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Wolf tracking in Minnesota's wilderness

On snowshoes and in aircraft, they pick up the trail of the celebrated predator as part of a wildlife retreat.

By Ed GoodpasterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 2008

Three friends rendezvous in northern Minnesota to study and track a celebrated predator.

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Ely, Minn.

As the rental car cruises up Highway 1 just outside this small northern Minnesota town, on a bright late-winter afternoon, a solitary animal lopes across the road a safe distance ahead and disappears into the snow-draped woods.

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The car's three passengers stop their conversation. Certainly not a deer or bear, one says. Too small. Not a coyote, says another. Too large. Could have been a dog, says the third. But that lope...

A wolf, a wild wolf.

A lone wolf.

Verified or not, it is a perfect opening for the adventure the three retired newspapermen are about to begin. And a perfect opening for a discussion, wordsmiths that we're supposed to be, of the origins of "lone wolf." Nobody is certain.

That and almost every other question about wolves you could think of is to be answered over the next four days. This is a trip to do two things. One, learn more about an animal that is loved devoutly by some but to others is the snarling Satan of lore that terrified villages and ate Little Red Riding Hood and her grandma. Second, to visit again one of America's grandest and least-known preserves, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the Canadian border, a place of green abundance each of us first saw more than 50 years ago.

"Immerse yourself in wolf study at the International Wolf Center" in Ely, said the Elderhostel announcement. "Observe the resident pack of wolves and study wolves in the field," it went on, by walking the trails in snowshoes and learning the ways of locating packs from the air.

They had me at first reading. Then they had my two monthly lunch buddies. We have been friends since we worked together in the 1950s in Minneapolis and then migrated east. Ely would be the site of a duffer reunion. On snowshoes.

• • •

Ely is the site of the nonprofit wolf center, which expanded into its impressive, tourist-friendly wood-and-stone structure in 1993, primarily because that's where the wolves are. More than 2,500 of them roam the "wolf range" in Minnesota's northeast corner, more than any state in the Lower 48.

Neighboring Wisconsin and Michigan have far fewer. As center founder and biologist L. David Mech points out, they "are separated from Canada by magnificent Lake Superior; Minnesota is merely politically separated."

The center focuses on education about wolves and their relationship to the world around them. To help, they keep a captive pack of four wolves in a natural enclosure that allows visitors to watch their habits up close. They are varying colorations and ages of Canis lupus, the gray or timber wolf that is the most common in North America. Four pups will join them in June.

Ten of us show up for the program, from Vermont, New York, Florida, Tennessee, California, and Maryland. We settle in our cabins on a small lake not far from the center and put ourselves in the dexterous hands of Jess (Jessica) Edberg, information services director of the center.

She's a small-town Minnesota product who studied animal science and then chose to focus on the wolf. Over the next four days, she moves seamlessly through a two-hour PowerPoint lecture on gray wolf ecology; identifies all tracks, markings, deposits, plants, and trees found on a trail; teaches us the electronics of tracking wolves from the air, answers the remotest question about the animals and local ecology; and helps you relate to snowshoes. All done with a modest smile and the self-reliance of a young woman who lives alone with her dog and her truck and plays on a women's hockey team called "Chicks With Sticks."