Tracking Wolves in the Alps
Travelling journalists, Ashley and Quentin of En Selle are minimalist adventurers heading from France to Asia. Their photo essay for kora, details their on-foot wolf encounters, taking one step at a time.
One of the big reasons Quentin and I decided to move to the French Alps was to be close to nature, to easily engage in mountain sports, and live in a community that also appreciates these activities. We only arrived here in February but a few times each week, and every weekend, we go out into the mountain to learn more about the area. It feels like we are interested in everything at once: different paths to walk, run, or ski, different cabins to sleep in during summer or winter, different traditions, names and habitats of the humans, flora, and fauna that call this place home.
The mountains remind me to be patient, that even though we didn’t see the wolves one day, the next time may be different.
In early March, I went running with a friend to collect his camera trap that had been hidden in the forest. A fresh layer of snow had fallen the night before, and canine tracks marked the trail. Each stride closer to the tree where he’d stashed the camera brought anticipation: could there be a photo of a wolf on the camera trap? Wolves are rare in France, with a documented population of only 624 individuals in the country. A wave of pure shock, joy and privilege swept over us when we found photos of not one but three individual wolves on the camera. Running home, all I thought about was seeing them in person.
This idea took over my daydreams. My partner Quentin agreed to come on an overnight lookout with me. The area of the Mont Blanc range where we live is geographically pretty up and down – the wolves crossed the camera trap after leaving a gorge and continued along a steep trail before disappearing into the forest. Pouring over the topography of the area, there lay a small flat plateau atop the cliffs above the trail. And it overlooked a treeless alpine pasture where the wolves had crossed. We could stake out our watch over the trail, and hopefully the wolves wouldn’t see, hear or smell us. We didn’t use any artificial creams, deodorants or fragrances for two days, and we hoped our kora kit would add to this advantage, by masking our human odor.
Things took an unexpected turn when we left home later than planned. By the time we’d reached the base of the cliffs, it was already dark. It was too dark to find the trail, and too steep to walk up normally. With 15kg on our backs, we began crawling up on our hands and knees. After about 150m of very hard-won vertical gain, lots of groaning, sliding, frustration and a bit of fear, we suspected our chances of seeing any wolves were gone: we’d certainly been loud enough to let them know we were in the area. Another 150m of vertical gain later, and we arrived at the plateau. Patches of snow still covered the ground and we set up camp in the thick black night. Between the fatigue of the climb, and the noise we’d made, we’d already abandoned our objective of seeing the wolves that night.
Eternal optimists, we slunk out of the tent before dawn, wearing our kora base layers, backcountry ski pants, feather jackets and thick gloves. From the cliff’s edge, we scanned the pastures, the trail, the gorge, the forest, and the valley that were all in perfect view from our campsite. Not a trace of any predators, wolves or otherwise. But we were rewarded with something else: the wonderfully noisy half hour before sunrise at the turn of the seasons, when the forest’s birds all try to drown each other out with song. Amateur bird lovers, we heard and spotted a half dozen types of birds, including the call of a capercaillie, an endangered type of grouse that lives in these mountains.
After the sun rose, we gave up hope for spotting the wolves. On a flat rock on the edge of a cliff, we began our favorite camping tradition: making coffee, and dozing in the morning sun. This time of day is sacred in how it transcends the boundaries of species: after a cold night, there are few animals that don’t enjoy a snooze and warm up in the sun when they can. With our binoculars, we spotted dozens of chamois grazing and sleeping in the sun. There was no snow where they are grazing, and their brown and white bodies blended into the brown of last summer’s grass.
By mid-morning, we’d packed up our tent, strapped on our backpacks and began inching back down the cliff. This time we were easily able to pick up the trail, but that didn’t make it an easy descent! The trail is not one made by humans, but by the chamois we’d been watching. Narrow and slippery, but eventually it led us past their napping spot. Unfazed by our presence, we were able to get quite close to them.
Besides loving outdoor sports and reflection in nature, we love living and going on mountain journeys in the Mont Blanc range because it gives us a chance to observe at our own pace the biodiversity that makes this place unique. Camping during the changing of the seasons is one of the most joyful and intentional ways we know to welcome in the new season and bid a last goodbye to the outgoing season. It reminds me that the mountains I see each day are in fact different from one day to another, and I too am free to grow, change, and be different from one day to another. And the mountains remind me to be patient, that even though we didn’t see the wolves one day, the next time may be different. Until then, I’ll just appreciate the snoozing chamois and their steep path.