Friday, November 25, 2011

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Algonquin

“Live with wolves and you learn to howl.” ~ Proverb

For decades, visitors to Algonquin Park in the heart of Ontario have gathered to hear talks from naturalists at the outdoor theatre. Often the subject is a specific animal or plant found in the park, or the history of the place. On certain nights in August, the subject turns to the wolves of Algonquin. These wolves were long thought to be a smaller variant of northern timber wolves but in recent years have been identified as eastern red wolves, long gone from much of the East. The Algonquin wolves move around the park as a protected species, doing their part to end ancient human disdain of a magnificent animal.

After these talks, the tradition in Algonquin has long been to go out on what's called a Wolf Howl. I've had the pleasure of joining these excursions and hearing the wolves. When my family lived West of the park, there were occasions I'd wake up late in the night, hearing a pack howling together, all with distinct voices. Sometimes, they'd be far off in the distance. Other nights, you'd swear they were on the property. Sometimes the howls called out to other members of the pack. Other nights, it was to tell alien packs to keep clear of their territory. Occasionally, it was simply because the wolves felt talkative. In every case, the howl of a wolf is an achingly beautiful thing to hear.

The park naturalists started the program back in the Sixties, posting a notice at some of the campgrounds about what they'd be doing, expecting a handful of people to show up. Instead, they got a crowd, and the program took off from there. In the years since, the Wolf Howl has proved to be a popular part of Algonquin life in August. The night before, naturalists go out on the roads in what's called the corridor, stopping at regular intervals where they think wolves might be close, and simply howling or playing recordings of wolves howling. If there are wolves in the area, they respond. Since they stay in the same locale for several days, odds are they'll be close by the following one as well.

The next night brings the public. At the theatre, a naturalist talks about the species and its importance. Then visitors head out in cars (all very orderly and done to precision) for the spot where the Wolf Howl takes place. You can often see over a thousand people on these nights. Everyone leaves their cars and waits for silence, while park staff at both ends stop traffic from coming through. When all is ready, the naturalists start to howl.

Moments later, the reply comes, if the pack is still around. They might be far off in the distance. They might be very close. They may be on both sides of the road. Still, they’ll respond, their vocalization filling the night. It's a magical moment, hearing nature up close like that. If you're ever in Algonquin Park, it's something you must do.

I had my own Algonquin wolf encounter. Late one day on a hiking trail, I sat on a cliff for a rest, looking at a lake down below. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. I looked up and there he was. The wolf came out of the woods, further down the cliff, and paused there at the edge. I was looking at him and he looked back at me. There was enough space between us that neither of us felt threatened by the other. It was as though he also came to take in the view. I like to think that was one of his favourite spots as well. After a few moments, he trotted back behind the tree line.

It's a rare privilege to look into the eyes of the wild, to share that kind of experience with a wolf. They are magnificent, bright, social - nothing like the stories would have you believe. Those who've been lucky enough to have an encounter with one, whether a momentary glance during a hike or the sound of a howl late in the night, know just how memorable that privilege is.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.


  1. As William Kendall's partner in crime, I'm a regular follower of his own blog and saw this when he wrote it. He's perfect for this sort of blog! More, more!

  2. Hey Norma!

    I resent your attack on William suggesting he's "perfect for this sort of blog." I see no hard evidence he has sunk that low. Sure, he may be a criminal and the kind of barbaric insensitive male who tells beautiful women they look beautiful, but perfect for Sacred Ground Magazine? Take back those harsh words, or I'll make a phone call to the sensitivity police to haul your butt off to wherever they put people who say things others don't approve of.

    Lyndiana Jones

  3. Sir Wills, this was cool. I once had a wild bore cross my path...right in front of me. He was running so fast, he didn't even see me.

  4. Beautiful story William. I have come eye to eye with coyotes while hiking and I ran from a puma once, but we don't see too many wolves in California. Thank you for this post!

  5. That was great...
    The primordial embrace of spirits.

  6. Hello William, hello Lyn!

    Over here in the UK, there's a most wonderful nature programme ala David Attenborough called Frozen Planet and one of the most harrowing and most cathartic scenes filmed for this show was a wolf hunt of bison in a Canadian national park. It was terrible, raw and just plain awesome. Two wolves, male and female down a yearling bison. The male wolf gives up but the female wolf hangs on and she and the bison fight, fight, fight to the death. Nature at its most powerful, raw and emotional. Respect to the wolves (and the bison)! Take care

  7. This sounds so amazing. I would love to hear a huge pack of wolves howling and see them up close in the wild.

  8. As much as I relate to bears (we're both grumpy when we first wake up), I feel something of a kinship to wolves. They're an amazing animal, and it's a privilege to share space with them, even briefly.