The Mom Who Cried Wolf
The snow crunched beneath my thick soled boots. After a week without snow and temperatures that rose during the day and fell at night, the ground was covered in patchy bits of hardened snow. The top layer was icy, and a confident stride would degenerate into walking like a novice tight rope walker with both arms flailing out to regain balance.
My six-month-old energetic puppy bound ahead of me, her paws slipping and finding grip in alternating strides. Her pattern was erratic as she kept her nose to the ground searching for smells. She zoomed in front of me, around, and back again within the time it took me to move five steps forward.
We headed to our favorite location—a large wooded area toward the edge of the expansive golf course that provided me with a scenic home office view out my back window. The area held sheep during the summer months and in the winter, served as a suitable place to let dogs run around without their leashes.
The pup discovered the woods absorbed all of her pent-up energy and I felt the fence provided a clear boundary so she wouldn’t get too far away. I relaxed once I closed the gate and unclipped her leash. We wandered around and breathed in the pine trees and listened to the birds still chirping and chattering away—breaking the winter stillness.
After my third trip to the fenced-in site, I noticed a piece torn plastic ribbon with the word, “Fornlämning” printed on it and wrapped around a tree. I recognized the same tape from my recent archeological digs at a nearby ruin. Archeologists used the tape to rope off areas of excavation.
I Googled the location and the word, “fornlämning,” and I discovered that the fenced-in area that served as our makeshift dog park was the site of over 70 burial mounds from the years 400-1100—the Viking Age.
“Everywhere has ruins. You can’t dig a shallow hole without finding something of historical value,” my neighbor explained as I revealed the exciting news that we lived near ancient ruins. “All of Sweden is practically an ancient ruin.” He was unimpressed.
But this was OUR ancient ruin. Practically in our backyard. Actually, it was better than our backyard because we could visit it whenever we wanted and still play soccer without worrying about trampling over ancient graves.
We nicknamed it the “far sheep pen” because of course, there was another sheep pen located even closer to our house. The far sheep pen became my favorite destination on our morning walks. Our dog got some much-needed exercise, and I had a chance to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery.
We developed a healthy routine of walking to the pen, making a loop inside the fence, and walking back to the house within 45 minutes. The pup often collapsed once we got back to the house and I logged some uninterrupted writing time into my morning every day. What we didn’t know was that our newfound perfect outdoor routine was about to be interrupted by an unwanted intruder.
Out for a walk
On Saturday morning, I headed out with the dog on our usual walk. Grass poked up between the semi-melted patches of snow and we quickly found our way to the far sheep pen. Within sight of the fence, a paw print in the snow stopped me in my tracks. It’s very common to see owners and their dogs walking around the golf course as the conditions were not great for cross-country skiers, so there are countless paw prints in the snow so, why did this one catch my eye?
I could’ve easily dismissed this print as a large dog print, but it was larger than any other paw print I had ever seen. Our dog is a Labrador mixed with Golden Retriever and she weighs about 45 lbs (20 kg). She’s a medium-sized dog (still growing) and I figured that her paw print might be a good approximation for how large of a print I could expect to see from an average sized dog. I found one of her paw prints in the snow for comparison. The larger snow print was 4x-5x larger than the one her feet made.
Now, after much research and paying close attention to my dog’s paw prints, I know now that the conditions of the snow affect the size of the print.
If the snow is soft and melting, a paw print can look quite larger than it is in reality. If the snow is hard and frozen, a dog’s weight may barely make an impression, thereby creating a very small paw print.
Taking in all of that information, it remained a shockingly large print in the snow. I took a picture with my hand next to it and my own dog’s paw print for comparison’s sake.
I also looked at the tracks of the prints in the snow. They were in a straight line.
Looking at my dog’s tracks, hers were erratic and overlapping as she often doubled back and ran ahead. Her back paws landed just behind where her front paws hit, creating a pattern of two prints on each side of her path as she trots along.
These larger prints in the snow were much farther apart and not stacked in the 2×2 formation. There were also no human footprints in the vicinity.
Whatever animal made these prints was most likely large (at least 60 kg if we’re using paw print size to estimate weight and using my dog’s prints for reference), walking in a straight line, and walking alone. It didn’t follow the pattern of your typical domestic dog out for a walk with its owner.
We like to consider our neighborhood as being “subrural”—a blend of both suburban and rural areas. Our street borders fenced in pastures that corral Icelandic horses in the spring and summer and the other side borders an open golf course.
In true Swedish style, fences line the areas leading to the houses (not that it stops any deer from hopping over) and are open on the side bordering the wooded areas to allow wild animals to make an exit. This somewhat permeable border doesn’t restrict animal movement at all and provides a false sense of security to the humans.
We’ve seen only evidence of lynx (deer carcasses and bones hauled up into trees) but we have seen moose eating apples, glaring at us as we approach, and of course, the average (and boring) deer tugging on our trees with their itchy and uncomfortable growing antlers. Based on the shape of prints, moose and deer were out, so that left only wolf and lynx as a possibility.
Wolf or lynx?
Wolves often walk in a straight line because they are used to hunting in stealth mode. Domestic dogs don’t even think about walking in a straight line unless walking on a leash and when off-leash, dogs usually alternate between running, walking, and circling back to their owner who is trailing behind.
I was unfamiliar with lynx tracks but knew that there has never been a recorded lynx attack against humans. “It’s probably a lynx,” I thought, and the more comfortable thought of a lynx replaced the wolf assumption in my mind.
I followed the large prints until they disappeared into the frozen grass. Without fresh snow, it was too hard to track the tracks for long. Without seeing the wolf myself, I started to doubt my initial assumption that the tracks were a wolf’s at all, and we continued to the fenced-in sheep pen.
I scanned the hills for any movement and proceeded with caution. My dog sniffed the ground with alertness she usually doesn’t have when playing. A few times, she froze with her head looking straight ahead and one time, she jumped backward in fear. Turns out, she was spooked by some overturned trees that fell over after a strong wind storm the night before. Their roots exposed was a new sight and she was unsure about the changes that occurred in her usual sniffing spots.
However, her behavior was freaking me out. I know that she is scared of birds and airplanes and that I couldn’t rely on her as an early warning system against some unknown predator but she was overly jumpy.
All of a sudden, a group of birds in a tree chirped in a chorus of cacophony. The dog stopped with her tail held high in the air at attention. I scanned the horizon, looking for movement among the trees and bushes but saw nothing.
Was something climbing the tree? Hunting? Were we being hunted? Oh my God, I put us in a fenced-in area for safety and now we’re being hunted by a lynx/wolf/monster. I’m such an idiot!
My mind raced to the ridiculous as the only explanation possible and my freak out was complete.
I clipped the leash back on my dog’s collar and led her out the fence. We were out of there in a flash.
I felt like there was something behind us, like when you turn off the last light in the basement before you head up the stairs and was afraid to look back.
“Just keep moving forward. It’ll be fine. Lynxes don’t hunt humans and the dog isn’t a threat.”
I’ve seen lynx drag large deer up into trees so I was lying to myself that a lynx wouldn’t hunt down my goofy black lab puppy with the softest floppiest ears. She would make for such an easy snack. I felt like an idiot for not turning around once I saw the tracks.
We made it safely home but the specter of something unknown claiming the golf course as their territory put both me and my husband on edge.
In the news
Our local newspaper featured front page articles about residents who saw a few wolves on the other side of town. Surely, those wolves couldn’t have covered that much distance already, right?
We sent the snow print pictures to our friends, they all responded with the wow face emoji and told us to report it the authorities using the app, Skandobs.
The app showed a map of all local observations and as I placed my observation on the map, it was clear that we were the outlier. All of the other observations were way on the other side of town—kilometers away. What was more interesting/frightening was that someone had found bear tracks and scat. A bear!? I have to worry about bears too? Come on, Sweden.
I chose the best pictures and uploaded them into the app. My phone rang 24 hours later from a woman at Lansstyrelsen who asked me questions about what I had reported. She asked if I thought the wolf could be found by airplane or helicopter observation. Yes, I believe with the winter trees, finding a wolf via helicopter would be easiest.
The snow melted and with it, all traces of whatever it was that made those tracks.
Days went by without incident and I began to believe that the entire thing was a fabrication of my imagination. My own fears about the unknown, the never-ending darkness of winter, and the thought of being trailed by a top predator were getting the best of me. I discounted the notion that there was a wolf in our area and chalked it up to misreading a dog’s paw prints.
“I met a woman with a dog who shared some interesting news with me.”
My husband stood in our hallway, removing his snow pants and reflective vest after his nightly walk with the dog. His nighttime loop around the golf course mirrored my daytime loop but instead of heading toward the woods, he stuck to the roads and skirted the outer edge of the golf course by our house.
“The wolf has been confirmed. A man told her about seeing a stray dog on the golf course earlier today until he realized that there aren’t any stray dogs here and that it was much larger than any dog he’s ever seen before.”
Confirmation that I wasn’t crazy was great but it wasn’t the best news to hear. There was a lone wolf in our vicinity and lone wolves, without the benefit of hunting in a pack, often target domestic dogs for their easy snacks.
I Googled “wolf hunting patterns” and discovered that yes, wolves are nocturnal so my daytime walks should be fairly uneventful but wolves with pups are active during the day (because apparently, even wolf pups never let their parents sleep. We have more in common with wolves than we think.)
The next afternoon, I worked from my home office upstairs and heard the thumping sound of helicopter blades in the air. A helicopter was scanning the treetops and made slow loops over our nearby woods.
The wolf was still out there and we were not the only ones hoping to find it.
Wolves in our folklore
Wolves have an undeniable place in human culture and folklore. In Native American tribes, wolves are admired for their strength, hunting prowess, and cooperation as a pack. They teach us about sharing, caring for our family unit, and living courageously.
Folktales portray wolves as either ruthless and fierce or noble and loyal—I guess it the traits emphasized changed based on the lesson being told.
In Norse mythology and Native American culture, the wolf is associated with warrior status. Odin is accompanied by two wolves as loyal companions. Nearly every Native American tribe had some wolf lore and considered the wolf to have the power to heal, provide strength, and courage,
I Googled my town’s name and varg (wolf) and discovered that interactions between humans and wolves rarely ends well for the wolf. Generally, the wildlife folks at Lansstyrelsen track new observations using the app, Skandobs, a database of Scandinavian large predators, and attempts to find and remove the wolf before it harms anyone.
In 2018, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency handed over the rights to hunt wolves, bears, and lynx to the decision of the counties as long as a minimum population is maintained (preventing total wipeout of the species).
In short, the counties don’t take much action aside from notifying residents about a wolf in the area unless it starts eating family pets and people start to become outraged. Then, a hunt is licensed and the wolf’s days are numbered.
I’m not a fan of feeling uneasy walking my dog in my own neighborhood, but I’m also not a fan of killing a beautiful animal just because it wandered into our town.
Humans are encroaching more and more on the wildlife and it is our human development that changes the territories of these wolves.
If you want to take action and help save the gray wolf, Defenders of Wildlife has some great options.
Other essays about living in Sweden
Then and Now: Reflections on Integration
The Parenting Advice that Changed my Life