Creekstone Press

Northern BC's publisher

Creekstone Press Publications

Excerpts from Crossing the Divide: Discovering a Wilderness Ethic in Canada’s Northern Rockies

From "The Wobbling Wheel"

The beeping in the headphones was loud and insistent. Zonk, the pilot, pointed out the window. “There’s No. 4, I see her, on that spur of rock!” He threw the machine into a steep downward spiral. I strained to catch sight of the caribou cow and as the helicopter turned, glimpsed her lying on a small rocky bench on the side of a vast and very steep mountainside.

“It looks like she’s in birthing position – she’s not getting up,” said Gillian Radcliffe, the lead biologist conducting the caribou study. “Let’s set down and watch her for a few minutes.”

This was a first. We had been flying the eastern slopes of the Northern Rockies from Nonda Creek south to the Tuchodi Lakes, listening for the faint beeps from the telemetry gear that would identify collared cow caribou. Our task was to search for each animal until we had a visual identification, note whether or not the cow had a calf and whether or not there were any other caribou in the area.

Partly funded by the Muskwa-Kechika Trust Fund, the study was aimed at quantifying caribou calf survival. I was along as a spotter trainee. We’d seen lots of caribou, but until now, we hadn’t seen one actually giving birth. Caribou cow No. 4 had been particularly elusive, hidden as she was high on a steep mountainside above the Chischa River.

“That’s what they do,” explained Gill. “The cows pick the most remote, the roughest mountainsides, as far away from other cows as possible to give birth. The predators just don’t know where to look for them. That’s why building roads into these areas is such a problem. Increased access makes it that much easier for predators to travel and locate the caribou.”

The pilot maneuvered the machine onto a tiny bench high on the mountainside. There was a steep ravine between us and No. 4 but through binoculars we could see her clearly. She was still lying with her head uphill, belly distended.

“I see the head,” said Tania Tripp, the second biologist, peering through her spotting scope. “The calf is coming out!”

But though we could see the calf, the cow appeared to be breathing very heavily and it looked as though she was too weary to raise her head.

“Wait, she’s moving!”

The cow struggled to her feet and moved slowly up the slope. But our time was up. We had more caribou to locate before the day was done. Reluctantly we strapped back into the chopper. The pilot powered up the engine, lifted off and the machine fell away in a steep turning dive on our way north towards our base at the Stone Mountain Safaris Lodge at Toad River. As we flew, we continued scanning the airwaves with the telemetry gear, identifying more cow caribou as we passed over rugged Henry Creek, the clear blue waters of the Tetsa River, and the rounded foothills of the eastern slopes.

The next morning we were back on the Chischa and soon located No. 4 a short distance up slope from her earlier position. Her collar, though, was sending a completely different signal than it had the day before. It had gone into mortality mode, a distinct set of beeps indicating the animal had not moved in hours. As we flew slowly by, we could see that the cow was lying on her side, legs pointing up hill. And we could also make out the limp form of a small calf beside her. We had found two other caribou whose collars had gone into mortality mode but they were jumbles of hair, skin, and bones caught among the rocks. This was different. We had seen No. 4 trying to give birth, a living breathing animal.

“Poor No. 4,” said Gill. Then she was back to business. “We’ll have to get the collar. Can we land anywhere near her?” she asked the pilot.

“I’ll have to toe in. It’s too steep to land.”

“Wayne, can you get the collar?” Gill asked. “You’ve got a knife.”

“I can do it, if you want me to.”

“Sure, you just take my camera, shoot me some photos if you don’t mind, take out a tooth for aging and get the collar. If it’s too tight, don’t cut the collar. You know…”

It took me a second to understand. I was to cut the cow if necessary, not the collar.

“Just set us down on the river,” Gill said to the pilot. “You’ll need to be light.”

After dropping Gill and Tania on the riverbank, we flew up to the cow. The engine roared as the pilot held the machine in a hover, gingerly edging closer to the rocky hillside. The metal skid on my side eased toward the mountain and looking up, I saw the rotors hammering the air seemingly inches from the rocks. Suddenly the machine broke away and we swooped out into the valley.

“Too close,” he said. “I’ll try a different spot.”

Once more we tried, higher on the mountain, but the helicopter began to rock and plunge as we neared the rocks.

“Downdraft here,” Zonk said and we descended to the first spot. My heart pounded as we dropped back to where the rocks were ‘too close’.

With the rotors just inches from the rocks, I tried to concentrate on the skid but was uncomfortably aware that below the seat I was clutching, there was nothing but a thousand feet of empty space. I had faith in the pilot though. Zonk had been flying in these mountains for decades and had an outstanding reputation as a safe and supremely competent pilot. He carefully steadied the machine with the skid on my side just touching the mountainside.

“All right, get out,” said Zonk. “But be careful. Step out slowly and don’t rock the boat!”

I took off my earphones and opened the door. Although the skid was in contact with the mountain, the helicopter was still flying, hovering under power. The machine shook with the rotor blast and the air was a roaring blur of noise and wind. We were balancing on a single point of one skid angled into the mountainside leaving an open gap of a foot or two that I’d have to step over. As I prepared to dismount, I looked down through the gap. The slope plunged away in a nerve-wracking series of cliffs and drops. No time to dither. I climbed onto the skid, took a long step over empty air setting one foot onto the rocks and then carefully shifted my weight to the ground. No jarring the machine! I lay down immediately, hugging the ground and protecting my camera and Gill’s from flying debris as the helicopter peeled away from the mountainside.

As the wind and noise subsided, I composed myself and turned my attention to poor No. 4. It appeared she had fallen down the hillside, the force of the impact expelling the calf, but too late for either mother or offspring. Her legs were pointing upslope and she was stiff and cold. She’d been lying in this position all night. I took a series of photographs, one set for me and another for Gill. The calf was lying with one front foot still inside the mother’s body indicating a breach birth since the front feet should come out first. Fortunately the radio collar was loose enough to slip over the cow’s head. I hadn’t been looking forward to beheading her with the four-inch blade of my Leatherman. When I was done, I waved the helicopter in, crouching on the moss amid the wind and whirling debris. When the skid touched the rocks I got in carefully, stepping across the chasm and onto the skid as fast as possible. In moments we were back down on the riverbank.

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