Photo Credit: Pat Suter
Camping with Wolves on Porcher Island
“Wolves? Yes, we have them, but they leave us alone and we leave them alone.” Sage information and advice from Mike Lemon of Oona River.
Seals, salmon, eagles, ravens and seagulls are all common enough on any kayak trip on BC’s west coast, but tucked away on a remote bay on Porcher Island we had the greatest surprise when, after setting up our tent, we were visited by a family of wolves. Yes, wolves! These coastal wolves were curious enough to bring their pups onto the beach to do a bit of human-watching.
We had travelled from Prince Rupert to Oona River on Porcher Island in relative comfort aboard the passenger ferry Tsimshian Storm. The ferry makes the 90-minute run to Kitkatla on Dolphin Island several times a week with a stop at Oona River.
Jan and Mike Lemon’s B&B at Oona River is an oasis, with delightful home-cooked meals and a hot tub to relax in after hours. Jan is the prime organizer of the Oona River salmon hatchery, and Mike is a fisher (“Jan breeds ’em, I kill ’em!”). Mike has all the information on tides and currents, prevailing winds, sheltered harbours, and even the best place to catch crabs. His comment about Porcher Island’s wolves: “They are very shy. Not many people see them but some have heard them howling in the distance.”
As we paddled along the shore, bald eagles left their lofty perches and glided to another viewpoint, usually a tall tree with long branches overhanging the water. Large salmon jumped provocatively close to our double kayak, but with a four-hour paddle ahead of us, I left my fishing rod tucked behind me.
Three hours later, at Sparrowhawk Point, we turned west into Gasboat Passage, intent on reaching Billy Bay where we planned to camp. We paddled around Billy Bay looking at the abandoned site where a Japanese homesteader known only as “Billy” had lived. Billy was taken to the BC Interior during the Last War and never returned, but he gave his name to the bay.
We left Billy Bay the next morning and paddled through Freeman Passage into Hecate Strait where the heavy ocean swells became noticeable, rolling in toward us over large kelp beds, then breaking gently on the barnacle-covered rocks. Although the surface of the sea was calm, with no breaking waves, the Fir Bell Buoy, moored at the entrance to Freeman Passage, tolled warningly in the swell as we turned north looking once again for a sandy beach.
We soon saw a nice beach, landed in the small surf and scouted for a suitable campsite. We saw that wolf prints covered the beach but I assured my wife that wolves were not known to attack humans. So with excitement tinged with anxiety she reluctantly agreed to share this beach with our invisible neighbours.
Who’s watching whom?
Early next morning I caught some movement at the far end of the beach. Wolves! They were running and jumping over the driftwood, their tawny coats giving them quite a bronzed look in the morning sun, and we were both awestruck at the sight of them. We counted four before they disappeared into the undergrowth. We could hardly believe that we had seen them. “Well,” I said, “they’ll probably go away now they’ve seen us.” How wrong I was!
As we sat eating breakfast the wolves reappeared and our meal was pushed aside. Two large wolves with two half-grown pups came down off the driftwood onto the beach, then hesitated. The larger wolf trotted to the water’s edge, picked up a fish, carried it back to the pups and dropped it behind a big driftwood log, then walked back onto the beach. After turning around several times he sat down, looking over at us and then toward his family. Slowly he raised his nose high in the air and gave a long, hair-raising howl. He got up, went to his family (who had now devoured the fish) and led them back into the bush.
Whenever the wolves appeared we watched them. Or were they watching us? During the afternoon, my wife was sitting down in the sand when an inquisitive wolf wandered along the shore and came within three metres of her. This made her a little concerned, so she yelled “Go away!” The wolf stopped, seeming a bit confused, but turned and trotted obediently away to the other end of the beach. The wolf gave a long mournful howl. Answering howls from at least six wolves came from the salal bushes in the bay behind us, and I could feel the hair on my neck standing up with a combination of delight and fear.
The wolves were wary of us and we enjoyed seeing them, but we were also wary of them.
To the north of us there was a shipwreck and I decided to walk to it, aware that this was wolf territory. As I approached the wreck, one of the larger wolves came out onto the beach and gave a series of low barks ending in a howl. Was he warning me, or his friends in the bush? The other wolves obviously heard and all of them gave short answering howls, but they were all hidden behind the shoreline. Discretion being the better part of valour, I retreated and left the beach to them.
The morning we planned to leave dawned clear and calm, with very little surf, and we decided to walk together to the shipwreck. As we started back, two wolves suddenly appeared over the driftwood, running fast and coming up behind us. We both stopped and turned around and the wolves immediately ran behind some rocks. Were they testing us? We walked on, frequently glancing over our shoulders.
Is it true that animals can sense fear? Both wolves followed us as we walked away, keeping about 20 metres behind, but running and hiding behind rocks whenever we stopped. We were sure that they were stalking us, but at last we got to where our camp was, when it seemed that both wolves lost interest and loped away back to the driftwood. We were thankful to reach camp, but kept our eyes open and senses alert as we loaded the kayak. It had been a remarkable experience but in some ways it was a relief to be on our way again.
On our return to Oona River, the tide had turned and we faced a nor’easter, but as we entered the estuary we were suddenly picked up by one big wave and unexpectedly surfed into the harbour! Thankfully Jan was prepared for us at the B&B and after a shower, a soak in the hot tub, and a steak supper we sat and relaxed.
We talked about the wolves and the excitement we had felt when we shared their beach, and we promised that we would come back to explore more of Porcher Island. Who knows—it may be that we will camp with wolves again.