15 Apr Wolves of Iberia
One May morning, I set out on foot from Luarca, a fishing town huddled against a bowl-shaped harbor along the Atlantic Ocean in Spain’s northwestern province of Asturias. It was a typical weekday — all the fishing boats were out at sea, all the children in school, and everyone else at work — as I stepped onto a still and quiet road that would lead to an encounter I’ll never forget.
My destination was fifteen kilometers west to another fishing village, Puerto de Vega. Getting there would be a detective’s effort: to find and follow web-like footpaths and tiny village roads that often never made it onto the topographical map. Locals had taught me how to see these unmarked routes, which were visible only to the walker patient enough to seek them out. Once I could recognize the telltale wear of beloved shortcuts through fields, forests, and villages, I began to connect them, using my compass to be sure that, through it all, I continued west.
From the first narrow, paved road climbing out of Luarca’s harbor, I let a fair-use footpath lead me into a corridor of countryside between the Atlantic and the Cantabrian Mountains, which separate the north of Spain from the rest of the country. I walked through gentle, rolling hills and river valleys that made their way to sheer cliff-side drops to the Atlantic. Those cliffs hid wild, scalloped beaches of polished, round stones and striated yellow-black sands. The only human activities allowed in the corridor have been there for centuries, if not millennia: Small communities practice farming, herding, fishing, and foraging.
Soon after Luarca, the footpaths took me into a forest of pine and chestnut trees, where low-growing, purple wildflowers cloaked the borders of my path. I felt a shadow pass overhead and looked in time to see a large brown hawk in flight. He came down, landing in the crown of a pine twenty-five meters before me. For the next three kilometers, this was our dance: I walked, he took flight as I neared his tree, and then he landed ahead. It was as if we were beading a necklace together, and he was stringing me along.
Lost in this wild world I wandered, finding, then losing, then finding new paths, keeping the ocean to my right and the mountains to my left. I entered the settlement of San Martín, passing its tiny, whitewashed and grey-granite church, its black and white dairy cows grazing in a pasture, and its three sleepy guard dogs, who raised their heads and then went back to their slumbers. Then I paused. I could not discern the next path.
Not one person was around — all were at work in Luarca or on the fishing boats — and it gave the place a serene peace, but not total quiet. I could still hear the wind in the chestnut trees, a bee buzzing in a nearby stand of wildflowers, and even the cows chewing their grass. But as I looked down at my compass, everything went still, as if the entire world took one collective intake of breath and held it. I slowly looked up again and there, standing twenty meters before me, where no one had been moments before, was a wolf.
– – –
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that in Europe there are around 12,000 wolves, a quarter of which reside in Iberia. These numbers show remarkable growth in wolf populations since the decimating practices of the past — such as exterminations which, as recently as the 1970s, had reduced wolf numbers into the low hundreds. There’s still a need to educate the public, especially herders and ranchers, about effective, nonlethal methods to prevent conflicts with wolves: Despite their reputation, wolves are far less responsible for livestock deaths than are diseases, accidents, weather, birthing complications, and even other predators such as feral dogs.
The vast majority of Iberia’s wolf population turns out to live just south of where I was trekking, and are most concentrated around the Duero River, which becomes the Duoro River once it crosses the border into northern Portugal. Enlightened conservation efforts have worked to recover the wolves’ access to wild game, which they prefer to domesticated animals such as sheep, in order to prevent them from wandering into areas of human activity and settlements — but they still approach, every once and awhile.
– – –
We froze and watched each other. I could feel his agitation and hoped I was hiding mine, not sure what a wolf would do when you met one on the road in a sleepy village whose dogs had yet to pick up the scent.
Other than the fact that his pointed, triangular ears were large — a more common dog trait — everything about this creature said wolf: pointed wedge-like face, yellow-brown eyes that slanted toward his slender snout, narrow shoulders and narrow hips. He also had long, long legs, and big paws splayed out as if he were Charlie Chaplin in big shoes. His eyes were keen, and he had appeared so quietly, and remained so still, that I had felt him before I saw him. The way he studied me, so poignantly, it was as if he were reading my thoughts while the world stood still.
I recalled an Asturian folk story I’d read, about a bagpiper walking home late one night through a forest lit by the full moon. Carrying his instrument under his arm, drunk and happy after an evening of indulgence, the man was caught unawares by a wolf that appeared suddenly in his path. Shivering in his traditional wool socks and wooden clog-like shoes, the bagpiper mustered the courage to take up his bagpipe and let loose his most animated gigue. The cacophony of piped sound freaked the wolf and scattered him like the wind, allowing the frightened man to quickly make his way home.
It was worth a try, right? I considered which noise to make — a shout or even a boisterous hello would cut the silence with a shock — when a howl overcame us, then another.
The dogs had raised the alarm. At last, they had picked up his scent and soon the wolf was fleeing south, toward the hills and the mountains. He went so swiftly that I blinked and he was gone, and I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. But the continued barking from the dogs reassured me that it had been real.
As I came down from the surge of adrenalin, I was relieved, but also high with sheer elation over having seen such a magnificent creature a mere twenty meters in front of me. I felt a little sad as I slowly turned west and resumed my hunt for the next footpath, but the magic of that chance encounter never wore off. I periodically glanced south, toward the hills and mountains, and sometimes behind me, unable to shake the uncanny feeling of being watched.
I arrived in Puerto de Vega and settled into the one harbor-front café of the village. The harbor, like Luarca’s, was tucked into a deep, protective alcove along the coast. I took a seat where I could both look out over the harbor and also back toward the hills. I asked the owner about my encounter as he set my coffee on the table: Had I really seen a wolf?
“You very likely did,” he said, without surprise. “But it’s a rare occurrence,” he added. “They’re more afraid of us than we are of them. You got lucky.”
He went off to take another patron’s order while I looked back out toward those mountains, wondering where the wolf was now, and hoping to get lucky again.
Consider these adventures in Iberian wolf territory: