Lowell Carlson

LOWELL CARLSON

I

 have seen two wolves in my life, both gone within seconds like a puff of smoke, but they have stuck in my head ever since.

Go to wolf country, up north in Minnesota or out west, and you will hear them long before you see one, if ever.

It’s true that thing about hair standing up on the back of your neck the first time you hear a wolf howl. In the fading light of day the sound of a pack of wolves running a deer along Wasson Lake in northern Minnesota spreads across the glass surface into the wild rice bed and boat my wife and I and our children were fishing from.

Their reaction was fear and flight even though we were in deep water with zero chance of seeing the pack as they ran along the shoreline.

Coyotes and dogs, their distant cousins, yip and bark. You hear them with your ears. Wolves? You hear them in your chest. That low start of a long, deep howl just transfixes. Like a hanging, it focuses your thoughts instantly.

On a hike along Lake Superior’s North Shore Trail on the Split Rock loop I found fresh wolf tracks in the mud in boot prints of a party not far ahead of me. In the minutes they had passed through before I reached the spot a wolf had trotted through as well. The wolf’s line of travel was across the trail and into the brush. They leave an exaggerated, big paw print in mud. This is their world. We just get to walk through it.

In October 1976, I went, alone, to northeast New Mexico for one last climb of Mt. Wheeler (elevation: 13,167 feet) before Brenda and I moved back to Iowa and the start of my newspaper career in Maquoketa and Bellevue. Wheeler is the tallest peak in the state, but it’s simply a task of vertical, nontechnical hiking.

From the trailhead to the summit the Bull-of-the Woods route was a 16-mile round trip including 2,000 feet of a scree slope beginning at timberline. It was critical to keep moving to not be caught on the mountain when the sun went down.

There were quaking aspens in full color on the way up and then struggling conifers. After that, there were near-tundra conditions at the summit as you moved through micro climates based on elevation.

In the 1970s there were officially no wolves in New Mexico. The Mexican wolf, or lobo, a subspecies of the gray wolf, had been trapped, poisoned, shot, dug out until a handful were left in the wild.

At timberline I found shelter from the wind and cold behind boulders and cooked beef stroganoff and tea on my pack stove. 

After lunch I adjusted my pack and stepped out from behind the boulder and there it was, lanky, slate gray and as surprised as I was.

Your first thought is what is a dog doing alone this high up and then it dawns, it’s a wolf. It dived behind rocks and was gone in a blink of the eye.

You’re alone. No one else is there to witness it, and it makes you wonder if you actually saw what you saw.

Apex predators like wolves, animals that have the ability to kill you and other large prey, are the material of myth, comparison, sworn enmity, and even brotherhood. Humans made early wolves into the dogs we call family members now.

They are animals that can run flat out or trot-run all day; a wolf can crack deer bones in their teeth with jaws that exert up to 1,200 pounds of pressure per square inch. They work cooperatively for the good of the group and submit to hierarchy not unlike we humans.

The last wolf I saw was at 4 in the morning Labor Day weekend last year 12 miles east of Duluth along a stretch of four-lane Highway 61. It was standing over a dead deer, and in the headlights of the truck its eyes were like red coals in the rain and darkness. 

Wolves are expanding into, or rather reclaiming, areas they have not been seen in for decades and sometimes a century. California, Oregon and Washington are seeing them appear without any effort to transplant by state or federal conservation agencies.

People like me rhapsodize about seeing wolves. Yet, I would probably be an implacable enemy of them if my cattle or sheep had to face the terror that must be paralyzing when a pack attacks in the night. Shoot, shovel and shut-up is the real code of the west these days. As a result, struggling populations of the rare red wolf in the Southwest are hanging in the balance.  

The odd wolf appears in the strangest places. Just north of Dubuque a dead wolf, initially believed to be a coyote, was discovered near Durango some years ago. It was likely a solitary wanderer, perhaps an outcast from the several packs now established in the Black River State Forest in Jackson County, central Wisconsin.

In 2016, two canines that tested positive as wolves were killed by the public in Osceola and Van Buren counties. Like the occasional black bear and even mountain lion, these animals are like the unstable electron in the outer shell of an atom, roaming vast spaces but never truly at home or at rest. 

In all, Iowa coyote hunters have killed four gray wolves in the last 10 years, all believed to be wanderers from Wisconsin and Minnesota. It’s a tough call to distinguish the difference in the field. As a result the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been reluctant to file charges even though wolves are a protected species.