Paul Sundberg and David Johnson woke up early on Monday, well before sunrise, and headed up the Gunflint Trail on a wild moose chase.
The two Grand Marais-based photographers were hoping to call in a lovesick bull moose for some close-up photos. But what they encountered instead was a truly magical moment in the Northland outdoors.
“Every fall I try to see if I can call in some moose, and last year I had five come in on one morning, four bulls and a cow,’’ Sundberg said. “I never thought I’d top that experience. Until now.”
Sundberg and Johnson left the blacktop behind, eventually driving up a Superior National Forest two-rut logging road. They got out of their vehicles to call along a clear-cut opening in the forest that had been logged several years earlier. Sundberg uses a plastic megaphone, made in Alaska for moose callers, to amplify his voice while making the sound of a cow moose looking for a mate.
Minnesota moose are just entering the rut, their mating season, and bulls often rush to cows that are calling.
“We got out of the vehicles as the sun was coming up and it was absolutely still. The fog was rolling and it was so quiet. Just a perfect morning to be in the woods,’’ said Sundberg, a retired Minnesota state park manager and renowned North Shore nature photographer.
Five minutes after their first call, Johnson remarked that he thought he heard a loon calling. But when they heard the noise again, they knew it was a wolf howl. Then they heard another. And another.
“You could tell they were coming toward us, getting closer,’’ Sundberg said of the wolf pack. “It was soft howling, very close by ... I’m no wolf expert, but it sounded like they were talking to one another about the moose they were stalking.”
Of course it wasn’t a moose at all, but Sundberg pretending to be one. He said it felt at times as if there were wolves in all directions, communicating with each other. The wolves were within 50 yards of the men at one point, Sundberg said.
“As they got closer you could hear them moving in the brush. And then I saw David taking pictures. All he said was ‘white wolf’,’’ Sundberg said. “I moved to try to get a better vantage point and I could see it then... It was nearly all white. I’ve seen several wolves before but never anything like this. It was beautiful.”
Both photographers snapped a few photos of the four wolves they saw before the pack trotted into thick cover and out of view. They never did see a moose to photograph, but they thought they got something much better.
“It was an amazing experience. Now I know what it's like to be a cow moose being surrounded and stalked by wolves,’’ Sundberg said. “Neither of us got a great photo of the white wolf, but it was still an incredible thing to see.”
On Tuesday the men headed back up the Gunflint Trail but decided to try a different spot, about two miles away from Monday’s encounter, thinking no moose would be hanging around where wolves were hanging out.
“It was the same kind of morning, foggy and still, very quiet. The sound really seemed to carry ... and we got a bull to answer us pretty quickly. He was grunting and getting closer when, all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something moving across the clear-cut,’’ Sundberg said.
It was the white wolf again, this time with all of his buddies.
Eventually seven wolves, single file, each walked up onto a slash pile — tree tops and branches left behind by loggers when the land was cleared several years ago. That got the wolves high enough off the ground, higher than the thick underbrush, for Sundberg and Johnson to get a perfect view. Both snapped away while watching the wolves through their cameras' telephoto lenses. At one point four of the wolves were on the slash pile at one time, looking right at the photographers.
Click. Click. Click.
“They were out about 150 yards. But each one, single file, walked up on that brush pile and looked over at us,’’ Sundberg noted, noting the last wolf was several minutes behind the rest. “You could see the expressions on each of their faces. They were all different. The white one, it looked like the leader, the Alpha, had a lot of scars and marks on his face.”
The men were about 100 feet away from their vehicles as all of this unfolded. But they never stopped to consider they were in any danger.
“My heart was pounding. I was excited … But at no time did we feel threatened — not at all,’’ Sundberg said. “It was just an awe-inspiring moment for me. A once-in-a-lifetime thing that happened two mornings in a row.”
Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said white wolves are extremely rare outside the Arctic.
Most Minnesota wolves — the state has about 2,500 of them — are various shades of gray, with mottled, darker colorations (their official name is even gray wolf.) Only about 5% percent of Minnesota wolves are black, Stark said, and so-called blond-phase or white wolves are even more rare at less than 1%.
Thomas Gable, lead researcher with the Voyageurs Wolf Project, said some wolves seem to turn lighter as they age, like people with graying hair.
Of dozens of wolves he's captured and tracked with transmitting colors in recent years, and dozens more captured on trail camera photographs across the wolf project study area in and around Voyageurs National Park, Gable said he none have been truly white or blond.
“That said, there was one wolf that was almost entirely white photographed a few years ago just outside the Rainy Lake Visitor Center,’’ Gable noted. That wolf was “about the whitest wolf I can remember seeing in our area … It was likely white due to its older age. But it's hard to know how white it was when it was younger.”