Wolves, Snow and the Red DragonBy JOHN VUCETICH
Monday, Jan. 23
Shortly before midnight, our pilot Don Glazer shakes my sleeping bag. The sky has dumped something halfway between snow and rain, and it is freezing to the wings of the Flagship.
We all head to the harbor, wrestling with a northeast wind as we try to stretch nylon covers over the wings. Slush has also begun to bubble up through a nearby crack in the ice. We fear the Flagship’s skis will freeze into the slush, so we prop them up on 4x4s. Then it’s back to bed.
It snows all day. So we occupy ourselves with chores around the cabin: hauling water and setting up a sauna. We also prepare the Red Dragon — a 25-pound propane tank, 12-volt battery, spark-ignited torch and blower, and a hose, all strapped to a toboggan. As soon as the wet snow stops falling, we’ll need that.
By early morning, the snow has stopped. The temperature drops, and the northeast wind comes up again. After a bowl of oatmeal by the light of our headlamps, we slog to the harbor. Removing the wing covers, we can see that we put them on too late. Every flying surface of the Flagship is coated with ice. Planes fly because their wings are shaped like a foil. Ice distorts that shape and compromises lift. All the ice will have to be removed.
Luckily, that’s what the Red Dragon does best. We haul the contraption onto the icy harbor next to the plane. Firing up the Red Dragon, we heat the flying surfaces, then brush the ice off as it melts. Ice removal is a delicate affair. The Flagship’s wings are wood covered with fabric. Brush at the ice too hard, and the fabric will tear. Heat it too much, and it will catch fire. For three hours, we gently melt, rub and flake off ice.
By noon, the plane is ready for flight, and by 3 p.m., the wind has lightened up. Rolf Peterson, a co-researcher, and Don depart to look for wolves. They find Chippewa Harbor Pack near the site where we’d seen them a couple days ago. It is clear what kept them there: the carcass of a moose they’d killed. The few remaining bones suggest they’d killed it about five days ago, perhaps the day we arrived. Rolf and Don also find fresh tracks of a lone wolf near Halloran Lake, leaving and then returning to a cedar swamp filled with tracks of the snowshoe hares that probably became the wolf’s dinner.
Wednesday, Jan. 25
I get up at 4 a.m. to fire up the portable generator we use to heat the plane’s engine. I might as well have stayed in my sleeping bag. By 6:30 a.m., the clouds had lowered until they touched the island. Freezing drizzle was threatening, so we put the wing covers on again. Why does the weather keep frustrating our desire to collect information?
I spend each day searching for something significant. During each flight, we record the locations of wolves or their tracks. I have condensed several decades of wolf travel routes onto a single map. We are working to quantify what we’ve long intuited: that the predation risk for moose is greatest near the island’s shoreline. It is easier for wolves to walk along shorelines, where the snow is windswept, and moose are attracted to shoreline habitats because they tend to find better forage there.
Knowing that predation risk decreases with distance from the shoreline is also just a tiny insight. Add this to several other long-term observations and some sophisticated analysis from Robert Montgomery, a habitat expert from Michigan State University, put it all together, and, well, our insight is not in perfect focus yet, but it’s looking as though younger, healthier moose spend more time in these risky shoreline habitats during severe winters than do the aging moose who would be more vulnerable to predation.
It feels good to pour through old maps, recalling individual wolves, many of which are now dead, their travels and lives, and the adventures we had making those observations.