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Dance With the Wolves in Remote Quebec

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By Steve Bergsman

The howling begins in the distance, a slight, singular disturbance in the forest. Then the sound rolls and reverberates until it takes over everything. Inside the larger noise it's possible to hear the individual animals, the immature or the shrill. Sometimes it sounds like a baby crying, but no, it's all part of the howling as the wolf pack communicates to the world or to another wolf pack, which picks up the call and adds a second confluence of howling.

The first howling woke me at 4:30 in the morning. I listened, then rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, safe in the embrace of the yurt that was my accommodation for the night — I wished. But when you wake up at 4:30 in the morning, nature calls. So rubbing my eyes, I walked into the forest. I knew the wolves were out there staring at me because my yurt was positioned outside the wolves' communal area. The only thing separating me from the pack was a chain-link fence.

I thought I was OK out there in the pitch blackness, but then I started hearing the night noises and thought, what if another wolf has come down from the wilds to visit the local pack? After all, I'm beyond the tiny burg of Girardville, the last town heading north into the vast, mostly uninhabited lands of northern Quebec. I quickly did what I had to do and ducked back into the yurt. The howling began again soon after 6 a.m.

There are a couple of ways to get absurdly close to nature in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec. The most unusual is a private game park called Aventuraid/Parc Mahikan, which is focused solely on wolves. It was the brainchild of Gilles Granal, who felt that wolves were misunderstood and began saving them. Now it's a large enterprise with 32 wolves living in three enclosures, the largest of which is five acres — for those wolves that are still "wild."

Accommodations, such as the yurt, are on the property as well as a communal shower-bathroom and a small interpretive center.

There are two interesting species at Aventuraid, the wolves and Gilles Granal, a modern-day wolf whisperer. Granal looks every bit a French fur-trapper from 1750 — he's tall, muscular and has dark features. His hairline is receding, but he still keeps a long ponytail.

When you ask Granal about his passion for wolves, he drifts off to the metaphysical, with comments like, "I don't know why I like wolves. Why do people like to go to the sea?"

He wants you to like wolves, which you do, but this is how it happens.

First you approach the enclosures, letting the wolves come to you. To my surprise they were like big puppies. They licked my hands, and I was half expecting the lupine to chomp off some of my fingers. When they moved their bodies close to the fence, I scratched their furry flanks as I would Fido sitting alongside me as I watch football games on TV.

But Granal wants you to know his wolves intimately, so the next step is to go into the enclosure to be among a pack of wolves as if you were walking among chickens at the farm, only in this case you suspect if things go wrong, you will be chicken dinner for the pack.

Since the wolves will jump up on you and maybe claw at your clothing, you really shouldn't wear anything you want to keep.

I placed my backpack and the fleece I was wearing on the ground outside the enclosure and prepared to enter.

First Granal went into the enclosure to make sure the wolves were in a hospitable mood. It was like watching a circus act close-up as he coddled them. They licked his face and he talked to them in French and wrestled with one or two.

Apparently the wolves were in a good mood, so it was my turn to enter their den. The first thing I did was lean back against the fence so I could see the wolves come at me and not be caught by surprise from behind. The wolves were now at my legs, and one stood up on its hind legs, which put him eyeball to eyeball with me. Was he going to eat me? No, I just got a lick the same way my Golden Retriever used to do.

Eventually you have to stroll about the enclosure as if it was a walk in the park. Or kneel down to let the wolves commune with you, which also, by the way, makes for a good photo op.

The wolves are smart. While I thought one was entertaining me, it was actually distracting me as a wolf buddy went back to the fence, reached a paw underneath and was able to put a claw into my fleece and pull it back into the enclosure. Granal rescued my beloved piece of apparel, but by then it was too late. Between the sharp claws and chopping canines, my fleece was shredded. It was kind of a big joke until another wolf sneaked up behind Granal and stole his bandana, running away with the prize. Granal had to wrestle that wolf down to get his prized bandana back before it looked like my fleece.

I guess these wolves never watched Liam Neeson's movie "The Grey," where a ravenous wolf pack hunts a group of plane-crash survivors in Alaska, picking them off one by one. Fortunately the wolves in the enclosure got so bored with me they just left me there twiddling my thumbs, which, thankfully, were still intact.

WHEN YOU GO

For general information about the Saguenay region: www.tourismesaglac.net

Aventuraid/Parc Mahikan: www.aventuraid.qc.ca

To get to the Saguenay region, I flew from Phoenix to Montreal. I overnighted in Montreal at the downtown Omni Hotel and then the next day caught an Air Canada flight to Bagotville. After a couple of days of sightseeing, kayaking, hiking, camping and canoeing in the region I finally arrived at Aventuraid, ready to howl.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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