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Posted: Nov 28 2006, 09:31 AM
Member No.: 1
Joined: 10-July 06
A learning vacation at Ely's Wolf Center lets adventurous travelers run with the pack.
Chris Welsch, Star Tribune
The next morning, we gathered at the International Wolf Center's elegant wood-and-stone home to meet the star attractions of the class -- the resident wolf pack. A spacious classroom with stadium seating faced plate glass windows that opened onto the four wolves' enclosure.
Chris Williams, another instructor at the center, introduced us to the wolves, all of whom were raised in captivity.
Shadow, an Arctic white wolf, is the dominant male, he said. There are two other males and one female. "There's a hierarchy that determines who leads, who eats first," Williams said. "And those roles are reinforced in a variety of ways."
That was easily seen. The four wolves were active. One was gnawing on a deer's thigh bone and the other three were playfully jogging around. Shadow had a regal bearing -- posture erect, tail up, ears perked. When the other wolves approached him, they came forward as supplicants, with their heads and tails down, sometimes rolling over and offering their bellies to show that no aggression was intended.
Williams said the pack's organization helps it function efficiently in hunting and raising pups; the wolves work together to ensure the survival of the group.
The wolves at the center recognize staff members and accept their presence inside the enclosure, Williams said. But they are still wild animals, and extremely wary of strangers.
We had one chance to meet the wolves up close; Edberg said it would be brief to minimize the impact on the wolves. We left the building and approached them at a chain-link gate where staff members enter the enclosure. As we neared the fence, Shadow immediately moved to the front, with the hair on his neck and back bristling. The other wolves arrayed themselves behind him. Shadow reared back and let loose a howl that I felt in every cell of my body.
Instinctively, I knew what those plaintive, angry howls meant. If the fence hadn't been there, I would have been backing away very slowly. That was the second time that week that I'd been in the presence of a wolf and felt like I'd encountered a substantial being.
In wolf country
On the third day of the trip, we abandoned the warmth of the center for the snowy woods south of Ely for a day of dogsledding. With the commotion we'd be creating, there was no chance we'd see a wolf, but our instructors informed us that every domestic dog, from the smallest bug-eyed Chihuahua to the biggest polka-dotted Great Dane, is descended directly from canis lupus, the gray wolf. So in a way, learning to handle sled dogs was a logical extension of our canine studies.
Several of the students were dubious about being able to handle five or six energetic Alaskan huskies on their own. The owner of the dog-sledding company, White Wilderness, was Peter McClelland. A sturdy, bearded fellow who looks the part of a musher, he assured us that with just a little knowledge and a lot of trust in the dogs, we'd all be fine.
Worried that we would be abusing the animals, Marcia McGrann of Houston, Texas, asked if the dogs liked to run. McClelland replied, "I'll let the dogs answer that question."
As we put the animals into harness, they gave their reply. It was an ungodly racket of eager yips, barks and howls. Dogs jumped and strained at their chains. If the sleds hadn't been tied to posts that were anchored in the frozen ground, they would have left without us.
Getting dogs into harnesses takes time and energy; by the time we were ready to go, most of us had shed our heavy parkas to avoid working up a sweat. Finally, we departed the yard, one sled at a time. McClelland went first, knowing the other teams would obediently stay in single file behind his lead.
Unfortunately, the trail out of the dog yard was bumpy and icy. I sat in the basket of a sled driven by one of McClelland's assistants; we were the last to leave. As we passed through the first 200 yards of trail, we encountered several dazed, snow-covered mushing students stumbling around in the woods. They'd lost their balance and fallen off their sleds, and their dogs -- with passengers still seated in the baskets -- took off without them. Later, McGrann, who'd been a passenger, said she'd continued talking to her husband, Tom, for quite a while before realizing he was no longer behind her, driving the sled.
It took another hour to catch the errant sleds, reassure the fallen mushers, and get the whole caravan rolling again. But once we did, it was glorious -- a 20-degree, sparkling clear day, perfect for gliding across the snow behind a pack of joyful huskies. The barking of anxious dogs was replaced with the shushing sound of sliding runners and the steady patter of paws on packed snow. Midday, we built a bonfire on a frozen lake, ate hot dogs and cookies and drank hot chocolate.
Bob Sheedy, a house painter from Minneapolis, reveled in the experience. "A couple of days ago, thinking about dogsledding, I was scared [expletive]less. If I'd have known it was going to be this much fun, I wouldn't have been so scared."Every once in a while it's good to get scared to death," said his daughter Jane Sheedy. "It makes you feel more alive."
A cry in the wilderness
By the end of the trip, we'd learned a lot about pack dynamics, wolf biology and the way wolves support and balance the environment around them. But we hadn't lost our hunger to experience them in the wild. To that end, we set out to howl with wolves. Chris Williams told us that our odds of getting a reply from real wolves were about 50-50.
Well after dark on a bitterly cold night, we drove to nearby Fall Lake, stood on its frozen shore, and tried howling, following Williams' uninhibited lead. He told us to consider it "like singing in an Irish bar, but without the beer for courage."
Having heard Shadow, a virtual Pavarotti of the canine world, do his thing, I was pretty sure our discordant chorus wasn't very convincing.
The pine forest, the frozen lake and the vast field of stars above swallowed our piteous bellowing and returned a deep, engulfing silence. We waited, shifting from foot to foot in the bitter cold, wanting to hear an answer, but none came.
"They're out there somewhere," said Williams. "They could be out of range, or maybe they heard us and just didn't feel like answering."
We kept at it for a couple of hours, but never got a response. I thought of the wolf I saw by the road a couple of days earlier. He was out here somewhere, running on top of the snow with those broad, snowshoe-like paws, completely at ease in his element.
As we drove back to our warm cabins, someone asked Williams if he thought that the wolves at the center recognized their names, if they responded to them the way a pet dog does.
"Yeah, I think they do," he said. "If I say 'Shadow,' he'll look up. But he doesn't care. They don't need us or our affection. They'll accept it, but they don't need it. They're already complete."
CHRIS WELSCH • 612-673-7113