A muskox skull. Previous travellers had sawn off one horn.
"If I were a Grizzly"
Just when we thought we had Mother Thelon figured out (Mo guided us into head winds; I steered toward wildlife), she showed us that we had no idea of her plans. Yesterday I had been in the stern and we had hardly seen any wildlife so the new pattern was that Mo would have no headwind and see much wildlife. But we began this day around 8:30 with a mild headwind, which meant that the old pattern was continuing but then we had the best wildlife encounters of the trip thus far. Because of all the headwinds I nicknamed Mo "Slow Mo." But today he could have hosted a show on Animal Planet. To avoid this headwind we paddled close to the right shore, which had willows growing down to the water's edge. It was one of the few areas of the river where the shore was not rocky and scraped by the ice. It was here that we met our first Grizzly.
I've already told of our encounter. I didn't mention that Mo called it perfectly. "If I were a Grizzly, this is where I'd be eating--grasses, sedges," he said. About a minute later I saw a large brown shape move away from the edge of the water. As it rose onto its hind legs, I realized it was a bear. I especially remember its rounded ears. It popped its jaws and huffed. It splashed its feet in the shallow water. For a few seconds I remained motionless in the bow, maybe 15 feet away. I have reviewed this scene many times since the encounter and I have come to believe that I did the right thing by not immediately starting to back paddle or yell. The bear realized that we were not attacking him and could back away safely. Initially I felt I should have reacted right away. But what was the correct response? I remember going through my mental card file on bears and not finding any instructions on what to do when a bear rises above the person in the bow of a canoe.
We caught our breaths and moved on. We stopped for lunch along a straight stretch of the river and saw wolf tracks in the wet sand. Mo followed some moose tracks and found a depression where it had laid down.
Later in the afternoon we began looking for a campsite upstream of the Ursus Islands, which we had heard were boggy, buggy and full of bears. Looking downstream I saw a lone caribou walking toward us along the sandy bank of a half-mile long island. Suddenly a lanky gray wolf appeared on the opposite bank, watching the caribou. We pulled over to the left of our channel and watched as the caribou kept walking toward us. It eventually saw us and turned around and walked back downstream. The bugs were not too bad out on the sandy flats of the island and the caribou actually lay down and napped for a while. Suddenly a second wolf appeared out of the willows on the right bank. The two wolves kept appearing and disappearing into the willows. One wolf waded out into the river up to his chest as if he couldn't wait for the caribou to swim across. They came together in one small clearing and the second wolf was very quick to submit to the first. Its tail was between its legs, head down and licking at the first wolf's mouth. These wolves did not pay any attention to us. They saw us but were not afraid. I again realized that this is because no hunting has been allowed here for about 70 years.
The caribou got up from its nap and went to the downstream end of the island and swam across the river. The wolves didn't follow it downstream and remained in the same area. We speculated that they were waiting at a traditional crossing place. It was close to the time when the Beverly Herd crosses the Thelon on its way south. All of this took close to an hour. We were awed that we had seen so much. We had observed all sorts of behaviors of the wolves. They hid in the brush waiting for the caribou to cross; they moved up and down the bank and also loped along the bank when they grew tired of waiting. We felt we had gotten to know these wolves. We had moved far beyond a quick sighting of a wolf before it disappeared into the brush.
We finally camped on some tundra-covered sand about a half-mile downstream from the caribou-wolf drama. There was a muskox skull near our site. One horn had been sawn offone of the few signs of human presence that we saw on the whole trip (cabins aside). A large flock of geese came up on shore to feed on grass that was just sprouting. Mother Thelon was unpredictable today; but very generous with her children.
We paddled about 17.5 miles on this day in about 7.5 hours including several stops. Coordinates of the campsite: 14 V 036625, 714400.