One of the highest points on Isle Royale is at the top of Mount Ojibway, a flattened crest above the trees where eagles nest, winds buffet and wild blueberries grow.
From there, you can see all the way to Canada — it’s closer than Michigan — and watch the laughing white caps of Lake Superior pound the rocky shores in every direction.
It’s from way up there that Rolf Peterson listens for signs of life.
Getting there isn’t easy, but even at 64 years old, Peterson barely breaks a sweat despite the terrain. He has made this trek so many times he recognizes individual trees and juneberry bushes.
“You see that radio tower way over there?” he asks, pointing to a steel structure, small and hazy in the distance.
He chuckles with compassion. “It’s actually farther away than it looks.”
Under the canopy of aspen trees and balsam fir, the trail he follows is little more than a rough-hewn path of jagged boulders and exposed roots, the red soil packed hard by the countless footfalls of nature lovers and adventure seekers who visit the island every year.
When the trail breaks above the tree line, he climbs the 50 steps to the top of the radio tower.
He pulls from his 40-year-old backpack a receiver and two small antennas. He slowly swings the antennas left to right, waiting for a sound, listening for something other than static.
It has been more than a month since he has picked up the ping – the sign that Isabelle or Pip, the two radio-collared wolves on the island, are nearby.
He knows they’re not dead. Not yet, at least. He, more than anyone else, would know.
For more than 40 years, he has spent every summer on the island with his wife, Candy, in a cabin with no running water as the chief researcher on a world-renown study through Michigan Technological University called the Wolf-Moose Project.
Now in its 55th year, it’s the longest running study of its kind in the world, and it could happen only at Isle Royale.
The island park is the only place on the entire planet where a major predator and a major ungulate — a fancy biologist’s term for things like deer, elk and moose — live together without the interference of some other species.
Peterson turns the antenna in another direction.
Several minutes pass.
All he hears is silence.
There are only eight adult wolves left on Isle Royale, and they have little to say.
This story won the 2014 Sigma Delta Chi award for Feature Reporting and the 2014 Herbert Spencer Award for Best Writing by the Michigan Press Association. Read the entire series in the Lansing State Journal here.
PHOTO CREDITS: Rod Sanford, Lansing State Journal; Wolf Moose Project