19 Sunday – Snow fell throughout the day. The snow is deeper (for this early in the winter) than any living moose on Isle Royale has ever seen. Imagine for a moment, being a nine hundred pound moose, trudging through knee-deep snow to gather food – twigs and needles. Each step requires more energy than there is in the 1.5 grams of food that each bite represents. A severe winter might do what wolf predation will almost certainly be unable to do this year – limit the increase in moose abundance.
Without a snowmobile, relying on the ankle express, we’ve also become sensitive to the deep snow. We’re not impacted in a way that even comes close to comparison with the experience of moose. But then, we have no where near the constitution that a moose does.
We also realize the good fortune in all this snow. It’s the water. Without the deeper and wetter than average snow, we would struggle to make water. For every ten gallons of snow that we shovel up and bring into the house, there is a gallon of water. In a normal year, we clean up in the sauna every few days. However, that requires more water than we manufacture and haul. So, today, we took turns re-familiarizing ourselves with the bucket bath. It’s not so bad.
20 Monday – Snow. Rolf and I worked on our computers all day. Don supervised.
21 Tuesday – Sunny, calm, and cold. Minus fifteen degrees Fahrenheit when we took off at 0900. We flew all day. What a joy.
The West-end Trio was still at their kill site, which is covered by large, dense spruce. Peeking between the trees, we could see only one un-collared wolf and we heard a signal from a second wolf. With all that food there, we suppose the third wolf is also present. As before, we stand to learn more by searching the island for more wolves than by continuing to watch these wolves, so we fly on.
Knowing that we’d have all day to fly, we took our time to fly over ridge top and swamp, hoping to find tracks of new wolves and hoping to catch up again with the Chippewa Harbor Group. We never found the Chippewa Harbor Group, but we did find tracks suggesting that they’d recently spent time in and around the McCargo Cove Campground. Tracks indicate that the area also has quite a few foraging moose. Presuming that the wolves had moved on, so, too, did we.
On the flight home to refuel, Don suggested that we fly out to Houghton Point. Hmmm. That’s always such a crap shoot. It’s out of the way, takes time to get there, and often we find nothing. But I agreed.
The general routine is to fly along the ten miles of shoreline that make up the point. The bay that Houghton Point forms was locked in ice. Bare black ice, pancake ice, frost-covered ice, and fields of jagged ice chucks – some chunks would measure twenty feet across – heaped onto each other. The bay was filled with every kind of ice formation. The hues ranged from pure white, calming light blue, dark foreboding shades of blue, and black. It goes on and on for more than twenty square miles.
Some set of neurons in my melon, some set not under the control of my conscious mind, jolted and hauled my consciousness from mesmerization. A wolf! A lone wolf traveling on the ice. And, she was wearing a radio-collar. It’s Isabelle. She has survived to see another winter. Amazing. Last year Isabelle was nearly killed on at least two occasions in attacks by the female of the West-end Trio. As a lone wolf, she also had difficulty getting food. Freedom from the social bonds of living in a pack comes with a steep cost.
But she has survived. It would not be surprising if she’s learned to kill moose by herself. When we saw her last, eleven months ago, she was wounded and hungry, but escaped to a remote part of the island, where she attacked and drew blood on a moose calf. Winter Study ended before we could learn whether she killed that calf. Perhaps she did. A wolf that can do so is better than most.
Even so, life still seems treacherous. As we circled Isabelle, every few moments she stopped and turned to look back, as though concerned about being followed by other wolves. We knew what she likely did not: at the moment she was safe from her mortal enemy, who was miles away on the other side of the island. Then again, she certainly knows a great deal that we do not.