All Photographs by Paul Nicklen
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A coastal wolf stands on a rocky cliff.
All Photographs by Paul Nicklen

How to Catch a Glimpse of Canada’s Coastal Wolves? Wait, and Then Wait Some More

It was not until the 18th day that we broke our own rules. “No matter what we do, we cannot move from here,” my partner, Paul Nicklen, had told me at the beginning of our vigil. “The wolves know where we are, but they don’t like surprises, so they won’t like it if we move.”

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A female wolf with black fur crosses the photographer’s lens. “Rain wolves are being considered for distinct taxonomic status,” says photographer Paul Nicklen. “Trekking the shorelines is a part of the behavior of rain wolves, making them easy targets for hunters, who can easily take aim from a boat as the unsuspecting packs walk the beaches.”

And so we had been sitting quietly in our 8 x 6 blind on a small island off the coast of British Columbia every day from dawn to dusk, waiting for a pack of wolves to show themselves. These coastal wolves live a unique existence, hunting and scavenging on the fringe between rain forest and ocean.

From our vantage point at the edge of a salmon stream, we could see carcasses of headless fish strewn in the nearby meadow; clearly the work of a pack of rain wolves (also called coastal wolves). Over the noise of the bubbling water, we could hear the wolves howling, calling, and wrestling just on the other side of a small forest grove.

We guessed the pack must have at least four adults and several young pups. During the first week, we had seen a large female with black fur come out into the open twice. She stared at us for a minute and then trotted off along the stream. We had also seen another wolf, small and brown. We had been looking ahead into the creek and were utterly surprised when we realized he had been sitting silently just a few feet behind us, his inquisitive yellow wolf eyes seeming to ask, “Who are you guys hiding from?”

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Relatives babysit youngsters at rendezvous sites, and their parents bring them food until they’re old enough to hunt—and beachcomb—with the pack.

Of course the wolves knew we were there. With their sharp ears and keen noses, they must have heard our every whisper and smelled the stale cheese sandwiches I made every morning. Paul gave us a “guard schedule”—one of us would keep our eyes trained on the small salmon creek for an hour, while the other would take a break by napping or reading a book.

The hours passed long and monotonous, the watch only broken by the occasional raven gliding slowly over the blind and cawing loudly, as if to say, “I know you’re hiding in there.”

We ate nuts and we watched the hypnotic ebb and flow of the tide. Every few hours the water would slowly rise into the blind until it barely licked our boots, and then it would recede over the next six hours, only to start rising again.

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Gangly and tentative, a young wolf hones its fishing skills. Unlike the more adept black and brown bears, wolves mainly fish in the mouths of shallow creeks. After catching a salmon in their jaws, they pin it with a paw and chow down.

Finally, with only a few days left to shoot this story, Paul could take it no more. Against all his own rules, he decided to hike to the next bay to scout for the pack.

Not even an hour after he left I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. First I thought it was a raccoon. After looking with my binoculars, I realized it was a wolf pup, coming along the edge of the stream, followed closely by three more pups and their mother.

Soon enough they reached the meadow right across from where I sat. The pups were chasing each other, pulling on each other’s tails and biting each other’s ears. I desperately wanted to call Paul on the radio but knew that if I spooked the wolves they would be gone for good.

Then the mother looked across the stream, right into my eyes. She stared for a few seconds, as if to make sure I knew she knew I was there.

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A wolf is well camouflaged in cedar boughs at the forest’s edge.

The next 20 minutes were truly special. The mother took off trotting slowly toward the nearby beach to scour for shellfish and other morsels left by the low tide, and the pups stayed in the meadow. A couple of them found a piece of bulk kelp, and they used it to play tug-of-war. They wrestled, and they pounced on each other in the most comical ways. All the while I struggled between calling Paul and trying to shoot in the rapidly diminishing afternoon light.

By the time Paul returned to the blind, the mother had come back, and the pack had trotted off into the sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement but was worried that Paul might be upset by having missed this lovely encounter. I should have known him better. He simply said “tushu,” which in Inuktitut, the Inuit language he learned as a child, means “I am happy for you but want the same for myself.”

Luckily, that was not the last time we saw those pups. Over the next few days the pack came out several more times, allowing Paul to take some of the magical photographs you see in the pages of the October 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

See more photographs from the October 2015 National Geographic magazine story “Sea Wolves.” Hear Paul Nicklen talk about the importance of protecting animals and their environments.