The silence of the wolves

Last Thursday I was at the public wolf howl in Algonquin Park with good friends Bob and Menna Weese and I can tell you that it was a wonderful evening.

But first, a little background. Naturalists studying wolves in Algonquin found they could attract howls from packs in the wilds if the naturalists howled first. A notice in a park bulletin in August 1963 attacted 650 people and the program – now the largest naturalist-led interpretative program in the world – was well and truly launched.

The public howls are scheduled in August because that’s when the wolf packs, averaging 8-10 in number, rendezvous for a few days in one spot. As a result, park naturalists can find the packs, make sure they’re still there on Wednesday night, and then announce a public howl on Thursday morning for that evening.

At 8 p.m. there’s an informative one-hour talk in an outdoor amphitheater then everyone makes for their cars as darkness descends. Two dozen staffers ensure an orderly process. The night we went, the 111th such occasion, there were 440 cars with an estimated 1,760 eager listeners parked on both sides of Highway 60 for a stretch of 1.5 kilometers.

Why are wolves such a powerful draw? Here’s a paragraph from a pamphlet entitled Wolf Howling in Algonquin Park by Dan Strickland. “When a pack of wolves breaks out with a tremendous clamour a few hundred metres away under a star studded sky, even a seasoned wolf howler is likely to feel as though the hair on the back of his neck wants to stand on end. There is little doubt that the howling of wolves arouses deep emotions in human beings. Perhaps is it the awakening of a buried wish for the wild freedom of remote ancestors; the mystery of an animal that responds to us but which we almost never see; the thrill of direct communication with a legendary outlaw that has resisted for centuries our efforts to destroy it; or the magic of a night in wolf country, including even that tinge of fear carried over from childhood wolf stories.” Beautiful writing in something called a technical bulletin.

In recent years, wolves have been heard at 83 per cent of the public howls. Attendees at the two previous Thursdays heard no wolves, so the odds were in our favor. The moon rose in a starry sky with a few streaking meteors. The naturalists howled at the same location where they had attracted a full pack response the previous two nights. Following the first sequence, they waited fifteen minutes, then tried again. There was only silence. Either the pack had moved on or they simply weren’t in the mood to howl.

No matter. The entire event was fascinating. And as Menna said, only in Canada would so many people stand quietly in such an orderly manner at the side of a road for more than an hour in the hope of hearing wolves.

According to the web site, tonight’s scheduled howl has been cancelled. I guess they couldn’t find a pack. That means no member of the public heard the wolves howl this year. As fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers used to say, “Wait ’til next year.”

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