Fierce Green Fire: The wolf that may not have been

July 28, 2010

"Just outside of town, we saw a large canine (pictured) trotting alone along the road. It had the long legs and wide snout of a wolf, but with a coloration and ear shape more characteristic of a coyote. Missing was a bushy tail, a common characteristic of both."--Jonathan Hicks

Editor’s note: The following is the third in a three-part series. The first part appeared in the July 7-13, issue, and the second part appeared in the July 14-20, issue.

By Jonathan Hicks
Staff Writer

In the 1970s, when the gray wolf had been extirpated from the rest of the continental United States, the one place they remained was northeast Minnesota. Since then, in large part because of the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act, those healthy packs have now spread, and healthy populations can now be found throughout the upper Midwest.

While this causes trepidation for many of those still haunted by childhood tales of wolves that wear red cloaks and others that blow down little pigs’ houses, it was a dream come true for my girlfriend and me. In fact, our exploration of this part of Minnesota was largely inspired by the fact that currently the healthiest population of wild wolves in the lower 48 states resides there. Still generally elusive, they were mentioned by a number of people who had seen or heard Canis lupus. The tones of these stories varied, from the Duluth Gander Mountain store employee who was ecstatic, to the cabin proprietor (also mentioned in part one of this article) who feared for the safety of her kids.

This polarization of opinions is common when wolves are the topic of conversation. Only a week prior to our trip, it was reported that the first U.S. wolf attack in modern times had taken place in Alaska. Still, I would describe our feelings as a “calculated enthusiasm.” By that I mean we were excited by the prospect of seeing the apex predator, encouraged by the knowledge that attacks were both rare and avoidable—though admittedly, I strategically failed to mention the incident to my parents. (I assume the wolf is out of the bag now, so to speak…sorry, Mom.)

Our first day in Minnesota, we visited the International Wolf Center in Ely (www.wolf.org). We spent the bulk of the day observing the pack’s interactions and learning from the facility’s expert staff. Armed with current research, a healthy knowledge of natural history, and a fresh dose of local insight, we set forth into Superior National Forest in search of the much-debated canine.

As readers who perused the first two parts of this article have already learned, wildlife sightings were infrequent. During our week, we never even managed to find a single wolf track, let alone spot one or hear a howl. Truth be told, we didn’t really expect to…it was simply a high hope.

As we left Grand Marais, our stomping grounds for the latter half of the trip, we headed south along Lake Superior toward home. Bright hot sun and a clear blue sky accompanied us. Just outside of town, we saw a large canine trotting alone along the road. It had the long legs and wide snout of a wolf, but with a coloration and ear shape more characteristic of a coyote. Missing was a bushy tail, a common characteristic of both.

The creature stayed in plain view for nearly 10 minutes. Pulled to the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, I took photo after photo, gathering visual evidence through the car windows. What was it? I said coyote. My girlfriend said wolf. Votes from the two-person highway construction crew nearby were also split.

After the canine moved off, we continued driving, debating mile after mile what it was we had seen.

This column began and got its title from the words of Aldo Leopold, who described the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf. In the very first FGF (Feb. 20-26, 2008, issue), I spoke of the indescribably great feeling that comes with sharing a space with an animal, looking into each other’s eyes with wonder. For several minutes, I was able to do that.

I never expected to ever see a wild wolf—and truth be told, I may not have. But weeks removed from the experience, the debate has stopped. Frankly, it no longer matters. Regardless of what the animal was—dog, coyote, wolf or some combination—I shared a moment with it. It is a moment I will never forget. It may not have been a wolf at all, but it was “My Wolf,” and I will be forever indebted to it for allowing me to look into its eyes. The Fierce Green Fire is alive and well, my friends…and I, for one, could not be happier.

From the July 28-Aug 3, 2010 issue

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