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Original Issue


Ten thousand migrating caribou, meeting a river swollen as never before, followed their instincts to death in Canada

The vast herd of caribou, elements of which were scattered over more than 10,000 square miles, slowly wended its way west across northeastern Canada as it does every year in late September, once again stirred, impelled, set in motion by the prospect of the cold, barren winter. This summer the forage on the tundra and taiga of Labrador's Atlantic coast had been especially plentiful. And heavy late summer rains had produced abundant lichen, moss and grasses, which caribou subsist on. The months of sexually segregated roaming also were over, and in the pre-rut season the caribou of the George River herd were coming together: a band of 3,000 here, another of 10,000 there, some 100,000 a few miles to the south. The loosely knit herd, consisting of more than 300,000 head, migrated in a seemingly aimless manner, but most of them were headed toward their wintering ground on the more clement eastern shore of Hudson Bay. For one group that was nearly halfway to its destination, an unprecedented disaster lay ahead.

La foule is what French-Canadian bushmen call a wave of caribou swimming across a river. La foule means the throng. It was une foule of more than 10,000 animals that approached the Caniapiscau River two weeks ago, shambling through the pine forests and down the hills to the riverbank. Their fording point, as in previous years, was a stretch of the river above Limestone Falls. Limestone Falls is a dangerous crossing for the caribou, a jumble of chutes, cascades and rocks over which the river drops 60 feet in less than 100 yards. And this year the Caniapiscau was high and fierce, running faster and whiter than anyone could remember.

On or about Sept. 25 the first caribou entered the current, only to be swept away. The mature bucks, weighing as much as 450 pounds, looked indomitable in their nut-brown autumn coats as they plunged in, but soon they were struggling. The smaller females, which weigh only about 200 pounds, instantly had trouble in the rapids. Caribou have large, splayed hooves that they churn mightily when swimming, which they excel at. But this wasn't swimming—it was riding a raging current. They were being swept helplessly downriver. The waterfalls drew nearer. As the caribou began to tumble over the cascade, panic ensued. They were on each other's backs. They thrashed, strained, gulped for air. All the while, more caribou were emerging from the woods upstream and entering the river. A hundred at a time, 200 or 300 at a time, they arrived at the scene of the mass drowning. Naturally buoyant, they bobbed like immense corks on the surface until they went surging over Limestone Falls.

Below, the bodies started piling up, in some places six deep on the west bank. Caribou have always died at Limestone Falls; perhaps 50 a year would perish there, maybe 100 or even 500 would drown when the summer rains had been particularly heavy. Never had there been anything like this. Certainly never had it gone on and on for five days.

Not all the Caribou died. A small percentage succeeded in crossing the river before reaching the falls. Others, many of them mortally injured, pulled themselves out of the water beneath the falls and stumbled into the woods. A dozen scampered to safety on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the river, right at the top of Limestone Falls. There they became stranded above the roiling water. They stood rooted, terrified. They became progressively weaker and hungrier as time passed; accustomed to several pounds of forage a day, they now had none. By the night of Oct. 3, nearly a week after they had attained the outcropping, the level of the river had fallen three feet. Several caribou plunged in that night, and, weak though they were, may have made it ashore. Those that remained grew feebler still.

Three days after it started, the macabre procession of caribou carcasses swirling past the outcropping began to diminish. Finally, it ended. For the animals, the horror was largely over. Soon man would discover the carnage, and it would become his horror.

Didier Lehenaff of the Quebec Department of Recreation, Fish and Game was on a caribou-collaring project with three associates on Sept. 27. That evening they made camp just below the point where the Caniapiscau flows into the larger Koksoak River. Limestone Falls was 30 miles upstream. During the night Lehenaff noticed the body of a caribou floating in the middle of the river. He thought it strange that the carcass had drifted this far, but figured the river was high enough to carry a caribou a good way. The next morning as the sun came up Lehenaff awoke to find "beaucoup, beaucoup" carcasses afloat in the Koksoak.

Word of Lehenaff s discovery quickly reached Kuujjuaq, 60 miles downstream of Limestone Falls. Kuujjuaq is a town of 1,100 citizens, mostly Inuit, as Eskimos prefer to be known. It's the only settlement of any size in the area. Even Kuujjuaq is little more than a huddle of brightly colored one-story houses near the windy shores of Ungava Bay in far northeast Quebec. There's an airport that has a plane to and from Montreal, 700 miles to the south, once a day except Sunday, and there's a motel whose thrice-weekly Beer Night constitutes Kuujjuaq's social calendar. The Inuit of Kuujjuaq are a modern people—their hide tents have been replaced by ranch houses, their kayaks by canoes with outboards—but the caribou remains an essential part of Inuit life. It still provides food and clothing for the people. In winter the Inuit travel in groups to stalk the caribou herd. In better weather a man will go out alone with his rifle to bring back food for his family. The Inuit care about the caribou. Lehenaff's news was regarded as portentous.

On Sunday, Sept. 30, Henry Blake, a local pilot, left Kuujjuaq Airport in his helicopter and flew up the Koksoak to find out what was going on. "We started seeing them right away," he says. "On a quick count we figured there must have been four or five thousand. A lot of them must have come over at one time, got [their antlers] hooked up with one another above the falls. The falls must have hurt them quite a bit, taken the good out of 'em." During his flight Blake saw a few stragglers become victims: "Going over the falls I'd lose sight of 'em, then they'd bob up 100 yards downriver, drowned."

Not even Kuujjuaq's eldest citizens could remember a caribou kill of this magnitude. Neither could wildlife experts. "I've been coming here for five years now, and nothing like this," said Bob Baikie, a technician with the Newfoundland-Labrador Wildlife Division. "Some would die each year, sure, but never even hundreds while I've been here. And these were so badly broken—their jaws, legs, ribs, everything. Many had their jaws broken about six inches back, so I guess when they were drawn into the waterfalls, they were sort of sucked forward onto the rocks."

The questions came fast. Why had this happened? Why was the river so high? Why did it suddenly get lower? "All of those are the questions we would like to see answered," said Gregg Sheehy, conservation director of the Canadian Nature Federation, the Canadian equivalent of the Audubon Society. "Obviously the caribou have been using the same general migration routes for years and years and years. Why now?"

As the Inuit were quick to point out, there was an influence on the river that hadn't been there for years and years and years. In the 1970s Hydro-Quebec, the power consortium owned by the province, began building a series of hydroelectric dams in the north country. One was on the Caniapiscau headwaters, 275 miles upstream from Limestone Falls. The dam was completed in August 1981 but it was not until this past June—when its reservoir was filled—that controlled spills started. Hydro-Quebec released water at a uniform rate of 1,475 cubic meters a second, according to an agreement worked out with the Inuit leadership. Jean-Guy Quimet, a spokesman for the power company, pointed out last week that nature had let the river run at 1,800 cubic meters per second before the dam was built.

Still, by mid-September it was clear that the river was changed. Whereas nature creates its own flows and floods, the combination of man and the river, with its extensive system of tributaries, had the Caniapiscau running inordinately high. The recent rains had been more than twice as heavy as usual, but as Newfoundland-Labrador Wildlife biologist Stuart Luttich says, "The other rivers around here were all about normal." On Sept. 25 the Inuit called on Hydro-Quebec to cut its spillage, and the next day the rate was decreased to 730 cubic meters per second. All parties were satisfied. But in the wilderness, caribou were drowning—only no one knew it yet.

"Hydro-Quebec wasn't thinking caribou," says Luttich, one of the men who accompanied Blake on that first helicopter survey. "Caribou are a force of nature to be dealt with, and that royally ticks off Hydro-Quebec. The company would rather there were 300 caribou in the George River herd, not 300,000. You have to accommodate caribou, not because you want to but because they're part of the system. A man's orientation is toward simplicity, eh? And caribou make it more complex."

If Hydro-Quebec wasn't thinking caribou, few others were either. Jean-Paul Fontaine, speaking for Hydro-Quebec, points out that when the Inuit complained about high water it was because their fishing was being hampered, not because they recalled that this was the time of year caribou forded the Caniapiscau at Limestone Falls.

If one thing is clear in this wildlife tragedy, it is this: Man better help the caribou, because the caribou won't help themselves. Caribou, closely related to the European reindeer and found in Canada, Alaska and Greenland, aren't "stupid" as is often said. Rather, the caribou is a creature of firm habit. Its leisurely wanderings seem haphazard. But those trails are merely evidence of a deliberate, nomadic existence. During its life span of up to 15 years, a caribou is almost always on the move. "The George River herd ranges from the Atlantic to the shore of Hudson Bay," says Charles Dauphiné, scientific adviser to the Canadian Wildlife Service. "It's an area 1,000 miles wide and 500 miles north-to-south. Most of that area is occupied by caribou at one time of the year or another." The caribou's migration, while not as firmly directed as, say, that of the salmon's, is nevertheless purposeful. The caribou constantly seeks food, and not just lichens. In the summer it will munch shrubs, grasses and other vegetation to maintain its considerable weight.

Because the caribou meander so far afield, they often encounter rivers. They usually pose no problem. Even if they do, the caribou don't think twice before crossing, and they don't hesitate to return to a difficult ford the next year. "Limestone Falls has always been a dangerous crossing. There are many dangerous crossings," says Dauphiné. "But caribou come back to them anyway, and it's impossible to steer them from one spot. We've tried to drive them into the water to collar them, and the darned things are about as stubborn as you can imagine. The natives used to sit on a riverbank to spear them when they'd come across. The natives knew the migration route, and they'd just wait and kill them. And the caribou would still come back year after year."

Because caribou show so little interest in cutting their losses, it's fortunate that a herd is able to absorb them. At least 9,604 caribou (by official count as of Sunday) and probably more than 10,000 died at Limestone Falls, but that won't seriously dent the George River herd, one of the world's biggest. "The kill is large, for sure, but the loss is a small percentage," says Dauphiné. "That herd numbers more than 300,000 and grows by 12 or 13 percent each year."

Nevertheless, with man's increasing intrusions in the far northern reaches of the continent, the caribou must be closely watched. One Caniapiscau incident won't hurt, but several would. Rampant hunting after World War II threatened the herds of the Northwest Territory until conservation measures brought them back to strength in the early '60s. Simply because caribou exist in great numbers doesn't mean they're safe from man. Remember the buffalo.

Right now is a good time to consider the caribou's future, because it's being affected in a variety of new ways. The George River herd, and the human residents, for that matter, have recently been plagued by, of all things, the West German air force. Since 1980, German pilots based at Goose Bay, Labrador have been permitted to fly high-speed, low-level training missions over northern Labrador. Their F-4 Phantom jets—sometimes joined by others from the Canadian, British and U.S. air forces—thunder over the hills and lakes at speeds of as much as 600 mph at altitudes that are intended to prevent the planes from being spotted by radar. That means as low as 100 feet. Since Europeans don't appreciate that kind of activity going on just above their rooftops, a Canadian-German agreement was worked out to allow the Luftwaffe to train in the skys over Canada's barren North.

Well, nearly barren. The Inuit and the caribou have always thought well of that land. There's a feeling among wildlife experts that the caribou are spooked by the planes—they appear to be spending less time on their summer grounds in Labrador—and clear evidence that the people are. One native in a recorded statement intended to be presented to provincial authorities told of canoeing with his children on a river. Some F-4s came up from behind. "They [the children] just jumped out of the canoe when the planes took us by surprise and ran straight into the woods." Ultimately, day-to-day troubles like planes and the possibility of a new spate of dam-building could be of more consequence to the herd than the 10,000 head lost at Limestone.

While the rest of that herd was able to walk away from the tragedy on the Caniapiscau, the citizens of Kuujjuaq were not. Kuujjuaq, like many a small town, gets much of its entertainment from gossiping. As soon as it was known there were thousands of dead caribou in the river, the clamor started! Did you hear 20,000? I heard 20,000!...There was a guy from Montreal who wants to buy them all for dog food.... Hydro-Quebec's going to make us all rich with the settlement we get 'cause they killed our caribou.... The rotting bodies are going to poison our river!

It took at least a couple of days to separate the silly from the valid. Until that happened, almost everyone was confused. The citizenry was new to fame, so naturally that was a major distraction. Even Beer Night at the motel on Oct. 3 was a hushed affair as a CBC broadcast about the caribou came on. The dog-food rumor survived only a day, but there's definitely a possibility of pollution in the river from the decaying carcasses. What effect the drownings will have on the rivers depends on how quickly the caribou can be removed. A final point: The rivers of northern Quebec are ripe fisheries, and large quantities of salmon, char, pike and whitefish may die if the waters downstream of Limestone Falls become polluted. Kuujjuaq is even more dependent on these fish than it is on caribou. The town has good reason to be worried.

Last Thursday, teams of Inuit traveled by boat to newly named Death Cove, a quarter-mile-long bend in the Caniapiscau 10 miles below Limestone Falls. Some 2,400 carcasses were found there. As black bears, wolves, foxes, gulls and ravens scavenged elsewhere along the river, the Inuit dragged caribou out of the cove and lashed them in bundles on the shore. Scientists working nearby were too busy to help. They were occupied in putting radio tracking collars on the survivors and collecting tooth samples from the dead. From this sampling, the makeup of the herd, in terms of age and sex, will be determined with unprecedented accuracy. But by day's end still no caribou had been removed from the site.

The Inuit wanted to handle the cleanup themselves. This became clear last Thursday night when a Joint Resolution of the Corporation of the Northern Village of Kuujjuaq and of the Nayumivik Land Holding Corporation of Kuujjuaq was issued. The document indicated that any plan to remove the caribou would be welcomed, but a strongly worded third paragraph smacked of profiteering: "Such action must proceed immediately upon signature of this resolution. We urge the provincial government authorities to supply us with the necessary budgets ($1,300,000.00 [in Canadian dollars]) within twenty-four hours." The only bid, at a cost of, surprise, $1.3 million for the cleanup mentioned in the resolution had come from a company with ties to town officials. It seemed the gulls weren't alone in picking over the caribou's bones.

Adrien Ouellette, the minister of Environment Quebec, ignored the resolution. He made plans to fly to Kuujjuaq. The big question now was authority. Who was going to clean up? The Inuit still planned to do it. The province seemed to be moving in. The feds? "We have no role unless we're invited," said Dauphiné. Bureaucracy had come to the bush.

No animals were airlifted from the river last Friday, though several Inuit did start erecting a metal fence near Limestone Falls to detour other caribou. It seemed a pathetic act since the river was by then low enough to be forded. Sandy Gordon Jr., lifelong resident of Kuujjuaq, felt that pathos. "At one time last week the water levels were critical on the river," he said, "and now they're not. All I know is, from my experience, water levels go down in the river in inches daily. On this river this week they were going down by feet. They started receding very fast. If they had been made to recede sooner, the caribou would have been saved. All this wouldn't have happened."

Friday night was a strange, almost eerie one in Kuujjuaq. An unpublicized meeting of Inuit leaders was taking place at the municipal building. The participants were feeling pressure; the atmosphere in the smoke-choked room was palpably tense. The emissary from Environment Quebec left the meeting to explain that "their main concern is to get the caribou out of the water. They're discussing that move. The local authorities are handling the thing so far, with the help of Environment Quebec." Gordon expressed it more frankly: "People are running around, tempers are hot and not a damned thing is getting done. I haven't seen one caribou in a sling."

He did the next day when helicopters started lifting caribou, four at a time, and dropping them in the brush a quarter mile from the riverbank, where it was hoped scavenging animals would provide the disposal that's needed. Environment Quebec had apparently taken command. Things were getting finally under way.

There was but one more decision to be made. On the rocky outcropping in Limestone Falls a lone caribou still remained. No food had been dropped to it, and it was starving. Around it were several carcasses. On Sunday morning a party of Inuit, having determined that the caribou was too weak to be saved, shot the survivor.





Caribou that chose to cross below the falls had little problem (above), but those that entered the water above them were dragged into the murderous rapids (below), and a desperate struggle for life ensued in the boulder-strewn waters.



Death Cove, which is located 10 miles below the falls, got its macabre name when an estimated 2,400 caribou carcasses washed up on its shores.



Limestone Falls is near the confluence of the Koksoak and Caniapiscau rivers and is situated on a traditional migration route of the George River herd to its Hudson Bay wintering grounds.



















N.Y. VT. N.H.








Limestone Falls is more a high-velocity rapids than a cascade, which made it more dangerous.



Trapped on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the thundering falls, a group of stranded caribou feared to chance the river even after its level fell.



Inuit villagers from Kuujjuaq gathered the dead caribou (right) and gave one youngster a trophy.



Lehenaff pulls teeth from a carcass fright) and watches Normand Lizotte radio-collar a bull.



While 10,000 of their kind died in the river, surviving caribou continued their migration west.