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25 Best Paddling Locations For Wildlife Viewing

Forget the rapids, sunsets and sandy beaches. No matter what craft you’re in, it’s the wildlife you encounter while paddling that’s often the most memorable. But you’re not going to find much of it touring the Mississippi through Minneapolis or joining the throngs on the Gauley. To get where the wild things are you have to go a little farther off the beaten path. Following are a few of our favorite hotspots, where you can catch everything from whale flukes to caribou from the seat of your cockpit.

American Alligator

1. Everglades National Park, Florida

The best alligator viewing in the Everglades is along the West Lake Water Trail, a 12-km, one-way route to Alligator Creek, 11 km north of Flamingo. The average alligator ranges between six and nine feet long, with occasional monsters. This route passes through cypress and mangrove-lined creeks, through both common alligator and American crocodile habitat. On arrival at Garfield Bite, you can retrace your route and return to West Lake. Campers should be prepared for mosquitoes and snakes, both of which may be more irritating than the alligators.

2. Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana

With 35 species of reptiles and amphibians inhabiting its 142,000 acres, Louisiana’s Sabine National Wildlife Refuge has more alligators per capita than perhaps any other paddle-able waterway in the country. Sabine is the largest coastal marsh refuge on the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s also the home to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterbirds. Alligators can be seen every day of the year, but are usually more active on windless, warm days. Two public boat launches off Highway 27 provide access to the refuge and nearby Calcasieu Lake. Certain sections of the refuge are restricted to boat travel between Oct. 15 and March 15 during waterfowl migration, so plan accordingly.

3. Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Made famous by Walt Kelly’s cartoon strip, Pogo–featuring, among other things, a character named Albert the Alligator–Georgia’s 435,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp offers about as alligator-friendly paddling as you can find. Employees at Stephen Foster State Park have even named one of the partially tamed alligators, George. With two rivers arising from the swamp–the Suwannee, draining into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Mary’s, which empties into the Atlantic–a variety of routes exist from which to view the beasts. Three canoe entrances lead into the refuge: Suwannee Canal (seven miles from Folkston, Ga.); Stephen Foster (18 miles from Fargo, Ga.); and Kingfisher Landing (13 miles from Folkston). From these three points you can access 13 overnight canoe routes, with outings of up to six days possible by looping them together. And don’t worry–instead of camping in chomping range of the ‘gators, you’ll be sleeping safely on 20- by 28-foot wooden platforms, listening the alligators splash below. Info: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, (912) 496-7836.

Bears (Black)

4. Rogue River, Oregon

Sighting a black bear isn’t all that unusual, especially in the Rockies or Pacific Northwest. But if you really want to see lots of bears “up close and personal,” then southern Oregon’s Rogue River is the place to be. Here bears are so common that you’re pretty much guaranteed to see one — whether you want to or not. In fact, the official Rogue River Black Bear motto is: “Don’t find us, we’ll find you.” These guys will lumber right into your camp, pop open your cooler and settle in for a long midnight snack. Don’t worry, they’re not shy: no need to hide behind a duck blind or watch from a respectful distance with binoculars. No, these guys are downright social — like a bunch of teenage boys after soccer practice — and they will (hopefully) ignore you as they raid your camp in search of Doritos and Hersheys bars. For maximum entertainment, try camping at one of the bears’ favorite sites: Brushy Bar, Solitude Bar or Tacoma Camp. At these hot spots the bears have gotten so bold that the Forest Service has installed “cooler corrals”–miniature paddocks surrounded by electric fences where you can hide your Igloo in plain sight. Just pray that the batteries don’t run out!

5. Princess Royal Island, British Columbia

An encounter with the ghost white “Spirit Bear” of coastal British Columbia is an unforgettable, almost spiritual event. The Kermode phase, originating from a recessive gene combination, tends to be less concerned about human presence, and paddlers who encounter a Spirit Bear often get a good, long look. Their population is estimated at under 400 animals, and they are only found in the Terrace, B.C., vicinity. A First Nation’s (Canadian Coastal Aboriginal people) legend states that the Raven (creator of all living things), created the white bear as a reminder of the last ice age and decreed that these bears would live in harmony with people forever.

Take a ferry north from Bella Bella or south from Prince Rupert, B.C., and start your tour at Klemtu. Paddlers can try to catch a glimpse of this creamy white-colored phase of black bear by paddling north through Meyers Passage, paying particular attention on the effluence and outflows of the many freshwater streams running along the southern shore. It’s recommended that you avoid the heavily traveled marine lanes of the Inside Passage, since the bears do as well. Princess Royal Island is held by the Kitasoo Tribe, and formal permission must be requested before traveling around the island. One company, Northern Lights Expeditions out of Bellingham, Wash., offers sailboat-supported sea kayaking tours into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest and Kermode territory.

6. Hyder, Alaska/Stewart, B.C.

The twin cities of Hyder and Stewart are suited for almost guaranteed brown bear viewing by paddlers who trace a route along their coastal estuaries. In late July and early August, brown and black bears descend to the shores around these small towns to harvest three distinctive runs of salmon that overlap in duration. Patient paddlers can get the encounter of a lifetime by exploring the mouths of streams in this area during dawn and twilight hours.

Travel to Stewart, B.C., and launch beside the town ferry terminal, and head south past the Salmon River confluence along the shore of Portland Canal. Watch for brown bears almost immediately after leaving town, particularly around the openings to small creeks immediately beside the Salmon River. Never approach closer than 30 feet, since bears are quite capable of swimming at quick speeds. Watch for signs of brown bear along the shore: freshly torn salmon carcasses in bunches, and deeply detailed pug marks and prints in the mud. Be aware particularly of shaking bushes along shoreline vegetation–a certain sign that a bear is moving down toward the water.

Paddlers landing ashore in bear country should carry pepper spray canisters, preferably one with a 1 percent, but not more than 1.4 percent oleoresin capsicum content (higher percentages could result in permanent eye damage to bears). One final note of preparation on this recommendation; bring all the gear you need–you’ll likely be unable to find any kayaking accessories in this remote part of the country.

7. Admiralty Island, Alaska

If you want a cockpit’s-eye view of coastal browns, head no farther than Alaska’s Admiralty Island, called Kootznoowoo (“Fortress of the Bears”) by native Tlingit Indians. With one of the densest brown bear populations in the world, the island near Juneau boasts a 22-mile cross-island canoe route that bisects the Admiralty Island National Monument/Kootznoowoo Wilderness Area and takes you into the heart of Ursus horribilis country. The four- to seven-day route combines two saltwater bays and seven mountain lakes via portages maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. If you start your trip in Mole Harbor you’ll even pass the old homestead of the late Alan Hasselborg, a hermit featured on the Wonderful World of Disney who was renowned for his knowledge of Alaskan browns (the largest lake on the canoe route bears his name). On a 10-day sea kayaking trip there when he was still alive, we watched him beat a handful of browns foraging on his berries off with a stick. Forest Service cabins can be rented along the route, but they book up quickly.

8. Kodiak Island, Alaska

The first thing you see when you step off the plane at Alaska’s Kodiak Island is a huge, stuffed Alaskan brown bear in the airport lobby. If you plan on paddling there, take it as a harbinger of things to come. Kodiak has one of the greatest concentrations of brown bears on earth, about one for every 1.1 square miles. This, of course, means following proper bear protocol when paddling, from stashing your food well away from your tent to avoiding camping amidst bear sign. Luckily, the bears are usually well fed on one of several species of salmon that spawn on the island. And the island’s pristine sea kayaking is well worth any potential encounter with Ursus horribilis, as routes exist from smooth Chiniak Bay to the rougher Gulf of Alaska. You can also hire floatplanes to drop you in the archipelago’s wild backcountry for rafting and more touring.

9. Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho

Though sheep are often spotted along many Western rivers, including several runs of the Southwest, where the Desert Bighorn are found, those along the banks and hills above Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon can be seen on any day of this classic six- to seven-day float. Though they are occasionally confused with mountain goats, which are smaller and can be seen farther north along the banks of the Flathead River in Glacier National Park, Bighorn Sheep remain one of the most athletic and endearing riverside sightings. Spring is the best time for Bighorn viewing, when most of the surrounding peaks are still covered with snow. But during a fall float, it’s possible to hear sounds of the famous butting contests echoing through the canyons of the Middle Fork, when large males ram each other at speeds of 40 or 50 miles per hour, sending loud booms cascading down from above. The Middle Fork became one of the charter members of the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1968 and it is still possible, over 30 years later, to view Bighorn Sheep and other wildlife not only from the river but one of the many legendary hot springs found along the way.

Bald Eagles

10. Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin

The best time to view bald eagles on Wisconsin’s premiere canoeing river happens to occur at a time when you shouldn’t be canoeing there. There are two reasons for this. The most significant is the fact that excessive human movement tends to disturb the 200 or more birds that are likely to be perched in the trees scouting for a meal in the wash below the dam at Sauk Prairie, Wisc. The other reason is that this magnificent congregation of the nation’ most recognizable symbol reaches a zenith toward the end of January when it’s cold in Wisconsin. But fear not. When the lakes farther north lose their ice come spring, allowing the majority of these visitors to go back and eat at home, some choose to hang around and make their nests along this quiet and low-impacted waterway. Between the dam at Sauk Prairie, which marks the beginning of the lower Wisconsin, and Boscobel, about 60 miles downriver, 10 to 20 pairs are estimated to be living along the tree- and bluff-lined river. Abundant put-ins and take-outs allow paddlers to devise a variety of float plans designed to last anywhere from four-hour day trips to several days for those deciding to complete the 90-mile trip to the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. While on the way one can also expect to encounter ospreys, herons, hawks, turkey, deer, fox and other woodland and prairie creatures. Sandbars and spits are plentiful for camping but please focus on remaining low impact as this semi- wilderness area continues to increase in popularity. Sauk Prairie is located 45 minutes northwest of Madison on Hwy 12.

11. Skagit River, Washington

Paddlers looking for accessible eagle viewing should make plans to travel the Skagit River in January. Migratory flight paths and a predictable run of Chinook salmon make the Skagit an eagle’s Mecca during the winter months. Start your downriver float trip at a launch point under a bridge in the junction of Marblemount, and float downstream to the State Park at Rockport. The current on the Skagit River is slow, it is wide enough to allow a sea kayak, and the run lasts a comfortable hour and 45-minutes. Bald eagles are most frequently seen perched on trees at the river’s edge, looking for spawned-out salmon that beach themselves on the rivers’ banks. Juveniles, adults in full plumage and immature are all present, and it is not unusual to see upward of 80 eagles during one run. Interpretative stations are available along the route, which is paralleled by a state highway. A few pullouts are available, but much of the run passes through private land, so plan accordingly. The Fish and Wildlife Department occasionally close this stretch of the river during middle daytime hours to prevent interference with eagle feeding activities, so call them in advance.

Caribou

12. Kongakut River, Brooks Range, Alaska

Caribou flow over the hills like water against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the midst of some of the most remote wilderness on earth. This is the Kongakut, a Brooks Range classic offering perhaps the world’s best opportunity to view the migration of thousands of caribou through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge–all from the seat of your canoe. To take best advantage of 24-hour sun, high water and the peak migration of the 13,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd, you’re best off running the Kongakut in June. Ten to 12 days is standard for the trip, but try to stay longer as the hiking and other wildlife viewing is phenomenal. Be prepared for all types of weather: rain, snow, sun and particularly wind. Also be prepared for mosquitoes, which are largely responsible for making the caribou migrate north to give birth.

13. Alatna River, Brooks Range, Alaska

Catch the Western caribou herd (the world’s largest) migrating south to their wintering grounds on this pristine river flowing through the heart of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Class II-III whitewater, views of the Yosemite-like Arrigetch peaks and the tundra in full gold and red autumn glory highlight this trip. The Alatna is best run in August for peak color, wildlife viewing, and few, if any, mosquitoes. Be prepared for technical rapids, stunning mountain scenery and a myriad of wildlife well beyond caribou, including barren ground grizzly, arctic wolves, dall sheep, moose and more.

Moose

14. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Though your most likely chance of an early morning moose sighting in Grand Teton National Park may be on the drive to the put-in, a float through the lower 10 willow-lined miles of the Snake offers one of the country’s best moose watching opportunities from the water. This trip starts at Deadman’s Bar and ends–appropriately enough–at park headquarters in Moose. Early spring is the best time for viewing, in part because May and June provides the best opportunity for seeing a momma moose with her calf (or calves). As you float, remember to look back upstream. Moose are often lurking behind clumps of willows or back up smaller side channels, out of the downstream view. If you’re canoeing, another great stretch is the five-mile, mellow-water section just below Jackson Lake. Here you can paddle early morning or late evening and see not only moose but also beaver and a large bald eagle nest.

15. St. Croix River, Maine

Landscape

It figures that a state with towns bearing such names as Moose River would have a waterway or two where you can boat by Bullwinkles. One of the best places to do so in The Vacation Land State is the St. Croix, rising from an extensive chain of wilderness lakes and flowing along the Canadian border. Recognized as a Canadian Heritage River, the St. Croix, especially the lower portion of the 38-mile stretch downstream of Vanceboro, is about as surefire a place to paddle past moose as anywhere in the world. But you do still have to go searching. “Most parties are too loud to see them from their canoes,” says Rob Scribner of Maine’s Sunrise County Canoe and Kayak. “You can’t be banging on your gunwales and expect to see them. You have to be quiet and either get up early or hit the water late in the evening. If you do that, you’ll have a good chance to see them.” To view them against a majestic backdrop, plan your paddle for September when antlers and brown brawn can be framed against a brilliant New England fall foliage.

Wolf (Gray)

16. Martin Arm, Boca De Quadra, Southeast Alaska

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Tucked away in Martin Arm, more than 60 miles southeast of Ketchikan, in the Misty Fjords National Monument, paddlers are sure to see signs of elusive gray wolves. This is an isolated location, and paddlers may want to charter a seaplane to travel into Mink Bay, or arrange for water taxi to a pre-determined starting point. There is only one occupied establishment in this inlet region, the private Mink Bay Lodge, approximately 8 miles southwest of Martin Arm.

Kayakers should travel northeast from Ketchikan, Alaska, up the Boca de Quadra to the mudflat terminus of Martin Arm, and camp on the north side of the inlet. Paddle in early morning or twilight to the mudflats and look for evidence of the Martin pack group, which is most active in early April or May. Gray wolves hunt for prey on the open grass area and mudflat plain of Marten Arm. These wolves are so unaccustomed to humans, that they usually allow a self-propelled craft a good look at them. King salmon runs also attract brown bear here in August, so proper precautions are vital.

Wolf (Timber)

17. Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

Few things shake our wild souls like the howl of the wolf and there are only a handful of places left on the planet to hear it. But here in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, it is a commonality. There are roughly 2,500 wolves in Minnesota, one of the few places in the lower 48 whose wolf population was not completely and deliberately exterminated by government control programs. And their favorite place to make their home is the 2 million acres of island-studded lakes and pine-covered forests of this popular wilderness area, accessible only to paddlers.

July and August are the best times to hear the haunting howl of a timber wolf, because the pups born earlier in the year are eager to test their newly developed vocal cords. And the best place to begin your paddling adventure into wolf country is by stopping in at the world renowned International Wolf Center, a wolf educational facility in Ely, Minnesota. Here, you can observe the resident pack in their wooded territory, and learn the basics of wolf biology, pack structure and communication from naturalists.

Piragis Northwoods Company leads weeklong canoeing trips into wolf country from mid-July to mid-September. They pick routes where you’ll have the best opportunities for hearing wolves. If you’re not interested in being one of their outfitting customers, for a small fee you can pick their brains and learn where the best campsites are located. They’ll supply you with a detailed canoe country map, hand marked with suggested routes and other notations of interest.

Manatees

18. Homosassa and Crystal Rivers, Florida

Paddlers eager for a close encounter with a gentle member of the Sirenian family, the West Indian manatee, can usually get within a paddle’s length of these jovial creatures near Homosassa, Florida. Kayaks are the preferred craft; unlike powerboats, they won’t injure or kill manatees, plus their presence along boating routes might encourage motorists to reduce their speeds in manatee country. Averaging three meters and 1,000 pounds, manatees are harmless to humans; swimming at the surface, they may even approach kayakers within just a few feet. The best viewing months are December and January, when the Goliaths spend time in shallow, warmer, spring-fed rivers to feed on aquatic plants. A good launch point is the marina at the Homosassa River Resort (90 minutes north of Tampa Bay). Head northeast, following the river for less than a kilometer into manatee feeding areas. Watch for their distinct brown bodies above or just below the surface. Slow your kayak and they’ll doubtlessly move in your direction.

Seals/Sea Lions/Sea Otters

19. La Paz, Baja, Mexico

To sea kayak–and, for those brave enough, swim–with sea lions, head to the city of La Paz in Baja, Mexico, where a short 2- 3-mile crossing takes you to the north end of Espiritu Santo and its famous sea lion rookery. Famed for its role in John Steinbeck’s classic, The Pearl, the island is actually one large island surrounded by five neighboring islands, all renowned for their rugged landscape, blue/green water, white beaches and indented coastlines, and all part of a protected reserve for sea lions. The best place to see and paddle with these denizens of the deep are a small chain of islets to the north where sea lion colonies bask in the Baja sun. Commercial outfitters, closely regulated by the Mexican government, usually pick paddlers up at the La Paz airport. Most private boaters launch from Puerto Balandra or Playa Tocolote about 25 miles north of La Paz.

20. Kouchibouquac National Park, New Brunswick, Canada

Though New Brunswick’s Kouchibouquac National Park has the second largest nesting site for common terns in North America, the 500 grey seals that flock to the barrier islands’ warm water is the biggest draw. The seals come from the Gulf of St. Lawrence when the ice breaks and arrive in the park in June and stay until early November. There are only a few places to see this largest and uncommon seal that are called “marine wolves” for their nighttime howl. Paddlers can get amazingly close as the seals swim up to your boat and peek out of the water, wiggling their eyebrows and whiskers. You can day trip it alone, go with an outfitter, or join the national park’s naturalists in a Voyageur Canoe, a 24-foot boat that seats eight. If you opt to camp, you’ll do so on white sand dunes and eat lobster by the campfire, serenaded by the magic of the Kouchibouquac seals. Kouchibouquac National Park is located in Kent County, north of Moncton, and has 311 campsites in two campgrounds.

21. Monterey Bay, California

In September 1992, California’s Monterey Bay became the nation’s newest and largest national marine sanctuary, covering 4,024 square nautical miles and extending north to the Gulf of the Farallones, west to encompass gray whale migration paths, and south to the sea otter territory of San Simeon. The secret of the ecosystem is a notch in the continental shelf, the Monterey Submarine Canyon, which cuts through the center of the bay and brings sea life to within a few hundred yards of the area’s beaches. It’s this vast chasm that’s the heart of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and that guarantees seeing sea lions and sea otters with every stroke. Rich, nutritious upwellings from the trench cause giant kelp beds to flourish, which harbor over 800 species of animals, including the sardines that spawned Monterey’s Cannery Row and John Steinbeck’s book of the same name. As well as watching for sea otters and sea lions, look for whales and 258 species of bird in the preserve’s ElkhornSlough.

Whales (Gray)

22. Cape Flattery, Washington

Paddlers looking for a chance to see gray whales in close proximity should travel to Cape Flattery during the northward migration in late April and early May. During this short period, more than 23,000 grays pass the Cape en-route to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. While many of the larger males move past the Cape quite quickly, females and nursing calves usually pass closer to shore, often passing kayakers and offering a great viewing opportunity. Paddlers concerned about the recent re-establishment of the traditional Makah whale hunt may choose to avoid the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay and instead launch their boats from the sheltered waters of Sekiu, or preferably at Snow Creek, a private boat launch immediately east of Neah Bay. It wouldn’t be wrong to let local businesses know you prefer to see whales alive.

Occasionally, a resident female gray whale can also be found close to the confluence of Snow Creek and the Strait; keep an eye out for her, since the water here is calmer and offers better viewing opportunities. Remember that the Marine Mammal Protection Act restricts active approaches of whales, but curious gray whales have a tendency to approach paddlers, and the Snow Creek female tends to do just that. Make sure your bracing skills are up to par, since the wake of a gray whale is significantly more forceful than that of an orca.

23. Magdalena Bay, Baja, Mexico

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Forty-ton California Gray whales migrate 5,000 miles from the Bering Sea to Baja’s Magdalena Bay every year to mate and give birth. They arrive in January and stay until March when their calves are strong enough to make the journey north again. If you sea kayak there during this time, seeing whales is no fluke. There are so many, in fact, that the area’s barrier islands and bay, located 600 miles south of San Diego, have been protected as part of the Vizcaino Biological Reserve, with access regulated by the Mexican government. Since access is limited and permits hard to acquire, it’s usually best to book your trip with an outfitter. If you do, you can be assured of whale encounters every day.

Whales (Orca)

24. Haro Strait, Washington

The orcas of Haro Strait are legendary. Paddlers traveling to the San Juan/Gulf Islands during summer are almost guaranteed a chance of encountering these impressive black and white behemoths. Currently, three pods, or 84 orcas, forage through the boundary water straits throughout the summer, and paddlers stand the best chance of sighting them if they launch from Snug Harbour in Mitchell Bay, on San Juan Island. Paddlers will also encounter Dall’s porpoise, river otter and harbor seals on this route. If paddling there, remember that the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires boaters to avoid active approaches closer than 100-feet of all whales. Head east from Mitchell Bay and bear south along the coast toward Deadman’s Cove, approximately one hour’s paddle, depending on the tide direction. Most of the shoreline is private beach or cliffside, but resting pull-outs are possible along most of the route. At the half-hour mark, you’ll pass Smallpox Bay and San Juan County Park, where public restrooms, a picnic area and a soft drink vending machine are available. For shorter paddles, this park also offers a place to park your car and terminate the tour.

25. Johnstone Strait, British Columbia

So many orcas come to British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait that the Canadian government established the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in 1982 to protest killer whale habitat. Located in sheltered waters away from the reserve, Johnstone Strait, measuring 40 kilometers long and just 4 kilometers wide, is considered by many to be the world’s best place to watch killer whales in the wild. In search of salmon, the orcas swimming through the strait use Robson Bight to socialize, rest and rub on pebble beaches between June and November. From Alert Bay, paddlers can paddle west toward the reserve to witness the frolicking first hand. To get to Johnstone Strait from Vancouver, either fly direct to Laert Bay, or jump the 90-minute ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo and drive north to Port McNeil. Info: Canadian Outback Adventure Co., (800) 565-TREK.

Last modified: January 29, 2019
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