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March 19, 2015

Wild About Wildlife in BC




They peer down from their perches high up totem poles, creatures with the features of bears and whales, eagles and wolves, beavers and ravens. For eons, British Columbia’s Aboriginal people have shared a strong spiritual bond with the menagerie thriving in the surrounding forests and waters. These days, adventurists from all walks of life are also longing to connect with the wilderness and the natural cycle of life unfolding with every season.

In BC it’s easy to experience Mother Nature’s grand scheme and not just in the province’s 13.9 million hectares (34.35 million acres) of parks and protected areas. With 1,100 wildlife species thriving in some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, Bighorn sheep, bears and moose can be seen from highways; dolphins, sea lions and whales from the decks of scheduled ferries.

With more fauna than any other province, critters are sure to be somewhere nearby, whether you’re camping with the bare essentials or lounging in luxury. You just need to decide where best to commune with your own inner wild thing.

A brown black bear cub near the Grizzly Bear Ranch in spring. Photo by Jim Lawrence.
(Jim is a professional wildlife photographer and a regular guest at the ranch.
To see more of his photos go to his website: www.kootenayreflections.com)


Bears

Few wildlife encounters are more exhilarating than watching grizzly bears lumbering along a shoreline or cubs frolicking on a beach. Mid-May through mid-June, in the hungry early days of summer, is the best time to check in on the 60 or so who call remote Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary home. The only access into Canada’s first grizzly protection zone northeast of Prince Rupert is via floatplane or boat operated by licensed outfitters privy to prime spying locations.

With more than half of Canada’s population of grizzlies — roughly 15,000 — as well as a quarter of the country’s black bears, BC is truly “bear central.” There’s even a unique creamy-white bruin native to a region within the Great Bear Rainforest, the world’s largest remaining temperate coastal rainforest, south of Khutzeymateen. The Kermode (or “Spirit”) bear is a genetic fluke, a startlingly white black bear that is BC’s official animal. The folks who best know the whereabouts of the approximately 400 elusive, mystical beasts are guides from the nearby First Nations village of Klemtu who enhance the Spirit bear search with traditional knowledge and tales.

Though the Great Bear Rainforest is a road-less wilderness twice the size of Belgium, two fly-in floating lodges — Knight Inlet and Great Bear — provide comfort in the heart of grizzly country. Day treks through lush rainforest follow “bear stomp” trails where muddy dens and day beds might be spotted; drift silently along estuaries, eavesdropping on mother bears and cubs munching fresh grass sedges while keeping an eye open for seals, bald eagles and water birds.

Other ways to get your share of bear viewing in BC include joining the crew aboard the Pacific Yellowfin, the tall ship Maple Leaf or one of Bluewater Adventures’ pampered wildlife-viewing cruises that delve deep into the rainforest. For a change of scenery, lavish outposts like the Discovery Islands’ Sonora Resort serve up five-star luxury that includes heli-sightseeing and gourmet cuisine along with your bears.

In BC’s Cariboo Chilcotin, adventure company ROAM recently launched a Bear-Camp — deluxe safari-style adventures including bear-peeping by canoe or kayak, or on foot. Though bears and tents might not sound like an ideal proposition, ROAM’s six waterfront suites are perched atop safe grizzly-viewing platforms overlooking Chilko Lake and the headwaters of the Chilko River, and include access to exquisite dining, daily yoga classes and an in-house massage therapist who makes tent calls. Looking to tweak your wildlife photography skills? Sign up for historic Tweedsmuir Park Lodge’s Wildlife and Grizzly Bear Photography Workshops in a 1929 wilderness lodge with a backdrop of the Bella Coola Valley’s glaciers and rugged peaks on 24 hectares (60 acres) of private land within BC’s biggest provincial park.

Bear-sighting expeditions need not be costly: Jamie’s Whaling Station in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, offers two- to three-hour black bear tours for as little as $89, and you can spot grizzlies on full-day guided tours out of Campbell River or Telegraph Cove for about $300 from spring through October.

Tip: autumn is one of the most reliable and dramatic seasons to experience bears. Splashing through river shallows teeming with migrating salmon, bears swat fish from the water with a flick of their formidable paws almost as fast as they can devour them, teeth sinking into their feast with a satisfying crunch. Meanwhile, high up in mossy trees, bald eagles patiently wait their turn to swoop down and clean up the leftovers.

Salmon

Few events in nature showcase the cycle of life more graphically than the annual migration of all five wild Pacific salmon species, September through November. It’s raw and moving to witness countless creatures live out their last days battling upstream to spawn in the same streams they were born, running a gauntlet of hungry bears and birdlife. Added bonus: salmon runs can even be experienced alongside cities at North Vancouver’s Capilano Salmon Hatchery or Goldstream Park outside Victoria.

Every four years a spectacular super migration takes place with millions of crimson-coloured sockeye salmon turning an 11-kilometre (seven-mile) stretch of the Adams River northeast of Kamloops red within protected Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park. The next “dominant” run peaks in October 2014 and it’s being celebrated — as it always is — with a month-long Salute to the Sockeye festival.

Want to see the world from a salmon’s perspective? Head to Destiny River Adventures in Campbell River or Bella Coola’s Kynoch Adventures, slip into a wetsuit and submerge within the upstream-swimming mass during a memorable snorkelling with salmon experience in summer and fall.

Birds

Set in the path of the Pacific Flyway — a major north-south migratory bird highway between Alaska and Patagonia — British Columbia’s geography provides year-round opportunities to bust out the cameras, particularly when numbers peak during spring and fall migrations.

To welcome 250 species of feathered friends, including great grey owls and colourful western tanagers, back to the Columbia River Basin in early May, the community of Invermere holds a week-long Wings Over the Rockies Festival complete with guided nature walks, canoe paddles, wildlife photography workshops and art exhibits for lovers of all things avian.

Grab binoculars and lace up your hiking boots anywhere in the province to see hundreds of two-winged species. The best way to view? Let local naturalists and savvy local birders lead the way. In central BC’s Cariboo Mountains, for example, Ecotours-BC knows how best to spot exotics that include calliope hummingbirds, three-toed woodpeckers and sandhill cranes. Early mornings and dusk are prime time to join Great Horned Owl Eco-Tours in the South Okanagan for a hush-hush prowl through a mosaic of marshes, pastures and Canada’s only patch of true desert in search of yellow-breasted chats, bobolinks and Williamson’s sapsuckers. And November is a special month just south of Vancouver in Delta’s George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, one of Canada’s top birdwatching sites, when the sky and landscape turn white with 30,000 to 80,000 lesser snow geese arriving from Siberia to spend the winter in BC.

Another winged wonder takes place mid-November through mid-February in Goldstream Provincial Park near Victoria and at Brackendale, south of Whistler. Drawn by the rushing buffet that is the annual salmon run, huge raptors perch like white-topped candles in riverside trees or scour riverbanks, gorging on fish. Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park boasts record-breaking numbers — from 650 to 1,000 birds can be spotted on a single January day from the Squamish River dyke trail or on a Cheakamus River raft float. A bonus: bears also frequent the yearly banquet.

Whales

Each year in March, an astonishing 20,000 Pacific grey whales appear off the west coast of Vancouver Island on the longest migration of any mammal, travelling approximately 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to summer feeding grounds off Eastern Russia. And there to greet them midway are Tofino and Ucluelet residents who throw a nine-day celebration, the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, rocking Vancouver Island’s west coast with music, art shows, chowder competitions and interpretive rainforest walks.

The annual fest is just one opportunity to view these mighty creatures that thrive throughout the year, with peak viewing season — May through October — promising an armada of zooming Zodiacs, comfortable cruisers with viewing decks, historic sailboats and flotillas of kayaks that set off from major cities and villages along the entire coastline from Victoria to Prince Rupert. Everyone’s quest is to cross paths with humpback, minke, Orca and grey whales with sightings of sea lions, seals, Pacific white-sided dolphins, herons and golden eagles the icing on the day’s cake.

Humpbacks fly clear out of the water, landing with whale-sized splashes; dozens of Orcas send misty fountains into the crisp morning air, and you can feel nature’s rhythm as pods of porpoises skim the surface in unison — it’s a wildlife waterpark out there.

Resident Orcas, or “killer whales,” live in BC waters year-round and can be seen on trips out of Victoria and Steveston, near Vancouver’s airport. A prime habitat is Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago off Vancouver Island's northeast coast, where roughly 250 Orcas reside in the summer. There they dine on salmon, socialize and — unique among Orcas — rub their bodies on the area’s smooth pebble beaches. Watch them from late spring through early fall from boats or kayaks out of Port McNeill, Alert Bay or Telegraph Cove, a historic fishing village on stilts at the ocean's edge with a Whale Interpretive Centre featuring sea-life skeletons.

Moose and Bison and Wolves — Oh My!

So many creatures; so little time — the roll call of wildlife in BC seems endless and they’re everywhere. From June to October, simply driving the Alaska Highway through the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, dubbed the “Serengeti of the North,” can be a wildlife safari experience: Stone’s sheep hang out at mineral licks, bears and mule deer graze roadside meadows, herds of up to 50 bison are not uncommon, and summer through fall is the time to hit the brakes for moose and woodland caribou sightings. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a wolf.

If quiet calm is what you seek, take a cross-country ski glide through Wells Gray Provincial Park in the Thompson Okanagan region where, fingers crossed, you’ll come across moose, their tracks evident along the trail. Should you wish to pick up the pace, opt instead for a River Safari, and see how many creatures you can add to your photo library as you travel along scenic Mud River and Mud Lake, backed by rushing waterfalls and the peaks of the Monashee Mountains. With bears, moose, eagles and ospreys spotted along the way, it’s an on-the-water journey that happily embraces British Columbia’s wild side.

For more on British Columbia's destinations and travel information, visit HelloBC.com.
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Story by Margo Pfeiff

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