At the south end of Reindeer Lake, soon after striking north from the great Churchill River, one is vividly made aware, even in summer, that the land of vast Caribou herds has been reached. There at the Indian camp at the outlet to Reindeer River you will find strewn about the small Indian cabins, in untidy disorder, remains of many Caribou-bleached hair, hoofs, and white, weather-washed knuckle-bones-which even wolfish sled-dogs have given up chewing at in distaste at their absolute poverty. Afterwards, as you pilot your way northwards, through the great lake of forested islands, you will be astonished, wherever you land, at the number of Caribou paths that lie before you-clear-cut paths, worn down by the hoofs of countless animals, following, Indian-file, one after the other over the cranberry, moss-grown, sand surface of the woods-paths not grown over ; unchanged since the time of the last migration except that they bear no fresh hoof imprint. Those paths are traced in many directions, but perhaps the greater number, and those most deeply worn, are those which run north and south.
You have reached the great winter-haunt of the Barren-ground Caribou (Rangifer arcticus).
Since the beginning of time, as far as men know, they have always come here-Reindeer Lake ! Assuredly |not for nothing had it been thus named.
In that particular territory the southern boundary of Caribou migration may be said to be the Churchill River, though animals have been killed on rare occasions as far south as Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River. But the great area of Reindeer Lake, larger than a half-dozen English counties, is pre-eminently the favoured winter feeding-ground.
In October or November each year large herds of Caribou reach the north end of the lake, and apparently continue south chiefly on the eastern shores. Thereafter they scatter abroad for a period, and travel slowly from place to place, over frozen lake and snow-lain forest, while feeding on abundant white moss and marsh-grass, and a consideration of mud which they seem to relish.
In winter their method of feeding is to dig down to the ground-surface with their remarkably sharp forefeet, and then to work forward in the channel they have made in the snow, which is sometimes of a depth of three feet or more. When the depth of snow is very bad the Caribou prefer feeding in open muskeg valleys, between the more densely grown forests, where the wind gets at, and sweeps away, part of the covering, and the labour to reach the undergrowth is accordingly less.
Early in the year the does and yearling fawns again commence to move northward, while the bucks remain behind to follow later. They return not as they came, not chiefly on the eastern shores of the great lake, but scattered broadcast among the islands of the frozen lake, and on both mainland shores. The fact is that theirs is a leisurely return, since there is no weather change to urge them to haste-as is the case when the great massed droves hasten south-and so they travel easily, and in food-seeking, scattered herds. There is almost certainly a second reason for the leisurely return of the does and fawns, and that is the maternal instinct of the does, for many of them are with young that they will give birth to in early spring.
One can easily understand why those great herds of Caribou travel south in the Fall, The undergrowth on the Barren lands is plentiful, but there are no trees. When winter comes the wind, driving over the exposed white surface, packs the snow hard, and an icy crust forms through which it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to break for grazing. It is, as it always is by nature's arrangement of things, a question of existence, this insistent migration of those animals. As the thermometer drops in the Far North, and food and shelter become difficult to find, the animals will band together and grow restive, and pause from time to time to sniff the wind from the south with question on their countenance. And one day, with proud heads up and anxious eyes, they will commence their long travel through sheltering forests where snows are soft and food is plentiful beneath the yielding surface.
At Prince Albert, or any frontier town, you may on rare occasions run across a Cree or a Chipewyan Indian who has ventured out to the white man's country, to " the people who live behind rocks ":-as he terms the white race that live in stone-built houses. If you question him closely, you may hear of the great Caribou migrations which pass his far-off wigwam at some nameless point in space and which provide him with meat stores for half the months in the year.
If he narrates vividly his story will be legendlike as the tales of Buffalo herds on the North-West prairies half a century ago or as the tales of the herds of Pronghorned Antelope-that, alas! have wasted away since civilisation came to the prairies, and the fences of the Canadian Pacific Railway held them hapless prisoners when they longed to answer the insistent call to the south, and to change which was essential to their existence.
In many ways I had heard of the migrations of the Barren-ground Caribou, each new tale whetting my desire to witness them. The Buffalo had gone, the Antelope were almost gone ; mankind would never again witness those great animal herds in their wild state. There remained- beyond the pale of white man-the last of the roving big-game race in Canada; the Barren-ground Caribou I had read at one time some records of Caribou in a work entitled Through the Mackenzie Basin, which contained " Notes on Mammals," by R. Macfarlane, and I had written them down, though little knowing that I would ever come to think of them again. Those records were :-
" Caribou observed passing in the neighbourhood of Lac du Brochet (north end Reindeer Lake). Fall migration witnessed in October, November, or December. Spring migration in April, May. Caribou seen each year from 1874 till 1884 : none seen from 1885 until the autumn of 1889."