Face to face with snow wolves

Gordon Buchanan

I’d heard lots of stories about wolves living in the High Arctic and their lack of fear of humans. To have the opportunity to see them was the fulfilment of a lifetime's ambition. But when I actually came face to face with them I was shocked by how confident they were. As soon as I stepped out of the helicopter a large adult Arctic wolf came right up to within just a few metres of me, sniffing around me and my gear.

We had some extraordinary experiences, culminating in a moment where we played a game of fetch, something which will stay with me as one of the most incredible connections I’ve ever made with wildlife.
Gordon Buchanan

I was really excited - it was a strange mixture of feeling scared and amazed at just how bold the wolf was. It was exhilarating too because the presence of this wolf and others I'd seen from the air indicated there might be a den with pups in it nearby. This meant that as long as I was able to keep the wolves' trust I'd be able to watch the pups grow up and learn about wolf family dynamics.

This first thrilling contact set the tone for my time on Ellesmere Island. Over the weeks that followed I camped right next to the wolves' den and had close encounters almost every day, both with the adults and eventually, when they emerged from the den, with the pups too.

To begin with Luna, the mother, was quite wary of me and tended to stay underground with the pups while the other wolves went off hunting. But by the end of my first trip Luna tolerated me to the extent that she would leave the pups in my care for long periods while off on hunting forays. Not quite a full-on babysitter, but nearly!

Our second trip to the Arctic in Autumn was a huge challenge. Weather at 80 degrees North is notoriously bad and unpredictable - it can snow and be minus 20 in the middle of August! Almost no-one had attempted to study wolves here so late in the season. Fortunately we had quite good weather most of the time and were able to find our pack again and follow the pups which had grown enormously in the six weeks since I'd last seen them in early July.

We had some extraordinary experiences, culminating in a moment where we played a game of fetch, something which will stay with me as one of the most incredible connections I’ve ever made with wildlife.

My time with the wolves showed me that they don’t deserve their stereotypical scary reputation – they’re highly intelligent, sensitive, caring family-minded creatures, and very beautiful too!