The Scariest Thing in the Forest

Renowned fairy tales recently played into a trip my wife, husky and I made to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Our Yellow Brick Road to the entry point was mostly gravel. It was also devoid of lions and tigers, but bears were evident. Dollops of bear scat traversed the road, even on the paved parts. So, in a Hansel and Gretel sort of way, we followed the droppings through the twisting forest trail to our destination.
 
Wilderness is the very definition of social distance. In these pandemic times, wilderness might be one of the safest places to reside. You just don’t bump into many humans out there. Living in the Minnesota Arrowhead, we feel fortunate that the drive to wilderness entry points is relatively short. On this occasion, we didn’t feel a need to wear protective masks. There’s plenty of distance in the middle of nowhere, after all.
 
During the peak of paddling season, the parking area at the entry point we chose normally overflows with trucks, trailers and rooftop canoe carriers. But this time—the day before Minnesota’s annual fishing opener—we had the place to ourselves. Even tree leaves hadn’t arrived for the season and we could see well into the woods.
 
The trailhead featured two structures: an information kiosk and a latrine across the trail from it. Along with maps and safety advice, the kiosk held the self-issue permits the U.S. Forest Service requires us to fill out for day trips. I circled answers on the permit, scribbled my name and a single footstep later we officially entered the wilderness.
 
Here in the north woods, wolves and moose serve as stand-ins for the lions and tigers of literary repute. No sooner had we walked down the portage trail, than wolf scat appeared in front of us. It was shiny, and at first, I mistook it for a black leather glove. But the gloss was moisture from it being fresh.
 
My wife is certified in wolf scat. It’s a skill she learned from her time on the wolf care staff at the International Wolf Center in Ely. Such familiarity qualifies her to ID which parts of the prey this wolf had devoured. She noticed very little fur in the deposit. So, whatever the wolf ate, it got the good stuff, dark and nearly all solid meat. It was so recently left behind that for all we knew, the wolf might have been eyeing us from the brush.
 
Farther down trail, we discovered a large footprint sunken deep into mud from what must have been an impressively mature moose. We could only imagine the suction sound that hoof made when the moose pulled it out for its next step.
 
Not far off, the soft hush of rapids filtered through the trees. Its volume intensified as we approached an eddy at the picturesque canoe launch… or a delightful spot to wade if you’re a moose. So, we unscrewed our water bottle, replenished our fluids and hung out a while before turning back.
 
Having returned to the trailhead, we realized the liquid backup in our systems needed relief. The latrine was right beside us. I wasn’t sure if it was unlocked, but checking to see if it was open was the only time on that trip I thought twice.
 
This was wilderness, far removed from the congestion of human populations. Not a person was in sight. There was no telling the last time anyone was there. The possibility almost seemed ludicrous… that the scariest thing in the forest might be microscopic beasts lurking on the latrine door handle.

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