Wolf: Kindred Spirit

by Casey Crookston

Part I – A Brief and Terrible Vision

A bluff not far from camp where there’d been plenty of fresh wolf signs earlier in the year

The winter air was crisp and awake, and my breath formed ice crystals on the rim of my cozy sleeping bag. The pre-dawn forest outside was peaceful and still, disturbed occasionally by a Raven’s caw or the rustle of naked branches rattled by a passing breeze.

It took willpower to root myself from the safe haven of my warm and comfortable bed. With shivering fingers I pulled winter gear over long underwear, and crawling from the tent I sucked in the biting air and enjoyed the sharp smell of early winter cold. Tranquil shades of morning blue filled the forest which to my delight had been blanketed by a brief dusting of snow, extending to any that choose to accept a cordial invitation to track the local wildlife.

It was a perfect morning.

My snug little campsite resides on the shore of Blackstone Lake just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. It is small, dark, high lying pool bordered on all sides by towering White and Red Pines. I stood in delight soaking in the view, stretching my sleepy body, and listening to the silence.

So quiet!

The freshly fallen snow seemed to hush the land, as if all of nature understood and obeyed the unheard “Shhhhh” whispered by its mother. Only my feet disobeyed, issuing a loud “crunch” that shattered the morning with every step. I was hiking a new trail and the thrill of uncharted territory was only outdone by the vastness of their surroundings.

Tucked into a steep, lower valley and just over a bony rimrock from my camp hides Secret Lake, a picturesque little pond aptly named and even smaller then its twin. It was while traversing this ridge only moments after leaving camp that I became aware of movement on the opposite shore.

In a heartbeat my senses prickled and came fully alive.

Nothing more then a visual whisper, some sleek and nimble creature weaved an agile path on the steep embankment. This was no squirrel or red fox, its presence was commanding and it slipped over windfalls with the agility of a ghost. Afraid of being noticed I planted my feet to the earth, yet I was certain the “thump THUMP” of my heart had already betrayed my presence.

Out of all the wild and lonely places in the vast forty-eight states, this only one which has never relinquished its sovereign claim to ancient and unforgiving rawness. Northern Minnesota is a thick and bony land choked with granite outcrops, tamarack swamps, obsidian lakes, and poplar and pine forests rich with the fragrance of decaying decades. It is also the only crust of land stubborn and mean enough to have preserved the predator which defines an eco-system in balance. This was the creature which lured me here on this frigid Minnesota morning, and this was the land which was now hiding this elusive shadow from me.

What was it?

Exciting possibilities toyed with reality, and yet I found myself perfectly unable to decide if I was thrilled or terrified. Opposite the life long anticipation I had come here in hopes of fulfilling there was an old fear, one I thought to have buried long ago, but which now found new and violent life. Alone and far from help I had a brief and terrible vision of a hungry wolf pack circling the small lake and making light work of doing me in.

As if sensing my naive fears and seeking to silence them the shadow broke into a clearing. The disappointment I felt was fleeting, as the buck was a commanding and inspiring creature who sported a rack of which he must certainly have been proud. His glistening coat rippled as vigorous and able muscles propelled him at impressive speeds across difficult terrain.

I watched at first with reverence, but then with curiosity as this majestic animal who aught not, at least with my understanding, fear even the most dreadful unhuman predator, ran not in a straight line but pranced and bolted as if dodging some unseen adversary. With eyes wide, head reared back, and steam blasting from his nostrils his fear was almost palpable. But of what? I looked about with anticipation for the wolves who were closing in for the kill, but of course there were none. The buck disappeared as quickly as he had come and the woods fell silent again. The entire episode had lasted at most four or five seconds, and as a substitute for the missed photo I studied the empty shoreline burning the image into long-term memory. This was worth remembering.

A short hike around the lake on the well marked Forest Service trails revealed his tracks, which were very much alone. There were no signs that any wolf had been chasing him, and in fact, unlike my previous journeys on these trails I never saw any fresh wolf signs at all. Where they had gone I did not know, and why they had left I could only guess.

A vicious storm had ripped through this country only a few months earlier, and the forest I had grown to love was now a tangled and unrecognizable grave yard of old giants to which the wind had dealt a fatal blow. Perhaps the wolves of this area had moved on to new hunting grounds where the storm had not dealt so harsh a hand? If they had, I reassured myself, they would be back. This section of the forest would heal itself; new saplings would take the place of their fallen elders, and the does and their fauns who feasted on them would bring hungry wolves.

When I was young I came to these woods with my father and brother, as I grew older I came with friends, and even later I came alone. I have heard the wolves howl, seen their tracks, and even found their kill sites. But for all the time I have been in these woods, I have never seen a wolf.

At least not yet. As evening approached I broke camp, hiked to my car, and headed home. I would be back and they would be here waiting for me.

Part II – The Endless Hum

This brave little pine martin allowed me to creep within eight feet before bolting.

I am painfully aware that in my attempt to write a book about my quest to find and photograph wild wolves in Minnesota I have been preceded in this task by men with extraordinary talent for writing, for photography, and for finding and studying wolves. I have read the books of Jim Brandenburg and David Mech multiple times and lived the life of my dreams vicariously through their efforts. I have a deep respect for them and an even deeper love for their work, and their books have been a major catalyst in my desire to fulfill this childhood desire. Yet to my knowledge this same task has never been done by someone like me… a nobody.

Although part of me yearns for the life lead by such men… a full time existence traveling the globe at the expense of National Geographic or the federal government, I wanted to prove that becoming aquatinted with wolves was not an exclusive privilege open only to the wilderness elite. I hoped to show that a simple fellow such as myself, a city dweller with a full time job, could, with enough patience and effort, successfully find and photograph wild wolves.

I am by trade an Internet software developer. I am a faceless, anonymous soldier in the vast and endless army of eight-to-five workers grinding out a living on the weekdays and wasting the weekends getting ready to do it again. My garage and closets are packed with dust covered tents and sleeping bags – idols of a life I only live a few fleeting days a year.

Like so many of my fellow soldiers I repeat the same mundane tasks in an almost mindless state of auto pilot. I take out the trash, mow the lawn, pay the bills, and change burnt out light bulbs. I scrape my face with a steel blade every morning and pay to have my hair trimmed once a month. I wake up, go to work, come home, and go to bed. And like many of us, I spend plenty of time wondering what I could do to escape this endless hum.

But let’s stop right there.

I am also a husband to my beautiful wife, Carina, and father to my daughter Andi and son Tanner. I scoop up my children as they run towards me with open arms when I come home from work. I kiss my wife on the lips and soak up her approving smile and fiery flash in her blue eyes. I clasp my fingers around hers as she pushes a stroller holding a sleeping Tanner while I carry a chattering Andi on my shoulders.

Together the four of us are, in my humble opinion, doing remarkably well at forging through life. As I begin to write this book Andi has recently turned two and Tanner is six months. They bubble over with an inspiring energy and vibrancy for life which they inherited from Carina, the spiritual giant who binds us together. We are not without our challenges yet we do our best to meet the needs of our children and each other. I know and understand Carina’s desire to pursue an education in Physical Therapy, to enjoy hobbies, leisure time with friends, and ‘time out’ away from the demands of full time motherhood. And she knows and understands my need to punctuate the dreariness of an eight-to-five job.

Re-enter the endless hum. I sometimes lie in bed at night awake, feeling the rhythmic rise and fall of my wife’s warm and sleeping body next to mine, fighting off fears that I will one day wake up old without having accomplished something I was supposed to, but not even knowing what it was. Is it not a noble thing to excel in a rewarding career? And is it not a far nobler thing to raise a loving, healthy, and happy family? There are millions who will live and die having done this and this alone, and who will not have lived or died in vain.

Unless, of course, there was within them the potential for this, and then something more.

We all have loves in our life. My first is God, family and country. Second is creativity and nature. Somewhere far down the list is Internet software development. It is a career I fell into in a backwards sort of way because I needed a skill to support my family while my true career in film, photography, and writing took shape. Somewhere along the way that secondary skill became the principle bread winner, and while late at night pondering the fear of growing old and never accomplishing all that I love, I softly slip out of bed, kiss my sleeping wife on the cheek, flip on the lamp at my computer desk, and continue to write. I don’t know if this book is something I’ll ever finish – and if I do I hope someone will deem it worthy of publishing. But in the mean time it is scratching a need and reaching a love. And most all, it is break from the routine.

Wolves have within them an innate desire – almost a genetic urgency – to play, and they do so often. I’m certain that for them it is a needed and welcomed relief from the routine task of staying alive. Humans are no different. The pressure and stress of simply surviving from day to day can overwhelm, and we each need from time to time a deep and profound release. Venturing into the woods and looking for wolves, and writing about my adventures, is one of mine.

Part III – Whispers

If only the wolves in these woods were as un-shy as this little chickadee.

My little campsite in the big woods of Northern Minnesota is a remote and peaceful place – just difficult enough to find to keep away the crowds, yet accessible enough to accommodate light camping of one or two nights. It is close to, but not inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCAW) and no permit is needed for an over night stay allowing for the possibility of impromptu get-aways. But most importantly, it is deep within wolf country.

My solitary trips in these woods are a time of peace and tranquility. I come carrying only my camera and a small portion of food and water, and I leave feeling spiritually renewed and replenished. There is something both humbling and awe inspiring about being a guest in such a powerful environment. These woods, my woods, are a part of something larger and limitless, and when I am in them I become a part of that same vastness.

The BWCAW is almost one million acres of federally protected land that sits just below the United States and Canadian border. It consists of well over 1,000 lakes, rivers and streams and nearly 1,500 miles of canoe routes. Directly across the border into Canada is the Quetico Provincial Park, another 290 plus square miles of raw wilderness.

It is not possible to drive into the B.W.C.A.W or Quetico Park – only to their edge. The only way to experience them is by canoe. With the exception of a few large lakes that would otherwise be dangerous, motorized boats are not allowed.

The rugged Canadian country north of the Quetico is dotted with a few small towns and crossed only by one major highway, the only paved road between my campsite and the north pole. The vast majority of the land between the BWCAW and the uninhabited tundra of the far north looks much the same way it did when the glaciers receded twelve thousand years ago. In their wake they scraped bare the granite bedrock of the Canadian Shield and left behind bonny cliffs, deep pockets, and an almost endless expanse of remote lakes and rivers. In the centuries between then and now, boreal forests of black spruce, jack pine, trembling aspen and white birch have made it their home.

Leaving my campsite and heading southwest down the Fernburg Trail and past the out-post town of Ely, the vast tracks of lakes and timber eventually yield to gentle rolling hills dotted with lakes, farms, and countless comfortable communities filled with the charm of small town life. Continuing on most roads eventually dump into the expansive metropolitan sprawl of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This was my home as a child.

In contrast to this picturesque campsite my youthful territory could not have been more different, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my father for teaching me how to escape the bowls of the inner city long enough to have discovered such an enchanting corner of the forest. As neighborhoods go ours was nothing of which to brag or be ashamed, but it was most certainly urban. My summer days as a child were spent on the seat of my bicycle cruising the concrete sidewalks with the local boys club in search of innocent mischief. I swam at the municipal pool, had sleepovers , tested my skills at (and mostly failed) a variety of junior league sports, and traded baseball cards on the sly so mom wouldn’t throw them away. Later, bikes became cars and sleepovers became all-nighters on the town. I am, by virtue of where I was raised, a city boy.

Yet despite our urban existence, the men in our family respected the annual tradition honored by so many city dwelling males. Each summer my father, little brother and I faithfully loaded the wagon with sleeping bags, firewood, tents, boots, and coolers and headed north. We traveled out of the city, past farm country, up the north shore of Lake Superior, and into the woods.

The woods!

How I loved the permanent smell of dampness and life. The smoke and crackle from our campfire inspired in me visions of another kind of existence. Licking the taste of fresh fried trout from my fingers, sleeping in a tent with only the sound of crickets, jumping from a canoe into water so cold it pierced my lungs, shafts of sun light dancing through smoke which curled and licked around tall pines These dark, lonely woods were filled with wonder and mystery and were certainly a welcome relief from the city-boy life I otherwise lived.

We had a favorite drive-up-and-park campsite on the southern shore of Gunflint Lake – a large, dark body of water that straddles the Minnesota, Canada border. While I was not overly bothered by our fellow campers only yards from where we pitched our tent, I nonetheless yearned for a true wilderness adventure on which no other human would be seen for days. I knew my father had done them as I remembered well the stories he told after returning home from such trips with youth groups from church. Alas, at the time I had been too young to tag along, and when I was older he was too tired.

Yet my father’s unwillingness to guide us on such an adventure was only a minor inconvenience, as day-trips required only light paddling and portaging to slip into unknown wilderness worlds rich with wonder and dripping with adventure. I would often look around at the vast tracks of water and woods and wonder what scenes had played out here over the past hundred years. Had French fur traders used these same portages on their long voyages? How many Native Americans had paddled these same lakes? And even now, what wild animals were hiding in the woods, deep enough within the trees to see us but not be seen?

Frequently on these trips I would stand quietly for long periods on the American side of Gunflint Lake, staring across what seemed to be an ominous amount of dark water at the distant Canadian shore. As a young boy it always seemed to be a powerfully long ways off, as if it were not just another country but another word altogether. Although I often dared myself to do so it was not until the age of thirteen that I mustered the courage to climb solo into a canoe and make the journey.

Against the immense forest I felt insignificant and unworthy of the experience. The rented aluminum canoe glided a long, crooked path and eventually scraped onto the rocks of the opposite shore. I climbed from the canoe and wet my bare feet as I waded the few steps to dry ground, where I stopped with my back to the water and the forest before me. There were no camp sites, no campers, no crackling fires, and no people. The air was still and the woods before me were hauntingly silent. I felt naked and alone.

Minnesota is a land dotted with forest covered acres. From its midpoint starting just near my home in St. Cloud and continuing northward, its many lakes and rivers are often surrounded by vast tracks of wooded country side. While many of these woods can be home to deer, fox, coyote, bear, bobcat, and recently even cougar, there is nonetheless a domesticated hollowness about them which resonates, and I can never escape the awareness that traveling only a short distance in any direction would again bring an encounter with human creations.

But not now. Not here. I knew from studying maps back at home that, when in the Boundary Waters little more then shear wilderness existed between you and the North Pole. Here before me was ancient, mighty, and untamed wilds and I felt as though it was whispering to me not in a way that could be heard, but only felt in the deepest part of one’s chest. It was if as if the woods were watching me and were aware, somehow, that I was trespassing on their territory, that if they could speak they would call me by name and ask what I wanted and why I was here. Had I walked forward I would have entered a world where man is not the dominant species, but a delicate and barely welcome guest.

It scared me. I scampered back to the canoe and paddled away, feeling all the while that something was watching me go.

Part IV – A Strange Dichotomy

In wolf country, deer must maintin a constant viligance against becoming dinner.

I don’t remember when my fascination with wolves first began. There was never a decisive moment or pinprick in time when I became aware of wanting to know them. It may have come as early as third grade when a man with a shaggy beard and a flannel shirt came to our school and told us of their plight. I sat on the gymnasium floor and listened spell bound as this untamed looking lumberjack of a man told stories of his encounters with wild wolves, and even invited us to close our eyes and listen as he howled just like a wolf might. I felt more familiar with wolves then most boys may age, as I’d already heard their howls many times. For almost as long as I had been making memories I had lain in bed at night, tucked away in our inner-city neighborhood listing to their cries.

Our home in St. Paul was almost directly across the street from Como Park and within earshot of the zoo, and among the many animal sounds the wind picked up and carried into my bedroom at night was the lonely, chilling bawl of a small captive pack. Safe in my bed the sound was enchanting and magical, yet like so many of us I had been wholly duped into believing that wolves are evil, and I often worried how many people they would kill if they ever escaped. The signs posted around their fence didn’t help: “Keep finger’s out – wolves will bite.”

Among the others there was one in particular which caught my imagination. He was larger then the rest and had a coat of midnight black and eyes that were bright yellow and penetrating. Armed with my father’s camera and working on the Photography merit badge, I stood one day at the edge of his fence and watched him turn circles in his small wooded lot. If this little band of wolves were let loose, I thought, he would unquestionably cause the most damage. Thank goodness there was a double chain link fence between us.

While I stood pondering this creature who I assumed to be evil and murderous, he suddenly stopped and for a moment turned his attention to me. For a brief time we made eye contact, and I was taken back by what I saw – or perhaps by what I did not see. In his stare there was no anger or violence at all – but instead I found a gentleness, a deepness, and a sense of understanding that bordered on sadness. In his eyes there was a level of intelligence that is rare even for some humans and I felt in his gaze that he knew and understood things about me that even I did not know and it reminded me of the whispers I’d heard on the shores of Gunflint.

Much later while home from college for the summer I found myself working on the grounds crew of this very same zoo, but the only wolf left on the property was kept in a small, fake rock enclave about the size of my parent’s living room.

I had a chance to enter the service tunnel of this structure and was present when a zoo-keeper was feeding this solitary gray wolf. As he unlocked the gate she pranced and danced in happy anticipation, wagging her tail furiously. I thought she was anxious for the food, but as the zookeeper entered her pen she ignored her meal, jumped up and nuzzled her head into his arms. I was shocked to see him freely run his hands through her coat and ruffle her neck like we would to a friendly dog. Didn’t he know that wolves are dangerous?

He asked me if I would like to do the same and I was suddenly presented with a strange dichotomy. Part of me wanted very much to embrace this animal, to scratch her neck and playfully run my fingers through the thick of her coat. But the other part was scared. I didn’t bring her food on a regular basis and was not as familiar to her as the zoo keeper, and I could picture her gracefully and easily separating me from one of my limbs. Today I wish I had taken him up on the offer, but at the time it had been too many years since I’d sat on the gymnasium floor in third grade entranced by the stories told by the wild man with a flannel shirt and beard.

They were stories of a life so transcending of human civilization, so misunderstood and wrongly labeled, that in the best of intentions man had attempted to entirely wipe then off the planet, and to survive it was forced to seek refuge in a nearly impenetrable world. I was haunted by their plight, and in yet in some small and distant way I also felt a connection.

Part V – A Bright Twinge of Comfort

In the pre-sunrise mist a beaver prepares for the impending winter.

There were times as a young, insecure and awkward child when I myself felt a need to withdraw to a place secluded and impenetrable where I could be left alone, unfettered and harassed by a confusing, intimidating, and at times down right terrifying world of adults where I frequently felt misunderstood and wrongly labeled.

To the dismay of my parents and teachers it was in my imagination where I spent most of my childhood, choosing to keep company with my thoughts which never judged, lost patience, scolded, or told me I wasn’t measuring up. “Your son is just not as smart as the other kids” my mother was once told by a well intentioned teacher. “You should not hold out hope for him accomplishing much in his life.”

School was a complete and utter bore and my refusal to comply with work assignments quickly earned me a label of ‘slow’. More then once I was removed from the main stream class and sent to specialists with cozy titles, being told that it was all for my benefit, yet knowing they existed to help the not-so-smart kids keep up with the normal ones. Among the IQ exams I was also assaulted with a battery of hearing and vision tests to determine if there was some physical reason for my seeming inability to perform.

My deeply concerned mother tried every conceivable effort to help me prosper according to the guidelines of success the system had established. She supported their efforts in sending me to specialists, even dragging me on several occasions to private child physiologists. I don’t remember ever verbally or physically rebelling against such visits, but silently I cried and retreated even further.

Compounding my perceived failures in the classroom was my inability to perform during gym class or on the playground. Although not physically handicapped in anyway, I most certainly was not bestowed with the coordination or sportsman abilities so admired by peers as a young boy. I stood forlorn when captains were named and the choosing of teams commenced, knowing my name would be called dead last yet again and even then only because the teacher would not permit both teams to refuse me membership. I was a thin and frail child and my quiet, noncompetitive nature was somehow offensive to the stronger, verbose boys, and I became a frequent target of the playground bullies.

My parents, who loved me dearly, surely must have struggled to understand their son who did not seem to tick the same way they did.

Yet despite the turmoil of the world around me which I tried only faintly to understand, in the solitude of my mind I discovered the ability to enjoy true freedom – to live and to explore as I pleased and to exist in solitude unbothered by the cold, uncaring reality. What I held in my mind was mine alone, and I guarded it fiercely against the teachers, parents, and child psychologist who attempted to pry their way in.

Frequently during these imaginative wanderings my thoughts turned to the woods which lurked silently to the north and to the secret wonders which abounded therein, for it was in these woods I’d first heard the whispers of true freedom and had begun to understand their potential thrill.

And at night, surrounded by darkness, I listened to the haunting howls of the wolves across the street and contemplated the connection I felt to the sadness in their cries. I remember being brought almost to tears when that man with a flannel shirt and shaggy beard told of how we had hunted and killed them, managing almost to eradicate them from among us. Yet I also remember a bright twinge of comfort when I learned that wild wolves still roamed my Minnesota woods, and somewhere in my mind these three patterns of imagination – wolf, woods, and freedom – fused and became one.

As I grew to know the wolf I became appreciative that the woods of Northern Minnesota were to them what my imagination had been to me: a sanctuary, a place to be left alone. The woods became a real-world embodiment of my childhood retreat, and in the wolf I found a kindred spirit.

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