Ely IV: Dancing With the Chippewa

If I had a blog, today I would write about the night I became part of The North Country.

October 2, 2006

The Green World

The Green World

After we got home from the Wolf Center, we made our evening coffee and settled in to watch Northern Exposure on DVD. After the second episode, Mom suggested we walk to the lake and see if there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis – The Northern Lights. Mom has a strong sixth sense about these things, so Kindra and I willingly donned our coats and followed along. We used our head lamps to see the path through the woods, but when we got to the dock, the half-moon gave us enough light to see without artificial light. It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, but as they did, we saw an unmistakable green glow to the north.

The Vault of Heaven

The Vault of Heaven

I flipped my head lamp back on and set up my camera. Even a few shots of the green glow would be a remarkable souvenir and I wanted to be ready if anything more was in the offing. It was a good instinct. Within a few moments, the glow intensified and ribbons of green fire began to dance above the lake, flowing as if blown by a gentle cosmic breeze. The ribbons morphed into great shifting curtains that sent beams tinged with pink soaring towards the vault of Heaven. Now I understood why the Chippewa believed the aurora was the ghost dance of warriors who had gone before. In the shifting streamers they saw shadows of the great headdresses the dancers wore as they danced before the spirit-fire in the sky and I felt the presence of many spirits reaching out to me as they honored me with a glimpse of their mystical realm. Then the wolves began to sing. Far away at first, then close enough that I was sure, I heard wild wolves singing to the aurora. I laughed and wept and sang my own song of thanks to the Great North for the gift of this night.

In time, the aurora faded once more to a jade green glow and the wolves moved on in their nightly journeys. My toes were numb and my hands cold as ice, so I packed up my gear and went back to the cabin. Mom and Kindra has returned home earlier than I, but Mom was waiting up for me. We sat up until midnight talking about this magnificent experience, then, warm and sleepy, we went to bed.

Curtains of Light

Curtains of Light

Two hours later, Mom woke me. The aurora had returned! Mom could see the emerald fire in the skylight and it looked as though the display was more intense than the one we had seen before. Camera in hand, I hurried to the dock. This time the entire sky was wreathed in green flame. Pink and green curtains flickered high above the lake while rolling clouds of light reached down towards the water. The wolves sang to us again and we laughed and cried and hugged one another, over-awed at the gift we had been given.

It was another hour before the aurora made her last curtain call and left the sky to the dominion of the moon and stars. We lingered on the dock, our minds whirling with all that we had seen. We watched a beaver swimming down a path of moonbeams, the slap of his tail in the water finally bringing us back to terra firma. We walked to the cabin in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We made a pot of tea and unwound by the fire before making our final attempt at sleep.

Trailing Clouds of Glory

Trailing Clouds of Glory

Each of us will take something different from tonight’s experience. Some thoughts will be shared, others treasured in silence as a personal gift from The Gods. For me, this was Yuwakan, the Lakota “day of naming,” when a child receives his or her spiritual name and takes their place in the tribe. Tonight I was told who I am. I expected this trip to be a pilgrimage to my sacred place, but instead of an empty sanctuary, I found my family gathered to welcome me with open arms. “Welcome Daughter,” says the North Wind. “Welcome Sister,” say the wolf and the raven. “Welcome Child,” say the Grandmothers, “Take up your place among the fir and spruce, beside the wild creatures, in harmony with the spirit of The North. Dear One, you have, at last, found your people, your place in the world, a place to call home. This is where you belong.”

Ely Part III: In the Presence of The Gods

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life with wolves.

Grizzer

Grizzer

Wolves have been part of my life as long as I can remember. As with many children, thanks to the work of the Brothers Grimm and other authors, I first experienced wolves as villains: Snarling, wicked, green-eyed monsters whose greatest delight was dining on unwary children. Wolves haunted my nightmares and lurked in the shadows of my imagination on camping trips and evening walks in the woods. Fortunately, I had wise parents who saw my distress and quickly intervened. Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs were boxed up for good and out came National Wildlife magazine. In those glossy pages, Mom and Dad read to me stories of an animal that mates for life, loves its children, and fears humans far more than we fear its undeserved reputation. I also learned that humans, not wolves, were the murderous, nightmare beings that nearly wiped the species off the map. I wept for the needless loss of life, the brutal destruction of a breathtaking creature. Within a few weeks, I went from frightened child to junior wolf-activist and my dedication to assuring the survival of the wolf has never waned.

In college, I discovered my version of Mecca: The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. It was then that I set my sights on visiting Ely and seeing a landscape where wolves had been allowed to flourish. I knew the experience would be one to remember, but I had no idea what lay in store.

October 2, 2006

This evening we attended a program at the Wolf Center. They feed the wolves once a week, to mimic their natural eating patterns, and to give visitors a chance to see the wolves interact at close range.

Maya

Maya

We arrived early and spent almost half-an-hour alone watching the wolves before the other visitors arrived. I have been around many types of animals in my life, but none humble me like the wolf. In their presence, I am compelled to kneel in reverence and awe. Sitting in the viewing window, Maya, one of the Great Plains Grey Wolves, came up close to see what was going on. Her face was inches from mine and she held my gaze for a long time. My heart was racing, but this time, not from fear. In the quiet of that autumn evening, I found myself in the presence of The Gods; beings far older and wiser in spirit than any human has ever been. I was being weighed and measured by this beautiful creature and I prayed I would not be found wanting.

I felt a catch in my throat as I thought of the litany of sins my species has committed against the wolf and I said a silent confession, reciting a poem written by O. Fred Donaldson:

Grey Wolf,
We are sending you to that Great God.
Tell Him that we who invented forgiveness do not forgive;
That we, who speak of trust cannot trust;
That we, who invoke faith would not believe.

I write as though you could read.
But I know you understand.
When you have left the forests and tundras
and no longer leave your sinewy trails within the snows,
Tell Him that you were made on a different day.

Your howls of bewilderment will echo
with the mountain winds.
And your songs will join those of the whales.
Tell Him for me,
“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” 

Shadow - Arctic Wolf

Shadow – Arctic Wolf

I do not know what conclusions the wolves came to in our brief encounter. Perhaps I was no more than a shadow on the other side of the glass, a likeness of those who haunt their nightmares and lurk in the shadows of the forest as a spectre of doom. If so, I would not blame them. My only hope lies in knowing their spirit is unfettered by the ego-driven concerns of humanity and perhaps that gives them the wisdom to know not all humans are alike. I hope they can sense the spirit of those, like me, who see them as the miraculous creatures they are, who know that in their company, we stand in the presence of The Gods.

Ely Part II: Holy Ground

If I had a blog, today I would continue my stories about my journey to Ely.

September 30, 2006

Our Breakfast Table

Our Breakfast Table

By all accounts, this should have been a lesser day on our vacation: Rainy, in the 40’s with, a howling north wind, but for us it was perfect. We let our morning start slowly – with coffee and scones, shared beside the fire. Our cabin is paneled with knotty-pine and on a blustery morning like this, it seems to generate its own golden light. As we basked in its glow, Mom, Kindra, and I talked and laughed and reveled in the luxury of free time.

Jim Brandenburg's "Brother Wolf"

Jim Brandenburg’s “Brother Wolf”

Around noon, we braved the gale and made a trip to town for groceries and a little shopping. We’ve been to Ely so many times, visiting the stores that line Sheridan Street is like catching up with old friends. My favorite haunt is the Brandenburg Gallery – the storefront for nature photographer Jim Brandenburg. Jim made his mark on the photography world through his twenty-year tenure with National Geographic, but when he retired, he came home to Ely to indulge his real passion: Photographing the elusive timber wolf. I could spend hours sitting in rapt silence, contemplating the extraordinary work displayed at the Brandenburg Gallery. It is work like Jim’s that inspired me to become a nature photographer and an afternoon in the Gallery refreshes me more than week in the finest spa and I leave with my creative energy renewed.

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

The rain slowed late in the afternoon and we drove north of town on Highway 169, “The Fernberg” as it is called by locals, to reconnect with another old friend: Ojibway Lake. When we first visited Ely, in 1997, we rented a cabin for Christmas and Ojibway Lake was our “jumping off point.” Our host, Steve Lampman, took our gear to the cabin by snowmobile, but we made the 4-mile trek on foot. Dressed in down coats and Steger Mukluks, we walked across the frozen waters of Ojibway and Triangle lakes to Lark Lake, where our cabin was nestled among the balsam and spruce trees. It was a trip to remember and the beginning of our love affair with The North, so it was fitting that we pay homage to the place where all our adventures began.

The Uncommon Common Loon

The Uncommon Common Loon

Ojibway Lake is about twenty miles from Ely and The Fernberg winds along like a chain, connecting the jewels of lakes and forests. As we drove along, we recited the names of lakes and side-roads – a rosary of sorts to honor the places we hold dear: We passed Fall Lake, Otter Road, Tofte and Garden Lake, Black Wolf Road, and, at last, Ojibway. The gravel road to the lake was exactly the same as it was the first time we came; even the two dead birch trees I photographed so long ago still stand like sentinels watching over the lake. We parked the car and walked to the end of the long dock and gazed down the waterway towards Triangle and Lark Lake. The wind still blew a gale and our rain jackets weren’t enough protection from the cold. We had just turned to leave when we heard another sound, a tremolo, high and clear as a bell: The call of a solitary loon. He was here past his time, the others of his kind had already gone south to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter, and his clarion call brought tears to my eyes. It was as if he waited for us, to give us welcome before he too took flight to warmer climes. We thanked our intrepid friend and said good night to Ojibway. Warmth was calling us home too.

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

Sitting on my bed tonight, listening to the rain pattering on the fallen leaves, I wonder if I’ve ever been so much at peace. The cares of the world seem a thousand miles away and I am grateful for the release. I want to hold this feeling in my heart as long as I can and perhaps take it back with me when I return to outer world with its burdens and cares. There is magic at work in these primeval forests, a mythic force that comes from the Earth Herself. This is one of the “Thin Places” where the veil between the mortal and spiritual worlds can be transcended. This is Holy Ground.