There are places in this world where humans seem like intruders, or at least guests—places that take an effort to get to, where wild trumps tame, and expertise in navigating the land and sea can mean survival. The Inside Passage of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska is one such place.
Coastal peaks drop to the sea; fjords reach between mountains like long fingers; a tangle of islands shields waterways and shorelines from assault by the mighty Pacific. It’s a haven of riches for wildlife—from brown bears and humpback whales, to sea otters and hummingbirds—that stretches roughly 900 miles (as the crow flies) from Skagway, the northernmost city in Southeast Alaska, south to Victoria, the southernmost city on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It could take a lifetime to explore.
Fortunately, experienced guides and organized excursions abound in the Inside Passage, allowing relatively easy access to the region’s most untamed places and its wild inhabitants. Here are three wildlife hotspots—each one offering unique experiences—and expert guide services that top our list.
Near the northern tip of the Inside Passage, the small town of Haines defines wild. Wildlife enthusiasts flock there to spot brown bears gorging on salmon in late summer and to visit the Bald Eagle Preserve. Haines sits at the point where two rivers—the Chilkat and Chilkoot—meet the sea, a rich habitat for salmon, which brings bears and bald eagles in abundance.
Chilkat Guides leads raft float trips through the spectacular mountain scenery of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Guests see salmon making their way upstream in the shallow, braided river as well as the animals that come to prey on them: eagles, bears and sometimes wolves. Along the way, experienced naturalist guides teach guests about the wildlife they spot and about the area’s natural history and native culture.
Every fall and winter, as many as 4,000 bald eagles come to Haines to feast on the salmon run. The Alaska Bald Eagle Festival celebrates this spectacle every November, a time when wildlife watchers converge on the tiny town of Haines.
Chilkoot Lake sits a short drive out of town, and the view from a Chilkoot Lake Tours 28-foot pontoon boat is the best way to observe the local wildlife that frequent the lake. Late summer is the best season to see brown bears feeding on salmon; other animals frequently spotted include mountain goats, moose, otters and several species of waterfowl.
While in Haines, find time to see the Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage and Bald Eagle Preserve Visitor Center, located at mile 22 on the Haines Highway. This center exhibits a remarkable historic art and artifact collection from the Alaska Natives in the region.
Travel tips: Reach Haines by air, water or land. Unlike most Southeast Alaska cities, Haines is accessible by road from Yukon Territory on the famous Haines Highway. If an epic road trip is not part of your plans, you can get to Haines on the Alaska Ferry or on Alaska Seaplanes or Harris Air Service. In Haines, bunk down at the charming Hotel Halsingland at historic Fort Seward. visithaines.com
Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness, Alaska
Southeast Alaska’s gateway city of Ketchikan is a center of Alaska Native culture and art and, as “the salmon capital of the world,” a hub for sport fishing. This island borough of approximately 14,000 is surrounded by water and mountains and is only accessible by air or boat. Nearby, the 2.1-millionacre Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness is a popular day-trip for Ketchikan visitors.
Several guides offer flights by small plane over Misty Fiords, but the best way to take in its raw beauty up close is by boat. Allen Marine Tours, an Alaska Native company, takes guests on half-day sightseeing boat excursions out of Ketchikan. On the tour, guests learn about the natural history of the fjords, spot whatever wildlife the boat encounters, examine ancient petroglyphs along the rock shore and take in the unmatched scenery of sheer rock cliffs and waterfalls plunging into the sea. Guests often spot bald eagles, sea lions and bears foraging along the water’s edge.
Travel tips: Fly in on one of Alaska Airlines’ daily flights, or take the scenic Alaska Ferry from Bellingham, Washington. In Ketchikan, book lodging at Cape Fox Lodge for Alaska Native hospitality and panoramic downtown waterfront views. visit-ketchikan.com
Broughton Archipelago, B.C.
Port McNeill on Vancouver Island’s northern end is the jumping off point for the veritable carnival of wildlife that is the Broughton Archipelago, a collection of islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Explore this region in comfort with a wildlife package at Farewell Harbour Lodge on isolated Berry Island.
Your hosts from the lodge will meet you at Alder Bay Resort, just south of Port McNeill, and ferry you to the lodge. From there, your days will be filled with both sea and land adventures, and your evenings will be occupied in the lodge over a chefprepared dinner, B.C. wines and storytelling by the lodge’s general manager and lead guide, Tim McGrady. In a single day, it is not uncommon to spot brown bears fishing for salmon at close range, pods of orcas, humpbacks, white-sided porpoises, black bears, bald eagles and countless waterfowl.
Travel tips: You can travel to Port McNeill by car, plane, bus or ferry. By air, Pacific Coastal Airlines flies from Vancouver to Port Hardy, about 30 minutes north of Port McNeill; from Seattle, Kenmore Air flies directly to Port McNeill. Whatever your point of arrival by air, arrange a shuttle or taxi to the dock at Alder Bay. By car, take a car ferry to Vancouver Island and drive north directly to Alder Bay; the driving time from Victoria is about 5.5 hours. If you need overnight accommodations prior to catching the boat to Farewell Harbour Lodge, book a room at Alder Bay Resort, owned and operated by your hosts at Farewell Harbour Lodge. vancouverislandnorth.ca