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bookends

 

The deer trail cuts through the grasses, sedges, and sapling birches that have sprouted up along what used to be the shallow shore of Lost Lake: during the ten year drought, the receding waters have left a sandy margin around the circumference of the lake.  Cycles of drought and flood are natural in sand country: when we first found this land, the shore was lined with dead birch trees, all about thirty years old, that had rooted and grown during the previous drought and were then killed when the lake regained its high water level.

Also natural -- I suppose -- is the windstorm that converted the forest beside the lake into what looks like a tangle of enormous, broken matchsticks.  Although the frequency and violence of these windstorms seems to have increased in recent years (a result of global climate change?) tree ring studied indicate that tornadoes and straight line winds have influenced the ecology of the area since the retreat of the last glacial ice sheet.

I notice a black fleck on my pants that on examination proves to be a tick. Without breaking stride, I flick the tick into the high grass.  The upside of walking this deer trail is the generous, blue views of the lake, glassy and reflective in the calm afternoon.  The downside is that these grasses and sedges are home to thousands of ticks.

Ahead of me, the dogs pause, sniff, and then disappear into the high grass.  A few steps brings me to what caught their attention: a clump of loose deer hair.  A clump like this might have come off a body as it was being dragged, so I immediately assume that the deer was killed by a hunter during last fall's gun season.  A handful of steps along the deer trail brings me to another clump of hair.  The presence of multiple clumps of hair suggests to me that the hair did not fall off the deer while it was being dragged but was actively pulled from the animal's hide.  Which indicates that it wasn't a human hunter that killed this deer.

The dogs have not reappeared: they must be on the scent trail left by whatever killed the deer.  They'll catch up with me, I assume, and continue along the shore until I encounter another congregation of deer hair, scattered this time, and a dried mass of indecipherable dark stuff that may once have been entrails.  There's an organ in there too, shriveled and dried but with more mass than the membranous intestines.  I wonder what the organ was, and why it was left uneaten.  Farther along the trail I find more kill sign: dog-sized scats composed almost entirely of hair.  I don't see any fresh scat: apparently the kill has been exhausted and the predators gone.

But when I arrive at the eastern extreme of the bay, a large animal bolts from the protection of the high grass and into the straggly forest.  The animal's size is similar to a deer, but it doesn't move like a deer.  A snap-shot glimpse is all I can capture: an impression of fur that is tan or maybe dun colored and highlighted with black.  A thick tail, bushy, carried like a pennant or a banner: a tail held high, proud, dominant, fearless.  A wolf.

The wolf doesn't continue running: it stops as soon as it attains the cover of a few trees and then turns and faces me.  My eyes know exactly where the wolf is standing but the animal has positioned itself so perfectly that the stalky aspens camouflage its outline: the trees' bark and the wolf's coat are roughly identical in color and texture.  I can't distinguish the wolf's face but I know by the position of the body that it is watching me.  And that it is not afraid.

How does a person face down a wolf, an animal as large as a human, an animal that kills easily and without conscience, an animal seemingly without fear?  As the wolf watches me, I speak to it: not harshly, not gently, but as one intelligent being to another.  I reason with it.  Later, I wonder if I assumed that the wolf would pick up on my vocal cues as a dog would, or if I spoke to the wolf only to vent some of the tension that the stare of the predator had evoked in my entrails.

As I speak to it, the wolf does not move.  After I have my say, I shake my finger once at the animal as if scolding it, bite my lip, then hurry back to rejoin my dogs: wolves will usually kill any domestic dogs that wander into a pack's territory.

                                                           #

A week later on the Amnicon River floodplain, in my hands I carry a sack of fern fiddleheads and wide-leaved leeks -- an early forest plant whose leaves and bulb are a comfortable marriage of onion and garlic.  The sky heavy with rain, the river high and muddy.  Only one dog accompanies me: the indomitable Trooper, a stick ready in his mouth in case he can mooch a toss or two from me.

The river leads into a wide, sweeping bend that frames a narrow peninsula that is cut off in high water by an oxbow.  The oxbow leads to a slough; a slow, wide place in the river margined by a log jam.  A few days ago on our first canoe run of the spring, the swollen Amnicon swept us against the one downed tree that spans the river here: we barely managed to free the water-logged canoe before it stove in.

I'm startled by the sudden honks of a goose -- loud and abrupt, the gander is sounding an alarm call.  The floodplain forest -- black ash and silver maple -- is heavily understoried with alder and high bush cranberries, and from the oxbow where I stand I don't have a clear view of the log jam.  I assume that the uproar is due of my presence, but even after I freeze the agitated gander continues to honk.  Something else has riled the goose.  He might be protecting a nest or even hatchlings: yesterday I saw my first goslings of the spring, seven balls of yellow fluff swimming in tight formation between their parents.  I angle through the trees, hoping a better look will explain the  situation.

In pieces, I make out the log jam, make out movement, make out a thick, bottle-brush tail, gray or dun colored with black highlights.  My heart stops.  From my tracking this winter, I know that the log jam forms the southern boundary of the local wolf pack's core territory.  I try to motion to Trooper to stay near me.  The goose continues to honk, and Trooper, oblivious, continues on his course toward the log jam.  I'm weak with indecision: right now the focus is on the goose, but if Trooper blunders into the fray -- or if I call attention to his presence by my actions -- the dynamic could shift, along with the outcome.

Wordlessly, I follow the innocent wag of my dog's tail.  At the log jam, the goose still honking, I finally am able to positively identify the animal that has caused the commotion: a coyote, virtually identical to a wolf except for size.  And demeanor: as soon as it sees me, the coyote turns tail and runs as fast as its thin, stalky legs can carry it.  And it keeps on running until it has been completely swallowed by the floodplain forest, until the annoyed honks of the goose have calmed to an angry mutter, until my heart has again returned to its normal rhythm and I take the stick from the ever-eager and oblivious Trooper and hurl it as far as I can away from the river and the log jam.