The Magic of the North: Tracking Cloud Wolves With Churchill Wild

There’s a different kind of quiet up here—yet at 5:30 am, I’m startled awake by a haunting sound. The wolves howl a chorus, seemingly right outside my window, harmonizing. Excited, I rush out of my cozy bed at Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Lodge, a remote, fly-in luxury eco-lodge where just yesterday I arrived via a small Cessna plane. I throw on my sweatsuit and toque and run outside armed with my new Nikon mirrorless camera and tripod.

The cold hits so hard it takes my breath away and I feel the blood rush to my cheeks, but I can’t run back in to add layers now… what if I miss them? My guide, National Geographic photographer and explorer Jad Davenport, is already outside in his extreme winter gear with his camera set up on a tripod. He’s also the director of wolf programs at Churchill Wild, dutifully recording the sound of the howling wolves to send to wolf biologists in Denver, also known as lupinologists. He says it’s hard to capture audio and video of a wolf howling in the wild because it’s so rare to catch them doing so.

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I forgot to put on gloves too, so my fingers instantly freeze, causing me to fumble around trying to secure my camera to the tripod and adjust the settings. Trying to regain feeling in my fingers, I disrupt his recording. Rookie move, but it’s only day one of our seven-day expedition, so there’s time to figure out my new gear, layering and redeem myself. I watch two juvenile wolves play and mate just out front of the lodge.

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There’s something so magical about being this far north—57° 07′ 22.4” N / 91° 39′ 52.0” W to be exact—which is not quite considered the Arctic, but the Canadian sub-Arctic, where the stark landscape of the tundra meets the boreal rainforest along the Kaska Coast, the third-largest wetland on earth. While standing in -20 C it sure feels like the Arctic though. And it feels very remote—the closest town is Churchill, which is still 200 kilometres north of here, up the coastline of the Hudson Bay.

Over the next week, I become a wolf naturalist of sorts. I’m taking part in the third-ever Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast trip—a citizen science expedition where guests take part in tracking, identifying and studying the pack of wolves by setting up and monitoring trail cams, collecting DNA with samples of hair, urine and feces, taking photos and videos to identify them during daily excursions, with the help of Davenport’s expertise alongside our guide Boomer Jerritt, an acclaimed fine art photographer and artist from Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley.

This region of northern Manitoba is a mostly uninhabited wilderness, apart from some small Indigenous settlements. It’s ten times the size of Yellowstone National Park. But unlike Yellowstone, the wolves here are truly living wild.

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Traditionally wolves are named after a geographic location. This pack is named Opayastin, a Cree word that means ‘big wind’ or ‘tornado,’ after a nearby river. These wolves ‘Canus Lupus Nubulus’ have never been hunted, tracked or even studied until now, so they have no fear of humans. They have lived harmoniously with Indigenous people who call this land home, the Swampy Cree of York Factory—once the historic operational headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1684 as a fur trading post.

Historically, wolves have been misunderstood. “Most people are terrified of wolves—but they won’t bother you if you spend some time getting to know them,” says Albert Saunders, known around here as ‘Butch,’ an Indigenous elder originally from York Factory. He’s lived here his entire life and knows the wildlife intimately. He’s been working at the lodge since 1979 when it was a goose hunting lodge.

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Every morning we take out the Komatiks—traditional Inuit sleds—pulled behind snow machines. The sky sparkles as tiny frozen snowflakes blow in the wind. We head out on the Mistikokan River. We spot the wolf pack far in the distance, but our guides say they might come closer, so we wait. They don’t seem to be interested in us. After an hour, Butch radios over to say there’s a lone wolf about a kilometre or two out from where he’s on the lookout and it might move towards him soon, so we head there and set up camp to watch and wait.

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Butch knows what he’s talking about. Just 15 minutes later, the wolf begins to approach. It’s a female who we later identified as ‘Lip Lip’ because of her unique split lip, likely from a fight. She’s moving fast and stealthily towards us. We stand in silence upon her approach, so quietly that we can hear the snow crunching under her paws.

She looks each of us right in the eye, with a curious, piercing gaze, circling the group. Once she’s in front of me, she stops and then approaches. I feel the hairs on my arms raise—more in awe than fear. With one large paw in front of the other, she comes a little closer, cautiously. Boomer, right next to me, thinks it’s too close. “Woah girl,” he says calmly. She understands the boundary and backs away slowly. Boomer’s deep wisdom about wildlife in this part of the world is palpable—he later tells me he’s never been that close to a wolf in the wild, but that he didn’t feel afraid. And although this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, it’s not all that uncommon here at Nanuk.

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Nanuk Lodge is home to a very large population of polar bears, with one of the world’s largest denning sites just behind the lodge. The staff applies the same way of approaching bears in the wild to wolves—with a deep understanding and respect.

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It’s a truly remarkable opportunity to be in such proximity to these wolves. The average Canadian hunter goes their entire life without seeing a wolf in the wild—even many wolf biologists. And it’s not just wolves who call this region home. We spot moose, arctic hare, red fox, silver fox, arctic fox, cross fox, wolverine and more—some just from the cozy main lodge’s big glass windows and viewing decks, morning coffee in hand.

Some days we take our lunch out on the trail: homemade cheddar and onion biscuits and delicious chilli. After a morning of wolf tracking, we set up chairs and tables, enjoy lunch and learn how to start a fire without firewood, kindling and matches. With just some foraged wood, moss, tiny pieces of slivered wood and a ferro rod, we create a roaring fire.

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Later, we grab snowshoes and cross-country skis, and our guides lead us outside the compound to explore the lake. It’s kind of like summer camp, but for adults—with days spent out in the field on safari and learning about life in the Arctic, and evenings spent enjoying gourmet food, sipping craft beer and wine by the log fire, and listening to talks on wildlife photography, storytelling, the history of wolves as well as the Indigenous history of the region.

On the final morning, the wolves are outside howling again, but this time I’m prepared. I set my camera up last night and left it sitting right in the doorway to the viewing deck. With the help of some expert videographers and photographers, I’ve mastered my new camera system in a matter of days, and I have all my layers on: base layers, foot warmers and the sturdy Quartz jacket, Baffin boots and snow pants provided by Churchill Wild. When the wolf approached the viewing deck of the lodge, she looked me right in the eye.

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On our final evening, the northern lights come out to play. At first, just a small, faint green hue in the sky, but over the course of an hour, fills the entire sky—a surreal, white milky haze turned eerie neon green. Strangely, seeing the aurora borealis feels like just a bonus now. We’ve been blown away by wolf encounters all week. By the end of the night, it’s bitterly cold standing up on the tower and watching the lights dance across the sky. Suddenly, a wolf bolts across the compound and the Opayastin pack of wolves howl under the full moon hanging above the lodge. Pure magic of the North.

Disclaimer: The author was hosted by Churchill Wild. Her opinions are her own.

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