When I used to go camping, it was often with my old friend Phil Poirier, who grew up in Rumford and now lives in Farmington with my sister, Heidi. He taught me all the basics of carrying water and not falling off cliffs, etc., and went on over the years to become an active and well-respected member of Maine’s hiking and outdoors community. He’s hiked and guided excursions in many parts of Maine, and explained winter camping on Bill Green’s TV spot. He has, as well, enhanced my understanding of the wilderness.

Phil Poirier in the winter woods of Farmington. Photo courtesy of Phil Poirier

Phil has a lot of thoughtful camping stories, of course, and at Thanksgiving he related one about an expedition to Canada that made me think, “Wow, the Backyard Naturalist readers will appreciate this.”

So here it is, in his words.

Years ago when I was younger and went winter camping a lot, I used to gather up friends to mount trips way north, to find the old-fashioned Maine winters we were already starting to miss. On a map of Quebec we noticed the huge doughnut-shaped Manicouagan Lake, which it turns out is a meteor impact crater 40 miles across, 300 miles or so due north of Fort Kent. And close to it was a road that had JUST started being maintained for winter travel. OK.

We rented a crappy minivan to fit all our stuff and set off on the 18-hour drive in late March, hoping to catch the milder tail end of winter (meaning warmer than minus-30 Fahrenheit at night). We brought topo maps of the area, but knew little else. Map, compass and streams would guide us into Les Monts Groulx.

I had picked a camp site a day and a half’s hike in, on the outlet of a pond that would be likely to have open water. Turns out I nailed it! The site had a great open southern exposure, with a view to the open summits of the low mountains we were to explore. We had glorious day hikes around the area’s lakes and mountains. We were in taiga, which means that the trees are pretty stunted, mostly black spruce and sparse, so it was easy to navigate with map and compass. A tree 50 years old might only be 3 inches in diameter. We were in the woods for 10 nights, and of those nights we saw the Northern Lights seven times. Each day on the trip was mild: 20s during the day, around 20 below at night.

Late in the trip, I decided to walk out onto the pond one night to watch for the aurora. Walking away from a fire or my companions to stare into the night sky is one of my true joys, and this was no exception. The Milky Way spread like a gauzy veil, and I stood staring into that expanse for a good half hour. Normally, standing in below-zero weather will get you pretty cold, but not this night. This night I felt the power of the Earth surging up through my feet.

I don’t know if you believe in chi, or prana, but I was in a state of such deep meditation, I believe I had summoned my chi to stay warm, motionless, staring up into the guts of space. After a half-hour I thought I should move my neck or it would become sore. I rotated my head, and immediately, right nearby on the snow-covered ice with me, came a deep woof. Hair stood up on my neck (and did again as I wrote this). I couldn’t see anything … it was too dark. Immediately I started walking back to camp, trying my best not to run and betray my fear. Back at camp, my friends were skeptical of my story, thinking I was trolling them.

But the next morning, we found tracks all around the perimeter of camp. Large tracks. This was no coyote.

So of course I had to go back to the pond to see how close the animal had come to me in the night. Sure enough, the tracks showed a wolf had been walking in our trail, which bisected the pond. It had come within 30 feet of me. Then it made a right angle beeline for the nearest point of land.

I think the the wolf had just been tooling along the pond while I, meanwhile, was downwind, standing stock still. The wolf was either curious to see what I was, or maybe just on autopilot, then saw me when I rolled my neck.

A wolf in the Canadian wild. It’s one of my most treasured experiences in the Great White North!


Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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