Spark Story Page

Winter 2012

Rick Stronks ’84 takes a deep breath, cups his hands around his mouth, tilts his head back and howls. Standing along a kilometer of pitch-dark highway, 2,500 hushed people listen as his mournful wail rises, falls—and then is answered by a chorus of yips, followed by sustained howls cascading over two octaves.

“You can feel an electricity go through the crowd,” said Stronks. “It goes through me, too, even though I’ve heard wolves howl countless times. The sound is powerful, eerie, spine-tingling.”

Stronks is chief naturalist at Algonquin Provincial Park, 7,725 square kilometers of deeply forested land in central Ontario. Thursday nights in August he leads public wolf howls, “probably the largest naturalist-led interpretive program in North America, if not the world,” he noted.

People arrive early to get a seat in the park’s outdoor amphitheater. There Stronks and his staff take an hour to describe wolf biology and ecology. Then they shepherd the crowd to a stretch of highway where they’ve heard wolves the night before.

“We know there’s a good chance they’ll be there the night of the program,” Stronks explained, “because in August the pups are too big to be in the den, but not big enough to hunt with the adults. So before going off on a night’s hunt, the adults leave the pups at a rendezvous site. It’s like a playpen. They might use the same rendezvous site for weeks at a time.”

It’s the boisterous pups that first answer Stronks’ howl. “They think I’m one of the pack adults coming back to feed them,” he said.

When the actual wolf adults chime in, it’s to let the imposter know they’re near. They may be warning Stronks, too.

“But these packs have lived along the highway for generations,” he said. “I think they know I’m a harmless human. They’ll howl because there’s also a social aspect to howling. Like a campfire sing-along, it’s a bonding thing.”

It’s a sing-along that leaves listeners changed.

“Because wild wolves are so elusive, it’s the only contact most people will ever have with this iconic animal,” Stronks said. “Visitors tell us they’ll never forget the sound.”

More than 150,000 visitors to Algonquin have heard that sound since the park began leading the public wolf howls in August 1963. Back then, rangers were surprised that anyone turned out for the program.

“In the popular literature and imagination, wolves were considered vermin, ruthless killers,” Stronks said. “In fact, until the late 1950s park rangers were paid to destroy them. We’ve learned since then that to have a well-functioning ecosystem, you have to have top predators. Through this program, we’ve changed people’s attitudes about wolves.”

That 650 people came to the first public howl in 1963, and that more than 2,000 people per night come now—investing four hours of their time for the chance to hear a pack howl for perhaps 30 seconds—tells Stronks that humans have a deep, innate desire to connect with nature.

“During a howl, that connection happens at an emotional level. Knowing you’re hearing wild wolves howling—it’s magical.”

As Algonquin’s chief naturalist, Stronks oversees educational programs about many flora and fauna, but it’s the wolf howling that gets attention.

“Only a handful of people in the world have on their job descriptions, ‘Must be able to howl for wolves.’ In terms of work, I feel like I’m one of the world’s luckiest guys.”