In the pictures, it looks like I’m being licked by a dog. But trust me, that’s NO dog. It’s a 100 percent grey wolf. In the woods. Walking with my friends and me.
It was part of our morning at Northern Lights Wolf Centre just outside Golden, B.C., Canada, only the first of our great winter adventures in the area.
Shelley Black and her husband Casey have been raising wolves for 18 years. Their aim is not only rescuing abandoned wolf cubs, but educating the public.
“There’s so many misconceptions about wolves,” Casey told us.
For one, they really don’t lurk around woods just waiting to eat people. For the most part, they’d rather avoid people. But thanks to a lot of fiction where hapless folk are forever being devoured and myths that are really morality tales warning women of attacks by men (Little Red Riding Hood, for one), most people have an ingrained fear of wolves.
There are many wolf rescue/education centers around North America, but only a handful that let you actually walk with the wolves and interact with them.
And so, we gathered one late winter morning at Northern Lights Wolf Centre to learn, prepare, and walk.
Scrappy Dave and Flora, our wolves that day, had come from a zoo that had too many wolves. They were brought to the center in Golden when only a few days old. So, like all the wolves here, they are totally accustomed to people.
“They lived in the house with us for the first several months,” said Shelley. “We treated them like human babies, fed them.”
They actually Let them sleep in their bed.
They also took the cubs out three or four times a day. This way, they bonded not only with people but the other half dozen wolves at the sanctuary as well.
When not out in the woods on wolf walks, the wolves live in acre enclosures, two each to an enclosure.
But these ARE wild animals. For that reason, Shelley and Casey explained, the walk is totally on the wolf’s terms.
“We don’t approach them, but if they come up to you, you can touch them.” (um, more about that later).
Here are the rest of the do’s and don’ts we learned:
* If you don’t want the wolf to come to you (or jump up on you), hold your hands together and down in front of you, push him down and say “Stop!”
* Don’t spin away because they see that as a game.
* Don’t kneel down. Kneeling is a sign of aggressive behavior in the Canidae family.
* Keep your hat on and, if you take your gloves off, don’t think you can just hold them. Scrappy Dave will grab them. And they’re gone, lost in the woods. Forever. Best to just keep them on.
In the wild, wolves live only three to six years. Their main territories are about 40 sq. miles, though they can range over more than 1,000 sq. miles. Their numbers in British Columbia woods have dropped by 30 percent, mostly due to hunting and loss of habitat.
Oh yes, and wolves don’t need to run; they aren’t sled dogs. They’re actually quite lazy, which in the wild is a survival tactic to conserve energy.
With all this in mind, we headed for the woods, Crown (federal) land, actually.
Scrappy Dave, Casey told us, is “the whimsical wolf. He’ll chase butterflies before he’ll get aggressive.”
Flora is the leader, the alpha.
And, well, she seems to have a thing for blue coats…my blue coat.
We headed down a logging road and were hardly a few hundred yards along when suddenly, Flora, all 60 pounds of her, trotted up to me and raised up on her hind legs. She was almost as tall as me as she leaned in, put her huge, muddy paws on my shoulders and sniffed my face.
She was saying hello in wolf talk.
Then she went over to Leigh, another woman on the walk, also wearing a blue coat, and did the same, only this time from the back. Leigh had three perfect paw prints across her jacket. We have the pictures to prove it.
We walked farther, maybe half a mile, while Scrappy and Flora darted in and out of the woods, stopping to occasionally roll in the snow, dig for this or that and just play.
Then we all headed into the trees to a picturesque stream where the wolves splashed, drank and otherwise had a great time.
It was time for our “wolf moment,” which involved standing next to a tree stump while Scrappy came up from behind and did his best to lick us into oblivion. All I can say is, who knew wolf tongues were soooo soft and warm.
One could say that this whole adventure was staged and quite artificial. But the purpose, Casey and Shelley told us, is to let people know about programs that actively kill wolves (there are programs in Canada to shoot wolves from aircraft); to explain wolves’ place in the environment (they keep other animals, such as elk, from overpopulating an area); and, especially, to let people know wolves don’t have to be universally feared.
Wolf walking isn’t the only adventurous thing you can do in Golden. We spent a fun day with Mountain Motor Sports on snowmobiles.
Snowmobiling can be a testosterone-fueled sport with folks zooming up hills at adrenaline-producing angles, plowing through powder snow, riding on one ski, jumping off hilltops. You get the idea.
But you can also just go out and enjoy the views, which is exactly what we wanted.
There are many, many places to ride “sleds.” But what makes this area beloved by the snowmobile community is that while Golden is ringed by six national parks, it isn’t in federal land. That means it’s open for snowmobiling. You can’t take motorized vehicles into any of the parks, even by accident (one hapless chap was fined $3,000 when he got lost and wandered into a park).
Plus, this area gets dry powder snow, some of the best conditions in the world.
Nearly 15,000 people a year pay a fee (used to groom trails) to go through gates to the three snowmobile districts. And not everyone is out to thrash machines through powder. Many folks in the area use the snowmobiles to reach far off areas so they can ski.
We set off for Quartz Creek, the most popular snowmobiling area, with the goal of reaching a cabin and views of alpine terrain. We rode 10 miles in, past soft, round hills covered with snow and sharper peaks cut with snow-filled finger ravines that left white streaks down the mountains. We could see into valleys and as the trees and peaks flowed by soon I relaxed on my machine.
The cabin was a sturdy affair with a huge wood stove, tables and benches for lunch. Outside, the trees gave way to stark, snowy mountains where our guide, Travis Johnson, zoomed off to show us what jumping a sled off a hill looks like. Hint … it involves a lot of flying snow.
Finally, after playing a bit ourselves on the sheds, we headed back for the day, ready for more outdoor adventures in Golden over the next few days. — Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo , RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
Northern Lights Wolf Centre is a 15 minute drive from Golden, BC. The programs are open year round. There’s a talk led by a guide where people walk around the edge of a fenced wolf enclosure. It is open to all ages.
The wolf walk age limit is 16 and older; lasts most of a morning or afternoon; and costs $335 for two people. The interpretive talk at the center is $12 for adults, $35 for family of four – www.northernlightswildlife.com/
Downhill skiing is also available in winter at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, with 2,800 skiable acres and a 4,133 foot vertical drop, one of the longest verticals in Canada. The season typically runs mid-December to mid-April – kickinghorseresort.com/
You can also visit the Kicking Horse resort grizzly bear refuge research project. Boo the bear lives in a fenced enclosure on the ski hill. Tours run in summer where you can see Boo and learn about the research which is trying to determine how much bear behavior is instinct vs learned since Boo was rescued as a newborn cub. For instance, he learned about what is and isn’t good to eat by trial and error but has instinctively dug dens to hibernate in winter.
For more photos of Yvette’s Grand Golden Adventure check out: goo.gl/photos/JKyx4tunYDXWMyvY9