A nerve-racking close encounter

The black of night was upon me as I entered the last quarter mile of my 1.5 mile trip into the wolverine’s domain. The date was January 20, 2010 and a feeling of uneasiness was in the air knowing I was entering into a wolverine’s home turf much later than I normally travel. Obligations at Deckerville High School where I teach chemistry delayed me because of exam week. By the time I began my long hike in, it was well after dark.

As I forged my way through the thick, dark forest and approached within 100 yards of the bait site, only my headlight now lit up my surroundings, and the stillness of the night sent a chill up my spine as I stopped 40 yards out to listen.

Of the four locations I have taken pictures of the wolverine over the last five years, this location has produced the best results. The wolverine feels safe in this area because of the extreme thickness surrounding her. For the avid deer hunter this would be considered the ultimate bedding area, extending three miles.

So thick and nasty is this place that it was highlighted by a famous hunter that traveled annually to the Thumb of Michigan to hunt elk and whitetail back in the 1800s. He kept detailed journals of his everyday events and locations where they occurred, which eventually became a book. It now sells through Amazon for $110.

“Oliver Hazard Perry,” who came to the Thumb of Michigan to hunt elk and whitetail became known as “The Toughest Hunter Ever,” as titled by Field and Stream in their article highlighting his close encounters with death while hunting and miseries he suffered by the hand of mother nature.

Perry called the area I was entering that night as “A dark, thick, miserable place that I dreaded to enter.” This location is one of the areas the Thumb Wolverine calls home, and I always feel honored to walk in her territory.

As I closed in on the site, there is a short section where I have to crawl on all fours through the underbrush and drag my bait pack behind me. Perfect habitat for an animal that has a streamlined body, low center of gravity, powerful front shoulders, and agility, but not so good for a clumsy human who walks upright on two legs.

The comfort the wolverine feels in this area has resulted in two previous close encounters with her. On one occasion I was gifted with the privilege of seeing her.

In April of 2005, she charged Jason Rosser and I, thinking we were the red-tailed hawks that had been stealing her venison, persistently tormenting her. We had taken pictures of her on our game cameras chasing the tormenters from the venison pile. In one picture she is in mid air on a dead sprint. Of the hundreds of pictures I have taken of the wolverine, it is still my favorite.

On the day she charged us, when she broke the brush at 20 yards and saw we were human, she bolted like lightning. The speed in which she moved away from us was like nothing I have ever seen. In a 20 yard race between a cheetah and a wolverine from standstill, I’d put my money on a wolverine every time. But if the bet was from a distance of 20 to 100 yards, I’d then put my money on the cheetah.

A wolverine has legs and a stride gait that does not favor speeds of 60 mph like a cheetah can produce, but the power of their muscular front shoulders and short gait combined with the agility and coordination that the weasel family possesses results in tremendous short range speed, and therefore an efficient killer of small critters such as rabbits, squirrels, and mice.

Occasionally their skills can also result in something bigger. There is video footage that Steve Noble and I show in our power-point presentations of a female wolverine out west estimated at 25 pounds that took on an entire wolf pack feeding on a buffalo carcass. As the wolverine confronted the pack at the carcass, the alpha male had no idea the kind of speed, power, and agility he would be dealing with, and after an intense and short confrontation the wolf yelped in pain, placed its back side on the ground, and took a submissive posture allowing the wolverine to claim the entire buffalo carcass. Go wolverine!

So back we go to the encounter Rosser and I had at the wolverine site when she came charging in. The fear and surprise of her charging through the brush left me frozen in my tracks, dumfounded. Nothing can prepare you for that intense an encounter.

As I looked back at Jason a few seconds after she bolted out of there he was frozen and his mouth was wide open, as if he had just seen a ghost! I looked back at him just to make sure what I had just seen really happened- that it was real. His facial expression immediately confirmed that fact. He was white in the face and looked like a statue. It was an awesome experience!

Steve Noble had a similar experience with the wolverine during bow season in 2004. As he approached his stand one half hour before daylight, he laid out a few fawn bleats on his bow-grunter plus call to disguise his approach. As he climbed up to his stand and settled in he heard a noise approaching him that sent shivers of fear up his spine.

The wolverine was quickly approaching his position, and the series of grunt/roars she made as she approached had him nearly shinnying farther up his tree. She passed by his stand at five yards, then as she circled downwind of his position she simply disappeared like a ghost.

If you have never heard the noise a wolverine makes when agitated, check out the live trapping studies Jeff Copeland has done in Idaho. (Video released through Discovery Channel) As Jeff and his team traps wolverines in 6 X 5 foot box traps, they become agitated, and make a noise that seems to come straight from the deep depths of hell. The best description would be the combination of a grizzly bear roaring and a pig grunting repeatedly. I’m talking brutal! When Noble and I looked at Copeland’s footage and listened to the audio he instantly knew that the animal at his stand site was indeed a wolverine. There is simply no other animal that makes a sound that distinct and intense.

The next year we were looking for signs of the wolverine during bow hunting season and two guys came walking out just before dark carrying their bows in an area the wolverine likes to frequent. When we saw them, we noted that it was odd for a hunter to leave his stand during primetime, and we approached them.

They had hunted this area the previous four years, oblivious to the fact they were deep in the territory of a wolverine.

These guys described how they were up in their treestands, and heard a noise that scared the hunting urge right out of them, and they were heading home and never coming back. The one guy spoke up with a quivering voice and said “I don’t know what it is we heard back there, but there is something living back in there real deep that I have no interest in meeting.”

After getting on all fours and bear crawling with my pack dragging behind me I reached an opening and once again quietly shouldered my pack, and continued my approach to the research site. I forged along very slowly until I could now see my Trailwatcher game camera attached to a tree.

Suddenly the small beam on my headlight passed over something on the ground to my left that immediately caught my attention. In the snow intersecting my path of travel from the south was the unmistakable prints of a mature wolverine, 5 inches long and 4 inches wide, and fresh!

As I knelt down and checked out the tracks, there was no frost in the tracks- they were at the most hours old. My pulse quickened knowing the wolverine had just visited the bait site. I stopped to listen. Nothing!

Upon reaching the Trailwatcher I waved my hand in front of it to see if it was still active. The camera did not respond and I quietly sat down and began the task of changing the batteries, checking over the pictures, and swiping my duo memory sticks.

As I began to scroll backwards through the pictures a shockwave hit me. The lower left corner of the camera screen read January 20, 2010 8:13 pm. I jolted my head around as if on a swivel, and took a quick look around. Seeing no wolverine in my close perimeter, I pulled out my cell phone, and read the screen. It was 8:22 pm.

The realization that the wolverine was just into the site minutes ago, hit me like a ton of bricks. I immediately turned off my light, froze, and listened intently. Seconds seemed like minutes as the pitch black darkness pierced my very soul, and the fear of my sudden vulnerability surfaced, lifting up every hair on my body. But there was nothing. No sound. No wolverine. Only my deep breaths and elevated heart beat.

After a few minutes, I quietly rose from my seated position and made my way over to my second camera eight feet away. I once again sat down and began the same process of changing the batteries and swiping the memory stick. That’s when it happened! Off to my west, in the thickest of underbrush, I heard a noise. I turned my light off and froze! Every nerve ending in my body wanted to get up and run, but I couldn’t move. I was stuck there, frozen in time. In the moonlight I could see the vapor from my increased breathing rate ascending up towards the stars.

As I was in the process of trying to convince myself my mind was playing tricks on me, I heard it again, and closer. Now the single noise had turned into a series of steps heading in my direction. There was no question from the quick gait and stealth which she moved that I was no more than 40 yards from a wolverine, and in complete darkness.

Every ounce of sanity I could salvage compelled me to turn my headlight on, shine it in the wolverine’s direction, and let out a blood curdling scream to avoid a nose to nose encounter, but the stupidity in me held off. I wanted to see her in the flesh!

As the steps got closer and closed in within 30 yards, I was having violent visions of her coming in on me, nose to nose, and then ripping my face off. Statistics always cause psychological distress when confronted with a dangerous situation, and I was remembering how a wolverine has an immensely powerful bite, second only to the hyena.

But it was another statistic I remembered reading that was keeping me quiet with my light off. There has never been a documented case of a human fatality due to the jaws and claws of a wolverine, and I was doing my best to convince myself of that fact as the steps now closed within 25 yards. I kept repeating in my head “It won’t happen-It won’t happen- stay still- stay still”!

As the wolverine entered the 20 yard mark, she began to circle around to my north, and stopped in the thicket northwest of my position. I tried to control my breathing as best I could, but I was struggling to maintain my composure. She continued circling around my position and now it hit me that she may be trying to get downwind of the research site to do a scent check.

My breath in the moonlight indicated a very subtle west wind, and she was trying to get east of my position. She stopped once again to my northeast, and I tried to not make a noise, not to breathe too hard, but that was difficult, at best. As the wolverine made the final few steps east of my position, she stopped and all became quiet once again. I waited and heard nothing, and then I waited some more, and then a bit longer. Before long I pulled out my cell phone and realized that 15 minutes had gone by since the last sound, and my backside was getting very cold and numb from sitting in the snow.

I slowly rose from my perch, fired up my camera, and departed as quickly and quietly as I possibly could. Knowing I had come so close to the Thumb wolverine made this trip a very rewarding adventure.

The Thumb wolverine continues to thrive and make a living in a habitat surrounded by humans; a habitat previously thought of as not enough expanse of wilderness to support an animal such as a wolverine.

Now we know that a wolverine can co-exist with humans in a fairly populated area and thrive. She is never more than a few miles from humans at any given time, yet has been able to live among humans for at least the last six years in the Thumb of Michigan.

I propose the Michigan DNR should initiate the re-introduction of wolverines as a population into Michigan. Three years ago they stated they are adamantly opposed to providing the Thumb wolverine a mate, as well as any re-introduction efforts in the Lower or Upper Peninsula.

With the DNR’s successful reintroduction of elk near the town of Wolverine in 1918, and the recent successful reintroduction of wolves into the Upper Peninsula, it’s time to also re-establish a population of wolverines. Humans were responsible for the loss of the thriving populations of elk and wolves that used to call the woods of Michigan their home in the 1800s, and as a result the DNR fulfilled their responsibility to return those two species back into the Michigan ecosystem. The wolverine also used to thrive in Michigan, and therefore the DNR also has an obligation to return this species back into our Michigan ecosystem, therefore creating a more rich and diversified ecosystem.

Although the Thumb wolverine at times has occasionally had my nerve endings on edge and caused a few goose bumps, I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything. I feel proud to walk the woods where a top of the line predator lives, and enjoy being part of an ecosystem where I am not the dominant predator. Wouldn’t it be neat for other folks living outside the Thumb to also be able to walk through their woods and have an opportunity to see a wolverine, the rarest mammal in North America?

Author’s Notes: Watch out for a future update in Woods-N-Water News on new DNA evidence. In January a wolverine was confirmed on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, a mere 50 miles from Alpena, and only 122 miles from the tip of the Thumb of Michigan. The DNA combined with the close proximity of wolverines to Michigan in Chapleau and Manitoulin Island are pointing more and more to the Thumb wolverine being a traveler, a vagabond, from Ontario on an ice bridge. We are currently collecting hair for comparison and analysis to wolverines from those areas.

In March, tentatively planned March 28th, the television show called “Nature” is doing a special on Wolverines, and has incorporated video I sent them and the story of the Thumb wolverine into the show. On one video, the wolverine is vertically jumping five feet in the air to get some venison hanging from a string off a branch. Truly incredible footage. Keep your eye open for that to see the Thumb wolverine in action.

If you are interested in purchasing a game camera to look for a wolverine in your neck of the woods, the best game camera out there, by far, is the Trailwatcher. Check out their website at Trailwatchergamecameras.com or (404) 732-5159.