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The thermometer on my car read negative five when I pulled out of the driveway, but by the time I’d reached the sunny parking lot at the Rock Lake Ski Trails, it was up to zero. A brisk wind hurried through the trees and imparted a sense of urgency to the day – partly because I was rushing to get skiing before the cold seeped in.
Sunshine. Great snow. Rollercoaster hills. Weasel tracks quilting the drifts. I veered right at the first three intersections before finally turning left onto the 11.5 kilometer loop. Lost in thought, I alternated between thinking about my to-do list and thinking about technique. Then shapes in the messy snow along the ski tracks crackled through my subconscious and brought me zooming back to the present. Big feet…four naily, untrimmed toes…and lots of them. Suddenly I was skiing alongside the tracks of a wolf pack.
They were polite wolves, for the most part, and rarely stepped in the ski tracks. Confined to the narrow strips of smoothly groomed snow on either side of the trail, the mess of tracks on both sides of me indicated that there were at least five or six wolves traveling together. While on the hard-packed trail, they walked freestyle in their own paths.
In a couple locations the tracks all left the ski trail in a single file line. Suddenly several wolves looked like one. To save energy, many animals will walk with direct registry. That means back feet land in the tracks of front feet, and members of a line will all step in the same places. Humans do this, too, especially in deep snow. It’s much easier to walk in someone else’s footprints instead of breaking through the crust with each step on your own unique path.
In a few places one wolf did step into the smooth valley of the ski track. His paws were perfectly imprinted there, undisturbed by any other skier. I was the first human to glide over them. These tracks were made just last night. I was going their direction. There were wolves at the end of these tracks.
Of course, I know that there is nothing to worry about. Wolf packs surround Cable and inhabit all of the wilds I play in. Tens of thousands of humans recreate in these woods each year, and most don’t even see a wolf, much less feel threatened by one. Still, I can’t help thinking of Mary Oliver’s poem, Bear. “It’s not my track, I say, seeing…the naily untrimmed toes…” and she goes on to describe how “the distances light up, how the clouds are the most lovely shapes you have ever seen, how…every leaf on the whole mountain is aflutter.”
And it’s true. The tracks grounded me back in the present: in the crisp, sunny woods; in my rosy cheeks; and the liquid cold that filled my lungs. When I stopped shushing along to look closer, the sound of the wind in the trees filled my ears. Creaking and moaning, snapping and popping, the trees seemed to be composing their own melodramatic poetry against the bluebird sky. The woods felt alive.
When I lived out east, and out west, I missed that sense of thrill that comes from sharing space with the untamed grace of wolves. History says they won’t bother me. But biology says they could. I know that not everyone agrees, but feel incredibly fortunate to live in a place that is wild enough for them.
It wasn’t always that way. We killed them off once. A small number hid out in the remote areas of northern Minnesota -- the only continuous population of wolves in the lower forty-eight states. They came back to Wisconsin on their own in the mid-1970s. The Endangered Species Act allowed their population to grow and thrive enough that they didn’t need that protection any more. They were delisted in January 2012, and we currently have 600+ wolves in the state. Now in another plot twist, a federal court has vacated the 2012 decision, which returns wolves in the Great Lakes Region to the Federal Endangered Species List.
But all of those political controversies don’t really matter on a sunny day in the woods. Eventually the tracks collected in a narrow trail, loped off through the underbrush, and didn’t return. They left a mark on my thoughts, though, and when I ran into Sarah Boles, a carnivore tracker for the Wisconsin DNR, the wolf tracks were the first thing I mentioned. After a little follow up work with the help of Adrian Wydeven, retired DNR wolf ecologist, they determined that I probably saw tracks of the Seeley Hills Pack.
The Seeley Hills Pack originated in 2003, with wolves that broke away from the Ghost Lake Pack. With 5-6 wolves, including a radio-collared yearling male, 845M, the pack now lives in my backyard. According to Adrian, “The Seeley Hills Pack roams an area from southern Bayfield County near the Sawyer County line, to north across highway M, portions of the Namakagon River, Pioneer Road, and to the southern edge of the Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area. The pack roams from western portions of Lake Namakagon to just a few miles east of Cable. The Seeley Hills Pack has the northern Birkie trail run right through its territory.”
Adrian went on to hypothesize that “Moves to the east side of the territory by the pack, including the Rock Lake area, may have been partly due to all the skiers and lots of people in the western parts of its territory last weekend.” That makes sense to me. That’s exactly why I was skiing at Rock Lake, too! With a love of wild places, a tolerance of cold, a taste for venison, and aversion of crowds, I, and the wolves who shared the trail, have quite a bit in common.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” will remain open until March 2015. “Lake Alive!” will open May 1, 2015.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.