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   Chapter 12 THE MIGRATING CARIBOU

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 17525

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Tuesday morning, August 8th, dawned clear and calm, and Gilbert came forth to light the fire, singing: "Glory, glory, hallelujah! as we go marching along." Yet before the tents were taken down the wind had sprung up from the southwest, and it was with difficulty that the canoes were launched and loaded.

A short distance above our starting-point, we were obliged to run into a sheltered bay, where part of the load was put ashore, and with the canoes thus lightened we crossed to a long, narrow point which reached half-way across from the other side, making an excellent breakwater between the upper and lower parts of the lake. The crossing was accomplished in safety, though it was rough enough to be interesting, and Job and Joe went back for what had been left behind.

The point terminated in a low, pebbly beach, but its banks farther up were ten to twelve feet high, and above it was covered with reindeer moss. Towards the outer end there were thickets of dwarf spruce, and throughout its length scattered trees that had bravely held their heads up in spite of the storms of the dread northern winter. To the south of the point was a beautiful little bay, and at its head a high sand mound which we found to be an Indian burying-place. There were four graves, one large one with three little ones at its foot, each surrounded by a neatly made paling, while a wooden cross, bearing an inscription in Montagnais, was planted at the head of each moss-covered mound. The inscriptions were worn and old except that on one of the little graves. Here the cross was a new one, and the palings freshly made. Some dis- tance out on the point stood a skeleton wigwam carpeted with boughs that were still green, and lying about outside were the fresh cut shavings telling where the Indian had fashioned the new cross and the enclosure about the grave of his little one. Back of this solitary resting-place were the moss-covered hills with their sombre forests, and as we turned from them we looked out over the bay at our feet, the shining waters of the lake, and beyond it to the blue, round-topped hills reaching upward to blend with exquisite harmony into the blue and silver of the great dome that stooped to meet them. Who could doubt that romance and poetry dwell in the heart of the Indian who chose this for the resting- place of his dead.

Walking back along the point we found it cut by caribou trails, and everywhere the moss was torn and trampled in a way that indicated the presence there of many of the animals but a short time since. Yet it did not occur to me that we might possibly be on the outskirts of the march of the migrating caribou. Ptarmigan were there in numbers, and flew up all along our way. We passed a number of old camps, one a large oblong, sixteen feet in length, with two fireplaces in it, each marked by a ring of small rocks, and a doorway at either end. Near where we landed, close in the shelter of a thicket of dwarf spruce, was a deep bed of boughs, still green, where some wandering aboriginal had spent the night without taking time or trouble to erect his wigwam, and who in passing on had set up three poles pointing northward to tell his message to whoever might come after.

The wind continued high, and squalls and heavy showers passed. Nevertheless, when lunch was over we pushed on, keeping close to the west shore of the lake. Little more than a mile further up the men caught sight of deer feeding not far from the water's edge. We landed, and climbing to the top of the rock wall saw a herd of fifteen or more feeding in the swamp. I watched them almost breathless. They were very beautiful, and it was an altogether new and delightful experience to me. Soon they saw us and trotted off into the bush, though without sign of any great alarm. George and Job made off across the swamp to the right to investigate, and not long after returned, their eyes blazing with excitement, to say that there were hundreds of them not far away.

Slipping hurriedly back into the canoes we paddled rapidly and silently to near the edge of the swamp. Beyond it was a barren hill, which from near its foot sloped more gradually to the water. Along the bank, where this lower slope dropped to the swamp, lay a number of stags, with antlers so immense that I wondered how they could possibly carry them. Beyond, the lower slope of the hill seemed to be a solid mass of caribou, while its steeper part was dotted over with many feeding on the luxuriant moss.

Those lying along the bank got up at sight of us, and withdrew towards the great herd in rather leisurely manner, stopping now and then to watch us curiously. When the herd was reached, and the alarm given, the stags lined themselves up in the front rank and stood facing us, with heads high and a rather defiant air. It was a magnificent sight. They were in summer garb of pretty brown, shading to light grey and white on the under parts. The horns were in velvet, and those of the stags seemed as if they must surely weigh down the heads on which they rested. It was a mixed company, for male and female were already herding together. I started towards the herd, kodak in hand, accompanied by George, while the others remained at the shore. The splendid creatures seemed to grow taller as we approached, and when we were within two hundred and fifty yards of them their defiance took definite form, and with determined step they came towards us.

The sight of that advancing army under such leadership, was decidedly impressive, recalling vivid mental pictures made by tales of the stampeding wild cattle in the west. It made one feel like getting back to the canoe, and that is what we did. As we ran towards the other men I noticed a peculiar smile on their faces, which had in it a touch of superiority. I understood in part when I turned, for the caribou had stopped their advance, and were again standing watching us. Now the others started towards the herd. Emboldened by their courage, and thinking that perhaps they held the charm that would make a close approach to the herd possible, I accompanied them. Strange to relate it was but a few minutes till we were all getting back to the canoes, and we did not again attempt to brave their battle front. We and the caribou stood watching each other for some time. Then the caribou began to run from either extreme of the herd, some round the south end of the hill, and the others away to the north, the line of stags still maintaining their position.

After watching them for some time we again entered the canoes. A short paddle carried us round the point beyond which the lake bent to the northwest, and there we saw them swimming across the lake. Three-quarters of a mile out was an island, a barren ridge standing out of the water, and from mainland to island they formed as they swam a broad unbroken bridge; from the farther end of which they poured in steady stream over the hill-top, their flying forms clearly outlined against the sky. How long we watched them I could not say, for I was too excited to take any note of time; but finally the main body had passed.

Yet when we landed above the point from which they had crossed, companies of them, eight, ten, fifteen, twenty in a herd, were to be seen in all directions. When I reached the top of the ridge accompanied by George and Gilbert, Job and Joe were already out on the next hill beyond, and Job was driving one band of a dozen or more toward the water at the foot of the hill, where some had just plunged in to swim across. Eager to secure a photo or two at closer range than any I had yet obtained, I handed George my kodak and started down the hill at a pace which threatened every second to be too fast for my feet, which were not dressed in the most appropriate running wear. However the foot of the hill was reached in safety. There a bog lay across our way. I succeeded in keeping dry for a few steps, then gave it up and splashed through at top speed. We had just hidden ourselves behind a huge boulder to wait for the coming of the herd, when turning round I saw it upon the hill from which we had just come. While exclaiming over my disappointment I was startled by a sound immediately behind me, and turning saw a splendid stag and three does not twenty feet away. They saw us and turned, and I had scarcely caught my breath after the surprise when they were many more than twenty feet away, and there was barely time to snap my shutter on them before they, disappeared over the brow of the hill.

The country was literally alive with the beautiful creatures, and they did not seem to be much frightened. The apparently wanted only to keep what seemed to them a safe distance between us, and would stop to watch

us curiously within easy rifle shot. Yet I am glad I can record that not a shot was fired at them. Gilbert was wild, for he had in him the hunter's instinct in fullest measure. The trigger of Job's rifle clicked longingly, but they never forgot that starvation broods over Labrador, and that the animal they longed to shoot might some time save the life of one in just such extremity as that reached by Mr. Hubbard and his party two years before.

The enjoyment of the men showed itself in the kindling eyes and faces luminous with pleasure. All his long wilderness experience had never afforded Job anything to compare with that which this day had brought him. He was like a boy in his abandon of delight, and I am sure that if the caribou had worn tails we should have seen Job running over the hills holding fast to one of them.

Before proceeding farther we re-ascended the hill which we first climbed to take a look at the lake. It could be seen almost from end to end. The lower part which we had passed was clear, but above us the lake was a network of islands and water. The hills on either side seemed to taper off to nothing in the north, and I could see where the land appeared to drop away beyond this northern horizon which looked too near to be natural. North of Michikamats were more smaller lakes, and George showed me our probable route to look for "my river". Squalls and showers had been passing all the afternoon, and as it drew towards evening fragments of rainbow could be seen out on the lake or far away on the hills beyond it. Labrador is a land of rainbows and rainbow colours, and nowhere have I ever seen them so brilliant, so frequent and so variedly manifested. Now the most brilliant one of all appeared close to us, its end resting directly on a rock near the foot of the hill. George never knew before that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I suspect he does not believe it yet for I could not persuade him to run to get it. Gilbert, more credulous, made a determined attempt to secure the treasure, but before he reached the rock the rainbow had moved off and carried the gold to the middle of the lake.

Camp was made a little farther up. When it was ready for the night Job and Joe were again off to watch the caribou. They were feeding on the hills and swimming back and forth from islands to mainland, now in companies, now a single caribou. Job was so near one as he came out of the water that he could have caught him by the horns. Now and then a distant shout told that Job and the caribou had come to close quarters.

While George and Gilbert prepared supper, I sat writing in my diary with feet stretched to the fire, for I was wet and it was cold that night. Suddenly I was startled to hear George exclaim in tragic tones: "Oh! look there! Isn't that too bad!"

Looking up quickly to see what was the trouble I saw him gazing regretfully at a salt shaker which he had just drawn from his pocket.

"Just see," he exclaimed, "what I've been carrying round in my pocket all the time you were running after those caribou, and never thought about it at all. Well, I am sorry for that. I could just have given you a bit and you would have been all right."

For fifty miles of our journey beyond this point we saw companies of the caribou every day, and sometimes many times a day, though we did not again see them in such numbers. The country was a network of their trails, in the woodlands and bogs cut deep into the soft soil, on the barren hillsides broad, dark bands converging to the crossing place at the river.

At the time I made my journey the general movement of the caribou was towards the east; but where they had come from or whither they were going we could not tell. Piles of white hair which we found later at a deserted camp on Cabot Lake where the Indians had dressed the skins, and the band of white hair clinging to the west bank of the George River, opposite our camp of August 15th, four feet above the then water-level, pointed to an earlier occupation of the country, while the deep cut trails and long piles of whitened antlers, found at intervals along the upper George River, all indicated that this country is favourite ground with them. Yet whether they had been continuously in this territory since the spring months or not I did not ascertain. The Indians whom we found at Resolution Lake knew nothing of their presence so near them.

Towards the end of August the following year Mr. Cabot, while on a trip inland from Davis Inlet, on the east coast, found the caribou in numbers along the Height of Land, and when he joined the Indians there, though the great herd had passed, they had killed near a thousand. It would therefore seem not improbable that at the time I made my journey they were bending their steps in the direction of the highlands between the Atlantic and the George.

The movements of the barren ground caribou of Labrador have never been observed in the interior as they have been in the country west of Hudson Bay. So far as I can learn I alone, save the Indians, have witnessed the great migration there; but from such information as I was able to gather later at the coast, their movements appear to be as erratic as those of the caribou of northern Canada. [See Warburton Pike's "Barren Grounds of Northern Canada".]

From Mr. John Ford, the Agent of the Hudson's Bay Company's Post at the mouth of the George River, I learned that they cross in the neighbourbood of the post at different times of the year. He has seen them there in July and August, in October and November, in January, February, and March. They are seen only a few days in the summer time, but in winter stay much longer-sometimes two months. In 1903 they were near the post all through February and March. On one occasion in the summer one of Mr. Ford's Eskimo hunters went to look for caribou, and after walking nearly all day turned home, arriving shortly before midnight, but without having found a trace of deer. The next morning at three o'clock they were running about on the hills at the post in such numbers that without trouble as many could be killed as were desired.

From the George River post they hunt west for the caribou, which are more often found in the vicinity of Whale River post than at either George River or Fort Chimo to the west. For the five years preceding my visit the caribou had crossed regularly in November at Whale River. That is to say they were seen there in great numbers, but no one knew whence they had come, or whither they went. Their coming cannot, however, be counted upon every year.

In September 1889 the whole band of George River Eskimo went for the annual hunt, by which they expect to supply themselves with winter clothing. Day after day they travelled on without finding the deer. When provisions gave out they were so far away from the post that they dared not turn back. One family after another dropped behind. Finally, the last little company gave up, one young man only having the strength to go any farther. He, too, was about to sink down, when at last be came upon the caribou. He went back to help the others, but in spite of their best efforts twenty- one of the band perished from starvation.

That the caribou of Labrador have greatly decreased in numbers seems certain. Mr. Peter M'Kenzie, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company in the east, who was a fellow-traveller on my return journey, told me that many years ago while in charge of Fort Chimo he had seen the caribou passing steadily for three days just as I saw them on this 8th of August, not in thousands, but hundreds of thousands. The depletion of the great herds of former days is attributed to the unreasoning slaughter of the animals at the time of migration by Indians in the interior and Eskimo of the coast, not only at Ungava, but on the east coast as well, for the caribou sometimes find their way to the Atlantic. The fires also which have swept the country, destroying the moss on which they feed, have had their share in the work of destruction.

Only twice during the journey did we find trace of their enemy-the wolves. These hunt the caribou in packs, cutting out a single deer, and following him till his strength is gone, when they jump on him and pull him down. Mr. M'Kenzie tells how, when on one of his hunting trips at Fort Chimo, a caribou came over the ridge but a short distance from him followed by seven wolves. The animal had almost reached the limit of his strength. He ran with head low and tongue hanging out. From cover of a boulder Mr. M'Kenzie waited for them to pass, and one after another he dropped four of the wolves. The others taking the hint altered their course, and the victim escaped.

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