Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wolves and Me

In an earlier post I mentioned that I love wolves. My “camp name” with my wife’s Girl Scout Troop is “Wolf” and I often tell people that my spirit guide is the wolf. Well, this post is about an encounter I had with wolves many years ago and why I consider wolves my special friends.

I've always felt an affinity for wolves. I’m not entirely certain; maybe it is connected to my affinity for dogs…all of whom are descended from wolves. In fact, dogs left to themselves start looking like wolves within a few generations. Wolves have simply always fascinated me, but on a hunting trip several years ago, that fascination became a powerful connection that has never been broken.

It was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and there was already about a foot or more of snow on the ground with more threatening. I was making my way at daybreak toward an area I knew deer would be hunkering down for the day. It was well past the hour that most hunters would be moving around, but then with it as cold as it was and the threat of more snow, there were not many hunters out this day…not even the hardy UP natives.

I could hear the wolves from the time I parked my truck. They were on the hunt too. Only for them, it was a matter of life and death. If I failed, I could get back in my truck, drive to the cabin and pull some food from the refrigerator. If they failed, they went hungry another day and could quite possibly die.

Distant howling – I did not think much of it. Making my way through the snow in early morning twilight, the close sounds were snow crunching underfoot, creaking branches over-laden with fresh wet snow and my own breathing. The going was slow. I’d been moving about twenty minutes when I recognized that the howls were closer. It was not long before I heard more than my own breathing.

At first they were just shadows drifting through white hanging branches at the edge of my vision. Then I recognized that I was crossing their tracks in the snow. Gray twilight gave way to that bluish early morning common on days when snow falls. Their panting now clear in my ears, their howls now the short yips and snaps common when wolves are close to one another. I realized that they were paralleling my movement, circling to keep me in sight, but generally continuing along my direction of travel. Then they disappeared.

Breaking from the woods into a small clearing, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with seven wolves. They lurked at the edge of the forest at the opposite edge of the clearing, not more than twenty feet away. They had stopped running with me and simply paced across my path. I stopped. That is when I made eye-contact with the pack leader. He was a big beautiful wolf in full winter coat. He took a few steps toward me while the rest of the pack hung back.

There was not one instant during the entire encounter that I felt fear. The big wolf halted and waited. I knelt on one knee, rifle butt in the snow and just watched. He made a curious sound, stiffly wagging his tail and making a bolder approach before stopping not twelve feet away, sniffing and making odd whimpering sounds. The rest of pack appeared agitated, but stayed back yipping and snapping in short confused barks as they paced.

The whole encounter could not have lasted more than two minutes…it seemed hours. The wolf sniffed, bobbing his head and studying me with those amber eyes. He even sat down for a moment while we simply stared into one another’s eyes. Then suddenly he let out a throaty yap and trotted away…pack on his heels. I heard them most of the day, howling in the distance.

Late in the day I shot a buck. After the shot, there was dead silence. My trusty old 1943 Enfield, a British military rifle, has a rather loud kawoom when it fires. There is usually silence after it goes off. Then the wolves howled. The sound was different, almost triumphant. Then snow started falling. It was getting dark fast.

I started field-dressing the buck. Realizing that there was no way I’d get all of him out to my truck before dark, I decided to leave the head, neck and organs. I had the feeling I was being watched. Looking up from my work, I saw them. They were close, but not so close as to appear threatening. They hung back, paced and waited. Hastily finishing my work I hoisted the carcass over my shoulder and started out. The wolves circled out of my path, falling in savage delight upon what I had left in the snow.

By the time I reached my truck, it was black. A steady snow had already left more than two inches on my truck. I loaded up the deer, unloaded my rifle and prepared to leave. In the distance a chorus of howling echoed through the woods. I like to think they were thanking me. I’ve often thought that maybe the wolves had driven the deer to me, knowing that I would share.

That encounter cemented my love of wolves. I’ve run into wolves several times since then and always it leaves me with an incredible rush…a feeling of total oneness with nature. Whenever the opportunity arises, I go on “wolf howls”…out with groups looking to connect with wolves, but I much rather encounter them alone. I have never failed to have them come fairly close and linger when I’m alone or with only one or two people. I've never felt threatened, and by their reaction to me, wolves do not seem threatened by me. I would not recommend such encounters for everyone. I feel, perhaps romantically, that there is something a wolf can see deep within you that tells him if you are "OK", or not.


Ello said...

You know, I worked for the National Wildlife Federation for 8 years and the one thing I learned was about wolves as we were involved in the return to Yellowstone effort. It's amazing what a bad reputation they have which is in many cases completely undeserved. I have always had an affinity to wolves. partly because I grew up with a large german sheperd that my father convinced me was part wolf. She was definitely much larger than your average german sheperd so I totally believed it. I think your story is fascinating. Although I do believe I would have been frightened by being so close to a pack.

J. L. Krueger said...

Although I do believe I would have been frightened by being so close to a pack.

It is most assuredly an adrenaline rush!

Erica Orloff said...

One of my favorite memories of all time . . . was when I was deep in the Sierra Nevadas. My boyfriend at the time and I went to see his family. They owned about 100 acres of deep forest up there, and each family had a small log cabin, living off the land, no electricity or plumbing. He and I decided to sleep outdoors on the deck of his parents' one-room log cabin. I remember lying there in my sleeping bag . . . I was about 22. And the Milky Way literally took my breath away (no lights of civilization). I saw three or four shooting stars without even trying, just streaking across the sky. And then sometime in the night, the wolves started howling.

I remember that it kind of made a shoot of electricity go up my spine--it's such a primal call. And it's not like in the movies. I mean, it was right THERE. And all night, I could hear them howling and calling to each other. It sounded so mournful and solitary--yet as if they were talking to each other.

Thanks for writing this. I thought it was a great piece.

Joe said...

John, I have a special affinity for Wolfs too! ;-)

J. L. Krueger said...

Funny Joe, funny...