A Wolf Kill, Right Outside My Door

It feels like wolves are everywhere right now. At the property down in Tomahawk, Wisconsin where I’m working for my assistantship this semester, we’ve been finding fresh tracks and territory-marking urine (although we have yet to get the wolves to answer our howls) And meanwhile in Land O’ Lakes, a wolf killed a deer within sight of my house. That’s how you know you really live in the wilderness. There wasn’t a lot left by the time I got home to see it last weekend, but there are lots of photos on the school blog here. While we were excitedly perusing them I asked the other Tomahawk graduate assistant, “What does it say about us that we’re this fascinated by a gory, disgusting deer carcass?” “That we picked the right career,” she answered. Very true.

Wolves are controversial in Wisconsin. They were completely eliminated from the state by 1960, but recolonized the area on their own in the late 1970s – they weren’t reintroduced by humans the way they were in Yellowstone. Despite the fact that wolves pose almost zero danger to humans (and that in the rare event that wolves kill a domestic animal, the state government reimburses the owner), there are sadly still a lot of Wisconsin residents who hate and fear them. At the movies over the weekend I overheard someone walking out of a showing of The Grey, Liam Neeson’s new action movie about people stranded in Alaska defending themselves from (completely unrealistic) bloodthirsty wolves, say disgustedly “I can’t believe the state thinks those are nice animals.”

Consider me firmly in the wolves-are-awesome camp. As someone who was a little obsessed with wolves as a kid growing up in decidedly wolf-free Ohio (I devoured Julie of the Wolves and all of its sequels), always imagining wolves in pristine far-away wildernesses like Alaska or Yellowstone, it still seems surreal that now I live somewhere with wolves literally outside my door. If I get to hear them howling in the distance at least once while I’m living in Wisconsin, I will be very, very, very happy.

Howl

It was the last scheduled activity of a long, tiring, overwhelming day: a group of environmental educators, including me, was going on a wolf howl with the assistant director of the center hosting our conference. He had talked about wolf ecology for what seemed like forever as the little group of us stood on the deck outside the dining hall, shifting our feed restlessly while falling snowflakes settled onto our heads and shoulders like dandruff. Now, finally, we were following him out onto the expanse of the frozen pond, traipsing through the foot of snow covering the thick ice. Thinking of the slumbering turtles, frogs, and fish beneath my feet add to theĀ surrealistic feel of the moment. Where I’m from, it rarely stays cold enough long enough for it to really be safe to walk out onto ice. To North Woods natives standing in the middle of a frozen pond might seem normal and secure, but not to me.

Finally the leader of the walk left us and walked to the edge of a little island nearby. Our instructions were to wait in silence for ten minutes, to let the night settle after the inevitable noise of our passing. Then he would howl and hope to entice any wolves in the area to reply.

Have you ever stood outside for ten silent, motionless minutes on a snowy night? What light there was seemed to emanate from the snow itself, which gave off a soft, silver, otherworldly glow. Ranged around me in the gloom were the other people on the walk, facing out toward the trees in every direction, hands at their sides, still as statues. The only sound came from the steadily falling snowflakes smacking gently against our shoulders. Ten minutes stretched into eternity.

The howl, when it came, cut through the night like a siren. It echoed off the trees around us, and just as it faded into silence he raised his voice again and howled a second time. We waited, but no answers came from the hills.

A shadow detached itself from the island, approached us, and resolved into the grayscale figure of the walk’s leader who’d been doing the howling. Under his breath he counted one, two, three, and on three we all threw back our heads and howled ourselves. Howling at the sky, howling full-voiced into the January night. Howling requires letting loose and forgetting your inhibitions.

The wolves still didn’t answer. It didn’t really matter. We turned and returned the way we had come, talking among ourselves, the spell broken.