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THE TORRENT OF DEATH
Robert Sullivan
October 15, 1984
Ten thousand migrating caribou, meeting a river swollen as never before, followed their instincts to death in Canada
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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

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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."

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