Photo of the week: kings of the barren ground

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On a sunny morning in late July, I was standing on the deck of a ship in the sheltered waters of Douglas Douglas harbour, near the northern tip of Quebec. I was on an Arctic cruise, and we were looking for one of the North’s most charismatic animals, the barren-ground caribou. And soon enough, there they were, mothers and calves dotting the hillsides, grazing on lichen to fatten up for the long winter ahead.

It was a great sight, even from a distance. But later, I got close enough to take this shot of two bull caribou, their huge antlers framed against the sky — an iconic picture of the North. If you doubt that, look on the back of a Canadian nickel and you’ll see the same image.

Most people think of seals and polar bears as the symbols of the Arctic. But it’s the barren-ground caribou that is the real king of the North. Huge herds of them roam across the Arctic, from east to west. And for hundreds of years, the people of the North have depended on them for food, clothing, even materials to make tools. Their life cycle revolves around the movement of the herds.

The barren-ground caribou is a marvel of adaptation. It has a layer of hollow, white hairs that buoy it up when it swims across Arctic fjords, and help keep it warm in the fierce cold of winter. Its sharp hooves allow it to dig for food, and tufts of hair cover its foot pads in winter to keep them off the snow. And it’s one of the few animals on earth that can eat lichen, the ground-hugging plant that covers much of the Arctic.

Today, as I sit in my warm home, comfortable and well fed, I think of these caribou, somewhere on the Arctic tundra, searching for food while the icy winds whip at their winter coats. It’s an amazing part of the story of Canada. And hopefully, one that will survive for many years to come.

Taken with the Nikon D500 camera and Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 ED VR lens; click on the picture to see it full-size

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

4 Comments

    • Thanks, Marilyn — one of the few good wildlife photos I got in the Arctic, other than the hundreds of thick-billed murre shots. But I think it’s iconic, in some small way.

    • Thanks, Maarten. One of the greatest marvels of the Arctic is how the creatures (and plants) there have evolved to survive in the world’s harshest climate. And you’re right, it is fragile: the caribou populations on Baffin Island are now so thin that hunting them is restricted. No one knows why — it’s not due to overhunting, so it must be environmental.
      Paul Marshman recently posted…Crocodiles and Ice: an extraordinary journeyMy Profile

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