In an ideal world, a chap would prepare for an expedition such as this by sitting in front of the fire in his study with a smoking jacket and pipe, reading My Life with Wolves by Freddie Fortescue-ffrench. However, there were two problems. Freddie did not exist, and I had employed for the renovation of my house a team of builders who, unfortunately, did.
As a result, the study resembled a building site, possibly because it was, and I spent the evening before leaving in it, covered in plaster dust and looking out with winsome irony at the wooded hill where the last wolf in Ireland was allegedly killed early in the 18th century.
The next morning, I rose at dawn, put on a fur hat and left for Sweden, my sole knowledge of wolves, gleaned from boyhood books on Canada: that they stood on stark peaks howling at the moon, weighed as much as a man, hunted in packs of 50 and ate trappers called Black Jacques and Sven the Swede for lunch and sometimes afternoon tea as well.
None of which, it transpired, was true. Wolves, for example, have rarely attacked humans, and humans have just as rarely returned the favour. Demonised as symbols of the devil and the dark by everyone from Descartes to Little Red Riding Hood, European wolves were driven to the edge of extinction. In Sweden in the Fifties there were six left.
Today there are about 100, but sightings are rare. Which is why I needed a man like Anders Stahl: wildlife painter, ex-soldier, Arctic ranger, fireman, guide and wolf-tracker. He was standing on the platform at Leksand as I stepped off the dawn train north from Stockholm into flurries of snow. We climbed into his Toyota, called at the grocers to pick up provisions – unaccountably, I bought three bananas – and set off for the wilderness. It was not too far away, since Leksand is exactly between nowhere and nowhere else.
After an hour we abandoned the car, shouldered our rucksacks and took to the forest on foot. Wearing borrowed Dutch paratrooper's trousers, a Russian fur hat and Anders' old Swedish army winter smock, I looked like a reject from a Nato charity shop as we set off on the trail of a pack once led by a great wolf who had died three years before.
Since then his partner had led the pack alone, but then found a new mate, presumably after an ad in the lonely hearts sections of Wildlife Weekly saying: Partner wanted for friendship and possible romance. Must have own fur coat and like long walks, cold nights out and raw elk. Non-smoker preferred. Must be a wolf.
There were, it had to be said, plenty of elk to eat: the population numbers a quarter of a million, and 90,000 are culled every year by jolly Swedish hunters. The older, wiser elk, who know something is up, escape by donning sunglasses, leaning against a tree and saying: "Me? No, I'm not an elk. He is, though."
At least I think that's what Anders said. I was busy trying to keep up with him through a landscape of silver birch and lakes so cold that the air above them dared not move in case it cracked. There was no sound of life except the crunch of our feet in the snow and the occasional muffled thwack as I walked into a tree. Suddenly, Anders held up his hand and looked down at a row of tracks in the snow. But they were too tiny to be the mighty pawprints we were looking for.
"Fox," said Anders. It's the way men speak when they're outdoors.
"Or a wolf wearing stilettos," I suggested.
"In this weather?" he said, and proceeded.
Then, a hundred yards later, the real thing, each one six inches long and five across. There was, I have to say, something spookily primeval about looking at tracks in the snow and saying: "Wolves were here."
"And less than a day ago," said Anders.
We moved on, up dale and down hill of increasingly deep drifts. After another hour the snow was, oh, about up to our necks. Ahead of me, Anders stopped, unshouldered his rucksack and produced two aluminium and leather tennis rackets.
"I think," he said with Nordic stolidity, "it is time for snowshoes."
He was right. The going went from impossible to almost impossible. I looked up to thank Anders when I realised he had vanished. I hunted around for vain for five minutes, vaguely aware of the stupidity of not being able to find prints the size of tennis rackets, then spotted a large pile of elk poo. And another.
Finally, by following the droppings, I found Anders standing in a clearing with the elk responsible. It hadn't run away as he walked up to it, probably because half of it was missing. As someone from the Sainsbury's school of Buddhism, who loves animals but refuses to see any connection between them and the contents of the meat shelves, it was both troubling and humbling to be confronted with the fact that I was so obviously wrong.
Nearby was a smattering of wolf droppings, black with blood. "Smell it," said Anders. I did. I wish I hadn't.
"Right," he said, "have you ever used cross-country skis?"
After a mile we came across fresh wolf tracks. Darkness fell in a silent storm of lilac, but we plunged on regardless, keeping our track by the North Star. Oh, and by following the path. After a while, though, even that ran out, and after another hour of colliding with trees and stepping into icy streams all exactly an inch higher than the tops of my boots, I saw to my complete astonishment that Anders had found the log cabin which was to be our billet for the night.
He produced an axe from his bottomless rucksack, and I set to chopping firewood while he rustled up sausage and pasta. Then we had some howling to do.
Anders stepped on to the porch, cleared his throat, and produced a sound that was not quite of this earth. The hairs on the back of my neck stood briskly to attention.
"Anders," I said, "how do you do that?"
But from the forest there was no reply. The pack were all down at the wolf bar, telling tall elk tales. We curled up in our sleeping bags and slept the exhausted sleep of men who have been out not finding wolves all day.
Geoff Hill was a guest of Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158; www.wildlifeworldwide.com), which offers four-day trips titled Wolf Calling in Sweden. The trip costs £795 per person and departs from London on Mondays and Thursdays in February and March. The price includes return flights, transport in Sweden, a mixture of accommodation in hotels, log cabins and camping, meals, the services of a guide, and instruction on how to survive in the wild.Reuse content