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Caribou Tales #1: A footprint on her calving ground

This is the first episode in our Caribou Tales series. Stay tuned for a new episode on the 25th of every month.

Carla has been travelling for many days, heading to where she birthed her last calf. It’s a small lake island, covered with old jack pines and black and white spruce. Her stomach remembers the large selection of lichen, mosses, and grasses that were there last spring, and starts to rumble. The smell of the place lingers in her memory: the fragrance of plants, earth and water, with no trace of wolf or bear. It is the smell of safety, a perfect home for a boreal caribou.

Gently, she puffs air through her fur-covered nose. The air is still cool and damp with sudden waves of warmth where sunlight has slipped between the trees to heat pockets of air. She walks through the dappled shadows. Under her hooves mud splashes up, but their width keeps her from sinking down too deep. Deliberately, she makes her way around the edges of a bog; stopping occasionally to eat when a particularly succulent moss is growing within reach. She listens for predators or any unusual sounds. A group of yellow-rumped warblers, recently returned to the boreal to breed, briefly call to each other as she passes, then are quiet. Suddenly a red squirrel starts to chatter loudly, but she is only informing her pups of the caribou’s passage. Occasionally, Carla grunts quietly to herself, a gentle raspy sound. The next few months will be highly solitary. The 9 females and 5 males that make up her closest circle have separated; each breeding female, four in total, will seek a place free of predators and full of food to calf and spend the summer.

Carla has been pregnant for 7 months, and the calf weighs heavily on her. This will be her sixth calf, and her 12th year walking these paths. She knows the forest well, has followed behind her grandmother and mother to these summer grounds, frolicking and excited by the thought of the new greens coming in. Today, however, Carla is tired. It has been a hard winter: cold, with little food, and the constant howling wolves making her heart beat faster. She has never been so hungry for spring.

When the island appears, like a mirage before her, she feels a sense of relief and joy. Using her paddle-like feet, she will traverse the 2 km stretch to the island. She stops to eat the grasses on the edge of the lake; her ears and nose on constant alert. In the afternoon sun, her tawny brown coat reflects the light, gold highlights flashing. The sun shifts and is starting to go down. With her ache of hunger dulled, she decides to plunge in. She doesn’t want to be in the water in the dark.  

The water is cold, only recently changed over from ice, but her coat fluffs up around her, the hollow hairs offering buoyancy and protection. The wind picks up and she lifts her nose a little higher to keep the small waves from splashing water into her nose. She moves quickly through the water. Her breath is coming out in regular puffs now.

When her front feet touch hard ground, she makes a final push, scrambles up over the rocks and slips into the cover of the trees. She stops, head down, catching her breath, then breathes in again. There is an odd smell coming from the island, and she gets the sense that something is wrong. Something is different. She lifts her head and looks around her.

There are prints on the ground that she has never seen before. They are as wide as hers, but more than twice the length and strangely marked. Footprints on her calving ground.

The air around her is disturbed. Something new is disturbing it. With no further thought; despite hunger, the long trip, the coming dark, and her heavy belly; she jumps back into the water. A surge of fear is driving her. She will need to find a new place to calf, a new place of safety.

Special thanks to Jean Polfus for the incredible artwork.

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