Every year, at this time of year I feel we are aligned with the beginning and the end of time. For the Algonquin people in this area, the February moon is known as the Wolf moon. Everything is pared right down. The fat of the land, (which was lean last year) is all gone. Everyone on the land is living close to the bone, but we can feel the new energy starting to rise and this sustains us. You can feel everything so intensely this time of year because of the silence. Because there’s s o m u c h s p a c e. Sometimes the only sound breaking the absolute silence all night is of the wolves and coyotes calling and yipping back and forth. While it’s getting brighter and warmer and new life is beginning, the next few months before the new growth are actually the hardest in the year to get through. This used to be when humans died in these parts and spring visitors would find them dead in bed, without any food or wood in the house. It’s still when the most animals die or are taken in exhaustion.
I live in the increasingly rare circumstance where I am surround by these wild dramas and mysteries. I can give you exciting details of these encounters based on the tracks and what I see, but what’s hard to explain is a feeling underlying it all, that you can only get when you’re there looking at the prints and other evidence right where it all happened. It’s a deeply mysterious and scary knowing, that we are still part of this equation. We’ve opted out, but the game has continued on without our anti-up to our brothers the wolves. The fact is most of us still die in the late winter and early spring. Maybe our souls know the Earth needs us then, to bloom once more. It’s hard for us to imagine such bravery and generosity now, but there was a time when our ancestors knew this and fed the wolves with their bodies to deepen our relations. When elders knew their time had come, often in pain and with poor sight and hearing, they would intentionally wander out to give themselves to our cousins. In part they did this because we all feed something so why not pay a debt to our cousins the Wolves and Ravens. And of course they did it this time of year so as to not overly tax the dwindling food supply. And it was a good death.
This winter we’ve had huge amounts of snow and it stayed, so there’s four or five feet everywhere. If I step off a snowshoe or ski trail in my boots I sink up to my hips and still haven’t hit bottom. After the dark cloudy winter I’m so thankful for these long clear bright blue days. With everything covered and frozen and the clear still air, sights, sounds and smells travel great distances. Waves of information moving out over the deep silence have nothing to catch them but your ear. You feel everything and hear everything. Everyone is the bush is slowed right down too, the deer and the wolves. This time of year there are often kills within a few hundred yards of the house where the deer like to hang out for protection. The deer know the range of my dogs. Which is much closer to the house than the wolves and coyotes are comfortable getting. Probably because most people in my area just shoot them on site, and are legally justified to do so. Anyway, last night something happened. When you’ve lived among these four footed relations for as long as I have and pay attention, you can read the tracks, and follow the story clear as a February blue sky.
Here’s what I read:
Deer and Wolf like the road this time of year when the snow is deep. Mostly the deer like it, but if they’re up-wind from the wolves the road is a great disadvantage. Which is what happened the other week and then again last night. The deer trails follow the Cedars and the waterways. These are often low areas. This generally works for them because under the Cedars there’s much less snow and they can eat the low Cedar boughs, often by standing. These areas are also well hidden. So even when they cross the road following these hollows they can pass unseen. Unless someone is at the top of the hill waiting. The wolves know these places too. They know if the wind is in the right direction, like it was last night, they can follow closer and angle off the deer at the road. With the anticipation of coming down on them in a quick ambush.
For these two it’s like a drawn out chess game they play all winter. Or maybe it’s a new game every day. In any case this time of year the wolves and deer follow the very same packed down paths through the forest for ease of movement. And amazingly they sometimes bed down not a hundred metres from each other. The deer, under the dense Cedars at the swamp’s edge and the wolves under the roots of a fallen tree, they’ve dug out to make more space. They know each other intimately. The wolves don’t just attack because they see a deer. No no, they can’t afford to waste energy so it’s much more carefully plotted out than that. They watch the deer all day, on and off, looking for one who’s weak or gone a little too far astray. And this goes on for many days before anything happens. And even then it’s a 50/50 prospect for the wolves at best.
For the Deer, the roads offer a reprieve from the deep snow, where they can freely move again without lifting their trailing legs so high, like high-stepping guards . On the clear ground, when deer are walking their two trailing legs (one front and one back) almost drag as they effortlessly swing back up for the next step. I imagine what’s even more alluring than the open space of the road for the deer is the salt that humans spread on it when it is icy. Which the deer will stand and lick for hours. For the Wolves, while feeling more vulnerable to humans on the road, it still represents a dynamic and rare opportunity to them. They can move much, much faster relative to the deer, on a clear surface like the road, especially when it’s icy. The deer’s hooves can slip on the ice or hard packed surface. The other side of this road dance is on the open ground the wolves can be seen from much further away by the deer.
You might be asking, if this level of predation is accurate how can the deer survive? The simple answer is that they are made for the deep snow. Their stilt like legs and pointed hooves don’t get bogged down in the deep snow like other mammals. Their hooves spread to hold them up in the deep snow, and then close up into a stream-line shape when being brought back out, so they don’t catch. Even in a forest with four or five feet of snow, deer can bounce through it at nearly full speed, hitting all the right (solid parts) of the forest floor with each plunge and leap. This is really magic because when everything’s covered in that much snow a bush, a rock, or a earthen mound all look the same. Wolves are much more hemmed in by the deep snow and are forced to leap when covering new ground. Unlike the deer, this leaping for them takes everything they have, so they can only do it for a short time. All that’s to say, the deer are way faster than wolves in the deep snow. On a field in the summer they might be a third faster than a wolf, but in the deep snow deer are six times as fast.
But, as in chess, if you’re well enough cornered the game’s over. Last night at about four in the morning, over the knoll on the road beyond the driveway, a deer found herself in just such a spot, surrounded by wolves. Ambushed by four or five wolves on the road, she and her two mates fled. The two ran down the road and into the forest where the wolves couldn’t follow through the deep, deep snow. But the doe doubled back towards our house a hundred metres away, maybe thinking they wouldn’t follow her that way. Two wolves chased the others up the road so they were above the ambush site again on the other side of the hollow.
When the deer they were chasing jumped from the road, flying into the deep ditch and started pouncing up the hill, the wolves quickly gave way and turned. Seeing what was happening with the stray doe, they flew back down the road and angling in on the direction she was heading away from the other pursuers and the road. Not forty feet from the road they and two other wolves cornered her in the deep snow and were on her. It was done, quick. One poor choice for the doe. She was gutted and then taken apart in the customary fashion. After the guts were gone, the head went to the ‘Alpha’ wolf. The other parts were spread out over the landscape at this point as each participant ambled off to passively gnaw on their boney quarter. The Alpha with the blood dripping head, wandered back toward the top of the hill where the ambush started, and beyond.
This is where is gets a little weird. This wolf then proceeded to wander down our lane, dripping fresh blood all the way, to within thirty feet of our house to work on the doe head, in private presumably. He lay on the hard packed driveway and proceeded to eat the brain and thin bits of the skull. As I tracked all this and saw his paw prints a real sense of wonder entered into me. His tracks were twice the size of my dog’s prints, which are Labrador sized animals. Yikes, this was a huge wolf! No coyote’s prints, who are also common here, are that big. And it wasn’t that his paws were spread out in deep snow. I’ve tracked for many decades and never seen the like. His and my dog’s prints were side by side on the shovelled driveway. Instantly I thought of the two other extremely large animals, Bear and Deer, which have been seen on and around my property. In recent years their great stature has been captured by a hunter neighbour’s bush camera, but both large animals have evaded the actual men for many years.
The story continues. Around this time in the morning it’s dawn and I get up. The Alpha would have heard me rattling around with the wood stove, through the pipe. He’d finish the best part of the head, just the fine bone layered snout, the top of the mouth and the occipital ridge was left. He got up and walked back to the road with the left over parts. Then, a few minutes later a car came, or another wolf. Something that made him drop the snout and leave for a bit. It was now well into the day and a raven who’d already sniffed the scene out swung down and pecked at the half a head repeatedly. After a few minutes the wolf returned from his hiding and carried the piece down the road a ways and over the hill. Soon, another car came, and ten minutes later another. The few neighbours that live down the road were all heading out to work. The wolf abandoned the boney left-over snout. The raven who’d been watching quickly found it again and tried to pick it up. But it was too big to carry, so he just pecked at it on the road. Another couple of Ravens arrived shortly after and they got it off the road so they could work on it without being disturbed by a car.
Eventually around noon I took May and Sophie for a walk. Sophie’s known those wolves. She’s talked back and forth with that Alpha and his predecessor for fourteen years. She used to steal their leftovers and bring them back all winter. When Sophie was younger every year she’d sniff out their leftovers or other winter kill and drag them back to the house. She didn’t eat her dogfood for months at a time from February to after the spring melt when a whole new warehouse of winter’s treasures emerged. Once she brought a Moose head home and ate the whole thing! A moose head likely weighs around forty pounds. That night the wolves howled around the house all night long.
It seems pretty obvious to me that the wolves and Sophie are in some kind of communion. He’s read Sophie’s tracks and smells nearly everyday of his life and so he knows her, and know she’s on her last days. So take it as you will, he brought the head in response. Knowing Sophie’s time is short I’ve been bringing my kids with me (who love “Soph”) on our last walks together. As we walked over the hill the dogs were very excited, as they’d been for most of the walk, with the wolf tracks and bits of frozen blood everywhere. But now they were focussed on the side of the road. Cedar, my 6 year old daughter, jumped over the bank and yelled over to me she’d found something. She brought the half a head back out to the road. May was first in, but she hesitated, never having eaten deer head before. Sophie moved in. She grabbed it, turned and jaunted off back toward home half a kilometre away. Cedar and I watched and laughed. May tagged along with Sophie all the way home. Sophie brought the head right back to the area it had already visited on the driveway, the night before with the Alpha wolf and laid down just like he did to gnaw on the head. May in her trickster way tried to get the head from Sophie but Cedar and I intervened leaving Sophie alone and in bliss with what I imagine will be her last head. She left a few parts, and like we do she suffered that night from over-feasting. The next day those parts were gone. Another smaller wolf had come in the night and taken the bits back, just to finish the conversation.