Although Fred and I were surprised when my rifle brought down a horned doe in the fall of 1924, caribou soon became a familiar sight.
Fifty years ago there was no better known or more useful animal in the North, serving Indian and the White man alike not only for food but for most of the necessities of life. Of all my memories of things that were and are no more, probably none is more worth the telling than the story of the caribou that once roamed in their thousands from the barren lands through the jackpine country, and swam the lakes of northern Saskatchewan.
There were different types of caribou as we soon learned. Actually, the woodland or bush caribou that we saw first was not the numerous kind. It was a smaller animal that we came to know better, sometimes called the reindeer. The does were about half the size of the bucks, and the calves were so small that two hungry dogs could devour one in a single night. The larger bush caribou that occasionally drifted northward and mingled with these reindeer herds were not welcomed but instead were continually driven away. When we happened to kill one of the larger beasts, we nearly always found that it had lost a lot of hair from attacks by its smaller companions. While the hide of the so-called bush caribou is tough (ideal for making mitts, moccasins and snowshoe laces), that of the reindeer is lighter in weight. Unfortunately it is often perforated along the back by the emerging larvae of the bot fly. This insect lays its eggs in the caribou's back and in its throat. In the spring, caribou often cough out handfuls of larvae.
During the summer, the reindeer lived in the barren land of the far North in an area that I personally have never visited. Here they bred during the brief warm period. At the approach of winter, usually about the middle of November, the great herds used to begin their southern migration to familiar feeding grounds. Down the same old trails, crossing lakes and rivers as their kind had done for untold ages, they would drift in an endless army until the whole land seemed a moving carpet of hide and antlers. Day and night for the better part of a week, the migration would go on. Eventually the numbers would dwindle until there were only stragglers, fated to be brought down by timber wolves that always lurked on the edges of the moving herd. Once the migration began, there were always caribou in our territory, for some would drop out of the main herd from time to time, satisfied to go no further south.
The caribou were well adapted to water and seemed to enjoy playing on thin ice for they had a sort of hook on their front hooves that made it possible for them to crawl out of the water onto glare ice. They seemed to like falling into water, and could crawl out again almost as quickly as they went in. When they were on their way south, nothing could stop them. If the ice was thin and they broke through, they would scramble out again, break through again, scramble out again tirelessly. They were a great water animal. Though sometimes I have seen moose and jumping deer (whitetail) that had broken through the ice and drowned, I never saw a caribou that couldn't easily get out. There is no time all winter long that the surface of a narrows is safe for a man, but the caribou loved to play there.
They were thin in the early winter immediately following the mating season. I thought the meat of the bucks was queer tasting and unpleasant in the fall and I avoided eating it, though I think the native people may not have disliked it. I much preferred the meat of the cow caribou in the fall. Since calves generally stayed close to their mothers, it was easy to recognize a barren cow and to shoot her. There was then no helpless fawn to worry about.
On and on caribou kept moving south to their feeding grounds. There for a short time they would browse on grass that grew in the muskeg. Then came the snows, drifting deeper and deeper. As they fed, the caribou would pack the snow until soon it was so hard that even their sharp hooves could not dig through it to the grass beneath. Then the herd had to move to higher ground. Here, on the white sandy soil native to the country, a white moss grew among the jackpine. This white moss was the staple winter diet of the caribou. On it they fattened as the weeks went by.
In the spring, in prime condition, the caribou once again took to their customary trails, migrating in their vast numbers across the river narrows,
through the jackpine woods, back to the barren lands once more. So the cycle was repeated year after year, century after century.
A man never had any trouble getting as many caribou as he needed to see him through a winter. The Indians used to spear them on the lakes. In their swift canoes they would pursue the swimming animals with a knife on the end of a long, slim pole. Hundreds were speared in this way. I have seen caribou swim as far as four miles to cross a lake, though they usually crossed on the narrows. I have seen them floating high in the water asleep (escaping black flies) and have paddled right up beside them in a small canoe. They swim higher and faster than any other animal -- but they are not as fast as two Indians paddling a canoe.
We always got our supply of caribou easily -- partly because of their great numbers, but mostly because of their curiosity and lack of caution. Again and again, seeing a man with a team of sleigh dogs, they would come close for to investigate and so be easily shot.
From prehistoric times down into living memory, the native people geared their nomadic life to the migration of the caribou. The coming and going of the great herds were almost as dependable as the rising and setting of the sun. Everyone told Fred and me that the caribou always came about November 15. But the third winter we spent in the North, in 1926-27, they did not come at all. The pattern was broken another year, too when they wandered much farther south than usual. We learned by one grim experience not to gamble our lives on their regularity.
Looking back now, I suppose it must have been a forest fire that put them off their usual path. Whatever the cause, we did not see them at all in the winter of 1926-27. At the time, we believed what the old-timers told us. We felt sure the caribou would come at last, and we waited for them. November came and went. December crept by. Never came the restless air of excitement among our dogs that told us they had scented caribou a day or two away.
We had hung five or six hundred fish in the fall to feed our dogs until the caribou came, and we had one moose put away. Normally this would have been more than we needed. But when January came, and still no caribou, our provisions were getting alarmingly low. Being new to the country and still prone to errors of the tenderfoot, we did not have nets with us for deepwater fishing -- and of course now that the weather was cold, the fish had gone deep. We put our three fifty-yard nets in shallow water hopefully, left them for three days -- but when we lifted them again we found only two or three fish, certainly not enough to keep our dogs working. How we wished we had gone after some of the moose whose tracks we had seen so frequently earlier in the winter!
When the middle of January came, there was only enough fish left to feed the dogs for one final trip along our trapline which extended from Close Lake to a river we called Moose River. I didn't know enough then about survival in the North to realize that it would have been safe enough to take the dogs and use up the last of the hung fish on the trip, for we could always have got something back at camp to keep them alive through the rest of the winter. But I thought I had to save the fish, so I set off on my snowshoes alone. My plan was to empty the traps and hang them for the rest of the winter, carrying home on my back what would amount to two big loads of fur. I have already told the story of that ten-day trip which was the worst experience of all my years on the trapline, and the closest I ever came to death by exposure.
I learned a lot about survival in the North that winter. Although always after that we found the caribou migrations regular, I never got myself into a spot where I desperately depended on them;
I always caught one or two thousand fish to hang in the fall and I came into winter with moose meat and bear grease on hand so that never after that time was survival a day-by-day matter.
The Indians had a strange custom that must have come down to them from some distant past when there was a shortage of caribou something like we experienced that winter. They would spear hundreds of the swimming beasts in the fall, float the carcasses to a bay in the lake, and bind them together with strips of caribou hide, legs to legs, making a giant caribou boom to freeze into the lake ice during winter. Should the herds wander too far south and supplies run low, they had plenty of frozen meat available. I think that, in the past thousand years, there must have been a time or two of no caribou, the Indian would starve. When he made this caribou boom, he could chop fresh frozen meat from the lake as the need arose.
Of course as a general rule there was no need to use any of the carcasses, and the slaughter was useless. In the spring when the ice began to move, the caribou boom went with it, drifting along until the wind drove the frozen carcasses to land. Some lake edges were littered with caribou bones, vivid testimony to storms that blew the bodies ashore and the met-eating birds and animals that feasted on them in the spring.
Not only could a forest fire or some other unexpected event put the caribou off their migrating pattern, but there were times too, when they wandered farther south than others. The last fall that I remember seeing those huge caribou herds, this happened. They kept going south until they reached settled country. (1936)
Most of the people in the settlements had never before seen caribou and they went completely crazy hunting them. They would fire wildly into the herds, wounding hundreds of animals and never bothering to follow the wounded into the bush to finish the job mercifully. There was a terrible and wasteful slaughter of caribou that winter. Many more died of their wounds than were shot dead, and hunters used only the best parts of the ones they did kill. There was no thought of conservation. Finally, the RCMP and the Hudson's Bay Company refused to issue any more shells, but by then it was too late. The harm was done.
Probably not a quarter of those that had gone south returned to the barren lands in the spring. For the last thirty years there have been no giant caribou herds in my part of the North. No longer can natives and white trappers and wolves take their necessary food and make no apparent impression on the numbers. No longer is the land covered spring and fall with a moving carpet of gray and white. Caribou are a dwindling species today.