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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)

Knock-knock. The ranger pops his head into our lean-to at Washington Creek Campground. “There’s a nor’easter blowing in. Gale force winds on Superior,” he says. “The ferry’s coming back to get anybody with tickets to leave tomorrow—they’ve got to go tonight. Like, right now.” Luckily, we’re two of the few with permits to stay.

“Nor’easter? We have to check that out,” says Mike, an enthusiastic storm-chaser whose passion for wild weather temporarily hijacks our itinerary. (Besides, while the Chippewa pack is known to frequent some areas more than others, the wolves are also known for ranging far and wide—who knows where they might be?) So instead of trekking into Isle Royale’s interior, we devise a five-mile detour to the north shore and Huginnin Cove, where we can greet the storm head-on.

The trail climbs gently out of the evergreens into a stand of paper birch; their yellow leaves glitter like golden coins in the building wind. When we reach the cove, I cinch my hood tight and shiver in the face of the building storm. A 50-mph gust drops me to my knees. Then, a sharp snap! I look left, and a 40-foot-tall spruce splits in half right before my eyes. “Yeeeeaaaah booooy!” Mike cheers.

We huddle up at a campsite sheltered by a phalanx of spruces and make lunch. When the trees bend double, we retreat inland to Washington Creek. By dusk, the storm blows through. The sky is clear; the air still. Then, a mournful moan comes from deep in the woods: “Uugghh–AAAUUUUGGHHHH–uuuunnnnggghh!” A cow moose in heat. We listen to her desperate groan for a half hour, then hear a splashing in Washington Creek just 20 yards away. The sloshing grows louder, moving in the direction of the moan. An 800-pound suitor is answering her call. But for the total blackout of a new moon, we might have been able to glimpse the bull moose. I run to the creek and shine my light, but can only see its wake.

The next morning, we break camp and start a 10-mile hike southeast to Feldtmann Lake, which the ranger had said was good moose country with lots of marshy habitat. And where you find moose, you might just find wolves (a wolf feasts on as many as 20 moose per year). We could beeline straight to Chippewa Harbor, which the last wolf pack favors, but it’s 40 miles away via the Greenstone Trail and even there the wolves are rarely seen, since that pack roams over the entire eastern half of the island. This way, we reason, we’ll at least have moose as a possible consolation prize.


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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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