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Alone in the Winter Woods

Posted on February 20th, 2012

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I was the first skier to arrive at Wilderness State Park on Saturday morning after this corner of Emmet County was blessed with three inches of lake-effect snow the night before. I stepped into my skis and headed south on Swamp Line Trail, alone in the woods, surrounded by winter’s stillness.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I was more than a mile from the trailhead before I noticed the dog prints following the same path I was. There was something unusual about them and at first I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it hit me.

There were no boot prints accompanying the tracks. This was no dog.

I paused and studied the prints more closely, immediately regretting not packing along a field guide to identify tracks. But I have seen wolf prints before and there was no reason to believe these weren’t made by the same species.

At some point after the snowfall had subsided early in the morning this wolf was the first down the trail. I was the second.

When wolves finally returned to the Lower Peninsula after being extirpated in the early 1900s, most biologists believe Wilderness State Park was their door step. It may have been in 1997, when a Coast Guard helicopter pilot reported sighting a pair of wolves along the shoreline of the park after they had apparently made the 5-mile trek across the frozen Straits of Mackinac.

Swamp Line Trail

Swamp Line Trail in Wildernesss State Park.

In 2010, U.S. Forest Service biologists verified that a pack of wolves living in the tip of the mitt had been successful breeding and the pup, most likely the first born in the Lower Peninsula in more than a century, has been radio collared.

They’re here and for all I knew this was one of them.

I followed the prints for more than a half mile, so mesmerized I almost never took my eye off them. If I was more knowledgeable about tracking, I probably could have determined the animal’s size, the pace he was walking at, maybe he’s age. But I’m not.

It did appear at one point as if the wolf paused or at least cautiously slowed down. In the beginning the tracks were clean and almost perfectly spaced as if they were made by a steady gait. Then suddenly there weren’t and at that point the wolf made a sharp turn to the right and entered the tangled cedar wetlands that Swamp Line Trail passes through.

I peered into the woods, wondering what made him leave the easy travel of an old two-track like Swamp Line Trail for the thick underbrush and deeper snow he was now in. I couldn’t figure it out so I skied on and 30 yards later I stopped again at another set of tracks.

A snowshoe hare had run across the trail in the same direction as the wolf, leaving prints almost as clean and sharp as his. Suddenly I realized I was witnessing life, death and survival in a place called Wilderness.

I was definitely not alone in the woods.

            *                                  *                                  * 

Wilderness State Park is a wonderful place to visit in the winter for a backcountry skiing adventure. But when you want to retreat to someplace warm and comfortable, there’s no better choice then Crooked River Lodge  (866-548-0700).

Located right on the banks of its namesake river in Alanson, the impressive log lodge is on US-31 and only 20 minutes from the state park. It features large, comfortable rooms, a hot breakfast in the morning and not one but two hot tubs.

One is located indoors adjacent to the pool, the other is

Crooked River Lodge.

The outdoor hot tub at Stafford's Crooked River Lodge.

outdoors overlooking the wooded banks of the Crooked River, a great place to soak away sore muscles after a day of breaking trail. This is a Stafford property, the same family who also operate the Perry Hotel in Petoskey and nearby Bay View Inn, so you know the service is impeccable.

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