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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Classic Kent Ballard Story . . .

I had a fairly interesting experience while cutting firewood yesterday.
I was cutting near the northwest boundary of my property. With all the
snow we've had, the area--or most of it--is fairly easy to get to with a
4x4 pickup, but it also puts me at about the maximum distance from any
other houses or people. Not that it matters much. I couldn't yell loud
enough to be heard even if I was at the closest point on my place to the
nearest house. But when you're back where I was, you have the serious
understanding that you are very, very alone.

I worked for about two hours, felling a couple of smaller (stove
diameter) dead trees and cutting them up into the proper lengths. I also
spent some time cutting wild grape vines, which can kill trees by
choking off the sunlight to them in the summer. When all the cutting was
done I stowed the chainsaw in the truck and sat down on the tailgate for
a moment to rest and have a cigarette before I started loading the wood
into the truck. It had been snowing the whole time I was out there and
I'd been muttering under my breath that I should have paid more
attention to the weather forecasts. But even with the snow, we still had
a good 1/4 mile visibility or thereabouts. My dogs were with me at the
start, but eventually became bored and wandered off out of sight.

As soon as I sat down the usual thing happened. I was surprised how
silent the forest was. After listening to the chainsaw roaring for two
hours then shutting it off, that happens every time. You'd think I'd be
used to it by now but it always grabs my attention. There was no wind,
the snow coming straight down. Think of the most quiet place you can
imagine. Think of being in your bed late at night with the pillows piled
on top of your head. Silence. That's one of the things I love about the
forest in deep winter. I was sitting there enjoying a beautiful,
absolutely quiet snowfall surrounded by my beloved forest on all sides
and utterly alone.


Did you ever have the feeling that you were being watched? I think most
people have had that, and it's hard to describe. But when I've been in
stores or malls or wherever there are a lot of people and have had that
feeling, I've looked around and sure enough I'd spot someone who was
just idly staring at me for no particular reason. This is by no means
unique to me. Lots of other folks have told me they've had the same

I was having it--and having it seriously--while sitting on my tailgate.
There shouldn't have been anyone else back there. The gate to our
driveway was shut, chained, and padlocked. None of my friends who hunt
were on my property. Whoever or whatever was watching me had to have
come through the forest. I didn't *think* I was being watched. I *knew*
it. It was a jolt from the peace I'd felt just seconds before.

It was not a day for casual hikers to be out. Hunting season is over. No
one yelled a friendly greeting to attract my attention. And as quiet as
it was, I knew he couldn't be moving. He was simply looking at me.

Well, I didn't know where he was, but he didn't know I'd picked up on
his presence. My right hand slid into the front cargo pocket of my
insulated coveralls. I've long had a rule never to go into these woods
unarmed. You never know what's out there. While doing this, I began
looking deeply through the woods, like a hunter, and slowly turning from
right to left. I did a slow turn and about 90 degrees later saw what was
staring at me.

It was a wolf. No, not an overgrown coyote, not a big German Shepard.
This creature was half again as big as either of them could ever be.

A wolf.

Twenty yards away and looking directly into my eyes. Just standing
there, silently.

Two thoughts crashed into my mind simultaneously. (a.) What in the HELL
is a wolf doing out here? We don't HAVE wolves in this part of the
country! But I'm looking at one, and he's looking back at me! And, (b.)
can I get my Smith & Wesson out of this damned cargo pocket fast
enough? He could cover the distance between us in two or three seconds.

Just as my hand reached around the grip on my Smith I started slowly
drawing it, making no noise, trying not to startle the wolf into attack
mode. The gun was halfway out before another, even stranger thought came
into my head.

I knew this wolf. Hell, I *recognized* him!

The wolf belongs to my neighbors who live immediately to the west.
There's a long and unimportant story about how Ron and Debbie obtained
this wolf, but when they got him Ron flagged me down one day as I was
driving by their house. He told me the long and unimportant story about
getting the wolf and added it had been severely abused as a pup. They
call him "Wolfman" or "Wolfie" for short, and he's more gentle than many
farm dogs I could name. He's actually *timid* around people. (Ron told
me later he made a lousy watchdog.) But Ron wanted to "introduce" us for
two reasons. One, he didn't want me to see it and think it was wild if
it ever came over onto my place, in which case Ron knew I would shoot
it. Two, he wanted Wolfie to know my scent, so if it did come over here
it'd know me and not be frightened by the scent of a stranger.

I thought it rather bizarre that a wolf could possibly be frightened by
a human scent, but given the circumstances it made sense. So I
cautiously extended my hand, palm inward, to the wolf and it sniffed it
then licked it a couple of times. I scratched him behind the ears and
his tale started wagging like a puppy. So far, so good. So I threw all
caution to the wind and knelt down, scratching his neck and shoulders
and saying his name repeatedly. The wolf responded by wagging his tale
even faster and licking my glasses completely off my face. Wolfman has a
tongue like a beluga whale. Dandy set of teeth, too.

Ron told me what particular type of wolf it was (and I've since
forgotten) but he's two to three times the size of most farm dogs and at
least 50% bigger and heavier than my Labrador/Great Dane mix
"Katie"--and she's a very big dog. I saw him in his summer coat, which
was of course thinner. Bushed out in his winter coat, he looked even
more dangerous and wild.

My heart slowed down to something resembling its normal pace and I
called out to him. "Hey, Wolfie! Come on over here! C'mere, Wolfman!"

His tail started wagging immediately. But he never took a step towards
me. He kind of yawned innocently, showing that set of meat-grinder
teeth, then turned and--without a sound or a backward glance--trotted
off in the direction of home.

When word got around that Ron and Deb had a wolf, there was a lot of
speculation in the neighborhood. Some said it was only a matter of time
before it turned on them and ate them. Others feared for their own dogs.
I told people what Ron had told me and simply said I was going to give
it a chance. They got him three years ago and there's not been one bad
act from that wolf. And this was paramount in my mind when we were
staring at each other before I called out to him. My best guess is that
he heard my chainsaw running and simply trotted back to see what was
making all the racket. He probably picked up my scent even before he saw
me and knew who I was, so he just moved up silently (as wolves are wont
to do) and watched me for a while. I have no idea how long he'd been there.

Seeing him scared the bejayzus out of me, but I quickly recovered when I
realized it was Wolfie. And as I sat on the tailgate of my truck, the
snow falling more heavily now, it was a genuine moment of beauty to see
a fully grown wolf lope away through the forest, making no sound at all.


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