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Of Eskers, Caribou & Wolves

Pygmies not only sell boats. We go adventuring in them!


At least once a year I need to get in my kayak and abandon my responsibilities for a while. I need to escape the list of all the things I would like to do, and all those that I really should have done. Once I’m on the water, I confess, I really don't think much about all the boats I haven’t yet designed. As I paddle away from the end of the road, I don’t worry about house repairs or the giant shopping mall our local politicians are trying to site in the beautiful small historic seaport where my family and I live.
I love feeling that everything I need is in my boat. All that stuff that I have labored to buy and don't seem to have the time to maintain has been left behind me.
Wilderness trips are the times I feel like I am in control of my life. Of course, I'm not. I know that I am going to be rained on, blown ashore, stuck in mud, and attacked by bugs. But I will sleep as late as I want, hide in my tent when the bugs are bad, and sing and exalt when the sun is out and the wind is just right. When it’s hot, I will bask in the sun, and dive into cool water.
When it rains, I will read in my tent. If the weather gets really nasty or dangerous, I will suffer. But when the sun comes out and I am fed, I will be happy and I will thank the sky and the water and the fish I caught and ate.
I am in love with Canada’s Far North. Last summer I returned on July 5, flying north of Great Slave Lake to MacKay Lake out on the barrens. From the air, the Canadian Shield is punctuated with an endless expanse of lakes. Twenty minutes north of Yellowknife the trees were noticeably smaller. As we flew on they got sparser, then clumped up, and then disappeared altogether.
The barrens are defined, in part, by year-round permafrost. In summer the frozen earth two or three feet below the surface blocks the drainage of water. The surface soils are saturated and soggy. Compared to the relatively well-drained shores of Great Slave Lake, the barrens are a bug heaven. As I paddled away from the dock at MacKay Lake Lodge I was pursued by thousands of mosquitoes.

Over the next few days I paddled through lake trout feeding on insects swarming the surface and dined on three to four pounders whose orange-red flesh tasted like premium sockeye salmon. Evenings were marked by the incandescent glow of the midnight sun, illuminating earth, water and sky 24 hours a day. Camp sites were tricky: even in areas that appeared dry and flat, the ground was usually waterlogged and hummocky.
On the fifth day I discovered something that would change the rest of my trip. I paddled through a series of islands, making several two to three mile crossings. The winds built steadily. I rounded a narrow two-mile long peninsula and came ashore in a small bay whose waters were spray- swept by 25-knot winds.
I had landed on my first esker. Marked on the map as a winding pair of dashed lines, an esker can run across the landscape for hundreds of miles. Once gravel bottoms of the rivers that ran each summer on and through the three-mile thick ice sheets of the Far North during the last ice age, eskers remain today as ridges of sand and gravel, often hundreds of feet across at the base.
Across muskeg, over ridges, through lakes, they snake their way across the landscape in complete disregard of topology. An esker can run straight over a 1500-foot high hill, down the other side, disappear into a lake, and come out on the far shore.
To a kayaker on MacKay Lake, the top of an esker is a marvel—a flat, dry, stable, bug free place to pitch a tent. The lakeshore next to an esker provides a smooth sand beach to pull a loaded boat up onto. [I carried 144 pounds of gear plus my 180-pound self in the Arctic Tern. Hmmmmmm. She paddled like silk slides over your hand.]
Compared to the boulder-strewn, waterlogged, bug infested shorelines of the barrens, eskers are paradise! You can often walk for miles, fifty feet above the surrounding terrain on smooth ground with a nice breeze and few bugs.
I got out all of my maps and planned the rest of my trip as a pilgrimage from one esker to the next. These ancient river beds offer the only ground in which wolves, foxes, and arctic ground squirrels can dig dens. They are a preferred migration trail for caribou.

During the next two weeks, I camped at seven more eskers. Each was braided with caribou trails and littered with wolf scat made of compacted caribou hair. Wolves or bears had excavated many of the ground squirrel warrens.
Much of my paddling was done between 3 and 9 a.m., when the winds were light, the lake surface safe, and photographic light optimal. I journeyed in a big sweeping circle around Worburton Bay, stopping at river mouths, exploring eskers, fishing, feasting, and laying about.
At 3:15 a.m. the morning of July 17th, my twelfth day out, I was back on MacKay Lake about 35 miles from the lodge paddling into 18-knot head winds toward a craggy point where MacKay Lake makes a sweeping U-turn. The wind was blowing straight off a huge bluff on the opposite shore, producing a giant V-shaped wind shadow on the mile of open water between us.
I cut straight across and worked my way down the wind-protected shore toward another esker shown on my topo map. Just as my boat's bow touched the beach, I caught a fleeting glimpse of five pair of caribou antlers silhouetted against the sky as a group of the beasts trotted over the boulder-studded ridge 200 yards from me. I jumped out, grabbed my camera, and crouched down to pull my crutches off the rear deck when I saw a lone wolf trot across the large open valley. Pure white, the height of a large German Shepherd and half again as long, she ambled across the valley and disappeared over the low ridge following the caribou.

Within three minutes of seeing my first caribou, I had seen my first wolf! As I stood there gazing across the valley down the shoreline toward a headland a mile away, another set of antlers flashed against the sky. Then another and another as over the next ten minutes several hundred caribou trotted over the distant ridge and made their way toward where I stood. As they approached, individuals paused to feed for several seconds then trotted forward for thirty or forty yards. Their advance was persistent and rapid, grazing on lichen and moving, moving.
For the next three hours, one herd after another came over the distant ridge. Hiding in the bush, at one point I thought an entire herd was going to canter right over me. With camera in one hand and a canister of bear pepper spray in the other, I didn’t know whether to crouch down or stand up and shout. In one of the great mammal migrations on the planet, hundreds and hundreds of caribou flowed past, no more than fifteen yards from me.
That afternoon I set off walking up the esker, dotted with fresh wolf tracks and ground squirrel excavations. The esker wound its way over several low hills and past a small rocky lake ringed with Arctic cotton flowers. It was bisected by several dry swales, and as it entered several miles of land covered with giant slate-gray boulders, I noticed the two hundred feet of esker surface before me was littered with what looked like dog poop.
I stopped and stared at a large, smooth, white three-foot cobble lying on the sand. As I focused my 110-millimeter camera lens on the "boulder", an ear popped up and twitched. Then the head and neck arched around and stared at me, 150 feet away. The wolf rose to its feet and trotted off through the boulder field; stopping several times to gaze back at me.
Another pure white wolf appeared out of the brush, arched its nose, sniffed and also trotted off, again pausing several times to scrutinize me. Then another, and another, and another. Five snow-white wolves!
As I stood there, spellbound, a sixth, slightly smaller, dirty, orange-gray wolf ascended the bank, growling. She stood for a moment, and then slowly moved into the boulder field while huffing, then barking. She took a stance on the top of a large boulder a hundred yards away, faced me, and howled—an agitated alpha female with cubs nearby is what I figured. It was past time for me to back off.

As I swung around, retreating back down the esker, I glimpsed a ghost-white shape moving through the rocks. The first wolf had circled around behind me. I took out my pepper spray and continued slowly walking down the esker. The wolf that was circling crossed the esker 150 yards in front of me and disappeared into the rubble on my right. His mate continued to vocalize at my back as I moved away from the den. I could hear her for at least a mile, howling at me—or perhaps she was re-gathering her family.
In the next three days before I flew into another remote lake for two more weeks of solo paddling, I saw four more groups of wolves and thousands of caribou. In the Far North their lives are completely intertwined.
Some Inuit groups consider them different aspects of the same "creature". No healthy wolves without caribou, no healthy caribou without wolves.
I feel the truth of that. My health requires these journeys into wilderness; the continued health of North America’s wild lands requires our help.

By John Lockwood






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