12.4.2022 [archived ~ originally published 12.7.2017]
When my grandparents were in their eighties, they still liked to travel the gravel roads between Bigfork, their log cabin, and Marcell. Always within easy reach, was a camera perched on the dashboard ready to capture a rainbow, sunset or wildlife. One summer afternoon they rounded a corner just as a pair of wolves crossed the road.
Gramps slowed to a stop as Gram reached for the camera. Both watched in amazement as three more wolves filed out. Gram snapped as many pictures as she could before the pack slipped silently through the woods. In one photo she had five of the wolves, which were considered an endangered species in Minnesota.
At the turn of the century, the wolves were quite a nuisance in northern Itasca County. It seems that the logging which changed the landscape brought deer in, and also their prey, wolves. The January 3, 1903, Itasca News explains: “It is a truth being proven in this new section of country that as a country develops wolves begin making their appearance. A few years ago wolves were unheard of between Deer River and Canada, a distance of 100 miles. Now the hideous yelp of the brutes are common in the Big Fork region, and Henry Denny, a local fur dealer is trapping them on the outskirts of the village.”
The bounty at that time was $7 for a carcass of a full-grown wolf anytime from January through May and $5 in the other months. A cub was worth $3 at any time of the year. Some settlers and farmers did trap and hunt the wolf, and others had close encounters.
Below are accounts of some of their experiences.
Run for Their Lives ~ Bigfork Settler 12-1-1903
“Bert Hall and Stephen Black, two loaders in the employ of Sam Simpson, a logger operating in the territory came near being killed by wolves last Friday.
They were a mile from camp and on their way in from work when the howl of a wolf half a mile off the road attracted their attention. The men hastened toward camp, but did not apprehend any real danger. In a few minutes a wolf was heard at a much closer range. Then several were heard at various points.
They could think of nobody that the wolves had in view for supper but themselves and they broke into a run. It was half a mile to camp and as they ran as fast as they could crying out at short intervals to attract the attention of the men at camp if possible. Hall stopped long enough to pick up a stake from beside the road, to use in case of emergency. Three wolves were running cautiously behind the men when they were a short distance from camp, and the howls of others indicated that a large pack was gathering.
The men arrived breathless at the camp, the three wolves following them to within 150 feet of the cabin door. Ten minutes later the howls of the wolves in the vicinity indicated that a great pack had assembled.”
A Fight with Wolves ~ Itasca News 8-29-1903
“Frank Caldwell of the Big Fork was in town Wednesday and had an interesting story to relate of experience with a pack of five wolves near Virginia Lake. He was on his way home in the afternoon when he suddenly came upon a bunch of the ‘varmits.’ They immediately showed fight and there was nothing left for Frank to do but fought back. He was armed with a large Colt’s revolver which he used with deadly effect on three, when the other two circled around and made their escape. As evidence of the exciting encounter, he brought a scalp to town.” Frank Caldwell was born in NY in 1869. The 1910 United States census documents him living and farming in Popple Township with his wife and eight children.
Wolves ~ Itasca News 3-31-1905
“Bass Lake settler Henry Mattson gets lost while walking home from terminus of Itasca Company railroad, is followed by wolves and saved when he lights candles to hold them off until daylight. Mattson then shouldered his sack of provisions and trudged on home.”
The topic of wolves was covered in the Up in This Neck of the Woods column of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review, April 8, 1948, and included another hair-raising story. “George Scott, whose farm is just inside the Cass county border on Mud lake, tells another story of wolves. He was walking along a trail in deep woods one moonlit night. The moon was so bright that on wider stretches of the path it was almost as bright as day.
The howl of wolves reached his ears, and he hastened his steps automatically, although he was certain wolves would not threaten him. The savage sounds came nearer and nearer, and by this time he admits he was alarmed. George Scott hastily climbed a tree and watched the path below.
Three large wolves came bounding along the trail just as he settled himself in the branches. The wolves were on the hunt, all right, but they were after a deer which was racing along a few feet ahead of them. Mr. Scott descended and continued his journey.”
Although Gram and Gramps looked for the wolves on every outing, they never saw another one. Gram had wanted to paint what they had seen, but time got away from her. Gramps secreted one of the photos away, had it painted and framed as a surprise for her. Married for sixty-six years, they had shared many experiences together, but this was one that left them both momentarily speechless.