Trail Lesson

Sarah Jeanne Peters

(USA)

I had seen them before. Twice in the past year. Both times they saw me first. Silently peering at me from the edge of the forest like ghosts, as I exited the short trail along Nashua Canal. They were so still and quiet, I questioned whether I had actually seen them or just imagined them.

Maybe it was a coincidence that I saw them both times at the trail’s exit; or maybe they followed my dogs and I for our whole hike, only exposing themselves to my notice as we left. At first, I saw them as dogs, but it only took a few seconds to feel the difference: it registered by raising my skin. Wild animals have to have the stealth to become invisible at will–from walking the delicate balance of predator and prey every second of every day of their lives.

I’ve read that domestic dogs are trapped in an adolescent state. You can sense it in their goofy, clumsy, noisy, casual natures. These eastern wolves were marshalling their territory. It is serious business, and they were silent in their movement. Not disturbing the air.

These first sightings were thrilling, encountering a creature so at home in the woods, so superior to me in observation and cunning. I was astonished to see them after hiking that trail a few times a week for 17 years. Could they have been here all along? Along Nashua, I had seen raccoons, groundhogs, foxes, eastern fox snakes, blue racers, beavers, so many muskrats and squirrels, bald eagles and osprey. Never a wolf. Not in any hike anywhere.  I had seen scrawny, squirrely coyotes in the western states in the prairies near the Rockies and LA; mountain lions in the Upper Peninsula; a bobcat and a few bear in southern Florida, always from quite a distance, but these were only a few feet from me, with their attention intently on me. 

But this had been months ago. It had been weeks since I had even thought about them–when the worst happened.

We were in the woods headed back to the car, when my dogs kept looking back at me. They usually do this if they don’t see anyone around, and it is their way of asking me to let them off their leashes. Since, I had walked through the forest trail once already and along Lake Okonoka and the Great Blue Heron Lagoon and not seen a single person all morning, I figured I’d let them off for a bit. 

They were about ten feet ahead of me when they veered off excitedly into the woods to my left. Didn’t think much of it at first. Figured they were chasing a squirrel. As I passed where they turned, I thought I saw them interacting with a few grey and white dogs that all looked the same.

Suddenly I realised there were at least six of them and they weren’t dogs. My dogs can get defensive very quickly and fight fiercely. Neither one will submit even to each other, which has caused all three of us injury. And they had just disrupted an eastern wolves’ den. This is going to turn into a bloodbath. My adrenaline went wild. I called my dogs frantically. They normally come when called, but it was out of their paws, so to speak. They couldn’t turn their backs without risking getting attacked. Although, they seemed far calmer than the wolves, whose nerves were electric. The wolves wove in circles of each other and my dogs and barked in short yaps that became howls. They seemed like a military camp under attack, calling the alarm and getting in formation, as I lowered my voice and ordered my dogs back to me, like I do when I mean business, when I expect them to take my command dead serious. The Doberman, Tessa, came back to me, and I fumbled with her leash as I watched my hound/Rottweiler mix, Sofia, posturing and almost playfully asserting herself. Two of the wolves started baring their teeth, growling and lunging at her. They went from looking like mystical forest canids to demonic hyenas in seconds. I kept fumbling with the tangled leashes, meanwhile Tessa went back into the fray. Terror gripped me, my heart tightened at the flash that my sweet dogs and these wolves were about to rip each other apart in front of me. My low orders leapt high up into my throat and I screeched their names, bloody-murder style. That worked, and they both came back to me. As I fumbled with their leashes again, three of the wolves ran out onto the trail in front of me snarling and lunging toward me. I got Tessa’s leash on her, but resorted to just grabbing my giant hound-mix by her harness and pulled them behind me as I slowly backed away from the wolves.Every second seemed like an hour as I walked slowly backward, my arms cramping from holding the dogs behind as the wolves snarled and moved together in a triangle formation about 8 feet from us, the apparent leader in the front. 

My brain seemed split between fascinated observer and the most frantic fight or flight I had ever experienced. Throughout the ordeal the lizard part of my brain was lightening quick assessing the best tactics as minute changes happened. It seemed on automatic. I knew I had to back away to keep them from pouncing, but the slow backing away was torture. I kept thinking I was closer to the end of the trail than I was. I would see a marker and realise how hopelessly distant my escape was from this nightmare. 

I picked up the pace and and got maybe 15-feet away, then decided maybe I had enough distance to run. I ran as fast as I could dragging the dogs with me for a few seconds, but saw I had activated the wolves to attack. They were bounding close behind me. I turned around, stood on my toes making myself as big as possible and started screaming as loud and deep as I could. The wolves looked surprised and backed away a few feet, until I stopped. I went back to slowly backing away,  and they resumed slowly menacing us, lunging and snarling, teeth exposed, their faces contorted demonically. Every few feet I would make myself big and scream at them, but they became inured to it pretty quickly. It would stop them for a second, and I would move backward faster for a second to get a few feet more distant, but they would make up for it immediately.

A few things I noticed as this went on:

  1. The wolves seemed in constant communication through small gestures and looks exchanged. At least twice the leader looked back at one of the others and then that wolf would run into the woods. I was terrified it had been instructed to run through the woods and get ahead on the trail, to encircle us in a trap, but the “lieutenant” would come back out and join the triangle. They seemed highly intelligent, almost psychically communicating, and united in a purposeful and functioning hierarchy. They reminded me of the aliens in the movie, Communion: smart, organized and cold.
  2. Two or three times the leader stopped snarling and looked straight up at the sky. I looked, but didn’t see anything. I think it must have heard something that I couldn’t, which reminded me that I was way out of my league. I was close enough to see that it wasn’t sniffing. An alternate theory I had at that moment was that it was crazy from rabies. That it was seeing things that weren’t there, but I don’t think its band would be following its lead in that case. It also looked like it was in perfect health.
  3. When they weren’t snarling, I could see they were beautiful: they had a lot of white, creamy fur, especially on their heads and chests. Their eyes were a golden/amber that stood out from the white fur. If light hit them, their fur looked golden, but in the shadows, a silvery grey. Then they would snarl and suddenly look like a hyena mated with an opossum.

This ordeal was so exhausting that there were moments when I felt like giving up, but there was no giving-up option. I had to endure the mad tension, the heart pounding in my chest, the thought I put my dogs in grave harm, that wolves can jump eight feet, and I was only ten feet from them, the fear that had me covered with sweat even though it was a cold day, the patient backward walking through a trail that seemed to have no end.

At one point they rushed up to about 5 feet from me, and I peed. I barely even felt it happening. It was such an automatic fear response. My pants dripping all the way down my legs. Right then the leader crouched and pissed on the ground. S/he must have thought I was marking my territory and responded in kind. It was such a strange moment. Seeing the wolf respond to me like that rose my heightened awareness even higher. I was in a conflict with a pack of wolves. 

It kept running through my mind they could kill my dogs in front of me. They could kill me, then what would happen to my dogs? It was the most terrifying experience. Nothing has come close.

When I could finally see the trailhead about 25 feet away, I walked backward as fast as I calmly could. When I was finally about 8 feet from my car, I turned around and started running, terrified they might be right behind me. They must have been at peace with driving us out of the woods and were returning to their den, because when I opened my car door and glanced back, they were gone.

As I shook and fumbled to get my keys and open the door, the dogs wiggled and wagged their tails excited for the car ride. I was traumatised, but they were back to normal. Such a strange reality to face that although I somehow felt I had them to commiserate with, they had moved on. It took me days. I even felt shaky writing this two weeks later.

I drove to the DNR office and explained what had happened, suggested a sign be posted. So people at least know about the risk, but they never have.

As comfortable as I have always felt in the woods, this emphasised to me, I am just a naive, clumsy tourist, coming and going, spending a few hours in the woods so often, but that is the wolves’ home.

I have never unleashed my dogs in the woods since then, never will, and I carry bear spray now. I can’t imagine ever staying away from the woods.

Sarah Jeanne Peters

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Sarah Jeanne Peters is a poet and story writer from Michigan. Some of the best experiences of her life were hiking in ecosystems as diverse as Death Valley, the Everglades, the Sonoran Desert, the Hiawatha National Forest and the Dolomites. She has had poems published in Napalm Health Spa and Kadar Koli, among other journals and anthologies. Her chapbook, published by Habenicht Press, is titled, Curses and Other Love Poems.

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