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Ernest Thompson Seton

American Naturalist

1860-1946

A selection from
THE ARCTIC PRAIRIES: A CANOE JOURNEY OF 2,000 MILES IN SEARCH OF THE CARIBOU

Narrated by Michael Prichard

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The Arctic Prairies: A Canoe Journey Of 2,000 Miles in Search of the Caribou; Being The Account Of A Voyage To The Region North Of Aylemer Lake

CARIBOU-LAND AT LAST

On the morning of August 1 we launched on Artillery Lake, feeling, for the tenth time, that now we really were on the crowning stretch of our journey, that at last we were entering the land of the Caribou.

Over the deep, tranquil waters of the lake we went, scanning the painted shores with their dwindling remnants of forest. There is something inspiring about the profundity of transparency in these lakes, where they are 15 feet deep their bottoms are no more obscured than in an ordinary eastern brook at 6 inches. On looking down into the far-below world, one gets the sensation of flight as one skims overhead in the swift canoe. And how swift that elegant canoe was in a clear run I was only now finding out. All my previous estimates had been too low. Here I had the absolute gauge of Tyrrell's maps and found that we four paddling could send her, not 3 1/2, but 4 1/2 or 5 miles an hour, with a possibility of 6 when we made an effort. As we spun along the south-east coast of the lake, the country grew less rugged; the continuous steep granite hills were replaced by lower buttes with long grassy plains between; and as I took them in, I marvelled at their name—the Barrens; bare of trees, yes, but the plains were covered with rich, rank grass, more like New England meadows. There were stretches where the herbage was rank as on the Indiana prairies, and the average pasture of the bleaker parts was better than the best of central Wyoming. A cattleman of the West would think himself made if he could be sure of such pastures on his range, yet these are the Barren Grounds.

At 3 we passed the splendid landmark of Beaver Lodge Mountain. Its rosy-red granite cliffs contrast wonderfully with its emerald cap of verdant grass and mosses, that cover it in tropical luxuriance, and the rippling lake about it was of Mediterranean hues.

We covered the last 9 miles in 1 hour and 53 minutes, passed the deserted Indian village, and landed at Last Woods by 8.30 P. M.

The edge of the timber is the dividing line between the Hudsonian and the Arctic zones, It is the beginning of the country we had come to see; we were now in the land of the Caribou.

At this point we were prepared to spend several days, leave a cache, gather a bundle of choice firewood, then enter on the treeless plains.

That night it stormed; all were tired; there was no reason to bestir ourselves; it was 10 when we arose. Half an hour later Billy came to my tent and said, "Mr. Seton, here's some deer." I rushed to the door, and there, with my own eyes, I saw on a ridge a mile away four great, Caribou standing against the sky.

We made for a near hill and met Preble returning; he also had seen them. From a higher view-point the 4 proved part of a band of 120.

Then other bands came in view, 16, 61, 3, 200, and so on; each valley had a scattering few, all travelling slowly southward or standing to enjoy the cool breeze that ended the torment of the flies. About 1,000 were in sight. These were my first Caribou, the first fruits of 3,000 miles of travel.

Weeso got greatly excited; these were the forerunners of the vast herd. He said, "Plenty Caribou now," and grinned like a happy child.

I went in one direction, taking only my camera. At least 20 Caribou trotted within 50 feet of me.

Billy and Weeso took their rifles intent on venison, but the Caribou avoided them and 6 or 8 shots were heard before they got a young buck.

All that day I revelled in Caribou, no enormous herds but always a few in sight.

The next day Weeso and I went to the top ridge eastward. He with rifle, I with camera. He has a vague idea of the camera's use, but told Billy privately that "the rifle was much better for Caribou." He could not understand why I should restrain him from blazing away as long as the ammunition held out. "Didn't we come to shoot?" But he was amenable to discipline, and did as I wished when he understood.

The Caribou is a travelsome beast, always in a hurry, going against the wind. When the wind is west, all travel west; when it veers, they veer. Now the wind was northerly, and all were going north, not walking, not galloping—the Caribou rarely gallops, and then only for a moment or two; his fast gait is a steady trot a 10-mile gait, making with stops about 6 miles an hour. But they are ever on the move; when you see a Caribou that does not move, you know at once it is not a Caribou; it's a rock.

We sat down on the hill at 3. In a few minutes a cow Caribou came trotting from the south, caught the wind at 50 yards, and dashed away.

In 5 minutes another, in 20 minutes a young buck, in 20 minutes more a big buck, in 10 minutes a great herd of about 500 appeared in the south. They came along at full trot, lined to pass us on the southeast. At half a mile they struck our scent and all recoiled as though we were among them. They scattered in alarm, rushed south again, then, gathered in solid body, came on as before, again to spring back and scatter as they caught the taint of man. After much and various running, scattering, and massing, they once more charged the fearsome odour and went right through it. Now they passed at 500 yards and gave the chance for a far camera shot.

The sound of their trampling was heard a long way off—half a mile—but at 300 yards I could not distinguish the clicking of the feet, whereas this clicking was very plainly to be heard from the band that passed within 50 yards of me in the morning.

They snort a good deal and grunt a little, and, notwithstanding their continual haste, I noticed that from time to time one or two would lie down, but at once jump up and rush on when they found they were being left behind. Many more single deer came that day, but no more large herds.

About 4.30 a fawn of this year (2 1/2 or 3 months) came rushing up from the north, all alone. It charged up a hill for 200 yards, then changed its mind and charged down again, then raced to a bunch of tempting herbage, cropped it hastily, dashed to a knoll, left at an angle, darted toward us till within 40 yards, then dropped into a thick bed of grass, where it lay as though it had unlimited time.

I took one photograph, and as I crawled to get one nearer, a shot passed over my head, and the merry cackle told me that Weeso had yielded to temptation and had 'collected' that fawn.

A young buck now came trotting and grunting toward us till within 16 paces, which proved too much for Weeso, who then and there, in spite of repeated recent orders, started him on the first step toward my museum collection.

I scolded him angrily, and he looked glum and unhappy, like a naughty little boy caught in some indiscretion which he cannot understand. He said nothing to me then, but later complained to Billy, asking, "What did we come for?"

Next morning at dawn I dreamed I was back in New York and that a couple of cats were wailing under my bedroom window. Their noise increased so that I awoke, and then I heard unaccountable caterwauls. They were very loud and near, at least one of the creatures was. At length I got up to see. Here on the lake a few yards from the tent was a loon swimming about, minutely inspecting the tent and uttering at intervals deep cat-like mews in expression of his curiosity.

The south wind had blown for some days before we arrived, and the result was to fill the country with Caribou coming from the north. The day after we came, the north wind set in, and continued for three days, so that soon there was not a Caribou to be found in the region.

In the afternoon I went up the hill to where Weeso left the offal of his deer. A large yellowish animal was there feeding. It disappeared over a rock and I could get no second view of it. It may have been a wolf, as I saw a fresh wolf trail near; I did not, however, see the animal's tail.

In the evening Preble and I went again, and again the creature was there, but disappeared as mysteriously as before when we were 200 yards away. Where it went we could not guess. The country was open and we scoured it with eye and glass, but saw nothing more of the prowler. It seemed to be a young Arctic wolf, yellowish white in colour, but tailless,

Next day, at noon Preble and Billy returned bearing the illusive visitor; it was a large Lynx. It was very thin and yet, after bleeding, weighed 22 pounds. But why was it so far from the forest, 20 miles or more, and a couple of miles from this little grove that formed the last woods?

This is another evidence of the straits the Lynxes are put to for food, in this year of famine.

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