Running means different things to different people. For me it as much to do with keeping an active connection to nature as it is about the health benefits and the bragging rights a race medal or T-shirt brings. But you don’t always have to run to get that connection. As those who follow this post know, I am as happy wandering up a mountain or struggling through a rain forest as I am on my weekly running routine. I love being in wilderness locations and running is my way of moving into it quickly, but at a pace where you can still see, smell and observe wildlife without hinderance. So what do you do when you’re out of energy or recovering from injury – or in my case both? An ankle twist after a nudge from another runner on a night run had combined with a virus which had knocked me for six. After an excellent start to the year winter running, I now could barely complete a six mile run without feeling nauseous and having to lie down for a couple hours after (or waking up with fever). Time to take a short break from running and go on a road trip.
Not all car journeys are the same.
I’d been in contact with Lars Gabrielsson at Nordic Safari since last year. Fortuitously he emailed me the week I first got ill and told me the wolf activity in the area of Västmanland was high and the pack easy to follow due to good snow coverage on the ground. I booked a 2 day tour for the following week and spent my recovery time contemplating if searching for wolves from a 4x wheel drive car actually constituted eco-tourism or could be in any way exciting.
Alexia and I left Stockholm on the early train to Västerås, only an hour to the north west of Stockholm. Lars met us at the station and took us first to his place to pick up the day’s supplies and offer us breakfast in his home. From there we travelled less than half an hour into the wolf territories of Bergslagen and immediately Lars pointed out several sets of older fox and wolf tracks in the snow. So I’d learned something straight away: wolves use the forest roads to move about, marking their territory at cross roads and road junctions and conserving energy in terrain otherwise covered in deep snow. I’d not expected that. We stopped at various points and learned to distinguish the various tracks left by foxes, deer, moose, wild boar and wolves. We took a walk along one of the tracks, Lars testing us as we went on what we’d learned and relating his favourite stories from his time as a wildlife guide.
As we drove towards our projected lunch stop Lars spotted tracks crossing the road. We stopped. These were new and looked as though made by several animals. We moved along the road to a junction and parked the car. A latrine right in the centre of the T-junction was surrounded by fresh tracks. And I mean fresh! We took a moment to eat our lunch and drink some coffee before heading along the road following the tracks.
You could clearly see the size difference of the various animals. The group we were tracking consisted of an Alpha male, a female and a youngster. Just seeing them so fresh in the snow was exhilarating. Lars believed he knew where the wolves had come from so we made it back to the car to take a 20km drive around the forest. We passed through several hamlets and farms until, sure enough, we found the wolf tracks on another road – once again they had come right down the middle.
We travelled on to our B&B at Pensionat Udden where we were also to have our evening meal. I was quite sickened to see a wolf skin stretched out on a table and wondered if it belonged to Nordic Safari or the owners of the guesthouse, Allan and Eve. It transpires it was neither and belonged instead to another tour group. Though supposedly there for educational purposes, I can see this as nothing other than a sickening trophy of a hunt. It brought the poetry of to mind, in particular a verse by Robert Burns “To A Mouse“:
“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An’ fellow mortal!”
In all my time as a hunter I never understood the need to collect trophies of the dead. I shot for food, forestry regeneration projects and for land management – but never for trophies (and not in the last 20 years). I looked at this pelt and silently apologised to the remnant of this once gorgeous creature. Lars, whether sensing our displeasure, or simply relating his own also expressed his distaste. We moved on.
We were treated to a wonderful supper by our hosts (the meals are outstanding!). And in conversation with Allan we learned that the guest house was also a functioning farm with over 250 sheep. “So how do you feel about wolves in the area?” I asked. “Not a problem” came the reply “we have good fences and, besides, they are great for our economy. You are here because of them”. I’d heard the same response from people living in the Indira Gandhi Tiger Reserve in India in 2003. If only we could get that message across to those determined to wipe out the wolf population – that they are valuable as a source of income, more so alive than dead.
On the very same day as we were tracking wolves in Bergslagen, a group of campaigners (The Wolf Association of Sweden) were struggling in their fight to protect a genetically rare wolf called Susi who is on her last stay of execution further north (go on, get onto Facebook and give them a ‘Like’).
She and her partner have taken seven deer from the Sami since November. But that is not why they want to shoot her; they get compensated for their losses anyway from the government (I have been told) and will spend more to hunt her and her fellow wolves than the cost of their kills. Rather her pelt is valuable; a hunter will get some satisfaction about boasting that s/he killed a deadly predator – hardly a fair fight as she wears a tracking device and does not own a firearm. And all this combined with the erroneous fears driven into our souls as children about the big bad wolves. In truth, the scary wolf we fear the most is the one we imbue with HUMAN characteristics. It is the fear of the werewolf, and associated fairy tales (even the one in Little Red Riding Hood is dressed in human guise), rather than the timid real wolf that drives this passion to hunt this species to extinction. And on the 14 February, the day of our wolf trip, hunters on skidoos chased her, corralled her and tormented her. They were not allowed to shoot her by the courts (not yet), but they harrassed her anyway. Brave.
As we went for our night time walk to try to hear the wolves howl, I thought of Susi, of the small pack we’d tracked today and of the powerlessness of the conservation movement in the face of a largely ambivalent human population. It had been a good day for us. Lars knows his animals and his territory very well. We had seen moose and deer and we had tracked wolves. But it had been a thought provoking day too. One which only fuelled our commitment to raise awareness about this endangered species.
When we returned to Sickla the following day, I went for a night time run in the forest. There is no wolf pack in the forest, yet I could not get the thought of them out of my head. I kept thinking of the the image of that small family unit patrolling their territory in Bergslagen, and how the farmers there seem at peace with them. And as I came to a clearing in the forest I imagined the very different situation Susi finds herself in. I imagined her on the rock ledge in front of me, howling. I had my energy back alright, and I was running again. A particular poster from the Wolf Association of Sweden seemed appropriate.
I’d not just found my running mojo, but also a renewed determination to channel some of my energy back into the fight to save Susi in particular and the wolves in general. They really are a benefit rather than a curse. If you have doubts about that, take less than five minutes to watch this film and learn How Wolves Change Rivers – and so much more!
And what of Nordic Safari? Would I recommend it? Absolutely!