The Arctic polar region is one of the toughest terrains on earth. With freezing cold temperatures, limited food supply, harsh winds, and wild animals, there’s potential danger around every turn. For explorer and photographer Ronan Donovan, it’s just another day at work.
Donovan spent three months in the Arctic on Ellesmere Island for his new Nat Geo WILD special, Kingdom of the White Wolf, studying and documenting a pack of white wolves in their natural habitat. For the three-part series, which will premiere on August 25, Donovan wanted to shine a light on how these wolves truly behave in the wild and show how they survive in the harsh Arctic habitat.
“The experience was like being on a different planet,” Donovan told Men’s Journal. “There are no trees, a frozen ocean, a sun that never sets, and white wolves that’ll walk up to a landing helicopter because they’re curious. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. I was there for the short Arctic summer, so all the wildlife is in a mad dash to absorb as much of the sun’s energy before it dips below the horizon for six months of frigid winter. I’m a scientist by training, so to be immersed in a totally new ecosystem, especially one of such extremes, was just exhilarating.”
To study the wolves and get the footage he needed, Donovan often worked between 20 to 40 hours straight before resting, usually tracking the wolves on an ATV across the Arctic terrain. During his time studying the wolves, Donovan suffered two major meniscus tears in both of his knees, but muscled through to get the footage he needed. “I had one in the first month of the project and one in the final month,” Donovan said. “I had surgery on both knees in March of this year to repair the damage, and I’m still recovering.”
At one point, to help get a better look at the wolves, Donovan built a small rock wall to help observe the wolves without them realizing he was there. It gave Donovan an unfiltered look at the way the wolves interact with each other, including a moment where the young wolves and pups played and greeted their mother and father one morning. Here’s a look at that clip:
On top of all that, Donovan was eventually accepted by the wolf pack and was allowed to get in very close with the animals, spending time with them as they rested, played, and hunted. One of the wolf pups even played a keep-away chase game with Donovan after grabbing a $10K camera.
“It took me a few minutes to finally retrieve the camera, which she left unharmed on the tundra,” Donovan said with a laugh. “I still don’t fully understand what the wolves see humans as. I wasn’t considered a threat, nor was I prey. It seems they look to humans as some third animal—one they respect.”
We spoke with Donovan to get the lowdown on what he learned from studying the white wolves, his essential gear, and more.
What was your day-to-day life like?
My day-to-day life was dictated by how much fuel I had in order to follow the wolves using an ATV. We had a basecamp setup, which was 20 miles from the wolves’ den. I’d leave basecamp with enough fuel to ride for around 200 miles. Since there were no tracking collars in the pack, it would take me anywhere from six-to-20 hours to relocate the wolves by scanning their area with binoculars from various high points. Once I’d find the pack, I’d stay with them for as long as the fuel would allow. That could be up to five days if they weren’t traveling much, or two days if they were hunting long distances. I’d typically work anywhere from 20-40 hours straight, then sleep for 8-12 hours and repeat until I’d have to go back to basecamp to refuel, download media cards, charge batteries and sleep for 12-plus hours.
What were some of the surprising things you learned from studying the wolves?
The recognition of this shared intelligence and a curiosity to interact really fascinated me. It became incredibly clear to me through this experience with fearless wolves why humans domesticated wolves so early on. They hunt the same prey, live in the same family structures as humans, and are devoted group members.
What are some essential pieces of equipment and gear you needed?
The ATV machines were, by far, the most critical piece of equipment for this project. There’s no other way to keep up with the wolves and also carry the 150 pounds of gear needed to photograph/film the wolves. I also used custom motion-triggered camera systems designed to capture extremely close images of wildlife.
What are some of the ways you trained to prepare for a project like this?
I have to keep my fitness level high in order to carry out long-term field projects. A daily exercise routine that combines yoga/pilates and core strengthening exercises is what I’ve found to work well for keeping my body strong. That said, my body started to fall apart toward the end of this project from all the brutal miles on the ATV. I put 1,500 miles on the machine, and my body just felt like it went through multiple car accidents per day.
Editor’s note: Donovan suffered two major meniscus tears in both of his knees over the course of filming.
What were some of the most memorable moments and observations you had?
Towards the end of my time with the wolves, they lost their matriarch. She was the most important and respected member of the pack and an experienced huntress. As a result of her disappearance, the pack became increasingly desperate to find food. I found the pack in the midst of testing a herd of muskoxen, which eventually proved to be too strong for the pack. What began as a normal hunting foray with the pack turned into a 40-hour marathon that covered 65 miles and went from sea level to 2,500 ft. The wolves were desperate and tested six herds of muskoxen along the way.
The 12-week-old pups were falling behind after mile 50, and they began whimpering and moaning while trying to keep up with the adults. The pack eventually killed two Arctic hares—only 20 pounds of meat spread out across five ravenous adults and four pups. It was the first time that I saw the adult wolves refusing to share food with the pups. The adults needed to be strong in order to provide for the pups. Eventually, the old male regurgitated some of his meal for the pups. The pack then headed up over a snowy mountain top in search of more hares, and they eventually dropped through a narrow shoot that dropped 2,000 ft at a 60-degree angle of ice and snow. I couldn’t follow, and I feared the whole pack had slid to its death. An hour later, I found my way down the mountain and found the entire pack snoozing. The whole experience was the most incredible show of survival and stamina I’ve ever seen.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and how has it helped you in your career?
The best advice came from a quote by Harvey Broome who founded The Wilderness Society: “If we lose wilderness, we lose forever the knowledge of what the world was.” Humans have never existed in a world without intact wilderness, and we won’t survive without it. This informs all of my work and keeps me motivated to conserve what wilderness we have left.
Donovan’s photos will also be featured in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.