In our third autumn at Cree Lake, Black Henry, a lone trapper, came from the south and established a trapline upon a series of small lakes and the river that connects them to the main drainage artery which winds its way through swamp and muskeg into the south end of Cree Lake. Henry's home cabin was located so far from the canoe route to Cree Lake and the winter trail to Ile-a-la-Crosse that he had no communication with anyone. Ab and I had learned all this, even to the general location of his home cabin, via moccasin telegraph, the news passed on from one lone traveller to another on the infrequent occasions when one meets other humans in this vast wilderness. We reckoned that Black Henry's cabin lay about fifteen miles southwest of our home base.
In the following February, Ab and I decided to pay Black Henry a surprise visit and thereby make his acquaintance. We planned to find him travelling south through the forest until we reached the river where his snowshoe trail would be located, and which we would follow to his cabin. We crossed Long Bay and struck off into the bush early on a clear cold morning. We took turns at breaking trail for the dog team, travelling toward the sun through dense bush, swamp, and rough terrain all that day. We passed from the sand country of our area into decidedly different topography for here there appeared great outcroppings of Precambrian rock in rough country not unlike mountain terrain near timberline. On one particularly rugged section our trail led to a sheer drop of some fifteen feet onto a great level slab of rock below. The dogs were unharnessed and persuaded to jump down into a deep snow cushion. The toboggan was let down on a rope after which we scrambled down over great boulders on one side of the drop. The land levelled off considerably after that.
At sundown we came upon a small creek. Following its course downstream, we passed through a land of many high wooded ridges. Two sets of moose tracks were seen here, the first noted on this trip. Quite numerous, however, were the big tracks of timber wolves. I remarked to Ab that we were in likely wolf country. He nodded and said nothing. We were in some of the wildest and most desolate country we had yet travelled.
Black Henry's snowshoe trail was discovered where the small creek joined a much larger stream. Following it along we reached his cabin just as darkness came on. Henry flung open the door. Tall well built, and with a full black beard, he looked the part of a story book trapper. He stared blankly as we shook his hand and introduced ourselves. We allowed him some time to get used to us, for we understood the impact on one who is surprised by complete strangers after months of isolation. After we had eaten our evening meal and lighted our pipes the conversation picked up. Black Henry's tongue loosened. He talked until he was hoarse. He talked a long way into the night, and he told us the story of the timber wolves.
Black Henry was not a man who operated a trapline in the conventional manner. He owned no dogs, and snowshoed his long trapline in utter solitude. He packed all his trail needs in a big packsack, striding strongly across lakes, up and down the rivers and creeks, and through the woods. He took his chances, asked no favour from any man. He used a large number of snares and frankly admitted using poison baits for foxes. He said that he had freighted in a coil of barbed wire, which when the barbs were removed could be used for snaring moose, all in defiance of existing game laws. His philosophy was that a man did not come this far north for the good of his health and he must make the most of the opportunities as they were discovered, to take all the fur animals he could in one season and then move out.
Our host told us that shortly after freeze-up seven timber wolves had moved into the area. He knew their number for he counted their beds in the snow one day as he had passed along the top of a high ridge while on the hunt for a moose. He was not particularly interested in the wolves at that time. He did not know too much about taking wolves, he said, and besides their pelts were of similar value to a red fox in those days.
So he spent his time setting for foxes, mink, and otter since he knew how to take these. As winter wore along Black Henry became aware by certain signs that the pack had become interested in his movements. He knew that they watched him from the ridgetops as he patrolled his lonely trapline, for wolf howls were frequently heard coming from the hilltops as he passed by. Black Henry had noted that the timber wolves never went near his fox baits or the snares hung in the game trails for they were uncanny in their knowledge of a set. He knew, too, that they felt the scarcity of food since moose trails were few and far between in the dead of winter. There were no caribou at all this winter. The land was in a state of great cold and food scarcity that settles over vast areas of northern Canada in midwinter.
In this section of grim rock ridges there existed an aura of desolation and a feeling of isolation that we did not feel in the parklike sand country where we conducted our operations.
The signs became more ominous. As he snowshoed on the frozen river he observed that the pack frequented the river also, and their trails became more numerous and tracks were present near his outcamp cabins. Then he noted that wolf tracks were on his own trail and had followed it for miles. Black Henry sensed that the wolves were growing bolder each day.
In the last days of January the cold was most intense and in the gathering dusk as he neared the home cabin, several times he saw wolves crossing the river far ahead, and at right angles to his trail. Sometimes they came within rifle range but he did not shoot; he had only a handful of cartridges for his bastard .25-.36 rifle, and he doubted very much if more of these cartridges existed between the Churchill River and the Cree Lake country. He needed each cartridge desperately to guarantee his meat supply. He had squandered too many moose hunting.
One night as he lay on his bunk, he felt that wolves prowled near his cabin. At daylight he found wolf tracks just back of the big woodpile.
It was time for Black Henry to make his move. He possessed in his pack a small bottle of strychnine-innocent-looking white powder, given to him by a trapper friend at Ile-a-la-Crosse, along with a genuine secret as to its use on wolves grown bold. From his lean-to warehouse, Henry took the whole head of a cow moose and packed it out on the ice of a small lake, not far from the home cabin in an area the wolves favoured. The head was laid on its side on the snow-covered ice. Under the head, Black Henry had placed ten scraps of moose brain, each loaded with lethal strychnine.
Black Henry recounted the following details; In the beginning, his trapper friend had explained to him that the Canadian timber wolf is a wily beast, difficult to trap, snare, poison, or shoot. He is not likely to take poisoned bait readily, but through long experience the trapper had learned that the wolves have one inherent weakness. Under certain conditions timber wolves will become so interested in, and curious about a moose head lying on the ice that they will approach it and turn it over. Any small scraps of meat found under the head will then be bolted without taking time to become suspicious. Indeed, this was exactly the pattern of the events that actually happened and as Henry related them to us on that cold night in the lonely cabin in that stark forlorn country.
It was on the third night after the bait had been set. The night was a flood of bright moonlight and the black speck lying on the lake ice so fascinated the watching timber wolves that in spite of their natural fears and suspicions they drew nearer, stopped, and drew nearer still. They were very near now but stopped again circled about and stopped as before.
Then a big tawny male wolf approached the head and turned it over. He snapped up one bait before the others snatched away the other nine baits, some swallowing more than one, some having none of the poisoned brain. The tawny one made his way into the jackpines where he died in his tracks. He was at once disembowelled by some of the others. A silky female was re-poisoned from the entrails and fell silently on her side without any struggle for both the front and hind paws were crossed. Some of the pack had been suffering the effects of strychnine for they had rolled and retched upon the snow until their vomiting had cleared them of the poison. They then withdrew and their fresh tracks were not seen that winter again nor were their howls heard in that wild country where they had ranged so long. To substantiate his story of the previous night, next morning Black Henry took us out to the little lake and showed proof. The poisoning had taken place a week before our arrival; no new snow had fallen in the interval so that the evidence lay open to the bush-educated. The moose head lay a hundred yards from the shore on the ice, unmolested except for two wiskey jacks that shuffled back and forth from the woods to pick tallow from the raw end of the neck. Wolf tracks where everywhere. Henry led us into the bush where the tawny one lay-a great ugly brute coloured like a coyote except that the hair was coarser and the mane darker. The carcass was held together by the backbone and a strip of hide, its belly had all been eaten away and the pelt ruined. This timber wolf in frame, weight, and size of foot was considerably larger than Cap, our big sleigh dog. Henry pointed out where the poisoned bitch wolf had died. There was no evidence of a struggle, just the depression in the snow. Yellow frothy stains were on the snow where the others had vomited and the snow was all packed down in room sized-areas where they had rolled in agony. Finally, back at the cabin, Henry showed to us the silky grey pelt of a bitch wolf. I turned over the leg skin. The flesh side was shot through with vivid red streaks, the unmistakable evidence of strychnine poisoning.
Martin Brustad related to me how he had once been trailed by a pack of six wolves. On a wintery afternoon he patrolled his trapline along the east Cree Lake shore, working his way down to his home cabin at Stoney Narrows. They had been following him for some miles, keeping out of rifle range, as he snowshoed along until the sun sank below a row of high hills off to the southwest. As darkness descended and it became too dark to shoot, they came so close that he decided it would be prudent to make for shore and climb a tree, whereupon the wolves split into two groups of three and circled the tree from opposite directions. They hung around for a half hour before they moved on. He saw no more of them when he continued to his cabin.
At the time of our first beaver hunt we were continually under surveillance by timber wolves. We were soon aware that a pack of seven or eight ranged all through that country and we frequently saw their big tracks. They lived in a wolf-utopia. The land was overrun with barren ground caribou. Several partly eaten carcasses were found on the lake ice. Other wolf kills were marked by mere bones for the foxes and ravens were doing a good clean-up job.
For all the available food, on several occasions, the wolves prowled close to our tent at night. Meg, the team watchdog, would begin to growl softly as soon as she became aware of them. Once we were alerted just at dawn. We sneaked out to the lakeshore, but although we saw their shapes in the murky light, we were unable to train rifle sights upon them. At another time, as we returned to the tent after a week-long absence to the home cabin, we found timber-wolf tracks all about the tent. No attempt had been made to get inside.
When the days grew longer and warmer, I hit the trail at daylight one morning to patrol the beaver trapline on the frost, before the trail softened under the warming sun. The first set was near a beaver lodge built in a swamp about one hundred yards from the nearest timber. My head was down, peering into the water to study the trap set on a log that slanted into the depths. Then I heard a wolf howl, loud and clear, and very close by. I looked up in time to grab the turning toboggan, as the dogs bolted back down the trail leading back to the tent. I stopped them and turned them around with some difficulty. This had never happened with our dogs before. All that trip the dogs were uneasy, the only occasion I had known the dogs to be worried by wolves. I had never heard of wolves actually attacking a man in the wilderness, certainly never an authenticated successful attack. Whether we were in danger of attack at this time I do not know, but I can say that the dogs were worried and uncertain and I had to respect their judgment in such matters. I saw or heard no more wolves for the rest of that trip.
Far out on Cree Lake I explored a number of islands, looking for mink sign. As I walked alone over the ice I came upon a large number of animal tracks which from a distance looked to be caribou tracks in the snow. On close examination, they proved to be fresh tracks of timber wolves. I counted more than thirty sets of tracks, spread out and travelling eastward. I had never heard anyone talk of packs of such size, the usual number being seven. I got to thinking about my position should I suddenly encounter such a number of wolves. I carried a .30 Winchester carbine with only sis cartridges. I decided that I would certainly be at a disadvantage. I suddenly remembered a painting I had seen as a boy-a lone hunter at bay on the ice encircled by perhaps fifty timber wolves. With smoking revolver in hand he looked wildly about. Two wolves lay dead upon the ice, the others looked very much alive and not at all discouraged. Had the artist's inspiration been founded on an otherwise unrecorded incident that had happened somewhere in Canada's Northland? I felt a good deal more secure when I reached the timber on the shore of Cree Lake that day.
Our chance encounters with timber wolves were always of a similar pattern. We surprised them when they traversed the frozen lakes or as they lay on the snow in some sheltered bay in the warming sun and out of the cold wind. They fled into the bush the moment they saw us, showing little of the curiosity that leads some animals to their doom. I have several times watched, from some vantage point, a lone wolf cruising leisurely upon the ice until it vanished into the woods on the opposite shore.
I spent a weird winter night of low temperature and the full moon's light reflected from the deep snow, lit up the surrounding hills so that detail could be seen almost as though it were daylight.
The night was calm and the winter silence so intense that I was startled when the wolf howled one long-drawn, awful cry, full throated, and with all the range of which an adult wolf is capable. The howl was answered from the hill just north of the cabin, and then another close by just to the west. As I lay in my bunk, I tried to picture the scene as viewed by the wolves from the surrounding hills. The little cabin was almost completely covered by deep snow. The moon was on the white smoke column that rose from the tiny tin pipe that protruded through the roof at one corner. The wolves were looking down from the heights, muzzles pointing towards the cabin, until one wolf howled, its muzzle pointed straight upward. Then a white plume of its breath rose against the sky. When the howling ceased the silences were again unbroken, as was my sleep until dawn. I have heard the wolf howl many times and I have read vivid descriptions of the sound, yet it must be heard when you are entirely alone, at night, in midwinter under the moon, when it can be appreciated fully.
A few miles back of our home cabin, there was a long narrow lake which when frozen over and snow-covered lay as a silver rapier, nestled between high wooded green hills. I named it Needle Lake. I had observed that each winter without fail, sometime during the season a pack of wolves travelled the lake from end to end, just once, as they travelled a natural trail leading through a defile between two rows of hills.
From a trapper friend I had acquired a small vial of strychnine. He had purchased the parent bottle in one of the Big River stores. When he offered the gift I accepted, thinking to experiment with the possibility of poisoning the wolves that I knew would travel the lake once more during the coming winter. I had refused to use poison for the taking of foxes for I had been told that too many foxes die far from where the bait is taken and are not recovered, but are eaten by other animals who form a link in a chain of death.
I performed the experiment as soon as the lesser lakes became locked in ice and when it would bear my weight. I took a whitefish from the net and prepared the bait by slitting open the belly and cutting through the flesh along the backbone to the skin of the back, taking care not to cut through the skin from the inside. I now spread open the fish and dusted a fine line of poison along the inside of the skin, folded all together and froze it solid on a beam in the warehouse.
Next morning, out on the ice of Needle Lake, I cut a trench in the ice with my belt axe to hold my poisoned fish so that the back protruded a couple of inches above the ice. I broke the ice to the water, after which the trench filled with water which would soon freeze and hold the fish where the wolves would gnaw at it until they died there.
From a hilltop on my trapline, I could look down the length of Needle Lake and see the bait. On my first and second trips around, the bait was intact. A two-inch fall of snow covered the ice and the bait on the third round. A spell of unseasonably warm weather in November melted the snow from the ice and on my fourth trip the bait was gone! I discovered the reason. Found by wiskey jacks, the softened fish had been torn away bit by bit and the meat hidden away where the wiskey jacks hide surplus food. Now I had poison scattered about and not under my control; an undesirable condition, to say the least. I did not set another poison bait ever.
The wolves used the route, just once, later that winter when two feet of snow covered Needle Lake. From the hill I saw their tracks, six sets in all, entering the lake from the east end, fanning out in six trails and converging on the spot where my bait had been. Here there was evidence of a good deal of interest, for all the snow had been scratched away to the bare ice and the snow was packed down all about the area for the smell of fish was there still. Then the tracks collected to a single file again and led to the lake's west end where the trail entered the bush.
I never killed a timber wolf. Although I set for them many times they never came near my traps and snares. I classed them as among the most wary of all the fur bearers.