Herd Memory

The caribou fled and vanished, grey ghosts of the boreal.

By Trina Moyles

On a cold day in February, I flew over the tightly knit stands of black spruce and jack pine in northwestern Alberta, straining my eyes below, eager to catch sight of a woodland caribou. My dad, a wildlife biologist, called them the “grey ghosts” of the boreal. Woodland caribou have evolved for thousands of years in Canada’s northern boreal forests by scattering on the landscape, foraging in small herds, and blending seamlessly into nature. “If you lose them in the bush,” explained my dad, who had been studying and observing woodland caribou in the Peace Country for nearly four decades, “they just vanish on you.”

The helicopter skids skimmed the toothy tips of the olive- and ochre- and pine-beetle-red-tinged jack pines. My eye plunged straight down, scavenging the snow-covered ground for any sign of movement. My dad sat in the front seat, listening for a radio signal coming from the collars worn by female caribou. Biologists had to rely on radio collars and telemetry technology to track the herds through dense bush. You’d never find them without telemetry. Caribou don’t want to be found. Through my headset, I could hear a beep—beep—beep, faint as a heartbeat.

“Forty-five degrees to the left,” said my dad, and the pilot responded.

Beep-beep-beep. The beat grew louder and faster as we drew nearer.

“Caribou!” The word leapt out of my mouth.

My eyes locked on the sudden movement of a small herd on the run. The caribou wove in and out of the black spruce. Long legs gracefully propelled their creamy bodies forward through the deep snow, buoyed by wide, highly evolved hooves that acted as snowshoes. The females bore small, velveteen antlers. The calves followed in their tracks. My dad counted them—three females and two calves—and pencilled down the numbers into his logbook. Every winter, for as long as I could remember, he’d flown above the boreal forests, listening for the pulse of woodland caribou.

Counting ghosts.

The caribou fled, desperately trying to lose themselves in the bush. I wanted to watch them for the rest of my life. They emerged from the brush onto a frozen lake: tiny black silhouettes against the world. They didn’t run; rather, they floated across the lake. Such an elegant escape.

“Every time I see caribou, it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time,” said my dad.

“And the last.”

When I was 6 years old, I spent a week camping with my dad and older brother along the mosquito-heavy shores of Slave Lake. I recall the childhood wonder of being inducted into a world that seemed to belong to boys and men. I wanted to claim their rituals as my own. Every day opened and closed with a campfire. In the cold, dewy mornings, I’d worm my way out of the four-man tent and poke the glowing coals with a stick, as dad prepared oatmeal in an old pot. He tried to braid my hair the way my mom did but my corn silk hair came defiantly undone.

Camping on the land was an education in simplicity. Take only what you need. You don’t need much. Food, water, shelter. Dad recited poems by Robert Service—there are strange things done in the midnight sun—from memory. We craned our heads back to taste stardust, count constellations and worship the northern lights.

Nature is the poetry of survival. The old truth slipped under my skin.

More practically, my dad showed me how to swing a hatchet and split thin strips of birch into kindling. “Widen your stance,” he’d say firmly. Even today, I can’t pick up an axe without the fear of the blade biting into a kneecap. He demonstrated how to forage for old man’s beard, the mint green lichen that grows in delicate hanging skeins from the lowest rungs on old-growth spruce. The lichen is a lifeline for woodland caribou. It enables caribou to survive the harsh subarctic conditions of Canadian winters. They paw through belly-deep snowbanks to feast on the fragile, nutrient-dense lichen. My dad pointed out that what fed woodland caribou also catalyzed our campfires.

He raised me like a son. My dad taught me everything he taught my older brother: how to track prey, pull the trigger, dress a grouse. The forest was sacred text he showed me how to read and love. We baited lines and cast and waited. He pointed out the bald eagles that plunged and skimmed the surface of the lake, talons opening and clenching, sometimes around a fish, sometimes just air. Fishing wasn’t necessarily about catching fish. It was about waiting and witnessing everything else you couldn’t have anticipated: a moose cow and calf emerging from the bush, a lone raven speaking an old language of throat croaks and clicks that sounded of equal parts mischief and grief.

I suspect I wasn’t an easy daughter to raise. I was born with a loose mouth and an animal heart. I lashed out at the world when the world cut through my thin hide.

We witnessed the wild—the nothingness and the everythingness—with all of our senses. A way of listening that is rarely practised, let alone passed down to children these days.

Growing up in a small northern community, I didn’t want to be a girl. I ran with a wolf pack of boys. We catapulted our bodies off boulders into the murky swimming hole. We piled onto the snowmobile and gunned the engine, etching our illegible longing onto the pages of snowy alfalfa fields. We built forts, climbed trees, dug around in old bear dens, slung mud at one another and slunk home at dusk, hungry, panting and wearing the wild proudly on our weathered limbs.

I was a girl-boy on the brink of growing breasts. I was starting to understand the world had a different set of expectations for the bodies of girls. Seek shelter. Prune and preen. Keep and be kept. Home and hearth. Nurture. Tend. Beauty. But breasts were just a nuisance, and the kind of home I dreamt of was a lean-to made of black-spruce walls and a moss-covered floor. The prescribed feminine domesticity felt like a sharp-jawed trap. I wanted to claim the habitat of boys, ranging wide and far, and test myself against the wild. I didn’t want to pine after validations of being pretty. I cut off my corn-silk hair. I wore sports bras and my older brother’s hand-me-down ’90s grunge wear. I wanted to be brave, tough, quick-witted and physically capable. I cast my girl-boy body into the unsheltered elements without apology.

My dad never objected. He only waited and watched.

I suspect I wasn’t an easy daughter to raise. I was born with a loose mouth and an animal heart. I lashed out at the world when the world cut through my thin hide. I winced at the slightest whiff of authority. If it was a question of fight or flight, I dug my heels into the earth and bared my teeth. I fought anyone who would fight me. I whipped any kind of object—hairbrush, juggling ball, butcher’s knife—at my brother’s head. I threw words like stones. I feared that I wasn’t the kind of daughter my parents would long for: a girl who was pretty, predictable and pleasant. I wandered beyond the fragmented range of girlhood. I chose the wild, and the wild imprinted upon me.

But my dad rarely reacted to my girl-boy-wolf snarl.

I have only one memory of his demeanour of calm transforming into anger. I can’t remember what I did to set him off, but one day he shook my shoulders and growled. I froze. I was too shocked to fight back. I packed up a bag with all of the necessities to run away from home: a pocketknife, peach and a few Archie comics. I fled on foot to the river and hid in the bushes, waiting. I bit into the peach, the juices ran, and my hands became gummy with dirt. Then I saw him through the bush. I hid like a feral cat. He walked by, unaware. His face was stony and solemn. He looked so worried, and I realized, studying his furrowed brow, that he loved me. I wanted to cry out, “I’m here, Dad!” But I turned myself into a girl-boy-ghost and said nothing.

One evening, my dad brought home an orphaned black bear cub. A hunter had accidentally shot the mother. The cub was headed for a zoo. A few kids from our neighbourhood gang came over and we all watched, wide-eyed and in wonder, at the bear cub, a black ball of fur, that tumbled around the concrete basement floor. The following week dad brought home three orphaned coyote pups that whined, woofed, played, pissed and shit everywhere. The neighbourhood kids were losing their minds. “Do you guys live in a zoo?” they asked, astonished.

Later that summer my dad received an urgent call from a neighbour. A lone moose calf had been separated from her mother by the river’s powerful current. We raced down to the river, where the calf was alone, pacing the water’s edge and bleating frantically for her mother. My dad and his colleague caught the tiny calf and tied her legs together. My dad wrapped his blue jacket around the calf’s head to shield her frightened eyes. The calf fell calm. They placed her in the back of a truck, drove across the bridge and down to the riverbank to reunite the calf with her mother.

For 40 years my dad worked as a wildlife biologist with the Government of Alberta.

In 1985, the year I was born, he was already flying over the boreal forest, counting caribou. His job survived the political reign of Ralph Klein, leader of the Progressive Conservative party, who made a mockery of environmental conservation. Klein made that clear as day when he jokingly referred to the cause of global warming as “dinosaur farts.” In those days, oil and gas were booming. Industrial development was moving like a freight train, particularly in northern Alberta, where they couldn’t suck the oil out of the ground fast enough. It was a dog-eat-dog world up north, another kind of Klondike gold rush for resources, which resulted in rapid forest loss. Rich men were made. The oil town of Fort McMurray boomed from 6,000 residents in 1971 to 34,000 by 1989. Alberta’s boreal forest was, without any political hesitation, open for business. But what would it have been like to be a scientist, or biologist, working to protect natural ecosystems in the province?

My dad would have witnessed the forest he loved being chopped up and sold off for logging, oil and gas and agricultural exploits. He was also counting fewer caribou. Even by the early 1990s, the science was clear. The loss of habitat in Alberta’s boreal—the crude carving up of forest—was taking a toll on caribou. They had nowhere to hide. The network of new cutlines and pathways through the forest favoured easier access for predators.

Caribou could no longer outrun the wolves.

The Government of Alberta muzzled scientists who spoke out about caribou. Biologists documented their dwindling numbers but lacked the power to speak and act. One biologist who wouldn’t keep his mouth shut suddenly lost his job. They fired him after he donated an old office typewriter to a non-profit organization. “Theft of government property,” they supposedly claimed. The government didn’t want to take action on woodland caribou. Doing so, of course, would have meant pulling back the reins on the pace of logging and oil and gas development.

I can remember how my dad’s uniform badges changed from “Fish and Wildlife” to “Sustainable Resources.” New name, new badge. As a child, I was aloof to the political significance behind all of the name changes. I didn’t yet understand the power of language. Now I know: When you fail to call something by its true name—wild life—you don’t have to respect it as a living entity. Instead you give the wild an inanimate name. Resources. A name that doesn’t breathe, or roam, or have “herd memory,” as my dad would say. A name that would grant us the moral licence to extract, exterminate and ignore the pulse of the forest.

“We’re just window dressing,” he said after a long day of hard meetings with government officials in which yet another expanse of Crown land had been sold off for development.

I saw the grave expression on his face. It seemed to say: We are losing. We are losing everything. I was beginning to realize that his job wasn’t about saving orphaned cubs and pups and moose calves, but rather, trying to convince politicians, companies and landowners that they should care about the boreal forest. Why caribou and biodiversity in the boreal mattered far beyond economic profit.

“Where there used to be forest, you can’t even find a chickadee,” he said angrily.

Our severed forests are scarred by cutblocks, well sites and roads. There are seismic lines, cutlines and power lines. There are pipelines and rail lines. These lines run parallel and diagonal. They are competing lines that intersect, fragment the bush and help predators track their prey with ease.

When wolves pack up for the hunt, they isolate out the calves. Even with caribou’s specially evolved hooves, wide as snowshoes, they can’t compete. Their numbers are flat-lining. We’ve designated woodland caribou, provincially and nationally, as a “threatened species” but not yet an endangered one. Such a name would mean that politicians would actually have to do something to save them from extinction. Without curbing the rate of deforestation, scientists say, we will lose caribou. They will become only a memory to us.

“Caribou are like canaries with antlers,” writes Lorne Fitch, an Albertan biologist, in an essay entitled “ ‘A Modest Proposal’ for Alberta’s Caribou.” They are “sentinels marking the changes brought about by the pace and expanding footprint of our economic aspirations.”

Research by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute reports that Alberta has the highest rate of forest disturbance of any large Canadian province. Parts of Alberta, particularly in the northern foothills, are disappearing at rates that exceed deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. According to the United Nation’s Environment Programme, worldwide, upwards of 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. Locally and globally we are on the brink of losing a wilderness of biodiversity.

The song of woodland caribou is a song for hundreds of thousands of other species.

Meanwhile, politicians continue to dodge responsibility. In March 2018 the Government of Alberta stalled caribou recovery efforts—specifically, the designation of a provincial park that would provide refuge for caribou herds in northwestern Alberta. They claimed that the federal government ought to foot the bill. The decision could go to court, which would become a lengthy process. Time that woodland caribou no longer have.

“On my darkest days,” my dad said recently. “I just don’t feel hopeful.”

Woodland caribou herds are small, fragmented and forever in flux. My dad once told me that they follow ancestral routes and patterns on the land, relying on herd memory, instinct passed down from grandparents to offspring to their offspring, and so forth. During early summer in the boreal, female caribou break away to give birth beneath the cover of black spruce. They drop calves and hide from predators. They raise their calves as discreetly as possible until the gangly legged calves are strong enough to flee from wolves. Their very survival depends on dense, old-growth forest. Caribou teach their young how to return to the same vanishing places where they were born.

Am I so different?

The magnetic pull north to the boreal is beyond my control. It’s become a longing so deep in my bones that I’ve dropped everything to surrender to the black spruce of my childhood. In recent years, I’ve returned to northern Alberta, where being on the land makes me feel at home, where the memory of who I am—a girl-boy-turned-woman—beats the strongest, and where I am compelled to speak out for sacred places and beings without a voice.

When I flew over the forest with my dad and witnessed the flight of the caribou, I felt something we don’t have an adequate word to describe: a blend of beauty, tragedy and, perhaps, anticipatory grief. I’ll never forget how the caribou sprinted across the frozen lake, weaving tracks in and out of one another, their lines undulating like a horse’s tail. Nature knows no straight lines, I thought to myself. From above, I tried to make sense of their message in the snow.

We belong here, they wrote.

Recently my dad retired after 40 years of counting caribou in northwestern Alberta.

These days, I overhear him counting aloud to my niece, Brielle, his apple-cheeked granddaughter, who can’t yet walk. I watch him playing with her, kneeling on the floor and bringing himself down to her level. Brielle wiggles her larva body overtop his outstretched legs.

“You have to do ‘floor time’ with her,” he explains, “If you want to really connect with her.”

The sight of my dad observing, so carefully, his granddaughter’s nature makes me realize: He never raised me like a son, nor did he raise me like a daughter. My dad raised me according to my own nature, the wild parts of me that are ungendered. Tough and capable. Tender and vulnerable.

He gave me the land and space I needed to grow. He let me roam and range far beyond the boundaries of girlhood. He showed me how to feel at home on the land and draw meaning from the wild marrow from the bone, but never to take more than I needed.

My dad taught me to listen in a way that is being forgotten today. He showed me how to make myself very still, hold my ear up to the forest and listen for the pulse.

Trina Moyles is a Peace River-based writer and fire-tower lookout. “Herd Memory” won the 2019 Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Award.

RELATED POSTS

Herd Memory

On a cold day in February, I flew over the tightly knit stands of black spruce and jack pine in northwestern Alberta, straining my eyes below, eager to catch sight of a woodland caribou. My dad, a wildlife biologist, called them the “grey ghosts” of the boreal. Woodland caribou have ...

Boar War

By the time Greg Gilbertson became a provincial fish and wildlife officer for the Alberta counties of Woodlands and Lac Ste. Anne in 1998, calls for help in dealing with wild boar were part of the job. Ever since Eurasian boar farms were approved in Alberta in the early 1980s, the wily ...

Don’t Fence Me In

Try and picture them all. On his first visit to the Waterton area in 1865, John (“Kootenai”) Brown wrote: “The prairie as far as we could see east, north and west was one living mass of buffalo. Thousands of head there were, far thicker than ever range cattle grazed the ...