A wooded stretch of happiness juts into Lake Martin, a reservoir in a region once called Cherokee Bluffs, outside Dadeville, Alabama. Two campsites, one in a clearing for groups and another secluded in a tight stand of pine, were a loosely kept secret among my friends — passed down between generations of Auburn students — upon which we bestowed the cryptic moniker “The Dadeville Spot.” We’d park our cars at the end of a dirt road beside a four-foot mound of gravel, intended (I suppose) to keep four-wheel-drive pickups and SUVs off another dirt road, uneven and pocked with potholes, that led to the campsites. The secluded and clearing campsites, each marked by a simple stone campfire ring, sat roughly 1 mile and 1.25 miles along the road.
The mound was not imposing enough to keep ATVs and dirt bikes off the road, much less campers on foot. Nor did that mound exist when we were first entrusted with the secret of The Dadeville Spot. Then, it was a dumpsite of empty Natty Light cans, crinkled and blackened by campfires. Mounds of torn and brimming garbage bags spilled all manner of tailgate-party refuse across the campsites and into the lake. Mercifully, the mound went up and the pickups never returned. The bubbas with their pizza boxes and cases of crappy beer could not be bothered to abandon their trucks and hike a mile. For that, I’m grateful. Only the respectful (or, at least, the somewhat determined and experienced) campers remained. Situated below rocky bluffs on a side of the lake that was generally void of aquatic vegetation and fish, we could spend the entire weekend at The Dadeville Spot and not see or hear another human, aside from the occasional clueless fisherman casting into dead water.
The Dadeville Spot became our quiet escape near the university and among yipping, howling things. Coyotes don’t seem much to mind canned, artificial wilder-places like Lake Martin. Their numbers are healthy, and like raccoons and opossums, they have done well in and around human settlement.
I once pitched camp at the secluded campsite, built a small fire and watched the birds overhead. The sun set and Barky stumbled into camp, nervously muttering something about howling wolves. He had heard coyotes, really. They yipped on all sides of the lake. Backyard dogs joined the chorus but there was no mistaking the clear coyote song ringing above the din. Squeaky, ugly and urgent, piercing and painful — a coyote’s unbridled yip and howl sounds as though the coyote has gotten its paw clamped in a steel trap. But that’s just the coyote’s voice and the coyote’s way.
I’ve heard coyote song in every state I’ve lived and nearly every state I’ve hiked. Their voices make anywhere in America feel like home. In east Texas, outside Schulenburg, where good trails are scarce, my buddies and I would hike across private ranches and empty prairie inexplicably fenced by barbed-wire. We’d map our course across plots of land that we knew would be unoccupied. No trespassing upon this soil though the owners were decades and generations AWOL, residing in Dallas or Houston, sitting upon their deeds like thrones. If we were caught, we’d say that we were the grand kids of a certain local and generally known rancher named Schindler, which was true for one in our troupe. All the while, coyotes would sing near our camp — among shadowy oak, just beyond our fire light. They made no excuses and made their whereabouts known.
There are nations (Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and many others) where claiming local patronage or making excuses for crossing open land would be considered absurd. The sentiment need not be said:
“This land is your land, this land is my land, and my tax dollars help fund the institutions that allow you to keep and profit off of this land. So, let me pass. I’ll not disturb a thing.”
The right to roam is protected in their respective constitutions. In the US, however, it is illegal to walk through the vast majority of the country. But perhaps we have too many bubbas with too many beer cans to allow such easy access to the land of the free.
In the last two years, the coyote’s eastern cousin, the red wolf, dropped from 100 to 45 individuals in the wild. They have been suppressed to the threshold of extermination (again) by a culture of negligence (and quite possibly incompetence) at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, goaded by ranchers who see the wolf as a threat to livestock and profit but fail to see the ranchers themselves as a threat to heritage and salvation. In The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf, the excuse many ranchers give the author, T. DeLene Beeland, for killing red wolves on their property is simply that the wolves are on their property.
Despite this climate of predator persecution, coyotes thrive. The demise of the red wolf has opened the east to the coyote who historically inhabit the Midwest. Culling the Mexican gray wolf opened the west. Beginning around the 1880s, coyotes expanded beyond the Rockies all the way to the Pacific coast. Culling the eastern timber wolf opened the north. From roughly 1900 to 1950, coyotes moved into southern Canada along the Great Lakes. 1938 marked the first coyote sighting in my home state of North Carolina. I hear them call when I walk my dog, especially on cold, clear nights. The coyote is an imperfect replacement for the wolf. Still, it occupies a necessary ecological niche. It’s a blessing to witness life that finds a way despite the inhumane institutions of humanity. The same institutions that claim wild predators could possibly trespass on “private” property and that killing a wild creature is subject to the landowner’s prerogative while justified by begging the question.
I’ve since returned to The Dadeville Spot. That dirt and gravel mound is higher and wider these days. “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs now line the road to the campsites. The campfire rings came before we did. I had always thought that The Dadeville Spot was on public-use land. But I was wrong. Chalk it up as just another place I can no longer wander for fear of going the way of the red wolf. I have my house and well-paved roads. I possess a narrow and almost linear freedom. Luckily, though, coyotes can’t read signs. Early in the night, you can still hear coyotes sing around Cherokee Bluffs, across Alabama and all America. At least, for now, the coyote exercises its right to roam.
Coexist with Coyotes by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
Meet the Coywolf full PBS Nature documentary
*Featured image source: WikiMedia Commons