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Backpacker Magazine – September 2012

Going, Going...Gone?

Wolf howls have echoed across Isle Royale National Park for decades. But with the once-widespread predators down to a single pack, the time to go hear--and maybe spot--them is now.

by: Gustave Axelson

Feldtmann Lake Trail (Layne Kennedy)
Feldtmann Lake Trail (Layne Kennedy)
Feldtmann Lake Timber Wolf (Layne Kennedy)
Feldtmann Lake Timber Wolf (Layne Kennedy)
Northern Lights Above Feldtmann Lake (Layne Kennedy)
Northern Lights Above Feldtmann Lake (Layne Kennedy)
 On the West Huginnin Cove Trail (Layne Kennedy)
On the West Huginnin Cove Trail (Layne Kennedy)

Will you be there to see Glacier’s last glacier melt away? Would you race to Yellowstone if the geysers were drying up, or to Denali if the grizzlies were on the brink? Dumb questions, right? What backpacker wouldn’t max out the Mastercard to witness the last of these iconic national park symbols?

That’s why my friend Mike Kooi and I made a pilgrimage to Isle Royale last autumn. The island’s legendary wolves could become the first such icon to disappear in the 21st century. The predators have been a defining and haunting presence here since they first crossed a 15-mile ice bridge from Canada 60 years ago. But there’s only one pack left on this isolated, 45-mile-long, boreal atoll deep in Lake Superior. And the wolves’ time looks to be running out. They might not survive to howl at your kids. Heck, they might be gone by 2020.

We know the odds of actually seeing a timber wolf are against us. Even in places like the Boundary Waters, where wolves are plentiful, humans rarely glimpse the elusive animals. (But imagine the odds against wolves establishing themselves on this island in the first place.) And if we fail, the booby prize isn’t so bad—five days of hiking some of the 165 miles of raw, Northwoods trails that crisscross the island.
As we unload from the ferry at the Windigo dock at Isle Royale’s western end, a smiling park ranger assembles the nearly 20 passengers (mostly day-trippers) for a mandatory Leave No Trace talk. He also shares good news: “You’re here at a very special time of year, the moose rut. It’s when our bulls are drunk on testosterone.”

“I hope we see a bull moose getting devoured by wolves,” Mike quips sotto voce.

Moose came to Isle Royale about 50 years before the wolves, crossing the ice, or maybe going for a long swim, sometime in the early 1900s. The phenomenon—an isolated wolf population on an island with an all-you-can-eat moose buffet—spurred a groundbreaking wildlife research study that started in 1948 and is now the longest-running such study worldwide. The research findings have been legendary: They have influenced not only wildlife management regulations but also unexpected fields like arthritis research (poor nutrition in early years increases risk by 50 percent). Scientists have witnessed some incredible population surges, such as the mid-1990s, when Isle Royale had more than 2,500 moose (more than six per square mile), and the late 1970s, when 50 wolves in seven packs patrolled the island (that’s a wolf density five times larger than Yellowstone’s).

But now both moose and wolf populations have dipped to their lowest levels in decades, and the wolf needs a miracle to keep from being snuffed out. At press time, only nine remain. Five exist as the island’s Chippewa Harbor pack (with only one female); on the other end of the island, a male and female make a tandem biologists have dubbed the “West End Duo;” two more males roam as loners. The winter of 2011-12 was tough for the wolves: The Chippewa Harbor alpha male might have died, and no pups were born. Ecologist John Vucetich, one of the study’s researchers, says, “The future of this population may well rest with the West End Duo.”

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Oct 04, 2012

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Sep 23, 2012

except for biologists; perhaps we should stay the hell off the island!!

David Douglas
Sep 22, 2012

I had the privilege of seeing a wolf pack at Hidden Lake in 2008. We came upon the pack while they were feeding on a moose in the water. One was standing on the dead moose, it appeared to be a small island. The wolves swam to the opposite end of the lake and lay down waiting for us to be on our way. We got some great pics! It was my 10th time to the Island and my first seeing wolves! A truly memorable experience. Since that sighting I have seen two lone wolves on other trips. Here's hoping the best for the wolf population on Isle Royale. Nothing like hearing that lonely call in the middle of the night.

Sep 21, 2012

Keith, your comment is filled with ignorance - sounds like a sound bite from the NRA or Farm Bureau.

Sep 20, 2012

Any talk of transplanting a pack or two from Canada or elsewhere?

Sep 20, 2012

I just returned from a week and a half on the island. The wolves are, indeed, only 9 in number, but from Candy Petersen - there are 6 males comprising the Chippewa Harbor pack, a male/female pair near the northern shore - generally east of McCargo Cove, and a lone male north of the Greenstone and generally west of Mc Cargo cove. As of the first of Sept - it is unknown whether the pair has reproduces, and this female represents the tipping point of the wolves on the island - she is the only female, and if she does not breed, (or the lake does not re-freeze) the only way the wolves can survive is an introduction of new wolves.

If you're on the island - a visit to the Petersen Cabin is a great afternoon. They welcome visitors and are eager to share their experiences and wisdom. Take the Sandy tour to Rock Harbor Lighthouse, or rent a canoe or beg a ride - there are no trails that lead to the Petersens. (I suppose you could bushwhack from Moskey Basin to there, but that's REALLY hard going.

What this article doesn't mention is that the mystery of the three wolves who "vanished" has been solved. They were located, drowned, in an ancient (Native American) mineshaft (previously unknown to exist) this spring. One female and two males were found. It's a tragedy. (read here for more :

As for the trip itself - it's a WONDERFUL place to go. If you go durring the summer, the mosquitos and black flies can be crazy-making - repellant isn't enough - you need a head net. Go in the fall - see the colors, and be bug free. Bonus - there's WAY fewer people after labor day.

One other word - while this is a National Park, the "trails" that exist are barely maintained. And for some the going is seriously hard. Many of the trails are hardscrabble and slick-rock marked by infrequent cairns. Pack your trekking poles and be sure you have good, well-broken-in boots. My little one (8) and I have hiked many National Parks, and the trails here were WAY harder than we anticipated. Only a good attitude, and great preparation in terms of conditioning saved us.

Sep 20, 2012

The one and only time I've seen a wolf in the wild was on Isle Royale. It was late afternoon on our second day in and we were pushing ourselves to get to the next campsite. Tired, slogging, and feeling a little stressed, I glanced up the trail and there was a wolf about 100 feet ahead of us just standing there watching us. I had to blink to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I alerted my companion and whoosh there it went. My hiking partner only caught a glimpse of the tail. It was the most magical moment in all my hiking experiences. A-mazing.

Sep 20, 2012

Well come to the west where there is an over abundance of wolves!! Eating all the wildlife, farmers cattle, etc. Or go up to Canada and Alaska if you want to see them in their so called "wilder state"!!

Steve Hammontree
Sep 20, 2012

Great article! What month in the fall were you there? My wife and I have got to get up there!

John Locke
Sep 20, 2012

If you would like to hear wolves, come to
Algonquin Park in Ontario. No shortage of them

Joe Rossi
Sep 13, 2012

Very nicely written. Its not often I have the patience to read an entire article online! Well done!


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