There are howls out there in the dark, inky night. They devour my sensibilities and allow my mind to wander into a quagmire of wonder, mystery, and trepidation. The howl is singular. Its pitch is low. The howl is similar to that I hear in the far northern regions of Quebec. It often is in response to the late night howling of eastern coyote packs. Their voices are shrill and less melodious. Their voices are many. It is not uncommon to hear packs of coyotes sing back and forth to each other in the deep New England woods. Typically one band of coyotes howl over a kill and another band will respond. They howl back and forth and interestingly the two melodies never seem to emerge. But this is different. The coyotes howl; yipping and crooning wildly, but when this low, long drawn out howl responds the coyote pack goes silent as if they do not want their location to be known.
Both my wife and I have noticed this over the last year or so. I have spent many hours trying to sort out the possibilities in my mind. My instinct says it is a gray wolf, but my more rational side says no. Wolves were thought to be extirpated in New England over 100 years ago but one was killed two years ago in Shelburne, MA while killing sheep only two towns away from here. The carcass was sent out west by Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife folks and despite the fact the Fish and Game people initially denied it was a wolf, the DNA revealed that it was 100% gray wolf. No, not the hybrid between wolf and coyote known to inhabit this region called the Eastern Coyote which can contain from 10% to 80% gray wolf DNA, but a real wolf. It was a fluke they said, unlikely to ever happen again. It was a rogue male that wandered down from a pack in southeastern Ontario (and had the exact DNA to prove it) precisely where it is believed that the coyotes that migrated eastward stopped and picked up their wolf DNA some 50 years ago. Curious minds, like mine, keep wondering and wandering.
There have been claims about the presence of wolves in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The documentation is mostly anecdotal. At least two “wolves” killed in interior Maine contained a fraction of coyote DNA, not pure wolves but very close. The wilds of interior Maine are vast and unpopulated by humans. There are reaches of these deep woods that seldom see humans. It is entirely possible that the gray wolf has found its way back into these wilderness areas, but to the best of my knowledge, unproven. The White Mountains in New Hampshire and The Green Mountains in Vermont have similar, but not so vast, wild areas.
I have learned a few things over the more than three decades that I have been an ecologist. The first, and the most important lesson, is to not make assumptions. The easy answer is not always the correct answer. In fact it has been my experience that the easy answer is seldom the correct answer. And so my mind keeps considering and reconsidering the possibilities.
With as much time as I spend in the woods it is amazing how little real data I was able to find with regards to his mystery. Nearly zilch. Almost nothing, Essentially nada. But every once in a while I get lucky. Last autumn I put out some trail cameras on the western edge of our land where I had noticed some deer sign. A mature buck had made a scrape and I wanted to see what the buck looked like. I located a trail camera about 20-25 feet from the scrape in hopes of getting a good picture. If you are not familiar with these trail cameras they are pretty sophisticated. The trigger of the camera is tripped by motion detectors and infrared sensors. If an object is moving and warm the camera will take a photograph. The time of day doesn’t matter. Night or day these cameras are active and effective. Two or three days later I returned to retrieve the data card from the camera. I had my male bloodhound, Cooper, with me and he started crooning and running back and forth as we approached the area. I assumed a deer had been through and took the card out of the camera, replacing it with another one. I went about my merry way and Cooper and I visited a couple other trail cameras that I had located over about 100 acres of woods.
That evening I was going through the pictures. They were interesting, but mostly photographs of the same three or four female deers that run around in these woods. When I put in the SD card from the camera where Cooper had gotten excited I hoped to see a buck visiting the scrape. As I scrolled through the pictures on my computer monitor there were a couple of does, in fact the same ones that I had seen in other locations. And then their was a picture of what I thought was a coyote. It was stocky, and seemed fairly large. I didn’t notice anything too unusual until a couple of pictures later there was a picture of me and Cooper standing in almost the exact same location. Something immediately caught my eye and so I scrolled back to the photo of the canine that had visited the scrape. And sure enough, I had more information on the canine beast that has mysteriously been wandering these woods. In fact I had actually photographed it!
The clue that I had noticed when looking at Cooper and I standing at the scrape was that the “coyote” was about the same size as Cooper, perhaps just a tad larger. Cooper is a big fellow. He stands over 28 inches at the shoulder and weighs in at over 130 pounds. This is twice the size of a large eastern coyote; the hybrid between coyote and wolf that inhabits this area. In fact, a 65 pound eastern coyote would be considered huge. This discovery was beyond lucky. The odds of my actually getting a photograph of this canine seemed infinitesimally small. But sometimes luck just comes your way. And now I knew why Cooper was so excited on that day we picked up the SD card out of the camera.
Months passed. I spent hours and hours in the woods looking for tracks in the snow. I was looking for larger solo canine tracks. I found lots of tracks this past winter, and lots of coyotes, but none that were alone and large enough to be the animal I sought. The cameras stayed in the woods but to no avail. It seemed my luck had run out and I was at a dead end. Sometimes a little of information is more frustrating than no information at all.
And then one day in late winter while at home at about nine o’clock in the morning our female bloodhound, Adia, started growling and asked to go out onto the deck. I was upstairs on the computer and my wife, Maureen, yelled for me to come downstairs. She was on the deck with Adia and she said she had just seen a very large coyote on the other side of the field. And then she looked at my with wide eyes and said “Really, really big!”
I asked her which way it was traveling and she pointed north. I looked north. I waited. Suddenly there it was, on the other side of the road, emerging from a gully and scrambling up a hill in the hardwoods. It was tall. It had long legs. It was tawny and thin. It was bigger than eastern coyotes ever get. I only had a few seconds to see this wonderful animal before it disappeared.
Adia was beside herself with excitement. She tried jumping the railing on the deck. Maureen held her back and shuffled her inside back through the sliding plate glass doors. I stood there looking, hoping to get one more glimpse. It was not meant to be.
I went down to where Maureen had first seen the canine. She told me it was moving steadily, but not running. Only after Adia barked did it break into a quicker pace, still not a run, but a faster gait with longer strides. The tracks in the snow could not have been fresher. There was no distortion from melting. What I witnessed, photographed, and measured was astounding.
The footprints were three and three quarters inches long and nearly three inches wide. The strides were measured from the furthest front foot forward to the furthest back foot and were from 57 to 60 inches! By comparison, Coopers tracks are four and a half inches by three and a half inches; his paws are enormous by dog standards. His large feet are meant to keep him afloat on mud and wetlands when tracking in wet territory. Adias tracks are three and a half by two and three quarters inches and she weighs about 120 pounds. The normal fast walking stride of both Cooper and Adia is about 54 inches, some six inches less than the canine Maureen and Adia saw in our field.
I tracked the animal for a ways but lost it as soon as it crossed an open field where the snow had melted. By now it was at least a mile away. I stopped to think how unbelievably fortuitous it was to have seen this magnificent canine. I live amongst thousands of acres of woods and these animals have territories of tens of square miles and it just happened to cross our field in a place where Adia would smell it and Maureen would call it to my attention. Again, what are to odds?!
So what do I know? I know there is a large wild canine that wanders this forest. It has a very low pitch howl. I have a photograph of him (or her). I have seen it with my own eyes and because it was much thinner than the photo cannot even be sure it is the same animal. There is little doubt that the cold winter months and difficult hunting conditions could easily account for weight loss though. I have measured and photographed the tracks and the gait. And I can only be sure it is a very large wild canine. It could be an eastern coyote, like those in Maine, that are over 90% gray wolf. Or it could be a wolf.
I just don’t know.
Tonight I hear those low howls once again. They sound like they are from an era long ago. They are wild and send chills down through each vertebrate of my spine. They call to me.
Cooper and Adia, now by my side howl back.
The call from the wild brings them back through the ages to their primordial roots. And, for the moment, they wish to be free. They wish to run wild. They wish to be what they came from.
As do I.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April of 2012.