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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Walking with wolves

Getting close to nature in Golden, B.C.

Posted: 02/8/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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The group at the halfway point of the Northern Lights Wolf Centre's Walking With Wolves hike in the Blaeberry Valley just outside Golden, British Columbia.

STEVE MACNAULL Enlarge Image

The group at the halfway point of the Northern Lights Wolf Centre's Walking With Wolves hike in the Blaeberry Valley just outside Golden, British Columbia.

Maya sniffs my hand, takes a step forward and offers her back for me to pat.

This would be utterly mundane if Maya were a dog.

But she's 100-per-cent grey wolf.

And wolf-handler and trainer Shelley Black tells me how lucky I am to receive any affection from this regal creature.

"Maya has her quirks and is shy and aloof," explains Black. "If she gives anyone the time of day, it's usually only two seconds."

I'm flattered.

Maya leans into my leg and I run my left hand through the long and luxurious fur from her shoulder blades to mid-back for a good 10 seconds. Then, just as quickly and quietly as she appeared, Maya moves on.

"Everything is on wolf terms here," continues Black. "You can't just go running up to a wolf. But if they come to you, go ahead, interact with them."

I'm taking part in Northern Lights Wolf Centre's special Walking With Wolves program just outside of Golden, B.C., with five other tourists. It's the only place in the world people can go on a hike with wolves.

We're not in a big enclosure, and the wolves are not on leashes. They run free, and we follow on a stretch of pristine, sunny and snowy Crown land in the Blaeberry Valley, bracketed by the Rocky and Purcell mountains.

When I first heard of Northern Lights' Walking With Wolves program, I didn't believe such a bucket-list opportunity existed. So, of course, I immediately had to sign up and drive the four hours from my home in Kelowna to Golden.

It's surreal to trek in the wild with these majestic animals, and I constantly had to pinch myself as a reminder this was real. I'm touching wolves, I'm taking pictures of wolves, wolves are showing off and running past me and they even playfully roll in the snow and good-naturedly yip and growl.

Maya is the black-grey-and-white regal veteran at 14 years of age. Her years show in the telltale white on her snout and face and her slow, old-lady run.

We're also joined by 21-month-old Scrappy Dave, the equivalent of a rambunctious, lanky teenager. He's also a real looker, with his white and buff colouring and piercing yellow eyes.

Scrappy Dave also loves to play for the camera. He showed off his speed by racing back and forth past us, darting off into the forest to emerge stealth and snowy. And when we reached the sunny clearing at the halfway point of our hike, Scrappy Dave frolicked and posed for pictures with each of us.

Our group included a young couple from Calgary -- she a nurse and he a camera-store worker who couldn't wait to try out his multiple cameras and lenses capturing wolf moments -- as well as a couple from England who'd been looking forward to the trip for the 13 months since booking with Northern Lights.

We met at Northern Lights' centre on a bright Monday morning to get a quick tour around the big enclosure where Shelly and her husband Casey keep their eight wolves. We also got the lowdown on how our hike with the wolves would work, and information on how Northern Lights got into this unique business.

Originally, the Blacks bought a couple of wolves from zoos that were selling off pups, intending to raise them for photography and film work. Northern Lights' wolves have appeared in various photo shoots and numerous documentaries, including Wild Horses of the Canadian Rockies, which is currently airing on Animal Planet.

The Blacks decided to test their British Columbia licence to keep wolves and asked if they could offer a Walking With Wolves program for tourists. The government said yes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The key to allowing such human-wolf interaction is imprinting. Northern Lights acquires only wolf pups born in captivity that will imprint on Shelley and Casey.

"We become the alpha male and female for all our wolves," Shelley explained. "We are the leaders of the pack and provide them with food (usually roadkill deer and elk donated to the centre) so they will interact with humans.

"But they are still the same as their wild cousins. They are shy. They won't wag their tail for you. They will approach you, but they are not like your pet dog."

Wolves are genetically identical to our pet canines, but it's hard to believe my little frou-frou bichon frise, Benji, shares the same gene pool as these wolves.

Northern Lights Wolf Centre offers a $12 interpretive program to view the wolves in their enclosure, as well as the Walking With Wolves program at $295 a couple.

Check out NorthernLightsWildlife.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 E4

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