The straps of a 70-litre pack can be especially cruel, punishing the wearer for every article of clothing, every scrap of food and every gulp of water deemed essential for three days of mountainous adoration. Add to this the pitiless load of the photographer (Canon 6D Mark ii, Tamron SP 150-600mm, Canon EF 17-40mm) and you’re left with a meditation-in-motion, refusing the pain just long enough to keep hiking, keep climbing and keep searching for something nearly extinct: the very last of the Atlantic caribou.
There was a time when this variety of woodland caribou spanned the entirety of the Canadian Maritimes: as far east as Cape Breton Island, as far south as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, as far west as Quebec City and as far north as the Gaspésie Peninsula. They were some of the most southerly caribou in the world, uniquely suited for the rounded peaks of Atlantic Canada and the ancient forests of beech, pine, oak, spruce and hemlock composing its interior. As these forests began to fall, the Atlantic caribou were driven north by loss of habitat, arrival of new predators and bullets.
By the 1950s, Atlantic caribou were pressed against the southern shore of the St Lawrence River, taking refuge in the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park. They’ve languished there ever since, dwindling from the persistence of industry and the lethargy of governments.
There were as many as 1,000 caribou in 1950. Forty years later, closer to 200 remained. When I first visited this park in 2017, we put their population at a meager 90 individuals. Upon my return in the pandemic summer of 2020, there were no more than 70, hiding at the intersection of boreal bush and alpine.
Our route through this park’s backcountry took us over 60 kilometres and seven mountains—100,000 steps according to the morbid metrics of an accompanying Fitbit—and on each peak I exchanged the mercy of hiking poles for the optimism of my camera. During these pauses, when the sights and sounds of the Quebec wilderness held my absolute attention, I encountered swarms of moths thicker than fog, cliffs reaching into the staggering spaces between mountain chains and even great sheets of ice defying the heat of July and birthing entire rivers from their accumulated melt. There were moose, signs of bears and the chilling absence of caribou.
I spoke with Professor Martin-Hugues St-Laurent of the Université du Québec à Rimouski, who has dedicated enormous research and advocacy to these caribou since 2008. I asked if these caribou were doomed. His reply rang anew in my ears with every unsuccessful stop, every empty mountain.
“When working in conservation ecology, you always face the possibility of having populations of interest being extirpated,” he said. “Yes, part of me is prepared for that.”
Killing these caribou has been illegal since 1949, and neither logging nor mining have been permitted in Gaspésie National Park since 1977. But on the Gaspésie Peninsula beyond the park, rampant logging has replaced mature forests with young regrowth and an excess of logging roads. As Martin-Hugues explains it, this disturbed landscape is of little use to caribou, but is ideal for moose and deer (their primary competitors) and for coyotes and bears (their primary predators). These species have become so populous outside the park than they’ve begun to spill in. Coyotes and bears are now combing the alpine breeding grounds of the Atlantic caribou and killing calves, preventing this critically endangered population from recruit new members, while at the same time older females and males reach the end of natural lifespans.
Predator controls are in place in the park, but even if logging were to cease on the peninsula and logging roads were overplanted (a political possibility Martin-Hugues has pushed), he said it would still take a quarter century for forests surrounding the park to recover sufficiently to support caribou and not their competitors. Preserving these caribou for 25 years, then, is the trick, one which Martin-Hugues believes will require “extreme conservation measures.”
Caribou mothers and their calves can be kept in large outdoor enclosures built in the Gaspésie wilderness for part of the year, at least until the calves are out of danger from predators. As well, new caribou can be introduced to Gaspésie National Park from elsewhere in Canada, bringing with them both fertility and genetic diversity. Neither of these solutions are perfect, said Martin-Hugues, but they just might be necessary.
“[Are they] worse than losing the entire population?” he asks. “From my perspective, the answer is no.”
My search ended on Mont Albert, the very last mountain on our very last day. Its peak is not like the others, trading stunted spruce and shattered stone for a jarring, flat savanna of golden grass and red rock. This mountain is a portion of the Earth’s mantle, thrust to the surface by geological forces older than human comprehension, its soils hostile to all but the hardiest plants and, of course, the caribou feeding on them.
I saw her first from 600 metres, her pale coat unmistakable on the banks of an alpine lake. I sank to my knees and withdrew my camera, the weight of my pack, now vindicated, settling on the wooden walkway which conveyed me through her habitat. Caribou have terrible eyesight, even when compared to us indoor primates, and my camera was set to silent shooting. She looked directly toward me regardless, locking eyes with this husk of a hiker and beginning a long, patient approach.
For twenty minutes I knelt, unwilling to break the trust hanging in the air between us. Before long, she’d halved the distance between us, and then came closer still. Eventually I was twisting my Tamron SP 150-600mm lens to its widest view just to capture her, and her gaze was so piercing that I occasionally lowered my lens to enjoy the moment. After days of disappointment, she came within 10 metres of me. Then she mounted the wooden walkway behind me, gave her mountainous domain a wistful glance and melted into the grass beyond.
I encountered a male not two minutes later. He was huge, his antlers rising a metre above his stately skull, but he didn’t entrance me so thoroughly as the first. Personality shines through, I suppose.
To see either of these noble creatures relegated to an enclosure or to cross their unique genetic and behavioural heritage with new stock imported from afar seems to me a great shame, one made unavoidable by our hunger for cheap lumber and ongoing disregard for ecology. But like Martin-Hugues and others in the conservation community, I would rather accept these conservation extremes than the extinction of the Atlantic caribou.
Zack Metcalfe (middle) and hiking companions
Zack Metcalfe is a journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.