This is old country.
The wilds we paddled this fall are not much changed in a hundred centuries, despite the warring and logging and fires and mining and recreating. For beneath the visible scars the country is old. Old beyond all human understanding, beyond our disloyal memory with its sliding temporal scale and romantic filters.
We paddle through this country, on a watercourse slipping backwards over the great ancient bottomland, having reversed its flow after the grand deluge drained the liquid glaciers to the sea. We drift over the scoured and pulverized earth which has since become soft and peaty and full of life, this life itself a remnant, clinging to what was the edge of eternal ice just a breath before. Subarctic creatures, which have clung here since long before they were called by Latin names, before English and French names, and even before they were first called by words of men, now lost.
And we paddle, speaking their English and Latin names as if those words have any real significance. We pass into the wild more as spectators than intruders, really. Encapsulated, like the foreign bodies we are, in our Gore-Tex and polypropylene and language, we go mostly unnoticed. The dark tannic water and its microcurrents absorb the whirlpools made by our paddles, and moments after we pass it is not certain that we ever did.
Yes, of course, we catch some fish. We have tied garish hair and holographic hydrocarbon synthetics to forged nickel steel hooks and we swim these flies deep, beyond where the shallow northern sunlight penetrates, in a world we cannot see or understand. Presently, a fish will strike the fly with calculated emotionless violence, and is hooked. Through the electric throbbing of a fly rod we transcend our exile and truly intrude – participate – in the wild. We are pinned taut to an ageless beast of coiled fury and teeth that knows nothing of us or that he is called Esox or that even in this remote wild his flesh is tainted with heavy metals that fall from the sky like some steampunk plague. He knows only the waterborne rhythms and images that tell him of prey or danger, sensed with organs stropped to a razor-edge by eons of death and killing; like a mathematical equation worked and reduced to its most simple and perfect form, and in its solving is the reduction of fish, frogs, mice, and ducks to elemental protein.
So in our arrogance we count coup on them. We hold them in our warm alien hands and regard them with ape-like curiosity and they stare back with reptilian indifference. They do not wonder at us, and they do not hate us any more than that same mathematical equation can hate. We do not understand this and we try to reason out their motivations and urges in an attempt to feel more connected to their timeless existence and to the place itself.
We camp on a rare sandy hill within that soggy muskeg waste, raised longwise like a new scar from the glacial flatness of the outwash plain. Wolves are close, invisible but one ridge away, and they howl late into each night, whether to just to each other or also to us we do not know; that they know of our camp, it being upwind and stinking of plastic and canvas and man, is certain. We wonder aloud about this and about their lives and goings on.
But ascribing to them human motivations prevents us from asking too seriously why their howls cause our blood to chill and our small hairs to stand up. As the cadence of distinct voices washes over us, it resonates deep, the perfect pitch, vibrating forgotten primal chords. The tone is one of fear: of shining eyes in the night and heavy padded footfalls just outside the firelight; fear of awakening to hot breath and cracking teeth. This fear, however obsolete, may well be the only emotion we truly share with the wolves, who perhaps associate with our scent some inherited memory of crushing leghold steel and snapping rifle shots.
So we sit opposite our small cookfire and speculate on their schedule and what they might be saying, as if each echoing rise and fall were a verse of words to be translated. We avoid the truth of it: that words are neither sufficient nor appropriate to describe their speech or their existence, the enduring trail of death and blood that wolves live and must live lest they cease to be wild, cease to be wolves.
We will never find communion with the wolf by seeking his humanity; he has none. Instead, we must accept that within us is the very same crimson predatory instinct that drives the wolf.
It is with this in mind that I prepare for another week in the wild: hundreds of miles westerly but a very similar place – old country. There, too, packs of wolves range widely, loping in ancient and bloody pawprints, crossing man’s roads occasionally but his immediate path almost never. And the waters there are dark brown, only recently the ice-blue of glacial melt, and harbor the northern pike in their terrible and prehistoric economy of death.
Instead of a fly rod I will carry a rifle, a transition made every November, an urge rather than a choice, whether brought on by the smell of dying leaves or shortening photoperiod or some other older indication I do not know. Fishing companions will be traded for hunting companions, though some of the people are the same, and for a week we will live in these woods much the same as hunting men have for eons, since before there were rifles, before English or Anishinaabe words were spoken here; even before the very first words were spoken in these woods – that primitive tongue long lost.
At night we will laugh and talk about the hunt and stare into fires and into the stars; sometimes, wolves howl and we stand silently in the dark, heads thrown back, our breath rising into the cold starlight as if we, too, were howling. In the frosty mornings we will listen to ravens carve across the sky, chucking and hooting like heralds of a returning ice age; and we will listen to our ears ring, unaccustomed by modernity to the stark silence of the woods, and we will commit acts of killing and blood, and we will be part of the wild order of things, somber and honest and vulnerable.