Patches of silvery clouds swirled over the near-full moon in a black sky on the night I first howled with the wild wolves.
It was a mild evening last week in the deep forests of central Wisconsin, and the voices of trumpeter swans echoed across the open water as they called in a flock of Canada geese returning after sunset to roost.
The wolves were already on the move, traveling down from the granite bluffs into the lowland forests below. We confirmed that earlier in the evening after finding fresh tracks and scat along multiple dirt roads.
Now it was time, accompanied by a volunteer wolf tracker with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, for me to speak to the wolves in the deepening darkness of a still October evening.
As darkness deepened, we approached an area in Wood County perfect for howling into the night to try to elicit a response from wolves in the area.
The silence of the deep tamarack forest and bogs was broken only by the low-pitched mumblings of trumpeter swans out on the open water.
In the darkness, we howled.
It didn't take long for the mighty wolves to respond.
At first, the low-pitched, soulful moan of a single wolf drifted through the lowlands. Through the moonlight, the silhouette of two large granite bluffs stood against the starry skies and the calls of additional wolves began to echo from the bottom of the easternmost bluff.
Two adults and two pups, from the sound of it, possibly more, chorused in the darkness about half a mile away.
The wolves and I paused in the darkness to listen to each others' voices, echoing endlessly back and forth between the steep bluffs.
The moment was ethereal. My heart pounded in my chest. In the pitch black, the haunting song of the wolf drifting across the clearing caused the hair on my arms to stand on end. There was no fear, only awe.
Out there in the darkness, a pack of wolves responded to my human howling. Out there in the deep conifer forest, they moved with the night, with stealth and purpose, on an unseen journey across the wilderness.
What were they thinking as they moved under the light of the moon? Was I another wolf intruding on their territory? Were they excited by my presence? Frightened? Enraged?
A few more howling attempts went unanswered in the night. Perhaps they were silently approaching, and much closer than I thought, checking me out from the shadows. Or maybe they had simply moved on in the darkness, quietly stalking the boundaries of their territory, knowing I was not a threat.
Wolves in Wisconsin
Wolves belong in the forests of Wisconsin. They have always been here and, with proper management and protection, always will be. Regardless of public sentiment that seems to rollercoaster in favor of, then against, the wolf is one of the most enigmatic and strikingly beautiful wildlife species found here.
This is Wolf Awareness Week nationwide. The Wisconsin 2014-15 wolf hunt also is scheduled to begin Wednesday. The season will run through Feb. 28 or until hunters reach the quota limit of 150 wolves taken.
The latest Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources report puts Wisconsin's wolf population at between 660 and 690. This is down from nearly 840 wolves last year. There are groups that believe this number is high and others that feel it is low. There is much controversy on the accuracy of reporting.
Regardless, the number of wolves present in the forests of our state is well above what wolf recovery experts first envisioned and worked for back in the 1980s and '90s.
Whatever your opinion on wolves in the wild, there is no denying their majesty, mystery and allure.
The ways of the wolf go far beyond what the average resident knows or understands, much like the ways of many of the other wild species of our state. An increasing population of children and adults who are out of touch with the natural world certainly doesn't help.
Wolf Awareness Week aims to educate the public on the daily life of the timber wolf and other wolf subspecies across the country.
Fall is an important time in the life of the young wolves, as it is now that they are learning how to hunt for prey, defend themselves and, ultimately, to strike out on their own.
The timber wolf is not a creature to be feared or despised. The timber wolf is not "vermin," despite many who are prone to classify this incredible animal as such. To consider a regal, majestic, colorful and mythical creature such as the wolf vermin shows a disrespect for the natural world and the ways of the wild.
For more information on wolves in Wisconsin, visit the Timber Wolf Information Network at (www.timberwolfinformation.org),Timber Wolf Alliance (www.discoverycenter.net/timberwolf3) or the Wisconsin DNR wolf information page (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/wolf/)