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Backpacker Magazine – January 2009

Reindeer Games: Tracking Caribou in the Slate Islands

Happy coincidence for wildlife-loving paddlers: Canoes and woodland caribou converge like nowhere else on Earth in Ontario's Slate Islands. PLUS: See video of caribou on the move.

by: Gustave Axelson, Photos by Layne Kennedy

A caribou approaching the author's campsite.
A caribou approaching the author's campsite.
A bull grazing in Fisherman's Cove.
A bull grazing in Fisherman's Cove.
The author paddling through the fog.
The author paddling through the fog.
A rock formation in Lake Superior.
A rock formation in Lake Superior.
A woodland caribou scarfs ashes.
A woodland caribou scarfs ashes.

Follow writer Gustave Axelson and photographer Layne Kennedy as they shadow caribou on the Slate Islands.
video icon    VIDEO: Reindeer Games
Watch video of these majestic animals.

photo icon    PHOTOS: Wild Caribou
  See more of Kennedy's images from the trip.

Layne and I sink tent stakes into grass grazed to the nub. It looks like a putting green. We think about hanging our food bag, but there aren't any black bears here; aside from caribou, the only significant mammal populations on the Slates are snowshoe hare, red fox, and beaver. After setting up camp, we hop into my canoe for some on-the-water relief from the blazing July afternoon. Fishing lines trail in our wake as we troll spoons for lake trout. Paddling on calm water between islands, sheltered from Superior's swells, I hear the drip-drip of water falling from my wooden blade, the croaaawnk of ravens gliding overhead, the reverberating yodels of loons, and the wind gushing through the tops of Northwoods conifers. Think Boundary Waters with a caribou sanctuary in the middle.

We enjoy the idyllic canoeing, but I don't forget that Lake Superior is really a small inland sea. Water temperatures are always hypothermic–rarely above 50°F even in summer. And whitecaps can whip up in an instant, turning a leisurely paddle into a wild horse race. I hug the shore and keep an eye on the billowing clouds.

We land the canoe more than a mile southwest from camp at Jacks Bay, where the ruins of a logging barge, now a heap of timbers and half-sunk metal, give a foreboding air to the inlet. Back in the 1930s, when the Slates were logged, this barge ran aground during a shipping run and was abandoned. Snowshoe hares scatter as we step onto land. The grass here is grazed to a stubble, too–more signs of caribou. But after an hour of wandering around the barge site and a lunch of Clif Bars and bison jerky, we see none and head back to the canoe.

Later, at dusk, as Layne rests by the campfire, the glassy waters draw me back, and I return to Jacks Bay on a solo paddle. It's hard to see much with evening descending, but among the boulders on shore I spy something: the stubby tail of a caribou. With short, surreptitious paddle strokes, I inch closer. Then...kerplunk! A beaver whacks his tail on the water. I see the caribou's head rise and watch its shadow disappear into the firs. The ghost vanishes.

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Star Star Star Star Star
Fire pits
Aug 29, 2013

Thanks for sharing good post.

Star Star Star Star Star
vicki boudreau
Aug 23, 2013

Just got back from an amazing 2 day adventure on Slate Island. Unfortunately we didn't see any caribou, we beleive one entered our camp late at night behind our tent which woke us, but other than finding droppings, tracks and a few skeletal bones found from other campers that was it. We camped at Fishermans cove and paddled up to Jacks Bay where the old barge is and roamed the hillside and woods...what an amazing view, I'm sure had we been there by dawn or stayed til dusk this would have been a great place to encounter them. Just gives me more incentive to return and to stay longer! Can"t wait to go back! Pictures just don"t do this place justice! You really have to go there to appreciate all that it has!


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