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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.

Morning brings more caribou, a lesser bull and a few cows browsing our fire pit, now stocked with fresh ashes from a breakfast campfire. The group pays little attention to us. It's not that the Slates' caribou are accustomed to people, but with no hunting and after 100 years without natural predators, they seem to have forgotten fear.

Oddly, the biggest threat to Slates' caribou are unintentional, yet self-inflicted, hangings. They crane their necks for high-hanging lichens, in a desperate search for winter food, and they become entangled in branches or tree crotches and can't escape. Hundreds strangled themselves in the bitter cold of 1996.

To learn more about the lives of Slates' caribou, Layne and I rendezvous at Jacks Bay on day three with a team of five biologists who study the herd. Team leader Steve Kingston is a 30-something, red-haired ecologist who looks like a young Robert Redford. He's here to check vegetation exclosures–areas excluded from caribou grazing by fencing. These allow researchers to compare the luscious forest floor inside with the heavily grazed ground outside. The study tackles a popular hypothesis for why the Slates' caribou population booms and busts.

"Our question is: Do the caribou eat themselves out of house and home, or is it something else?" he explains.

Kingston's research will inform a provincial recovery plan for woodland caribou, listed as a threatened species by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The plan identifies five caribou recovery zones, including one along the Lake Superior coast that may be stocked with animals relocated from the Slate herd.

The researchers camp nearby, and over wine I ask one final question. "Why in the world did that caribou eat the ashes from our fire pit?"

"Salt?" offers one of the biologists. "Potassium?" says another. "Potash?" "Digestive aid?" Each scientist has a different theory. But they all agree: Mainland caribou don't eat campfire ashes, so the Slate caribou must have adapted that trait on their own. Back at camp, we commemorate our final evening with fresh-caught lake trout, chocolate bars, hot tea, and a warm fire. Just as I toast our resounding success of 20 caribou sightings, the smoke summons the bull for one last encounter. He materializes from the dark to stomp out the smoldering embers, gobble up the ashes like a kid going at a plate of mac n' cheese, and kick in the rocks of our fire ring for good measure. It's bizarre, but now oddly routine.




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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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