Recently I left the predictable comforts of my California home to track wolves for eight days and nights in the snowy Northwoods of Wisconsin. Wolf, the unwitting emblem for wilderness, was calling my soul back to the wild.
Feeling weighted down and a bit stuck in the drudgery of routine and expectations, I instinctively knew it was time for me to push my edges and immerse myself into a mystery that would shake up the predictable.
It had been seven years since my last wolf tracking adventure. This time the conditions were much more severe. Wisconsin had not seen weather like this in 60 years. Temperatures vacillated between -18 to 29 degrees Fahrenheit and the snow was up to our knees and hips.
With only two weeks to prepare for living as close to nature as possible, I quickly packed two sets of thick wool to cover me in three layers from head to toe, and one pair of suede mukluks for my feet. Further testing my resolve, I injured my shin with a large painful gash just before I left home. I was nervous and scared of the unknown, but nothing was going to stop me from connecting with wolf.
The organization that hosted the Wolf Tracking Immersion teaches indigenous ways of living and being. My temporary home would be a small cabin with minimal plumbing, warmed only by a wood burning stove. My bed was three levels up in a loft, accessible by a narrow spiral staircase and shaky ladder. The area received little heat and was a long way from the outhouse. But I found that I loved sleeping bundled up next to the drafty window and didn’t even mind doing my business outside, squatting over a hole in the ground. There was something ancient, simple, and primal about all of it.
Up with the sun, we departed for nearly 8 hours each day, scouting and following wolf tracks into the woods. Wolves are super intelligent and use various techniques for conserving their precious energy. Knowing this, we were inevitably able to pick up wolf tracks on plowed remote roads that cut through the forest. We could tell by looking at their print patterns, these wolves were on the hunt for deer. Every so often the prints showed that the wolves had veered off to the right or the left, surely scanning the forest looking for deer signs to follow. At times when it appeared we were following just one wolf, our guides asked us to take a closer look at the individual tracks and try to discern if there were multiple footsteps in each print. Only a sharp eye could see that these wolves were indeed ‘wolf walking,’ which means one or more wolves had stepped into their leader’s footprints to further conserve their energy.
When the wolves we were tracking entered the forest, we mirrored their wolf walking by following our own leader’s tracks in a single file. We took turns leading the way through the thick snow. Walking through deep snow and dense forest was physically challenging because with every step we had to lift our legs high, then press down through the snow, which could sink to our knees or thighs. Numerous times (too many to count) I lost my footing or balance and fell into a bath of snow. Furthermore, in the leadership role, it was both strenuous to create solid foot holes for others who followed and a delicate task to simultaneously keep track of the wolf prints, taking care not to compromise their integrity. Each trail of prints and signs holds a wealth of energy and information that allows a skilled tracker to interpret wolf’s behavior. For example, it’s possible to gauge the genders, sizes, ages and number of wolves on a trail, where they were headed and if they were trotting, running, hunting, marking, playing, mating, or sleeping.
Once we got into our groove with unity consciousness, imagining we were a wolf pack was easy, as we followed wolf’s trail close to the ground weaving in-between closely set trees and shrubs, dipping under sharp spiky branches and climbing over stunted saplings. Our time on wolf’s trail demonstrated to us the agility and unity of wolves as we saw their tracks trotting, scraping, weaving, bounding, fanning out, merging and chasing at great speeds together – all the while threading a needle through a very sharp and dense forest.
Throughout the week we came upon wolf lays (rounded out bowls in the snow) where one or more wolves had slept, and we tracked two different kill sites where deer had offered their lives to feed wolves and other forest scavengers. The wolves were experiencing abundance, because snowy winters are their best season. Wolf paws are wide and stay near the top of the snow, allowing them to run with greater speed and less effort than the deer with skinny legs and sharp hooves that cut deep into snow.
Like wolves, my clan for the week stayed fully engaged with the environment each moment out on the trails. Our minds were attentive and fully present as a cohesive pack on the hunt. We were not thinking about our to-do lists or a frustration from the previous day. Instead we were fully immersed and completely connected to an experience that opened all of our sensory circuits, and tuned us down to the bone. Being in rapport with Wilderness and Wolf kin was enlivening. It renewed my connection to freedom and my authentically wild nature.