I wake up every morning thinking about wolves. Before letting the dogs out on their leashes, I make a visual scan of the backyard. While I’ve never seen a wolf there, the wild canines live in our Hovland neighborhood and occasionally attack local dogs. It is prudent to be vigilant.
One September evening a few years ago, I came home to find a large, male wolf standing in the road in front of my house. I drove toward the animal to shoo it away. The wolf leaped across the ditch on the opposite side of the road (which is wooded) and then paced down the right-of-way. About 75 yards beyond my home, it stopped. I pulled the truck up beside it, separated only by road ditch. Rolling down the window, I shouted, “Hey wolf! Get out of here!” The animal ignored me.
I shouted again to no avail. I got out of the truck, thinking that would surely convince the wolf to run away. It took a couple of steps and stopped, perhaps 20 feet away from me. More shouts were ignored. I considered hopping across the ditch and approaching the wolf, but thought better of it. Instead, I hurled a baseball-sized rock near the animal. Finally, the wolf slowly trotted into the woods.
You might think the wolf was behaving abnormally or was unusually bold. Having experienced other close encounters with wolves, I’m not so sure that was the case. Of all the denizens of the northern forest that I’ve encountered, wolves are different.
Consider the cold November morning when I was making my way deep into the deer woods. I was moving quickly, but quietly along a snow-covered overgrown logging road, pausing occasionally to look and listen. That’s how I heard approaching footsteps. Although I was hopeful it was a wandering buck, the footsteps didn’t sound like a deer. I wasn’t surprised when a beautiful black wolf appeared. We looked at one another, perhaps 40 yards apart. Then the wolf turned and walked back into the woods. Unafraid, it stayed within my view as it moved away. I suspect it heard my footsteps and came to check out the source of the sound. Discovering I was neither deer nor moose, potential sources of food, the big predator simply walked away.
Similar encounters with wolves while sneaking through the woods in search of a buck has led me to believe they routinely investigate what they hear but cannot smell. When I’m hunting, my goal is to be inconspicuous, because a whitetail buck is even warier than a wolf. I always hunt with the wind in my face to lessen the odds a deer will pick up my scent. A whitetail or wolf that catches a whiff of human scent will head in another direction. Dense forest cover ensures that encounters with either critter will be up close.
Nearly always, you’ll hear an approaching animal before you see it. Sometimes it will be no more than the sound of a breaking twig. Usually, you’ll hear footsteps. Deer tend to take a few steps and pause. With practice, you can tell the steps are made by hooves. In contrast, a wolf walks quickly and quietly on its pads. My hunting partner once had a wolf approach very close before it came into view.
“Now I know what a wolf sounds like,” he said afterward.
The most recognizable sounds made by wolves are howls. More than once, I’ve woke with a start on a winter’s night to the sound of wolves howling not far from my house. Sometimes this means they’ve pulled down one of the neighborhood deer and are about to have a feast. At other times, I’m not sure what the howling is about.
Last fall, I was grouse hunting with my two yellow Labs along the same old logging road where I’d once encountered the black wolf. We had just reached the edge of a high ridge when howling started up somewhere in front of us and perhaps 100 yards away. In addition to the full-throated sounds of an adult wolf, the high-pitched yaps and half-howls of pups chimed in. Without hesitation, I called the dogs, turned around and started back the way we had come. There was no doubt our presence had set off the chorus.
Dogs and wolves don’t mix. Wolves don’t tolerate dogs and will kill them. When I’m walking in the woods with my dogs, even when grouse hunting, I try to make enough noise to announce our presence and avoid a surprise encounter. Still, it can happen. I was hunting grouse in an aspen thicket with my old yellow Lab, Tanner. Hunting dogs seem to never forget the places where they’ve flushed birds previously and Tanner had flushed a few in this thicket. He was hunting intently. Even though he was no more than 75 feet from me, I couldn’t see him in the heavy cover.
Suddenly, I heard more noise in front of me than one hunting dog could make. I called Tanner and was surprised when a wolf burst from the brush 10 feet in front of me. The wolf was surprised, too, and immediately veered away. I kept calling and another wolf ran out from the same place as the first, also veering away. Still, no Tanner.
I kept calling and out popped the dog. He gave me a look that seemed to say, “Can’t you see I’m busy hunting?” I called him to heel and started out of the woods. The dog was clearly not happy to end his hunt.
In retrospect, I think we had happened upon a couple of young-of-the-year pups, which would be nearly full-sized at that time of year. I don’t know what interaction occurred, if any, between the wolves and the dog, although they had to be within a few feet of one another. Since Tanner typically isn’t distracted by deer or other critters he encounters while hunting, perhaps he paid the wolves no mind. But I shudder to think that had the wolves attacked, I may not have been able to crash through the cover quickly enough to save him.
I’m not sure what those two wolves were thinking. Nor do I know the thoughts of any other wolf I’ve encountered. What I do know is that they were thinking, because what impresses me most about wolves is their obvious intelligence. We co-exist in this place and rarely do we meet. But when we do, it’s always memorable.