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4/5/2022
Please connect with this link to read all of On Wisconsin Outdoors reporting on the wolf issue over 2021/22.  We will continue our work and our commitment to bring you nothing but the truth to the best of our ability. To have a PDF of our work e-mailed directly to you, please e-mail us at ellis@onwisconsinoutdoors.com. You are welcome to share this link or our PDF with anyone concerned with wolf management in Wisconsin or the future of ...
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Tracks in the Frozen Wild

John Luthens

It is the depth of winter in the northern forests of Douglas County, Wisconsin and I’ve been in the backcountry for five days now. Tracks wind like a map for miles and seem to have no end. I’m exhausted. I’m exhilarated. I am living and trekking in an arctic world of secrets that needs to be experienced to be properly understood.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

Snow sits like clouds on the pines, cascading down in thunderous avalanches when the faintest breeze stings off of Lake Superior and rustles through the branches. I find myself encrusted in a living snow globe. Sunlight flashes through the falling blizzards in dazzling bursts, blinding but beautiful. I’m covered with fragrant powder and my face is on the verge of being are sunburned from the frigid glare coming down from above.

I venture down packed snowmobiles trails when I’m lucky enough to stumble across them, but after I veer off and cut into the unmarred snow, the drifts are two-feet deep in the open. Game trails have become my best option. Deer, coyote, fox and wolf –all of the animals following the same cuts through the snow in order to conserve energy in this harshest of climates. The tracks tell the age-old story of survival of the fittest, but I’m no seasoned reader. They are written in a wandering code and they take me plodding hours to decipher.

Rabbits have crossed the main game trails in staggered intervals, some fatter prints that I’m convinced were made by snowshoe hares, and smaller ones that could have been made by common cotton tails. Other than their size, I find it nearly impossible to tell the bounding prints apart. The fur of the cotton tail remains brown all season, while the snowshoe becomes decked out in pure white camouflage and sports a protective pad on the bottom of its feet. I keep my camera at the ready, trying to get a rare shot of a snowshoe, but they’ve so far remained elusive.  I’m not interested in following either species of rabbit into the brush. They lead into a labyrinth of snow tunnels beneath the deadfalls that would suffocate me into a frozen cocoon.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

I manage to track a porcupine to his home in the top of a red pine. He is easy to follow, steadily plowing a winding trail that looks like the path of a serpent. It is fifteen degrees below zero with the sun setting below the ridgetops when I finally spot him. The pine is nearly stripped clean of bark. He perches and watches at me with decided indifference, knowing full well that he holds the advantage of warmth, food and protection. I get turned around in a network of alder bottoms heading back for civilization. The snow is thigh deep and I’m feeling dehydrated. I don’t find my way out till long after dark. A single porcupine almost killed me.

It snows. Then it snows again. I set up an afternoon blind in the balsams along the edge of a drifted lane to shoot photos of deer who are moving to feed. It is a solitary place. The deer began to flock through in waves, moving toward bird feeders at a cabin down the way. It feels like I’m in the midst of wild game preserve.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

 The storm passes and the moon rises full to throw glowing diamonds on the newly-fallen snow. Shadows dance around my blind like phantom spirits. I hear a pair of owls calling to each other in preparation for a moonlit hunting expedition. The deer are still moving through, and I spot a single snowshoe hare padding across the frozen lane to escape the owls’ cries. The stars are a frigid carpet above and the world below shines white like the rabbit’s fur.

I’m tracking a timber wolf on my final day. The prints look like they were put down by a large dog, and it’s truthfully impossible for me to differentiate between the two. About the only way I know for certain is by the location.  I am miles from nowhere with no other human prints around. The wolf is shadowing a fresh game trail in a straight-arrow line. I’m breaking through the crust with every step and am struggling to follow. My breath steams the air with heavy clouds. I push further into the snowpack and up a pineclad ridge where the snow is not so deep.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

The sun is slanting low through the pines when I come upon the wolf’s kill. The deer carcass has been picked clean, nothing wasted.  Light sifts through the laden branches and throws purple shadows across the blood stains in the ridgetop snow. There are no wolves to be seen, and I lose the trail in the trampled carnage of the kill site. Perhaps they are watching me from a distance. Or perhaps not. There is no way to know for certain.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

Pines glow mellow and warm and in the sunset as I wind back down the ridge. It is like walking between the pillars of a hidden cathedral with arches of white sweeping above. Life and death and an endless story of survival; The reality of a northern winter is not always pretty, but the setting that it unfolds in is nothing short of magic.

On Wisconsin Outdoors

John Luthens is a freelance writer and photographer from Grafton, Wisconsin. His first novel, Taconite Creek, along with a nonfiction collection of his stories, Writing Wild: The Tales and Trails of a Wisconsin Outdoor Journalist, are available from Cable Publishing at www.cablepublishing.com

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