No other animal has shaped the history of Canada more than the beaver, whose coveted pelt brought the first permanent European settlers to these shores. North America’s largest rodent has a beefy body, webbed hind feet and a long, muscular tail that serves as a rudder when swimming. The axiom ‘busy as a beaver’ is well justified: skilled loggers and engineers, they each cut down up to 200 trees per year and build elaborate ‘lodges, ’ dams and canals. They live in forests throughout the country and are most active between dusk and dawn. If you’re lucky, you might spot one paddling across a stream or lake with its head just above the water.
The porcupine is Canada’s second-largest rodent. This curious, slow-moving animal is covered in up to 30, 000 quills, which form a formidable defense mechanism. When under threat, the porcupine vigorously lashes its tail, thereby dislodging loose quills as if throwing them. It feeds mainly on bark and tree buds, and used to be a staple of the Aboriginal diet. The quills are sometimes used in aboriginal decorative work.
The white-tailed deer can be found anywhere from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia to the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. Its bigger relative, the caribou, is unusual in that both males and females sport enormous antlers. Barren-ground caribou, which feed on lichen and spend most of the year on the tundra from Baffin Island to Alaska, are the most common. Some Inuit hunt caribou for hides and food, and it occasionally shows up on menus as far south as Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver.
One of the biggest deer species is the elk (wapiti), a formidable creature whose ‘bugling’ roars can scare the bejeezus out of you. Their relatively small herds roam around western Canada, especially the Kootenays and Vancouver Island in BC, although quite a few also hang out in the national parks of Banff and Jasper, and Waterton Lakes, Riding Mountain and Prince Albert.
Still more humungous is the moose, whose skinny, ballerina-like legs support a hulking body with a distinctive shovel-like snout. Males grow a spectacular rack of antlers every summer, only to discard it in November. You’ll spot moose foraging near lakes, muskegs and streams as well as in the forests of the western mountain ranges in the Rockies and the Yukon. Newfoundland has grown a huge moose population since they were first introduced there in the early 1900s.
Neither moose nor elk are generally aggressive, and they will often generously pose for photographs. They can be unpredictable, though, so don’t startle them. During mating season (September), the males can become belligerent, so stay in your car.
The huge, heavy-shouldered, shaggy bison (buffalo) that once roamed the prairies in vast herds now exists only in parks. It is said that there were once as many as 70 million bison in North America. Their herds would often take days to pass by a single point. Their 19th-century slaughter – often by chartered trainloads of ‘sportsmen’ who left the carcasses to rot – is one of the great tragedies of the North American west, affecting the very survival of Aboriginal peoples. To check out the largest herd of bison, take a trip to Wood Buffalo National Park, close to the Alberta–Northwest Territories border. Smaller herds roam the national parks of Waterton Lakes and Elk Island in Alberta, Prince Albert in Saskatchewan and Riding Mountain in Manitoba.
If you’re lucky enough to spot a bear in the wild, it’ll most likely be a black bear. (Keep your distance, though.) About half a million of these furry critters patrol the forests and bushland just about everywhere except Prince Edward Island, southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan.
Ursus arctos horribilis, better known as the grizzly bear, makes its home on the higher slopes of the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon. It stands up to a fearsome 3m tall and has a distinctive hump between its shoulders. Grizzlies are solitary animals with no natural enemies except humans. Although they enjoy an occasional snack of elk, moose or caribou, they usually fill their bellies with berries and other vegetation.
The fiercest member of the bear family, the polar bear, weighs less than 1kg at birth but grows to be as heavy as a Volkswagen (up to 800kg). Pretty much the only place to observe them is from late September to early November in Churchill, Manitoba, one of their major maternity denning grounds.
Another formidable predator is the wolf, which can be every bit as fierce and cunning as is portrayed in fairy tales, although it rarely attack humans. Wolves hunt in packs and aren’t afraid to take on animals much larger than themselves, including moose and bison. They’re still fairly common in sparsely populated areas between Labrador and the Yukon. If you’re out in the bush, you may hear them howling at the moon.