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May 1999

Wolves’ Long Journey Home

While the wolf reintroduction debate rages across the country, in Wisconsin the animals are simply reclaiming their rightful place.

But, in the summer of 1996, things started to unravel. Fred’s signal disappeared and he was never found. His mate, the Alpha female, was found dead along a roadway, apparently hit by a car. Then, in the winter of 1997, Jude’s collar began giving off the “mortality signal” that alerts researchers when an animal hasn’t moved for an extended time. She was eventually found near her den, dead and pregnant with a litter of pups.

“It was a tough loss,” Dr. Stewart says. “You try to keep some scientific objectivity with these wolves and not develop a relationship that’s too personal, but sometimes that’s all but impossible.”

With no radio-collared animal in the pack, the Rainbow Lake wolves could not be located. For more than a year, the study group’s howls in the night went unanswered. Their searches for wolf sign turned up nothing. It seemed like the pack had vanished.

Then, a month ago, out on a field survey, Andrea found a track. A few weeks later, Lindsey and Karen got an even bigger surprise. “It was our second howl,” Lindsey says as we sit on the edge of Anderson Lake, the water so still the few clouds reflect perfectly on its surface. “We tried one howl at midnight but got no response, as usual. Then we tried again a little later.” It was 12:26 a.m., according to their field notes. “I was just starting my howl when the wolves cut me off. It started with yips and barks, like young wolves. Then the adults came in. They were all doing the chorus thing.”

“We stood there in complete awe,” Karen says, her eyes wide even now with the memory of what, for both of them, was their first experience with wild, howling wolves. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing.”

“At first, it was awesome, but after a while, it struck me,” Lindsey says. “There we were, pretending to be wolves in their territory, and they were talking back, telling us, basically, to get out. We were so scared, you can hardly read our survey notes-our hands were shaking so bad.”

“It made me feel hopeful again,” Andrea says of the renewed contact with the pack, “being there in the beginning on all those nights when there was nothing, no signs at all and now having them start to come back again.”

After they finish the story, we sit in silence, straining to hear anything that might be a howl or the scrape of a claw against stone. There is only an owl calling from across the lake and the sudden slap of a beaver’s tail so close it makes us jump and then laugh.

The plan is to wait until midnight, when the woods are still and the wolves most active, then begin our howl survey. We will hike the trails by moonlight, trying several different locations. Although no one wants to admit it, it is unlikely we will hear a response. Wolves travel widely and could be miles away tonight, or they could be close and choose not to answer. Only about one in 10 howlings brings a response.

As we wait for dark, we take a sunset hike out of camp. Rainbow Lake Wilderness is small, just 6,583 acres of pine, oak, and birch, spangled with a dozen or so small lakes. A 6-mile stretch of the Northcountry Trail cuts through its center. I’ve hiked here several times-years ago when there were no wolves in the state and again, more recently, when there were just rumors of a pack. As we hike, the light softening to a pale orange on the birch trees, I wonder if the place should somehow seem wilder to me now that there could be wolves. “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves,” Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac.

The presence of wolves gives the land a raw edge, a sharpness. It is not just howls or the flash of eyes by firelight. It is the possibility of rounding a bend in the trail and finding fresh tracks in the mud or catching a glimpse quick as a shooting star of something furred and graceful and gone. It is the feeling that

the forest has eyes, that there is still a little wildness left in the place. The presence of wolves gives the land a pulse and I can feel it in my own.

Back at camp, we sit in the dark, talking softly about where we will go to try our howl, laughing about getting lost in the dark and wandering through the trees all night. Lindsey decides to roll out her sleeping bag, and Andrea heads for a lakeside log to sip her cup of tea. I struggle with my camera as a three-quarter moon glows silver-white on the bark of the birch trees. It is then that something wonderful happens.

The wolves start howling.

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