I always love a walk in the winter, especially when the wind is blowing, the snow is melting on my face, and my own breath is fogging my glasses. It’s invigorating, it’s a challenge, and it’s even more fun when no one else is out there.
Today, the bay is firmly frozen from shore to shore, and the ore boats, laid up for the winter at Bay Shipbuilding, are ice-moored. I can see them dimly through the falling, blowing snow, like thousand-foot ghosts stranded from the netherworld. The silence is almost thick. The ducks and geese that flapped and squawked during the summer and fall have vanished to more hospitable waters, but the memory of their raucous calls seems to quiver in the silent air. I guess that’s one of the things I love about winter: the silence.
Years ago, in another life, I trekked across another silent, frozen expanse of water on an ice-fishing expedition. We had jeeped in as far as possible, then took to our snowshoes. We moved without speaking, in single file, making tracks on an almost-unmarked wilderness lake. Marching beside us were the tracks of the one being that had ventured out here not long before–wolf.
There was no fear in us. Wolves mind their own business when it comes to human beings. But the hairs on the back of my neck raised when that unseen wolf began to howl, a long, lonely note that rippled through the air in a diminishing echo. He was answered by another, on the other side of the lake. Anyone who has heard that sound knows the stirring of something deep within, something primal, something long-forgotten rising in response. I remember little else about that fishing trip, but I do remember the serenading wolves.
I met another wolf, this time from hundreds of feet above, as I flew with DNR staff in a helicopter to check on the experimental deer-feeding stations that were scattered through the forest of northeastern Minnesota one winter. We followed the shoreline north as far as Gooseberry Falls State Park, then turned inland, noticing how deer tracks grew more and more scarce. It was proof that the deer moved closer to Lake Superior during the winter, where there was probably a bit less snow.
We flew fairly low and the animals below us were frightened at the sound. Horses ran in panicked circles in their pastures, and cattle kicked against each other in an effort to get out from under the whirling blades. Deer ran in frightened brown streaks through the trees.
Only one creature showed more curiosity than fear. We were flying over a frozen lake, and below us a lone wolf trotted across its surface. When he heard us, instead of running, he stopped, looked up, and simply watched. The pilot circled around him, and the wolf followed the circle, pivoting to keep his eyes on us. It wasn’t a challenge, it wasn’t bravado, it was awareness, the kind equals give to each other.
“Will you look at that,” the pilot said, obviously as awed as I was. We flew off, but the image of that wolf has never left me. In the silent, cold, lonely world of winter, he had calmly waited to see whether this unknown intruder would be challenge, or merely curiosity.
Today, I have a happy, floppy-eared beagle with me. The tracks are my own, and those of deer and dog. But the snow falls, the wind blows, and silence spreads itself over the water. In my mind’s ear, I can hear the long-gone cries of water fowl–and I can hear the cry of the wolf.