On the Wolf Trail
Wolf Trail through a bog
Tales from the Tracking Trail
This past weekend our Wildlife Tracking Apprentices and I were on the trail of a pair of Algonquin wolves. One of my favorite places to be during the winter season! I had first picked up the trail of these two wolves as they crossed the highway. They had come from the east and turned to the north as they scent marked a snowbank on the side of the road. The tracks told me that one of these animals was a little larger than the other and from the blood in the urine (estrus) of one of them, I was fairly confident that this was a breeding pair of Algonquin Wolves. Were there others from the pack nearby or were these two off on their own during this time in the February mating season?
As these animals moved north along the upper section of the Madawaska river they quickly spread apart as one animal followed the river and the other chose to move in a parallel fashion up the small forestry access road. Soon both trails came together as these two animals met up and paused for a moment on top of the snowbank overlooking the river where a small creek joined the main section of this waterway.
There were signs of beaver activity in this area as well as a spot that both mink and otter can easily access the water below the ice. It was in this location that the wolves had chosen to scent mark both the snowbank again as well as a stump on the far side of the river. If you have spent time on a wolf trail you will know that they are always quite curious around beaver lodges and dams and quick to check out these locations to potentially catch and eat a fatty and nutritious meal of Castor canadensis. The beaver makes up a fairly large percentage of the diet of Algonquin wolves along with both deer and moose.
From here the trail led up into a mature white and red pine forest moving in an eastward direction. At the time I wondered what had caused these animals to turn 90 degrees to the east and move up through a rocky cliff area into this forest. Knowing that the tracks were less than 12 hours old and the wind was also coming from that direction it was a good guess that they had caught the scent of something up on that hill. With the river ice not being safe to cross we went back to the highway and crossed over the river so that we could pick up this trail again and continue to follow it. On the way, we came across the ‘boxy’ hopping tracks of a southern flying squirrel. By the pattern of this trail as well as a trail width of 2″ we were quite sure that it was not the Northern flying squirrel, who also inhabit this area. We spent some time investigating this site and saw where this particular squirrel had fed on some cedar seeds and then disappeared into a hole in the snow down into the subnivean.
It wasn’t long before we picked up the wolf trail again and quickly learned what may have been the cause in their change of direction. Moose. In this location we found two moose beds and fairly fresh (1-2 day old) tracks. These wolves were definitely interested in these animals and appeared to be following their trails as they moved up to the top of a plateau. Judging by the size of the beds, scat and urine marks in the snow we could tell that the moose tracks were from a cow and a male calf. There were also tracks of snowshoe hare in this area. When tracking single or pairs of wolves in the past, I have often seen them pursuing hares in the dense patches of balsam fir like we were in at this point. But these wolves seemed much more interested in the moose that had been hanging out in this area.
This forest and especially the top of this hill was thick with moose sign. There were dozens of beds in this area along with a lot of browsing (feeding) sign on red maple, hobblebush and balsam fir. It is hard to tell exactly how many moose had been using this area. Especially knowing that these animals may get up to feed and then bed down 8-10 times over the course of a day. Moose are known to eat upwards of 40 lbs of twigs and buds per day in the winter months and generally do not move long distances when there is ample food in a given area. One thing that we did know, was that this area was thick with sign and scent of moose. To a wolf, this must have been an ‘olfactory-overload’ to their sense of smell. I am quite sure that this is what they had originally smelled from about a km away at the river.
As the wolves moved through this area they moved mostly in a trot while separating and then coming back together for short distances. After years of tracking wolves I have seen this many times when they are moving across a landscape. A wolf pack will spread out across a hillside or valley and move through an area trying to push prey towards their kin in hopes of taking one down and feeding the entire pack with the carcass of a large animal such as a deer or moose. We continued to wonder if there were other members of the pack nearby?
As with every tracking experience, we ask many questions and make our hypothesis as to what may have happened. And then we look for evidence that will either substantiate or refute our hypothesis. Being humble and open to being wrong is crucial in this whole process. On more than one occasion I have been quite sure of something and made a ‘definite’ statement only to follow the trail a little further to learn that what I had said was not the case and sometimes even completely inaccurate.
Anyways, no, we did not find a spot on this wolf trail where they had taken down a moose or even a snowshoe hare for that matter. But we did get a chance to peer into and learn a little about these wild animals and experience what it is like to be on their trail. I am constantly feeling grateful for the lessons that tracking continues to teach me. It not only helps me to understand more about the biology and behavior of animals and nature. But it also teaches me a lot about myself and my relationship to the natural world. Tracking and following the trails of animals gets me out of my head and into my body and heart. My thoughts fade away to being fully engaged in the experience of the present moment. And to me, this is where the beauty and magic lies. As I said before, following the trails of wolves (or any animal for that matter), is truly one of my favorite places to be.
Until next time………Happy Tracking