Lola makes a new friend at the Wolf Lodge
Lola makes a new friend at the Wolf Lodge

Whale watching and wolves at your window: Wild adventures in Norway's far north

Wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan takes his family to the Arctic Circle in search of an experience they'll never forget

Gordon Buchanan
Thursday 22 December 2016 11:42

The desire to escape Britain’s coldest, darkest days, even for a weekend, is understandable – essential, some might say. At this time of year, fly south and your days will be brighter, warmer and longer. But what about swapping your sarong for long johns and heading north? Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, to be precise.

My wife Wendy, our two children, Lola and Harris, and I flew in to Tromso, a city of some 80,000 residents, which sits as far north as Alaska’s northern tip. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and many others racing to the Poles came here, using local expertise in extreme cold to their advantage. It wasn’t so cold when we arrived, the temperature hovering around -5C.

There’s quite a lot of the peculiar about Tromso, once dubbed the Paris of the North, owing, I believe, to the abundance of sealskin apparel on offer (this was presumably when Paris was big into that kind of thing). Anyway, if sealskin is your bag (or hat, coat or gloves), there still are shops that sell (very expensive) products made from it.

Tromso by night

Another oddity is that under the island on which the city sits is a network of road tunnels nicknamed the Swiss cheese. The entrances and exits pop up at surprising locations around the place.

After a night at a hotel on the very lovely quayside, we set off on to the water. The sea off north Norway is the best place to look for herring at this time of year; like us, they’re here for a winter break. But maybe of a little more interest to visitors is the large number of humpback and killer whales, or orcas, that follow them.

As a family we’ve had many adventures at sea looking for whales and dolphins and failed miserably, but with hope in our hearts and binoculars in our pockets we booked an RIB tour with the lovely people at the family-run Tromso Friluftsenter.

The family prepare to step aboard

Our trip started with a scenic 40-minute coach journey to Kvaloya (which translates, aptly, as Whale Island). On board, the charming guide told us the hydrophone (underwater microphone) that we’d hoped to use to eavesdrop on the cetaceans had been stolen by a curious killer whale on a previous trip. Unfortunate, but a promising sign.

When we arrived at the small harbour at the top of the island we were suited and booted in survival suits before stepping on to one of the RIBs. As a wildlife cameraman, I’ve had some incredible whale and dolphin encounters, so for the sake of the rest of the family I was crossing my fingers we’d catch at least a glimpse.

Within 15 minutes we got lucky as we spotted a pod of killer whales some distance off. But that was just the start. Before long we struck gold and found ourselves in a stretch of water that became what can only be described as whale soup. Three or four humpbacks and more killer whales than you could shake a stick at. And not glimpses but prolonged views and close encounters. Some so close that I could have reached out and touched their towering dorsal fins.

The orcas make a splash

To share such an incredible experience with those you love is as good as life gets; the afterglow of what we’d just seen helped keep the cold at bay as the boat raced back up the fjord.

In the cold Arctic air the light is crisp and clear. The winter sun barely peeks above the horizon and a slow sunrise marries seamlessly with the sunset without it every properly getting bright. There is a perpetual twilight that I love, every hour of the day providing the perfect light for photography. The days may be short but they are magical.

The next day, we had a two-and-a-half-hour drive south to what would turn out to be the crescendo of our trip.

The world’s northernmost wildlife park, Polar Park, specialises in Arctic species, with enormous enclosures that give the animals space to explore and places to hide.

The park’s crowning glory is the wolves, and the jewel in the crown is the Wolf Lodge. This luxurious cabin is accessed by a covered tunnel through the wolf enclosure. Why, you ask? Well, as you sit near a crackling log fire sipping a hot chocolate on a comfortable sofa, it’s inevitable that your nearest neighbours will pay you a visit. You might get the feeling you’re being watched, and when you look up at one of the large patio windows you’ll likely see a family of five wolves looking in at you. They are a healthy, happy bunch and are the perfect mix of curious and aloof. A more enchanting creature is hard to find.

The wolves are free to come and go

Their first visit was a few minutes peering in and frolicking outside before they galloped over the hill and off through the trees. You could look out of any of the huge windows at the amazing views for hours and not see a single wolf. It’s a strange and fitting scenario where the humans are enclosed behind glass and the wolves have to freedom to come and go.

In the lodge we were hosted by Heidi, who made delicious dinners, and Catrine, one of Polar Park’s experienced animal keepers, who stayed in the lodge overnight to make sure we were all happy together. Me, Wendy, Lola, Harris and the five wolves. The animals returned to the snowy knoll by the cabin after dark to serenade us with a hauntingly uplifting howling session before we turned in for the night.

They can turn up at any time

I opened my eyes at first light to see one of the huge male wolves looking in through the full-length bedroom window. Not disconcerting, but strangely comforting, though he soon lost interest and trotted off.

Later, there was a treat outside the lodge for Wendy and me. The wolf pack has been socialised, meaning that accompanied by Catrine and another colleague we were allowed to leave the lodge to have a closer encounter; for safety reasons only those over 18 and more than 1.6 metres tall can do this, so that meant the children had to stay inside.

Once outside the lodge, Catrine called the pack in, in very much the same way you might call a pet poodle. There are nerves involved, obviously; even playful wolves have a serious presence. They were exited to meet us in the flesh, greeting us with an enthusiastic face lick. The real magic of the experience was that, although you might expect it to be intimidating, it was in fact incredibly intimate. Other guests have wept with joy after such wolf encounters. I get it.

Wendy meets the wolves

Over hundreds of years we’ve misunderstood wolves and seen them as monsters. At close quarters, you see a different side. They are intelligent creatures, bound by their relationships.

An enduring memory will be one of the wolves approaching a downstairs window of the lodge while we were outside. It brought its face close to the glass, with our awestruck daughter a tongue’s length away, on the eve of her 13th birthday.

I have a rewarding job, I get to see and film things that many others can only dream of. The downside is time away from my family. So to travel to Norway, to see beautiful animals in the company of the most beautiful people in my life, was perfect. As a family we’ve never had so many memorable moments in a single weekend. Who needs winter sun when you can have winter magic?

Travel essentials

Getting there

Norwegian flies from Gatwick to Tromso.

Staying there

Wolf Lodge, Polar Park, from 75,000 Norwegian krone (£7,040) a night; sleeps 12.

Clarion Collection Hotel With, Tromso. Doubles from £155, B&B.

More information

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