It was dusk when our group of eight emerged from Estonia's dark and untamed forest. It felt like a retreat from an unfamiliar city neighbourhood, where eyes watch and danger waits around every corner. But this was an odd feeling: I knew these woods. What used to be my childhood playground, I now realized, belonged to someone else.
We blundered over six inch thick ice that had swallowed the road. I stuck my face into my scarf and released a deep exhale. Warm steam rose back into my frosty face providing momentary relief from the biting Arctic air. My mother's knitted, heavy, woollen socks did little to warm my frozen toes. I imagined one could snap off with the ease of a brittle twig.
Bert, a 30-something nature enthusiast and our guide, stood on the side of the road, studying a pile of snow. "These were not here when we entered the forest,” he announced. I slid over and together we stared at fresh paw prints. They were the size of an adult hand. Bert's eyes followed the prints toward the thick forest and I spat out, "Do you think he's close?"
Estonians have a rich folklore largely based on animism, and in it, the wolf is portrayed as the most important animal in the forest. The man in the grey coat, Bush Willem, and the golden king of the forest are just a few of the many names Estonians have for the wolf. To utter his name is taboo. Our superstitious ancestors believed that the wolf understands human speech and to say his name causes him to appear. Estonians have a deep connection with nature and a belief that the animals of the forest, especially the clever wolf, have a right to life. Instead of hunting wolves, people tried to keep them at a distance: farmers smeared their cattle with gunpowder, petrol or birch tar, and threw the first vertebra of slaughtered cattle into the woods. This piece was considered the wolves’ share. Riddles were told and incantations sung. The magic was never intended to harm the wolf, but to lure him away from the farm and encourage his return to the forest and the marsh.
It wasn't just a wolf we had been tracking. This was a mythological creature that for centuries has been treated as an equal to humans in intelligence and strength.
The morning after my arrival in Estonia, my mother and I sat down for breakfast at my childhood home in the town of Rapla. I tried to entice her to join me wolf tracking. "Ei, ei, ei," she stated firmly. "No, no, no!” Her response was final. "Those eyes! Those burning eyes!" she shuddered.
I found it curious that forty years later she was still affected. Many years ago, while pregnant with my sister, she went for a walk to her grandmother's farmhouse. It was winter and late. She arrived on a narrow, snowy track next to a thick forest. Something in the woods caught her attention and she glanced toward the dark and shadowed trees. "Two glowing spots,” my mother said as her eyes widened. She lifted her hand, pointing her finger into the air, and back in time. “They shined at me from the blackness. I stopped and they stopped. I moved and they moved.” For the next fifteen minutes, she watched the burning eyes watch her, until she arrived at her destination.
In Estonian mythology, a lone wolf following a person without attacking was viewed as an act of kindness. These were believed to be wolves from the Underworld that protected people from malevolent spirits. I told my mother this. She chuckled, put down her coffee mug and repeated, “Ei, ei, ei!”
The group met twenty minutes from my mother's house, in the village of Raikküla, on a track between a marsh and a forest. The sun was still high when we attached snowshoes to our boots. "There have always been wolves in this area," explained Bert as he turned to lead us into the backwoods. We stumbled behind him like a pack of penguins, our snowshoes flopping against the snow and our arms flapping from side to side for balance. “You can’t always know for sure it's a wolf you are following,” Bert continued. His eyes searched the ground for a moment and then he laughed. "There is a chance you could end up in somebody’s backyard, where you are greeted by a tail-wagging dog.”
The thin, naked, nut-brown aspen trees stood emotionless and silent. The snow crunched and the twigs cracked under the migration of our heavy steps. We studied piles of round, brown droppings, large depressions in the snow a foot or two deep, and wide trails leading through knee high deep snow. The forest breathed with wild boar, moose and deer. Bert found a track of canine paw prints marked by yellow splashes and hairy scat. The man in the grey coat was not far away.
These woods have changed little over the past few centuries. What has changed is the wolf population. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an estimated two thousand wolves roamed Estonia's countryside, ten times more than today. Back then, they snatched small children from the steps of farmhouses and packs of wolves gave chase to horse-drawn carriages racing through the forest. According to church records, wolves killed 81 children and one adult over a 49-year period in Estonia. The threat and fear was real. “A wolf will come and get you," parents warned misbehaving children, and once in bed, children avoided sleeping too close to the edge for fear of a late night, wet sniff from the golden king of the forest.
After hours of steering past fallen birch trees and crisscrossed branches of aspen, the tangled forest opened out onto a bare marsh. The paw prints led to a patch of exposed yellow-brownish grass. Bert removed his mittens and kneeled on the snow. He reached into the grass and pulled out a short, grey hair. Rolling it between his fingers, he handed it to me and said, "A wolf." He turned around to look at the tracks. They split and continued across the marshland side by side. “We are tracking at least two wolves. Not one," he said. Wolves are known to follow in each other’s steps, to save energy. This often makes estimating the size of the pack challenging.
The double tracks curved toward a thick, endless backwoods. “These prints are getting fresher and fresher,” Bert said and stopped.
"What is the chance that we will spot a wolf today?" I asked.
"Slim," he answered. “The wolf is curious, which means he is intelligent." He smirked and said, "I am sure he is watching us.”
I tried not to think what could happen if a pack of grey wolves came creeping out of the bushes. Trapped in snowshoes, I didn't stand a chance. There was no climbing a tree, no running, and no getting up after an inevitable face plunge into the snow. We were in wolf territory. Superstitions began to creep back and I now regretted uttering his name. Were we following them or had they been following us? It was getting dark and out on the horizon, the sinking sun was turning the sky red.
Back on the road we stood in silence, feeling a bit disappointed not to have made contact with a wolf. Bert had stepped back into the woods in a final attempt to conjure the golden king of the forest. The sound of his wolf whistle split the silence. We waited. Steam billowed from under our scarves and hats and we shivered in the cold. The thick snow glittered at the forest edge and the flickering stars blanketed the dark, cloudless sky. It felt as though if I reached out my hand I could touch them. Then, a deep prolonged howl cut through the forest, breaking the bewitching silence. The sound was close. He was close. The dry, sharp air slipped into my mouth, contracting my throat. I was aware of my every breath. A second howl followed. I listened to my heartbeat as I stared into the blackness, searching for those burning eyes.
Kaire Kalam is a freelance writer who grew up in Estonia during the Soviet Occupation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union she has lived in Stockholm and New York City, and is currently residing in Dubai. She travels the world as often as possible and is always planning or dreaming about her next trip. You can read more about her adventures at www.2there.co, and find her on both Facebook and Twitter.