SI Vault
Robert Sullivan
October 15, 1984
Ten thousand migrating caribou, meeting a river swollen as never before, followed their instincts to death in Canada
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 15, 1984

The Torrent Of Death

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

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 Dauphin�. 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.

1 2 3