THE BEAST INSIDE
A killer wolf, a hunter and their story’s hidden chapter
by Kyle Farris, staff writer
This story’s usual hero is buried in Shevlin, at Old Sell Lake Cemetery. He’s credited with killing a monster. His headstone, under a pine, reads: Algot Wicken, 1891-1986.
The usual villain is kept in Bemidji, behind glass. He, too, is credited with killing. Children smudge their noses against his display. They peer at lifeless eyes, massive fangs, browning fur.
No one seems to know how a murderous wolf came to live outside Morell’s Chippewa Trading Post in downtown Bemidji — but soon, he’ll probably be gone. The family run store intends to bury what remains of “Lobo Minnesota,” years ago killed, stuffed and encased.
“A lot of people say he’s creepy-looking,” said Julie Petersen, Morell’s assistant manager. “See,” she said, pointing toward Lobo’s front left leg. “He’s coming apart there.”
Petersen and her sister-manager, Roxi Mann, have been with Lobo for 25 years. Their parents owned the store before Mann took over in 2000. Lobo was part of the transaction.
“Maybe this could be his farewell story,” Petersen said.
Elders who saw the “Great Killer of the North” as boys and girls return for last looks.
Locals and tourists plead he should stay above ground.
Petersen is leaning toward burial. Of all people, she knows about the army of hunters, the one who succeeded, the suffering.
Lobo stands accused of using deer carcasses for playthings. Petersen calls him misunderstood. Little tears pool in her eyes.
There’s something she wants you to know about him.
“Maybe this could be his farewell story.”
Algot Wicken passed his 94 years just outside Itasca State Park. His family picked berries, gathered honey and trapped animals. Until his back gave out, he took a daily walk.
A year before his death, Wicken received a visit from Leon Pantenburg, a reporter. Much of what follows is according to Pantenburg, who last published the details of a 30-year-old conversation on survivalcommonsense.com, his website:
In 1926, in the woods that roll from Red Lake to Itasca State Park, hunters found the largest wolf tracks they had ever seen. The beast responsible was suspected of slaughtering record numbers of deer. It was elusive to human eyes.
The wolf traveled alone, unpredictably and usually at night. It was probably mateless and broke wolf custom by abandoning old, unfinished kills. Game wardens set a $200 bounty. They rigged the forest with traps and poisons. The wolf seemed to strut past anything men had touched. It killed exclusively deer, carried carcasses like toys and only sometimes decided to eat them.
“That animal was vicious,” said Wicken, who discovered a crippled doe one day while setting traps in the woods. “He never bothered to finish it off,” he told Pantenburg. “I guess he broke the deer’s back out of pure meanness.”
The Great Depression had pockets empty. Hunters and trappers, bounty-bent, filled the forest.
Wicken, after weeks of studying Lobo’s tendencies, learned what no one else had: The wolf was partial toward a particular stand of spruce.
The man strung a steel cable between two trees. He went home.
In the morning, he was back in the woods, back under the spruce stand.
Wicken had caught Lobo Minnesota. He had lost him.
Prints in the snow revealed the wolf had stood on his hind legs and lunged. He had snapped the cable and fled. Never again did Lobo walk into a snare. Wicken’s had stayed with him.
A hunter’s redemption
The near-capture seemed only to grow the wolf’s ferocity. Lobo killed more and more deer. Game wardens upped the bounty to $500. Lobo’s hide represented life-changing money.
In January 1938, more than two years after Lobo’s escape, Wicken concealed a steel trap between two snares. A few days later, he trudged back, through the aftermath of a blizzard.
There was Lobo, growling in the steel trap.
Wicken admired the creature.
He lifted his rifle and aimed. He shot.
After a moment, the wolf’s body fell lifeless. Wicken moved closer. He was devastated.
The old snare, broken several hundred days before, wrapped tightly around Lobo’s neck.
“I’ve always regretted that the wire didn’t break clean,” Wicken told the reporter 50 years later. “I’ve always been sorry for the pain and suffering I must have caused him.”
Still, Wicken had a bounty to collect. He would be a hero.
The victor brought the wolf to Bagley. People came from all over to see the monster that had killed a new deer every three days and eluded hunters for 12 years.
On the animal’s neck, at the sorest spot, the snare had carved a hole the size of a half dollar. The “Great Killer of the North” had, himself, been slowly dying.
“I’ve always been sorry for the pain and suffering I must have caused him.”
A new wolf
When Petersen’s family took over Morell’s in 1990, among the first orders of business was the shabby wolf.
They brought Lobo to a taxidermist who brushed his coat, replaced his teeth — “made him look real spiffy,” Petersen said. The wolf returned to his case.
Apart from the usual story, Petersen thought little of Lobo, of his motivations. The legend, the headlines in old newspapers sketched a clear and grim portrait.
Then, around 2000, a one-man play came to Itasca State Park.
Petersen’s family was in the audience when the performer revealed a hidden chapter.
The snare Lobo wore like a collar had choked him.
Eating became torturous. Lobo killed deer for their soft tissue and blood — the only elements he could consume. The wolf left carcasses, old ones he had picked over, largely intact.
In his final days, it wasn’t with cunning that Lobo stayed away from past kills. It was necessity.
“People thought he was so mean, that he killed deer for the sport of it,” Petersen said. “Poor guy, he was just trying to survive.”
Lobo was known for killing before his injury. Petersen said he wasn’t a monster, because he never attacked cattle or humans. After the play, Petersen and her sister dropped the “Great Killer” distinction that often followed his name.
“We just call him Lobo,” Petersen said.
Now, there’s a new wolf at Morell’s. It’s not a more deeply understood Lobo, but a stuffed Alaskan wolf that Petersen said will serve as a replacement.
Visitors plea. Petersen has mixed feelings of her own.
When it’s time, she said, Lobo will be pulled from his case.
The procession will require hazmat suits. The body is preserved with arsenic.
Dead nearly 80 years, Lobo Minnesota might be more dangerous than he was living.
The Beast Inside was featured in the Fall 2015 issue of inMagazine.