolf is a symbol of the wild; to see a wolf miles away from any road or home was one of the most invigorating, and reassuring, experiences of my life.  I had studied wolves and had been acting as a spokesman for the often unpopular idea, especially in Northern Minnesota, that the timber wolf belonged there.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s loggers and homesteaders moved into Northeastern Minnesota to convert the forest into farmland.  In the name of progress much of the forest was clear-cut and burned over and then crops were planted and livestock like sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens were brought in.  The timber wolves and other large predators like mountain lions and bears were poisoned, snared, and shot to make the land safe for sheep.  There was a bounty paid out by the government for dead wolves, so hunters and trappers could still make a living off wolves when the other animals began to disappear.  Culture and the economy could find no place for the wolf; it was a very dark time for the boreal forest.  There is still a widespread mistrust of wolves and many of the old-timers can still be heard to blame wolves for sabotaging their hunting efforts and killing their livestock.

I drove through the snow back to a small lake created long ago by beavers- at one time it must have just been overflow water from Big Fork River.  Dead black spruce jutted out of the snowdrifts all around me as I walked through the immense early morning snowflakes.  The sun was just starting to appear above the trees. 

The dried cattail stalks peaking out above the snow over the opening in the forest where there would be ducks gathering in a few months, the black spruce snags, the immense beaver lodge and the rising sun brought back the sense of complete contentment that I always strive to find when I am out of doors by myself.  That feeling is for me more fulfilling than anything I have ever experienced; to remember it, even for a few seconds when I return to civilization is worth any hardship I may face while out exploring. 

On my snowshoes I followed the array of animal tracks around and listened to the early morning howling wolves- one thing that most people do not realize is that timber wolves often howl early in the morning also. The way was slow going through the snow and over the ice, everything slowed down in the winter, hibernation took a hold of everything to some degree. 

There were animal tracks everywhere that day; the woods were alive with a slight warm spell- the temperature must have gotten above zero.  Deer, one set of moose tracks, and wolf tracks showed what had visited my path since I had last wandered along it.  I found a place where a wolf had very recently marked its territory on a spruce bough; I could still pick up the scent. 

The wolves have areas where they meet when away from the den.  I had come across many of these during my time in the woods- always in winter, of course, when the tracks and markings are noticeable.  The areas are always heavily covered in tracks and there are small, well-worn trails around them.  There is a lot of scent marking- the stains in the snow- and sometimes the snow is dug up in places where a supply of food has been cached.  I had never found markings and tracks so fresh. There was fresh scat and I knew that wolves gorge themselves when possible and can go for weeks without food so they were probably not out hunting- at least not actively.

I followed the tracks through dense aspen and balsam fir stands until I came to a small clearing.  I stopped, stretched, and exhaled loudly.  A grey flash moved behind the trees about thirty feet to my left. A visitor.  A wolf. As much as I had studied of them and their usual avoidance of humans the hair still stood up on the back of my neck.  Canis Lupus do hunt large animals in large packs and have been known to take down moose when presented the opportunity- even though the large animals that they hunt are the older, sickly animals and I am still young and healthy that momentary fright was still present. They typically have packs of four to seven, but some packs are up to fifteen wolves in size.  They are very much a social animal.  The timber wolf actually helps to strengthen the deer and moose populations because it thins out the weaker members of the herd.

            After a few minutes I cautiously approached where it had been.  There was a fresh stain in the powdery snow and wolf tracks set at a bounding pace leading away from it.

            I continued on and entered another frozen bog.

The sky cleared above me.  I looked around through the cedar and caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Legs appeared.  Furry grey legs.  In a few quick flashes that morning I had seen, up close, one of the most misunderstood creatures in the world- and one which I greatly respected.  I could not help but wonder what had led up to having not one, but two, wolf sightings.

            Near a beaver lodge on a small backwater pond the ice suddenly gave a quick series of cracks and my foot plunged into the mud below- something else to remember the day by.

With the large trees gone and farms failing the land began to turn back into forest, but it was a different kind of forest.  White pine could not regenerate with the deer and squirrel populations exploding and eating all of the seeds, so fast growing trees like aspen and brush began to take over.  This new forest was unsuitable for moose, wolves, and the other original inhabitants, but perfect breeding ground for more deer and squirrels. 

Homesteaders and the new inhabitants began to realize the soil and growing season were really not good for farming, and the climate, coupled with the remaining wolves finally convinced many more that livestock-especially sheep were not the wisest way to make a living up here.  The resort and tourism industry began to take off as cities grew exponentially and the humans living in them wanted to get away from each other.  Deer hunters took over for the wolves and the deer population decreased enough to give more evergreens a chance to grow.  Massive planting and land reclamation efforts were undertaken during the great depression as the CCC camps sprang up to alleviate unemployment and disenchantment with the federal government.  Unemployment was around 70% in this area during the depression, so there were many eager to take any work they could get.

The wolves are making a faster recovery now that there are so many deer around.  The sound of the wolves howling at night is inspiring; an animal that was close to disappearing from the area is back.  It gives me great hope that despite being nearly exterminated and having their habitat destroyed the wolf was able to overcome all obstacles and survive.  There is a concerted effort by many environmentalists in Minnesota and throughout the world to educate people about the importance of the timber wolf. 




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