Canada is home to an estimated 80,000 species of animals, from jellyfish to caribou, and there’s no shortage of ways to experience wildlife spotting – whether you’re hiking through Jasper National Park or heading out by boat to view Newfoundland’s population of cute-as-a-button puffins.
Most people are familiar with the concept of going on safari, but it’s typically associated with destinations in Africa where travellers seek the Big Five (black rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and African buffalo). What Canadians often don’t realize is that they can see the domestic version right at home.
During its Canada Big Five trip – in search of the beluga whale, moose, black bear, bison and polar bear – Frontiers North Adventures takes guests through Manitoba’s diverse ecosystems, from boreal forest to sub-Arctic tundra.
It’s not what you’d get in Africa. “There’s one major difference,” says Jessica Burtnick, director of marketing and sales at Frontiers North Adventures. “Our safari has no topography. In some areas, there are no trees to give you a sense of direction or a sense of size. You see a speck on the horizon walking toward you and you don’t realize how big it is until it gets close.”
In the Churchill area, that speck is likely to be a polar bear, a top local draw.
Large all-terrain tundra buggies (their tires alone are 5.5-feet high) take visitors out into the bears’ natural habitat for an immersive experience, allowing the curious animals to approach the vehicle. The average male bear, which measures 8-to-10-feet on its hind legs, is just tall enough to stand vertically against the buggy and peer at guests through the windows.
“It’s magical when an animal chooses to have an encounter with you,” says Burtnick, who has been with the company since 2014, starting as an interpretive guide and photo specialist. “You may actually be eye-to-eye with a bear.”
The Canada Big Five journey attracts plenty of wildlife enthusiasts, but it also draws travellers who are interested in other aspects of the trip, like learning about Indigenous culture and the history of Hudson Bay Company in Manitoba, as well as the chance to see the Northern Lights and the beluga whales that migrate to the Churchill River estuary in the summer. More than 2,500 of the snowy-white whales gather there to give birth each year.
This year, Frontiers North is launching its first Immersive Conservation Journey featuring belugas. Guests can join marine mammal scientist Valeria Vergara to study the whales’ behaviour and unique vocalizations – what Burtnick calls “beluga babble.”
“It’s important that we learn more about flagship species, like belugas and bears,” she says. “They tell us how we’re doing as a planet and what we need to do to take care of it.”
At the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre in Haliburton, Ont., guests can learn the language of wolves by participating in a public wolf howl. During the guided walk, held every Thursday at 8 p.m. through July and August, it’s not uncommon to hear a howl back in response. The current pack of six (including a yet-to-be-named puppy born in the spring) live in a seven-acre, forested enclosure.
“It’s magical when an animal chooses to have an encounter with you.”— Jessica Burtnick, director of marketing and sales at Frontiers North Adventures.
Once feared and loathed as common predators of livestock, wolves were hunted for decades to the brink of extinction. Marena Wigmore, co-ordinator of the centre, hopes visitors will develop the same kind of appreciation for wolves that she developed as a kid at the family cottage, when summers always meant a trip to see the animals. When she was older, she got a part-time job at the centre and was eventually hired to run it.
“Working near the wolves on a daily basis, I’ve come to learn just how intelligent they are and how intricate their lives are,” she says. “Just observing them is fascinating. We can learn about ourselves by watching how they interact because their communication is focused on body language.”
Behind a one-way glass wall, guests can get a close-up view of the wolves sleeping or hanging out – during the summer, they like to nap near the windows. While spotting them isn’t guaranteed (they’re wild, after all), the centre has a lot of information to share through educational programs, displays, a cinema and classroom presentations.
Hands-on activities are also available. Guests can sign up for a painting party led by local artist Harvey Walker. From the vantage point of the observation platform, Walker shows the budding artists simple steps for how to capture a wolf’s beauty. The wolves may be nearby – as close as five metres – for inspiration.
Whatever the activity, the common goal is to educate people about wolves and alleviate fear, says Wigmore.
“The more you know about something, the less you’ll be afraid,” she explains. “Wolves are not big, scary creatures that are going to hunt you down and stalk you in the forest. Coming to the wolf centre and seeing these animals up close, you realize what we’ve been told in the past about them isn’t correct. Learning more helps us understand how we can coexist.”
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- Southern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park is a top spot for birdlife, with more than 390 species recorded in the region. A range of habitats, including marshes, grasslands and forested areas, and its location on a key migratory pathway make it an ideal destination for birdwatchers.
- In Oxford County, dining alfresco in a pasture comes with unexpected guests. Udder Ridiculous Farm Life has introduced alpaca picnics. The doe-eyed, friendly animals will roam and come to meet you while you nibble on local cheese and other delicacies.
- Tadoussac, Que., is considered one of the best spots in the world for whale-watching. From May to October, at least a dozen whale species come to feed on krill in the St. Lawrence River. Local companies offer a range of experiences: Head out in an inflatable boat with a maximum of 24 passengers or take a trip in a larger vessel (up to 600 guests).
- The Kermode (spirit) bear can only be found on Princess Royal Island in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. Journeys to spot the rare white bears are provided by companies like Ocean Adventures and Maple Leaf Adventures.
- The annual migration of 250,000 caribou in Nunavut is one of the largest in the world. To witness it firsthand, visit in early spring or late autumn and stay at the Arctic Haven Wilderness Lodge, which is smack dab in the middle of the action.