ECOADVENTURES IN VANCOUVER

(originally published in the July-Aug-Sept 2007 issue of Oasis Air in-flight)

By John Geary

Plentiful wildlife, spectacular mountains, lush forests, scenic oceans ... Canada’s westernmost province certainly has all that, and much more. And you don’t have to go too far from Vancouver, B.C.’s largest city, to enjoy nature and the outdoors.

Here are four different eco-adventures you can enjoy, all less than a day’s drive away (although you may want to allow three days to fully appreciate the pedal-paddle trip in Kelowna, a 3-1/2 hour drive from Vancouver).

A WHALE OF A TALE: Orca watching in the Strait of Georgia.

It happened so suddenly, that we were almost caught off guard. Not more than 10 metres from our boat, a huge orca breached the surface of the Pacific Ocean. It swam nonchalantly past us, as if we were just another small archipelago amidst the Gulf Islands, off B.C.’s southern coast.

Just as quickly as it surfaced, the huge cetacean dove back under the ocean.

Although they are called “killer whales,” orcas are actually a member of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. They are certainly predators, eating many kinds of marine mammals, including seals, sea lions, and even larger whales.

Like all dolphins, they are also very social creatures, travelling in groups called pods. Several other members of this pod continued swam past our boat, floating atop the calm surface.

It was our day’s second encounter; we’d seen them about an hour earlier, further south. We had not been as close the first time, though, and Vancouver Whale Watch, (www.vancouverwhalewatch.com ) the company we chose for our expedition, lets the whales approach the boats, rather than the other way around. As a member of the Whale Watch Operator’s Association Northwest, it follows strict guidelines to ensure orcas are not stressed or harmed as a result of whale-watching.

All too soon, the orca encounter ended, and we began motoring back in our open zodiac. We made several stops on the way back to view seabirds, but as we entered the inlet of the Fraser River’s south arm leading to Steveston Harbour, we were still buzzing about our encounter with the orcas.

WINGING IT: In a birdwatcher’s paradise

A rush of wings brought our heads around quickly - and just in time, as a bald eagle sped by just a few feet overhead to our right.

We’d only been on the trail at the George Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary (www.reifelbirdsanctuary.com/ ) for five minutes, and we’d already been rewarded.

The eagle was one of many birds we saw during our afternoon visit to the conservation area, located on Westham Island, just outside Ladner, B.C., an hour’s drive south of Vancouver.

It is part of the Fraser River estuary, an ecological site of international importance to millions of birds, fish and other wildlife. It lies along the Pacific flyway, making it an excellent place to see migratory birds in the spring and fall. There are also plenty of birds there in the summer.

Although it’s always a treat to spot an eagle, the sanctuary plays a more important role as a winter home for migrating lesser snow geese. It is also home to sandhill cranes and several waterfowl.

A system of wooded and dyke-top trails throughout the sanctuary, combined with some bird watching blinds and an observation tower, guarantee sightings of several different bird species.

The trails are easy-walking, and there are places to sit and enjoy a picnic lunch, so in addition to being a hotspot for bird-watching, it also makes a very good family day trip for anyone visiting the area – you don’t have to be an avid birder to enjoy your time there.

NATURAL HIGH: Trekking among tree crowns in Whistler

Taking a deep breath to try to calm my acrophobic tendencies, I stepped onto the platform that would take me to a spot 20 stories up in a tree crown.

It turned out we had no real chance of seeing the ground through the layers of branches. That was fine by me - that high up, I was just as comfortable not being able to see below.

Besides, the surrounding view of the valley was spectacular, and we could really enjoy it – when we weren’t busy learning about Pacific coastal mountain rainforest ecology.

Offered by Ziptrek tours of Whistler, B.C. (www.ziptrek.com ), 90 minutes from Vancouver, these guided two-hour tours provide an opportunity to learn about the area’s ecology by getting up close and personal with the upper stories of trees like Douglas fir, hemlock and spruce. During the tour, you visit several different platform stations located the crowns of 900-year-old trees.

You access the first station by just stepping off the roadside …and on to a wooden platform jutting out from the mountainside, onto a suspension bridge, then over to the first station. You reach each platform via a suspension bridge. The whole system is built so as to not cause any damage to the trees and so the living forest can continue to grow.

After catching our breath at our first stop, Guide Cara Davison gave us the first of a series of natural history mini-lectures, explaining the area’s basic ecology.

We spent about 15 or 20 minutes at each stop, our guide explaining and pointing out different ecological aspects.

Eventually, it was time to head back. We heard a Steller’s jay squawking somewhere in a nearby tree, probably wondering when he was going to get his tour … .

PEDAL-PADDLE POWER TO QUAIL’S GATE: A different kind of winery tour

As we sipped our third wine sampler, I thought to myself, “This is one glass of wine I truly earned.”

I was enjoying the final stage of a tour at Quail’s Gate Estate Winery (www.quailsgate.com ) in Kelowna, B.C. Okanagan winery tours are pretty standard tourist fare in B.C.; however, this particular tour was a little different than most.

That’s because to get to the winery, we had to use pedal power – not the kind you get from stepping on the accelerator of a motor vehicle, but rather the two-wheeled variety of transportation known as a bicycle – that kind of pedal power.

We also used paddle power. After taking a two-hour guided cycling tour around Kelowna, we traded in our helmets and bikes for life jackets, paddles and canoes.

Organized by Monashee Adventure Tours (www.monasheeadventuretours.com ), the first part of the tour provided us with an opportunity to learn about Kelowna’s history and development.

We didn’t expect to see much nature in a city tour; however, we saw plenty of art paying homage to nature. In one small marshy area, we saw life-sized sculptures of herons. Further on, we viewed a statue of some grizzly bears.

After our two-hour cycling tour ended, we hooked up with Winds and Rivers Escapes (www.windsrivers.bc.ca ) for our journey’s second leg.

We spent a leisurely hour paddling up Lake Okanagan, keeping a watchful eye out for “Ogopogo,” the Okanagan’s answer to the Loch Ness monster. (Other than a comical park statue we passed while cycling, we saw no signs of Nessie’s mythical cousin, although we heard some strange, inexplicable splashing behind our canoes …)

Upon reaching our destination, we pulled out, then drove the last few kilometres to the winery, where we slaked both our thirst and hunger at the Old Vines Patio Restaurant.

During our tour, we tasted grapes on the vine, before visiting the building where the harvested fruits are turned into wine.

Although many are familiar with the romantic image of stomping grapes in barrels to make wine, we didn’t see any barefoot employees running around with purple-stained feet. These days, it’s all done mechanically - much more efficient (and probably a lot more sanitary!)

Finally, we reached what is almost everybody’s favourite stop on the tour: the sampling room. We tried small offerings of five different wines, some red, some white … some dry, some sweet – and all delicious.