I’ve been scared of the woods my whole life.
Not to the point that I’ve ever ignored my urge to explore them, but just enough to look over my shoulder once in a while when I know there’s really no good reason to.
I’ve whittled away my fear considerably in the last few years by replacing false bravado and denial with an honesty about what exactly I’m afraid of, but a hint of it still exists.
When I moved to Wisconsin I was terrified of bears. It’s very embarrassing for me to admit, but I grew up in a place with absolutely no large, intimidating predators. My fear ruined a steelhead trip to the Brule River one fall and kept me from exploring any meaningful grouse coverts the same year. When I was a kid I missed out on a lot of opportunities because I was afraid. Afraid to get hurt, afraid to make a fool of myself, and so on down the list of excuses. As soon as I realized I was doing the same thing with bears, my fear turned to anger, and I forced myself into the places that had made me so nervous. It took one or two days trips up north for my fear of bears to subside completely.
I’ve had other, more general fears of unknown places that I’ve also since relinquished. But there is one that remains, and it feels much more real than any of my previous tribulations.
I am not afraid of wolves. As a matter of fact I love spending time in places I know they inhabit. Sharing their environment is part of what intrigues me so much about the north. I am however, terrified of wolves when I hunt grouse with my English Setter Loxley.
I know how low the odds of wolves attacking and killing my dog are, and it does pretty much nothing to quash my fear. Bear hunting dogs face the far greater threat from wolves in Wisconsin, but upland dogs are sometimes killed as well.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported 23 confirmed wolf depredations on hunting dogs in 2019, including a Brittany spaniel that was killed while bird hunting in Bayfield County last November. So far in 2020, wolves have killed 18 hunting dogs (all have been bear dogs).
I’m not going to wade into any politics here. The wolf debate has raged, and will continue to rage for years to come, and I’m certainly not going to solve it. Regardless of whether or not they’re hunted, it will make me nervous to turn the dog loose in the grouse woods.
Just like my fear of bears though, it mostly bothers me simply because it bothers me. I’ve talked to a bunch of long time grouse hunters who’ve spent more time in wolf country than I ever will, and they’ve all said not to let it dissuade me from going.
I’m just not quite there yet.
I was talking on the phone with an old friend of mine from Nebraska recently. We grew up together, and probably share more common philosophical ground than any of my other friends. We were chatting about an upcoming early season duck trip when the mountains randomly came up. I’ll preface the conversation by saying I’ve always admired his fearlessness and sense of exploration. He was a canoe guide in Quetico, and has spent time traveling solo in South America and Europe. He was always up for adventure and invited me on several trips I regrettably declined to go on, possibly out of fear. So it was both surprising and encouraging to hear him say he prefers the Midwest to western states because he’s afraid of the mountains.
“Every time I took a trip into the mountains I thought I was going to die,” were his exact words.
Realizing I’m not the only one who harbors a mostly irrational fear of unknown places helped shed a new light on my wolf dilemma. I won’t say the fear is gone, but Lox and I headed up for opening weekend of grouse last Sunday, and we ventured just a bit further off the trail than I normally would have — brick by brick my friends, brick by brick.
C.L. Sill can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @thewingbeat.