A primal howl from Wolf Island

PHOTO: pike JO, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

I live in the woods. Sometime at night you can hear the wolves. I’ve heard many wolves over the years. And yet every time I hear a wolf howl I always look to the stars above the moonlit tree line, wondering if the sound is as close as it seems.

My spine shutters. This same electric jolt of adrenaline would have affected people ages before me, before my country, before my language was uttered in its most primitive form. 

There is no relationship like that between people and wolves. We are peers who each believe the other to be of slightly lower stature. Rivals, perhaps. Enemies at times. More often we live in separate worlds, colliding occasionally, brutally, and often to no good end.

Still, there is rarely any reason for wolves and humans to harm one another. Wolves and people may hold dramatically different views on land ownership and the cultivation of livestock, but nevertheless regard each other with a wary sort of respect. 

The small dog who now sleeps with her paws curled up in the air next to me descended from a wolf. I am from the species that tamed her ancestor, a practical wolf who surely viewed the matter as nothing more than a fruitful business arrangement. 

It is the social similarity of wolves and humans that stands out. They form a society, communicate, and accomplish more together than apart. We worry what they could do to us should we ever find ourselves vulnerable in these north woods.

We have little to fear from wolves. While wolves remain a real threat to livestock, that’s only because fences and property lines are newer than a wolf’s DNA. We are just now beginning to understand the role wolves play in an ecosystem that is much more complex than old fairy tales about big bad wolves might suggest.

In recent decades scientists have learned centuries worth of new information about wolves, research that puts into context those haunting full moon howls.

This brings me to a recent book that reminded me of a clan of wolves not so far from here. The long, slender strip of land called Isle Royale sits off the North Shore of Lake Superior. This national park belongs to the State of Michigan despite its proximity to Minnesota. There, a population of wildlife exists in partial isolation, arriving there during times when lake ice is thick enough to cross. 

“Wolf Island” by L. David Mech with Greg Breining (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) tells the story of the Isle Royale wolves over a period of years. Mech was one of the first researchers to document the hunting methods of wolves through photographs taken from an airplane 60 years ago. (Interestingly, Mech and his pilot launched their early 1960s flights from the Eveleth-Virginia Airport in Fayal Township).

Mech observed hunting packs of wolves as they surrounded moose. He noted how moose fended off or evaded attack. He also saw the carefully choreographed pattern of the hunt. Each wolf played a specific role in the downing of a moose. 

The researcher writes that sometimes wolves kill calves separated from their mother, but can also kill a healthy bull moose if circumstances allow. But most bafflingly, wolves might choose not to attack a moose for reasons that were unclear. Much like a tornado that destroys a neighborhood but spares the school, wolves operate by the awesome serendipity of fate that so defines nature. 

Mech is not so quick to declare wolves “sacrosanct.” He explains how difficult managing wolves can be in rural areas where people and wolves come into more frequent contact. He recommends a balanced plan to control the population of wolves where necessary. Ultimately, he discourages the kinds of moral judgements of wolves that seem to dominate many of the conversations we have about them. 

“The wolf is neither a saint nor a sinner except to those who want to make it so,” pens Greining, who gathered Mech’s thoughts from a series of interviews to write “Wolf Island.” 

Indeed, the more we know about wolves, the less we might fear their mystic howls.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. I have a Howl sign in the front yard and contribute to the organization when I can. When I walked through the woods which I often did when I lived up there the wolves brought out less fear then being carjacked here on the south side of Minneapolis. The latter was more likely then the former both all those years ago and now. The greatest killer of humans and life on earth are other humans. Wolves and other animals are way down the I have to be suspicious and be looking over my shoulder all the time line. Now mosquitos are something to fear for both livestock and humans. And other life forms could be added to the list of course. You know like ticks. And yet it is not a tick or a swarm mosquitos that haunts the three pigs or Goldilocks but it would be funny if that was the case. You use the word tamed in your piece. I wonder if it isn’t the wolf who is trying to tame humanity ? After all are not tearing up the Earth. I would recommend Joe Sacco’s book Paying the Land. Thanks fir the provocative piece.

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