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Canada: Treasure Island

You don't have to travel across the world to get off the map. British Columbia's Haida Gwaii boasts uncharted coastline, seaside hot springs, and more sea lions, whales, and bears than you can count.

"Why are those logs staring at us?"

The question sounds absurd until I look beyond the rolling aqua-blue breakers to see what my girlfriend’s talking about. Sure enough, in the kelpy soup 30 feet off the beach where we’re standing, two logs that each look to be at least 900 pounds pitch, roll, then stop to gape at us with open mouths and black eyes the size of eight balls. They’re threatened Steller sea lions, close enough for me to count canines and whiskers. The pair bobs and checks us out, decides we won’t snatch the herring, and then resumes cruising the intertidal buffet table that stretches from here to Alaska. We gasp and cackle at our luck, positive that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into the private life of a rare marine predator—until it happens again 10 minutes later.

Everywhere I go on Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, it’s the same story, just different species. The typical scene: Six feet below my paddle, I can see a platoon of beet-purple Dungeness crabs looting a rockfish carcass through Stoli-clear water, and a quick scan of the foggy crags ringing this inlet shows one, two—no, four—bald eagles circling for salmon in wide arcs. The slick gray dome and snout of a curious harbor seal that’s been tracking my progress for more than 30 minutes periscopes 10 feet off my bow. He gives a Labrador’s snort of approval and disappears with a soft plunk.

We’ve been kayaking on the fringes of Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park long enough now that I should be used to the fin-and-feather crowd pressing in from all sides. But it’s day three of a nonstop nature bender, and I’m still drunk off the idea that you can spot more wildlife in 15 minutes here than in a week in Yellowstone. The encounters are also more surprising than in Wyoming: Thanks to an abundant, year-round food supply and the quirks of island biology, species like bears, eagles, and crabs grow bigger than their mainland cousins—while others like Sitka deer adapt by getting smaller. The size extremes represent a unique evolutionary duality known as island gigantism/dwarfism; Haida Gwaii is one of the best places in the world to observe it firsthand.

We first experienced this ecological funhouse on day two. After beaching our boats in pea gravel and tromping into the temperate rainforest onshore, we surprised a jet-black bruin sitting Buddha-like atop an old-growth stump. He capered through the ferns, shot us a lazy glance, and flopped on a nurse log the size of a Winnebago for a nap. I guessed him at about 350 pounds—no slouch on the mainland, but a relative flyweight here, where black bears grow 25 percent bigger than anywhere else. Minutes later, a deer the size of a greyhound flitted through a nearby grove of huckleberry bushes.

And not a safari bus or ponchoed camera-clicker in sight. Since arriving, we haven’t seen another kayaking party or shared a beach camp yet. “Where is everybody?” I ask our guide, Steve Konik. “Is it always like this?”

“Oh, not always—I’ve seen four other kayakers,” he says in his pronounced Canadian accent. “In a month.”

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