There are wolves all around us; scientists estimate there are close to 500 wolf packs in Northern Minnesota. We encounter their tracks almost every day and their ghostly howls often pierce the frigid night air, but we rarely see them. Normally wolves run away when they sense the presence of humans and are gone before we see them, or we barely catch a glimpse of them before they disappear in the woods. That is one reason why it was such a treat to see the kings and queens of the wilderness going about their business on Jackfish Bay. Ironically, we were so busy being amused by a river otter that we almost traveled passed the wolf pack without even noticing them.
We watched an otter run and slide, run and slide, across the snow in front of us. It was far away and the dogs didn’t notice the otter at first. We were traveling down the middle of Jackfish Bay of Basswood Lake. Our lead dogs, Tina and Acorn, were breaking trail across the blank, white canvas that stretched to the horizon. The rhythmic kick and glide of my skis produced the only sound. My skijoring belt was clipped to the back of the second toboggan incase I needed to stop the team, which seemed unlikely. It was the kind of day where it was easy to let your mind wander and enjoy watching to dogs work as the miles tick by.
A few minutes later, the otter came running back across the lake toward us. When the otter was about 50 yards away, the dogs spotted it and made a sharp turn toward the otter. For a few seconds the otter continued to run toward us, but as the dogs picked up speed, the otter took off down the middle of the lake with the dogs in hot pursuit. At the end of the day, my InReach GPS tracker said our maximum speed was 14.2 miles an hour—we were really flying—and were quickly gaining on the otter. With considerable effort, I stopped the dogs, who continued to lunge and bark long after the otter disappeared. After Amy caught up, we tipped one of the toboggans over to hold the team.
After the dogs were somewhat under control we continued on, only to spot a wolf pack near an island in the middle of Jackfish Bay. The dogs were still barking and looking in the direction of the otter; I was so focused on getting them to go in the right direction that I never would have seen the wolves. Amy spotted what at first looked like large stumps sticking through the ice off the end of the island. As we skied closer it became clear the “stumps” were actually a pack of wolves lounging in the snow. Most of them were sitting or laying down and they didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence. We stopped, set up the tripod and spent several minutes watching them and taking pictures. While we were stopped the wolves hardly moved, but once we started moving again several of the wolves rounded the island and watched us pass.
It was a little spooky glancing back to find several wolves trotting after us. They only followed us for a couple minutes, but they were twice the size of our dogs and can crush a moose’s femur with their jaws. I knew it was irrational, but I couldn’t help feeling vulnerable as we skied on down Jackfish Bay. It is something I have felt only a handful of times after stumbling across a jaguar, shark, and other large predators.
We continued on for several hours, fresh wolf tracks crisscrossed our path. The dogs sniffed at the tracks as we passed, indicating they were really fresh. We set up camp as the sun set over a large spruce bog to the west of our camp. With the dogs bedded down, a fire crackling in the wood stove, and a pile of dry, split spruce piled next to the door, we crawled into the tent. We had everything we needed, but in the morning we would move on, heading deeper into the winter wilderness.
Amy and Dave Freeman, 2014 Adventurers of the Year, are spending 365 days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to call attention to the threats that a series of proposed sulfide-ore copper mines pose to our nation’s most popular wilderness. They are sharing their Wilderness Adventures through regular blog posts throughout their Year in the Wilderness right here on the Beyond the Edge blog. Learn more about protecting the Boundary Waters, follow them@freemanexplore, and connect kids with the adventure through the Wilderness Classroom.