Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Thursday, 8 January 2009

On the trail of the Arctic wolf

Mac the wolf (Jim McNeill)
"Mac" the wolf was an early visitor who lifted the team's spirits

During summer 2007, professional explorer Jim McNeill travelled to Ellesmere Island with a BBC Natural History Unit crew, to capture the elusive Arctic wolf on camera.

With his reputation as the "wolf finder", he recently returned to the region with the BBC team to see if they could carry on where they had left off.

Here, he shares his adventure on the ice in the harsh Arctic conditions.

It was six o'clock in the evening by the time we had unloaded our Twin Otter aircraft on to the surface of the frozen fjord and waved goodbye to our link with civilisation.

Jim McNeill (Image: Jim McNeill)
Jim's success in 2007 led to him being christened as the "wolf finder"

This is always an apprehensive moment. Were we going to survive so very far away from anywhere or anyone?

You would think after 25 years of doing this, these feelings would have subsided but in a way I feel better for having them.

It keeps me sharp and aware and when you're pitting your wits against Mother Nature, that's exactly what you need to be.

I was also very excited. We were we going in search of the wolf pack that we encountered here last summer, and which we had filmed for the BBC series Natural World. Perhaps I would see my favourite, "Lucy", again.

To some extent, my reputation as the BBC's own "wolf finder" was at stake. Both BBC director Jeff Wilson, who was accompanying me, and I wondered whether the expense, time and effort would all be worthwhile.

We were about to find out.

False hope

After having some difficulty getting our kit and provisions off the ice on to the land, as a result of some large fissures in the ice, we set up camp on the beach about a kilometre-and-a-half from the wolves' den we filmed last year.

The following morning, as we were discussing the plan for the day, I caught a glimpse of something white moving towards us from the south over the sea ice.

I reached for the spotting scope and pointed it in the direction of the moving blob. To my delight, I saw our first wolf coming to say hello and check us out.

It was as if I'd ordered him for the occasion and both Jeff and I were thrilled. This was day one and our first encounter; it couldn't have augured better for the rest of the trip.

Artic fox (Image: Jim McNeill)
Arctic fox: One of the non-wolf encounters the team enjoyed

I didn't recognise the wolf, as it had a distinctively turned up nose; not like any of last year's pack.

I named him "Mac" after my 10-year-old son as I thought he had a nice disposition and friendly eyes and I could tease Mac about the turned up nose.

Jeff and I watched as he checked out our camp and then proceeded up river, in the direction of the den.

Unfortunately, he went straight past and carried on his way. Wolves have massively large territories (up to 1,000 square kilometres), so we may have been a considerable distance from this chap's den and the rest of the pack.

We watched our target den intensely for the next three days and there was plenty of evidence of last year's activities but almost nothing fresh and no sign of any more wolves.

If the den was active, the alpha female would be inside with her cubs and, according to all previous evidence, about to emerge for the first time.

We had to know whether this den was being used or not, as a great deal of investment was riding on our decision to bring in a ground-based filming team.

With great care, we approached the den, searching for signs and consulting with each other. There was nothing and on reaching the cave system itself we found it filled with solid ice.

Decision made: we had to relocate to another potential area.

Gamble pays off

Two weeks, and a good deal of frustration later, we faced our last chance to locate a wolf pack and an active den, for this year.

We had four days left in the field and had made the decision to set up camp in one of the valleys I had fancied as having the right topography.

It was also the only area where Jeff had seen two wolves during the previous week, while he was in a helicopter filming the scenic views.

Within 20 minutes of us landing, our wolves had found us.

Team's kit on ice (Image: Jim McNeill)
The team await their pick-up after getting the footage they wanted

The pair consisted of a pushy confident male, which I named "Charlie", and a very serious female, "Bessie", who was obviously feeding young somewhere.

Again, we were intensely excited but had we found a den? Had we pulled it off at the last moment? Could we follow these back to their den? We dropped everything in anticipation of an arduous, covert and careful bit of following.

Luckily, the valley was so big we could keep the wolves in vision for miles.

We dared not take our eyes off the animals, and Jeff set up a constant vigil as I explored areas that would be suitable as a base camp site.

Some hours later I radioed Jeff, and asked: "Have you seen anything yet?"

"I've seen four cubs," Jeff replied, calmly and simply.

"Yee hah," I screamed in my best cowboy impression.

"Make that six cubs," Jeff corrected himself.

"Now you're just showing off," I joked.

I met up with Jeff and shook his hand: "This is getting better and better!"

We had to wait another whole, very long, week before we were joined by Mark Smith, our cameraman, and Kieran O'Donovan, our field assistant.

But at last we were capturing some fantastic wolf behaviour, and all in magnificent state-of-the-art High Definition quality.

"Charlie" the alpha male (Jim McNeill)
"Charlie" the alpha male

The next four weeks were exhilarating, exhausting and very eventful.

Mark and Jeff concentrated on getting the wolves used to our presence so that they could get in close to the action.

By the fourth week we could follow them on our all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) without the wolves being bothered at all.

This meant Mark got some extraordinary footage of the two male wolves, Charlie and Alfred, separating a young musk ox but then losing it to the rest of the herd who stampeded to save it.

We were all exhausted after spending shifts of 17 hours in a four-cubic-foot hide and long arduous journeys by ATV across very rough and often wet terrain.

When it came to wrapping up, we were delighted to reach the homely civilisation that Resolute Bay offered.


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