I saw them coming from a long-distance away. As I stood in front of my little out camp, high on the hillside that overlooks the big lake I saw three tiny dots on the ice. It was mid-November and the lake ice was covered deep in the winter's white mantle and in this white world, edged in green by the forest, the three dots quickly loomed larger. Strung out in a thin line they drew nearer at a relentless mile-eating trot, travelling in a straight line from north to south. They passed a long way west of where I stood and vanished into the snowy swamps. There could be no mistake. From Frank's description during our first trip to Cree Lake, I recognized the newcomers as the advance guard of the great migration of barren-ground caribou to the Cree Lake region.
Frank talked a great deal about caribou. He referred to them simply as deer, as did all northern residents. In great detail, he had told us what he knew of their migrations, habits, and characteristics. He told of their movements from their summer range in the Northwest Territories to the timbered country. He stated that sometimes they came in such numbers that the snow in the woods was packed hard by their big hooves as they moved about their feeding grounds so that one could travel there without snowshoes. Their small black droppings were everywhere and defiled the clean snow on the lake ice. They became so concentrated in favoured areas that the woods actually reeked with a goat-like stink. Unhappily for residents of this country, there were winters when there was no movement of deer into the area at all. Frank had not lied.
Next morning on my way back to the home cabin, I came across many fresh caribou tracks in the snow, all leading generally southward.
The tracks were literally everywhere and I saw caribou in the bush and on the small lakes that I crossed. As I neared the cabin, I shot a young bull for camp meat. Ab, on his way home from his trapline up the river, left Albert's House at dawn and observed no caribou tracks at all until he met a small herd head-on and shot three of them. By the time he reached home he was walking among their trails as I had and he had seen dozens of caribou on the river ice. We were elated. We could now be assured of all the fresh meat we would require that winter.
Out on Cree Lake, a few days later, Ab and I, spent some time just looking at caribou that dotted the lake in all directions. We counted, on one open stretch between two islands, in excess of six hundred animals, which, in moderate, calm weather were wandering leisurely about or just resting since there was nothing to molest them. We passed within rifle range of a good many of them. As we neared some groups, they raced away in an amazing burst of speed while others raced towards us before suddenly veering off in another direction.
In the woods the deer did indeed pack down the snow so that we walked about on their trails without snowshoes. They fed all winter on the lush caribou moss that carpets the sand country where the big boiled jack pines grow. I found that caribou browse a great deal in the low brush that borders the muskegs. I found them to be very adept at pawing away the deep snow to get at the browse; in no time at all, it seemed, they could paw their way down into deep snow so that just the top of the back could be seen.
Cast caribou antlers became very common back in the bush. Close examination revealed that these were being chewed by caribou in their quest for salt and by spring, with some help from squirrels and foxes, they were almost chewed away. The pursuit of minerals led them to our traps; they pawed up and dug out our baits and chewed or sucked the frozen fish. We had to put diverting poles over our snares so that they would not blunder into the loops and cripple themselves.
Caribou meat was now our main item of food. Since there was no shortage of meat, we ate all that we wished and varied its preparation from stews to steaks and roasts. Hides were fleshed, dried, and trimmed to make insulating pads under our sleeping bags. These insulators became part of our equipment and were lashed over the sleeping bag, rolled up for travel. Bill Mahoney, had told us that barren-ground caribou babiche is without equal for snowshoe webbing; this, too, we found to be true. The finished product was light amber in colour, translucent, and had a professional appearance.
Out of the inhospitable barren lands the herds had now moved into the jack pine forest and the lush feeding grounds. Large herds were seen everywhere we travelled. After their journey from the hard windswept tundra, they prospered in the friendly bush country. In this immense area, almost uninhabited by humans, they were not molested at all, save by an occasional wolf pack. Here they stopped in their migration and grew fat as winter progressed. The meat of the cows and younger bulls soon became interlaced with fat and it covered the regions of the loins and hindquarters, just the thing for hungry trappers. We fared well.
As with cattle, most of the day of the caribou was spent in feeding. It seems that caribou moss must be at least as nutritious as grass, for I did not notice the grossly distended bellies on caribou that I observed on cattle feeding in the ranchlands of the south.
By now the few moose that frequented the area were absent and we reasoned that they probably moved south to get away from all the caribou visitors. We saw their tracks no more until the following summer when again the rare track appeared and once more we saw the single trail of travelling bull moose as it moved up the length of one of the long sandy beaches on Cree Lake.
As we skinned out the meat of the caribou that we had taken, we found that they were infested with warble-fly larvae in varying stages of development.
These large grubs establish themselves just under the skin along the back. Some animals carried only a few; all had some worms. Occasionally we took an animal that was so loaded with the parasites that the meat was used to feed the dogs. I have seen Indian-tanned caribou hides that were so riddled with larvae holes that they appeared to have been hit by a buckshot blast from fairly close range. I once opened a freshly killed bull and found the respiratory and abdominal cavities so covered with lumpy growths that I left the carcass where it lay in the bush. Dogs fed on raw caribou meat were seen to pass large tapeworms.
We stood in the bright sunshine on the snow-covered ice of a small unnamed lake deep in the interior bushland in a country where the watershed divides the Cree Lake country from the Clearwater River drainage. A herd of some forty caribou suddenly appeared on the far shore and raced across the lake at full speed, in typical fashion as they do, not necessarily away from danger. In this case, they were coming nearer to where we stood. Because we were in need of fresh meat, I grabbed the rifle from the toboggan and lay prone on the ice while Ab held the dogs. I shot into the speeding herd at about two hundred yards. As the rifle cracked, one animal was seen to go down and slide on the snow. A geyser of powder snow knifed in high in the air. On examination, we found that a lucky hit had severed the spine just back of the withers. The caribou was dead when we walked to where it lay. This was the kind of shooting that we liked: a well-placed fatal shot knocked the animal dead.
The shooting of caribou can be a grim business. It was, however, as necessary to us as cutting firewood or carrying drinking water from the river. When not properly hit the first time it seemed the animals were anaesthetized to subsequent hits. A shot-off leg, for instance, did not slow them down appreciably.
Ab picked off several deer from a big herd one cold winter afternoon on the lake ice. At long range a low shot ripped open the belly of a racing yearling so that its entrails fell down among its flailing hooves where they were kicked off, the pieces showering in all directions until the animal completely disembowelled itself and mercifully died before we reached it. We cursed such happenings.
I shot a young cow out of a small herd that I encountered in the bush on a trapline patrol. As I was skinning out the carcass and working intently I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. Her calf, almost white and nearly as tall as its mother, stood at my elbow! I shooed it away,
but it would yield no ground at all until after a few minutes it paced away in the direction the herd had gone. Timber Wolves had followed the herds down from the barrens to enter the range of the wolves born and bred in the region. It was a common sight to see wolf tracks interspersed with those of the caribou. There was weird and mournful howling along the ridges on certain moonlit nights when the hunting pack was organizing the activities for the night. Once in a while we came upon the remnants of caribou carcasses, pulled down by wolves. These creatures, whom I consider the wiliest in the land, preferred to travel down the centred of the river away from our traps and snares. Sometimes we took caribou in such remote places that we could not freight out the meat at once. The meat would then be piled on logs, covered with the hide and the edges well weighted down with other logs and snow to keep off ravens and whiskey jacks. Wolves never came near our meat caches, but if the meat was left for long the foxes occasionally burrowed beneath the hide and ate it.
The caribou fed all winter long, frequenting the moss beds in the jack pines and the mossy swamps and muskegs. As the days grew longer, loosening winters grip with a warming sun, the caribou were seen to move northward. The return migration was not as spectacular as when they had come; they drifted off in small groups so that we were not aware that the main migration had taken place until only a few stragglers remained.
During the second winter I trailed a big moose in the country west of the home cabin. Here I encountered the first caribou herd seen that winter. The return was not as heavy as the migration in 1935, yet many caribou wintered in our region and we did not want for meat.
In the winter of 1937-38 we waited in vain through the month of November for the return of the caribou. A number of Indian families, aware of the glut of meat in the two previous winters, had moved to Cree Lake from Ile-a-la-Crosse, wintering about thirty miles up the lake from our cabin. Alas, they all but starved and found it necessary to return south in midwinter. The Chipewyan Indians from Lake Athabasca brought word that caribou herds were wintering sixty miles north of Cree Lake. They came no farther south that winter.
In October, previous to freeze-up that season, we shot two moose so that we did not lack meat. The dogs, however, were kept on a fish diet. In February, back of the river in an area, we had never penetrated, Ab, while tracking a moose, came upon a tiny herd of caribou and by some pretty good shooting knocked down three animals. Next day, coming in with the dog team I sighted another and was able to shoot it. This small band had evidently wintered here and had not ranged far for we had not previously sighted their tracks.
We were of the opinion that these animals had possibly slipped down from the main herds but more likely were laggards that had not returned with the main herds in the previous spring.
Occasionally, at some unfrequented small lake in summer and autumn, we found very small bands or even a single caribou which for some unknown reason had not returned with the great herds to their normal summer range out on the tundra a thousand miles further north. Thus at Cree Lake, we took barren-ground caribou in May, August, September, and October in various years. These were animals that had failed to migrate but were healthy and normal in appearance.
In the dead of winter, when we had no need to shoot more caribou, I often stood very still and watched them in the clearing in front of the home cabin as they fed on caribou moss or browsed at the river's edge. There were occasions when they thundered away at my slightest move. At other times they almost ignored me and came within a stone's throw if I stood very still. When alerted, they sometimes ran toward me before changing course and racing in twos and threes, heads back and keeping their interval spacings just like the accepted version of Santa's reindeer racing in a string of four or five pairs.
I realized that it was a privilege for me to have witnessed the sight of the great herds on the move, a phenomenon
that relatively few white men had seen up to that time. I know that the herds had dwindled considerably from thirty-five or forty years previously when the J.B.Tyrell expedition had first encountered caribou fawning grounds near Dubawnt Lake, Northwest Territories. Current estimates in 1935 were said to be around one million animals down from two or three million in 1900. I realized that, as more people entered northern Canada, the herds would shrink more and more. The decline would be gradual, for the Northland would not be overrun by settlers as the prairies had been. For many years, there would be those vast empty regions where humans do not settle, but where people pass through once in a while as trappers, prospectors, and adventurers. Even then I knew the herds were being thinned out by repeating rifles and human greed and waste.
We had witnessed the great treks of these animals and would always remember it. The herds would one day shrink to a trickle, yet would likely not become extinct in my lifetime, considering the kind of land that is their habitat. I will never forget the appearance of a certain mature bull. I am standing near the shore of a small lake, looking out toward a point of land two hundred yards away. The sun is so bright that the reflection of light from the snow makes me squint as I watch something moving on the point. Then a prime caribou bull steps out of the black spruce on the point and walks boldly out on to the ice. He is in fine November pelage and his coat is not yet ragged or faded. He has a massive rack of antlers that towers high and wide above his head. His coat varies in colour from grey to light brown to very dark brown. The long ruff on his neck is startlingly white. As he turns and comes towards me he looks like a man all dressed in a dark suit and white vest. He advances a few more steps and stops. A slight breeze brings my scent to his lifted muzzle. Suddenly he rears almost straight up and turns at right angles to his previous course. As his front feet come down on the snow, they are pacing in unison with his hind legs as he turns his head to look at me over his shoulder. Then the head is held out straight, the great antlers are laid back and he breaks into his full stride. He is in the classic position of the racing reindeer now as he enters the dead run down the entire length of the lake. Then he vanishes into thick spruce in a shower of powdered snow, for as he entered he gave no hint of breaking his stride.