2009 TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant.
Author: Adam Millard
It’s one of those moments that you have to feel sorry for the clueless passer-by.
Which is why I offer the following scenario as a warning. You’re driving through the pine forest, near the Alberta/British Columbia border. You’re taking it easy on the gas, admiring the views of the Purcell and Rocky mountain ranges, happy to take a break from the hectic Trans-Canadian Highway. On the road ahead is a weathered, maroon 4×4. You think you see a familiar silhouette pacing in the back-window but dismiss it – just a local with their dog. But as you get closer, you’re not so sure. And as you overtake, you’d bet your last loonie (Canadian dollar) on seeing a pair of yellow eyes watching you back. Don’t question your sanity. The reality is, you probably weren’t seeing things. It really was a wolf.
The Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre has been open to the public since 2002, yet despite an ever-growing fan base and featuring in international documentaries, it remains relatively unknown. This may have something to do with its secluded position, fifteen kilometres outside the ramshackle border town of Golden. But even if you do get a little lost – as my friends and I did – you forget any frustration at the first glimpse of grey fur.
Casey and Shelley Black are the driving force behind the Centre and now exist as Alpha Male and Female of the Northern Lights’ pack. Casey’s past lies in the training of wild animals for the film industry, including Bart the Bear who appeared in The Edge (1997) and The Legend of the Fall (1995). Shelley, on the other hand, came to this project with a history of avid conservationism and wildlife education. Since setting up the Centre in 1998, the couple have gone from strength to strength in promoting their cause.
They currently have six wolves, three males and three females, though Casey mentioned boosting this number by 2010. Four are 100% grey wolf, and two are wolf-dogs (wolf/husky hybrids). Accompanying us on our hike was Maya, a nine-year-old female 100% grey wolf and to make her feel a little more at ease, another Centre resident, the one-eyed Karelian Bear Dog, Jackson. After a brief introduction and the signing of waivers (in their seven years of business, the only injuries have been terrain, as opposed to wolf-related) we were told to follow Casey, who was driving the “wolf wagon”, to a nearby trail.
For the first five minutes, Maya kept to the trees, maintaining a cautious distance from our group. But it wasn’t long, with the encouragement of Jackson and Casey rattling the lid of a clearly well-known tub of meat, before she grew more confident. Making sure to keep speaking and movement to a minimum, she obliged not only our craving for close-up shots, but pulled some very whimsical, looking-into-the-snowy-middle-distance poses out of the bag, too. Even with a point-and-shoot camera you can get shots to make any professional wildlife photographer envious.
With a white German Shepherd at home, it was incredible to observe a number of similarities in Maya’s behaviour. When Casey was handing out meat, she sat before him with the very intent gaze my dog has when I’m holding a stick. When Maya brushed past my leg the first time, it was a few seconds before I recalled it wasn’t my pet I was out with. Today I was walking with a wolf.
We all made idiots of ourselves by making various-pitched howls in an attempt to get a response from Maya, but somehow she saw through our ruse, looking at us like lunatics. As explained from the off, all interaction with these animals is done on ‘wolf terms’. “Nothing is a given,” Shelley tells us, but that’s what makes this trip so special.
I asked Casey if, by now, people in the local area knew of Northern Lights, and the frequent off-leash walks he went on with his wolves.
“Mostly,” he replied, half-smiling, “though sometimes there are newcomers, or visitors, to the area. They can get a bit of a shock when they’re out with their dogs!”
Seeing Maya interacting with her natural environment was a humbling experience, but this is not the only thing on offer at Northern Lights. There’s also a pack of Jackson’s kin, the Karelian Bear Dogs. Originating from Russia, these black-and-white Collie-like hounds have the potential to save many lives, as, for centuries, they have been trained to see off bears from human settlements. As well as fighting for wolf conservation in Canada (believe it or not, despite depleting numbers, wolves currently have no legal protection from hunting), Northern Lights is also promoting the use of bear-dogs as part of a non-lethal programme to deter bears from densely-populated areas.
As you might expect, Casey and Shelley also offer extensive wolf wisdom. You will learn the origins of a number of lupine legends. For instance, the expression ‘wolfing it down’ comes from the fact that wolves eat food in big chunks, with little chewing; often due to having to travel some distance before regurgitating meat for pups and carers back at the den. And what’s the deal with wolves howling at the full moon? Nothing mystical after all, just a result of a well-lit landscape making it easier to spot prey at night.
Most of all, they highlight how the wolf is a ‘keystone species’. Giving detailed examples, they illustrate how an eco-system can collapse without wolves as a primary predator. And if you’re the kind of person who hates to be preached at, don’t worry; the talks here are informative and show you flaws and potential solutions, rather than ramming them down your throat.
From the way the wolves watch this couple’s every move and listen to their every word, it is clear they earned the wolves’ respect long ago. With such extensive knowledge, passion and commitment, it didn’t take them long to earn mine too.