Our meal is interrupted by Ronald who points up river emphatically. We look but can't see anything new.
"Caribou," he whispers, "swimming."
Squinting into the distance we see what looks like a line of ducks heading for the far shore, a 'V' shaped wake behind them. Through binoculars we can tell that the blobs in the water are actually pairs of caribou heads and tails. As they reach the far shore seven dark caribou bound out of the water splashing. They stand for a while, then trot along the bank looking for a break in the high sand cliffs through which to return to the shelter of the forest.
As the minutes pass our trained eyes spot group after group of caribou swimming, all west to east, the 600m width of the Severn. Terry explains that these are the threatened woodland caribou, darker and more rare than their tundra cousins. They are traveling east to gather, lock antlers, and rut. By lunch we have counted 40 heads crossing the river directly above and below us. As we continue our paddle it becomes clear that we are in the middle of a substantial migration route.
Paddling 30 feet from the western shore a group of 14 caribou emerge suddenly from the forest. Caribou of all ages stand directly across from us on the bank pausing, confused by our presence. The calves stick close behind their mothers.
Then two large caribou, their antlers in velvet, emerge from the woods and set the group in motion running along the shore directly beside us. As they pull ahead they plunge into the river, intent on crossing as if pulled by a powerful magnet towards their yearly mating ritual Our boats pass within 20 feet of the fast swimming animals and we can hear their heavy breathing. What great fortune to be at this exact spot as a herd of these graceful, majestic beings of the deep forest emerge briefly to ford the river we are traveling.
Over 100 of these elusive icons of the boreal forest pass within our sight in one afternoon. Woodland caribou are a threatened species. Once they roamed as far south as Ottawa, but they have been chased out of half of their range by encroaching extractive industries. Their survival strategy is based on dispersal in inaccessible terrain deep in dense boreal forests and wetlands. This makes it energetically costly for wolves to pursue them. Anywhere a road is built into the forest it becomes a wolf highway, easing their pursuit of the caribou who must retreat 12 kilometers. In another 10 years the caribou retreat a further 20 km as deer move in to browse on roadside shrubs that grow in the disturbed ground. The deer provide sustenance to the wolves who hunt the caribou, further shifting the balance against the caribou.
Once the caribou leave they never return.
Caribou in the boreal are like the canary in the coal mine. They are an indicator species for the health of the forest and a range of species and ecological processes that require intact, unfragmented landscapes. Here the caribou populations are healthy and continue their delicately balanced dance with the wolves. There is so much that science still does not understand about this complex ecosystem. But we do know that introducing industrial business as usual into this landscape as we have further south is a nearly certain recipe for ending KI's vital relationship with the caribou.