Tripping on the Wild Side

Canadian travelers have a robust choice of safe wildlife encounters

A wildlife biologist once told me that you’re more apt to smell a moose long before you see it. That wasn’t the case for me one summer afternoon two years ago when I was hiking Beaver Pond Trail in Algonquin Park, in an area just off Highway 60 that’s known for wildlife-viewing.

As the trail name suggests, I was out to observe beavers. I only twigged to the presence of something bigger than me—and bigger than a beaver—when I heard the sudden snapping of a fallen branch behind me. Like a scene out of Blair Witch, I knew I was being watched. After standing still for about 15 minutes, the hoofed ungulate with flattened antlers clumsily emerged from behind a thicket of cedar trees.

Perhaps it was the cow moose’s siesta time or maybe it was simply disinterested in my human presence, but after a few minutes (during which I was engulfed in a cloud of her powerful scent) she continued her ungainly saunter. Why hadn’t I sniffed the beast sooner? Had I been upwind from the creature? Was the moose’s odour (think wet dog smell amplified a hundredfold) lost in the pungent scent of cedar? That’s the wonder of wildlife encounters: you become more attuned to nature—and to your own senses.

Polar Bears
Photo: Travel Manitoba

Free-roaming Bison

Knowing that the plains bison in North America once numbered 25 million—before the decades-long slaughter—endears visitors to the herd of 40 majestic plains bisons (distant cousins to the buffalo) that roam freely throughout the 500-hectare Lake Audy Bison Enclosure at Riding Mountain National Park in southern Manitoba.

Either from the elevated viewing platform or from the safety of their vehicles, visitors can observe the bison (which weigh as much as 2,000 pounds), a mix of females, bulls and calves. Other wildlife sightings at Riding Mountain National Park include elk, coyotes, moose, timber wolves, beavers, white-tailed deer and snowshoe hares.) You can also see bison—along with elk, of course—at Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

Get down with Wolves

I hesitated when owner-wolf protector Gilles Granal instructed me to crouch on the ground in the 40-hectare wolf enclosure at Adventuraid Park Mahikan, an eco-adventure camp and wolf sanctuary in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec. Granal explained how wolves can read a human’s emotional state as I slowly knelt on the scratched ground while two curious grey wolves, named John and Luna, circled closer, cautiously sniffed me and then playfully tugged at my sleeves. Granal stayed close, watching the wolves.

“Luna likes you,” he said. An unexpected face lick confirmed it. Guests who spend the night in one of the cabins at the sanctuary can listen to the wolves’ nocturnal howling. Alternatively, you can join scheduled public Wolf Howls at Bonnechere Provincial Park in Ontario.

In Western Canada, you can take in an interpretive tour at Northern Lights Wolf Centre in Golden. B.C., and spend some time walking with the wolves. Closer to Calgary, there’s the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary. On its 160 acres near Cochrane, the sanctuary introduces you to wolfdogs through a variety of tours, including the option to enter an enclosure with the four-legged stars themselves. 

Slithery Snakes Galore!

Imagine 50,000 red-sided garter snakes in one big cluster. That’s what lures the not-so-squeamish to the Narcisse Snake Dens, 100 km north of Winnipeg. The snake dens are a network of limestone caverns and crevasses (which provide warmth during winter) from which the snakes emerge during spring mating season. You can also witness the massive tangle of snakes (from viewing stations) in late-summer to early fall when the garter snakes return to the warm limestone shelter before the cold arrives.

Boo at the Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear
A 20-acre area is home for resident grizzly bear, Boo, at the Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear Refuge in Golden, B.C. Photo: Joanne Sweeting, Tourism Golden

Bear experiences of a different sort!

Viewing polar bears in winter from the safety of a tundra buggy is a fairly common wilderness experience. Less popular is the opportunity to track polar bears on foot. Churchill Wild, which operates several wilderness lodges in sub-Arctic Manitoba, offers walking safaris at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. With a trained wildlife interpreter and, frequently, an Indigenous guide from the local Cree community, guests can explore the sub-Arctic terrain on foot each fall in search of mama bears and their cubs.

Another unique bear experience, offered by B.C.-based Maple Leaf Adventures, gives visitors the chance to see the hallowed Spirit Bear at the Great Bear Rainforest. The Spirit Bear is a rare subspecies of black bear with a coat of creamy white fur which is the result of a double recessive gene. The spirit bear is sacred to the Indigenous people who live in this part of British Columbia.

An opportunity to be educated on the Rockies’ great predators is available at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. A 20-acre wild enclosure is home to Boo, a grizzly bear who was orphaned nearly 20 years ago.

If you’re on Vancouver Island, you can take a boat from Campbell River to the traditional territories of the Homalco First Nation at Bute Inlet, keeping eyes peeled for dolphins, humpback whales and orcas along the way. An Indigenous guide joins you on the trip. Once at Bute Inlet, you can check out the grizzly bears from a number of viewing platforms in this tour offered by Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours.

The Caribou of Newfoundland

Slow-growing lichens attract herds of woodland caribou to the Bay Du Nord Reserve in Newfoundland. (A caribou eats about five kilograms of lichens each day.) Wildlife enthusiasts can book a Coastal Safari at Bay Du Nord Reserve, the largest wilderness reserve in all of Newfoundland, to observe these caribou. If you’re inclined to travel further north in Canada to Kluane National Park, you can see caribou, mountain goats and Dall sheep, witness the great caribou migration during week-long wilderness tours in Nunavut.

Sea lions of Haida Gwaii

If time is tight and you’re keen to maximize your wildlife viewing, consider a water-based tour in Haida Gwaii, B.C. with Moresby Outfitters. On my last Zodiac tour I got close enough to see the whiskers of a sea lion —but far enough away to respect their space. That’s the hallmark of wildlife viewing encounters in Canada.

Bear
Photo: Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild

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