I've only seen one wolf in my life.
I was walking back to my rented cabin from the North Shore Market in Tofte, Minn., carrying a bag of groceries one hot summer afternoon in 1987. I'd just crossed a side road leading up and away from the lake when an old pickup rumbled to a stop beside me. A man as aged and battered as his pickup leaned across the giant German shepherd that sat next to him and said, "Say, step up here next to my pickup."
My face must have told him I had no intention of doing any such thing. "No, please," he insisted. "I'm not saying get in. Just stand here."
He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb. In the shade of some pines 50 feet away lay a huge dog with luxurious black fur. Although its body appeared perfectly at ease, it was alert -- ears were perked forward as it stared at me. The shepherd growled. I looked back to the pickup, thinking it was growling at me.
"Oh, you don't bother Rex none," the man assured me. "It's them that upset him, and we're seeing 'em more and more. Not one bit afraid."
Confused, I turned to look at the dog near the pines again. "Don't you see?" the old man said. "It's a wolf."
I don't think I said a word as I stepped next to the truck. The old man continued to make conversation. "I've seen that one around before. Not many black like that. He's a big, old male." Then with a lilt in his voice as if he'd just pulled off a great practical joke, he said, "See why I didn't want you walking down the road, carrying that bag of food?"
He was serious again when he assured me the wolf would prefer not to tangle with Rex. "I'd give you a ride but this truck ain't too clean and Rex here doesn't like to be crowded." He'd just stay with me, he said, until the wolf moved on.
He shut off the engine, and I rested my grocery bag against the pickup. I don't remember everything he said as clearly as I do his opening invitation to step closer to his pickup, but I do remember what he thought about wolves.
When I questioned him about seeing them more, considering that wolves are reclusive animals, he said: "Wolves are opportunist just like all animals," and explained that the butcher at the market threw meat scraps in the garbage and the wolves came down from the hills to eat the easy pickings.
"Running down deer and killing 'em is hard work," he said. "No self-respecting animal passes up a free meal."
He said he'd told the butcher to stop or there'd be wolves walking down Hwy. 61 like they'd built it and something bad would happen. They'd kill somebody's poodle or attack a child, and everyone would think it was the wolf's fault when it was the fault of humans for getting the wolf in range of such easy prey. From his perspective, wolves got blamed for a lot that was not their fault.
He believed wolves were smart. "Lots smarter than Rex here, and he ain't no dummy." He explained how a wolf pack works as a team, individual wolves doing specific tasks -- some tracking the deer, others herding them into a group and moving them toward the wolves who waited to go in for the kill. Humans, he believed, could take a lesson from wolves about working for the common good. He was also sure wolves communicated better than some humans -- mostly likely, he added, because they can't talk.
I kept glancing over at the wolf. I hadn't been prepared for its majesty. I'd assumed that pictures I'd seen were romanticized and that wolves looked mangy and ragged in real life. "He's a beauty," the old man said, as though reading my mind. "Magnificent creature, but then most animals are."
We were watching when the wolf stood up, casually looked around and ambled off, disappearing among the pines. "Goin' home," the old man said and started the engine. I thanked him, and we said goodbye.
I was in Tofte again last week. I bought a newspaper at the North Shore Market. I saw the picture of a wolf, hung by one back leg from a tree limb by the hunter who had killed it.
I think the old man would have been as sad as I was.
Cheryll K. Ostrom lives in Brooklyn Park.