BURNSIDE RIVER: Part Four (Northern Rivers Series)

Day 8, Camp #4

A white wolf near camp interrupts our breakfast.  It has blood on its muzzle and disappears over a hill.  The caribou are still here, moving back and forth, thousands of them, thick as ants, grazing.

Caribou migration (Photo by Don Taves)

After breakfast we walk downriver for a closer look.  A grizzly appears, ambling casually and spooking the herd.  A male peregrine falcon, startled from its perch, squawks insults as it flies away.  Another raptor, unidentified, cruises the ridge in search of ground squirrels.

We return to camp for lunch, then head upstream for what we expect to be a short walk.  Stu spots the caribou massing on the shore, nervously getting ready to swim the river.  We settle in to watch, spellbound by what we are witnessing.  Once it begins, the crossing continues for hours.

Caribou crossing (Photo by Don Taves)

The herd leaders have chosen an eddy that allows them to cross slightly upstream from the landing point.

Caribou reach the landing point (Photo by Don Taves)

The animals go in single file, mothers leading their young calves, some of which are barely two weeks old.  One calf strays into the strong current and is swept downstream.  The mother swims after, calling the calf, trying to get it to turn around, but of course the current is too powerful.  Eventually the mother swims back to the calf and guides it gently to the shore, where the pair trot up the bank and return to try the crossing again.  More and more calves get carried away, and not all survive.  One calf is so exhausted that it lies motionless on the bank, its hindquarters in the water.  We assume it is dead, but the mother grazes calmly nearby.  Suddenly the calf gets up and trots off with its mother.

Exhausted calf (Photo by Don Taves)

I am awestruck by this epic struggle that must rival in drama the Serengeti migrations.

We return to camp but continue to watch the caribou until bedtime.  I’m no sooner settled in my sleeping bag than Travis comes round to say that a grizzly is feeding on a caribou calf across the river.  We watch this most magnificent of predators eat, drink, poop and then wander up the slope to a ridge where caribou are grazing.  Neither is aware of the other until the last moment.  Suddenly the grizzly rises up on its hind legs.

An unexpected encounter (Photo by Don Taves)

The caribou stampede in one direcetion and the grizzly, equally startled, flees in another.  Down the slope, across a small bay and over another ridge the bear gallops and swims, utterly wild, beautiful and free.

I know that I will treasure this day as long as I live.

Day 9, Camp #5

The word is “Go!”  We pack up quickly, everyone impatient to finally make good progress down the river.  Only the guides know what really awaits us.

The swift current carries us past a peregrine falcon and a gyrfalcon sleeping next to its nest.

Gyrfalcon next to nest (Photo by Don Taves)

Then we reach the “splits”, where the river widens and splits into multiple channels.  Usually the guides have to find a way through sand bars and rocks, but this year the river is still in flood, and the sand bars are well under water – easy going.  Further along, however, our way is blocked by blue walls of ice, so high that the guides cannot see past them to choose the proper channels.  The rushing current cannot be denied –  the guides have to choose quickly and irrevocably.  One wrong choice and we may crash hard, perhaps disastrously.  Stu is as cool as the ice, but I know that behind the calm face there is great concern.  All heave a sigh of relief when we come through unscathed and pull ashore for lunch.

White knuckles on the raft

Get it right the first time! (Photo by Don Taves)

Stu leads the way. (Photo by Don Taves)

And we all follow. (Photo by Don Taves)

The rest of the trip is mellow.  We find quiet water and let the rafts drift in silence.

After the splits

Caribou continue to line the shore.  One calf has a broken leg but tries valiantly to keep up with its mother.  Its fate is sealed; there is no room for the weak in this land where predators lead as tenuous an existence as prey.  A red fox and kit by their den allow us to come quite close.

The fox (Photo by Don Taves)

The kit (Photo by Don Taves)

As we near our campsite several caribou swim the river in front of us.

Caribou from raft (Photo by Don Taves)

Now I sit in the evening light, listening to the gurgle of a stream, a concert of tree and Savanna sparrows, and the raucous calls of gulls that have found something to eat a little upriver.  A wolf comes by on the opposite shore carrying a full haunch of adult caribou, paying us no heed whatsoever.

Wolf carrying caribou haunch (Photo by Don Taves)

Another wonderful day in a trip that is all too quickly drawing to a close. Tomorrow we will cross the Arctic Circle.

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