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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.

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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