Living Ghosts

On my way to work one bright March morning, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a team of scientists who were roaming the river bottom forests of Louisiana in search of a ghost. They played a recording made just two months earlier by one of the scientists, an ornithologist named Martjan Lammertink, and what I heard made me pull over and listen with rapt attention. The sounds coming from my car speakers were of a deep pounding, similar to the distant sound of a hammer slowly hitting a nail. The sound was brief and there were long pauses in between that were filled with the quiet buzzing of insects and chatter of songbirds. Once more it came, a third time, and then it was gone. As the NPR reporter began to speak again, using low tones himself, I found that I was holding my breath, just as if I had been standing in the Louisiana lowlands, hearing this ghost firsthand, and looking for movement in the thick tangle of trees and underbrush.

The phantom this team was searching for is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest of the North American woodpeckers, measuring more than a foot-and-a-half in length and with a wingspan of nearly three feet. The Ivory-bill was a resident of large southern forests from Florida to Texas, and though it was never very common, destruction of these forests led to the bird’s decline and eventual disappearance. The last confirmed sightings were in the 1950s, though there have been unconfirmed reports since then from parts of Cuba and the southern U.S. Still, most ornithologists believe the Ivory-bill is extinct, and that belief has held for a number of years. Then, in 1999, a young turkey hunter in Louisiana claimed to see a pair of Ivory-bills, and this rekindled the speculation that perhaps the Ivory-bill was alive, eking out an existence deep within the bottomland forests of the south.

After the story was finished and I had resumed my drive to work, my mind began racing. If I didn’t have such an aversion to heat, humidity, and poisonous snakes, I would love to be a part of that search party in Louisiana. I would love to walk quietly through those river flood plains and listen for the hammering to come across time and space. The story also brought to mind two of my own encounters with rare and wonderful creatures – a wolf on Isle Royale and a Great Gray Owl in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula.

***

Anishinabe (Original Man) and Maengun (the wolf) walked the Earth and came to know all of her. In this journey they became very close to each other. They became like brothers. In their closeness they realized that they were brothers to all the Creation… [but] the Creator said, “…you are to separate your paths. You must go different ways. What shall happen to one of you will also happen to the other. Each of you will be feared, respected and misunderstood by the people that will later join you on this earth.”

Edward Benton-Benai, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway

It was early June, and I was walking quietly along a path on Isle Royale in northwestern Lake Superior. Since leaving the dock at Moskey Basin and walking inland, moose tracks on this muddy trail to Lake Richie and the interior of the island had been mingling with those of a wolf, and they both looked fresh. At first, I noticed them with only a casual interest. The wolf tracks were a treat because they are so uncommon (only 16 wolves inhabited the 210 square miles of the island in that summer of 1995), but moose were easily found on Isle Royale; the population that year was in excess of 2,400 animals, and they were eating themselves out of house and home.

When the moose’s tracks veered off the trail and into the brush, I soon spotted it feeding in a beaver pond, but the wolf tracks continued to appear before me as I walked, and the idea began to take shape in my mind that I might be following an animal that had only recently passed this way. The possibility became a reality when I came upon tracks that had definitely been made within the last hour. No mud had fallen into the depressions of its toe pads, and its position on top of human boot prints (only a day or two old themselves) indicated that the wolf was somewhere out in front of me.

I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing on end as the possibility and anticipation of seeing this phantom became very real. My imagination shifted into high gear, and every sound became that of a wolf hiding behind a tree or running into the protective cover of the forest. A red squirrel dashing through the ferns nearly caused me to jump out of my skin. I wasn’t afraid of seeing the wolf. On the contrary, I was hoping to see him, but I was so excited about the possibility that I was afraid of missing a sign or a flash of movement between the trees. I could practically feel the animal’s presence.

As I continued up the trail, the aspen leaves high above me were shaking in the breeze, and the sun was at its zenith. It was quiet, as very few birds sing at this mid-day hour. It was a warm afternoon, and a comforting, sleepy sense of summer hung in the air. I went up a small rise where bedrock protruded through the scant soil that covered the ground. I rounded a bend, weaving between three trees that grew close together, and then it came. A rustling in the ferns and maple saplings off to my left caused me to freeze in my tracks.

The wolf just appeared. It didn’t emerge from the brush or crest a small hill. It just materialized out of nowhere and stood staring at me with no more than 40 feet between us. It was gray and did not look nearly as large as I thought it would. Never the less, it was a wolf. He moved to his right, and I followed him with my eyes. One of the trees along the trail blocked my view, and the wolf did not reappear on the other side. I leaned back to my right to see if he had turned back, and caught a final glimpse of him as he headed back into the brush. As easily as he had appeared, he was gone.

The encounter lasted only a minute at most, but the memory was already burning itself in my mind. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I stood still for another minute after the wolf had left. It felt as if I had not taken a breath the entire time, but I was breathing heavily now. As I replayed the moment in my mind, the wolf seemed to vanish and reappear, fade in and out, as if I had imagined the entire thing. But I knew I hadn’t. The footprints in the trail at my feet confirmed what I had seen.

My wife would later say that I had tracked this animal, having followed its footprints and scat along the trail for almost a mile. But following it was only coincidence and seeing it was by choice – not mine, but the wolf’s. He allowed me to see him, to lock eyes and breathe the same air for a few brief seconds. Brother Wolf, Maengun, had made himself known to me and then melted back into the land from which he had come.

Not the wolf from Isle Royale, but one I saw on the drive to work one morning here in Wisconsin.

Not the wolf from Isle Royale, but one I saw on the drive to work one morning here in Wisconsin.

***

A bird of mystery, the Great Gray Owl bears in its aloofness some of the remoteness of the vast northland; its plumage the color of lichens and weathered wood; its soft hooting, part of the wind.

Robert Nero, Great Gray Owl: Phantom of the Northern Forest

During the spring and summer of 1996, a number of the rangers at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin reported seeing Great Gray Owls at various locations in the Bayfield Peninsula. They were perching on roadside signs or telephone poles, and one ranger even had pictures of an owl at close range. Another had found a dead owl along the road during her drive home from work. The pictures and the young bird that had been hit were irrefutable proof that the Great Gray was in the Bayfield Peninsula.

As a biological technician at the park, I was keenly interested in these sightings because Great Grays are a denizen of boreal forests farther north into Canada and in the western U.S. Sightings in northern Minnesota, only 70 miles west of us, and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, had been reported, but there were few records for Wisconsin and no evidence of breeding. The fact that people were seeing these birds through the summer months suggested that the owl was indeed nesting here, but where?  I spoke with each person who had seen the owls, recording the details of their encounters; the pictures were taped above my desk; the dead bird sat in our office freezer, right next to my desk, waiting to be sent down to the college where it would be stuffed and mounted. I drove the same roads at dusk, watching the power line poles and signposts for this large bird. I read all the historic information reported by others in the state’s birding journal. But I never saw a Great Gray for myself. In fact, that summer, I never saw owls of any kind.

The sightings continued the next year, but this time, the owls were being seen on a few of the islands, offshore from the Bayfield Peninsula, in addition to those seen along the mainland roads. What was most intriguing to me was that the distance between the reported observations suggested that more than one bird was being seen. So not only were the owls here during the breeding season, but there were multiple individuals.

One of my jobs at the park was to conduct annual songbird monitoring within the boundaries of the national lakeshore. This was done by walking different trails between sunrise and 10:00 AM and counting and recording the birds I saw and heard. One overcast morning in June of 1997, I was walking back to my truck after finishing a survey along the Mainland Trail that follows a 12-mile stretch of Lake Superior coastline at the tip of the peninsula. The white bark of the birch trees stood out in stark contrast to the darkness of the spruce, the green balsam fir, and the brooding skies above. The birds were singing in full force, and I was still identifying each one quietly to myself. I was wading through the ferns that press in along the path – no more than knee-high at this early time of the season – when a dark form leaped from the underbrush and landed on the snapped-off stump of a spruce tree. Startled, I stopped short to see what had moved and my eyes settled on the unmistakable form of a Great Gray Owl about 50 feet away. At an average length of 27 inches, the Great Gray is an imposing presence. Piercing yellow eyes sit within a very broad “facial disc” that is surrounded by concentric brown rings. A pair of white streaks below the hooked bill gives the appearance of a moustache.

I could not believe what I was seeing. When one goes looking for something, one rarely finds it, but when you least expect it, the object of your search tends to fly up in front of you. I was thrilled beyond words, but my elation was slightly soured by the realization that I had left my camera at home this morning.

The owl and I stared at each other. After a minute or so, she seemed to grow more comfortable with my presence and flew from the stump to a branch in another nearby spruce. She looked around again, seeming to search for something. Another minute later, she cruised to a tree behind me, and then flew once more to a stump near where she had first flushed from the ground. The bird had moved in a rectangular pattern around me, and I wondered if I had scared her up off of some prey she had just captured, or if I had wandered into her territory and she was protecting the location of her nest in the hollow snag of some nearby tree. I remembered from my reading that Great Grays typically begin nesting in late March or April, with the owlets hatching in early June and then leaving the nest three-to-four weeks after hatching. It was possible that this bird, if she were a breeding individual, had a nest in the area. I scanned the trees in the immediate vicinity with my binoculars (fortunately I brought them along!), but saw nothing.

The owl remained on the stump for some time before taking flight and heading south out of the trees and into a clearing beyond. I watched her go, silently winging her way out of sight. After she had disappeared, I stood still, committing everything to memory before the details faded. To my amazement, I would have no proof of this encounter to offer my supervisor when I returned to the office. I had only my story and mental pictures of the “Phantom of the Northern Forest” that had made her presence known and created for me a heightened sense of wildness along an already wild and mysterious shore of Lake Superior.

And not the Great Gray I saw that morning on the trail, but one that was along the road near that spot some years later.

And not the Great Gray I saw that morning on the trail, but one that was along the road near that spot some years later.

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39 Responses to Living Ghosts

  1. expectantmummy says:

    At times like this I wish I lived in America, the moswt exciting thing I ever see on my way to work is a hedgehog!

  2. mjspringett says:

    Loved your stories, thanks MJ

    • TedG says:

      Thank you. And I love your photos! I’ve been seeing horned grebes on Lake Superior the last few days, in Duluth on Sunday and just yesterday in Bayfield. Your pictures are better than the ones I took, though.

  3. theboyking10 says:

    I think the subject of Shamanism would peak your interest as it deals with animals as being spirit guides.

  4. Every now and then I hear an owl (or what I think is one) outside our subruban house in the middle of the night, and it always seems surreal, mysterious and very cool…

  5. love this universal truth: “When one goes looking for something, one rarely finds it, but when you least expect it, the object of your search tends to fly up in front of you.”
    congrats on being Freshly Pressed – really strong writing – don’t forget to bring your camera next time 🙂

  6. I love this post!! Im a city guy but I have such a lust for mother nature…Just gotta find the time to get back out there…of course I’m more of a Jungle individual…but I dig northern foresty type

  7. dorothyadele says:

    Beautiful writing and photos.

  8. thank you for the great post!! nice pictures too!!

  9. mikafry says:

    Gorgeous post. You write about nature in an accessible, wild and yet scientific way. A nice balance. I’ve had several intimate encounters in nature but I think the coolest ones was when a large eagle flew right past me at eye level, just out of the blue on Mayne Island, British Columbia. Of course I wish I’d had my camera–but then again part of me is glad to have the mystery preserved within.

  10. rob0sullivan says:

    A beautifully written post. Reminds me of a day I had last summer. I went fishing with my girlfriend and caught absolutely nothing but it was still a wonderful day, as a seal spent most of the day chilling about 15-20 feet out from the rocks we were fishing from. He was so relaxed and seemed as curious about us as we were about him. Seeing the seal was an amazing experience, but the day also threw up a whole load of gannets fishing nearby. It’s quite startling to watch a large bird just drop out of the sky and crash into the water.

    We were driving home down a little country lane, talking about how awesome it was that we got to see these animals, when a barn owl rose from the field adjacent to the road and started gliding alongside the car. For about 30 seconds, he kept just ahead of us, moving from the left side of the car to the right, before finally dropping into another field. I had never seen a wild owl, and haven’t since. It was the most beautiful bird I’d ever seen.

    I can’t get over how lucky I was that day. I often wander out into the wilder parts of the country hoping to glimpse one animal or another and find nothing. Then on a day when I wasn’t looking, I got three amazing experiences. The feeling you get during those unexpected moments of natural wonder is indescribable, but you’ve managed to evoke that feeling again with this post. You have a wonderful writing style. Keep up the excellent work.

  11. i type freehand says:

    🙂 awesome! pretty large for a woodpecker too. thanks

  12. 434gt45t3 says:

    Great Post. Definitely an interesting read. Thanks for sharing,,,

  13. Lynn Mercer says:

    nice spooky pictures.. =) love your article..

  14. maesprose says:

    I loved your descriptions and I envy your sightings of such wonderful beings. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  15. Brent Fewell says:

    What a great story. The ecology of Isle Royale was one of my first lessons in wildlife management – must have been a wonderful experience for you. I had an opportunity to work on the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone – great to have this keystone predator back in the woods.

    • TedG says:

      Indeed. And thank you for your work in Yellowstone. The presence of wolves anywhere can be a contentious issue, but those wolves in Yellowstone have had some incredible challenges.

  16. brain4rent says:

    I loved this blog…the writing would be enchanting regardless of the subject, but the subject is just so intriguing on it own. Definitely want to follow your adventures. I keep track of the wild animals I encounter and am pleased to have shared space up close with a mom and baby moose, a porcupine, some black bears,and a bobcat right off the Kangamakus Hwy in NH. Never a wolf, or a grey owl, though I did spend some time in mutual contemplation with a barred owl one morning on a walk in a nature preserve, and in fulfillment of a wish for our anniversary we checked out some puffins.off the coast of Maine, and every year we head out to see a variety of whales, including one year where an inquisitive baby whale kept snuggling up next to the boat until Mom would intervene.. Even if they aren’t rare or ghost-like, every encounter with nature feels like an unearned gift. Congratualtions on being Freshly Pressed.

    • TedG says:

      Thank you very much! And you’re right; ghost-like or not, common or not-so-much, those moments when we are close to and feel some connection with an other-than-human life are wonderful gifts.

  17. bdh63 says:

    Wow, I never knew there were wolves. We used to go to the UP, where my dad is from, most summers. Thanks for the information. Very interesting.

  18. clswinney says:

    Excellent piece. Thanks for sharing. Love the animals you wrote about.

  19. ehmmusic says:

    Well written easy to read and interesting too. Beautiful use of quotes. enjoyed reading!

  20. bdh63 says:

    The forests around Lake Superior are so vast, gorgeous and alive. I remember agates along the shore of Lake Michigan, the peacefulness and quiet of the Upper Peninsula, and driving around Lake Superior with my parents in an epic car trip when I was a teenager, from New York to MN and back, all the way around! I don’t remember wolves. Are they recently reintroduced? Your descriptions are terrific!

    • TedG says:

      Wolves have been in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan since the last ice age. They were in serious decline through the 1800 and 1900s due to a bounty placed on them (predator control), and as a result they disappeared from Wisconsin and most of Michigan in the mid-1900s. They never left Minnesota, though, and there may have been a very small number of them left in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P.) as well. The bounty was repealed in 1957 in Wisconsin, 1960 in Michigan. The wolves that are in the two states now are thought to have migrated in from Minnesota and Ontario beginning in 1975 (in Wisconsin). There were sporadic reports of wolves in the U.P. throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but the population didn’t start growing until the ’90s, probably with some help from wolves dispersing out of Ontario. A wolf accidentally shot in Michigan’s lower peninsula in 2004 was the first wolf recorded in the lower peninsula since 1910.

      Wolves have been on Isle Royale since the 1940s. It is widely held they got there by crossing Lake Superior on the ice from Minnesota/Ontario.

  21. Gia says:

    I really like the Robert Nero quote

  22. carlpeters says:

    Impressed with the way you have described such splendid experiences and you’re right – animals do have a way of staying out of sight unless they want us to see them!! Must be that natural sixth sense that us mere humans seem to have forgotten how to use! Well done, very enjoyable read.

  23. Really nicely written blog. Painting pictures with words. Nicely done and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  24. segmation says:

    Ted, I thought that Ghost season was during Halloween only. Just kidding. love your blog on the living ghosts! Thanks for sharing!

  25. Zen Doe says:

    What enchanting descriptions! Beautifully written. Congrats on beging Freshly Pressed!

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