Tuesday, December 20, 2011


This is the second part of a three-part series, which details the efforts to retrieve a radio-collared wolf that died in the fall of 2010.  The first attempt is covered in the most recent blog post.

Humbled after our unsuccessful attempt to retrieve wolf 989 (See previous blog post.) my wife, Molly, and I decided to try it again a week later.  This time we would be prepared with backcountry skis with proper bindings, a real pulk (sled) and we would give ourselves more time to find the wolf.

The night before our next attempt six inches of snow fell.  It was beautiful, but not great for an ambitious schedule that still required us to pick our kids up by 5:30 pm.  The new snow would mean we had to break trail the entire way instead of relying on the dog teams who use the trail to do the hard work.  It would slow us down tremendously.

Where bitterly cold temperatures and slush had foiled us the week before, this week’s culprits would be the slush and the new snow.  The temperature was in the teens and only a slight breeze was blowing.

Molly broke trail most of the way while I skied behind her with the loaded pulk.  It was absolutely beautiful out and we enjoyed the time in the wilderness.  Unfortunately, it was slow going.  Along with the snow, we repeatedly had to stop and scrape the ice off our skis when we hit slush.  We left the truck at about 8:45 in the morning and didn’t reach the edge of the lake—where we would actually start looking for the wolf—until 12:30.

With our limited time, and the GPS coordinates for the wolf appearing to be right on the edge of a steep drop off, we had to decide if we were going to look on the high ground or the low lying area.  The vegetation in the cut between the cliffs was extremely thick, so I chose the high ground.  Molly stayed with the skis and gear so she could bring any equipment we needed when I located the wolf.

I was greeted by thigh-deep snow and thick vegetation.  The vegetation made snowshoes impractical, so I went without. 

More Slow Going
Twenty-five minutes after leaving the lake, I was within about 50 feet of the wolf, according to the GPS.  I switched on the radio telemetry unit, and the signal was strong and clear.  I was close.  The signal brought me right to the edge of the cliff.  I looked around in the deep snow, but saw nothing that would indicate a dead wolf was lying nearby.  Forty-five minutes had gone by since I left the lake.  We were out of time.  (Just wait until you read where the wolf was finally found.)

I would like to say I reacted to another failed attempt with grace and aplomb.  That would not be honest.  More than a couple inappropriate words were let fly into the quiet wilderness air.  My frustration was extreme, but we had to get moving back.

We had a long, hard and nearly silent ski back to the truck.  We had pushed our time limit and had to move as fast as we could.  When we got back to the truck, we were once again spent.  Besides the fact we didn’t find the wolf, it had been a wonderful excursion into the woods.  I noted in a log later that night that maybe someone else would have to get Wolf 989.

Maybe Dog Teams are the Answer
Then, I spoke with someone at Voyageur Outward Bound (OB).  We wanted to get out into the BWCA, they had dog teams that could get us there faster.  Sweet.  That’s how we found ourselves two weeks later loaded up and moving towards the wolf’s location.

It was another cold day, -29 degrees, but with a brilliant blue sky.  As we were walking to the dog yard, a staff person at OB who had been feeding the dogs walked past us with frostbite on his nose.  Not a great start.

This was my first real experience with sled dogs, and I was extremely excited.  I have wanted to try dog sledding for years, and this would be my chance.  Besides myself there were three Outward Bound staff and Camdilla Wirth, an educator at the Center, on this trip.  It was a good group to travel with.

We got off to a bit of a slow start, and once again pushed out into new snow.  A couple of dog teams had come through since the last significant snow, but the trails were still slow going for the dogs and the slush problem had not gone away.

We made steady progress from our drop off point until we reached Gabbro Lake.  As we dropped onto the lake the teams were faced with drifted snow and deep, narrow channels that had been cut by the few teams who had gone through.  The dogs were skittish and acted somewhat stressed by the situation.

An Outward Bound staff person asked Camdilla and I to widen the trail by walking in snowshoes ahead of the teams.  This seemed to work, but the dogs were still edgy and a couple of scraps broke out inside the teams.  Progress came nearly to a halt.  Then, a significant fight broke out and two dogs were slightly injured.

Though we looked at every option, the decision to turn around and get the dogs back to be treated was an easy one.  Outward Bound safety procedures prevented any of their staff continuing on without specific equipment, of which we had only one set, so we all headed back together, one more unsuccessful trip.  We had only made it about three miles towards our destination.

Outward Bound offered one more time to use a dog team to help in the effort.  A week later Camdilla joined students who were in the middle of a course in a last-ditch effort to find Wolf 989.  They made it to the site, searched for two hours, both on the high ground and the low area below the cliff and had no luck.  They came to the conclusion that it was in a large crack in the rock or below the cliff face buried in ice.  (Would they be correct when the wolf was actually found?)

At this point I truly expected that to be our last trip.  I spoke with the USGS staff who had asked us to get the wolf and was told to leave it be. But now the challenge had hold of me, and I wanted to find the wolf and bring it back.

In the next entry, the final trips and the successful conclusion to this retrieval effort.