By Alex Hall
West of Hudson Bay in Canada’s Arctic, an enormous triangle of roadless tundra, twice the size of Alberta or Texas, stretches north to the polar sea and forms the largest single wilderness remaining in North America. Known as the Barren Lands or simply the Barrens, this gigantic piece of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut wasn’t mapped in any detail until the 1960s. Hundreds of rivers and hundreds of thousands of lakes are still unnamed. With almost half of its surface covered by water, the Barren Lands are perhaps best visualized as a lake-strewn northern prairie, but a prairie with more rugged hills than flatlands and pockets of spruce trees that go on for 200 kilometres or more beyond the so-called treeline.
More than a dozen herds of caribou, some containing hundreds of thousands of animals, still migrate across the Barren Lands as they have for millennia. This is also the home of barren-ground grizzlies, white tundra wolves and primordial muskoxen. Millions of geese and countless other birds nest here during the brief but intense arctic summer. Since 1975, I have made my living operating fly-in canoe trips on the remote wild rivers of the Barren Lands under the name of my company, Canoe Arctic Inc. This is the story of one of those canoe trips when the animals seemed to make an all-out effort to be where we were. Here are some excerpts from my journal of the first nine days of that trip.
My clients must have mixed feelings about their first day in the Barren Lands. The weather has been depressing – a gloomy, frigid day with periods of near horizontal, wind-driven drizzle, and even a few snow flurries. Summer is late! The tundra is brown, not long exposed from under its winter blanket of snow. Many snowdrifts remain on the southern slopes and all of the lakes are still frozen. Only the river is ice-free.
The wildlife, however, has been impressive. As we flew low over the tundra on the approach to our landing place on the river, we saw several herds of muskoxen, about 70 animals in all. There is still one herd of 18 within sight of where we are camped tonight. Despite the sombre look and feel of early spring, there is life everywhere. All of the small birds are here on their nesting grounds including countless Lapland longspurs and even a few robins. There are long-tailed ducks, mergansers, scaup, Canada geese, herring gulls, golden plovers, and arctic terns. This evening after supper, we watched six or seven little wolf pups through our binoculars playing outside their den at the bottom of a sandy cutbank over a kilometre away on the opposite shore of the river.
Today, we paddled 25 km downstream through a number of shallow riffles and rock garden rapids in weather much the same as yesterday. First thing this morning we visited the wolf den, but the pups stayed out of sight, deep inside. One adult wolf howled at us from a hilltop high above the den. Although we saw only one other large mammal all day – a bull muskox – the river was crowded with thousands of moulting Canada geese, and overhead there were long-tailed jaegers, gulls, a few eagles, rough-legged hawks and short-eared owls.
The sky cleared at noon and the afternoon was warm, around 20 degrees. This evening we have noticed the tundra is greener than it was this morning. A few hours of warm sunshine have worked miracles, it seems, and even some flowers have bloomed. Just upstream from our camp tonight, the river cuts through an enormous ice field, probably created by layers building up as the river alternately overflowed and froze throughout the winter. It was a novel experience paddling down rapids with sheer walls of ice two or three metres high on either side. Along the river today there were a few small groups of muskoxen that allowed us to approach them as close as we wanted for photographs. After we made camp this afternoon we walked back in the hills to investigate a traditional wolf den I had found some years ago.
As usual, the wolves were there, but we failed to take them by surprise. They spotted us long before we reached the den and began howling in disapproval. While four white wolves stayed more than a kilometre away, one big male, more brazen than the rest, put on a show as he repeatedly approached within 200 metres of us, barking aggressively.
There were signs of pups at the den and even some fresh muskox tracks. On a vertical sand bank above one of the den entrances we found where a muskox had recently rubbed off some wool and had defecated into the den – a very cheeky muskox! Just then, two bull muskoxen strolled down a hillside towards us, but the howling and barking of the wolves seemed to give them second thoughts and they retreated, albeit at an unhurried pace.
This morning began with our return to a vantage point near the wolf den where we spent some time watching five cute little wolf pups wrestling each other. When we approached the den we got some close-up photographs of two of these little brown fuzzy fellows before they disappeared underground for good. Only one of the adults was visible in the distance.
Later this morning as we paddled downstream, we encountered two or three thousand caribou that were beginning to swim the river – mostly bulls still in their white winter coats and their antlers not yet fully grown. Just as we approached them in our canoes, a light grey wolf ran through one edge of the herd, scattering many animals.
At our campsite tonight, we came upon another five thousand caribou along the steep hillsides sloping down to the river. Predominantly cows with small calves, they eventually swam the river below our camp. Before they did so, however, we spent some time with them at close quarters. It was a very pastoral scene, the cows lying with their calves or nursing them as they grazed placidly on tundra plants. Every once in a while, a white or cinnamon coloured calf would go charging off, kicking up its heels just for the sheer joy of running or burning off energy, it seemed.
Earlier this afternoon on the river, we came upon a herd of 17 muskoxen with five calves, as well as seven bulls just upstream from tonight’s camp. Then, as we were pitching our tents, we watched a wolf charge down an almost vertical slope into a densely packed group of caribou. The dust flew as the caribou bolted, and it seemed certain the wolf must have been successful in making a kill, but we soon saw both the caribou and the wolf retreating across the tundra.
We’ve had a warm sunny day, and incredible though it seems, the tundra has turned green in the previous 12 hours. The dwarf birch bushes are leafing out and flowers are appearing all around us. There are pink alpine azaleas, purple rhododendron, cushions of moss campion, yellow and pink lousewort and carpets of little daisy-like mountain avens. Even the lupines are beginning to bloom. Suddenly it’s summer!
Today was actually hot. We made camp just after lunch so we would have plenty of time to swim in some shallow ponds warmed by the sun, then hike in the sand hills nearby. The river valley en route to our campsite this morning was alive with animals; we saw close to 80 muskoxen and a few thousand caribou. After our swim this afternoon, several of us were climbing up through the sand hills behind camp when we surprised a sow grizzly with two yearling cubs that were feeding on the rather ripe carcass of a bull muskox. As soon as the sow became aware of us, she stood up on her hind legs, then thundered off, her great body shuddering with every bound, and the cubs hot on her heels.
On top of the sand hills we came upon a herd of 20 muskoxen bedded down on a little plateau just beneath us. There were animals of all sizes, some stretched out asleep, and all of them oblivious to our presence. We sat down to rest above the muskoxen with a spectacular scene of soft green tundra hills spread out before us, and our metallic-blue river winding through the valley far below. As we were sitting there absorbing it all, I noticed the head of a wolf poking up above the curve of the hill just below us. The wolf was watching us intently, but he kept on climbing slowly towards us and walked into full view only a few metres away.
An exceptionally large male, and pure white in colour, he seemed at ease but obviously curious as he made almost a full circle around us. After we stood up and moved on, the wolf approached us again, then followed us for a while. But when he caught sight of some other members of our party in the distance, he trotted over to inspect them. On the way, we saw him jump into a little pond, presumably to cool off.
Since we wanted to get a look at the country on the far side of the sand hills, we continued walking across the hilltops until a magnificent sweep of tundra opened up in front of us. To our astonishment, it was covered with caribou, tens of thousands of flecks of white scattered across that vast green expanse. There was no telling how many there were because we could see no end of them. For the next hour or more, we sat there high on that hill with our binoculars glued to our eyes trying to take it all in.
The river was full of heavy rapids today, several of which we lined and waded down. With the hot sun beating down on us, we moved steadily downstream under a gigantic dome of pale-blue northern sky. Along the way, we encountered 43 muskoxen, a wolverine that swam the river in front of our canoes, and several large herds of caribou feeding and resting along the river, perhaps 30,000 in all. In places we were paddling through masses of caribou spread across the slopes on both sides of the river.
After supper we walked over to a particularly large herd that was slowly approaching our camp and photographed caribou parading by us for the next hour. It seemed like the perfect ending to another wondrous day filled with animals, but for some of us there was still another little wildlife drama in store. About 11pm, when most of our party was sound asleep, a wolf walked through our camp where it surprised and caught a moulting Canada goose that had strayed too far from the river. As the wolf lay down to devour the goose, a few of us who were still awake watched from inside our tents.
The river valley broadened considerably today and the steady succession of deep canoeable rapids continued. The riverbanks are turning blue with lupine and their sweet fragrance impregnates the air. Mosquitoes are now numerous enough to be bothersome when the wind abates. Early this morning we paddled by large numbers of caribou, probably part of the same herd we spent some time with last night. They were feeding and in no hurry to move on. Our muskox count for the day was 28. Tonight we have our tents pitched on a high bluff with a grand view to the south.
There were some rain showers in the night and we awoke to a strong wind out of the north with the temperature near freezing. At breakfast, Fred told us that when he got up in the night he saw a white wolf looking in the door of the tent next to his. Then, a few minutes later, after he had crawled back into his sleeping bag, he noticed the wolf peeking into his own tent.
We put a long day in on the river, but the only large mammals we saw were two bull muskoxen. Even though caribou were absent, we were constantly reminded of their presence because the whole country was beaten with their tracks, and white caribou hair floated on the river all day. Tonight we are camped at the base of some big sand hills where we will remain tomorrow for a day of hiking and rest.
During the night, several of us heard wolves howling way up in the sand hills. Then, while we were eating our breakfast, a grey wolf walked behind our camp, and two white ones met up in a big wet meadow just downriver. Certain that we are camped close to an active den, we climbed up into the sand hills after breakfast and followed them north. Cut into these hills are deep ravines, lush with vegetation, where we surprised several small bands of caribou and one herd of 23 muskoxen.
We spotted the wolf den when we were almost a kilometre from it. It is perched high in the hills with a commanding view of the river valley. At first, the wolves didn’t appear to be home, but then I noticed a suspicious patch of light colour on the side of a gully a few hundred metres behind the den. As we crept closer, we could see there were several wolves curled up asleep there, and eventually we made out a white wolf, a tawny-coloured one and four brown pups huddled together. With the wind blowing strongly, we moved right in on top of them, no more than 20 paces away, before I motioned for a halt. All ten of us were lined up with our cameras aimed in anticipation when I whistled to prepare those wolves for a shock!