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We are standing very still in the woods in a wild and remote part of the Southern French Alps listening. It is still, with not a breath of wind.
Occasionally a lump of snow falls to the ground breaking the silence. A bird tweets. Then we hear a branch breaking and movement. We look but see nothing. The movement stops and then we hear it again but further along. We must be 30 metres away but there is nothing to see in the undergrowth of the alpine woods. The animal is moving quietly and stealthily through the forest. Is it watching us? We are here to track wolves but today we have the distinct impression they are tracking us.
The wolf tracking adventure is three days long and we are four, Giovanni, Greg, me (Sally) and Bernard our guide and tracker. On the first day we went into the centre of a territory of a pack of seven wolves sure to stumble upon tracks and evidence in the fresh snow. We saw chamois grouped together on the ridge and another group further down - plenty of prey for the wolves. But as for wolf tracks we saw none. The wolves were somewhere else today. Local sources didn't shed any light on this sudden disappearance of the pack who had recently been very present leaving evidence in attacks, sightings and hidden camera photos.
There was of course the chance they would turn up overnight and we would discover their tracks in the morning but we decided to go to a different territory next door for our overnight in the refuge where a pack of 5 are thought to reside.
We drove up to the refuge and unpacked our equipment and food for the night. The water source was a spring about 10 minutes walk away and Greg and Giovanni went off to get water only to come back 5 minutes later with empty bottles but large grins! They had found tracks! We went off to investigate and sure enough they were wolf tracks.
Very pleased with ourselves we set off to follow them. There were 4 wolves and it was easy to follow their tracks along the trail in the light snow. But then all of a sudden they stopped. Some went off to the left and one to the right. We split up to investigate.
The wolves to the left had gone into the woods and circled around but it was difficult to see where they had gone after that and we quickly lost their tracks.
The tracks we had seen were fresh though and there was a good chance they were in this forest somewhere relaxing for the day before their night time hunt. We decided to continue up to the ridge in the assumption that if the wolves were traveling across the woods we would find where they exited by traversing the ridge. If we found nothing there was a 50/50 chance they were still in the woods.
Call it intuition or a sixth sense but pretty much all of a sudden we all stopped still. We had heard something. It wasn't like a chamois running through the woods. Nor was it a deer bounding away.
Something was moving slowly and cautiously through the woods above us. We listened intently and scanned the forest for visual signs. We saw nothing but I certainly had the distinct impression we were being watched.
Maybe it was my imagination running away with me or maybe I was right. We will never know for sure.
We continued up to the ridge and 'bingo' we found fresh tracks but they were coming in to the forest not out of it. Maybe the wolf had exited lower down and come back in at this point? After a short break watching two chamois running across the steep mountainside we continued following the wolf tracks back down through the forest we had come up through.
Where were they going? The wolf was walking steadily through the forest with easy paced regular tracks and came right out onto the trail where we had started!
It's tracks crossed on top of our own tracks from this morning pushing fresh snow over the top of them. The wolf had walked right past us and there was the evidence staring us in the face! ! Magnificent!
We went back to the refuge wondering where the wolf was now. Had it rejoined the others? Where had they been all day and more importantly what were they all doing now?
It quickly got dark and we were blessed with a beautiful full moon surrounded by a halo of light making large concentric rings which none of us were able to capture on camera (annoyingly!). Whilst we were all marveling at this strange phenomenon a loud barking sound came from the forest. A deer calling for help. But not just one bark, the poor animal was terrorised. It's terrified bark echoed across the still night in panic, warning the forest of danger. The wolves were still here.
Bernard howled, a long piercing sound echoing around the mountains. We waited and listened. Nothing. He howled again. Nothing.
We went back in to the refuge, very glad not to be out at night in wolf country!
After eating we came back out again and howled and this time got a response but the reply came from beyond the forest and was just one solitary howl and quite short. We howled again but this time it didn't play ball.
The next morning was our last day and we wanted to find out more so decided to do a large sweep of the territory taking in the ridge but starting lower down to see if we could find our lone wolf's tracks coming out of the forest to complete the picture.
We found tracks but not from where we thought - they were coming from over the other side of the col (thought to be a different wolf pack territory). Was this our wolf or a totally different one? Only one way to find out! The tracks were heading to the left of the ridge - too far left to be our wolf. Was this a stranger exploring new territory? Or a member of the pack coming back after a hunt in no man's land?
We soon discovered where the tracks were going. Bones. The wolf was going back to a previous kill and was hoping there would still be some left.
Sadly for him the foxes, vultures and other scavengers had got there before him, leaving just a few scattered dry bones. He did a U-turn and traversed under the ridge back to the right... maybe this was our wolf after all. Yes indeed! The tracks were the tracks we discovered yesterday going back into the forest.
So now we have two theories... was this wolf just coincidentally crossing our paths as we were making our way through the forest. If so, had we got to the ridge an hour earlier we would have seen it traversing across the plateau to the bones.
Or is it the wolf we were following that just did a much wider loop (we never found tracks coming out of the forest) on it's way back into the forest where it crossed our paths? Was it the wolf we heard howling? And why is it on it's own? Had it separated from the pack for hunting or is it a young wolf from an adjoining pack looking for a new territory?
We pondered these questions whilst watching a herd of mouflon run across the snowy plateau. Then we continued along the ridge to see if we could see any more signs of the wolf or the other / rest of the pack coming out of the forest at the other side.
It was a spectacular ridge and all the more beautiful with a golden eagle circling over it.
We got the the edge where we were blocked by steep cliffs. The only way was back the way we came or down. If the wolves had exited this forest we would cross their tracks on the way down so guess which way we chose to go! As we descended black grouse flew off right in front of us in a spectacular flurry of feathers and we discovered their nests and footprints in the snow.
Sure enough we soon found the pack tracks and followed them all the way back to the piste - they were the original tracks we found yesterday. Back to square one.
Whether the wolves were watching us, stalking is even or whether our paths just crossed by coincidence we'll never know. But is doesn't matter, it was just wonderful to be there and know they were close by.
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