Summer night’s escapade a howling good time

Well, the summer is two-thirds gone, and
hopefully you’ve spent some time with your
toes in the water, or sharing a brat and a beer
with friends, maybe you’ve caught a Brewers
game. There’s still a whole month left to hit
a fair or two, take a long ride on the bike, or
catch some great live music.

I’ve been out and about having fun with the
usual summer fare as well. But a few weekends
ago, an unusual opportunity came up,
and I jumped at the chance. Actually, it had
been two years in the making. Ray, a fan of
the Gazette, had read an article of mine and
sent me an email with his thoughts about the
subject.

This happens occasionally, and I always
take the time to write back. In the process, I
discovered that this gentleman was involved
with wolves. He was well educated on them,
he tracked and collared them, and he taught
classes about them. Having always been
intrigued by wolves, I asked a lot of questions,
which led to a wonderful exchange of
facts, articles and photos of wolves here and
all over the world.

Then one day Ray asked if I’d like to come
with him to howl at wolves some evening.
Hmm. A virtual stranger asking me to spend
all night with him in the sticks howling at
wolves? Well, that’s a total yes. I barely had
to think about it. See how easy it is to pick up
women, guys?

Oh come now, I’m just teasing. In my
excitement, I mentioned this rare invitation
to my friends, who then teased me mercilessly
about it. Ray invited me to take a wolf
tracking course, which was very interesting. I
learned a lot about wolves and other wildlife,
and afterward could recognize a variety of
tracks in the snow when I would take my dog
for a walk.

The following summer came and the opportunity
for a night of howling was there, but
I was too involved in community theater to
take advantage of it. That summer came and
went, and so did the opportunities for wolf
howling. This summer however, I purposely
kept my schedule clear in order to be able to
be spontaneous with plans, and that paid off.
When the call came to howl (no pun intended),
I grabbed the opportunity.

So what does one wear to a wolf howl, I
wondered? Do I have to hang out my clothes
to hide my scent? Did I need to bring anything
special? Not really. The bugs are thick,
so long pants and sleeves are a good idea, and
bring a sandwich, he said.

I over packed on the sandwich part, because
food is important to me, and well, I change
my mind a lot. So I apologized for the large
cooler when he picked me up. It was only half
full, but still embarrassing.

I wasn’t sure if we were going to a secret
location, so I kidded about blindfolding me
until we got there so the location would
remain undisclosed, but that wasn’t necessary.
We headed west to the public lands
of Jackson County, in territory officially
referred to as the Central Forest Region as the
sun set, which was a beautiful ride in itself.

Why howl for wolves, you ask? Well, it
turns out it’s a way of tracking and counting
them. They have pups in the spring, and this
is a way to figure out how many a pack may
have had. After driving a ways out on State
Highway 54, we ducked onto an old logging
road. It was muddy and wound around quite
a bit, and with the brush being so high and
thick it was difficult to know where we were,
at least for me. Occasionally we’d stop and
look at the tracks in the road, and a few times
they were actually wolf tracks. This alone to
me was pretty cool, and I compared the size
to my own hand. Tracks show that wolves are
in the area, and there were several tracks, so
chances for hearing wolves was going to be
good.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the
wolves will be cooperative. There are many
variables that come into play, and weather is
one of them. It was a warm, humid night, and
that didn’t make for ideal conditions. Still, the
night was young, and we had high hopes. At
one point we reached a good open spot, and
prepared for the first howl.

Tracking wolves is fairly scientific. A GPS
system is used to document where the tracks
were spotted and where the howling is done.
Notes were kept as to what time it was, what
conditions were, what direction we went, and
whether or not we got a response. I should
mention that this is an official Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources survey
process, under the supervision of the Bureau
of Wildlife Management. Although I’ve been
known to do some odd things, I just didn’t follow
some yahoo out into the woods.

Once all that was documented, we quietly
exited the truck, with Ray going in front of
the truck about 100 feet, and I going about 50
feet behind it. We waited for things to “settle”
with about three to four minutes of silence. I
was amazed at the silence, and how it emphasized
all the sounds when there were actual
sounds to hear. It’s no trick that animals can
hear us coming. It’s easy when the woods are
so quiet, to hear even the faintest crackle of
a stick being broken by an animal passing
through.

I stood at the distance specified (more or
less, it was dark) behind the truck, watching
the fireflies dance around above the road we
had just driven up. I could hear whippoorwills
calling to each other, and occasionally a
mosquito by my ear. But that was all I heard.
Then Ray let out a big long howl, followed
by two more. I wondered how long he had
practiced this before feeling confident about
it. I wondered how his neighbors enjoyed him
practicing those howls. I bet they sound really
cool in the shower.

There are a lot of reasons wolves howl. To
celebrate, to locate, to warn … the list goes on.
When a strange wolf comes into an area and
howls, it can actually be stressful for the pack,
so trackers have to be very considerate when
doing this sort of research and rotate areas so
one pack doesn’t get adversely affected by too
much howling. Ray howled three or four sets
of howls, waiting in between for a response,
but none came. Just the silence of the wind
through the trees.

Being a big girl scout, I was still enjoying
the whole experience. I love being outside no
matter what I’m doing, and I was having a
good time. It was a lovely night, and far from
city lights, the stars were clear and numerous.
When Ray was done howling at a spot, he
would signal me with a light and we’d silently
return to the truck. Then we’d move on to the
next area, chatting away about all sorts of
things in the interim.

We stopped at seven different locations
somewhere out there in the wilds of Jackson
and Wood County. A few were in watery
locations, along ditches – so Ray’s voice, and
the answering voices might be carried farther.
It’s interesting how different the natural
sounds of animals sound when you are standing
in the pitch black of an overcast summer
night by yourself. Hearing something crashing
through the woods can make the hair on
the back of your neck stand straight up, but I
kept thinking happy thoughts to keep myself
calm.

When I asked if it was the lack of moonlight
or presence of high winds or something else
that kept the wolves from responding, Ray
said that there are just quiet nights sometimes.
He explained that there is a rhythm to things
that people just aren’t aware of, and that we
just hit one of those nights. We didn’t even
hear an owl hoot.

I’d love to say that we heard a wolf that
night, but neither of us did. We did run into a
happy little porcupine ambling alongside the
road, though. Ray was apologetic, but there
was really no need. I learned a great deal
about wolves and their lifestyles that evening,
and got to spend almost the whole night outside
listening to the sounds of the wild. That
was a great experience in itself. Meanwhile,
Ray’s invited me to come out again some
night, with hopefully better results.

Originally published August 1, 2014

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