published in The South China Morning Post, December 12, 2015
Adventure travel: petting wolves at Quebec's Parc Mahikan
Is it crazy to want to kiss a wolf?
I have no fear as I enter the enclosure; I've been waiting for this moment for most of my life.
Created in 2009 by Gilles Granal, a Frenchman who raises sled dogs, Parc Mahikan (Cree for "wolf") is an eco-adventure park in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region of Quebec, in Canada, that offers a unique experience: interaction with wolves.
"I think all people who have sled dogs love wolves. It's a mysterious animal," says Granal, who, with his tattoos of the animal and long hair, looks every bit the rugged outdoorsman.
Bordered by mountainous ridges and forests, the region is defined by its two major water features: the immense Saint-Jean Lake and the mighty Saguenay river, which empties through the Fjord-du-Saguenay, one of the world's largest. Hikers, rafters, snowmobilers, dogsledders, ice fishermen and skiers are all attracted to the region, and the Véloroute des Bleuets ("blueberry route"), which circles Lac-St-Jean, is one of North America's premier cycling routes.
The town of Girardville, home to Parc Mahikan, is to the north of Lac-St-Jean, and on the edge of a boreal forest.
Granal oversees two wild packs of wolves; 30 animals in total. The wild grey and Arctic packs live separately, each in their own three-hectare enclosure in the park. There are also five grey wolves that are accustomed to humans "but still demonstrate real pack behaviour behind the fence in their forest enclosure," says Granal.
As we approach their one-hectare enclosure, we're welcomed by a multi-coloured female, Blackie, who eagerly sniffs and licks our hands through the fence. Granal enters the enclosure alone and demonstrates the meet-and-greet approach as Blackie and the lone male of the group, John, run over and jump up on his chest, feverishly licking him, tails wagging.
I step into the enclosure and the two wolves sniff, lick and jump on me. I grab their feet as instructed, so they don't scratch my face, and John, a 40kg beast that stands taller than me, gives me my first wolf kiss, welcoming me to the pack.
We walk along the fence, John at my side. I'm surprised to learn he isn't the alpha - that honour belongs to a sister, Luna, but she's nowhere in sight.
Reaching a large hole near the base of some trees, Granal tells me to get down on my knees and look down into it. Two sets of yellow eyes peer up and, suddenly, out pop two wolves, Luna and her sister, Bella.
Wolf hugs, kisses and belly rubs ensue; the wolves love the attention and are curious, friendly and happy.
"I love seeing the eyes of people when the wolves come to play with them," says Granal. "You can feel their emotions when they are in contact with the wolves. We know when people spend time here, it has an influence on them."
The last of the wolves to appear, the omega, named Sick, slinks into view only after Luna has dashed off. It's obvious she isn't welcome, though; tail tucked between her legs, she skulks away as Luna lopes back, but not before delivering some licks.
Much like my own large dogs back home, John follows dutifully when I head for an open grassy area within the enclosure. I pick a spot and sit down and, for a minute or so, we seem to connect; like an old soul peering into my mind, the wolf's bright yellow eyes lock with mine.
When I leave the pen, I'm covered in dirt, slobber and hair, with itching eyes and hives all over my neck; I'm obviously allergic to the animals. But it doesn't matter. Not even the rain or dive-bombing mosquitoes can alter the fact I have just kissed a pack of wolves!
Two species of wolf - the grey and the eastern, also known as timber wolves - inhabit Quebec and are spread across the province, with the exception of the southeast. In 2013, their combined population was estimated at 7,000.
Canada is home to the second largest grey wolf population in the world, after Russia, with about 55,000 animals distributed across the country. Arctic wolves, which number an estimated 5,000 to 6,000, can be found in Nunavut, in the far north.
On-site at Parc Mahikan is accommodation for about 20 people, in prospector tents, cabins and a Mongolian-style yurt, all warmed by wooden stoves. As I drift off to sleep in the cosy yurt, which is separated from the grey wolf enclosure by just a chain-link fence, an orchestra of frogs finds its voice.
At about 2am, a different ensemble makes itself heard. The wolves begin howling at each other and I rush out onto the deck to join in, howling my heart out, and for the second time I become a member of the pack.
Getting there: several airlines fly from Hong Kong to Montreal with a single change of flight. Saguenay is a five-hour drive from Montreal (although there are public airports at the closer Bagotville and Quebec City). Parc Mahikan is a further two-hour drive from Saguenay. Alternatively, take a train from Montreal to Chambord (about eight hours), from where a hire car will be necessary.