‘Caribou & Wolves – ‘The Deadly Dance’

Of particular issue is the application of careful flying practices when using aircraft to locate and access remote wildlife: a method which is often a necessity when seeking out migratory wild animals over vast tracts of land such as the Canadian Arctic.

When doing so, considerate aviation methods should be applied, such as maintaining safe, legal and non-disturbing altitudes at all times. Specifically, an on-going minimum altitude of 500 ft AGL (above ground level); while at the same time avoiding direct or upwind fly-over of caribou or musk-oxen.

Pilots conducting wildlife-related flying should be experienced with a ‘seasoned eye’, or specifically and extensively trained by the operator to learn the ability to pick out wildlife on the landscape from a distance in order to avoid inadvertent disturbances.

Once wildlife is discovered by air at a non-disturbing distance, aircraft should immediately turn away and climb out to a higher altitude before attempting to get any closer or to fly over the animals.

If a direct flyover of animals is necessary, it should only be conducted from a recommended minimum altitude of 1500 AGL with single normally-aspirated engines, or 2000 AGL with twin and/or turbine aircraft due to the higher pitch of the sound emissions.

Since helicopters emit a deep ‘thumping’ noise that disturbs animals at most any altitude, they should not be use for airborne searches or for a flight over wildlife at all excpt a a minimum altitude of 2000 AGL or greater.

Aircraft should never be flown directly over sensitive areas such as caribou calving grounds or active water crossings at any time.

When any low-level flying is required such as for aerial photography, seeking out safe landing or beaching areas or while conducting search and rescue operations such maneuvering should always be conducted over water and not land if possible – and always downwind of any wildlife.

Once wildlife is discovered, the choices of where to land and to set up a camp must be carefully considered in order to minimize continued aircraft usage, which of course also makes the most sense for economical operations and to reduce carbon emissions.

The choice to land downwind and out of site – a minimum of 1/2 km away or more from any wildlife, and letting the animals come to you is always the best practice.

As a eco-tourism company, we practice daily environmentally-conscious field ethics that are intended to leave as little impact as possible to our surrounding environs.

This attitude is particularly important in sensitive Arctic and sub-Arctic regions where even just walking over the wrong area at the wrong time in the wrong manner may scar the land for hundreds of years.

Our camps, equipment & field techniques are operated in a low-impact manner, and we expect our guests to assist us in our endeavor to maintain purity on the land.

In 2003 & 2004, Great Canadian was proud to facilitate cinematographer Jeff Turner and crew of River Road Films to several wild wolf den sites, and to the Great Summer Caribou migration.

Jeff got some awesome footage – with several grizzlies coming in to a remote water crossing to feed in several caribou that were stuck in the boulders of a creek crossing.

During the spring of 2004, Jeff also got some quality wolf pup footage on the upper Thelon.

The documentary was relased in the US on Animal Planet and in the UK on BBC2 on a series called “The Natural World”. Jeff had this to say about his trips with us:

“I have filmed wolves, caribou, and grizzly bears in many areas of the Canadian Arctic over the past 15 years and I have to say that the area around [the Thelon River is without a doubt the most beautiful piece of Arctic tundra I have ever experienced.

It is a world class wilderness with some of the planets most spectacular scenery and wildlife that is hard if not impossible to see anywhere else. I know of no other place where you can go and watch wild wolves around their den.

Wolves are one of the most difficult animals to get close to in the wild and Tom and his crew have been doing it for years.

That says a lot about their sensitivity and success as wildlife guides.

Tom and his crew at Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures are ideally placed to give access to this wonderful landscape.

There is no-one with more experience and knowledge of the area and they have setup a comfortable, warm and homey camp with good food and facilities in the middle of this wilderness.

They live lightly on the land here trying always to keep the imprint of man to a minimum in this pristine place.

I admire and appreciate the work they do and wish them much success in the future.”

Experience Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures

Here’s how you get caribou to pose for close-up photographs.

With my arms held upwards in the approximate shape of antlers, I swayed and dipped like a feeding caribou just as our guide Steve Lybeck had instructed us to do prior to setting off on our search for the medium-sized cervids.

My caribou dance worked. Within minutes several curious females and yearling barren-ground caribou, or tuktu as the Inuit refer to them — part of a herd of about 40 animals situated a kilometer or so from our campsite on the tundra off the northwestern end of Chesterfield Inlet Nunavut– cautiously approached to within 30-40 meters to get a better look at this strange swinging phenomenon.

A couple of regal dark and cream-colored young bucks, each sporting impressive branching racks, also pranced down from a Precambrian ridge before deciding to cantor away on the flowering tundra and spongy muskeg.

They had satisfied their inquisitiveness.

The two males soon realized that I posed no threat to their dominant instincts, as, minutes before, the does had ascertained that I would be an awkward dance partner.

So that’s what was meant by the term ‘Dancing with Caribou’ — a technique used to draw the creatures closer to you.

“Keep being a caribou, Martin,” chuckled David Olson, a professional photographer/naturalist from the USA, as he clicked away with his Nikon D 300 camera, which was fitted with a telescopic lens.”

You’re a good foil.

“Since my own camera wasn’t working to full capacity, I thought it only proper to help others in the group get good shots.

And, as I saw afterward, they did take some outstanding photographs.

This was my third wilderness trip since 2004 beyond the 60th parallel.

The first one, a two-week hiking expedition, had taken me across the Arctic Circle to the receding glaciers and stabbing granite mountains in Auyuittuq National Park on the eastern edge of Baffin Island.

In 2006, I was on a two-week canoe trip down the Clarke and Thelon rivers into the immense Thelon Wildlife Sancturary — a world heritage site — in the Northwest Territories.

“The arctic fever has no effect on the body but lives only in the mind, filling its victim with a consuming urge to wander again, and forever, through those mighty spaces where caribou herds flow like rivers over the roll of the tundra.

It is a disease of the imagination… of great power indeed, for it does not leave such victims as these until life leaves them,” says Farley Mowat in his eloquent and angry book, People of the Deer.

So true is that description of the North’s allure. I just had to return.

So, earlier in 2009, my opportunity came. ‘Tundra’ Tom Faess, who runs Great Canadian Wilderness Adventures and with whom I had arranged the earlier Clarke and Thelon canoe trip, had an opening on his Dances with Caribou trip to Baker Lake from Aug. 21-28.

“Join us at a comfortable and catered wildlife camp,” said the message Tom emailed to me in early June. “Migrating caribou — in singles and small groups — a range, relax, and graze the forever reaching remote landscape.

Musk-oxen herds gather as they prepare for mating.

Waterfowl, beginning their long flight south will seemingly fill the sky, and often lit on the local tundra ponds in order to rest and feed en route.

Rock and willow ptarmigan cackle in the bushes, also while gathering into their winter flocks.” It all sounded so enticing.

After a flight from Winnipeg — with brief stops in Churchill, Arviat and Rankin Inlet — our Calm Air flight on a turboprop plane landed in the hamlet of Qamani’tuaq on the northwest shore of Baker Lake.

The community, which is home to some 1,700 (mostly Inuit) people, is Nunavut’s only inland community — 1,500 kilometres due north of Winnipeg as the crow flies and 320 km from the wild western shore of Hudson Bay in the Kivalliq region.

Surrounded by a wide tundra landscape of rivers, lakes and rolling hills, exactly as the guidebook says, Qamani’tuaq has an internationally recognized arts and crafts community.

Much of that art and craft work is available at the Jesse Oonark Crafts Ltd. store.

Another point of interest is the Akumalik Visitors Centre, a former Hudson Bay Company store that was moved from its original location at the mouth of the Thelon River delta, situated by the pebbly shore of Baker Lake.

Two archaeological sites are within walking distance of the townsite. For example, during a hike to the top of Blueberry Hill, we encountered a historic marker at the site where four Thule Inuit families set up a campsite at least 500 years ago as they waited for migrating caribou herds. Inukshuks, those mysterious stone sentinels resembling humans, are also scattered throughout the area.

I learn later that the traditional meaning of the Inukshuk is “Someone was here” or “You are on the right path.” Finally, after spending two days and three nights in Qamani’tuaq (at expensive but adequate lodgings), we — five Canadians, two U.S. citizens, and an Australian woman, Annette, travelling for six months in the circumpolar region — were transported by a 28-foot aluminum boat with two 150- horsepower Yamaha outboard motors to our campsite in a remote and sheltered bay on the east end of the lake near Chesterfield Inlet.

During the two-hour ride across Baker Lake, the boat’s owner and driver, David Simailaki, who just happens to be deputy mayor of Qamani’tuaq, revealed that he uses the boat to hunt beluga whales in the waters near Hudson Bay.

“We’re in a protected valley here,” said Tundra Tom, as he spoke to our eager group that first cool, but pleasant late August evening around a table set up outside near the dining/cook tent as light from the slowly setting sun created snaking shadows across the tundra and rocky cliffs.

Water flowing from the adjacent stream provided a soothing background lullaby. It was a perfect setting. “The animals are a gift,” continued Tom, whose former permanent campsite at Whitefish Lake in the N.W.T. near Great Slave Lake had recently been destroyed by marauding grizzly bears, thus necessitating his move to Baker Lake.

“They have an extremely intricate relationship with this land. We must respect them. We need to develop a relationship with this valley, similar to the relationships the natives have with the animals. When the animals come, it is a gift. There’s a magical quality about this place.”

Although our main mission was to see caribou, we also encountered other creatures of the tundra. One day, after being shuttled to an isolated area several kilometres from our camp, we hiked for over three hours to a high spot where we came upon a herd of 60 muskoxen browsing on dwarf willow, tundra grasses and other plants in the valley below.

The great shaggy, dark-coloured ox-like beasts, with their formidable sharp, pointed horns, can weigh as much as 660 kilograms. According to the Nunavut Wild Species 2000 report, the current status of muskoxen is secure. “Their predators in Nunavut include humans and some carnivores, primarily the wolf,” says government information. From our boulder-strewn vantage point, we watched in hushed awe and took photographs as these powerful “primal” relatives of sheep and goats fed before wandering up a nearby slope. Then, we departed and headed back to camp fulfilled by our experience.

Over the next few days, both on our own and with our able guide Steve Lybeck, we trekked over much of the tundra landscape. During these hikes, I ate my fill of wild blueberries, raspberries and cloudberries — a tiny apricot-coloured fruit that has a pleasant piquant taste — and marvelled at the array of other plentiful plant life, like lichens, that clings to the fragile tundra during such a short summer season. The tundra, which comes from the Finnish word tunturi, meaning treeless plain, is noted for its desert-like conditions, says information I find one morning while leafing through a dog-eared book about the north inside the dining tent’s informal library. Despite the proliferation of lakes, rivers and other smaller bodies of water, “the tundra receives very little precipitation,” says the information. But life prevails.

Much to my annoyance, the brazen black flies were bountiful.

Despite wearing a long-sleeved shirt, full-length pants, netting over my hiking hat and gloves, and occasionally applying bug repellent, I still amassed dozens of nasty bites. For relief, I plunged into the refreshing waters of Baker Lake at our camp to mitigate the after-effects. The weather was warm and sunny during the day.

We spotted arctic hares, which seem as large as wallabies, numerous pudgy arctic ground squirrels (sik-siks), pairs of sophisticated and distinctive-sounding sandhill cranes, Canada geese, snow geese, Ross’s gulls, tundra swans, mallards and, of course, ptarmigan and grouse, among other bird species.

One member of our group, Ron, a retired physician from Illinois, made good use of his expensive fly fishing rod. His catches of lake trout were always a welcomed addition to our dinners. Even this late into summer, the sun still provided light until well into evening. Lingering sunsets streaked the horizon with hues of gold and orange. Then, late at night, the emerald aurora borealis (northern lights) left us speechless with their shifting “dance of the spirits,” as the Cree would say, across the pitch-black star-splattered sky. It is a haunting spectacle.

One early morning, a pair of peregrine falcons nesting on a rocky outcrop near our campsite provided some dramatic tension.

As a flock of about 10 honking snow geese passed low overhead near the water, the two raptors plunged from the sky onto their hapless quarry. Later, we watched through binoculars as the two falcons fed ravenously on their prey.

“The land is a lot more vast than I thought,” reflected photographer Olson, who has photographed wildlife throughout Canada and the U.S., on the last day of our too-short excursion. “On a map, it doesn’t look that big. But we barely scratched the surface.

It moves on its own pace. The weather and wind determine travel instead of time and schedules. I got a very spiritual feeling being out on the tundra. It’s not barren at all.

It’s a land with unlimited photographic opportunities.” I nodded my head in agreement while reflecting on the beauty of this harsh and resource-rich country.

Oh Canada: The true north strong and free — and so vulnerable.

Our Most Notable Accomplishments

Beginning in 1972 and then carrying on to this day over four decades, our various enterprises have channeled several million tourism dollars into the Canadian Far North. We are proud that we have done so in a manner that has taken little away from the land, having barely depleting our natural resources; and leaving as little footprint as possible. Our highly ethical approach to tourism and land/water/resource use as we continue to play an instrumental role in the development of cultural & eco-tourism. Our ongoing lobbying for the protection of wildlife and critical wildlife areas in the Canadian Arctic & sub-Arctic has also afforded us much distinguished media attention & formal acknowledgments: This has helped bring notable nedia coverage and credibility to Northern tourism and its many conservation issues.

A list of our most notable media and guiding accomplishments over nearly four decades of remote mainland Arctic field operations is as follows:

-1975-77:  Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures (then Lynx Tundra Lodge) facilitated, guided & outfitted with watercraft  Dr. Bryan Gordon and his family & team for his extensive archeological dig in the upper Thelon area.  This resulted with acknowledgments in the educational archeological book ‘People of Sunlight-People of Starlight‘ [ISBN #0-660-15963-5}.

1984:Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures (then East Wind) successfully organized, facilitated and guided with formal acknowledgments journalist Dave Nimmer of WCCO – affiliate of the CBS Evening News in Minneapolis, MN, USA for a five-part TV human-interest documentary on the Barrenlands, aired on CBS in March, 1985.

-1984: Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures (then East Wind) successfully guided author Dan Crapen, Sr., resulting with formal acknowledgment in his book Wilderness North’ [ISBN #0-932985-00-9].

-1987: Commissioned by the Government of the NWT, Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures (then East Wind Arctic Tours) successfully organized, outfitted and led a special tour to the Thelon Sanctuary, Nahanni National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park for key members of the Canadian Consulate General, including the then Director General of External Affairs – Mr. Garrett Lambert.

-1989: In conjunction with the Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Great Canadian (then East Wind Arctic Tours) successfully organized, outfitted and guided the United Nations UNESCO team to Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park.

1989: We successfully organized, facilitated and guided TV producer Jerry McKinnis of ESPN, resulting in formal acknowledgment of the three-part TV program – The Fishin’ Hole.

-1989: We successfully initiated, organized, outfitted & guided with formal acknowledgment the first of three special Thelon Sanctuary biological research expeditions called Project Oasis in conjunction with David Pelly & biologist Judith Kennedy of the Canadian Wildlife Service.

-1990-91: We were formally recognized by the Canadian Green Consumer Guide as one of the top five  environmentally-conscious tourism operators in Canada [ISBN not available].

-1990-91: We became affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund Canada, by donating 25.00 per client booked on all of our trips, and carried the WWF panda logo on our literature for two years.

1991: We trained and outfitted Maxwell Finkelstein of the federal Canadian Heritage River Secretariat for the Thelon River area, and then we successfully organized, outfitted the expedition that led into the Thelon Rivers’ designation as a Canadian Heritage River.

1991: We successfully organized, outfitted and guided Ontario film crew Eric & Brenda Beck with formal acknowledgment in the documentary film – ‘When Time & Light Stand Still’.

-1994: We successfully facilitated, outfitted & guided author / photographer George Lepp with formal acknowledgment of the special Outdoor Photographer magazine article – ‘Dance with the Caribou’ [ISBN not available].

1996: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted film producer John Howe from KUED-TV, an affiliate of PBS in Salt Lake City, Utah – resulting in production of & formal acknowledgment in the nature documentary The Snow Wolves‘, aired on PBS in the USA in 1997.

-1996:Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures successfully organized, guided and outfitted writer Ted Keresote, editor of the ‘Ecowatch’ column in Sports Afield Magazine for a 3-week Thelon canoe expedition resulting in an article in the July 1997 issue. 

-1997: Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures successfully organized, guided and outfitted a California TV film crew resulting in formal acknowledgment in the program Wild Things TV’.

-1997: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted the (late) renowned author & nature photographer Galen Rowell on our ‘Dance with Caribou’ trips. This resulted with photos and formal acknowledgment in the World Wildlife Fund tabletop book – ‘The Living Planet’ [ISBN #0-609-60466-X] (pages 142-145 inclusive).

1998: By referral of some of our past clients – Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures was nominated and became a primary runner-up for the Conde Naste Ecotourism Award 1998.

-1999-2000: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted world-leading Photographer Art Wolfe, resulting with formal acknowledgment in the just released tabletop book – ‘The Living Wild’ [ISBN #0-9675918-0-5] (pages 79-81, 83, & 170)

2000-01: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted Japanese writer Katsuyuki Tanaka – resulting in two major Japanese magazine articles about northern lights and autumn wildlife in Men’s Ex magazine [ISBN #18677-12], and also for the Japanese equivalent of Newsweek magazine [ISBN not available].

-2000-01: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted the late author / writer Galen Rowell for his third trip with us, to obtain images for his new tabletop book: ‘North America The Beautiful’ [ISBN 1-56251-504-7] (Pages 286-293 inclusive).

-2000-01: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted Canadian author / writer Catherine Senecal to the summer caribou migration in the Thelon valley, resulting in two major publication articles published and released in the Michelin PressCatherine Senecal then went on to win the prestigious ‘Canadian Travel Commission’s Northern Lights Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism’ for best Internet Reporting, for  her article titled ‘Tales of the Tundra: Exploring NW Canada’  published in the Specialty Travel Index

– 2001: We again successfully organized, guided and outfitted the (late) renowned author & nature photographer Galen Rowell on our ‘Dance with Caribou’ trips. This resulted with photos and formal acknowledgment in the hardcover book -‘‘Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography; [ISBN #0-393-04985-X] (pages 172-179 inclusive).

-2001-02: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted author Alan Weisman & Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Jay Dickman for a two-week expedition to the Thelon, the NWT diamond fields & the native community of Lutsel K’e.  this expedition resulted in the feature magazine article Diamonds in the Wild’  as well as the editorial – published in the December 2001 issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. 

-2002-03:  Great Canadian Wilderness was nominated by client & Yukon Northerner Dr. Dave Simonson for the World Wildlife Fund International Arctic Programme Arctic Award for Linking Tourism and Conservation. The initial nomination was then backed up by other nomination letters from client/author Alan Weisman and client/photographer Lonnie Brock.

-2003-04: We successfully organized, guided and outfitted Canadian author Courtney Milne for a two-week expedition to the upper Thelon area. This trip resulted in a feature magazine article ‘Journey into the Thelon’,  published in the March 2004 PhotoLife Magazine. 

-2003-04: Great Canadian successfully organized, guided and outfitted Canadian author & Photographer team Glen & Rebecca Grambo, resulted in a feature magazine article titled ‘Autumn on the Barrengrounds’, published in the 2003-2004 winter issue of Nature Canada magazine. 

-2004:  Great Canadian successfully organized, facilitated & guided George Archibald and 15 key members of the International Crane Foundation from the US on a special ten-day tour that included – in conjunction with Brian Johns of the Canadian Wildlife Service – the whooping crane nesting area in Wood Buffalo National Park, the Upper Thelon & the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary. 

-2003-04: We successfully organized, guided & outfitted Canadian Cinematographer Jeff Turner of River Roads Films, on several expeditions over 2003 and 2004 to gather footage for a major BBC nature documentary titled ‘Caribou & Wolves – the Endless Dance’ that was aired in the US on Animal Planet, and in the UK on BBC2 on a series called “The Natural World.

-2004:  Great Canadian successfully organized, facilitated & guided Annett Wolf of the Wolf Foundation of Copenhagen, Denmark to the upper Thelon for five weeks, to start her tabletop book leading to a major film production to be titled ‘The Final Chapter’. 

-2006: For the second time, Great Canadian successfully organized, facilitated & guided George Archibald and 14 key members of the International Crane Foundation from the US on a special ten-day tour that included – in conjunction with Brain Johns of the Canadian Wildlife Service – the whooping crane nesting area in Wood Buffalo National Park, the Upper Thelon & the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary. 

-2006: Great Canadian successfully organized, facilitated & guided free-lance writer Martin Zeilig on our Clarke-Thelon River Expediton, resulting in a feature article published in the Edmonton Journal in October 2006.

-2008: Great Canadian organized & facilitated renowned author/photographer Vincent Munier of France to the Thelon country for two weeks in the autumn of 2008, to start his project for a National Geographic article about the Thelon Sanctuary, which will carry on in Nunavut in 2009.

-2008: Great Canadian successfully organized, facilitated & guided photographer Steve Barger and several other clients to the Thelon region between 1999 & 2005, of which 26 photos including the cover photo grace the just-released book titled ‘Caribou and the North – a Shared Future’.

-2010: On his second trip with us, Great Canadian successfully organized, facilitated & guided free-lance writer Martin Zeilig on our ‘Dance with Caribou’ Expedition in Nunavut, which resulted in a feature travel article titled Dancing with Caribou on the Treeless Plain,
published in the Winnipeg Free Press in May, 2010.

– 2011: After providing logistical insight and advice, ‘Tundra Tom’ was included as a character in a new fiction book: Jesse & Cash and the Skeletons Stash‘, about the Thelon River and the NWT; written by US author Nancy Bjornson.

What Is This Thing Called ‘Ecotourism’?

Ecotourism is a relatively new word. It was first used in Central America, defined as: “Environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations.” 

– Hector Ceballos-Lascurain (1983)

In 1991, the US based Ecotourism Society (now The International Ecotourism Society) defined it as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people.

Both these definitions include the elements of environmental conservation & education, community development and responsible travel to / from the destination, a concept that forces us to consider modes of transport. 

Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures believes in and practices the principals of eco-tourism.

Our operational philosophy is to be as unobtrusive on the land and waters as possible, and includes the teaching and applied practice of minimum-impact considerations to all of our field activities within practical and economically-viable guidelines. 

Such practices include doing what we can to minimize the use of fossil fuels for remote field access as well as during the day-to-day operations of our camps; the removal of all garbage from the field; campfires only allowed in metal fireboxes and/or below the high-water marks; prohibiting the cutting of live trees; strict ‘catch & release’ fish management, etc.

 Ideally, we try not to even leave footprints! 

During our four decades of Northern Arctic operations, we are fortunate to have located, and subsequently to offer genuine wild wolves viewing, active caribou water crossings and musk-oxen grazing ranges.

We are fortunate to be able to offer quality photography and viewing of these wild animals with a high degree of success.

Yet, in such a huge landscape as the Canadian Arctic, and with such unknown variables from season to season as wolf population densities, false-den years, changing caribou migratory routes and hunting & trapping pressures from the tree-line; the task to locate animals can often be formidable.

Once located, extreme care must be taken not to disturb them, as careless human exposure & activities can influence the behavioral patterns of wild animals and birdlife.

Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures will not endorse wildlife harassment in any form, or for any reason.

Nor will we endorse feeding or luring wildlife at any time to provide closer viewing.

Of critical importance are field practices that minimize disturbance of wildlife and bird life – the ideal wildlife encounter to us is one where we come, watch and then leave without the animals ever knowing of our presence…