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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)

But even the island’s moosiest hollows seem sparsely populated these days. Rolf Peterson, a Michigan Technological University ecologist who has worked on the Isle Royale research project since the 1970s, has tracked an 80-percent decline in the moose population since the late 1990s.

“We need to figure this out,” he says. “We would expect the moose population to be spiking right now. There is plenty of food and the fewest wolves since we started keeping track, so we expect the number of calves counted each spring to go up. But that doesn’t appear to be happening very quickly, though there have been signs of increase this year.”

He postulates the stalled growth could be due to a warming climate. By collecting fecal pellets in winter and analyzing hormones, he has identified low pregnancy rates as a top factor in the flagging population. And since ovulation rates are directly related to fat reserves, perhaps female moose aren’t feeding enough during warmer summers and autumns, spending their time cooling off instead.

To be sure, there are still lots of moose on Isle Royale—the 2012 count is up to 750, or more than 1.5 per square mile (a density nearly equal to that in Maine). And during the rut, the terrain in hot spots like Feldtmann may well be an ungulate red light district.

The route to the lake starts with a level stroll through mixed spruce–birch forest, then we take a hard left turn, climbing switchbacks 200 feet to a grassy ridge-top terrace. Dark red maples and yellow birches carpet the forest below, interrupted by ribbons of evergreen stands and a tangle of lazy creeks flowing through muskeg. From here, the trail rides the spine southeast through meadow after meadow. Alongside the trail in one of the clearings lays a moose-antler cairn—two antlers stacked atop each other. In the next meadow, another antler hangs in a tree. Since it’s illegal to take antlers off the island, backpackers decorate the trail with moose sheds. At Feldtmann Lake, a stack three antlers high towers at our lakeside campsite.

The howl electrifies the still evening air. Mike and I freeze like scared rabbits. Our private lakeside campsite is tightly hemmed in by dark forest. We haven’t seen another living thing all day, but obviously we aren’t alone.

Another howl, this one closer. I peer into the veil of thick balsam firs, but all I can see are branches and needles. A third howl. Now all three in unison!

“They’re just a few yards away!” Mike whispers. My heart pounds so hard I can barely hear Mike. I start to sweat, mostly with excitement, partly with fear.


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READERS COMMENTS

coco
Oct 04, 2012

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John
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.

Steve
Sep 21, 2012

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

Ronin
Sep 20, 2012

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

Karen
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 : http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1112609175/isle-royale-wolf-pack-decimated-by-deaths-of-three-wolves/

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.

Anonymous
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.

keith
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
there.

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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