Tofino – Victoria – Vancouver

A few photos from my trip from Victoria, on the south coast of Vancouver Island, to Vancouver by float plane:

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Victoria Harbour – Vancouver Island

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Not far from Victoria, Vancouver Island’s south-east coastline transforms – out of nowhere – to a rugged wilderness

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But there is no escaping the fact that Vancouver is Canada’s largest, and busiest, port

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Getting the luggage out of the float plane’s floats. My 50kg of probably more luggage than I needed was just under the limit… The limit for the trip to the airport (or river next to it) is double what it is for most float plane trips.

Skunk Cabbage

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Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

Definition:

either of two North American perennial herbs of the arum family that occur in shaded wet to swampy areas and have a fetid odor suggestive of a skunk:

 a :  one (Symplocarpus foetidus) of eastern North America that sends up in spring a cowl-shaped brownish-purple spathe
 b :  one (Lysichiton americanus) chiefly of the Pacific coast region that has a large yellow spathe”

# There is also the Asian skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis) which grows in eastern Asia

A fascinating plant for many reasons, but perhaps first and foremost because it is a vital laxative for virtually every single bear living near the Pacific coast – from Vancouver to Alaska – when they come out of hibernation! An abundant and hugely effective natural medicine…

Pacific Rim National Park, Vancouver Island

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Ucluelet coastline sunset

Until the late 20th century, this national park was only accessible to loggers and seasoned adventurers in their 4×4’s. Nowadays, the Pacific Rim National Park is connected to the east – and much more heavily populated side of Vancouver Island – by the wonderfully scenic ‘Highway 4’. The highway traverses the island, from Parksville on the east coast to Long Beach on the west coast, where it finally splits in two: one branch heads south for 8km to Ucluelet; while the other leads north for 45km to Tofino.

The journey starts off relatively unremarkable as it passes flat, heavily logged and barren terrain. However, quickly, the landscape transforms as the mountains rise up and the old growth temperate rain forest are reinstated. Giant Douglas Firs reaching 7ft across are supported by Sitka Spruce, Western Red Cedar, Western hemlock in this verdant rainforest. The route after Port Alberni follows the rising contours of the Vancouver Island Ranges – a mountain range that effectively forms the spine of Vancouver Island. It only climbs to just over 2100m but yet is still able to accommodate a ski resort and up to 10ft of snow on the roads in the height of winter!!! Quite a contrast to the 3ft of snow and regular -40oC temperatures that much of the far drier Yukon interior is subjected to during its winter.

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Map of Tofino and Ucluet and the in between

My stay here was at a small hostel in the fishing town of Ucluelet. Bereft the fame of nearby Tofino, it has correspondingly less tourism, developments and tourists for that matter…. It does, however, have an arguably more spectacular coastline which offers some of the best land based whale-watching in Western Canada. Along the trails around the town is a healthy variety of birdlife including: Steller’s Jay, Belted Kingfisher, Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Western Sandpiper, Great Blue Heron, European Starling and Varied Thrush. On the cobbles of the trail itself I saw 3 Northwestern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis ordinoides) basking out in the late afternoon sun. A colubrid (basically a snake family characterised as being the ‘left overs’ that do not fit into any other family!), the Garter Snake is endemic to the continent of North America and can be found along the west coast of both Canada and the US. (It is NON-venomous!!)

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Ucluelet’s rocky coast

At the end of the peninsula on which the town of Ucluelet sits is a lighthouse. It is here where you can best watch for whales from shore. A couple of hours waiting resulted in the sighting of one Humpback passing south just before dusk and also a transitory Steller’s Sea Lion battling its way around the point. Huge tides here of up to 4.5 metres and jagged coastlines draw strong and unpredictable currents. Combine this with the infamous storms that brew in the winter months, and it is hardly surprising that this stretch of coastline has acquired the unenviable nickname: ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’.

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Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens) amassing on Long Beach

Having spent my first day here exploring Ucluelet, I decide to head north to Tofino for the second day. I hitched a lift half way there to a point on Long Beach – a 22km long stretch of sand approximately in the middle of the stretch between Ucluelet and Tofino. It is a hugely popular beach for surfers and beach bums alike but, also, an important location for migrating birds on their ‘Pacific Flyway’ between Alaska and parts of central and southern America. Sanderlings and a lone Great Blue heron accompanying a mass of gulls were all I could see on the beach; and a Winter Wren in the forest alongside.

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Sanderling (Calidris alba)

Another lift with a Tofino Resident ( heading back from picking chanterelles) took me to the town of Tofino. Fractionally larger than Ucluelet, Tofino has many more hotels, cafes and shops designed to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of tourists that flock here every year. I was only able to spend a few hours here before heading back to Ucluelet for the night.

On my last morning, I saw the only bears which I was to find on Vancouver Island itself; they were in the form of a feeding Black Bear sow and cub on the banks of the muddy estuary behind the hostel!

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Estuary behind the hostel

Black-tailed Deer

Black-tailed (Mule) Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Black-tailed (Mule) Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Due to a long history of isolation along the Pacific Slope, the Black-tail has differentiated from Mule Deer to the extent that it has been called “a species in the making” – British Columbia Ministry of the Interior

This Black-tailed Deer doe and fawn I found feeding on the meadows near to the banks of the Campbell River.

Western Canada has three distinct subspecies of this deer species. The Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus hermionus) is the largest of the three and the one which I am most familiar with, having seen it in the drier – so called ‘semi-arid’ – interior of the Yukon around Tagish Wilderness Lodge where it is most at home. The Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) is considerably smaller, slightly lighter in colour and is found in western North America from California to Vancouver Island. The third subspecies is the Sitka Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) which is found along the northern coast of British Columbia into south-east and south-central Alaska; it is, in many ways, similar to the Columbian Black-tailed Deer, but is often smaller, stockier, and possesses a slightly shorter face.

The quote above is in reference to the widespread belief that the Black-tailed Deer (ie. both the Sitka and Columbian combined) have evolved to such an extent as to merit reclassification to species status, independent from the Mule Deer of the interior. This is substantiated by the fact that both the Black-tailed Deer and Mule Deer were pushed south into Washington state during the last ice age, however, after the ice melted around 10,000 years ago they largely separated to occupy their own unique geographic and ecological niches. Although the two subspecies are generally very different in their habits, behaviour and appearance, there are still a few parts of British Columbia where they overlap and, in these places, they have been known to interbreed to produce fertile offspring. So for the time being they are regarded, by the majority of authorities, as a single species – Odocoileus hemionus.

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Range and abundance for the 3 subspecies of Mule Deer (covering only British Columbia)

Campbell River, Canada

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Black Bear on the shore of the Campbell River

The Salmon Capital of the World. It is a tagline that is boasted by a plethora of communities along the pacific coastline of Canada and Alaska; but, in many ways, Campbell River, on Vancouver Island’s east coast, comes closest to substantiating the boast. Not only does it play host to a vast horde of Pink Salmon in the late summer, but also King, Coho, Chum and Sockeye as well. In addition, it has attracted more than its fair share of famous anglers over the years, the most famous of all being Roderick Haig-Brown – a town magistrate for a number of years who also wrote many popular and highly-regarded books on fly-fishing. Notably: “A River Never Sleeps” and “Measure of the Year”.

I didn’t get to chance to fish Campbell River – or Campbell Creek as many of the locals tend to call it – but I did try from the town’s pier for Pink, King and Coho Salmon but without any luck. Tantalisingly out of reach of the cast of those of us fishing from the pier were dozens of Pink - and perhaps other types - of Salmon. From us they were safe, but the same cannot be said for the boats that passed over them!

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Tourist bus in Grizzly country

However, it is not just the salmon that I went to Campbell River to see. It is also a Killer Whale and dolphin mecca; and a base from which to reach out to Bute Inlet on the mainland (a haven for Grizzly Bears). However, to make the most of these opportunities, you need a boat. For this, I joined Campbell River Adventure Tours on one of their almost daily trips to the Orford River in Bute Inlet (mainland B.C.). It is the very start of a very short season for Grizzly Bears on this particular river confluence (late-August to mid-October) and consequently we had to work hard to see the Grizzlies. But see them we did – three of them in total, including a mother and a cub feeding just the other side of the river. In these lush temperate rainforests, early signs of winter are already appearing and the Grizzlies must make the most of the Pink and Chum Salmon that are available to them.

Note – Vancouver Island only has Black Bears and no Grizzlies (or at least very rarely)! I am told that occasionally one will reach the island from the mainland, but is either shot or else disappears very quickly.

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Grizzly Bear sow and cub

Heading back from the Orford river, we were treated to a cluster of Harbour Seals (Phoca vitulina or Common Seal back in the UK), hauled up on a drifting log, before the calm waters ahead of us were punctured by the backs of over a hundred Pacific White-sided Dolphins. These hugely active dolphins form large groups with intricate social relationships and communication techniques – including a unique name-whistle for each individual animal. Furthermore, they are excellent jumpers; reaching magnificent heights out of the water…. Although, sadly, in some cases this has been their undoing, as they are enlisted by marine parks for shows across North America and Japan to entertain naïve punters.

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Pacific White-sided Dolphin pod

One thing which I was unable to do whilst I was here, which I would have like to, was to snorkel with the Salmon. This is organised as a tour in Campbell River, but could just as easily be done on your own by finding a quiet river mouth in any one of the towns along the southeast Alaskan, or British Columbia coastline. Next time!

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Harbour Seals

Prince Rupert, Canada

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Coast Mountains behind Wrangell Island

After two days in Wrangell, I picked up the Alaska Marine Highway, which I took on a 14 hour trip to its southernmost terminal – Prince Rupert. The only stop was for a couple in Kertchikan. Much of the journey was at night, including the stop, however I did see a small group of Dall’s Porpoises not far from the ship. Dall’s is one of two species of porpoise that inhabit the calm summer waters of the inside passage.

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The unmistakable Pioneer Inn – my accommodation in Prince Rupert

Named after cousin of Charles I, Prince Rupert lies on the edge of Kaien Island; an island at the mouth of the Skeena River, 500 miles to the north of Vancouver. It is an important harbour, particularly as it is one of the closest points from the Canadian coast to the important ports of eastern Asia and exports a variety of grain, fish, pulp and ore. The town also supports a population of semi-tamed Coastal Black-tailed Deer, which I saw on a number of occasions on and off the streets. (Note this is a subspecies of the Mule Deer seen at Tagish Wilderness Lodge)

Black Bears are seen in the surrounding area along with a few Grizzlies, but the best place to see Grizzlies is slightly further afield (around 30 miles away) in Khutzeymateen Wildlife Sanctuary. Unfortunately, boats finished taking tourists there in early August and I was not able to find any more than tracks of bears whilst at Prince Rupert.

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Shoreline beside the Metlakatla Wilderness Trail

On my second day in Prince Rupert, I took a short ferry ride to the start of a 10km trail. I was accompanied by a Pirate Ship Playground designer and builder from Melbourne called Tom. The trail is called the Metlakatla trail after the First Nations village where it starts. The trail itself follows the winding contour of the shoreline where Bald Eagles guard the tops of the cedars and Belted Kingfishers patrol the small river inlets.  It winds through temperate rainforest (at times fairly old growth), made up of mostly Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce with a floor carpeted with various mosses, berries and Skunk Cabbage. Interestingly, a Grizzly had been seen on the trail a few days earlier, but thought better than showing itself to us… Glaucous-winged Gulls, Canada Geese, North-western Crows, Sanderlings and Ravens make use of the open flats of low tide. Whilst under the rocks crowd a seemingly impossible number of small crabs. Under a cereal box sized rock, you could be lucky enough to find up to 30 of them! Butterfish, urchins, starfish, hermit crabs and small shellfish keep the crabs company.

Bear and wolf tracks were both in evidence on the path and shore, but the only mammal seen was a rather vociferous Red Squirrel…

The following day, I left Prince Rupert headed for Port Hardy and Vancouver Island.

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Sunset over the Tongass (the name given to the vast belt of temperate rainforest covering the islands and mainland of south-east Alaska)

Wrangell, Alaska

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Wrangell, Alaska

From Sitka, I took an overnight Alaska Marine Highway Service ferry to Wrangell. It’s a small fishing community that is off the beaten path of the larger cruise ships and consequently many times quieter. It is famous for being the closest point to the Stikine River (the fastest free-flowing, ie no dams, river in North America) and, also, to Anan Wildlife Observatory -  a wooded platform, managed by the US forest service, which overlooks the salmon-rich Anan Creek. Here, Black Bears and Grizzlies both feed on the same water, albeit a few hundred yards apart. I took a 7 hour trip out to see the bears, of which we saw 8 Blacks (including 3 cubs) and 3 Grizzlies. It was a fantastic trip, but a little too much focus was put on the Black Bears and not enough on the Grizzlies. (Just because the Black Bears happened to be feeding closer to the observatory). During the 3 hours that we were at the creek, the bears fed – almost constantly – on the Pink Salmon; some less selective than others… Occasionally the larger bears would even throw the male pinks back in after catching them and try again for the egg-laden females.

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Black Bear sow fishing for Pink Salmon with cub, Wrangell Creek

In addition to the bears, a male Orca chasing a Harbour Porpoise was a real highlight of my time in Alaska. The porpoise vanished soon after we arrived so we could only guess as to what became of it, but the behaviour of the Orca after suggested it had been lucky…

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Orca, near Wrangell, Alaska