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Magnetic North - February 14, 2018

Timber Wolf.jpg
Timber Wolf.jpg

Magnetic North 2/13/18

There Be Wolves in My World
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where today I dare to speak of one of the three things I have learned never to bring up in polite conversation lest I offend. Not politics. Not religion. But the thorniest of the big three, at least in these parts - wolves.  Fact is, there are as many opinions about wolves as there are people in the northland. So I come not to praise or convict the beasts, just to share my limited experiences with them with you.
 
That said, my farm critters and I share a world with wolves. Any and all of my critters, from the tiniest bantam chicken to the bulliest billy goat would make a lovely meal for the fabled predator. And some have. As for me, when I moved here from the city many years ago, all I knew of the wolf was that one ate Red Riding Hood’s gramma, and others hang out with vampires. I knew that they would as soon gobble up my pet dog as take a moose calf. And I was properly freaked out by that prospect, even as I left the city and headed 300 miles north into wolf wonderland, the North Shore and forests beyond.
 
And so, it was no surprise to me that when Paul and I settled here 27 years ago, we found ourselves and our wolf fears tested on the very first night in our new home. Our bedroom faces on our  long winding driveway, and we had the windows open to enjoy the August breeze, so the distant sound of what sounded like a whole lot of dogs yipping, woke us up around about midnight. “Hear that?” Paul whispered, obviously thrilled with the nearness of coyotes or brush wolves. But his thrills turned to chills as the yipping got close and closer to our house, then seems to be, and in fact was, heading straight for our open windows.  By the time the pack veered off into the forest, probably after some poor prey animal, Paul and I were sitting bolt upright in bed, bug-eyed and scared silly.
 
“Close the bleeping windows,” was all Paul said after the sounds died out.  Thankfully, that was a one-time experience. Maybe even a welcome to the hood, thing.
 
It was Paul alone who had the first up-close-and-personal encounter with a timber wolf on our acreage. He went for a walk in our woods to scope out a potential trail to the back forty and Little Brule River. Paul was notorious for disappearing for hours on end in the woods, but that day he reappeared in less than half an hour.
 
“Somebody on this road has a gigantic German Shepherd,” he said with a nervous laugh. “I mean, the thing was coming right at me on the trail, then stopped when it saw me and loped off into the brush...sort of like a wolf.  Ha, ha, ahem, I mean, it might even have BEEN a wolf,...” he dithered on, now rummaging around in our unpacked moving boxes.
 
When I ask him what he was looking for and what the heck did he mean by “it might have been a wolf, he just kept on mumbling about it probably was a dog, but no, it must have been a wolf, until he found his trusty rifle.
 
“Whatever it was, I’m not going out there without this,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t worry, wolves are more afraid of us than we are of them.
 
Well, he could have fooled me on that one. The color still hadn’t returned to his face by dinnertime.
In the years to follow, Paul and I repeated the experience of seeing a wolf, or wolves and having our brains instantly imagining that they were really dogs. It must be some kind of primitive denial thing, but it always gives way to, “By golly, that IS a wolf!”
 
And yes, I have lost critters to both brush and timber wolves. To date, two turkeys, ten guinea hens and three geese disappeared, leaving enough forensic evidence to indict wolves, rather than other uninvited dinner guests. We learned to identify who did the killing by the scene and sometimes, the state of a carcass left behind. Wolves don’t leave anything but feathers strewn out all over the place. Raptors and owls leave a neat pile and, if there’s snow on the ground, wing impressions on either side of the pile. And weasels, such as martens, leave a Steven King horror show which I refuse to describe and wish I could completely forget myself.
 
So far, no goats, even though my little flock of five free range over the meadow and sleep in a barn whose door is wide open. Oh, I’ve seen wolves on the meadow. A pack of nine sauntered from west to east one sunny morn in late fall, paying zero attention to the fat, juicy goats in the corral as they passed. For their part, the goats were just as disinterested in the wolves. But Paul and I were pretty revved up. We got a picture of the pack as it passed the lone white pine on the east meadow and Paul urged me to “howl or something so maybe they’ll turn around.” He wanted a better picture. I howled....howled my very best, but for all that the wolves merely stopped for a few seconds, seemed to look at each other - maybe exchanged a few snide remarks about “people” and vanished.
 
The only other wolf seen on the meadow was a lame one, limping from the woods to our pond. This time, I was in a combative mood and took after him with a broom. Perhaps the chickens and ducks were out. But he simply kept on going, stopping only to relieve himself, a clear sign of his opinion of me and my antics.
 
As cutesy as these stories are, I am acutely aware of the heartache suffered by a number of my neighbors and friends who have lost beloved dogs to wolves, often cruelly hearing the last cries of their pets and unable to save them. For this reason, I do take precautions. My dogs run loose on my meadow by day when they need to go out. But by night, they go out only on leash, even if it is in the wee small hours and double digit below zero weather. This practice does not eliminate the risk, but it does cut it down.
 
This winter, I’ve seen no wolves and heard them only on my computer, which I fire up almost every night for my bigger retriever, Jethro. He likes to howl, but produces mostly strangled squawks, so I play YouTube videos as tutorials for him at night at bedtime. Lately, Jethro seems to have found his voice, pursing his muzzle, angling his silky black neck upward, as he shuts his eyes and let’s a low, mournful note flow from his throat. I clap and tell him he’s ready for America’s Got Talent, then I let him jump up into bed next to me. And my “secret wolf” and I sleep in blissful ignorance of what goes on in the night forest that surrounds us.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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