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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)

The last time the wolf population was anywhere close to this low was in the early 1980s. During the wolves’ heyday, a park visitor brought his dog to the island, and the dog brought a case of canine parvovirus. The wolf population fell from 50 to 12 before rebounding to 30 individuals in four packs by 2008. But then a moose decline translated into a food shortage, and this, combined with decades of inbreeding, started to take a toll. There were only two packs by 2010. Then in February 2011, the Chippewa Harbor pack raided the Middle Pack, killed its alpha male, and dispersed the others. If the two females on the island don’t reproduce, the population is doomed. The last time Isle Royale’s wolves had new blood for their gene pool was in 1997—during a severe winter that reconstructed the ice bridge to Canada and allowed a new male wolf to immigrate. But the warming temperature of Lake Superior has deflated biologists’ hopes for another freeze-up.

If Mother Nature doesn’t act, the National Park Service might, by introducing more wolves. It’s been done before (Yellowstone, for example), but it would be unprecedented on Isle Royale, where scientists have remained hands off, observing wolves and moose in an isolated wilderness laboratory. Peterson says he is in favor of introducing wolves if they die off naturally on Isle Royale: “As long as there are moose on the island, I think there should be wolves. Ecosystem health is what’s most important to me. And we know that large ungulates, in a setting without predators, can do extensive damage to an ecosystem if left uncontrolled.”

Reintroduction might be easier said than done, though, given the glacial pace of bureaucracy. So far, all park officials have said is that they’ll conduct an internal study on Isle Royale’s moose and wolf populations in 2012, which will be followed up by a formal environmental review.

In camp, tearing into boil-and-mix tuna curry by lantern light, Mike and I ponder the meaning of the wolf chorus earlier. Were they on a fresh kill? Then another sound echoes across the lake—unnggh, unngghhh, UNNNNGGGHHH! A bull moose, grunting, in search of a mate. But, as before, I can’t see him.

Three days into this trip, having trekked Isle Royale north to south, we’ve heard plenty of wildlife but haven’t seen a thing. But Isle Royale isn’t a zoo. If you want guarantees, go look at a wolf behind a fence. Here, I’m interacting with wilderness—finding antlers, hearing the grunts and moans of the rut, even getting scared stiff by howls. I take a last bite of noodles and walk over to the lake to look at a billion glinting stars. A faint light begins flickering to the north, subtle curtains of amoebic ghostly white. The aurora borealis. Something else you can’t see in a zoo.

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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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