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Canada Park Profiles
Canada wildlife tours
A visit to Vancouver Island really showcases the sheer diversity of wildlife, both marine and terrestrial, found in the Pacific Northwest, and offers plenty of varied wildlife activities at a very affordable price. About 300 miles long and 70 miles wide, the best and most cost effective option to explore the island is a self-drive tour which gives you the freedom to visit multiple locations and fully experience all that it has to offer.
The northeast of the island offers easy access to both Johnstone Strait, the best place in the world to see Orcas in the wild (as well as Humpback Whales), and the remote coastal inlets on the adjacent mainland where Grizzly Bears still maintain a stronghold, far from any human encroachment. The rugged west coast of the island is on the annual migration route of the Gray Whale, large numbers of which pass by off the coast en-route from Mexico to Alaska, and is also one of the best places in North America to see Black Bears. Sightings of Humpback Whales and Sea Otters are also possible off the west coast, and Bald Eagles and Sea Lions are more or less a certainty.
The popular seaside community of Tofino on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island is a great destination for families and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Besides the excellent bear and whale watching, there’s plenty for all the family to see and do. The village of Tofino itself is charming, and the area has miles of sandy beaches and lots of self guided walking trails in nearby Pacific Rim National Park that showcase the rugged coastline and old growth temperate rainforest. It is also a watersports mecca with excellent sea kayaking and sport fishing, and a thriving surf culture with numerous surfing schools offering trial lessons and courses for all ages. There is a wide choice of excellent accommodation options ranging from cosy B&B’s and lodges, to self contained and fully equipped 1 & 2 bedroom oceanfront condos and 2-4 bedroom beach houses.
Is the most famous and popular grizzly bear location in Canada, and one of the few places in North America were large numbers of grizzlies congregate in one place to fish for salmon, and where you can observe interaction between these normally solitary animals as they compete for the best fishing spots.
During the autumn salmon season (late August through to mid October) viewing is conducted from two elevated viewing platforms on the banks of a salmon spawning channel, and sessions are limited to 2 hours and 6 people per platform to minimise disturbance to the bears. It is however a very action packed 2 hours with rarely a moment when there aren’t multiple bears close to the platforms. From my experience (I have visited Knight Inlet a number of times) you often see more bears in 2 hours at Knight Inlet than you would in 2 days in other grizzly bear locations in British Columbia.
In spring (May & June) and summer (July through to late August) all viewing is conducted from a boat sitting just offshore in the estuary as the bears graze on estuarine sedge grasses or dig for rice root close to the shoreline, or forage for crustaceans on the tidal flats.
One of our most popular Grizzly Bear destinations is the Bella Coola River Valley in the mountainous interior of British Columbia, a 1½ hour flight north of Vancouver. There are many places in Western Canada where you can see Grizzly Bears but what this makes this incredibly scenic location so special is the variety of ways in which you can observe them here, and how exhilarating and intimate the encounters tend to be in this natural and uncontrived setting. Whereas in other locations you can feel somewhat detached from the bears and their environment in an elevated viewing stand, here they can be safely viewed on foot or from the comfort of a boat drifting sedately down the river. This means you see them at eye level rather than looking down on them, and the nice thing about being in a driftboat or on foot is that you feel as though you are part of the environment, rather than just passing through it.
An intrinsic part of our wildlife tours in the Bella Coola River Valley is the private nature of the wildlife activities which is another important factor that will appeal to you. Here you can enjoy the undivided attention of an expert personal guide, and enjoy intimate encounters with the Great Northern Bear with no-one else around, save the occasional fly fisherman. This means your guide can tailor the activities around your particular needs, and you are not under any pressure to conform to the agenda of a larger group.
Another unique feature of this location is that it offers some scope for some self-guided bear viewing once you have become acquainted with the area, and with a patience and of course a little luck it is possible to safely view grizzlies feeding on salmon from various vantage points overlooking the river that are within walking distance of your accommodations. To some extent this means you can gain a lot by extending a stay to include free days for your own activities, as part of your Canada Wildlife Tour..
Great Bear Rainforest
North America’s rarest bear is the all white Kermode or Spirit Bear which is a genetic variation of Black Bear born white due to both parents possessing a rare recessive gene. They can occur in any black bear population but the greatest concentration of Spirit Bears is found on a small cluster of densely forested islands off the central coast of British Columbia where 1 in 10 bears are born white. On one of the smaller islands in the group the ratio is as high as 1 in 4. The Spirit Bear has great spiritual significance to the First Nations population of these islands who consider its appearance an extremely good omen, and among North American fauna it is considered to be something of a holy grail which few outsiders have seen, let alone photographed.
Bear Trails have teamed up with an excellent First Nations community venture on one of these islands to offer the unique opportunity during the autumn salmon run to go in search on this rare and elusive spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest in the company of expert local guides. All bear viewing is conducted on foot, often involving patient vigils in natural hides. A boat is used to access remote locations on the surrounding islands and adjacent mainland where Spirit Bears are known to fish for salmon, or have been regularly seen in recent weeks, and the group (maximum 10 people) led by a local First Nations guide then hikes a short distance to a position offering the best view. Depending on the level of success with Spirit Bear sightings, there are also several locations in the area that the group can elect to visit in order to also observe Grizzly Bears in a similar fashion. The guides accumulate a great deal of knowledge about the whereabouts, habits and movements of Spirit Bears in the area from members of the community who come into contact with bears while working out in the field (e.g. forestry & fishery workers) in their traditional tribal territory, and from scouting locations themselves, prior to, and during the salmon season.
Prince Rupert, Northen British Colombia
Just south of the border with Southeast Alaska is a destination aimed at those seeking the path least travelled, or just keen to avoid the crowds. It offers wildlife highlights including the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, the only preserve in North America specifically designated for the protection on Brown Bears, and the dramatic spectacle of Humpback Whales “bubble netting” and lunge feeding on schooling baitfish which is seen nowhere else on earth. Sightings of Orca and Gray Whales are also not uncommon, and a wide variety of other wildlife, both marine terrestrial, can be seen here.
In addition to great grizzly bear viewing and whale watching, the area also boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pacific Northwest (many visitors say it is how they imagine Alaska to have been before it became a mass tourism destination), and is very rich in native history and culture, with many of the First Nations still well represented in the modern day population. The small, picturesque costal city of Prince Rupert is the gateway to this fascinating region. It is the nearest population centre to Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary and the departure point for our whale watching excursions which operate in August and September.
Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary lies at the head of Khutzeymateen Inlet, a deep fjord that runs inland from the Pacific Ocean. It is a heavily wooded, pristine wilderness area, inaccessible except by boat. As in other locations the Grizzly Bears that live here depend on very varied and highly seasonal food sources including estuarine sedge grasses, roots and berries, and of course the protein rich salmon which spawn in the headwaters of the numerous streams and rivers that criss-cross the area. Unlike other grizzly bear location, the bets time for seeing grizzlies in Khutzeymateen Inlet is actually Spring (May & June) when the bears emerge from their winter dens, some with newborn cubs, to graze on estuarine sedge grasses close to the shoreline, and all viewing is conducted from a boat sitting just offshore. The surrounding streams and creeks where salmon spawn from August onwards are densely forested and surrounded by difficult terrain so are relatively inaccessible. Boat based viewing continues in the estuary during the salmon run, but with most of the bears elsewhere, sightings are less frequent.
We have been offering Polar Bear tours to this remote and less mainstream destination since 2003 and myself and some of our more adventurous clients, including some American documentary film makers, have enjoyed some magical encounters there. All wildlife viewing around Baffin Island is conducted from small boats (a heated cabin cruiser or an open 24 foot motorised canoe), and in addition to Polar Bears visitors may also see a number of Arctic seal species, Narwhal, the near mythical unicorn of the sea, and Bowhead Whales, the only great baleen whale to spend its entire life in Arctic waters.
Polar Bear sightings are not an everyday occurrence off Baffin Island however, though all of our clients who have visited the area have had at least one sighting during a 3 or 4 day stay, with 2 or 3 the norm, and roughly half have had prolonged and very close encounters with free swimming polar bears, just as I did when we visited in 2003 and again in 2004. While the Inuit guides are experts when it comes to knowing where to find Polar Bears, they are widely distributed throughout a vast area of pristine wilderness, so finding a bear requires covering a lot of territory. A visit to the High Arctic does however always have the potential to produce some quite extraordinary and memorable sightings of a profoundly different kind to those you can experience in Churchill.
Experiences over the past few years have also shown that weather can impact wildlife sightings, or disrupt wildlife activities. Last year temperatures in the Arctic were again unusually mild and as has been widely reported, this may be having a fundamental effect of the distribution, behaviour, and movements of polar bears in the region. Occasional low lying fog can also obscure higher elevations and potentially shield bears from view, and high winds can limit the areas than can be comfortably visited by boat. About half of our clients who have travelled to Baffin Island have experienced disruption (abbreviation or cancellation) to one day of wildlife activities, and a few have experienced flight delays due to fog or high winds.
Churchill Polar Bears
Although quite southerly, due to its unique geography and geology, and the prevailing ocean currents, Churchill is the first place where winter sea ice forms in Hudson Bay. This is turn attracts Polar Bears from hundreds of miles around eagerly awaiting the first ice so that they can head offshore as soon as possible to spend the winter hunting seals out on the ice floes. The bears begin to congregate close to the shoreline to the east of Churchill at the beginning of October, and their numbers swell as the month progresses and on into November. When the ice finally comes, usually in mid to late November, there is an overnight mass exodus and the bears aren’t seen again to the following June when the ice breaks up again.
We offer a wider variety of Churchill polar bear tours than other tour operators so we are very confident that we can put together a tour that fits your interests, aspirations, and budget. The tourist season in Churchill breaks down into two distinct periods: a pre-season period from about October 6th to 15th, and the peak period which runs from mid October to mid to late November. Our speciality is arranging custom unescorted tours for independent travellers with flexible departure dates, durations, and content, and over the past 6 years we have carved out a bit of a niche for ourselves offering these very affordable tours in the pre-season period. However during the peak season (October 16th onwards) two package tour operators block book the vast majority of hotel rooms and tundra buggy vehicles in Churchill for their escorted group tours, ensuring they enjoy something of a monopoly, and that makes it harder (though not impossible) for us to arrange our custom unescorted tours in that period. The good news is that whereas most of our competitors work with one or other of these two package tour operators, we work with both and can offer all of their peak season group tours at competitive prices, though we are inevitably governed by their tour formats, schedule, and price guidelines.
Since we first began offering polar bear tours in 2003 we have striven to give genuine wildlife enthusiasts a more flexible and affordable option to the fixed itinerary and departure date escorted group tours that dominate the Churchill market. Our trademark custom unescorted tours for independent travellers are the net result, and have proved very popular with our clients over the years, particularly those keen to combine Grizzly Bear viewing in Western Canada with polar bear viewing in Churchill in a single tour. Initially we offered these tours only in the October 7-15 pre-season period, but in recent years we have had increasing success arranging these tours later and later into the peak season thanks to a partnership with a couple of independent local family owned B&B properties in Churchill which enables us to get around the lack of available hotel rooms. It is this attention to detail and desire to find value for our clients that allows us to design a Canada tour at an incredible price.
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