Few sounds in the woods really frighten me. A wolf howl makes my hair stand on end, every time. This one was butt-clenchingly close.The third week of October is perfect for hunting ruffed grouse in northern Wisconsin: Cool temperatures make walking comfortable, the underbrush has opened up, and the trees have shed many of their leaves; the few remaining paint the canvas with flecks of brilliance. The crunch of dry leaves and frost-stiffened grass had announced our presence in the woods as Bell, my Drathaar, and I walked down an old two-track under a bright blue midmorning sky.
We were hunting a short trail of about two miles that followed a creek downhill to a low, bowl-shaped alder thicket surrounded by young aspen. Bell ran up and down the trail working the kinks out as we headed toward the base of the hill where the bird hunting would get serious.
From about a half-mile in front us, a low, short, deep howl drifted up the trail. It was quickly followed by whining and yipping — and then silence. I knew immediately what it was: A wolf pack had finished its predawn kill and the troops were assembling to go find a nice sunny spot to sleep and digest.
Bell didn’t object when I reversed my direction and double-timed it back up the path we had just come down. Intellectually, I knew the wolves wouldn’t attack me and would leave my dog alone if I kept her close. But still, I had no desire to test that theory. I walked quickly up the trail, scanning both sides and behind me. The woods were thick and crowded with undergrowth that came right to the edge of the narrow trail. It was hard to see very far in any direction. In spite of the cool temperatures, I broke into a full sweat.
Then I heard it: Wolf behaviorists describe it as a two-note sequence somewhere between a quiet bark and a low whine. I call it a “chortle.” I’d heard it before in previous wolf pack encounters. It’s the call the wolves make to locate each other in dense woods. Each individual makes the noise once almost simultaneously so that it encircles you like surround sound.
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