I’m up early and excited on a late-January morning, knowing that the tracking conditions are great today. Six inches of snow lay across the state forest floor in eastern Jackson County. Two inches fell yesterday on top of a crusty, thick four-inch base. The precipitation came to an end at about 8 p.m. last night. Turning south off of Hwy 54, I noticed the road wasn’t even plowed yet. My enthusiasm began to peak.
As I turn onto a sandy secondary road my eyes begin to read the tracks, discerning deer from turkey and coyote from a gray fox with each release of my foot off of the gas pedal. The road ends at a turnaround one and one-half miles into the state forest. After parking my truck, I decide to head southeast on foot.
My pace is significantly slower in six inches of snow since each track demands closer inspection to identify it before moving on. Walking slowly brings my mind to life. A slow gait is a perfect speed in which to absorb and to notice everything else in the forest that may hold clues pertinent to finding wolf tracks. The wind, moon, snow, birds, sun, and temperature all guide my ideas and instincts as to where the wolves “should be” given the present conditions of the forest.
At 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the level of animal activity is high. Tracks of snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer, and short-tailed weasel criss-cross the landscape before me. Since I left my truck the vegetation has changed from the open edge of pin oak woods into a damp substrate interspersed with jack pine, white pine, and wild cranberries just under the snow. I can’t resist nibbling on the cranberries, just as other forest dwellers do.
I stop for a small break on the south side of a large cluster of hazelnut shrubs. While dusting off a log to sit on, I take a reading from my compass. The westerly wind is gentle and complements the warmth of the sun on my face. My direction of travel is changing slightly toward the south. I pull out a canteen and drink some water before continuing on. The snow is fresh, but it isn’t cold enough to make the classic “squeaking” sound as I walk upon it. My thoughts are beginning to wander a bit. It isn’t easy to maintain a mental focus for long periods of time.
Peering ahead, I see that the surface of the snow is broken, yet this disturbance has unique characteristics, differing from all of the previous patterns. As I approach the new trail, something inside of me seems to relax. I’ve found them! Standing a few feet from the trail I make sure not to damage any part of the trail that I haven’t had time to look over.
This wolf is trotting, placing each rear foot into the track of the corresponding front foot. The pattern is the same when a wolf walks, only when trotting the strides are longer and the body has a single airborne phase, as diagonal legs leave the ground in unison. Measuring from the toe of the right compression to the toe of the left compression reveals a 30″ stride. This is on the short end of the spectrum for a wolf, but he/she probably feels safe and comfortable in its home range without any recent human activity to cause him/her stress and spark increased caution.
After sliding a daypack from my shoulder I take out a notebook, pencil, and tape measure. Journaling my encounters have proven to teach me even more after I revisit the entries at a later date. I take my time to draw one relatively clear print. My eyes squeeze details from each toe, claw, and heel pad, while my fingers do their best to replicate this beauty onto a piece of paper. Closing my eyes, I’m able to see the track clearly in my mind. Being able to see the track in this way tells me that I can stop drawing, since the track is a part of me now.
The tracks are heading west into the wind, and in the general direction of the road I came in on. Slight paw drag marks are present in the snow, but appear odd since the marks are so wide and erratic. The tracks are relatively clear, yet the compressions seem larger than normal. This trail is fresh, probably only 4-5 hours old, since the tracks are still soft to the touch and fragile. It doesn’t take long for track walls in snow to firm up, even when the temperature remains below freezing.
The wolf moves with an effortless stride, creating the feeling of its tempo in my own chest. This tempo is old, as old as the earth and it reminds me to pay attention to my own thoughts and actions. The pattern left behind by the wolf tells me that he/she is healthy, highly alert of its surroundings, and has very advanced forethought about where it wants to go and why. Nothing the wolf does is without a reason, knowing full well how to conserve its own resources in accordance with Creation’s basic laws.
The tempo changes, but is not broken, as the one trail becomes five in an instant. I’ve seen wolves move together like this before. No matter how the leader places his/her paws, the others follow in an exact fashion, moving through the forest as a fluid unit. The wolves help each other in this way to conserve the precious calories with which they need to survive the cold.
The break in this single-file pattern occurs as the wet sparsely vegetated habitat melts back into a pin oak forest. The largest wolf’s tracks indicate a pause and left rear leg lift to urinate on a young jack pine tree. The urine volume is no greater than someone spitting into the snow. Yellow, stained snow is on the small pine 18 inches above the ground. Wolves wish to announce their presence, especially to other local packs. Urine is just one of their calling cards. The human family also has numerous pack territories, but their conflicts are far more brutal and affect all life on earth.
Two of the wolves travel abreast to one another after leaving the urine post, while the other three travel together in a less certain manner. The two small sub-groups seem to ebb and flow toward each other and then back away, always remaining in sight or earshot of the other group. I feel as though I am in the center of the most efficient hunting party on earth and they have become my silent teachers.
The largest wolf stops every 250-300 yards to urinate on another territorial marker and he also pauses very consistently to check his rear for danger. The track pattern reminds me of the hook in the letter “J” when he pauses to look back over his shoulder. I make note of these “J-turns” in my journal and how he does them less frequently in dense cover. Obviously, he is aware of maintaining safety for himself and pack members. Irresponsible hunters have illegally shot wolves not far from here in the past couple of years. In the past, Lakota hunters would return to camp after a successful hunt and sing a Wolf Nation Honoring Song. They knew that tracking and observing the wolf could increase and deepen their knowledge of the landscape, including where to hunt for food.
Suddenly, the entire trail veers toward the base of a white pine and urine is left at the base of the trunk. Then, just as quickly, the wolves resume their original direction of travel. I notice an unfamiliar set of tracks near the tree. The tracks plow through the snow and have an almost serpentine curvature to them. A noise comes from the treetop as I spot a porcupine starting to climb higher. To the wolves, nothing is unimportant in their territory. Even the tracks of a lone porcupine are acknowledged.
I am growing tired. The excitement, cold, and distance have begun to take a toll on my endurance. The sun is beginning its descent toward the western horizon as the wolves’ tracks enter a tag alder swamp. Gliding above, around, and under the maze of branches, I move closer to the center of the tag alder swamp when I notice something that few people ever get to see in their lifetime. Scattered across the ground are the impressions of five wolf beds in the fresh snow. It makes so much sense to me now. Looking toward the sky I feel the warmth of the afternoon sun, there is a lack of wind against my face, and the density of the tag alders provides a fortress of security from troublesome poachers. I carefully move toward the center of where the pack had rested only hours or minutes before I had disturbed their siesta in the sun. I can see where each wolf was facing, where each leg was placed, and how each head was positioned. Small numbers of guard hairs line the snow in each bed. I take my time studying each one, noting the differences in color and length. After learning what I can, I decided to take a short nap myself. What better way to learn about a wolf than to sleep where it sleeps and expose myself to the same elements, sounds, and smells that determine how a wolf must live?
Waking up, I feel refreshed. The sun has fallen considerably in the sky, so I decide to begin my walk out to the truck. Before leaving, I kneel down, placing my hand delicately onto one of the wolf beds. Closing my eyes, I visualize the wolf that slept here. Without words, I express my feelings of thanks to the wolf for teaching me its secrets this cold winter day.
It is near dark as I reach my truck. A crescent moon is floating low in the sky, pointing out the cardinal directions to those who understand its silent language. I’ve tried howling to wolves in the past with little success, but since I am so close to them today, I decide to try it again. I take a deep breath, cupping my hands around my mouth, and bend over slightly before releasing a long, low howl toward the sky. After waiting just ten seconds, the pack responds all at once, their beautiful voices filling the still night air. The pack is only one-half mile ahead of where they were sleeping earlier today. They must have moved from their beds when I arrived and settled in somewhere nearby until dark. Content with this last communication, I start my truck and begin the drive out.
My lights hit the intersection of the gravel forest road and something is steaming in the middle of it. Getting out of my truck, I decided to investigate. Crouching in the road, the object is unmistakable. It is a wolf scat one and one-quarter inches thick, eleven inches long, and full of deer hair. The pack came from the woods to the south and beat me to the road, leaving me a final farewell and then re-entered the forest heading northwest on an ATV trail a short distance down the road. My emotions are somewhat mixed about this message, but as I resume my drive home I decide to tell people that the scat meant the wolves “liked” me. This sounds better since the other explanation in human terms would be pretty hard on my ego.
In any case, the wolves had shown me a tremendous amount today about the landscape and its secrets, simply because I was willing to walk, listen, look, and feel what was taking place. I can’t help but ponder what the rest of the world did today.