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.
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."
My first Jess-help comes the next morning on our hike across the lake and back to try out snowshoes. My fingers are cold and wet, and I am falling behind. She recognizes a duffer when she sees one. Soon I am shoed properly and off. The snowshoes are old-fashioned with wood frames and plastic webbing. I fall once, stumble a couple of times, but I have company.
We spend the afternoon at the wolf center, studying the elaborate exhibits and hoping for the animals to howl. They don't.
That night at the lodge Jess spins the tale of the "wolf bird," a raven that is always around to help the wolf finish off a kill. In northern Minnesota, this is usually a deer. Wolves feed mainly on hoofed animals, which brings trouble when they get too close to farms and cattle. But they'll supplement their diet, Mech says, "with anything they can catch: beavers, snowshoe hares, squirrels, mice, domestic sheep, goats, pigs, cows, horses, turkeys, and even dogs."
Outside, before bed, we look for the northern lights that can illumine the skies over Ely like phosphorus this time of year. But none.
Elderhostel literature calls Ely the "quaint but bustling gateway" to the boundary waters area. Bustling, certainly. Quaint, no. It has about 4,000 residents in the winter and several times more in the summer, and its proximity to Minnesota's Iron Range gives it an ethnic influence and blue-collar ethos that makes it a bit harder-edged than Garrison Keillor's quirky, Scandinavian-centered Lake Wobegon.
You can get a walleye pike sandwich for a song and buy wild rice (soup grade) for less than $4 a pound. But the grocery stores also sell European sausages and the polka music is more Slovenian (some nice waltzes) than the German style farther south. Another Ely flair: Spring and the melting of the lake ice, which is ushered in each year with a musical at the local college. This year it's "South Pacific."
• • •
Snow fell overnight and the next morning the historic boundary waters trail that we are to walk is a thing of quiet winter beauty. Snowshoes, easier to get on this time, make more sense for balance on the rolling trail. Over two miles, we spot a long list of sights – wolf and other animal tracks, their markings and scat, an eagle's nest.
I make it without a hitch, then fall on my face trying to take off my snowshoes. No wolves but I agree with myself that if we don't see a wild one during the rest of the program I'll settle for just that beautiful walk.
Actually, wolf movements are tracked these days not on foot but by air. Small planes with portable antennae search for wolves that have been captured and fitted with radio collars.
The next morning we set out to do some aerial surveying of our own. We divide into two groups and weigh who's best equipped to be the "copilots" on the four-seat Cessna. It comes down to a test. One person carries a telemetry box and another waves an antennae, trying to find where Jess has hidden two radio collars.
My group waxes the other. We find our collar – and theirs. Our "copilot" gets the first student seat.
At the airport, though, we discover there won't be as much of a chance to use the fancy equipment. An instructor flight before us has already found a pack of wolves gathered around a fresh deer kill. The snow is dark with blood.
Once airborne, our telemetry box quickly picks up the signal from the scene. The pilot descends and begins a tight circle.
He tips the wing downward to reveal the primal tableau we've all seen on film but is now starkly real below us: wolves in the wild, a part of the rhythm of these woods for centuries, certainly way before man began eavesdropping from the sky.
At that night's session, a bit of melancholy seems to set in. We all know we're heading back toward our routines the next day. One of the duffers has already taken an early flight home.
The other duffer and I hope to blunt the transition, or at least prolong it, by taking in another Minnesota ritual – attending a hockey game, in Duluth. It's the first round of the "Frozen Four," the women's NCAA championship. Besides, we find out that Jess will be there.
Maybe she can help us preserve the whole adventure a bit longer.