arrive after dark, driving past piled up snow and pull up by a darkened log cabin office. No one comes out. I turn off the car lights and step into the freezing air. As my eyes adjust to the Arctic night, I see a green glow in the western sky, at first just two smudges on either side of the valley, a cosmic reptilian blush that grows into a phosphorescent super-highway that vaults across the snow-capped peaks. It is my 10th wintertime visit to the Arctic and, at last, I’ve seen the aurora.
At that moment a 4×4 comes up the road driven by my contact, Stig. “Follow me in your car,” he says softly. “At the top, when we get out, don’t make sudden movements or noises.”
The snowploughed track leads between two very high fences trimmed with an electric wire. I chuckle to myself, thinking: “This is Jurassic Park – with snow.” I leave the car by a gate in the wire beyond which a tunnel leads up to a brightly lit lodge on a small snowy hill. The purpose of that tunnel, I know, is to access the lodge without the inhabitants of the enclosure accessing me. Then the howling starts: a long eerie cry that reaches deep into lost primordial corners of the mind, evoking shivers of excitement. An answering howl makes Stig frown. “Sometimes I think there are more of them out there, not only ours.”
We are at Polar Park, a 110-hectare zoo, 70km north of the Norwegian town of Narvik. Polar Park is not like most other zoos: there are very few animals and they live in large enclosures. And they have a programme to accustom wolves to people, sufficient to allow meetings. That is why I am here: to stay a night inside the wolf enclosure and, with the consent of the Norse gods, make contact. I say “consent” advisedly: there is a sense of provisionality about it, no matter the eye-watering expense of the experience. As your grandmother might have mentioned, wolves are not to be relied upon.
Once we are inside the plush mountain lodge, peering out of the large picture windows, Stig explains. “We have to be very slow and steady. You can’t put energy into the wolf, they become unpredictable. We don’t allow under-18s to meet them or pregnant women. You can’t wear fur, down, gloves, hats or earrings. If they knock you over, you keep calm and wait for the keepers to move them away.”
Out in the darkness we hear a sudden, rather vicious, wolf fight. “There are five of them, all siblings, and they are just working out the hierarchy. We don’t interfere.”
We eat dinner and then stand by an open door, watching the aurora roll and flicker. Occasionally, silhouetted against it, are the swift shadows of running wolves.
The wolf is making something of a comeback in Europe. By the end of the last century, the remnants of a once-great population were holed up in northern Italy on the edge of extinction.
But then something changed. Declining rural human populations led to increased forest cover and deer numbers. In 1994, a pack was found in France’s Alpes-Maritimes and the animal has since recolonised 16 other departments, edging to within 60 miles of Paris. In 2015 one was spotted in Holland, probably the first since 1897. With the resurgence has come realisation that the wolf’s presence, like the beaver, can bring a cascade of biodiversity and environmental health. It has also, predictably, brought a cascade of fear and loathing, based on knowledge garnered from fairy tales. The Daily Mail reported that Dutch wolf with the headline: “The wolf’s at the door: First killer beast turns up in Holland for 150 years”. Videos showed a rattled animal trying to escape back to Germany within hours of crossing the border. In fact, as Stig said: “When wolves see people, they normally run away. They are frightened.”
Next morning I am trying to keep that in mind when we venture out and spot the pack loping eagerly towards us. They jump up excitedly and lick our faces. Two of them have a snarling stand-off over who should lick me first, but then decide to lick my camera instead. Apart from that one moment, it’s all remarkably non-threatening. We stroll to a low snow-covered hill where they do a bit of a howl and hold a wrestling contest. Only when I drop my phone is there a sudden intimation of what can happen. They are instantly curious and pushy, flooded with predatory instincts. Moving slowly, I retrieve it. Stig casually mentions that they always show plenty of interest in anyone who is sick, limping or weak. It’s that predatory nature, combined with the power of the pack, that earns our respect, and fear.
Later we walk around the other enclosures, seeing lynx, musk ox, moose and Arctic fox. The bears are in hibernation, appearing occasionally for snacks; the reindeer just wander freely. Polar Park is a zoo although much more pleasant than most. Nevertheless, predators don’t take incarceration easily, no matter how benign, and I drive away wondering about the ethics of it. The initial feeling of a Jurassic Park resonates: the sense of humans attempting to control, for profit, part of nature that is inherently uncontrollable. Nevertheless, the wolf encounter does bring a much-needed jolt of reality to the issue of the animal’s resurgence: these wolves are certainly not cuddly toys, nor are they monster killer beasts.
In the end, however, any animal glimpsed in the wild is more interesting than one cooped up. I join Oddgeir Sagerup, a local photographer and his expatriate Scottish colleague, Cameron, on a wildlife safari 90 minutes’ drive away on Dyrøya island. There is little chance of seeing one of Norway’s three known wolfpacks: they all stay away from the inhabited coast. But with Oddgeir’s informal network of contacts helping, we soon locate moose browsing in a river bed and sea eagles soaring overhead. Then, on a local farm, miles from anywhere, we jump aboard a sledge pulled by a snow scooter and head off for a madcap adventure into the forest that ends with us buried, laughing, in a snow drift, watched by three rather startled moose. I was rather relieved they weren’t wolves.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Visit Norway. Polar Park wolf encounters cost £125pp (adults only), park entrance £20pp (family £53); overnight in the lodge with wolf meeting, dinner and breakfast is £830 for two. See and Explore trips with Oddgeir Sagerup from £116 adult, £70 child. Flights provided by SAS, which flies to Narvik Evenes, via Oslo, from London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, £102 one way.