As the moon casts a warm glow over Parc Mahikan, a wildlife observation center located deep within the boreal forest of Girardville, Québec, Canada, the distant howls of a pack of wolves shatter the otherwise silent surroundings. The pack is one of several living on this protected 200-acre expanse of woodlands along the Ouasiemsca River in the province’s Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean region, about 325 miles north of Montreal, where they’re free from hunters. It’s also one of the only places in North America where visitors have the opportunity to come face to face—and in some cases, even interact—with the normally elusive mammals.
It all started more than 15 years ago when Gilles Granal, a French expat and founder of Parc Mahikan and Aventuraid, a dog sledding and canoeing excursion outfitter, adopted Lobo, a gray wolf, from a local zoo. Soon he acquired a second wolf, Loba, and over the years the pair produced multiple litters of pups. Today some 40 gray and arctic wolves call the wolf-focused center, and its surrounding area, home. (According to the International Wolf Center, as of the data available in 2013, there were approximately 7,000 wolves living in Québec.) And while the majority of Granal’s wolves reside out in the wild and maintain a safe distance from human beings, there are several “imprinted” wolves that are used to human interaction, now living in enclosures maintained by the center.
While at the wolf camp, visitors can take their pick of interactions: observing wolves in their natural habitat by staking out a spot in an enclosed observation tower overlooking the forest, or hiking one of its many nature trails, or even taking part in a supervised visit inside the imprinted wolves’ enclosure. During the latter, it’s not uncommon for the wolves to excitedly greet guests with a barrage of licks and tail wags, much like their domesticated cousins.
“The aim of our center is to demystify the wolves,” he says. “I want to make known their nature and behavior beyond the stories and myths.”
Visitors also have the option to spend the night at the center in one of its onsite ecolodges, which include a Mongolian yurt on a hillside, a cabin on stilts and several designated campsites.
An overnight visit also improves visitors’ chances of hearing the beckoning howls of the wolves. (Scientists have debunked the commonly held myth that wolves howl at the moon, and have concluded that howling is a form of communication between wolves.)
Granal’s hope is that a visit to the center will equip visitors to separate fact from fiction when it comes to wolves, and to walk away with a better understanding of their behavior.
"[I] hope that people learn a little more about the wolf and its place in nature,” he says. “Knowledge can make it possible to find a balance between nature and human activities, and it also avoids fear. It is fear and ignorance that often lead to [the wolves’] bad reputation.”