Wednesday, 20 July 2016
The Timber Wolf at Home
The Timber Wolf at Home
The War between Ranger and Canis Lupus Over the Deer of Algonquin Park
By W. Lacey Amy
Illustrated with Photographs by the Author
From Outing Magazine, 1913, Volume 62
The timber wolf has no squatters’ rights. Untold generations of him have roamed Algonquin Park, in Northern Ontario, without hindrance or contest of his claims, but for fifteen years the forces of the law have been turned to his dispossession. Through the rigors of that Northern winter a score of determined men have only to keep warm and wield the hand of Cain against the wolves that find a tidbit in every thicket of the Park, And wolf-hunting in Algonquin Park, less than two hundred miles north of Toronto, is too kingly a sport to justify its reservation for the ranger.
The pleasure of wolf-hunting to the ranger is not in the excitement of the chase, but in the stiffened gray body that lies at his feet. Even the fifteen dollars bounty does not change the wolf from enemy to game. I have seen more joy in the face of a ranger at the sight of a bare shank of poisoned venison that would kill a dozen wolves than when he is rolling up the wolf skin to present for his fifteen dollars. The man who lives where the deer look mildly at him over a nearby shrub is apt to think more of his wards than of the Government check.
In the late fall, before the ice is formed, the rangers make their rounds by canoe, fastening their strychnine-filled venison by nails to the fallen timber on the islands. Later they come periodically in pairs across the ice to examine the bait, traveling their ten to twenty-five miles a day on snowshoes and always watching keenly for the snow-covered mound that means a dead enemy. But in these days the “tricks” of commerce have interfered so much with the potency of the white powder that missing bait without the bodies of the diners rouses the suspicions of the rangers.
One old fellow looked in disgust on his fifth bait cleaned to the bone without a dead wolf in sight. Seizing the colored bottle, he emptied into his hand enough of the powder to wipe out the wolf species, dipped his tongue into it, and grunted angrily. “Just as I thought,” he growled. “Alum!” As we were twelve miles from the nearest antidote I gave thanks.
There is need for war on the wolves of Algonquin Park. Around parts of three of its sides extend wild lands where they roam unmolested, and the game protection of that two thousand square miles brings them down in packs that grow little smaller as the years pass. When the shooting season opens around the Park the deer turns at the crack of a rifle or the bay of a hound and makes straight for the haven he has learned to trust. Deer will light their way toward the Park in the face of hunters and dogs with a determination and daring that speaks well for law enforcement there. And once inside the Park a revolver would bring them down in scores.
After the deer comes the timber wolf. During the early part of last winter a ranger, in his trail down the west side of the Park, counted the tracks of fifty-two timber wolves going in and but two leaving. The wolf lives on the deer. One ranger alone found last winter the carcasses of thirty-one deer that had been pulled down. Some of these had been partly eaten, but others had not even been bled. A string of dead deer will mark the track of a pack of wolves that have been killing for the lust of blood. And the pursuit of those that escape seriously interferes with the fecundity of the does.
The danger to man of the timber wolf of the Park is not yet decided. Within reservation years no man has been attacked, but that is probably because other food is so plentiful and easy to capture. Even the rangers are learning to respect where they hate. The visitor to the lone winter-resort hotel shudders at the mention of the wolf and hugs the grate or the bedclothes when the dismal howl comes through the darkness. But until last winter the rangers vied with each other in expressions of contempt—even while it was noticeable that not one of them would linger afield when the sun was sinking and the ringing yelp came over the neighboring hill. One of the oldest rangers admitted to me that he has never got over the shudder that goes down his back when he hears a wolf, and he has poisoned and shot more wolves than any other ranger in the Park.
Early last winter one of the most scornful of the rangers was induced to alter his opinion. Crossing Lost Dog Lake one late afternoon, he saw three wolves coming rapidly toward him across the ice. Being unarmed, but thinking to give them a scare, he dodged behind some brush on a small island he was passing and awaited their approach. His part of the program went off splendidly. Just as the wolves were alongside he rushed toward them with a terrible yell. But the wolves failed to catch the cue. Instead of running wildly away, they stood still and waited.
The ranger’s rush slowed down noticeably, and one of the wolves, a huge fellow with a limp ear, sat down with ennui. The rush not only slowed down but swerved aside and made for the nearest shore. And the wolves rose and followed. Every now and then the leader seemed to make up his mind to end the thing right away, but his rush toward the ranger was fortunately always stayed by a variety of shrieks and gesticulations that kept the ingenuity of the ranger hard at work until the shore was reached.
By that time the man had worked up such a respect for the timber wolf that he was undecided whether to climb a tree or risk a dash under the darkening branches for the next lake where his shelter-house was. The wolves were evidently as much afraid of him among the trees as he was of them, and after a long, challenging howl, loped off northwards.
At any rate, the wolf has proved his delight in frightening man. An employee of the hotel, while fishing through the ice of Cranberry Lake, was witness to the pulling down of a deer by a pack of wolves. Filled with the expressed contempt of the rangers, he succeeded in driving the animals from their prey. But when he set off for the hotel the wolves kept at his heels, and through that mile of bush they were never more than twenty yards away, retreating before him, stopping when he stood still, and rushing on as he dashed away. And it was not the length of the walk that soaked his shirt long before he reached the hotel.
On one of our longer trips, during the time I spent with the rangers in the chase of the wolves, we had taken with us the superintendent’s team of Great Danes. As we lay in the shelter-house one night, the howls of the wolves all around us made sleep impossible, and as we hitched up in the early morning light they were so close that the dogs could scarcely be controlled. When we started the wolves collected just over a ridge and kept pace with us through the trees within two hundred yards. After traveling some time in this way, there came an unaccountable silence, and a few minutes later the howls broke loose a half mile distant. Again for a moment there was only the sound of the harness bells and the scrunch of the snowshoes.
Of a sudden the howls came again with renewed vigor, and this time they were making straight for us at full speed. In a few seconds they were just over the ridge again and still coming furiously on. The dogs were tugging madly to be free, for they have learned to hate the wolf as fiercely as the ranger. Obviously it was wise to be prepared. Three of us stood with rifles ready, while the driver of the dogs loosed them from the traces and held them in hand. Thus we faced the oncoming animals. At that moment there was no contempt in our feelings. I think I felt even more than respect.
The hideous howling came through the trees, on and on, climbed the ridge at undiminished speed—and, just as we were sighting for a shot, suddenly ceased. For three uncomfortable minutes there was dead silence, save for the controlled whining of the straining dogs. Then the clamor broke loose again—but at our backs. The wolves had come almost within sight in front and had then passed silently around us to give another scare from behind. Three times that morning they repeated the performance, until we could read in their howls derisive laughter.
At one place we crossed their trail, and to me there was but the one wolf mark. But the rangers read more and by following a few yards we saw it divide into eight or ten. The pack had stepped so accurately in the tracks of the leader that the novice would see but one wolf.
Frequently in our hunts we came across this method of travel. Sometimes the single trail would break into a half dozen or more without apparent reason, and a few yards later merge again into the one. Once we followed for two miles across a lake a track that deceived even the rangers. Only where the pack had started to enter the bush did we discover that four wolves had been traveling as one. The largest of the pack had come last and had covered with his huge paw the little unevennesses of the others.
Sometimes the fright instilled into newcomers threatens serious results. Two lumbermen one evening, dropped from the train that passes through a corner of the Park and made through the bush to a lumber camp. The train crew had saturated them with wolf yarns until they were prepared for the worst. When darkness fell and the wolves began to howl they made a record up the nearest tree and sat for a long time waiting to be surrounded. Forced down by the bitter cold, they ran a hundred yards and hit the branches once more. Still there were no glistening eyes from the darkness, and at last they became so chilled that a chance seemed worth taking. Dropping to the snow, they gathered enough birch bark and dry boughs to make a circle of fire in which to stand until daylight. The next morning the first wolf track they crossed was more than half a mile away. A wolf howl is always very close to the tenderfoot.
One night, as we lay in a shelter-house near the railway, the howling of the wolves far up the track was suddenly interrupted by a blood-curdling shriek from the other direction. For five minutes, during which we wondered what new animal had come to visit us, the howls and shrieks kept up an animated dialogue. Recognizing at last something human in the sound, we dressed and made toward it, Down the track we found a man huddled against an old shed that did duty in summer as a station, and when we called to him his shrieks only redoubled. He had dropped from the bumpers of a freight train at the approach of a brakeman, and the wolf howls had driven him almost insane with fear.
What reason, other than to frighten, induces them to gather around the shelter-houses where the rangers lie, I cannot determine. On a dark night we were awakened by a single bark as if from someone’s pet dog that had got lonesome. But an instant later came a terrible howl at the very door, and a chorus joined in all around the shack. Three or four had selected a big rock that stood right beside the window, evidently with the intention of giving us the full benefit of the music. Without striking a light one of the rangers seized his rifle and stood by while I noiselessly opened the door. On the instant the noise ceased with a sudden “yelp.” only to resume as soon as the cold forced me to close the door again. Twice we tried, but it was no use.
Then the howling started across the stream in an old lumber yard, and, thinking to creep close enough to shoot, we skirted some thin ice and entered the piles of old lumber and slabs. All around us the wolves howled and barked, but in the darkness we could see nothing. For a moment the sky grew brighter, and the ranger’s rifle spoke immediately. With the crack every howl ceased, and, the light fading, we returned to the shelter-house whence the chorus had drawn us.
The next morning we followed the wolf tracks to the ice. There they had spread out in fear of the thin ice, each one of thirteen making his own track. All around the deserted shanty of a summer camper they had wandered, some of them even jumping to the roof, but not one had entered the open door. In the lumber yard we found our wolf—a bit of rotten slab leaning in the snow. But the huge leaps of the fleeing wolves showed how badly we had frightened them.
In Algonquin Park the cunning of the wolf develops. As soon as he leaves the wilds of Quebec his education begins. There is reason to believe that only the newcomers take the bait. A pack of eight were tracked across the Ottawa River into the Park. They had carefully skirted a small settlement in their way, but a few miles farther on the pursuing rangers came upon the entire eight piled dead around a place where bait had been. Not one had gone a dozen yards after eating.
On the other hand, the Park wolf treats the bait and traps with every indignity. At one place, evidently a favorite visiting place of wolves, a new ranger set a trap in the snow, carefully prepared with all the precautions of mushed venison and burnt paper. Three days later he found the trap still unsprung, but around it and right on top the wolves had befouled the spot in a most insulting manner. The trap had taken the place of the rock for the moment.
Frequently we were afforded proofs of their contempt. Sometimes in their travels they would sheer to one side around a bait, not even stopping to look at it, and often they used it as the center for their gambols.
The new wolf will not cross the railway track. I have followed the trails of packs that have stopped at the steel, run alongside for a mile or two to find an opening, and then turned back to the north. But the oldtimer is not above using the beaten snow between the rails for his path.
In spite of the numbers of wolves within the Park they are not often seen. So acute of sight, hearing, and smell are they that it is only when breaking out on a lake that one is apt to catch more than a glimpse of them. The crunch of the snowshoe carries so far in the dead silence of that region that man has little chance. During my trip I saw no more than half a dozen, and all but two were gone as soon as seen.
I fired at one from eleven hundred yards, but only the snow and the animal’s gait were disturbed. Another I saw one morning from the shelter-house, leisurely trotting across the lake, like a good-natured collie. That it deceived me has become one of the local jokes. The ranger I was with jerked his rifle from the wall and fired through the doorway, and the wolf, three hundred yards away, leaped into the air and then began to throw himself around in the snow. Another bullet straightened his course for a neighboring island, where we found him dead with his head resting against a tree.
But while the wolf is seldom seen, he misses nothing. Frequently we would backtrail and find that a pack had been following us within a few yards. Once, after discovering this, we made a circle, and round and round that circle we followed each other. Finally the wolves leaped into the circle, and although we went around two or three times more we could not see that they had left it. Probably they were watching us from inside in wonder.
After we had returned to the shelter-house one day for the noon meal we started out again within an hour. Just behind a rock within a few yards of the house we saw the marks of several wolves that had followed us and then spent some time gamboling almost within touch. Another time, at the beginning of a long trail northward to Island Lake, we came upon the trail of a big pack just beyond Joe Lake, tracks “steaming fresh,” as one of the rangers put it. Presently the tracks came to a mysterious end, but we picked them up over a log to one side where every wolf had leaped sideways without previously shifting his feet. Not having time to follow, we passed on.
The next day we returned over the same trail, to find that the pack had fallen in behind immediately after we had passed, had followed us to the place where we had lunched, had waited there while we ate, and then had dropped in behind again when we resumed our way. Where they had leaped the log they had retired only to the top of a rise close by and had stood to watch us over the top of a log. Then they had come straight down and followed our trail.
The old story of the hard lot of the wounded member of a pack is not borne out in Algonquin Park. On the contrary, we had a most striking demonstration of unselfishness and affection between the members of a pack.
We had made a long round over thin ice to examine some distant baits, and one of the rangers had remained behind at Linda’s Lake shelter-house to dry his clothes after an unrehearsed dip. When we returned at dusk the shelter-house was empty, and, our mate failing to return within a few minutes, we started out along his trail. Before we had gone far we heard his call, and later, in the candlelight of the shelter-house, he told us a story that has made the wolf less repulsive to me.
While he was in the midst of his lunch, sitting where he could see over the lake, a big buck and two does dashed from the woods about nine hundred yards along the shore. A minute later a pack of eleven wolves came slowly along their trail, their noses to the ground and their tails wagging playfully as if engaged in a pleasant game. Before the ranger could get his rifle three others broke cover a hundred yards nearer.
At the first shot one big fellow halted suddenly and then commenced to run in a crazy circle. His two mates had leaped into the air and disappeared into the bush, while the first eleven started madly across the lake. Suddenly the wounded wolf raised his nose and uttered a peculiar, ringing yelp. Immediately the whole pack turned and galloped fearlessly back. The ranger emptied his magazine at them without effect—he admits he had buck fever—and the pack did not hesitate until it had surrounded its wounded brother. Then, in a compact body, the latter in the center, they trotted across the lake.
Thinking the wounded wolf would not last long and that the tracks would be easy to follow, the ranger finished his lunch before starting in pursuit. He came upon their tracks into the bush on the far shore, after skirting the treacherous ice, and all afternoon, mile after mile, he followed the eccentric curves and circles, evidently the course of the one the pack was protecting. Here and there the snow was trodden as if the wolves had closed up on their injured mate to direct him into a straighter course. As the afternoon went on he knew he was getting closer, although he could hear no sound; at times the wolves had leaped away as if in fear, but had always returned to urge their mate to harder efforts.
Across Owl and Raven lakes the trail led, and then darkness was too close to risk further pursuit. An hour’s steady tramp by compass toward the shelter-house covered the distance that had taken four hours along the winding trail of the blood marks.
Of the strength of the wolf we had a striking example one day after we had followed the trail of dead deer left by a bloodthirsty pack. The largest of the wolves had broken away into the woods, and on its trail we started. While one of the rangers followed the big marks up over the hill two of us proceeded along a ravine toward a nearby lake in the hope that the pack had come around to it. As we went along a sudden scurry ahead directed our eyes to where a deer’s head was slowly sinking to the snow.
When we reached it life was extinct. At the same instant the ranger above us shouted that the wolf had “jumped” a deer there not one hundred and fifty yards away. The latter had been lying down, and when startled by the wolf had at first tried to escape in high leaps, the wolf rapidly overhauling it in long, low bounds. Later the deer had let itself out. But it was too late. We could read in the snow where the wolf had caught up, had run alongside a couple of leaps, and had then closed in. A splash of blood showed where the deer had been hamstrung at the first gash as clean as a knife. Another bound or two to the side, and then the wolf was on the deer’s back.
In that next bite the backbone of the deer had been broken, the terrible teeth of the wolf sinking so deep that the flesh could be lifted from the kidneys. The throat of the helpless deer had then been attacked, but at that instant we had interfered.
With a score of determined, experienced men seeking its destruction there would seem to be little chance for the timber wolf in Algonquin Park. But so cunning does he become, and so simple is escape in that land of wooded hill and hollow, that the warfare is having but slow effect. And however many fall, there are more in the wilds of the North to take their places. For miles their howls carry through the clear silence of that northland; and yet, in their cunning, they have pulled down deer within three hundred yards of a hotelful of guests without being heard.
Some day the wolf will be exterminated within the Park, but it will never be by the war within its borders. Only thick settlement all around—thick enough to cut off the manless territory to the north across the Ottawa River—will insure protection for the deer that swarm the Government reserve in thousands. In the meantime the wolves gambol amidst a never-ending feast, matching their wits against the rangers, the victims of a guerilla warfare, not of sport.
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- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.