Photo Credit: Matt J Simmons
Watching for wildlife: Animal encounters in northern BC
I remember distinctly the first time I saw a wolf outside a wildlife enclosure. I was trekking in Mount Edziza Provincial Park, about 350 km north of Kitwanga. Osborne caribou moved slowly across the vast alpine plateau, venturing onto scattered snowfields, likely to escape the incessant insects characteristic of lower elevations.
Camped at the base of the mountain, I was sitting watching small groups of these caribou when I suddenly saw a lone wolf trotting across the landscape. It moved quickly, but didn’t seem in a hurry. I watched as it disappeared from view behind small undulations in the terrain and then reappeared again a few minutes later. The wolf seemed to be tracking the caribou but they were unaware they were being watched.
One small group climbed a steep snowfield and continued over the other side of a hill, where I couldnt see them. After about 15 magical minutes of watching the wolf weave its way through gullies and over hills in the direction of the group, I finally lost track of it.
It was an experience that made me realize how lucky we are in northern BC to have so many opportunities to see wild animals in their natural habitat. One of the highlights of my childhood was visiting my aunt at the BC Wildlife Park in Kamloops, where she worked. There, I saw bears, wolves, birds of prey and, on one memorable occasion, I even got to bottle feed a fawn. I was obsessed with animals and the wilder they were, the better.
Similarly, I loved to visit Sealand in Victoria, where I grew up. I can still feel the spray from the orcas. But as I got older, I started to suspect that zoos and enclosures were not the best place for wild animals. When I got a taste for seeing animals in their natural habitat, I understood that my wildlife encounters at Sealand and the Wildlife Park were, well, not very wild.
Whether you’re a family looking for a guided tour or a gung-ho backpacker, northern BC has countless opportunities for viewing wildlife in its numerous parks, preserves and sanctuaries. By supporting BC’s eco-tourism sector, you’re not only creating memories, you’re also helping build a balanced and sustainable economy that sees the preservation and conservation of wildlife habitat.
By no means are the areas in this write-up a comprehensive list of wildlife viewing opportunities in northern BC. Just getting out for a walk around some of the region’s towns can give you a rewarding encounter. Heck, even grocery shopping in Smithers can give you a memorable wildlife experience. Last winter, a moose wandered into the Safeway in town. But the best experiences are out in those big landscapes we get to call our backyard. Here, then, are a few wild ideas to get you thinking about your next trip.
On the trail of whales’ tails
BC’s north coast is home to an abundant variety of marine wildlife. Seabirds, fish, seals, otters, sea lions, porpoises—the list is long. But tourists come from around the world mainly to catch a sighting of the ocean’s biggest aquatic animals: whales.
In Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii, depending on the time of year, you might see grey whales, orcas or humpbacks. If you’re lucky, you might even see an endangered North Pacific right whale, although that is admittedly unlikely. The first one to be seen in BC waters for over 60 years was sighted last June off the west coast of Haida Gwaii.
There are lots of ways to get out and see whales. Kayaking north from Prince Rupert up to the mouth of Work Channel is a good bet for getting a glimpse of some humpbacks, but if you’re venturing out under paddle power, be safe—northern waters can get pretty choppy.
If a tour in the comfort of a bigger boat is more your style, there are lots of options. In Prince Rupert, check out Adventure Tours (adventuretours.net) or ask at the Tourism Prince Rupert office in the Museum of Northern BC.
Over on Haida Gwaii, whale watching can be even easier. In spring, you can sometimes see migrating whales right from Graham Island. Keep your eyes open and ask the locals. There are also plenty of options for charter boats and tour guides to get you on the water. You can find one that fits your needs by checking out gohaidagwaii.ca.
If you’re considering heading down to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site as part of your trip, you’ll likely get a chance to see some whales (as well as plenty of other marine wildlife). For more info about the park and a list of licensed tour operators, head to Parks Canada’s website at pc.gc.ca.
The bear went over the mountain
Ursus arctos horribilis, more commonly known as the grizzly bear, is an iconic animal often associated with wild Canadian landscapes. Grizzlies are formidable creatures, to say the least. But they’re also vulnerable. In southern BC, grizzly habitat has been severely impacted by development. Northern BC has the strongest grizzly populations in North America, but because these solitary animals keep vast territories, any development—forest roads, pipelines, mines, etc.—has the potential to impact numbers.
Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary north of Prince Rupert was created to preserve grizzly habitat. The Khutzeymateen is strictly controlled by BC Parks, but a handful of licensed operators are allowed to give boat tours in the sanctuary. Sedge grass in the estuary entices the bears down from higher elevations to the water’s edge and it’s a great way to check out these amazing animals—from the safety of a boat, armed with a camera. For details, visit BC Parks’ website at env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks and search Khutzeymateen.
The Khutzeymateen is a special place where you’re almost guaranteed to get a glimpse of a grizzly, but bear encounters throughout northern BC are pretty common. Just going for a hike around towns like Terrace, Stewart, Smithers, Prince George or Fort Nelson gives a good chance for a meeting. Terrace, in particular, is known for a population of elusive Kermode bears.
Of course, meeting up with a bear while hiking isn’t always a good thing. If you are heading out for a ramble and hoping to see some wildlife, be bear aware. Anyone venturing into bear territory—which is pretty much anywhere in northern BC—should be ready for an encounter. This BC Parks bear awareness fact sheet is a good place to prepare:
Years ago, I visited rhinoceros auklets at Lucy Islands Conservancy near Prince Rupert. The funny little birds can fly, but they’re not exactly graceful. Landing isn’t their strong point, so they just hurl themselves at the undergrowth or crash into trees and fall to the ground, where they burrow nests. Watching auklet antics is a nature experience that’s guaranteed to make you smile.
Up in northern BC, we’re lucky to have a huge array of birds, including both migrating and indigenous birds, and anyone travelling here should be prepared to see countless species. To give you an idea of the diversity, there are nine different types of owl around Burns Lake alone. Use guidebooks like Field Guide to the Birds of North America or Sibley Guide to Birds (digital versions are available for smartphones) to get an idea what to look for.
Prince George has some great bird-watching opportunities not far from the city. Pine Marsh in Eskers Provincial Park, just 40 km northwest of the city, is a great spot to raise a pair of binoculars. (And while you’re there, you might get to see a beaver, too.) Closer still are Cottonwood Island, Wilkins and Forests for the World parks, where you can wander short, easy trails and expect to encounter numerous feathered friends.
Vanderhoof is home to the Nechako Bird Sanctuary, a protected area along the Nechako River. Here, thousands of migrating Canada geese take time to rest on their annual trip to the Arctic. Other birds you might see include great horned owls, eagles, herons, hawks and woodpeckers.
Tyhee Lake Provincial Park in Telkwa is another great spot to check out birds. Trumpeter swans occasionally stop in at this lake, and loons and other waterfowl call it home. Also, keep your ears open for the unmistakable sound of woodpeckers on the hunt for an insect snack.
Out on the coast, ravens and eagles dominate the sky as seabirds fish the ocean. Watch you don’t get whiplash as you crane your neck to watch bird after bird fly past. A small sampling of species commonly seen on the North Coast include cranes, herons, sandhill pipers, oyster catchers, buffleheads, mergansers, marbled murrelets and, of course, lots and lots of gulls.
Stone’s sheep are mountain dwellers. So are aptly named mountain goats. To check out these awesome ungulates, you usually need to find a good mountain to climb.
There are few places as suited to viewing Stone’s sheep and mountain goats as the Northern Rocky Mountains. Several parks in the region north of Fort Nelson along the Alaska Highway provide great starting points for hikes into the alpine, where you might get a glimpse of these animals. Stone Mountain, Muncho Lake and Northern Rocky Mountains Provincial Park all have several hikes that are likely to reward you with a look at Stone’s sheep, not to mention amazing vistas. Check out tourismnorthernrockies.ca for more information.
Around Smithers, getting into alpine areas where you’re most likely to see some mountain goats is pretty easy. Babine Mountains Provincial Park is an amazing place to stage an alpine hike. Closer to town is Twin Falls Recreation Site, where, with a pair of binoculars, you can sometimes pick out goats on the cliffs above the waterfalls or get closer on the steep Glacier Gulch Trail.
Finally, on the Kitseguelca Road between Smithers and Hazelton, there is a mountain goat viewing area near the ridge known locally as The Nipples. A great resource for finding your way here and to other areas is the Northern BC Backroad Mapbook, which you can pick up at most bookstores in the region.
One of nature’s greatest spectacles is spawning salmon. Flooding the creeks and rivers as they head upstream, these fish travel astonishing distances to breed and die. Generally, the best time to check them out is in the fall between September and November, depending on how far inland you are.
There are numerous salmon enhancement projects throughout the region and a hatchery is often a great place to view spawning salmon and learn more about fish life cycles and the effects on ecosystems that spawning has. A few hatcheries worth mentioning are Oldfield Hatchery in Prince Rupert, Deep Creek Hatchery in Terrace, and Toboggan Creek Hatchery in Smithers.
They’re not quite Sealand—in many ways, they’re better.