If you go down to the woods today you don’t need to go in disguise, unless of course you have a severe aversion to squirrels. There have been no bears, picnicking or otherwise, since 1000AD, no lynx since 400AD, no elk since 1500BC.
The last of the big mammals to leave us was the wolf in 1680, the accuracy of the year a sobering indication of our awareness of their decline and failure to prevent it. But, despite their physical absence, the wolf still has a firm grip on our imagination. Our cultural lupine population is healthy with a successful breeding programme producing a long line of big bad wolves to terrorise red riding hood, the three little pigs and any shepherd boys who might be inclined to lie. We even do a nice turn in genetically modified werewolves. Outside of literature the negative connotations continue, we are taught to beware the lone wolf, not to trust the wolf in sheep’s clothing and, if you invest with the wolf of wallstreet, you may find yourself having trouble keeping the wolves from your door; peculiarly strong emotions towards a creature which hasn’t come knocking for over three centuries.
Our European neighbours, still living with the wolf, have a more complex relationship, after all, it is easy to apply a stereotype to the unfamiliar, far harder whenever there is a hint of the ordinary. A toast, taught to me by the father of a Finnish friend, sums up the dynamic well:-
Sen kunniaksi ettei susi mietä pienenä syönyt
Here’s to the wolves that didn’t eat us as children
Yes, the wolves can be dangerous, but they are also to be celebrated. With them lies the balance of power, their presence makes us stronger and we should give thanks for their good judgment in herd control.
I had the opportunity to test my own preconceived fears when, as part of our recent Canadian trip, we spent four days exploring Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. The Park is vast, 7,653 square kilometres of forest and lake, intersected by one road, Highway 60, which runs west to east for 56 kilometres across the southern section. Off this tarmacked artery are a number of ‘developed’ campsites, the rest, as the locals say, is backcountry. We knew before we set off that chances of wildlife sightings were high, that’s why we had chosen to go there, but I must confess questioning our decision to sleep under canvas when confronted by the wide array of bear spray, horns, bells and other deterrents available for purchase in the outdoors shops of Huntsville, the town nearest to the Park’s western gate.
Our first day was spent hiking a trail called Mizzy Lake, 11 kilometres of trees, lakes and ponds billed as one of the best opportunities to see the resident animals. We were going on a bear hunt, and I was scared. For the first half an hour I was constantly scanning the trees, spinning 360 degrees every few paces, ears pricked for the smallest sound. Slowly, as time passed and I remained un-eaten, the backwards glances became less frequent, my heart rate slowed and my proximity to Mr S decreased. By the end of the walk, no bears or wolves spotted, but turtles and chipmunks ticked off the list, we had become so blasé that we almost walked directly in to a large male moose as we rounded a bend in the track. His utter indifference to us was a timely reminder that, whilst we were misguided to approach the wilds with fear, we were not its rulers.
Over the next few days we continued with our adventures, walking more trails and kayaking the maze of creeks accessible from the aptly named Canoe Lake. The moose tally increased, we were even lucky enough to watch a mother bear and two cubs foraging in the long grasses beneath the Park’s visitors’ centre. The wolves however remained elusive. Then, a little after three one morning, Mr S shook me awake. ‘Listen’ was all he said. There, travelling clearly across the forest night, was the unmistakable howling of wolves.
Lying in the blackness, under the protection of a thin sheet of canvas, in an almost empty off-season campsite, I felt no fear. The call of the wild is awesome, in the true sense of the word. It is not something to be afraid of. It is the sound of nature simply getting on with things, without reference to us. It is a rare reminder of our place in the world, a provider of perspective for a species prone to hubris.