Walk­ing with wolves

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - TRAVEL - By Steve MacNaull

MAYA sniffs my hand, takes a step for­ward and of­fers her back for me to pat. This would be ut­terly mun­dane if Maya were a dog. But she’s 100-per-cent grey wolf. And wolf-han­dler and trainer Shelley Black tells me how lucky I am to re­ceive any af­fec­tion from this re­gal crea­ture.

“Maya has her quirks and is shy and aloof,” ex­plains Black. “If she gives any­one the time of day, it’s usu­ally only two sec­onds.” I’m flat­tered. Maya leans into my leg and I run my left hand through the long and lux­u­ri­ous fur from her shoul­der blades to mid-back for a good 10 sec­onds. Then, just as quickly and qui­etly as she ap­peared, Maya moves on.

“Ev­ery­thing is on wolf terms here,” con­tin­ues Black. “You can’t just go run­ning up to a wolf. But if they come to you, go ahead, in­ter­act with them.”

I’m tak­ing part in North­ern Lights Wolf Cen­tre’s spe­cial Walk­ing With Wolves pro­gram just out­side of Golden, B.C., with five other tourists. It’s the only place in the world peo­ple can go on a hike with wolves.

We’re not in a big en­clo­sure, and the wolves are not on leashes. They run free, and we fol­low on a stretch of pris­tine, sunny and snowy Crown land in the Blae­berry Val­ley, brack­eted by the Rocky and Pur­cell moun­tains.

When I first heard of North­ern Lights’ Walk­ing With Wolves pro­gram, I didn’t be­lieve such a bucket-list op­por­tu­nity ex­isted. So, of course, I im­me­di­ately had to sign up and drive the four hours from my home in Kelowna to Golden.

It’s sur­real to trek in the wild with these ma­jes­tic an­i­mals, and I con­stantly had to pinch my­self as a re­minder this was real. I’m touch­ing wolves, I’m tak­ing pic­tures of wolves, wolves are show­ing off and run­ning past me and they even play­fully roll in the snow and good-na­turedly yip and growl.

Maya is the black-grey-and-white re­gal veteran at 14 years of age. Her years show in the tell­tale white on her snout and face and her slow, old-lady run.

We’re also joined by 21-month-old Scrappy Dave, the equiv­a­lent of a ram­bunc­tious, lanky teenager. He’s also a real looker, with his white and buff colour­ing and pierc­ing yel­low eyes.

Scrappy Dave also loves to play for the cam­era. He showed off his speed by rac­ing back and forth past us, dart­ing off into the for­est to emerge stealth and snowy. And when we reached the sunny clear­ing at the halfway point of our hike, Scrappy Dave frol­icked and posed for pic­tures with each of us.

Our group in­cluded a young cou­ple from Cal­gary — she a nurse and he a cam­era-store worker who couldn’t wait to try out his mul­ti­ple cam­eras and lenses cap­tur­ing wolf mo­ments — as well as a cou­ple from Eng­land who’d been look­ing for­ward to the trip for the 13 months since book­ing with North­ern Lights.

We met at North­ern Lights’ cen­tre on a bright Mon­day morn­ing to get a quick tour around the big en­clo­sure where Shelly and her hus­band Casey keep their eight wolves. We also got the low­down on how our hike with the wolves would work, and in­for­ma­tion on how North­ern Lights got into this unique busi­ness.

Orig­i­nally, the Blacks bought a cou­ple of wolves from zoos that were sell­ing off pups, in­tend­ing to raise them for pho­tog­ra­phy and film work. North­ern Lights’ wolves have ap­peared in var­i­ous photo shoots and nu­mer­ous doc­u­men­taries, in­clud­ing Wild Horses of the Cana­dian Rock- ies, which is cur­rently air­ing on An­i­mal Planet.

The Blacks de­cided to test their British Columbia li­cence to keep wolves and asked if they could of­fer a Walk­ing With Wolves pro­gram for tourists. The govern­ment said yes, and the rest, as they say, is his­tory.

The key to al­low­ing such hu­man-wolf in­ter­ac­tion is im­print­ing. North­ern Lights ac­quires only wolf pups born in cap­tiv­ity that will im­print on Shelley and Casey.

“We be­come the al­pha male and fe­male for all our wolves,” Shelley ex­plained. “We are the lead­ers of the pack and pro­vide them with food (usu­ally road­kill deer and elk do­nated to the cen­tre) so they will in­ter­act with hu­mans.

“But they are still the same as their wild cousins. They are shy. They won’t wag their tail for you. They will ap­proach you, but they are not like your pet dog.”

Wolves are ge­net­i­cally iden­ti­cal to our pet ca­nines, but it’s hard to be­lieve my lit­tle frou-frou bi­chon frise, Benji, shares the same gene pool as these wolves.

North­ern Lights Wolf Cen­tre of­fers a $12 in­ter­pre­tive pro­gram to view the wolves in their en­clo­sure, as well as the Walk­ing With Wolves pro­gram at $295 a cou­ple.

Check out North­ernLight­sWildlife.com.

STEVE MACNAULL

The group at the halfway point of the North­ern Lights Wolf Cen­tre’s Walk­ing With Wolves hike in the Blae­berry Val­ley just out­side Golden, British Columbia.

SHELLEY BLACK

Re­porter Steve MacNaull pats grey wolf Scrappy Dave.

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