Thanks to the intermittent rains of the last month, the woods are muted; fallen leaves lie against the dark soil like an ache for summer's loss. Mushrooms, alien in form and color, emerge from the roadbed alongside piles of elk droppings and deer poop and coyote scat.
The cornucopia of droppings encourages Rich Krenkel that there may be wolves trapped somewhere in the digital confines of one of the boxy, motion-sensing cameras strapped to various trees around here.
Yeah, but which tree?
A lean fellow in flannel shirt, Krenkel eagerly starts a three-hour walk in search of the picket line of cameras he and his wife, Faye, have been tending for half a decade. He's got a GPS unit, but he and Faye often triangulate camera locations via their own memories:
"Is that the fallen log we used for scent?" Rich asks, scampering upslope to a game trail. "Never mind. I recognize it."
The Krenkels have been at this long enough that they are all that remains of an eager, initial corps of volunteers when Conservation Northwest stepped up five years ago to assist budget-strapped agencies by monitoring rare carnivores.
"It started with the lynx," Rich Krenkel says. "Lynx and then grizzly bear -- a more exciting animal."
Even with the lure of chasing a "more exciting animal," maintaining a string of remote-sensor cameras is not a National Geographic highlight reel. People began to fall away as it faded from keen adventure to battery-replacement chore. The lapse time between the motion sensor and the shutter snap often leaves frame after frame with no visible critter. "Squirrels can shoot through so fast you never see them," Rich Krenkel says.
And, with scent brushed onto a rock or tree out in front of the lens to lure animals to the camera, well, "You get a lot of butt shots," Rich Krenkel says.
Volunteers eventually get their fill of walking for hours only to see pictures of deer butts. For the Krenkels, though, it's more. They appreciate the opportunity to walk together in wild, quiet parts of the landscape.
And they remain hopeful, even eager. Rich pulls the memory card from Faye's digital camera and swaps it with the card from each remote camera. Everybody crowds around to see.
This trip it's a lot of empty frames, a blurry deer hindquarter, a timber surveyor seen from shoulders to knee brace. But no wolves.
"Persistence is going to pay off some day," Rich announces, and then it's on to the next camera, and the next and the next.
At the final camera site, the ritual of the memory card swap is repeated with as much anticipation as the first. A smile bursts through his beard as he raises the camera.
"Let's see what we have here ..."