An extreme wilderness adventure in the heart of wolf country in the French Alps

Posted 03-04-2024 by Sally

Every year we run a wolf tracking trip and it is always a unique adventure. But this year was one to go down in the story books! We have just got back from what can only be called an extreme wilderness adventure wolf tracking!

To start with the church refuge where we stay is remote, a good 20 minutes drive and a short walk up a forest track into the heart of wild wolf country in the mountains in the middle of no-where. There's no mobile phone signal, no wifi, no electricity, and the water is a DIY filter and pipe set up from a spring, so even under normal circumstances, just staying here is an adventure.

This trip was not normal circumstances!

Day 1: Saturday - Arrival, Discovery of the Valley and Salamander

I went to meet the team, who all arrived on time at the pick up point in Marseille and only one lost baggage which finally arrived just in time - phew! There was Tony (an engineer - this is important - you'll understand why later) and his son Sam (aged 13), siblings Eimear and Padraic. Eimear was treating Padraic who is a passionate nature lover and ecologist from Ireland to this trip for his 50th (they came all the way from Ireland by train and boat). You can read Padraic's book on Ireland's wildlife, Whittled Away. Pauric, another Irish man from a strong farming family (the strong farming family is also important) who came armed with thermal binoculars (which were amazing), Chantal, who has written a book about wild boar in the UK and her new boyfriend, Mark, a budding photographer. Tommy, my son (aged 14) came along, only intending to stay for the Easter weekend part as he had school on Tuesday, and there was me and of course Bernard our guide and wolf tracker!

The first impression for our merry band of strangers was a yellow haze of Sahara dust in the air, so thick you couldn't make out the mountains, with rain. The rain dust mixture made a rather alarming streaky mud on the windscreen as we drove away from Marseille and up into the Alps. My usual commentary on the mountains and views on the way was replaced with weather apologies, a subconscious guilt about our collective responsibility for extreme weather?

On arrival at the refuge, we unpacked and for the first time ever, in over ten years of running this trip, ate lunch inside out of the rain. Motivated by impatience to get outside into the fresh air after a long journey, we set off in the wet kitted out in full waterproofs. Whilst our UK and Irish friends were actually quite at ease with this, us Alpine dwellers were not! I only had an old Gore-tex jacket from my student days which I hoped would keep out the rain and ski pants for waterproof trousers which were far too hot and cumbersome. Tommy looked at me in disbelief when I suggested he might want to put on some over trousers - his point blank refusal was quickly reversed after the first five minutes of the walk! Bernard wore his ski cape! 

We walked up to an old forestry commission refuge and found plenty of wolf scat revealing an overwhelmingly wild boar rich diet. Conversation flowed and stories were shared on wild boar, wolves and the state of wildlife in Ireland. On the way back down the nature highlight of the walk was a stunningly beautiful black and yellow salamander chilling out in the middle of the trail, soaking in the humidity and unwittingly becoming our top model of the day.

About a km from the refuge we stopped to check the camera trap which Bernard had placed a week before, and which has previously rewarded us with glimpses of the wolves as they patrol the area, but nothing.

Back at the refuge, we prepared a BBQ in the rain, with Bernard, Tony and Pauric braving the elements to cook in the wet. The rest of the team lit the candles and oil lamps and cut up veggies for the salads. Then Sam appeared in shocked disbelief at having found a scorpion hidden under the lamp. The boys set about capturing it for release outside!

As the evening set in, the downpour eased off and the stars came out - woohoo. Newly motivated by the change in the weather we ventured out in the black to see what we could find. With Pauric's thermal binoculars the Alpine night came alive with hares, foxes, wild boar and deer. Plans were made for a big walk up into the snow higher up in the mountains in the hope of fresh tracks and we all went to bed in eager anticipation of a brighter tomorrow.

Day 2: Sunday - Wolf Quiz, Rain and Golden Eagle

Torrential rain greeted us in the morning and disappointment set in. The snowy mountains were once again drowned in mist and Bernard and I were racking our brains for rainy day activities. Breakfast became a prolonged, relaxed affair and evolved into a trivial pursuits style quiz on wolves.  

After a couple of hopeful interludes in the rain, we took the risk of setting out to explore up another fork of the valley in search of fresh tracks. The chamois were out and we spent some time surveying them surveying us until they scampered up the rock face. The highlight of the day was watching a magnificent golden eagle soaring above us taking advantage of the weather window. Tracks were, however, scarce, with recent history erased by the endless water. 

Feeling proud of our day's achievements in spite of the weather, the evening was filled with optimism for tomorrow. There we were enjoying our raclette by candlelight dinner, cosily cocooned in our church refuge, with the rain pouring outside, when Tony noticed he was being dripped on - the rain had found a way into our renovated church shelter! Oblivious to the omen of a leaking roof, we put out bowls to catch the drips and went to bed.

Lying in the dark and listening to the rain hammering down kept most of us awake.  The rhythmic, high pitched plop of water hitting metal as the rain dripped through the roof became faster and faster in pace with the drips gradually merging into each other, softening the sound to a watery flow. I was personally waging my own internal battle about whether or not I would need to go out in to the elements for a night time 'comfort' break when the wind blew open the door and Bernard was the first one to act.

Day 3: Monday - Flood disaster and Mega Mountain Hike

Pauric was the first to get up and inspect the morning and came back in awe. "Good news or bad news?" he asked. He went on to inform us that it was a stunningly beautiful day and the sun was out but the small stream running next to the track had turned into a raging grade 4 river and completely blocked off our exit track with trees, rocks and scarily fast flowing water. There was no way either our minibus or our 4x4 would get over the bridge.

Ironically, there was water absolutely everywhere except for our drinking water source which had been completely blocked by the torrent and silt. The dry stream behind the church (I had never seen water in this until this day) became our best option for a drinking water source and we filled up containers for breakfast tea and coffee and water bottles. My back up back country water filter pump decided not to work, despite engineer Tony's best efforts so we resorted to water purification tablets!

Upon inspecting the river, it became quickly apparent that our way out was compromised and with planes and trains for everyone to catch tomorrow, my mind was churning over scenarios of walking out (even though crossing the river on foot at this stage was not even possible and what about our vehicles and all our kit?), organising ourselves to rebuild the track, calling the rescue services (which in itself would have meant walking up the mountain to get a signal first), finding a farmer  (where from?) with a tractor to help move some of the debris, organising a taxi to meet us at the road... hmmmm.

But after 2 days of rain frustration and the lure of the freshly snowy mountain ridge above us we decided to go for that long walk and hope that the water levels would subside enough by the afternoon return to do something about it. Except of course that the usual way up involved crossing the stream, aka raging river, so Bernard decided to take us up the other side which, he said, involved a slightly technical section to get to the ridge. "Were we all okay with that?" "Yes of course" we all said naively!

So off we set. Except for Chantal, who had strained her calf and despite a yearning desire to join us and attain the ridge, her muscle chose for her and she headed back to the refuge for a day of rest in the sun and calm with no modern distractions at the refuge.

The hike started with a challenging stream crossing over one of the feeder streams to our ephemeral river and continued up the same path we did on the first day to the forestry commission refuge. With a sure clean spring here, we stopped and filled our water bottles.

The next stage of the walk involved a steep rocky traverse over scree which, whilst not fatally dangerous in the event of a slip, was spectacularly intimidating and vulnerable to rock fall from above. Quick lessons on how to walk in such terrain, use of poles and mutual help bonded the group as we confronted the challenge and everyone got to the other side safe and sound and with a gratifying sense of achievement.

The walk continued up and we started to hit the snow line where the first signs of fresh tracks started to appear. Hares and foxes had been out exploring the most on the new snow with chamois and wild boar also showing their presence after the rain and snow but so far no wolves.

The snow was soft and layered with the yellow Sahara sand stained snow showing through at every step. Progress was physically challenging especially for the track makers but breathtakingly beautiful. Once up in the ridge we had an amazing clear view right into the Ecrins National park, the Devoluy and could even see the Undiscovered Mountains head office mountain. The new clear air, cleansed by the heavy precipitation was our reward and we revelled in it, spending time scanning the mountains for wildlife. We spent some time watching chamois grazing on a high pasture, watched a golden eagle and howled for wolves but no reply. Where were they hiding? Their presence was there, with scat everywhere on the ridge revealing their wild boar, deer and sheep dinners but they remained elusive.

After a satisfying picnic lunch we headed back down, in slight nervous anticipation of the river awaiting us below. I took the opportunity of sending a message to Tommy's school to explain his absence tomorrow whilst we had phone signal - it was quite a cool excuse I thought!

On arrival, the water had descended and we could at least see the bridge, but a whole section had been gouged out of the road and rocks,  trees and silt had been deposited blocking the way for any vehicle. Chantal has also been to do a recce further down and announced the news that this was just the first of several hurdles! We split into two teams, with Bernard, strong Pauric, engineer Tony and the two boys to try to fix the route as best they could armed with a shovel, a rake and the 4x4 - Renault can be very proud of their Koleos!!

The rest of us, collected water and prepared the evening meal ready for the workers' return. Humbled by the power of nature and the importance of water we were grateful to have the church, the clean stream and the collective spirit of our group, with everyone chipping in for the overall good of the group. This is where you really see the best in people.

Our road building team came back as darkness fell having got as far as the last big bridge with stories of their endeavours and a plan for tomorrow to tackle this last hurdle and we ate and chatted and then went off to bed for a well deserved sleep;

Day 4: Tuesday - Confronting the Exit Route and Fresh Wolf Tracks

An efficient morning was spent tidying, cleaning and packing up and then we set off on what felt like an intrepid journey not knowing for sure if we would be able to get the minibus and people out of the valley. The air was filled with a mix of excitement and a touch of nervous anticipation. 

Bernard drove the minibus over the first hurdle and I followed in the 4x4 - this suited me fine - if the minibus was able to drive over the hurdles, the 4x4 would too! There was a lot of getting in and out of the minibus and gaping in awe at the ravaged track and then we got to the big obstacle at the last bridge. Impossible to cross. A ton of mangled trees and rocks had created a barrage at the bridge forcing the water round the side and gouging out the road. We all crossed the stream to try and help fill the hole with stones and Mark slipped into the stream and got soaked up to his thighs! Luckily with all our baggage with us, he was able to change into dry trousers and trainers!

I missed the epic drive of the minibus over the stream as I was helping everyone cross but Bernard made it over and the relief was palpable!

We set off to the village where we had a very civilised walk around and visited the 13th century church. In the village we met the forestry warden who was visiting the mairie to discuss the floods and he told us about fresh wolf tracks he had seen on his investigation of the damage, and which we had missed on our way out with our pre-occupation of practicalities!

With 2 hours left before we had to set off for Marseille, we headed back up the track to find the tracks and there they were, beautifully traversing a silt puddle, a pack of 6 wolves heading up to where we had just been, ready to hunt the wildlife as they emerge from their hideouts to dry out in the sun. We followed the tracks up until they headed up the hillside and contented with eating our lunch on a rocky slope where the wolves had just been a few hours earlier and marvelled at the mysteries and power of nature.

 If you would like to take part in next year's wolf tracking adventure, the dates are now open to book!

Book Wolf Tracking Adventure

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Wow, what a fabulous adventure, beautifully told. I loved my trip with you years ago and would love to do it again sometime. And Tommy is 14??? Goodness!


Hi Jerry - the trip has evolved so much since you came! Would be so good to see you again and hear all your news!

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