“They’re here,” announces Stig Sletten, breaking off our conversation as his eyes shift from mine to the window behind my head. I freeze, a glass of red halfway to my lips. “You can look,” he continues in a low, steady tone. “But gently does it. No sudden movements.”
I twist on my sofa and peer into the darkness. A shadowy canine shape enters stage right. As it trots into the light from our lodge, I see that this is no dog – at least, not one you’d ever find on a lead. The shaggy ruff, piercing eyes and brindled coat announce our nocturnal visitor as a full-grown wolf. Another soon arrives. The two touch muzzles, then pad on into the night.
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My companions and I are the first overnight guests in the Wolf Lodge. This innovative retreat opened in January inside Polar Park, an animal sanctuary one hour from the Norwegian town of Narvik, itself about 140 miles (225km) inside the Arctic Circle. The wolves are not truly wild – wild wolves in Norway today are in short supply – but they roam huge enclosures in authentic mountain habitat. And certainly, as the howling starts up again outside our window, it is we who feel like the captives.
Inside, the lodge is that peculiarly Scandinavian combination of spartan and snug, with an immense pine dining table, at which we tuck into a steaming bacalhau. We entered earlier via a tunnel, hidden from the wolves, and after dinner we don thermals and creep back outside for a face-slap of Arctic air and a shot at that other most elusive of Arctic celebrities: aurora borealis.
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Up in these chilly latitudes, where winter temperatures regularly touch minus 30C, the Northern Lights are at their finest. Tonight, at a mere 18 below, we are able to remove gloves for just long enough to ready our cameras. “Whack up the ISO and set your shutter speed to 10 seconds,” advises Jonny Cooper, of Off the Wall Travel, my tour operator. “And don’t forget to focus on infinity.”
I can just about control a camera, but cloud cover is another matter. As the snow continues to fall, our window on the heavens steadily closes. Aurora does her valiant best: for 15 minutes we watch flushes of pale green ebbing and shifting behind the clouds. It’s thrilling and mysterious, but I certainly won’t be showing anyone my photos.
After breakfast next morning we have a more personal date with the wolves. Few people know as much about these animals as Stig, who grew up in the mountains, and so we listen intently to his briefing. The wolves are “socialised” to accept humans, he reassures us, but we must not wear hats, gloves or anything else that might tempt inquisitive jaws. And if one comes close, we should crouch down, as standing tall might be construed as a dominance challenge. “Don’t ever, ever, think they’re dogs,” he concludes, firmly.
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And so we pull on protective overalls and troop apprehensively into the enclosure, close behind our wolf-whisperer and his assistant, Cattis Blomqvist, who has known these animals since puppyhood. The snow is falling hard and we sink thigh-deep into drifts. Stig cups hands to mouth and starts to howl. An enthusiastic response comes from somewhere beyond a ridge. Soon five wolves are trotting towards us.
It’s an unnerving sight. The heads-down, single-file advance is the essence of predatory purpose and I’m glad I’m not, say, an injured musk-ox. But we crouch low and hold our ground. Sure enough, the wolves turn out to be delightfully curious. They sniff around the group, tails wagging, checking out each of us in turn. One approaches me directly. I lower my eyes to duck the steely yellow gaze and next thing I know it has its paws on my shoulders and is licking my face in the celebrated “wolf kiss”.