Wildlife Hotspot: Fish Creek
Once a month, we’ll feature a wildlife hotspot. We want to help you get ‘the shot’ in order to rekindle your love for nature; to enable you to become inspired by wildlife; and to equip you to become an advocate for a wilder world at home.
This month’s focus:
Tongass National Forest’s Fish Creek
Fish Creek is a US government-run bear viewing platform within the Tongass National Forest, located on the Alaskan panhandle.
Accessible only from British Columbia on Highway 37a, via Stewart (BC)/Hyder (AK), Fish Creek might be one of the most affordable, road accessible wildlife viewing areas in the world.
Most people come from around the world to get within a few feet – yes, feet – of grizzly and black bears. And while bear viewing is excellent, it’s the wolf viewing that make this location a must-visit for any wildlife photographer.
When our favourite grizzly viewing location in Kananaskis Country was closed down due to floods last year and work beckoned me north, Jill kindly agreed to drive 1100 beautiful, if uneventful, kilometres – one way – from Jasper, AB to Stewart, BC. And while in Stewart, one must visit Fish Creek.
I had visited Fish Creek once as a child with my parents, but we never did see any bears. What put this area back on my radar was a discussion with our good friend, photographer Bernie Scates, who had visited Fish Creek the year before and sang its praises.
Indeed, the recommendation was spot on.
Over the course of a week, we were treated to daily black bear sightings…
…and near-daily grizzly bear sightings. From big boys like the 800 pound “Dog Bear”…
…to the queen of the river, “Monica”…
…to the omnipresent young sow “Mira”.
Timing is everything when visiting Fish Creek. While it’s open from mid-July to mid-September, the action corresponds with the salmon spawning season – and that varies from year-to-year.
We were lucky to hit the platform at peak season for the salmon, but, unfortunately, in recent years, bears have become increasingly scarce (trophy hunting, salmon decline are two reasons cited). We were lucky to see the three grizzlies we saw, though Mira – not the prettiest bear of all time – was the most visible by far. There were also no cubs present last year, which obviously impacts the quality of sightings.
Moreover, for such a remote outpost, it is surprisingly busy and the jockeying for the best position on the platform can get frustrating.
For photographers, there are two big negatives.
The angles from the platform are, for the most part, very poor – in some cases you’re shooting almost directly down at the bears.
While you can overcome some of the issues with hard work (and aforementioned jockeying), the isn’t a perfect spot/shot.
The other issue is the weather. While we were lucky to never see a drop of rain, being that Fish Creek is located in the rainforest, it is usually dark and wet. Fast lenses and high ISO settings are a must, even when it’s sunny.
The only good news about the light is that, when there are clear skies, the sun doesn’t reach most parts of the creek until after 11am and disappears by 4 in the afternoon.
But for all of the negatives, there is one overwhelming positive: wolves.
In Alaska and BC, on the coast, a unique subspecies of grey wolf has evolved – one that is smaller than its inland cousins and relies heavily on a diet of salmon.
Like wolves everywhere, they are elusive, but without question, Fish Creek is the best location I’ve ever visited for wolf photography.
We were lucky enough to see four different individuals and while they are more shy of people than the bears – and their visits to the platform harder to predict – we usually saw the wolves once a day.
And thanks to some extraordinary luck, we also managed to find the wolves fishing away from the platform – a sequence we had all to ourselves and one that will stay with me until the day I die (more on this another day).
Eagles are common throughout the region, though the sightings aren’t nearly as good as Brackendale, BC. And supposedly mink are common, though we never saw one (to my huge disappointment).
Fish Creek is a long drive from anywhere and there are serious downsides to visiting this location in search of bears. In my mind, places like Kananaskis and Yellowstone offer as accessible hotspots with more beautiful grizzlies. That said, there are few places in the world where you can watch and photograph bears safely from within a few feet of the animals – and of the handful of places that do allow you to experience this, Fish Creek is the only one accessible by road.
But truly, if you make the trek to Fish Creek, do it for the wolves. It’s the best show in town – and quite possibly the best show in the world.
Location: Near Stewart/Hyder on the Alaska/BC border
Accessibility: Highway 37a from Meziadin Junction on BC’s Stewart-Cassiar Highway
Photographic Focus: Grizzly bears, black bears and coastal grey wolves
Best Time: All day, though mornings and evenings are best
Season: Mid-July to mid-September
– Despite the remoteness of the location, the viewing platform fills up. Be at Fish Creek for when the platform opens in order to get a spot close to the corner at the far end of the structure – where the best action occurs.
– There is a cost for accessing the platform ($5/day; $10/3 days; $20/week – all per person, all USD), but a yearly pass to the US national parks system includes entry to Fish Creek.
– Monitor the salmon spawning season – it varies year-to-year. Peak salmon spawning means peak bear viewing.
– Don’t camp in the National Forest unless you have a hard-sided vehicle. The bears aren’t threatening, given the volume of accessible food, but there are, unfortunately, some two-legged creatures on the Hyder side of the border known to cause trouble.
– The campsite in Stewart is excellent and crossing the border (which is 24/7 and is only required when you return to Canada) is not like a normal border crossing: the guards are friendly and efficient, while being thorough.
– Keep an eye out for animals throughout the drive from Hyder to Fish Creek. Our best bear and wolf sightings were from the road, not the platform.
Tags: alaska, bears, eagles, fish creek, grizzly bears, hyder, national forest, nature, photography, salmon, simon jackson, stewart, tongass, wildlife hotspot, wolf