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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.

MORE CARIBOU
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.

Distant thunderclaps wake us on day two, and the water is roiling. There will be no paddling today. Before the rain comes, I grab my fishing pole and hike along the cobbled shore a quarter-mile west from camp to cast off the point of the bay. When I return, Layne greets me with crazed eyes and exaggerated arm motions.

"You missed it!" he points. "There was a huge bull right here!"

I ask which way the caribou went, then bushwhack into a curtain of balsam. An hour later, I step out onto an enormous shoreline boulder and see tumultuous, ocean-size waves pounding the Slates' outer islands. I've reached the eastern side of Patterson. A rain column moves overhead, and a serious drenching ensues. I tug on raingear and trudge back to camp.

My only consolation? Caribou paths make for great hiking. There are no official trails on the island, but caribou have trod well-developed, brush-free thoroughfares that spiderweb across the interior. Head down, I follow the moving triangle on my GPS, spotting hoof prints all the way back to the outskirts of our camp. That's when I hear the muffled thump of cloven hooves on tree roots. I peer through the dim forest of evergreen boles and branches thickly strewn with threads of chartreuse usnea lichens–or Old Man's Beard–strung like tinsel on a Christmas tree. I squint to see a silhouette pausing between two trees. The dark head swivels. I move, and it's gone.

Back in camp, I duck for cover beneath a big balsam with wide branches. I'm soaked, sweaty, chilled. I have no desire to crawl into my skinny solo tent, so for what seems like hours I lean on the tree, staring at the rain beading off my boot's leather. Then the sun brightens the sky–and my foul mood. Layne and I string up our clothes to dry, boil water for hot apple cider, and eat a chocolate bar and gorp. We talk about heading out in the canoe. Then the ghost reappears.

Silently, a bull caribou–as gray as dusk–strides between our two tents. We stop talking mid-sentence and gawk. The caribou marches with an audacious elegance: hooves high-stepping, nose and enormous velvet-covered antlers held aloft. Sinew ripples through his body with each step, like a thoroughbred.

Then, inexplicably, the caribou stops at our fire pit, lowers his head, and voraciously eats the ashes. Nosing aside still-smoldering logs, he scarfs the entire bed while Layne and I watch in disbelief. Then the bull, smaller than a moose but bigger than a white-tailed buck, looks up and stares at us with wide, wild eyes. He turns, and with four giant bounds, covers 30 yards and vanishes into the balsams.

Late that night, I awaken to the sound of teeth powerfully munching grass. The caribou is back. He passes my tent and nicks the guyline with his leg–thwinnng!–like a fiddle string.




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READERS COMMENTS

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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