Northern Norway is a dramatic snow-blanketed wilderness with more than its fair share of apex predators. Of these, it’s the wolf with which Norwegians have the most complex relationship. At Norway’s Polar Park it’s possible to build your own rapport… with extras.
It was the part of the itinerary that I’d been dreading.
For the past couple of days, we’d toured Northern Norway’s wiggly coastal roads, driving through a snowy landscape of lumpen mountains and frozen fjords. We’d shaken hands with grizzled fishermen whose grip rang with the steel of their Norse ancestry. There’d been snowshoeing in Narvik; dog sledding across wind-whipped tundra, uncertain where white sky met white land and trusting that the huskies knew where they were scampering to; and a Northern Lights search, sadly futile due to cloudy skies, but extra helpings of our host’s creamy catfish and mussel stew dulled the disappointment.
We’d packed a lot in. Couldn’t we skip the wolf kissing?
Norway’s Polar Park, the most northerly wildlife park in the world, is home to most of the country’s predators: bears, lynxes, arctic foxes, wolverines, and, of course, the wolves. Norway has an uncomfortable relationship with wolves. In Norse mythology, the demon wolf Fenrir was prophesised to (spoiler alert) swallow up Odin and destroy the world during Ragnarök. In the 70s, they were hunted to near extinction until a ban on wolf hunting was imposed.
Today, Norway’s endangered wolf population is publicly beloved by the population – except for the sheep farmers and reindeer herders for reasons that don’t need spelling out. However, one sheep farmer who doesn’t mind the wolves is Stig, who moonlights as an expert wolf handler at the park. Laidback Stig greets us in green overalls as we arrive on a beautifully still and sunny day. Once we’ve changed into overalls to match his, we receive a safety briefing on how to behave while in the wolf enclosure: stay calm, move slowly, and take photographs at your own risk.
“If they take your camera,” Stig emphasises. “It’s theirs.”
We crunch out into the snow, Stig leading the way. As we’re entering the park proper, he stops.
“Howl to the wolves,” he says, smiling.
Everyone laughs nervously. Stig shows us how it’s done, sending a convincing wolf howl echoing into the hills. “Deep from the gut,” he advises, and we all try. About a second after we’ve finished, the wolves respond. There are two packs in the park: one of mature wolves who howl back in typical, rising and falling fashion, and then there’s the other pack, the teenagers (or teen-wolves, if you will), with whom we have an appointment. Their warble is almost jackal-like, querulous and high-pitched. It sounds distinctly unstable.
The park is 114 acres set in a shallow valley, creamy white and bestubbled with birch and spruce. Rambling across the slopes are tall chain-link fences made, from a distance, almost invisible by the monochrome environment. These demarcate 12 enclosures, providing the park’s inhabitants with the largest area-per-animal ratio of any park or zoo in the world. Despite this, I can’t help but feel sympathy for the park’s predators when the scent of musk ox breezes in from a tantalisingly proximal enclosure.
A family of brown bears watch us longingly through the chain-link as we walk by. “Can we kiss them?” I ask. Stig shakes his head. “They’re strictly off-limits. Recently, a Frenchman was feeding them chocolate through the fence and they got hold of his finger.”
And then we arrive. Five excited Eurasian wolves are waiting for us at the entrance to their enclosure. They’re about the size of German Shepherds minus the heft, their skinny legs leading up to bodies bristling with ashen fur. This group is socialized: they were born at the park and encounter people regularly. They’re as tame as wolves can get, but I’m still nervous watching them sniff the air, remembering Stig describing their super-keen sense of smell and feeling my lunch of peppery reindeer steak lie heavily in my stomach.
Entering the enclosure, we stand in a semi-circle with our arms crossed over our chests as if we’re genies. The wolves jump up at us, trying to reach our faces, and we let our arms fall allowing them to drop to the ground without using force. Once the wolves have relaxed, Stig invites us to kneel.
It isn’t long before the first wolf prowls over. It places its forepaws on my arms and I’m immersed in a fog of hot wolf breath. A forceful tongue searches my lips, trying to delve inside my tightly clamped mouth. When it becomes a little too intense, I drop my arms and the wolf disengages and moves onto the next person. I’m officially a member of the pack.
After a while, the wolves lose interest and lie down in a pool of sunshine. We walk further into their enclosure and they follow, falling in step. It’s perhaps the most remarkable part of the experience. Stig tells us about plans to open a lodge later in the year inside the enclosure—apparently, when the northern lights appear, the wolves howl. It sounds like the perfect accompaniment: nature and the cosmos in tune, lightly seasoned with a whiff of Ragnarök. But I think I’d skip the goodnight kiss.
The Polar Park is about an hour’s drive north of Narvik. Opening hours during the Autumn, Winter, and Spring seasons are from 0900 to 1600. Adult entry tickets cost 215 NOK/£18 , Children (3-15 years) 125 NOK/£9 , and family tickets (two adults, two children) are available for 600 NOK/ca £50. You must be at least 18 years old and 160 cm tall to go on this ride.