December 3, 2013
The weather continues to be mild, but the leaves are down and the color is brown earth, brown leaves, brown river. I hiked a river-to-bluff trail this afternoon, descending the steep north back of the bluff. The trail winds north and east, until it reaches a wooden bridge which spans a small spring. Then it gently descends east on a floor of limestone, to a trailhead. North, left, takes one to a series of beautiful waterfalls along the main creek. The south trail, with three Indian burial mounds from the Mississippian era along its borders, follows the stream to the river.
I had crossed the ridge and was carefully navigating the slick limestone, when I saw movement to my left. I stopped and listened and searched. There was a brush pile thirty feet below me. Some ink-black animal was in the brush pile, its rear end raised and shaking sideways, an attack position, the front part of the creature low to the ground and obscured by the brush.
The creature leaped up and across the trail in an arc shape, its front legs and paws drawn in to its massive chest. It landed and I heard a scream. A squirrel suddenly jumped in the air, landed on a log and ran for its life. What saved its life was that the attacker had seen me as it flew across the trail. It landed on the squirrel, but immediately turned and glared at me. I was face to face with a black wolf.
It was about four feet long, its tail full and bushy. It growled and gnashed its teeth, and I was hypnotized by its green-yellow eyes. It was well fed, its ebony fur shiny. No more than ten seconds elapsed. I told myself I was in no danger; wolves avoid human contact. The Martin Cruz Smith novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, about Smith’s detective, Arkady Renko, solving a murder at Chernobyl, came into my thoughts.
The wolf turned to its left and ran up the back side of the bluff, reaching the top trail in no time and disappearing over the ridge. That was when I took time to shake and marvel and thank the forest spirits for granting me this moment. It was the first wild wolf I had ever seen.
Later on, I called the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and talked to a ranger. “You won’t believe this,” I said. “I saw a black wolf along the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi.” “I believe you,” the ranger replied. “We’ve had three black wolf sightings in JerseyCounty. They’re males, driven out of their Wisconsin wolf packs and searching for mates.” “Which they’ll never find?” I said. “Well, we’re keeping this quiet, but females are starting to show up. Hell, with the deer population what it is, wolves will thrive in the back country down there.”
Wolves will thrive. Unless farmers try to exterminate them. That was the fate of the native wolves in the 1800s.
A few days later, my friend Farmer B. called me. He has a huge back yard surrounded by corn and soy bean fields. His kitchen has sliding glass doors, through which are a pergola and the yard beyond. “You won’t believe this,” my friend said. “The wife and I were settin, drinkin coffee and watchin out the window. And we see this animal crawl on is belly, south to north, across out yard. I thought it was a big dog and I got my shotgun.” Farmer B., a nature lover of renown, has no sentiment for poaching dogs.
“Did you shoot it?” I asked.
“Nope. It stood and ran west. Gene, it was a wolf. I ain’t killin no wolf.”
“Was it black?”
“It was brown.”