We had no idea what we were to encounter inside the Polar Park, at the WolfLodge in Bardu, near Tromso, Norway, over 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. Polar Park was the word’s most northerly wildlife park, and we were told was that we might be, in the words of our Northern Norway Board Representative, “kissing wolves.” And that was all she would say. This was our last Midnight Sun adventure on this trip, and though we were all seasoned travel journalists, none of us had ever done this or even thought of it.
As we traveled to Polar Park, I began thinking of my own few experiences with wildness, and how the caprice of circumstance and timing controlled these things. The most surprising ones were in water, not on land: once, swimming in the Pacific, I was joined by a seal, whose face reminded me of a dog’s; another, of my encountering a 350-pound Bottlenose Dolphin, who looked at me, then just swam away, and finally, in the warm waters of Baja, and again swimming, a Giant Manta Ray leapt from the water and then dove back again into the deep blue. It was shocking –I had never seen one so close, so immense, and I marveled at its colors, very much like a 1950’s Cadillac: light pink on the bottom, black on the top.
Those unexpected encounters lingered, and made me aware again of the thin veil that separates civilization and wildness, how close we are, yet how fearful we also are of its proximity. I thought about this when we entered the Polar Park, a place where wolves, bear, lynx, wolverine, Musk Oxen live in 12 enclosures on 114 acres.
We walked around the Polar Park, wending our way up the hill, to a unique place within the Park – WolfLodge. This lodge is built in the middle of one of the large wolf enclosures. We reached the lodge by walking through a tunnel to the lodge. As we went inside, I saw two floors, the lower having multiple bedrooms, and the top an expansive living room, kitchen and large window walls on three sides – with an open fireplace in the corner.
WolfLodge is rented per night, with a private chef, if desired. All food – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, come with the Lodge pricing. It is $1500 a night, as of this writing. But we were not spending the night.
Stig Sletten, the head wolf trainer, spoke to us about the upcoming potential encounter. He asked first if anyone had any knee problems and could not kneel to the wolf’s eye view. I was the only one who said yes, as I had knee replacement surgery and had difficulty kneeling down. He said that was not OK – and also said that he had observed the wolves as I had walked toward the WolfLodge — they seemed too excited around me, and thought it would be best if I stayed behind. I had no choice but to agree. In addition, there was another journalist who stayed behind also because, as he said, simply, he was fearful of wolves.
As disappointing as this was, it was also a blessing in disguise, as we were the journalists who, because of the large WolfLodge windows, could take great pictures of the Wolf encounters with our colleagues.
So, we saw our colleagues, walk out on a rock, and Stig called the wild ones, in a kind of howl/whistle. They all came running up to the rock where our colleagues were either kneeling or crouching, and the Wolves looked at them, walked up to them,began kissing their faces.
It was endearing, a few moments where wildness and civility melted into one large sloppy kiss, and where our colleagues truly felt at home with the wildness that had heretofore been foreign, fugitive, and in a sense, untouchable.
In my experience, as I am a dog person, and have a dog at home, I have had dogs kiss me like that, and as I was watching my colleagues being almost smothered at times with happy Wolf Kisses, I was also aware that sometimes dogs can turn and nip. But Stig and his colleague, remained with the journalists and the wolves, and on this afternoon, everything was fine.
As we observed and took pictures of this encounter, I thought about a great essayist, and Cultural Anthropologist, Loren Eiseley. He had written a profound essay called The Angry Winter, in his book, The Unexpected Universe. Part of this essay dealt was a story about his dog, Wolf, a German Shepherd. One night when Eiseley was working at his desk, he absentmindedly placed a 10,000 year old Bison thigh bone from his desk to the floor. Then, Wolf, his domesticated pet of many years, picked it up, growled, and wouldn’t let it go.
Eiseley imagined Wolf telling him that, essentially no matter how much of a house pet he was, there was still a wildness in him that transcends the civilized life of pets, and that bone reminded him of it, of his place in nature, and of Eiseley’s. Those of us who own dogs, and even cats, understand this: no matter how loving, and tame, there is an instinctive degree of caution we must always exercise.
This was, surely, the unspoken reason my colleague and I stayed behind — that somehow Stig the trainer had this sense of caution also, and understood, that on the periphery of the wolf’s mild kisses, lies a wildness of 100 centuries.
Eiseley once commented in a lecture, “ One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.” As I observed my colleagues happily crouching and kneeling, on eye level with the wolves, I sensed the wolves thinking, “Now we can look into your eyes, and though you smell a little different, you are on our level, and seem more like us than we thought. How about a kiss?”