Timber Wolves

by Sigurd Olson

I could hear them plainly now on both sides of the river, could hear the brush crack as they hurdled windfalls in their path. Once I thought I saw one, a drifting gray shadow against the snow, but it was only a branch swaying in the light of the moon. When I heard the full-throated bawling howl, I should have had chills racing up and down my spine. Instead, I was thrilled to know that the big grays might have picked up my trail and were following me down the glistening frozen highway of the river.

It was a beautiful night for travel-twenty below, and the only sound the steady swish and creak of my snow shoes on the crust. There was a great satisfaction in knowing that the Wolves were in the country, that it was wild enough and still big enough for them to roam and hunt. That night the wilderness of the Quetico-Superior was what the voyageurs had known two hundred years before, as primitive and unchanged as before discovery.

Some months before, I had had the same kind of experience on a pack trip in the Sun River country of Montana. In the bottom of a canyon I saw the fresh track of a big grizzly in the soft muck beside a glacial creek. Although I did not see the bear, I knew it was near by. Those tracks changed the country immediately for me. From that moment on, it was the land of Lewis and Clark, the land of the mountain men of the last century, a valley of the old west.

The river ahead narrowed down to where two points of timber came out from either bank, and as I approached, I sensed instinctively the possibilities of attack. I was familiar with the wolf lore of the Old World, the packs on the steppes of Russia, the invasion of farms and villages, and had I believed the lurid tales of our early settlers and explorers, I might have been afraid. To the best of my knowledge, however, including the files of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for the past twenty-five years there has never been a single authenticated instance of unprovoked attack on man.

But still there was a feeling of uneasiness and apprehension, and I knew that if the animals were concerned with anything but satisfying their curiosity, the narrows would be the place for a kill. A swift rush from both points at the same time, a short, unequal scuffle in the snow, and it would be all over. My bones would go down with the ice in the spring, and no one would ever hear the story and no one would be able to explain.

As I neared the points of spruce, I could almost hear the crash of heavy bodies against windfalls and brush. Weighing a hundred, even as much as a hundred and twelve pounds or more, timber wolves are huge and powerful, can bring down a caribou or a moose, have nothing to fear on the entire continent but man. This was not the first time I had felt they were playing their game of hide-and-seek with me. On other lone midwinter expeditions I had sensed that they were close – a hunch perhaps, but as instinctive a reaction when in their immediate range as though I had actually seen them. I knew, as I hiked along that night, that I was being watched, a lone dark spot moving slowly along the frozen river.

That very morning I had seen where they had pulled down an old buck on the ice of a little lake, seen how they had run the deer to exhaustion and then sliced at his hamstrings, his flanks, and his throat, seen the long crimson spurt where they had ripped the jugular, seen the bits of mangled hide on the snow. He had been large and his horns were broad and palmate, but in the trampled bloody circle where he had made his last stand, he had not lasted long. He might have died slowly of starvation or disease, but he died as he should when his time had come, fighting for his life against his age-old enemies, dying like the valiant warrior he was out on the open ice.

The wolves had not eaten much, only the entrails and the viscera, but they would return, I knew, to satisfy themselves again. Such was the habit of their kind until we interfered with poison and trap and taught them caution and fear. When that happened, they learned to leave the carcasses after the first feeding and killed more than they would have normally. That kill was part of the age-old cycle of dependency between the wolves and the deer. The predators, by the elimination of the old, the weak, and the diseased, improved the character of the herd and kept the younger and more virile breeding- stock alert and aware of danger. The deer provided food when there was no other source, when the heavy snows hid small rodents, the fish and snakes, grubs and berries and birds that gave the wolves sustenance during all other seasons of the year. There on the ice was evidence of the completed cycle, and, though all kills are gruesome things, I was glad to See it, for it meant a wilderness in balance, a primitive country that as yet had not been tamed.

In the narrows the spruces stood tall and black against the sky. The shores there were only a stone’s throw apart. I must walk straight down the center, must not run, must not break my pace; and suddenly I was aware that, in spite of reason and my knowledge of the predators, ancient reactions were coming to the fore, intuitive warnings out of the past. In spite of what I knew, I was responding to the imagined threat of the narrows like a stone-age hunter cut off from his cave.

Then, far ahead, way beyond the dangerous points, two shadows broke from cover and headed directly down the river toward me. I stopped, slipped off my pack, and waited. Nearer and nearer they came, running with the easy, loose-jointed grace that only the big timber wolves seem to have. A hundred yards away they stopped and tried to get my wind; they wove, back and forth, swaying as they ran. Then, about fifty feet away they stopped and looked me over. In the moonlight their gray hides glistened and I could see the greenish glint of their eyes. Not a movement or a sound. We stood watching each other as though such meetings were expected and common place.

As suddenly as they had appeared, they whirled and were off down the river, two drifting forms against the ice. Never before had I been that close, possibly never again would I see the glint in timber wolves’ eyes or have such a chance to study their free and fluid movement. Once more came the long howl, this time far back from the river, and then I heard them no more.

A little later I pushed open the door of the little cabin and touched a match to the waiting tinder in the stove. As I sat there listening to the roar of it and stowing away my gear, I realized fully what I had seen and what I had felt. Had it not been twenty below, I would have left the door opened wide so as not to lose the spell of the moonlit river and the pack ranging its shores.

After I was warmed through and had eaten my supper, I stepped outside once more. The river was still a glisten, and the far shore looked black and somber. An owl hooted back in the spruce, and I knew what that meant in the moonlit glades. A tree cracked sharply with the frost, and then it was still, so still that I could hear the beating of my heart. At last I caught what I was listening for-the long-drawn quavering howl from over the hills, a sound as wild and indigenous to the north as the muskegs or the northern lights. That was wilderness music, something as free and untamed as there is on this earth.

Although thrilled to hear them once again, I was saddened when I thought of the constant war of extermination which goes on all over the continent. Practically gone from the United States, wolves are now common only in the Quetico-Superior country, in Canada, and in Alaska, and I knew the day might come when, because of man’s ignorance, the great grays would be gone even from there. Just before leaving on my trip up the river I had seen a news story about the killing of six timber wolves by airplane hunters in the Rainy Lake country. The picture showed them strung up on the wing of the plane and the hunters proudly posed beside them. As I studied that picture and the applauding captions, I wondered if the day would ever come when we would understand the importance of wolves.

Knowing the nature of our traditions of the old frontier and the pioneer complex that still guides our attitudes toward wildlife, I realized that it might never come. We still do not realize that today we can enjoy the wilderness without fear, still do not appreciate the part that predators play in the balanced ecology of any natural community. We seem to prefer herds of semi-domesticated deer and elk and moose, swarms of small game with their natural alertness gone. It is as though we were interested in conserving only a meat supply and nothing of the semblance of the wild.

It was cold, bitterly cold, and I hurried back into the cabin and crawled into my sleeping-bag in the corner bunk. Beside me was my pack and in a pocket my brush-worn copy of Thoreau. I took it out, thumbed through it by the light of the candle.

“We need,” he said, “to witness our own limits transgressed and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

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