The dwindling George River herd remains elusive
© Martin Zeilig/Special to TC Media
The Innu caribou camp on Lake Mistastin.
Special to TC Media
Our twin turbine-propeller powered Otter does one last lazy loop over the Innu caribou camp, on the rugged western edge of Mistastin Lake in northwestern Labrador, before heading into the late morning brightness for the 45-minute flight east to Nain, the northernmost town (population about 1,200) of any size in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The charter aircraft, which flew up from Goose Bay (about a 90-minute flight southeast), had landed about 15 minutes earlier on a high, narrow gravel strip situated on a glacial esker about a kilometre or so west of the camp, as the raven flies.
There were two ways to reach the crude landing strip: either by a 10-15 minute boat ride from the camp followed by a 600-metre hike up a meandering trail from the water’s edge; or, if you were feeling really ambitious, it was possible to trek through the Canadian Shield country with its patches of boreal forest and muskeg to the landing strip. Three of us did the hike on that stunning sun-soaked morning.
I was homeward bound after having spent a week in late September with six other visitors (three of whom were staying for another week, along with four new guests, at the camp) from the outside world, plus our guides, searching for migrating caribou from the George River herd - in recent years, but no longer, the world’s largest heard of barrenground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus).
Although we did see some other wild creatures, in particular a couple of black bears and porcupine, and plenty of wolf and caribou tracks, we didn’t encounter any live caribou.
But, for me, that didn’t dampen the satisfaction (and privilege) of hiking, canoeing at one point and taking photographs in this alluring yet harsh and humbling slice of the Big Land.
Images from the past week flooded through my mind as I gazed out from the plane’s small oval window upon a remote and majestic meteorite-created lake - one of the largest 30 known meteor craters in the world, with a diameter of 28 kilometres, according to geologists.
“It is comparable to many of the larger impact craters on the moon (150-200 kilometres in diameter) when scaled for gravity differences,” said a report issued in September 2009 from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, University of Western Ontario, after 10-day reconnaissance investigation into the region.
“This intermediate-size crater, formed by a meteorite impact 36 million years ago, still exhibits a distinct rim and central uplift. The lake’s rounded central island is interpreted to be the central uplift of the complex crater structure. The Mistastin Lake Crater, Labrador, offers a unique opportunity to understand the effects of shock on impacted materials, and to understand the origin and emplacement of impact ejecta.”
This was my sixth visit - including two trips to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre to see the polar bears (in the fall of 2010) and then the beluga whales for five days in July 2011 - to Canada’s fabled and fabulous North.
Several years ago, I was in a party of six that spent two weeks hiking through the sweeping glaciers, fast-moving streams and rivers, and jagged granite mountains in Auyuittuq National Park on southeastern Baffin Island. We crossed the Arctic Circle at one point.
In 2006, I was on a two-week canoe trip with several other people on the Clarke and Thelon rivers into the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary - a world heritage site - in the N.W.T. and Nunavut. Then, three years later, I returned north for a week to an outfitter’s former camp amidst the beautiful barrengrounds of Baker Lake, Nunavut, where it meets Chesterfield Inlet.
We encountered plenty of caribou around Baker Lake, as well as muskox and various bird species, including raptors and sand hill cranes, plus a pestilence of black flies and mosquitoes.
Now, here I was looking for caribou again but in a different part of northern Canada.
“The camp was built as an eco-tourism camp by the Innu,” said our outfitter.
“But it’s been used as a private camp for hunting and fishing and going out on the land for themselves. This site has a reputation for being one of the most consistent places for caribou.”
He had leased the camp, or Kamestastin Lodge (the alternative Innu name for Mistastin Lake), from the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation for a two-week period during the caribou’s fall migration.
Formerly known as the Naskapi-Montagnais Indians, the Innu are an Algonkian-speaking people whose homeland (Nitassinan) is the eastern portion of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, notes information on the band’s website.
The word “Innu” means “human being”; and the Innu language is called “Innu-aimun.” Today there are more than 16,000 Innu who live in 11 communities in Quebec and two in Labrador - Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit, on an island off the north coast of Labrador.
The impressive ten-sided central lodge - whose interior space currently houses snowmobiles, chairs, doors, paint, window frames and all sorts of other sundry items - was constructed by community members under the guidance of volunteer Mennonite log home builders from Ontario and Saskatchewan.
The thick logs used in constructing the lodge were airlifted in by Hercules aircraft.
Meanwhile, the lodge’s central dining area, or where it is supposed to be, overlooks the caribou migration path along the lakeshore.
Three wooden guest cabins, with two or three single bunk beds and a wood-burning stove, were our homes for the week. A cozy central cook shack was where we ate our hearty meals, all prepared by the amiable and competent camp staff - Dan, Jaime, Graham, Adele - with occasional surprise desert concoctions from a guest or two.
Twin outhouses served as our toilet facilities. Graham, a farm boy from Saskatchewan, even built a semi-enclosed shower facility from plywood sheets and various spare parts, with water pumped in from the lake. I tried it once.
Before I left on the trip, a wildlife biologist sent me a recent report on the alarming decline of caribou numbers in Labrador.
“A survey conducted this summer by the Ministre des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune (MRNF), in partnership with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation, the Institute for Environmental Monitoring and Research and the Torngat Wildlife Board, shows that the George River caribou herd population has fallen to new lows,” said an article, Decline of the George River Caribou Herd, in the Nunatsiaq News.
“The survey confirms an ongoing decline of the George River migratory caribou herd population over the past few years. This population is now estimated to be composed of 27,600 animals, which represents about a third of the estimations of two years ago. In 2001 the population size was estimated to be around 385,000.
In the late 1980s, there were 800,000 caribou in the herd, according to Terry French, minister of Environment and Conservation, who was quoted in the article.
“We have not yet seen the bottom of this current decline,” he said.
Even if the exact cause of this spectacular decline is uncertain, changes in the quality and quantity of food is believed to be one of the driving factors, say scientists.
Other factors that might have contributed to this decline include predation, disease, parasites and climate change.
In an earlier CBC report (Aug. 20, 2012), wildlife biologist Dr. Steve Cote of Laval University, who specializes in studying the George River caribou and the neighbouring Leaf River caribou in Quebec, said he doubts hunting started the decline of the George River caribou herd.
But he added the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec permitted high levels of hunting on the herd while the population was falling rapidly, which may have contributed to low numbers.
Consultations between government, aboriginal groups and other stakeholders to seek input on the management of the herd are underway.
“Where are the caribou?” writes Pierre Berton in his book, “The Mysterious North: Encounters with the Canadian Frontier 1947-54” (McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1956).
“Have you seen the caribou? One of the great mysteries of the north (is) the erratic caribou.”
In other words, caribou set their own schedule - one dictated by the eternal needs of calving and feeding.
For instance, they tend to migrate past Kamestastin Lodge over a four- to six-week period each spring and fall, say the studies. So, seeing them is really a hit-and-miss affair.
Led by the competent and attentive camp staff, we dressed in layers during our daily hikes on the tundra and sparse taiga. We often followed the narrow, well-worn paths trodden by caribou over the centuries.
While the caribou were conspicuous by their absence, we did see their split hoof tracks in the soil and sand, as well as those of wolves and bears, plus fresh scat (droppings) from those creatures.
On one occasion, during an afternoon hike, an adult black bear barreled past us on a ridge about 200 metres away. It must have been startled by our presence and/or caught our scent. It was obvious: the galloping bruin wanted to be as far away as possible from these noisy, two-legged intruders.
The ancient rocks were covered in lichen, shrubs, mosses and small colourful herbaceous plants.
Wild blueberries and red partridgeberries (as known as lingonberry or wild cranberry) were plentiful and ripe. They could be, and were, eaten right from the bush. Camp staff prepared mouth-watering cheesecake and made fresh compote from those sweet indigo and tart tasting red berries.
We occasionally came upon roped off archeological sites clustered at crossing sites, and caribou antlers scattered across the rocky landscape.
Recent Innu campsites are frequently decorated with caribou antlers hung in trees to please, as their tradition dictates, the caribou god Kanapanakasikueu.
On clear nights, as the cold wind blasted across the tundra, chilling our cheeks and rattling the cabins, we huddled by a big bonfire prepared by camp staff. We watched in wonder as the emerald and red aurora borealis (northern lights) flickered magnetically across the heavens.
The avid photographers in our group took many splendid photos of the grandeur before us, including of the exquisite sunsets and sunrises.
Before dinner one evening, Bruce, a retired chemist from Perth, Ont., and I took a camp canoe and paddled down to the mouth, and then just around the bend, of the nearby Mistastin River.
A massive, curving pre-Cambrian rock face, with forested flanks, created a canyon-like ambience.
We rested for a few minutes in its prehistoric, silent shadow.
What a country.