New Year’s Day 2018 dawned cold and crisp, with an icy fog inversion draped over the valley smothering everything below it, like a heavy, frigid blanket, and cloaking every object it touched with fine, glimmering crystals of ice.
After a long time in my home office, working to get caught up with paperwork after the holiday break, it was time for the dogs and me to hit the trail for a much-needed break. The recent heavy rains on top of over a foot of previously fluffy snow, followed by bitter cold temperatures, turned the landscape into an icy nightmare; traveled trails were a cobblestone of lumpy hard ice, and the unbroken snow was stiff and thick, but not frozen enough to support one’s weight. Every step was a hard, deliberate post hole and it was an effort to move short distances. The dogs and I followed our weakly broken trail from the previous days. Each outing over the weekend we had attempted to make it a little bit farther and on New Years day, my goal was to do the same, hopefully getting far enough to complete a 4 mile loop.
As we headed farther into the beautiful, quiet forest, coyote tracks criss-crossed back and forth over our trail from a few days before. They roamed up-and-down along our tracks stopping to sniff here and there, at times pouncing in the snow and occasionally following in our tracks but mostly just following along side. Their perfect little ovoid feet left tell-tale tracks on top of the snow crust as they were light enough to not break through.
Eventually the trail had its way with us, as it had the previous days, and succeeded in wearing the dogs and me out. When we finally we reached the end of our tracks from the previous day, we once again began to trudge through the stiff snow, breaking trail. With the dogs strung out in a line behind me, I went first, punching through on every step and trying to just go another half a mile or more to make my existing trail longer. After a few hundred yards of unbroken, crusty snow, all of a sudden there they were… Wolf tracks.
I love wolves. I have for many, many years. What first began as a romanticized idolization of them has changed on to a huge amount of respect and awe at their tenacity, strength and incredibly complex family units. Wolves in Montana are hated and persecuted. They are shot, trapped, poached, tortured and killed virtually all year-round. Despite this they’ve managed to continue to exist and while many die each year during the hunting and trapping seasons, enough have learned to be wary of humans and maintain a tenuous existence on the fringes of our civilization. In the area that I was hiking, wolves had occurred a number of years ago, but had been absent for the last 5+ years, once our aggressive hunting season on them opened. I had seen wolf sign late last winter and it was heartening to see that they were moving back into this area, even more heartening to see they were still there.
As the dogs and I stumbled upon fresh tracks and a very large, fresh pile of wolf poop, I felt that familiar thrill that comes with the honor of walking among the wildest of our creatures. I feel that wolves greatly enrich our landscape, and I appreciate the wildness of Montana even more for their presence.
Although I’ve run into wolf sign fairly often over the years, this was the freshest sign we had encountered in a long time. The dogs immediately became alert and clustered around the wolf scat to sniff and read the messages there, and then wandered around for a tiny bit, sniffing the tracks, letting their noses lead them where the wolves had moved. I have never at any time feared for my safety in wolf country, but I do have concerns about the safety of my dogs as wolves are very territorial and dogs are major trespassers. It’s not uncommon for wolves to kill loose dogs or lion hounds that have been turned loose to hunt without their people with them. I’m very cognizant when I hike with my dogs that I am trespassing on private property; property that belongs to the wolves and wildlife of the public lands and wilderness areas of Montana.
The dogs were visibly nervous at the wolf tracks and scat, and I gave them the option to move forward and continue our trudge, but they all looked at me and clearly and succinctly said “No, thanks, we’re good, time to turn around”. So we turned, as I will always listen to what the dogs need, and began to head back out the way we came, dogs hurrying behind me bumping into one another, as if they were afraid to be the last one in the line. Every now and then one of them would stop and stare into the surrounding woods, body radiating alertness and becoming upright and tense, as if they had seen something. The others immediately came to attention and stared as well making me feel like something out there was watching us. I chatted along to them to make noise and let our presence be known, and also to calm the dogs and let them know that I had their backs and was watching out for them.
The dog train
It was a long, slow slog back out in terrible conditions, and it took the dogs a long time to finally take a deep breath and relax. They too knew they were trespassing, and whatever messages the wolves had left, were read very loudly and clearly clear by my trail crew.
It was a wonderful way to ring in the New Year spending time in the beautiful peaceful, solitude of the forest and rubbing shoulders with the presence of such a dynamic apex predator. I feel so grateful to live in a part of the world where wolves, bear, and mountain lions still roam in decent numbers, and where I can share my wilderness escapes with some of the biggest predators and diverse wildlife that still exists in North America. I could have pushed on that day, continuing on the loop I had planned, but as much as I love living where the wild things are, I have an innate responsibility to the health and safety of my dogs. I have built the faith and trust we have in one another by promising to always listen to them, see to their needs and especially to step in and care for them whenever I’m needed.
And so we left. We left the forest to its peaceful solitude, we left the wolves’ home territory to its rightful owners, we left the forest denizens in peace, and we left appreciating the gifts the day had brought us. We will be back soon, but with respect, admiration and with the intent to cause as little disturbance as possible as we will be trespassing once again.
The trail crew