Tales of the Tundra: Exploring NW Canada
by CATHERINE SENECAL
You’d think 300,000 caribou would be easy to spot, but we’d gone nearly a week without a glimpse of the herd. “I have a gut feeling today’s the day,” uttered Tom, a veteran of the tundra for 30 years. So we boarded two floatplanes and took off, flying on each side of the broad Thelon River for an hour. One-hundred-foot-high eskers unfolded into huge stretches of golden sand. Finally, pilot Will banked toward the other plane. “They found ‘em,” he said.
Bigger than Texas and New Mexico combined, Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) is an expanse of tundra shield (or barrenlands), forests, lakes, mountains and Arctic islands. The region is bordered on the west by the Yukon, on the south by western Canada, and on the north and east by Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory.
Aboriginal people have lived off the land and sea here for centuries. European traders and explorers arrived in the 1700s; later, prospectors came to work the oil and gas fields, or mine for gold — or now, diamonds. Today, 40,000 people — many aboriginals who support themselves by hunting and fishing — live in small scattered communities, typically in modern homes with a truck or snowmobile out front. There’s just one city, Yellowknife. Any travel to the far north is by plane — as common around these parts as a bus is to a city dweller.
It was in Yellowknife that I joined my tour with Great Canadian Ecoventures. Designed for photographers, the 14-day summer caribou migration trip in July takes a maximum of eight people 240 air miles northeast to a base camp at Whitefish Lake. For our excursions, we’d use floatplanes to locate caribou and other wild-life, and also to position photographers at other temporary camps in the field if necessary.
An Eclectic Mix
Our group included Meg and Court, a professional couple from Seattle; Shan, a plant photographer from North Dakota; George, a retired parts dealer from Saskatchewan; Bill, an older man on his way to Alaska; and me, a writer from Manitoba.
Not surprisingly, our daily schedule did not read like a cruise ship itinerary. On any given day, all we knew was that there would be a field trips, and that we’d hike about two to five miles over easy terrain. Because distances are vast and the wildlife is totally unconfined, it would take hours just to make a sighting.
Besides caribou, we were looking for tundra wolves, muskoxen, grizzly, fox, wolverine, ground squirrels and raptors. We also encountered abandoned Dene villages (the Dene are one of Canada’s native peoples) and turn-of-the-century trappers’ cabins.
Into the Great Unknown
One day, we walked across gently rolling tundra covered in spongy muskeg and ancient granite. There were no trails — we meandered as we chose, stepping over soft mosses, low crimson bearberries and fragile ferns. Terry, our guide, has returned again and again to the barrens. “I love the emptiness here.” His respect for wildlife is enormous — one time, we watched for 20 minutes while he tried to revive an unsuccessfully released trout.
Even the days when we “didn’t see anything” were extraordinary. On one outing, we explored Gordon’s Point, an esker ending in 30-foot sand dunes surrounded by
sapphire waters and backed by lime-green flats and tiny ponds fringed in blown blossoms of Arctic cotton.
We poked around for arrowheads — the area is one of the most important archeological sites in the western Arctic. Later, we crouched, then sat, then lay down — waiting, whispering and sometimes snoring in the sunshine — more than two hours by a fox den. Nothing. But what a beautiful day!
Even though we were smack-dab in the middle of this grand nowhere, we were quite comfortable. Our base camp offered large vinyl tents with a wooden floor, foam bed, pro-pane heater, dresser and chairs. A hot shower building and pit toilets stood nearby. The screened heated cookhouse also housed a mini-library. A global positioning system, satellite phones, floatplane, motorboats, first-aid kits and bear spray made us feel safe.
In the evenings, cook Craig pulled stuff from the permafrost fridge — a large underground pit with a door. Because the food was surrounded by perpetually cold earth, it acted as a refrigerator. His excellent meals included roast turkey, salads and even birthday cake. Sipping Glenfiddich, we’d sit outside until midnight and watch the moon rise in an amethyst sky.
We also spent one overnight at a more remote camp. But even here, we were comfortable. Guides set up North Face tents with sleeping pads, and cooked a good casserole over the campfire.
Every morning brought a new adventure. One day, Tom Faess, the owner of Great Canadian Ecoventures, landed in his floatplane. “We have a muskox — let’s go see him.” We rushed into the aircraft, and flew off.
Keeping a Low Profile
Gliding onto a nameless lake, we quickly scrambled ashore. Circling down the esker, we sneaked upwind until a blond hump rose in the willows. Even at this distance, I felt an ambitious flow of adrenaline.
So far, our ox was oblivious to us and our whirring cameras. But it was hot and buggy for this 600-pound beast — a perfect day to be aggravated. When we were just 20 feet away, he looked up from the sedges he was munching and saw us. Swaying his head from side to side, he pawed the ground.
Solitary male oxen are unpredictable, and will charge if they feel threatened. I took some comfort knowing muskoxen look bigger than they are. Their hair, which forms a mane about the shoulders, hangs to the ground, and swings beautifully when the muskox runs, which I was hoping this one might do soon.
A Snobbish Snuff
Suddenly, the muskox walked away in a huff, his shiny skirt swaying in his wake.
Another morning, we climbed the esker behind camp to watch a wolf den. After an hour and a half of waiting, we saw a white wolf lope across the tundra from about two miles away. Soundlessly, another wolf came out to greet her. Though hundreds of yards away, they seemed to look up at us, perhaps warned by the ever-shrilling merlin. Soon, four pups came out and wrestled on the “lawn” between plain and marsh.
But after a week, we still hadn’t seen caribou, which could have been anywhere within 400 miles. That’s when Tom got his gut feeling and we found the caribou from the air.
My mouth dropped when I saw the thronging brown mass below.
“Hurry, we don’t want to miss them,” Tom urged when we landed, knowing how quick-ly they move. I ran and stumbled, sweating and oblivious to blackflies. Breaking through some low spruce, I saw a blur.
We dropped to the ground to let the herd settle. Tom pointed at us one by one to move forward while raising our arms in the air. Incredibly, the caribou seemed to think we had antlers and watched, fearless and unmoving.
Our location was perfect, a plain between a lake and a marsh. The herd, some 10,000 strong, kept moving towards us. But once some of the caribou picked up our scent they would circle back, stampeding toward the rear of the herd while the front half remained calm. It was uncanny.
A Sea of Caribou
Finally, the caribou settled down. I crept in closer and stood just 20 feet from this massive herd of grunting, bleating animals that made the ground shake.
Humbled and grateful, I sat and enjoyed the experience, far beyond any of our expectations. Others, apparently, needed more than quiet observation.
His hands high, Will shed his plaid shirt and pants and walked, buck naked, toward the caribou. They took one look and continued to graze, unfazed. Once he felt his “run naked with the caribou” experience was complete, Will covered his private parts and walked back to his pile of clothes. “I’m worried about blackflies,” he quipped.
We returned to a hastily erected tent near the planes. Feeling giddy and successful, we sucked pimentos out of olives and toasted with shots of Bacardi as the tent flapped wildly in the breeze. A storm front darkened behind the caribou, still trotting one by one past the tent.
For details, contact Great Canadian Ecoventures — Tel: 867-920-7110 or 800-667-9453; E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.thelon.com. The Great Summer Caribou Migra-tion departs mid-July from Yellow-knife for $5,600 per person plus tax.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Northwest Territories.”