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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.

Caribou shouldn’t live on the Slate Islands. Truth be told, the Slates themselves, eight miles off the Canadian coast in Lake Superior, shouldn’t even exist.

A billion years ago, a meteorite smashed into Earth, pushing Precambrian bedrock like snow in front of a plow. The result, say geologists, is this archipelago of a dozen rocky, forested islands. Fast forward to the fiercely cold winter of 1907: Superior’s waters froze solid (which happens only a couple of times a century), and the lighthouse keeper on the Slates’ Patterson Island saw seven sets of cloven tracks leading from the mainland. The caribou had arrived.

Over the next hundred years, logging and forest destruction drove mainland caribou herds north. Their range receded more than 200 miles from Superior’s shores to Lake Nipigon in Ontario. But caribou on the Slate Islands flourished, with the original pioneers growing to a herd of 600 by the 1980s. Over the decades, the population has boom-and-busted, and today 200 woodland caribou roam these Northwoods isles–the world’s densest population.

Even so, photographer Layne Kennedy isn’t convinced we’ll see any. He’s kayaked here twice before and only saw a caribou once–briefly, and only a rump. This is disquieting news, since we’re enduring a chilly summer sea spray whipping off the bow of a Cruiser motorboat that’s ferrying us and my canoe across the channel from Terrace Bay, Ontario, to Slate Islands Provincial Park. Our mission: To see lots and lots of caribou.

I’ve been enamored with the idea of walking among caribou since childhood, when I first saw that epic scene in Never Cry Wolf where Charles Martin Smith runs among a rumbling herd. I was only nine years old, but the symbolism stuck: The caribou would forever be my supreme icon of high wilderness, remote backcountry, and pure adventure. Twenty years later, I backpacked in Denali hoping to see some caribou–and got skunked. A drought had pushed them all high into the mountains. I saw grizzlies, but my heart ached for antlers.

“Don’t worry about it, eh? You’ll see ’em,” reassures Tom Falzetta, captain of our boat and sole operator of Slate Islands Charters. “You were just in the wrong spot, eh?” he says to Layne, and then announces that he’ll drop us in a caribou hot zone. “Everybody I’ve taken out here has seen ’em. In fact, most people end up moving their camp because the caribou come out at night and trip over all of their stuff.”

Falzetta drops us at McGreevy Harbour on Patterson Island, the largest of the Slates, at the edge of a balsam fir and paper birch forest. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources took possession of the islands and designated them a provincial park in 1985. With our Crown Land Camping Permit, we’re free to pitch tents anywhere we please on Patterson Island’s 12 square miles or on any of the other four smaller islands in the park’s interior. Falzetta tells us most folks camp near one of the five deserted cabins scattered about the Slates, since those are open areas with fire pits and outhouses.

We unload our gear as Falzetta throttles his boat and shouts back a few words of encouragement: “Don’t worry. By the end of the week, the caribou will be pissing you off!”

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