Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tall tales?

All at once the wonder and the majesty 
of being very alone, deep in the woods
was interrupted by the very
real possibility that I was not.

And how they speak the truth: Part I

I was out for a morning in the woods with my camera and notebook, actively searching for some inspiration to take home with me when it happened. I had left my house early in the morning, right around sunrise to get the maximum amount of time in before the day’s duties could bear down on me. Since I had entered the woods, the falling snow had increased in both volume and frequency, creating a magnificent blanket of fresh white all around me. Many ideas had come and gone. Some I liked and tossed around in my skull, others I laughed at because they couldn't possibly go anywhere. I had come up with a good statement to make for this column -- then it happened and everything changed.

Maybe 30 yards from the riverbank is where I heard it. Down where the popple, birch, and balsam give way to thick nets of cedar and moss-covered boulders. Below the cedar canopies the snow was falling like sluggish rays of light, anywhere it could seep in past the high-up blankets of evergreen leaves.

“Crack,” and then, a pitter-patter of footsteps. Heavy sounding footsteps.

I froze and scanned my eyes through the vegetation in front of me. I turned my head, and then whipped it around as I heard another sound. This one was more like the sound of... of something hard scraping against a tree or possibly a frozen patch of ground. Perhaps it was a buck making a scrape, that sound. My eyes kept scanning and my ears were wide open. I realized my jaw was clenched tight, grinding the molars in the back of my mouth.

It was a deer, right? I was sure of it. Probably that big doe I’d seen in the meadow a few nights before. Right? Or maybe it was a young buck, fresh on her trail. The rut was in full swing; it made sense he would travel into her territory even during this wet snowfall.

I strained to hear more, reached up and tucked my wool cap behind my ears so they would fan out and catch more sound. All I heard was the snow. Flakes of soft white crystal struck the trees, the leaves on the ground, the mossy rocks, my shoulders, my boots. The onslaught of snow reverberated through everything it touched. It was so magnificently quiet, yet so ridiculously noisy all at the same time.

As I waited for another hint as to what was prowling in the low cedars, my mind raced back to a hundred similar situations as a young boy when I’d be adventuring through the woods and encounter noises I couldn't quite identify. In those days I usually imagined a bear as the culprit. In the spring especially, when they had cubs and I knew the sows wouldn't hesitate to get aggressive should they find me too close to their family - that’s when I always worried it was a bear.

Now though, things were a bit different. This time of year most black bears are already curled up in a den somewhere, especially during snowfall. What was really running through my brain were the recent reports on multiple sightings of a very large, very alone, very bold, black timber wolf.


“Oh what the hell!” I whispered loud and urgently to myself. I turned toward the sound, sure that this was a new location from the previous. Something was moving down there in the dark.

Rolling through my brain came talks of the six or seven-foot “cruising killer” as I had heard it called. This wolf was supposedly huge, estimated at 130 pounds, with an excessively long black tail marked with a bright grey tip. This supposed killing machine was said to be crusading through northeast territories in Wisconsin, making his way west in more recent weeks. They say he settled for only short periods of time before moving on, perhaps due to other wolf packs or perhaps being chased with torches and pitchforks by townsfolk. Who knows? One thing was for sure though, he was creating quite a name for himself: Large and in charge.

Consider the story from the bow hunter who had a stand just east of Manitowish during October. He claimed to have seen the black lone wolf two days in one week. While in his stand, the buck hunter watched this monstrosity of canine brawn come down the deer trail with his head and tail down, moving swiftly with his nose to the ground. Upon stopping a hundred feet from the deer stand, the wolf looked up, directly at the bewildered man as if to say, “I see you,” and then proceeded to mark a tree stump with a defiant shot of urine before going on his way.

The man swears on the gospel of Paul that not only did the previous happen, but the very next evening, as he returned to his truck at dusk, turned his headlights on, and looked up over his dash, the wide, jet-black face of this same wolf silently stared back at him from the road berm not 20 yards in front of his vehicle. The third day at noon, in full sunlight, he pulled his stand out of those woods.

Other people have had their theories that the black cruiser was responsible for multiple dog depredations south of Marinesco earlier this year. Walleye and muskie fishermen have claimed to have seen the animal boldly showing himself up by Mercer and around the Turtle Flambeau Flowage. Some have said this defiant loner is part dog - due to the description of his facial features and his boldness towards humans.

Now, I’m not saying I believe the stories, or at least maybe not all of them, but I’d be lying to claim it wasn’t on my mind suddenly. Besides, all those tales cover hundreds of square miles. What are the chances that same animal was suddenly here, alone with me, in the woods?

I was still motionless, ears perked and eyes scanning as I reasoned with myself. Seconds passed without any indication I was about to be viciously attacked, and finally my body slackened a bit. My breath came out in a puff of steam.

“This is stupid,” I whispered again to myself with a chuckle of relief following. I turned and took a step towards the hill I had come in on, eager to get out of the low slung trees and up into the open woods.

Just then, a new sound crept into my ears, and my heart crawled into my throat - a low, dark growl came crawling through the swamp, and what I saw out of the corner of my eye was a tuft of long, jet-black fur.

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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