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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.

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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