The woods are silent in the snow, a great empty solitude, it seems. Oaks and others sleep where they stand, the leaves that cling to the oak branches rattle occasionally in a slight breeze. The chirps and cheeps of chickadees float through the forest, a welcome sound one only hears where other noise is absent.
I’m walking down a snowmobile trail in northwest Wisconsin. It’s hard-packed and corrugated by the treads of sleds, frozen and thawed a few times, so it’s as hard as any footpath. On a weekday afternoon, the trail is all mine, and it’s an easy surface for hiking a mile to the edge of the St. Croix River, to see a creek flowing along openly while the surrounding landscape remains locked in ice and snow.
My eyes are pushed down by the sun. It is low in the sky and seems to always be in front of me, cutting through the leafless limbs, glaring off the reflective ground. I squint and stare at the trail and watch my feet.
That’s why, when I’ve been walking a while, I notice a set of big paw prints have joined me on this solo sojourn. On a strip of soft snow amid the snowmobile tracks, a large canine came this way. The tracks are not obscured by the dusting of snow we got the day before, so they are fairly fresh. This is a strange place to see a dog, and I know there are wolf packs in the area.*
The trail makes for easy walking on both four and two legs. I keep walking along with the invisible animal, enjoying its company. The two of us are both headed the same way, and my companion follows a direct line, its destination a mystery. Then, somewhere around a messy trail intersection, the tracks disappear again.
Sticking to the main route, I follow it to the creek, where during the mid-19th century, two wagon roads intersected and connected to the main highway: the river. There was a trading post at this crossroads with a reputation for whiskey and all its problems. Here in 1849, a white trader was shot and killed by a Métis man, drunk on the trader’s illegal liquor. Shortly after, under new management, a group of drunk teamsters burned the post to the ground.
Perhaps wolves watched the debauchery from the shadows.
Now there is just the creek and the forest and a bridge for snowmobiles and horses.
I stand and watch and listen to the running water. The shallow stream flows between ice shelves along the banks, kept open by spring flow and kinetic energy. It’s as lively as the chickadees, singing like springtime, in defiance of the season.
After a moment of soaking in the sights and sounds, I turn and head back up the trail. Soon, I’m walking with the wolf again. I stop to photograph the tracks, studying them for some further clue. The animal dragged it’s paws slightly as it strode. It placed its paws flat, leaving impressions of pads and claws which throw their own shadows in the late afternoon sun. Farther along, I spot some hairy scat that could be a wolf’s.
I’ve seen wolves and wolf sign before, a few times, and it’s always an encounter with the living past. These were once the dominant predators across the continent, essential to the cycle of life, one with the deer, moose, and elk, keeping herds healthy and maintaining biological balance. Their howls filled the nights for countless generations. And now, they cling to existence in the upper St. Croix River watershed and a few other places in Minnesota and Wisconsin. More are cornered in pockets of the northern Rockies. North America’s native ecosystem refuses to die.
Wolves kill livestock sometimes, because cattle makes for easy eating. They scare people, though humans have killed many more of them than vice versa: an unanswered aggression, there’s a better chance a person in wolf country will be killed by a dog, lightning, bee sting, or a car collision with a deer. They’ll kill pet dogs that are off leash. Bear hunters just don’t like it that these territorial predators attack their hunting hounds.
Because of these reasons, as soon as wolves lost Endangered Species Act protection last winter, Wisconsin launched a hunting season that wiped out up to a third of the state’s population in three days. Three were killed in the county where I’m walking, two of them in this immediate area. I’m being vague about my location because, given the ease of searching the internet, I don’t wish to make it easier than it already is to wantonly kill one of these wild animals.
I’m still heading back toward the road, and soon the wolf’s tracks disappear back off the trail. I walk on alone. Not far from the finish, I see what’s left of a dead deer next to the trail. It has been chewed and gnawed nearly to oblivion, just a rib cage and some hide frozen in the snow, which has been packed down rock hard by countless animal feet, no doubt wolf among them.
Perhaps the wolf who made the tracks had killed the deer, or perhaps it died of disease, cold, or old age. Either way, it may have attracted the predator to the area, may have caused our crossing of paths.
I shared some photos of the tracks after I returned home, and multiple people with experience and expertise said it was likely Canis lupus. I think of its ancient ancestors, and this lone descendant, still walking these woods. I wonder if humans can make it as long.
As I was writing this essay, news came across that a federal court in Montana has restored Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in this region. Like magic, the article has become topical and timely.