Anytime we can mix wildlife with our travels is a win-win in my opinion. On our trip to Lake Superior this past fall we had great sightings of bison, beavers, and bald eagles. But breaking with alliteration, one of the most memorable was WOLVES!
Let me back up a little.
Part of planning a big trip in our van Wanda includes time staring blankly at a map. Paper works best as I can sometimes see details and routes I miss on a digital map. In this particular case, it was probably May or early June and we were just starting to talk about where we would go that fall. Through some social media acquaintances, we began to hear about the beautiful northern shore of Lake Superior from Duluth, MN to the Canadian border. We definitely wanted to do that and while we were that far north, I wanted to check off Voyageurs National Park near International Falls, MN.
As I studied a map of that area, I realized there were a lot of lakes and trees in northern Minnesota and not too many towns, or even major roads for that matter. I saw about two options to get from the north shore to Voyageurs NP. One of them went through Ely, MN and when I looked closer at the Ely area I noticed something about a wolf center. I was hooked! Who hasn’t dreamed of seeing a wolf?!
So, in the middle of September we pulled Wanda into the parking lot of the International Wolf Center. I thought Annie, our traveling Chihuahua, would have been on high alert with her sensitive nose, but she was more interested in the fact it was indeed mealtime. So while she ate, Jenni and I slipped out of the van and went inside. We had already purchased our senior-discounted tickets online which was a nice convenience so we were able to start walking around immediately. The center got its physical start in the 1990s. They are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture, which gives them legitimacy above a “road-side carnival”. The USDA even limits the number of wolves they can have in their pack.
The center has wonderful educational exhibits with taxidermized wolves, descriptions of their habits, and their interaction with humans. But we were there to see wolves! Early morning is best for this, but we couldn’t control that so here we were hoping for the best at noon. For observation purposes, they have large glass windows facing the wooded living area with a large indoor amphitheater where we could watch the wolves and listen to several presentations spread throughout the afternoon.
At the time of our visit, their pack numbered five. All wolves at the center are sterilized—this is not a breeding program. Over the years they have had more than a dozen previous subjects. When space allows, they acquire pups and slowly introduce them to the rest of the pack and allow them to bond with the caretakers as well. As part of their daily enrichment, the caretakers threw out a frozen beaver tail which allowed us to observe the hierarchal interaction of the five wolves. By the way, a frozen beaver tail can last a long time! On this particular day, a college baseball team was visiting so some special demonstrations had been arranged for them but we got to enjoy them as well. The highlight of the day was when a caretaker prompted the wolf pack to start howling! The eerie sounds went on for several minutes. I could not imagine my reaction if I was camped in the woods and heard a sound like that! Coyote yipping has always given me the chills but the wolf howling was very different, very mournful.
The caretakers feed the pack from donated roadkill (mostly deer) but told us that occasionally a wild animal will find its way into the 1.25 acre enclosure and that is when the wolves get to use their hunting skills. After we returned home I read on their Instagram page that a skunk had ventured into the enclosure. His potent way of protecting himself did not spare his life!
After we spent a couple hours in the center that day, we returned to our wild canine in the van where we had to wake Annie from a deep, snoring sleep on her queen size bed. Yep, she’s just a couple generations removed from her wild cousins!