The Search For The Elusive Coastal Wolf
"We all had this haunting feeling that they were meters away from us at all times... watching our every move from the forest..."
- Notes from the wild, Callum Snape
What would you do if all of a sudden you were face to face with three wild coastal wolves? I'd never really thought about it going in to this adventure and I definitely didn't anticipate being just a few metres away from them in a staring contest.
There's this innate fear within a lot of people all around the world, that wolves are these vicious blood thirsty animals. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting you go up an stroke a wild animal, but this misconception couldn't be any further from the truth, especially here in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Thinking about it, we've had this fear mongering installed in each of us from a very young age because of movies and fairytales, think 'Little Red Ridinghood' or 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'. Everything you think you knew about wolves is about to change.
Earlier this year in April, seven of us met in Bella Coola, a small First Nations town in Northern BC. We boarded a zodiac and set course for some remote islands in the Great Bear Rainforest. You won't find the names of these islands anywhere in this story, the reason being is to protect these wolves as much as possible. The zodiac took us through beautiful winding fjords filled with whales and towering snowy peaks. Winter holds on a little longer up in that area so temperatures were brisk on the journey out to the basecamp. We spent the night in Shearwater, known as the "gateway to the great bear rainforest" because of a fuel shortage and short gas station hours during the shoulder season.
The Great Bear Rainforest has been a very special place to me for quite some time, my first visit was two years prior to this. Accessing this remote part of the country is not easy unless you have a lot of money to spend on hiring float planes or chartering boats. What makes this place really unique is its biodiversity of wildlife and plant life. Home to Spirit Bears, coastal wolves, orcas and the traditional land of several First Nations communities which is now well protected thanks to years of petitioning.
We arrived at the islands where we were hoping to see the wolves, and after lots of preplanning we already knew the area that we were going to use as a basecamp. Our camp was the perfect location to observe the intertidal zone that connected the islands at low tide, allowing us to walk from island to island for a short period of time. We also assumed that the wolves would use this opportunity to walk across the same zone and eat shellfish or other marine life that get trapped in small pools when the water recedes.
The one down side to our location was that we were trapped by the tide for half of the day and our access to good vantage points to look for the wolves was limited. The forest was extremely dense, few people step foot on this island so the trails that exist on the island are formed by the animals. However, they were very well used. After setting up our tents and securing the zodiac in the bay, it became very clear that we were in the wolves habitat, their paw prints were everywhere. We noticed different sizes in all different directions leading us to think we there were multiple wolves here... very recently.
You can read and hear about these wolves as much as you like but being there in their habitat was the greatest learning curve of all for me. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life wandering their trails looking for signs of recent activity, I still remember my heart racing to this day. Shells littered the forest floor which didn't come as a surprise, it was a favourite and very easy meal for the wolves when the tide was low. What left each and every one of us completely speechless was the bird heads scattered around the forest...
I apologize for the very gruesome photo here but I want you to experience the same shock I encountered when I discovered this. This duck head was less than fifty meters from our tents and based on the colour of the flesh in the head, it had been decapitated very, very recently. The oesophagus was perhaps the most stomach churning feature and one that doesn't get easier to look at. This was one of four bird heads I found on the first day, accompanies by a hug pile of feathers. So why is this so significant? With no other large predators on this island, the wolves were feasting on ducks and small tidal birds making this a large source of their diet. Based on the number of fresh kills in the area, these wolves were not only surviving after a long and harsh winter, they were thriving!
The afternoon passed by fast as we all discussed game plans to capture photos and video of the wolves, we anxiously kept watch over the intertidal zone, every wave, every flap of a wing, every branch swaying caught our attention. Our eyes were drawn to any movement, hoping it would be a wolf but always disappointed. Our hopes weren't set too high that afternoon, after all, it was only day one. We ate dinner and all gathered around a small fire on the beach as the sun set in the distance. For many of us it was the first time meeting each other so we were still getting to know each other. Laughter and stories were told across the flames, everyone in the group got on so well with each other.
While I was talking, all of a sudden I heard a loud "Shhhh" and someone grabbed hold of my arm, muting me instantly. I was face to face with not only one wolf, but two. Instinctively, I reached for my camera which scared the wolves slightly and they froze, locking eyes with me. The few seconds our staring contest, felt like an eternity, I was gazing right in to this wolf's soul.
Moments later, a third and much smaller wolf appeared from the forest, clearly a pup belonging to the adult male and female still right in front of us. The young pup didn't move further than a few meters away from the forest, clearly scared and intimidated by our presence. The entire group tried their hardest not to move and allow these beautiful animals to do as they wanted.
It became clear after a few minutes, they were trying to find the shortest way to cross between the two islands. I remember asking myself, 'Why wouldn't they wait for low tide, when they can walk over instead of swim?' After ten minutes of scouring the shoreline, the adult wolves walked out in to the water and began swimming to the other island. I was in complete disbelief... these wolves challenged everything we thought we knew about them. They paddled their way out in to the channel and five minutes later, they reached the other side. It was becoming very difficult to see at this point, it was now long after sunset. However, the pup was still taking shelter in the forest, evidently distraught from its missing parents, it began to howl relentlessly. The adults responded from the other island and after a couple of attempts, the young pup ran in front of us and began paddling to its parents.
It was one of those experiences you wait an entire lifetime to experience, a 'pinch me' moment. All of the knowledge and research we had done on these animals had been challenged, for me that was the most defining part of this adventure, I learned so much about these animals just by being in their environment. The wildest part of this story is that all of this happened within just ten hours of setting up camp on this remote island. Out of the entire five days we spent on the island, this was the only sighting we had of the wolves... on the first evening.
Our remaining days were spent looking for more signs of the wolves. We stayed up late watching the Aurora Borealis and we woke early every morning scanning the beaches for any signs of movement. During the day we cooked, cleaned camp and looked for any fresh tracks along the beaches, hoping to find new evidence. Sadly to no avail.