Wolf zone: Encounters in Norway's Polar Park
Polar packs – Opened in 1994 in the the heart of Norwegian Lapland, Polar Park is the world's northernmost wildlife park.
The highlight of this animal sanctuary is its population of seven gray wolves. Although they were all bred in captivity, some are more accustomed to humans than others. This means they are divided into three packs, each of which lives in a separate enclosure.
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Rooms with a view – Opened in late 2015 at the Polar Park, Wolf Lodge is the world's first luxury accommodation situated inside an enclosure of wolves. Guests are often treated to a dramatic chorus of nocturnal howling, with the animals frequently approaching the lodge's large glass windows during the day and night.
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On a mission – Instrumental in rearing the wolves of Polar Park, Stig Sletten is the sanctuary's animal manager. "There are a lot of negative stereotypes about wolves, both in Norway and across the world," says Sletten. "One of our overriding aims here is to educate both locals and visitors about Arctic animals and the value of preserving Norway's natural heritage. Once they've interacted with the wolves of Polar Park, many of our visitors leave with a different opinion."
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Lupine love-in – Polar Park's lupine experience doesn't get closer than during the so-called "wolf kiss."
Those visiting or overnighting at the Polar Park can enter the enclosure that surrounds Wolf Lodge. The wolves are allowed to approach and interact with the group. Safety is paramount, with strict rules of engagement and a keeper present at all times. "The wolves at Polar Park have been reared to socialize with humans," says Sletten. "Allowing them to interact with visitors is actually a good way to relieve boredom and stress, and also means we can check on their condition."
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Scenic sidetrack – The town of Narvik has about 20,000 inhabitants and plenty of attractions. The Ofoten Railway (Ofotbanen) -- more popularly known as the Polar Express -- runs between Narvik and the iron ore mining town of Kiruna, across the border in Sweden. The line passes through some spectacular scenery, with snow-covered mountain ranges, plunging fjords and rust-coloured mountain cabins all illuminated by the soft Arctic light.
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Northern delights – With its rugged topography and frequently cloudless skies, Narvik is one of the best places in Scandinavia to view the spectacular (yet often elusive) northern lights (aurora borealis). The best time to see them is from November to March. Launched in January 2016, "Lights at the Lodge" is a new Northern Lights experience that takes guests by cable car from Narvik up to a lodge on Narvikfjellet (Narvik Mountain). Here guests can enjoy panoramic views of the town and nearby fjord, and -- with luck -- some dramatic aurora shows.
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Seafood smorgasbord – Located in the center of town, Narvik's Fiskehallen (Fish Market) is the place to witness the bountiful array of marine produce that comes from local Norwegian waters. An adjoining cafe offers a small menu of fishy snacks -- the fish cakes come highly recommended.
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War and peace – Narvik played a significant role in 20th-century history. Two major naval battles took place offshore during World War II, as the Germans looked to secure supplies of Swedish iron ore. The town's interesting Red Cross War Museum is well worth a visit, with photos, paintings and a range of artifacts such as uniforms, weapons and medals on display. The museum will soon move to a new "Peace Center", opening across the road in the summer of 2016.
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Fjord forays – Ofotfjord, on which Narvik is located, is one of the longest fjords in northern Norway, with a depth of over 550 meters. Regular boat cruises from Narvik's harbor allows passengers to experience the local scenery and fishing industry, and get up close with wildlife such as killer whales, seals and sea eagles.
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Animal encounters – Aside from wolves, Polar Park is home to a number of other Arctic species -- including lynx, brown bear, Arctic fox, musk ox and moose -- many of which are endangered or extinct in the Norwegian wild. Covering 114 acres of the Salangen Valley, the park's enclosures are all large, and there is a strong commitment to animal welfare.
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Controversial canine – There aren't many animals that evoke such strong feelings in humans as the wolf. In Norway the debate over wolves has been long and highly divisive, with many in favor of their total extirpation. While a visit to Wolf Lodge and Polar Park reveals these intelligent animals to be far from the slavering, wanton killers that many believe them to be, Stig Sletten and his team still have their work cut out persuading people otherwise. If they and Norway's pro-wolf lobby fail, then the only wolves left in Norway may soon be the ones behind fences.
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For thousands of years, large numbers of gray wolves roamed across Norway.
Thanks to hunting and habitat loss, today there may be fewer than 30 living in the Norwegian wild.
Protected since 1973, most of these now live in a single, highly managed pack in a "wolf zone" in the country's southeastern corner.
Polar Park is the world's northernmost wildlife park. It opened in 1994 in the heart of Norwegian Lapland and is home to seven gray wolves.
The Scandinavian wolf, which is more heavily built than its more southerly European counterparts, typically weighs around 40 kilograms, with males larger than females.
They prey on everything from moose and deer to sheep and goats.
Although Norwegian wolves have been shown to take no more than 1,500 sheep a year (out of annual losses of 100,000), many Norwegian farmers support their total eradication.
Lack of understanding
Despite the fact that nobody in Norway has been killed or injured by a wolf for more than 200 years, surveys have shown that many Norwegians remain afraid of them.
As the Norwegian wolf has been present in very small numbers for decades, this fear is largely based on a lack of understanding and experience with the animal.
With more than 11,000 hunters recently applying for licenses to shoot 16 wild wolves in an approved government cull, the future of the Norwegian wolf now hangs in the balance.
An ongoing initiative in Norway's far north, which aims to separate lupine fact from fiction, may prove critical in their fight for survival.
Polar Park, Bonesveien, 9360 Norway;
Daniel Allen is a journalist and photographer based in London and St. Petersburg