Monday, June 30, 2008

Snake Glasses Wolf

Where I lost my glasses. Click on the map to see the myopic man, wandering in the woods.

In the year prior to the snapping turtle incident, but likewise as a counsellor at that same summer camp, I met a wolf. It was on a trail on an uninhabited scrap of land between the lakes. This was shield country, a hodge-podge of granite and lake, forged by glacier and managed by beaver.

That there even was a trail was odd, because no human lived here in this interlake place. It might be walked a few times a year -- in fall by hunters, and in summer, maybe three times, my once-a-session expeditions to the small inner lake.

But, atypically, I was on the trail for the second day in a row. I was again on my way to that lake where the day before I had, with another counsellor, led a Pooh-like expedition to a mountainous beaver lodge. The beaver lodge was smack in the middle of the lake, which was a shallow, eutrophic bowl of sulfurous thigh-deep mud with a foot of stagnant water on top, a swimmmer’s itch soup.

We would paddle across the big lake to the stream that filtered through a series of beaver dams, follow its course to its origin, then charge for that granddaddy of lodges. Why? To stand atop it. Rarely are life’s goals so clear-cut.

The day of the expedition was cloudless and hot, which made a poorly-planned slog through mud seem a fine thing to do. This was a time before plastic water bottles. How did Lewis and Clark manage without plastic water bottles? (No one on our trip died of thirst.)

There was much to see. Kingfishers, herons, bullfrogs, green frogs -- and snakes! This was the snakiest place I knew, the kingdom of Nerodia sipedon, the Northern Water Snake. From the vantage point of the beaver lodge it was possible to see brown-banded serpents on all sides, swimming, sunning, and swallowing -- sunfish, frogs, knuckle-sized bullfrog tadpoles.

How could a youth with herpetological leanings not lean further? I leapt from the lodge onto a monster momma snake. I grabbed her behind the head, but too far behind, and she twisted to bite the enthusiastic way water snakes do. Although not venomous, they might as well be for how much you pay for stupidity. It fanged me deep and firm, the web of skin between forefinger and thumb, top and bottom. I lost whatever footing was to be had at the periphery of the beaver lodge and fell into the water with my snake. It was a terrific struggle, I imagine. At some point the snake let go of me, and I let go of the snake. I was bleeding heroically. I had the necessary souvenirs to attest to the epic battle, chains of bleeding holes on both surfaces of my hand.

It was the hand that gripped the neck of the paddle, just above the blade, the hand that went underwater when I was paddling hard, the hand that stopped bleeding before we got to the middle of the big lake and I realized that the world was not quite as sharp-edged as it should have been. I stopped paddling and raised that hand to my face. Uh oh. I had lost my glasses.

At that age my eyesight wasn’t terrible. I had just evolved past the tipping point between childhood’s farsightedness and the creeping myopia of early adulthood. In the short term I could get by quite well in a softened world--- but there was a lot more summer to go, and much to see clearly. I really needed those glasses. I knew where they had fallen off -- the struggle. But camp has to run like clockwork and there was no slack in schedule. No time to turn the canoes around and retrace our muddy trail.

I would go back alone early the next morning, there and back before the wake-up gong. I was accustomed to being alone in the woods. Not a big deal.

The next morning I awoke early, and took my paddle down to the dock. I was quickly on the water, travelling fast. I’ve always loved canoeing solo, especially in early morning when the lake is smooth and the shoreline reflects like a totem pole. I reached the far shore and snugged the canoe up the little creek. Soon I was on the path, the well-worn trail that no one walks, no human that is. It was probably used by deer, foxes, bears, and that big grey dog heading straight for me -- the wolf.

We both stopped, maybe 30 feet apart. I had never seen a wolf before. I had heard their haunting howls a number of times in Algonquin Park, and had always hoped to see one -- but not so close, so unexpectedly. Grey, grey-eyed, lean, large --A WOLF!

What to do? Turn and run? That probably would not be wise. Stare it down? Perhaps also not a good idea. I spoke to it. I said the only thing I could think of: “You’re a wolf.”

The wolf was not impressed. It turned and went the way it had come, then veered off the trail and disappeared into the forest.

Meeting a large predator gives one pause. Should I also retreat, return to the canoe and my soft-focus world? Was the wolf alone, or was he a scout? Had he gone back to his pack to tell of a live one on the trail up ahead? I was pretty sure that wolves rarely if ever attacked people, but it’s hard not to think of fairy tales. No one in the world knew where I was. No one else was even awake. I was alone. But I needed those glasses. I found a sturdy stick.

I marched along, swatting things, being fierce, just in case. No sign of Mr. Wolf. The woods opened onto the shore of the inner lake. I placed the stick on a rock and slipped into the muck. I waded to the lodge and waited for the murk to settle. I carefully circled the site of the water snake capture. I had hoped to see the metal frames perched on submerged, a basal member of the beaver lodge, gleaming up through the brown water. I could imagine that scene so clearly. I can imagine it still.

It was a cloudy day, not much sun to assist. There are a lot of crevices in and around beaver lodges. Interstices that swallow metal-framed glasses. They were gone, at least from my life. Perhaps a beaver was wearing them, cracking up his lodge-mates, a Gary Larson cartoon.

I had failed. I waded away, retrieved the sturdy stick from the rock, and wide-eyed for movement in the trees, jogged the path back to the canoe. I threw the stick aside, pushed off, and paddled back to camp, so pumped that the crossing was effortless. Pumped, because I had not really failed at all. The gong was ringing as I touched the dock, wet and muddy, with compromised vision and a happy, racing heart. I had met a wolf!


Daphne said...

What a wonderful story. I've never met a wolf. I met bear, coyote and a mountain lion. The mountain lion was a little like your wolf. I was alone (only about 12 years old) and we stared at each other. I didn't say anything though. After what seemed like an age of us both stock still in our tracks, I backed up slowly. So it turned around and left too. Scary but exhilarating.

Hugh said...

I think mountain lions are scarier than wolves. It might have pounced had you said something similarly uninspired.

But yes, what a thrill.

BerryBird said...

What a great story! Glasses are impossible to find in water, even when you look right away. My husband lost a pair in Lake Michigan, and we searched and searched to no avail, and had no wolf spotting to redeem the loss either.

Hugh said...

Well, Lake Michigan is quite a bit bigger. Yes, losing one's specs is never fun, but having the bejeezuz scared out of you can make it all worthwhile. Next time your hubby loses his, hide behind a tree, then yell "BOO!"