Saturday, February 23, 2013

Watching the wolves

February 22, 2013
By: Sam Cook
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. 
NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS — I see the two dark forms up ahead, perhaps a half-mile down Round Lake off the Gunflint Trail. They are stationary, like two old anglers hunched over fishing holes on the ice. But that would be an odd place to see a couple of ice anglers, I think.

My snowshoes go whoof, whoof, whoof on the snow. I’m headed five miles into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to meet a group of winter campers. I’m alone on this mild February morning, shuffling along.

I keep an eye on the shapes in the distance, and now I see one of them become elongated. Dark and dusky, it moves across the ice as fast as a snowmobile might. Watching it, I lose track of the other shape. When I look back, it is gone, too.

Whoof, whoof, whoof. I make my way down the lake.

When I get to where I saw the forms, I see the tracks. Unmistakable. Wolves. A pair of them. I can see their big paw prints deep in the snow.

The tracks veer off to a low point of land. Leaving them, I continue through a narrows. I am not concerned about the wolves causing me problems. But I look back once in a while, or glance up at the fire-scarred hillsides, wondering if I’ll see them again, wondering if they’re on some high ledge watching me pass.

We are hunting and trapping wolves in Minnesota now. I understand why some people want to kill them, to protect livestock or to put a pelt on the wall. I understand how some can feel that way. But I am glad I can still come upon wolves very much alive, ghosting across the ice on a February morning, laying down tracks, vanishing into the hills.

Whoof, whoof, whoof go the snowshoes.

I will cover nearly 10 miles, out and back, before the day is over. Across several lakes. Up and over several portages. I won’t cross a single set of moose tracks or, even less likely, a set of deer tracks. Along a couple of the portages, the lippity-lip tracks of a snowshoe hare precede my own snowshoe tracks down the trail. I’ll see not a single raven. Two gray jays. That’s it.

I think about those wolves, trying to get by out here, to find some warm flesh now and then. They must run pretty lean much of the time.

My course, west toward Bat Lake, takes me along the fringe of old burns, the Ham Lake fire of 2007 and the Cavity Lake fire in 2006. The landscape remains stark, especially in winter, where blackened and leaning tree trunks jut out of the snow-covered hills. They look cold.

The new growth of aspen that follows fire soon will offer winter browse for moose, if they can just hang on in this country, and for the few deer around, too. The wolves I saw on Round Lake may not be around long enough to see all of that play out. But perhaps their offspring will.

Glaciers. Fire. New growth. Predators. Prey.

Whoof, whoof, whoof go the snowshoes.