Nothing moved on the side of the mountain. Nothing except us, as we quietly scanned the wide expanse of snow in the open valley below us, and the forested peaks of the mountains rising on the opposite side. It had been an early start, drinking espressos in the bar of the rustically charming Hotel Iris, before hitting the road at 4:30 am. The journey from the resort town of Pescasseroli had been silent and sleepy, with no other lights except ours as the 4×4 climbed around dark, curving hairpin bends, with snow banked up either side of the road. At one point, our guide, Valeria, slowed the car and quietly called “Wolf, wolf!”
But by the time we looked, it had gone.
Wolves are of the twilight — the zoological term is crepuscular — most active at dawn and dusk. They reject the simple black-and-white definition of day or night, coming out in the in-between — a magical time. Perhaps this is one of the reasons humans find them so fascinating, and that they crop up in so much folklore, and so many stories. There is something alluringly, fascinatingly wild about them and their refusal to be tamed.
It had been a long pandemic. As a scientist, I supported the measures needed to keep us all safe, but lockdown meant a long time locked into a flat in a city that had shut down most of its highlights. I discovered this trip by accident at a time I felt a desperate need to discover a new experience, meet new people, and maybe it was a time that I was craving something a little bit wild. I booked, optimistically, for a distant date in December 2021. But the other predator of the hour put paid to those plans. I was vaccinated and boosted, the data coming through was promising a milder variant, but a positive test would have prevented me from returning to my native country to see my family for Christmas. I postponed — and by the time March 2022 came around, I could barely believe I had actually made it.
Wildlife offers no guarantees. On the first afternoon, Valeria worked to manage our expectations. Thanks to local conservation efforts, Italy’s wild wolves are not as rare as they once were, but they are shy of humans. The 50,000-hectare Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo was established in 1923 to save a number of species; including the Apennine wolf, Marsican brown bear, and the Abruzzo chamois, from extinction. More recently, the organization Rewilding Europe has been working to embed a “co-existence” model, developing corridors in which the local economy, and therefore local communities, benefit from the wildlife around them. They have dotted the mountain roads with signs asking drivers to be mindful of their speed for the sake of the Marsicans and installed electrical fences to reduce bear-human conflict. Five percent of my trip cost is donated to the organization, and it was made very clear that here, wild things stay wild. Animals aren’t manipulated or baited to help tourists get a better photo.
Sometimes you get lucky. When we arrived, two English girls at the hotel were chatting with the staff about something they had seen the night before, when they were on their way back from the appropriately named Bear Bar. It dashed by them so quickly they couldn’t be sure, but the consensus from the locals was that it could well have been a wolf, and not just because of its extraordinary speed and what they could see of its coloring. At about that time, that night, the town’s dogs went berserk. Local dogs have been trained to protect from wolves, and when they sense one, they bark together with very particular anger to try and scare it off
The first afternoon, we hiked a loop around the village, passing through a centuries-old beech forest, another of the region’s signatures. Many of these saplings were planted as Columbus was setting sail, and I wondered what stories these magnificent trees would tell if only they could speak a language we understood. Abruzzo may be home to some of the oldest forests in Europe, and it was a gift to be able to walk amongst them. We walked quietly, speaking softly, if at all, for the best chance of seeing and hearing wildlife. We would probably have tiptoed if such a thing were possible in hiking boots and snow. On the first hill, directly overlooking the town, and dotted with people taking their dogs for an evening stroll, we saw some tracks. We were so keen. To convince us these were the genuine article would have been so easy. But Valeria did the honest thing and said, that although the snow had partially melted so it was difficult to call — probably not.
But the tracks deeper in the forest were different. We could tell by the way our guide shot ahead, with a focused air of silent concentration. She silently examined the prints for a moment before beckoning us over to point out the features that distinguish a wolf print from a dog.
One of the giveaways was how deeply entrenched the prints were. Wolves are heavier than dogs, but that’s not the only reason their prints sink so deep. When walking in the snow, each following wolf puts its paws exactly where the wolf before it stepped, and after a time, the lead wolf runs around to the back. They split the highest energy work of being the first to step through deep snow, working together to conserve their collective energy.
The tracks were fresh, but we didn’t see any other sign of the pack that made them. Strange to think that they almost certainly saw us first: at various points on the trip, watching through binoculars, I wondered how many creatures were watching me watch them — predators, prey, fellow humans with binoculars.
That early morning on the mountain, there was no sudden burst of warm light, no picture postcard obvious sunrise. It was more so that the light gradually changed around us, lightening through the various greys of a pre-dawn as we used backpacks as backrests, binoculars in hand, some of us quietly chewing on the cheese and salami rolls the hotel prepared as a packed breakfast. Wildlife spotting is about stillness, watching, and waiting. You become tuned in to the light and sounds around you, the clean feel of the cold air on your skin. At one point the unexpected quiet revs of a single car’s engine and the crunch of tires on snow in a field below us seemed intrusive, a trespass on the mountain’s delicate harmony. I was wearing almost all the clothes I had brought on the trip: not just the merino base layers, walking clothes, and ski jacket, but the polo neck I’d traveled in and a spare pair of tights, for good measure. It wasn’t enough: when you’re so still, the chill, inevitably, creeps into you. It seemed to start from nowhere, and then suddenly surrounds us. The eldritch sound is difficult to describe, as it’s not easy to find anything to compare it to. It’s low-pitched, doleful, otherworldly — and a complex, layered mix. Every wolf has its own unique vocal range, and while they don’t howl at the moon, they do howl to each other. They call across long distances, each howl a fingerprint by which they can recognize each other.
We still couldn’t see them. For me, hearing their spine-tingling dawn chorus as the mountain woke up would have been enough, especially coupled with having seen the fresh tracks the evening before. Eventually, Valeria suggested that, based on where the howling had seemed to come from, we drive to another spot. I eagerly agreed: at that point, some of me was numb with cold and the rest of me was aching with it: time in a heated car was an incredibly attractive prospect.
My limbs had just begun to think about thawing when we were out of the car again, clambering over a verge piled up with snow, never knowing if your next step would be on something solid or if your leg was about to disappear up to your knee. Over the course of the short journey, it had gone from grey to bright enough to think about sunglasses, and we had another spectacular view — but a view empty of wolves. After some fruitless watching and waiting, it was back in the car again. Rural depopulation has been a problem here, so there are plenty of villages that are practically abandoned for the wolves to roam in. But now that it was fully bright, our chances were rapidly diminishing: we had a skilled local guide, who had a network of other mountain guides to call as we tried to track the pack around the mountain. But we also needed luck. So much of this is about luck.
By the time normal people would have been thinking about breakfast, I was ready for supper — and bed. The final stop off by the side of a road so narrow there was no space to properly pull in. Three people were standing with binoculars, their cameras balanced precariously on the snow banked up on the verge, gazing up at a grassy hill.
I am extraordinarily bad at noticing things. At one point during the lockdown, I came home and excitedly reported that a brand new bridge had just been built over the Thames, which, it turns out, had been there not only for all of the years I’ve lived in London and regularly passed by it, but for decades beforehand. I once walked past a spot four times before noticing the building on it had been completely demolished. I’m the last person anyone sensible would have picked for this particular team. The local wolf-spotters spoke softly to each other and us, in Italian, une . . . due . . . tre! Three wolves. But where?
I used what our guide had told us, and what I had read. Ravens follow wolves: they are sometimes called wolf-birds in mythology, and the two species have been seen to play with each other. I looked up, and used the large, circling birds as a guide, and found splashes of blood on a patch of snow. It took me a while to get my eye in, but once I’d seen it, I couldn’t look anywhere else. There’s nothing quite like seeing a wolf in its natural habitat. It was a rich red-brown, with a black stripe, and even when it was doing nothing more impressive than walking along the hill, the creature had an incredible presence. We knew we would need luck on our side: we had it in bucketfuls, because the three made a dramatic exit, bounding down the hill and out of sight, covering enormous amounts of ground, a scene more thrilling than many an action movie.
A trip to the compact Apennine wolf museum in Civitella Alfedena gave some more insights into the Appenine wolf, including their bad press.
In her book The Wisdom of Wolves: How Wolves Can Teach Us To Be More Human, naturalist Eli Radinger shares insights from her two decades of wolf observation into the intelligence, leadership, and complex social structures of the wolf. The bullied omega wolf is something she contends is not seen in the wild; she reports that wolf aggression is seen in the brutal and stressful conditions of captivity, or when their habitat is threatened. The museum exhibits included barbaric traps, and advertisements showing wolves wreaking destruction on animals, bringing down trains, and a personal favorite: something at least twice the size of a human man, reared up on its monstrous hind legs and groping the breast of what was no doubt considered by the artist to be an appropriately distressed damsel. In her book, Radinger draws a parallel between “men’s fear of all he cannot control . . . of independent women and the wolf in the woods” and the museum certainly told the story of fear out of proportion to the actual danger — more people are killed by cows than by wolves.
It would seem that fear hasn’t yet left us. In June of this year, officials said a new “National negative record” had been set when five wolves were found poisoned over a two-week period, with local conservation leaders describing the potential wipeout of an entire pack as a “biocide,” highlighting that there were no sheep or livestock farms which a wolf would threaten in the national park in which the bodies were found. The sad discoveries came just weeks after a study confirmed that the Appenine wolf, having been all but eliminated in the 1970s, with an estimated less than 100 surviving, is no longer considered an endangered species. The comeback of the wild wolves is good news for the entire ecosystem, as, while it’s a little red in tooth and claw, a top predator keeps things in balance. By preventing the overpopulation of large herbivores down, overgrazing is prevented, which reduces the risk of soil erosion and allows other, smaller animals to thrive. In the Italian capital, wild boar have been causing problems, and wildlife experts have said that the rising wolf population could bring things back into equilibrium.
In coronavirus lockdowns, we witnessed the incredible ability of nature to bounce back, and that’s what happened here. Wolves were not reintroduced: we had to learn to live with them and keep ourselves in check, while they re-established themselves. In the area, nature has bounced back, in what feels like a much-needed success story to give us hope at a time that temperature records are being breached and cities are burning.
In our three days of hiking and snowshoeing through the park, we saw so many signs of wildlife. Deer, wolves, hares, and foxes all left fresh tracks in the snow. We spied chamois goats, red deer, and watched a golden eagle take flight from an outcrop. The landscapes were amazing, and there is nothing else quite like seeing so much wildlife in its natural habitat. The accommodations and the food were authentic and of excellent quality, but there was one thing that should have been different. The trip did not need to be as physically demanding as it was. It’s inevitable that to track remote animals and to climb mountains, a degree of physical effort and fitness will be required, but the relentless pace of the hikes didn’t seem necessary. Inspiring as it was to track the animals that might be ahead, checking in with the humans behind is important too. The trip had been described in the website which sold it as “moderate” in terms of what fitness was required, but the terrain was tough and the air thin. Simply slowing the pace down a fraction and scheduling in a few more stops for people to catch their breath, take on some water, and anyone who might need to top up some blood glucose or take an inhaler to do so would be enough to make the trip safer and more accessible, and many people would take more pleasure from it.
The early morning, though, was definitely worth it. If there was a single moment that defined the trip, this was it. Having at long last trained my binoculars on the wolf prowling at the brow of the hill, it turned its head, and for a long moment, we stared straight at each other. I was mesmerized, but it turned away — I never expected to impress a wolf as a wolf would impress me, but I guess I was at least tolerated. In any case, I felt perfectly safe — it’s the cows you have to watch out for!•