Friday, Jan. 20
“Dispatch, Beaver 1, departing Shagawa Lake, eastbound for Washington Harbor, Isle Royale, two aboard, four hours fuel,” said Pat Lowe, a United States Forest Service pilot. We were supposed to fly to Isle Royale on Jan. 17, but for three days, low clouds, snow and then high winds kept us waiting impatiently on the shore in Ely, Minn. It was clear, calm and cold (minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit) this morning as Pat and I lifted off from Shagawa. Rolf Peterson, a co-researcher, and Don Glazer, our Winter Study pilot, were 30 minutes ahead in the Flagship, our tiny research plane. In an hour we landed on Lake Superior ice.
The island was loosely veiled by low gray clouds — a collaboration of the west wind and moist lake air. Waves lapped on ice-covered rocks that separate Lake Superior from the forest. That forest has insights to share, if we pay attention.
There is a great deal to do. Knock holes in the ice for water. Secure the Flagship to the ice. Bring a snowmobile and several generators to life. Fire up the communications systems. Make sure the refueling system is working. Start a fire in the cabin. Haul gear from the harbor up to the cabin. The chores will keep us busy all night and into the morning. We can’t begin to make observations until we’ve prepared at least some of the essential gear.
We worked diligently because the weather was deteriorating, and we wanted to get a flight in before the snow clouds we could see building began to unload their contents. By noon we were ready to fly.
Where do you begin when you don’t know what you may find, when you know you won’t have much time and when you need to keep an eye on the weather? We began with the south shore, where wolves spend a great deal of time looking for moose. In the flat light filtering through thick clouds, we strained to spot wolf tracks. Finally we saw the tracks of a lone wolf at Long Point. Several miles to the northeast, they hooked up with tracks of what seemed to be three wolves that had spent the night on a rocky crag near Atwood beach. They didn’t look particularly fresh, so we left seeking better prospects. At Senter point we found more tracks, most likely from the same group of wolves.
We flew northeast, listening through headsets for telemetry signals from the radio-collared wolves and staring out the cockpit window for wolf tracks that might cut across any creek, drainage or inland lake. An hour passed without another clue. Plenty of time to wonder: Are three wolves all that remain here in what had been Middle Pack (MP) territory? If they are MP wolves, none of them is collared. It could take days to find them.
Then comes a beep, and another and another. Within a few minutes we were circling over the alpha male of Chippewa Harbor Pack (CHP). He is traveling southwest through a swamp near Lane Cove with four other wolves.
Sunday, Jan. 23
Big, wet, heavy snowflakes let us sleep in. We won’t be able to fly again until the snow clears.