Sunday, April 12, 2009

Women who run with the wolves

It was March 1992. I could hear the wildness in her voice. My lovely wild wife, on the phone. She had been out on the ski trails outside Ely and was calling me at work. Deer hair on the ski trail. Spine tingles. Wolf scat. Fresh steaming deer carcass in the middle of the trail. Invisible eyes in the forest trained on her.

The women in my life run with the wolves. Sally runs with the wolves. And now, so does our poodle Chloe.

Now here we are in April 2009. How lovely it is to ski across a frozen lake in early spring! The snow is flatter and smoother than any groomed ski trail, and the great spaces call to you to explore. For a human or a dog, it is temptation revealed...and easily fulfilled.

We left the boys in the cabin and took our skis to Fenske Lake, a lovely lake off the Echo Trail that has only a few summer cabins on it. We spun around the shore, tucking into bays, marveling at the lateness of the winter and the hold it had on the land. Chloe was in doggie heaven, spinning circles around us, dashing this way and that, unfettered.

Nearing the narrows, we saw a bald eagle sweep down out of a white pine and disappear across the lake.

As the time approached mid-day, the ice began to groan and pop with expansion, the first hints of breakup only three weeks away. The deep sounds gave me just enough anxiety to spice the day and make it wild.

We had made it two-thirds of the way around the lake, past the portage into Little Sletten Lake and nearing the same narrows where the eagle had been. Chloe stopped her spinning and circling on the ice. For the first time that day, she dashed up off the lake and into the woods. She reemerged on the ice just as Sally and I rounded a point to see an instantly familiar shape on the ice 50 yards ahead. Brown and red, a leg sprawled this way or that, and, importantly, a few bare ribs up in the air. The freshest wolf kill I'd seen in years.

At first, Chloe ran right to it. Then she stopped, five yards out, just like she does with a stranger on the beach. Did the deer carcass still smell alive? Or did Chloe smell the invisible wolves in the forest, just as Sally had sensed it? Chloe is so fuzzy and matted, her fur might have been standing up straight along her spine and we'd never know it. But she was definitely spooked. Submissive, as if trying to keep her butt in another time zone, she slunk another foot or two closer to the carcass.

I came closer. Signs of its freshness were everywhere. The stomach and intestines lay on the ice a few feet away, intact. The rib cage had been broken, but the deer's eyes were still dark and clear.

Our instinct? Get away. Partially because we felt the wildness and the power of death and knew it should be given its space. But also because we worried that Chloe would get brave and try to feed. Even though she is a citified poodle, she is genetically still a wolf with a spiritual taste for raw flesh.

These woods of northeastern Minnesota are wild because they have wolves. Visitors, human or canine, can taste that wild. Like any bracing tonic, it might make your hair stand on end. So much the wilder!

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