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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter IV


In the various records of Arctic exploration, and especially in those dealing with the Barren Ground, there is frequent mention of deer, reindeer, and caribou, leaving the casual reader in doubt as to how many species of deer inhabit the rocky wilderness between the woods and the Arctic Sea. As a matter of fact, the Barren Ground caribou (which name I prefer, as distinguishing it from the woodland caribou, the only other member of the reindeer tribe existing on the American continent) is the sole representative of the Cervidse found in this locality.

The chief distinction between this animal and its cousin the woodland caribou, or caribou des bois fort in the half-breed parlance, lies in the different size, the latter having by far the advantage in height and weight. I have had no opportunity of weighing specimens of either kind, but should imagine that the woodland must be fully a third the heavier of the two. I cannot agree with some of the natural history books which state that the smaller animals carry the larger horns, as of all the Barren Ground caribou that we killed I never saw any with horns to compare with the giant antlers of the woodland caribou of Newfoundland or British Columbia; more irregular, if possible, they may be, and perhaps have a greater number of points, but they are far behind in weight, spread, and size of beam. The perfect double plough is more often seen in the smaller specimen, the larger animal being usually provided with only one, or with one plough and a spike. In colour they closely resemble each other, but there is rather more white noticeable in the representative of the Barren Ground, especially in the females, while the texture of the coat, as is to be expected, is finer in the smaller variety. The hoofs have the same curious “snow-shoe” formation in both cases.

The range of the Barren Ground caribou appears to be from the islands in the Arctic Sea to the southern part of Hudson's Bay, while the Mackenzie River is the limit of their western wandering, although not many years ago they are known to have crossed the Slave River in the neighbourhood of Fort Smith. In the summer time they keep to the true Barren Ground, but in the autumn, when their feeding-grounds are covered with snow, they seek the hanging moss in the woods. From what I could gather from the Yellow Knife Indians at the east end of the Great Slave Lake, and from my own personal experience, it was late in October, immediately after the rutting season, that the great bands of caribou, commonly known as La Foule, mass up on the edge of the woods, and start for food and shelter afforded by the stronger growth of pines farther southward. A month afterwards the males and females separate, the latter beginning to work their way north again as early as the end of February; they reach the edge of the woods in April, and drop their young far out towards the sea-coast in June, by which time the snow is melting rapidly and the ground showing in patches. The males stay in the woods till May and never reach the coast, but meet the females on their way inland at the end of July; from this time they stay together till the rutting season is over and it is time to seek the woods once more.

The horns are mostly clear of velvet towards the end of September, but some of the females carry it later even than this; the old bulls shed their antlers early in December, and the young ones do the same towards the end of that month, the females being some weeks later. In June both sexes present a very shabby appearance, as the old coats have grown long and white and are falling off in patches; by the end of July the new hair has grown, and the skins are then in their best condition.

The caribou are extremely uncertain in their movements, seldom taking the same course in two consecutive years, and thus affording ground for the universal cry in the North that the caribou are being killed off. I think there is really much truth in the statement that they keep a more easterly route than formerly, as they seldom come in large quantities to the Mackenzie River, where they used to be particularly numerous in winter. This is in a great measure accounted for by the fact that great stretches of the country have been burnt/and so rendered incapable of growing the lichen so dearly beloved by these animals. The same thing applies at Fort Resolution, where, within the last decade, the southern shore of the Great Slave Lake has been burnt and one of the best ranges totally destroyed.

One point that seems to bear out the theory of a more easterly movement is that within the last three years the caribou have appeared in their thousands at York Factory on the west side of Hudson’s Bay, where they have not been seen for over thirty years; but I cannot believe, judging from the vast herds that I myself saw, that there is any danger of the caribou being exterminated.

It is absurd to say that the white man is killing them off, as no white man ever fires a shot at them unless they pass very close to a Company’s establishment, and the Indians are themselves surely dying out year by year. Nor is it any argument to say that the Indians sometimes starve to death from want of success in hunting, as a glance at Hearne’s Journey to the Northern Ocean in 1771 will show that the same state of affairs prevailed before the Company had penetrated to the Great Slave Lake or Mackenzie River. Starvation will always be one of the features of a Northern Indian’s life, owing to his own improvidence; his instinct is to camp close on the tracks of the caribou and move as they move; a permanent house and a winter’s supply of meat are an abomination to him.

Since the introduction of firearms the Indian has lost much of his old hunting lore! a snare is almost a thing of the past, but is still occasionally used when ammunition is scarce. It is no hard matter to kill caribou in the open country, for the rolling hills usually give ample cover for a stalk, and even on flat ground they are easily approached at a run, as they will almost invariably circle head to wind and give the hunter a chance to cut them off. But it is with the spear that the vast slaughter in the summer is annually made. The best swimming-places are known and carefully watched, and woe betide a herd of caribou if once surrounded in a lake by the small hunting-canoes. One thrust of the spear, high up in the loins and ranging forward, does the work. There is no idea of sparing life, no matter what the age or sex of the victim may be; the lake is red with blood and covered with sometimes several hundred carcasses, of which fully one-half are thrown away as not fat enough to be eaten by men who may be starving in a month. Surely this should exterminate the game; but, if one remonstrates with the Indians at the waste, the ready answer comes: "Our fathers did this and have taught us to do the same; they did not kill off the caribou, and after we are gone there will be plenty for our children.” These animals are easily induced to swim at any particular spot by putting up a line of rocks at right angles to the water, and a line of pine bush planted in the snow across a frozen lake has the same effect; the caribou will not pass it, but following it along fall an easy prey to the hunter lying in ambush at the end of the line. In the winter they are killed in great numbers on the small lakes in the timber, as they seem disinclined to leave the open lake and will often run close up to the gun rather than take to the woods. I have heard this accounted for by the suggestion that they take the report of the gun for a falling tree and are afraid of being struck if they venture off the lake; but I fancy their natural curiosity has a great deal to do with this extraordinary behaviour. It frequently happens that they will run backwards and forwards within range till the last of the band is killed.

The caribou supplies the Indian with nearly all the necessaries of life; it gives him food, clothing, house, and the equivalent of money to spend at the fort. He leaves the trading-post, after one of his yearly visits, with a supply of ammunition, tea, and tobacco, a blanket or two, and, if he has made a good seasons hunt, is perhaps lucky enough to have taken one of the Company’s duffel capotes (about the best form of greatcoat that I have ever seen). He has a wife and family waiting for him somewhere on the shore of the big lake where fish are plentiful, expecting a gaudy dress, a shawl, or a string of beads from the fort, but relying entirely on the caribou for maintenance during the awful cold of the coming winter. The journey up till they fall in with the caribou is usually full of hardships, but once they have reached the hunting-ground and found game a great improvement in affairs takes place; the hunter is busy killing, while the women dry meat and make grease, dress the skins for moccasins, mittens, and gun-covers, and cut babiche, which takes the place of string for lacing snow-shoes and many other purposes. For the hair-coats, which everybody, men, women, and children, wear during the cold season, the best skins are those of the young animals killed in July or August, as the hair is short and does not fall off so readily as in coats made from the skin of a full-grown caribou; while the strong sinews lying along the back-bone of an old bull make the very best thread for sewing. Anything that is left over after supplying the whole family finds a ready sale at the fort, where there is always a demand for dried meat, tongue-grease, dressed skins, and babiche, so that the Dog-Ribs and Yellow Knives, whose country produces little fur, with the exception of musk-ox robes, are thus enabled to afford some few of the white man's luxuries, tea and . tobacco being especially dear to the Indian’s heart.

A good hunter kills the caribou with discretion according to their condition at various seasons of the year. After the females leave the woods in the early spring he has of course only the males to fall back on, and these are usually poor till August, when the bones are full of marrow and the back-fat commences to grow. By the middle of September this back-fat, or depouille as it is called in Northern patois, has reached a length of a foot or more forward from the tail, and, as it is sometimes a couple of inches thick and extends right across the back, it is a great prize for the lucky hunter. It is a point of etiquette that when two or more Indians are hunting in company, the depouille and tongue belong to the man who did the killing, while the rest of the meat is shared in common.

Towards the end of October, when the rutting season is over, the males are in very poor condition. The females then come into demand, but it is not till the end of the year that they show any back-fat at all, and this is always small in comparison with that of a bull killed in the Fall. The summer months are generally spent by the Indians far out in the Barren Ground, and then, as I have said, they slaughter everything that comes within reach of their spear in the most indiscriminate manner.

Excepting in times of plenty, when the utmost recklessness with provisions is displayed, there are very few parts of the caribou thrown away, and often the actual stomach is the only thing left; the blood is carefully preserved, and some of the intestines are prized as great luxuries. If one does not see the actual preparations for cooking they are good enough, but the favourite dish of all, the young unborn caribou cut from its dead mother, I could never take kindly to, although it is considered a delicacy among the Indians throughout the northern part of Canada. Another morsel held in high esteem is the udder of a milk-giving doe, which is usually roasted on the spot where the animal is killed. Of the external parts the ribs and brisket rank highest, the haunches being generally reserved for dog’s food; a roast head is not to be despised, and a well-smoked tongue is beyond all praise. It was the caribou of the Barren Ground that provided the reindeers’ tongues formerly exported in such quantities by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The general method of cooking everything in the lodge is by boiling, which takes most of the flavour out of the meat, but has the advantage of being easy and economical of firewood.

The marrow is usually eaten raw, and, as there is no blood visible in the bones of a fat animal, it is not such a disgusting habit as it seems to be at first sight, and one readily accustoms oneself to the fashion. Everybody who has travelled in the North has experienced the same craving for grease as the cold becomes more intense. In the case of a white man the enforced absence of flour and all vegetable food may be an additional cause for this feeling; but it is a fact that you can cheerfully gnaw a solid block of grease or raw fat that it would make you almost sick to look at in a land of temperate climate and civilized methods of living.

The Indian is by no means the only enemy of the caribou. Along the shore of the Arctic Sea live straggling bands of Esquimaux who kill great quantities of these persecuted animals, although employing more primitive methods than their southern neighbours; it is done, moreover, at the most fatal season of the year, just as the females have arrived at the coast and are dropping their young. Then there are the ever-hungry wolves and wolverines that hang with such pertinacity on the travelling herds and rely upon them entirely for subsistence. It is rarely that a caribou once singled out can escape. The wolves hunt in bands and seldom leave the track they have selected; the chase lasts for many hours, till the victim, wearied by the incessant running, leaves the band and his fate is sealed; he has a little the best of the pace at first but not the staying power, and is soon pulled to the ground. Many a time I witnessed these courses, and once disturbed half a dozen wolves just as they commenced their feast on a caribou in which life was hardly extinct, and I took the tongue and de-pouille for my share of the hunt.

I only saw wolves of two colours, white and black, during my stay in the North, although I heard much talk of grey wolves. There was some sort of disease, resembling mange, among them in the winter of 1889-90, which had the effect of taking off all their hair, and, judging from the number of dead that were lying about, must have considerably thinned their numbers. They do not seem to be dangerous to human beings except when starving; but the Indians have stories of crazy wolves that run into the lodges, kill the children, and play general havoc. I know that they do at times get bold under stress of hunger, as my own hauling dogs were set upon and eaten by them while harnessed to the sleigh close to the house at Fond du Lac; nothing remained but the sleigh, and a string of bells that must have proved less tempting than the rest of the harness.

I scarcely credit the statement I have often heard made, that the wolverines will kill a full-grown caribou, although it is possible that they may attack the young ones. They follow the herds more for the pickings they can get from the feasts of the wolves, and are content with showing their fighting powers on hares and ptarmigan; if meat is not to be had they will eat berries freely, and their flesh is then not so bad as after they have had a long course of meat The carcajou possesses great strength and cunning in removing rocks and breaking into a cache; it climbs with great agility, and has a mean trick of throwing down a marten-trap from behind and taking out the bait, and is generally credited by the Indian with more wiles than the devil himself. It is an animal common enough in many parts of Canada, but is rarely seen in the woods on account of its retiring habits. In the Barren Ground, however, I had many opportunities of watching them through the glasses as they worked at the carcass of a caribou or musk-ox, and was much struck by the enormous power exercised by so small an animal; in travelling it seems to use only one pace, the lope of the Western prairies, which it is said to be able to keep up for an indefinite time.

Another great source of annoyance to the caribou are the two sorts of gadfly which use these animals as a hatching-ground for their eggs. The biggest kind, which seem the most numerous, deposit their eggs on the back, and, as they hatch out the grubs, bore through the skin and prey on the surrounding flesh. They begin to show in October, and grow bigger through the winter till the following spring, the number of holes in many cases rendering the skin absolutely useless for dressing. The other kind of fly lays its eggs in the nostril, with the result that in the months of May and June a nest of writhing grubs, slimmer and more lively than the grubs under the skin, appears at the root of the tongue; at this time of year the caribou may be often seen to stop and shake their heads violently, with their horns close to the ground, evidently greatly troubled by these grubs. Of the latter kind the Indians who travelled with me in the summer have a great horror, warning me to be very careful not to eat them, as they have an idea they would surely grow in a man's throat; and whenever we killed an animal, the first operation was to cut off its head and remove these unpleasant objects. By the beginning of August all the grubs have dropped off and the holes healed up, while the new coat has grown and the skins are then in their best condition.

I could not hear of any attempt ever having been made to domesticate the caribou, though there is no good reason why they should not be trained to do the same work as the reindeer of Northern Europe. If this were brought about it would do away with the greatest difficulty of winter travel, the trouble about dog's food, which cripples any attempt to make a long journey except where game is very plentiful; wherever there was green timber and hanging moss the caribou might find its own supper, and would always come in better for food than a thin dog in times of starvation.

The caribou afford a wide scope for the superstitions so ingrained in the Indian nature, and the wildest tales without the least foundation are firmly believed in. One widely-spread fancy is that they will entirely forsake a country if anyone throws a stick or stone at them, and their disappearance from the neighbourhood of Fort Resolution is accounted for by the fact of a boy, who had no gun, joining in the chase when the caribou were passing in big numbers, and clubbing one to death with a stick; this belief holds good also down the Mackenzie River, as does the idea that these animals on some occasions vanish either into the air or under the ground. The Indians say that sometimes when following close on a herd they arrive at a spot where the tracks suddenly cease and the hunter is left to wonder and starve. It is very unlucky to let the dogs eat any part of the head, and the remaining bones are always burnt or put up in a tree out of reach, the dogs going hungry, unless there happens to be some other kind of meat handy. Another rather more sensible superstition, presumably invented by the men, is that no woman must eat the gristle of the nose (a much-esteemed delicacy)or she will infallibly grow a beard.

Such are examples of the endless traditions told of the caribou, which will always form the chief topic of conversation in the scattered lodges of the Dog-Ribs and Yellow Knives.


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