Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Track

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. . . .There was something new to me in those eyes--- something known only to her and the mountains. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves more deer that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise, but after seeing the green fire dire, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." -Aldo Leopold 

"Two Toes" Right Front Paw
 "How lonely is the night without the howl of a wolf." -Unknown 

I live to be outdoors.  I can't imagine being further than a few footsteps out my door and stepping into the woods.  I live in the heart of West Central Wisconsin, between the soaring coulees  of the driftless zone and the deep forests of the north.  There has always been a part of me that knows the northwoods is home, maybe from years as a kid spending time with my grandfather there hunting and fishing.  There is another part that knows the steep ridges and valleys of the south west, and when I have a chance to climb those hills, hunt or ski or bike them, I take it.  But I live in the middle and am fortunate to to have an outdoor world when I open the door, where I can clip into my pedals, snap a binding closed, chamber a twenty gauge shell or press a shutter.  Sometimes more than one of those things come together on the same day.

A mile down the road is the 133,000 acre Clark County Forest, and further south are the Jackson County and Black River State Forests.  They all provide habitat for wildthings and those of us who enjoy them.  Being fortunate to live so close, I take advantage of it all.  Despite a less than usual winter, my skis still have found the trail, and fat tires and snowshoes have packed snow.  Since I'm in no great hurry, and that seems to be the case the older I get, I try to take in more.  To notice more.  

I hadn't skied two or three minutes from the trailhead when I cut across two sets of prints-one I recognized immediately.  "Two Toes."  I had named him a few weeks ago while skating down a trail at Levis Mound.  The wolf had entered the trail from the east, and loped along marking trees as it meandered along for a mile or so on the groomed trail.  Something about the track looked distorted as I skied along.  Finally I stopped and took a closer look-yep, the two middle pads a front paw were missing.  "Two Toes" had a name. A smaller set of tracks joined him, a female I'll assume and together they cut across several ski trails heading west.  The new prints, Two Toes and his partner, seemed bolder, having entered the trail just a few hundred yards from the ski chalet.  Again, they seemed content to follow the packed snow, venturing off from time to time to mark or take scent of something unknown to me.  My ski workout now turned into more tracking, and I found that to be just as valuable a use of my time. 
Tracks on West Levis
 In the low light of the afternoon, it was easy to follow the line of tracks ahead-they created a deep shadows pressed into the snow.  Finally, they left the trail and ascended Levis Mound only to return a few clicks down the trail-another chance to follow them.  For a time, I wondered if they were just ahead and might offer me a glimpse-that would have been exciting, for I've only seen one in the wild, last year while grooming these very trails.  They had other ideas and again went off track and headed west.  The skis would take me out and around a few more trails and I eventually did cut the pair's tracks again, along with another lone male who lives in the area.  They headed toward a deer carcass I'd found, but just short of reaching it, something stopped them and they retreated into deeper woods.
Two Toes and Partner- Pine Run
 For some around here, the social carrying capacity of wolves is zero.  There are no shortage of "No Wolves" stickers on the tailgates of pick-ups  parked at the supper club and bar down the road from my home.  There is distain because the wolf is seen as a competitor by some, frustration because wolves will not tolerate other canines and will protect their territories.  I view it as they have a place in our outdoors and as a hunter I am nothing more than a predator as they are, except their life depends on hunting.  Maybe they deserve the harvest more than I?  Like Leopold, I doubt a land with fewer wolves would be a paradise, but rather something less.  I do  know that when I see those tracks, when I know they, and other wild creatures are there, that I am in their domain, it makes my world richer.
Tracks in Tracks
"Their paw prints lead you along trails of discovery and insight.  To look in their eyes forever imprints your heart.  To hear their howl forever marks your soul.  To connect with them, forever bonds your spirits" -Unknown

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