The Earth Beneath My Feet | Searching For Wolves In Wild Europe
This extract from Andrew Terrill's long-distance walking book looks at his journey in the Parco Nazionale del Pollino
I climbed into the Pollino National Park from teeming Castrovillari, my final Calabrian town. In eight miles I gained 1,500 metres of altitude, swapping a sun-blasted Mediterranean climate for one that was essentially alpine. After a month of tangled forests, stifling heat and testing travel, the change was profoundly welcome.
From the first pass—the evocatively named Passo della Lupi, the Pass of the Wolves—I stared at an Apennine landscape unlike any I’d so far seen. Before me now was a broad upland meadow strewn with wildflowers and stones. Surrounding it were dark beech woods, and soaring above them were rugged mountains of rock and snow. The largest mountain in view was 2,248-metre Monte Pollino, the first mountain of the journey that deserved to be labeled one. At the sight of it I couldn’t stop grinning.
“Apennine wolves are smaller than European wolves further north, and typically form smaller packs”
The Parco Nazionale del Pollino is Italy’s largest national park. Covering 1,195 square kilometres, it forms an immense natural barrier that in centuries past cut Calabria off from the rest of Italy. Built from limestone, carved by water and glacial ice, the Pollino is a range of untracked forests, deep gorges, and sun-bleached peaks. During the last ice age the ice sheet that covered Italy extended this far south, but no further, and the Pollino still boasts Calabria’s coldest environment. Snow can bury it half the year. Even summer’s midday heat fails some years to entirely banish winter’s deepest drifts.
The Pollino is famed for being the last holdout in Italy of a rare tree—the majestic, thick-trunked Bosnian Pine. It is also a stronghold for other threatened wilderness species, including golden eagles and wolves. Several of Castrovillari’s residents had warned me about Pollino’s wolves, but the only person I’d met who had actually visited the range had told me not to worry. ‘To even see one,’ I’d been told, ‘you’d have to be incredibly fortunate. You won’t have any problems. Probably.’
Unsurprisingly, it was the ‘probably’ that stuck in mind.
The idea of travelling alone where wolves roamed was unnerving, but thrilling too. With wolves present the wilderness possessed extra depth, an edge missing elsewhere. My walk was a search for Europe at its wildest, and where could be wilder than a place where sharp-toothed predators lived? And the truth is wolves are aggressive predators. Killing and eating other animals is what they do best—their survival depends on it. And yet, throughout untold centuries of conflict with another aggressive predator, there’s little doubt which species came out on top. You have to look back two centuries to find Europe’s last documented wolf attack on a human, but human attacks on wolves in that time? You couldn’t even count.
“My walk was a search for Europe at its wildest”
At one time wolves padded across the entire continent—barely a habitat existed that didn’t echo to their howls. But as the human population swelled wolves were pushed back, until they clung on only in isolated pockets, barely surviving. By 1970 Italy’s wolf population was so reduced it had reached endangered status—only 200 were estimated to remain along the entire Apennine chain. But changing attitudes and the passing of protective laws have since allowed a modest recovery, and revised estimates at the time of my visit in 1997 suggested the population had rebounded to 400, and was still climbing. Wolves remained rare, but their recovery prompted real hope. After all, never before in recorded history had their numbers increased, or their territory expanded. A recovering wolf population was a monumental thing.
Members of the grey wolf family, Apennine wolves are smaller than European wolves further north, and typically form smaller packs. By necessity they have evolved into elusive, adaptable creatures, able to make limited territories work. Their diet consists primarily of boar, deer, chamois and rabbits, as well as occasional plants and berries. They also take sheep—and who can blame them?—but not long-distance walkers. As I’d been told, I’d be lucky to even see one. And yet, the nervousness remained, not just because of my sheltered suburban upbringing but also because tens of thousands of years of shared human experience have pushed some fears so deep rational thinking can never entirely overcome them. That a large carnivore roamed the Pollino wasn’t something I could forget. But also, it wasn’t something I wanted to forget. It was why I was here.
From the Pass of the Wolves I trekked a mile further, loping over a rolling meadow. Halfway across, down in a hollow, I came upon eight wild boar, for a second thinking they were wolves. They scattered in an instant, heading for the woods, hooves pounding like thunder. Camp was made at 1,800 metres in the heart of the wilderness. It offered everything I desired: a wild, unpeopled land spread around, a view towards snow-draped cliffs, and a small stream gushing from a snowdrift. For a month water had often been scarce, but not here; for a month relaxing outside had been impossible, but not here! There were no mosquitoes, and the air was refreshingly cold. Instead of sweat I developed goosebumps and had to pull on my fleece. ‘Base Camp Pollino’ was as perfect as any wild camp could ever be; a suitable reward for almost 800 kilometres of effort.
“Clean air blew against my face, and the surrounding mountains slowly grew familiar”
I spent the evening outside. Wrapped in my sleeping bag I listened to cuckoos calling, to large creatures rummaging through forests below. Were they deer, boar, wolves? I couldn’t tell. Clean air blew against my face, and the surrounding mountains slowly grew familiar. The mountain closest to camp was southern Italy’s tallest, 2,267-metre Serra Dolcedorme. Dolcedorme means ‘sweet sleep’, and after all the sultry nights at lower elevations I certainly did.
Dawn, June 1, brought whirls of frost to the inside of the tent, layers of ice within my water bottle, and bright, crisp sunlight. It wasn’t a day for striking camp and moving on—it was a day for packless wandering. Leaving camp pitched, I stravaiged without real purpose across meadows, through woods, up lonely ridges. My eyes stayed wide open, all senses alert, but I saw no wolves, only a single set of fresh canine prints angling across a sun-softened patch of snow. Had a wolf left them? It didn’t honestly matter. The near-pristine quality of the wilderness was the only thing that did. Just being in it was enough.
June’s second day was the fourth anniversary of my fall from the Hohtürli Pass in Switzerland – the fall that had woken me up and set me free. To mark the day, I set out from ‘Base Camp Pollino’ long before sunrise, heading for Dolcedorme’s summit. In pre-dawn gloom I made my way appreciatively uphill, thinking back four years. Then, I’d begun downhill across snow and ice, nervous of what lay ahead; here I was heading uphill, excited to find out. Around me now was a landscape as hushed as Switzerland at altitude had been, but a landscape significantly richer. It slowly came into focus as daylight increased: beech woods either side, rough mountain grasses underfoot, the silhouette of Dolcedorme directly ahead. As I travelled I sensed the land holding its breath, awaiting rebirth, throbbing with promise and expectancy, and a rush of childlike joy overcame me. There was nothing to fear here, only gifts to embrace.
Soon, a soft glow lit the Apennines. Patches of frozen snow passed underfoot, glowing from the light. Then came sharp-edged limestone, the handrail of a rising ridge, cold to my fingers. With mounting excitement I scrambled towards the summit, the world below dropping away and dawn growing ever nearer. This was better than bouncing down an ice slope in Switzerland!
“To all the wolves I’d never see, and even to fear itself, I offered my heartfelt thanks”
I summited at 5 a.m. and perched in stillness, higher than anyone else in southern Italy. For twenty minutes I watched and waited, and then it came: a flash on the horizon, followed by brightness and warmth. I stared outwards across a huge swathe of Italy to three seas—the Ionian, Adriatic, and Tyrrhenian—and gave my imagination permission to roam. There’s no traveller like the imagination, and no better place to grant it freedom than a high summit at dawn.
Since the Hohtürli accident I’d considered June 2 my adopted birthday; it marked my second chance at life. Here, on Dolcedorme, engaged in the journey of a lifetime, I knew I wasn’t wasting it. The summit was the perfect birthday gift. To the wilderness spread around, to the mountains and forests and sky, to all the wolves I’d never see, and even to fear itself, I offered my heartfelt thanks.
The Earth Beneath My Feet is the first of two books that describe a 7,000-mile solo walk from Calabria in Italy to the top of Norway. The book was published on June 1 in paperback and ebook by independent-publisher Enchanted Rock Press. It is available on Amazon and from bookshops.
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