A pair of binoculars, a bit of forest, and a life-long passion.
By Michael Runtz
Inscribed on Tom Thomson’s cairn at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park are the words “he lived humbly but passionately in the wild. It made him brother to all untamed things of nature. It drew him apart and revealed itself wonderfully to him.” I have always loved this eloquent epitaph, partly because I can relate to Thomson’s relationship with the wild. Since I was a young boy, I have been drawn to the natural world. Whenever I encounter a wild creature, whether a timber wolf in Algonquin Park or a crab spider in my backyard, I feel a kind of connection with it. I enter and leave its world feeling more like a part of it than an intruder.
I can trace this strong connection with nature to my earliest years, when my parents brought me to Algonquin Park to see white-tailed deer. But the clinching moment came when I was five years old. The woman who lived next door decided that bird-watching might keep me from pestering her daughter and my sister. How could she have known that the act of peering through her binoculars at the orioles nesting in her elms would help fan a spark of interest into a lifelong passion? Because of her efforts, along with those of my parents, I started down a path from which I have never strayed.
I was fortunate to have grown up in a small town with easy access to nature. My family home was situated between two railway lines, and a walk along either would take me to the mighty Madawaska River. After a hair-raising stroll across one of the towering trestles that spanned this river, I would reach the “wilds” — a long strip of old fields and mixed forest that ran seemingly endlessly in several directions. This area became my personal wilderness, and I explored it at every opportunity. Here, for the first time, I met many wild creatures: skunks, hares, hawks, weasels, owls. Here, too, in virtual solitude, I polished my skills luring animals in close. By refining soft “pishing” calls, I was able to draw small birds right up to my face. I learned how to fool northern goshawks, great horned owls, and foxes by mimicking the sounds of injured animals — loud squeals or squeaks produces by sucking on the backs of my knuckles.
I was 12 years old when I encountered my first predator in the wilds. I was standing on an open section of the river bank, diligently sucking the back of my hand, when the tall grasses ahead began to move. Like the wake that trails an approaching shark, a swath of swaying grasses cut its way towards me. The ripple drew nearer and my heart quickened, abut still I could not make out the animal. Suddenly, a small, brown head followed by a long, thin body popped out of the vegetation beside me. As I watched in nervous elation, a tiny short-tailed weasel bounded only my foot, reared up on its hing legs, and stared in to my eyes. Deciding that I wasn’t worth the effort, it then disappeared back into the grasses.
The only wild dogs that lived in these childhood haunts were a couple of red foxes. I would happen upon them infrequently, most often in early spring as they basked in the morning sun on south-facing ridges. On several excursions, including a memorable one illuminated by a January full moon, I came across dog-like prints that seemed far too large to have been made by a fox. I still wonder from time to time if a wandering wolf made those oversized tracks. I never did catch up to their maker.
My first real opportunity to meet a wolf in the wild came in the summer of 1972, when I was hired as a summer interpretive naturalist in Algonquin Park. It was a dream come true. Here I was, an enthusiastic young naturalist completely immersed in nature, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of Ontario. My job, if you can call it that, was to learn and communicate the wonder of Algonquin’s natural history to the parks summer visitors.
The park’s wilderness seemed limitless, and to spend a whole summer there was nothing short of exhilarating. Everywhere I wandered, I encountered all manner of new and exciting plants and animals. Even the backyard of our staff house offered wildlife adventures, for moose and bears occasionally passed through. Of the thousands of animals that called Algonquin home, it was the northern creatures—moose, fishers, grey jays, and spruce grouse—I especially wanted to see. Naturally, wolves were at the top of my list.
I was not along in my desire to find wolves. The provincial parks system had more money back then, and there were 12 others sharing the naturalist workload that inaugural summer. Each had their own special interests, but all were more than willing to join the search for wolves as well as share their passion and expertise. I look back at that summer as one of privilege, one that was the turning point in my life.
Over a month passed after my arrival in the park, and I still had not heard of seen a wolf. As I was to learn, this was not unusual, for wolves are notoriously quiet during the denning season which stretches from May to July. Not until the dens are abandoned, and the pups moved to open areas known as rendezvous sites, do wolves become at all vocal and willing to respond to human imitations of their howls.
One night in mid-July a group of us ventured down a portage near Smoke Lake, howling from every rise along the twisting path. Eventually a long, deep howl rose from the southwest. Although the howl was distant, this was my first wolf experience in the wild.
A more dramatic encounter took place the following month. One of the naturalists had come across a freshly killed white-tailed deer on the logging road that is now the “bear-nest” branch of the Mizzy Lake Trail. When the rest of us were informed of the find, we could hardly wait for the workday to end so we could slip up to the kill. That evening two jam-packed vehicles set off from the staff house after dinner. We bounced our way along the hilly road to get as close to the site as we dared before ditching the trucks. We walked quietly the rest of the distance, not speaking for fear of scaring off the diners. After about a five-minute hike we came upon the carcass, first made obvious by its distinctive odor. My notes describe the incident this way:
We are standing in the dark next to a half-eaten deer, with the stench of death permeating the air. It makes for an eerie experience. The temperature has dropped and we see our breath as we nervously exhale. Overhead, a thousand stars glitter brightly and to the north the green contortions of the aurora se the stage for the dramatic events that soon follow.
We do not have to wait long. Only a few minutes pass when a deep, startlingly close howl breaks the silence. Before it is complete, another howl from a different direction joins in, then another and another. From all around us the deafening wails of the entire wolf pack saturate the night air. The wolves are so close that in full-blown stereo their howls fill our heads and reverberate between our ears. My body shivers uncontrollably as the howls continue for what seems like forever. Then, as suddenly as they had begun, the howls stop. For several moments no one speaks. We cannot, for we are in a state of spiritual intoxication. Eventually, however, the snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves bring us back to reality. Not wanting to keep the hungry animals from their feast any longer, we leave. We are all profoundly moved by the experience.
The two following summers I returned to Algonquin to work once more as a seasonal naturalist. Although I heard wolves on numerous occasions, sightings were few and far between. Until August of my third year they had never amounted to more than a fleeting glimpse.
I had by this time fallen in love with the part of Algonquin bordering on the disused railway line that runs between the Arowhon Pines Road and Source Lake. This part of the Ottawa, Arnprior, and Parry Sound Railway had most recently been used as a logging road, but that activity had also ceased by the time I began to explore it. The railway bed cut through a couple of sizable ponds fringed with delicate tamaracks and spindly black spruce. These trees often harboured elusive boreal chickadees, affable grey jays, and absurdly tame spruce grouse. Floating mats of sphagnum moss, alive with carnivorous wildflowers and exotic orchids, covered large sections of the ponds in summer. The moss mats also provided landing platforms for the otters and mind that regularly hunted the ponds, as well as for dozens of basking painted turtles. Numerous dead trees, casualties of water levels raised by the causeways and the beaver dams, stood starkly on the mats and in shallow waters. These snags added rugged character to the ponds and provided perching and nesting sites for black-backed woodpeckers, tree swallows, and olive-sided flycatchers. By late summer the trees were adorned with thousands of orb-weaver spider webs, which caught the night dew and sparkled in the early morning light. When dawn mists danced among these jeweled spires, the beauty was almost ethereal.
Drawn to the area for its visual splendor, the abundance of northern creatures, and an absence of humans (back then few people visited this area) I made this small piece of Algonquin my personal retreat.
The first of the two ponds was named Wolf Howl Pond, and indeed wolves were often heard near the pond. The southwest corner held an open expanse of beaver meadow, which provided an ideal rendezvous site for wolves to use in late summer. Because wolves were heard often, this section of the railway became a popular howling destination.
One evening as I was driving west from Wolf Howl Pond towards the dump, I spotted a pair of glowing eyes ahead on the railway bed. I slammed on the brakes but the animal quickly slinked off the road. I flicked off the headlights and howled out my open window. To my delight the wolf immediately answered back. I waited a minute or two and then pulled on the headlights. There was a wolf back on the road, but it didn’t stay long and slipped out of view once more. I gave another howl and it answered back. Again, it briefly reappeared on the road. This sequence was repeated several more times until, finally, the wolf remained on the road, clearly illuminated by the truck’s headlights. This time when I howled out the window, it raised its head toward to the sky and opened its mouth. I could hardly stop myself from shouting out, “I’m watching a wild wolf howl!”
When it finished howling, the wolf sauntered down the side of the embankment and out of sight. Shaking with excitement, I started up the truck and raced back to the staff house to tell anyone who might be still awake of my adventure.
Naturally the temptation to return to the site was great, but the next time I brought some company. We found the wolf with no trouble, and although it did not howl for us, it did something almost as exciting: it squatted down in front of our vehicle and urinated on the road. The wolf’s actions also revealed that it was a female.
The wolf remained nearby for the rest of the summer and co-operated with other staff members who came to see her. She was also encountered farther down on the railway bed, occasionally as far east as West Rose Lake. Because of the wolf’s affiliation with this latter location, we took to calling her Rosie.
Although other staff members got to know her, Rosie was my wolf. I would go up to the old railway every free evening to look for her. Rosie would even appear for me in broad daylight. I can’t tell you what an exhilarating experience it was to walk along and old railway bed with a wolf tagging along only five metres away. She would follow me just about anywhere, even when I left the trail to walk along the edges of the bog.
I often wondered about what triggered our relationship. I think Rosie was simply a very lonely wolf. As she was never seen in the company of other wolves, I assumed that she was one of those mythical entities, a lone wolf. Young wolves separated from the pack are occasionally encountered in the fall, but other lone wolves are social outcasts, unwanted by other groups. In either case, a lone wolf is usually doomed; without help in hunting large game, it usually cannot survive on its own. But Rosie was able to scrounge enough scraps to keep her going, at least until the fall, when the camps and lodge shut down. Then, I presumed, with the supply of free and easy food gone, unless she could find a pack of wolves that would allow her to join them, her fate would be sealed.
That winter, Ron Pittaway, one of the seasonal naturalists, stayed behind to work in the park. He lived in the staff house, where along with a feeder for the birds, he maintained a tray of table scraps for mammals. Fox, marten, and even the occasional fisher made nocturnal forays to pick off the meat. One day, to Ron’s delight, another visitor showed up. In her desperate wanderings to find food, Rosie had stumbled across the feeder.
Thanks to Ron’s efforts, Rosie survived the next two winters. Over those years she made a couple of appearances in a nearby campground. No one is sure of the exact day Rosie disappeared for good.
I’ve gone back many times since, of course, and have made a career of learning, teaching, and sharing a sense of wonder about the outdoors, fanning sparks of interest. For me, it is not so much a potential encounter with wolves and other wild creatures that keeps me returning to the wilds, as it is the experience of being totally immersed in nature. Each trip into wolf country is in part an introspective journey. As I sit alone on a forest slope or slice my paddle through gentle waters, away from all the unnatural distractions that clutter our lives, I find the time to reflect on life’s important issues.
Wolves are a quintessential component of the wilderness psyche, and our search for them is as much a spiritual adventure as it is a physical endeavor. No matter how fleeting the encounter, any meeting with a wolf leaves us with much more than a lasting memory. When we walk where their paws have tread, we enter a world from our past. When we hear their howls, we hear the heartbeat of the wilderness. And when we look into a wolf’s eyes, we see the unfettered spirit of all that is wild.
Michael Runtz is one of Canada’s most highly respected naturalists, nature photographers, and natural history authors. A birdwatcher since the age of five, he has lived, breathed and worked with nature all his life. Professionally, Michael has worked as a naturalist in Canada’s national and provincial parks, and has performed numerous biological surveys. His eleventh book, Dam Builders: the natural history of beavers and their ponds, was published in 2014. He teaches natural history at Carleton University, and was profiled on NHKs (Japan), Superteachers. He is the host of television’s Wild by Nature, and is a frequent guest on CBC Radio’s Radio Noon.