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(excerpt from Nature Canada magazine 2003)

Autumn on the Barren Grounds

Text by Rebecca L. Grambo

They call this place the “barren grounds” but in the autumn it is filled with life and color.  Caribou and muskox meander through a rich, ruby-red sea of foliage.  Well-camouflaged ptarmigan crouch motionless near an unsuspecting photographer’s feet, bringing a rush of adrenaline when they explode into flight without warning.  The unmistakable calls of loons drift down the lake.  At night, the aurora writhes in green and purple fire.

The landscape here on the shores of Whitefish Lake, approximately 400 kilometres east of Yellowknife (90 minutes by Twin Otter), is a legacy left by retreating glaciers less than 9,000 years ago. Boulders and rocks brought here on the glacial conveyor belt dot a landscape planed flat by the ice.  Patches of bedrock, the 2.5-billion-year-old Canadian shield, are also visible.  Straight lines etched into their surfaces record the movement of overlying ice and the debris it carried. Meltwater streams confined by banks of ice ran on and under the glaciers.  When the ice thawed, sand and gravel deposited in those streams were left behind as hills and ridges known as eskers. 

Eskers are important in the barren grounds for several reasons.  Sometimes rising more than 60 metres above the surrounding plain, they are exposed to the drying winds and inhospitable to most plant life.  However, they are one of the few places trees can find enough soil above the permafrost for their roots.  Though the official treeline lies south of us, the esker on which our camp is built holds a small forest of spruce trees, as do others in the area.

Long ridgetops blown clear by the wind make walking on the eskers  easier than crossing the often soggy terrain below. Caribou take full advantage of this on their migrations, following esker paths that have been used for thousands of years.   The caribou passing through this area are part of the Beverly herd, unique because they alone of all mainland barren ground caribou herds remain inland year-round.  Each year, they travel up to 2000 kilometres on a trek that may take them from Saskatchewan’s boreal forests across the taiga (“land of little sticks”) of the Northwest Territories onto the treeless tundra of Nunavut.    They pass through this area on their way from their calving grounds down to their wintering grounds at the treeline. The last population survey of the Beverly herd, conducted in 1994, reported their numbers to be around 276,000 and growing.  

Esker habitats also offer ideal accommodations to the predators that hunt caribou, such as wolves and grizzlies, and other animals, including foxes and ground squirrels.  They dig their dens in the soft, well-drained soil of the eskers near a source of water. The availability of  prey in the area is also important.  Tom Faess, owner and operator of our camp, says that increasing numbers of muskox in this area during the past several years have encouraged white wolves to den nearby, offering spring visitors a chance to watch the growing families.

Boat trips to nearby eskers and guided hikes to view the caribou and muskox are part of the daily schedule at the camp.  Muskox prove somewhat elusive on this trip giving us only one brief encounter with these strange Ice Age leftovers.  As three photographers hunker down in the rocks along a valley, a small herd appears on the ridge, walks down into the valley, and disappears—all without making a sound.  The caribou are more forthcoming.  Our guide, Allicia, tells us that they are curious creatures who can’t resist investigating something new and explains how we will “dance” to get their attention.  If you saw a group of people with their hands in the air, waving slowly from side to side, you would be curious, too!  Once we find the caribou, we stay downwind.  In order to figure out what we are, animals will often circle around us to catch our scent, offering opportunities for closer observation and photographs.  Truly dedicated photographers may follow a herd all day, tripods carried upside down in emulation of antlers, slowing working their way closer as the caribou become comfortable with their presence.  There’s a strict code of wildlife ethics enforced here, designed to respect the animals’ rights and needs.

Each evening, Tom or a guide reads from one of the books in the camp library, telling stories of the nomadic “Caribou Eaters” who followed the herds, the Inuit and Dené who hunted and sometimes battled along the Thelon, the trappers who found a good life here, and the people who lost their lives in this demanding land. Like the other animals, humans concentrated their living patterns along the eskers.  The ridges and level terraces next to them are littered with relics of past inhabitants, from the stone hunter’s blind overlooking a stream crossing two kilometres from camp to thousands of stone artifacts discovered along the Thelon by Dr. Bryan Gordon of the Archaeological Survey of Canada in the 1970s. Hoping to encourage official recognition of the historical importance of the area, Tom’s family donated supplies and support to Gordon throughout his explorations.

Whitefish Lake and Lynx Lake make up the headwaters of the Thelon River.  From here the Thelon crawls east then north to the nearby Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, running east through the sanctuary and finally emptying into Baker Lake.  The middle and lower reaches of the Thelon have been designated a Canadian Heritage River, meaning that the river will be managed through existing laws to protect its outstanding features. The headwaters and upper third remain outside this minimal protection.

And protection is rapidly becoming a concern. A stroll among the Yellowknife shops before the flight home reveals part of the reason: diamonds.  The discovery of diamonds in the Canadian north has set off a land rush and development drive of unparalleled proportions.  Exploration for gold and base metals, such as copper and nickel, has also increased.  There are currently active prospecting permits and mineral claims on the Beverly caribou range, including the calving grounds.

From his camp, Tom has watched uneasily as diamond exploration teams work their way closer and closer.  He points out that even the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary may feel the pressure.  Established in 1927 to protect rapidly disappearing muskox herds, the Sanctuary’s boundaries were moved in 1956 to accommodate mining interests in the southwest portion. Like the animals of the barren grounds, mines use eskers: for landing strips, roadfill, and construction aggregate.  Disturbing the eskers may mean disrupting caribou migrations, displacing denning animals, and destroying archaeological sites.  But mining is bringing badly needed jobs and money to the north, forcing governments and aboriginal communities to make tough decisions that will have long-term consequences.

Standing on the esker at Whitefish Lake watching caribou move by in their age-old procession, one senses a purpose in their movements, an urgency given meaning by the wind’s bite.  They have adapted their lives  to exist in harmony with this demanding and beautiful land.  Let us hope we are wise enough to do the same.

If You Go:  A one-week trip to [Muskox, Autumn Colours & Aurora], including meals, accommodations, and floatplane transport to and from Yellowknife, costs approximately $4800 CDN plus GST.  Once you’re in camp, you may choose to extend your trip at a discounted rate.  Other types of trips are available throughout the season, which runs from mid-June through mid-September.  

For more information, contact Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures, 1-608-370-5071.



Click here to learn more about the 'Muskox, Autumn Colours & Aurora' trips about which this article was written


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