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UMIMMAIT | ᐅᒥᒻᒣᑦ

Up close and personal with Muskoxen

A lonesome muskox stares back at us. © Isabelle Dubois

Ever since I moved up North to Kuujjuaq, in Nunavik, some 16 years ago, and was introduced to these magnificent beasts, I’ve been fascinated with muskoxen. Straight out of the ice age, these ancient creatures, which once walked alongside woolly mammoths in the northern steppes and have somehow, against all odds, managed to survive to this day, will never cease to amaze me. Though I have had the chance to encounter local muskox herds every now and then over the years, it wasn’t until last summer that I truly made their acquaintance, when I was invited by Tundra Tom to take part in a weeklong muskox observation expedition out on the land with Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures.

Trip leader Thomas Groening (centre) shows Barbara (left), Victor (right) and I how to weave the muskox wool (qiviut). We had handpicked it off the bushes surrounding the herd to make souvenir bracelets. © Dominique Braud/Courtesy Isabelle Dubois
Trip leader Thomas Groening (centre) shows Barbara (left), Victor (right) and I how to weave the muskox wool (qiviut). We had handpicked it off the bushes surrounding the herd to make souvenir bracelets. © Dominique Braud/Courtesy Isabelle Dubois

My adventure starts at Johnny May’s Air Charters’ floatplane base at Stewart Lake, on the outskirts of town. Here, Tundra Tom is already loading the Turbo Otter that is going to take me and my new companions — Barbara and Victor Zaveduk, a couple from Chicago, and Dominique Braud, a photographer from Minnesota — to one of his remote camps. The legendary bush pilot, Johnny May himself, turns on the engine and soon enough, on this delightful mid-September day, we are airborne.

Less than an hour later, after gliding over the remnants of the boreal forest northward onto the barren tundra, which, at this time of year has already donned its warm autumn colours, we’re ready to land. Below us, we see the camp where we would cast anchor for the next few days, on a peaceful sandy beach, on the shore of Kaslac Lake, about 100 km north of Kuujjuaq. As we are about to get dropped off in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, we catch a glimpse of a lone muskox, slowly making his way out, away from the hustle and bustle our arrival has created.

This first awe-inspiring sighting is the undeniable promise of the exceptional quest that awaits us.

After a smooth landing on the lake, we are greeted by our trip leader Thomas Groening and his playful Northern puppy dog Oscar, along with camp staff and guides Shelby Bordeleau and Mike Needleman, who help us get settled in the cozy tents that will be our home away from home for the week. Then, we are called into the kitchen — an expedition tent that also serves as communications centre and battery charging station — for an introductory session about camp life guidelines and wildlife observation rules.

As we are all eager to catch up with that bull we saw from the plane, Thomas takes us on a short late afternoon stroll just outside the camp, to show us around. We can’t seem to locate the hoofed deserter, but as Thomas points out to a nearby fox den, we stumble upon an old muskox skull, beautifully preserved, complete with the horns and a full set of teeth. As a flock of geese flies over our heads, I hear dinner calling my name and we start making our way back to camp. We have to watch our steps, as ptarmigans lay hidden in the shrubs, still wearing their summer plumage, which blends in better than any camo outfit ever could.

In the kitchen, while Shelby and Mike are already setting the table for dinner, Arizona cinematographer Beth Davidow is going through the footage she took during the past few days she has spent here. Curious, we all take a peek. After seeing her stunning images, we are all suddenly eager to go to bed, ready to head out the next day and get our own photos. It doesn’t take long before everyone finishes their meal. Outside, the Northern Lights are on display, dancing the night away. Soon, the fog from nearby Ungava Bay rolls in and it’s time to call it a night.

A ghost of seasons’ past.  © Isabelle Dubois
A ghost of seasons’ past.
© Isabelle Dubois

I awake to a beautiful morning and with everyone anticipating the day ahead, it doesn’t take long to devour breakfast. As we exit the kitchen tent with our daypack stocked with grub for lunch as well, we spot the very same bull from yesterday in the distance. Beth and Dominique, who have much heavier gear to carry than the rest of us, decide to get a head start and go by zodiac with Mike to shoot straight for the range where the herd was last spotted, across the lake’s inlet and over the hill. Victor, Barbara and I decide to follow in the loner’s footsteps with Thomas in the lead. This choice is definitely not the easier path, as the kilometres start to add up, but it’s a nice day and we’re all in good spirits. Nevertheless, once we’ve almost made it to the tip of the inlet following the bull, which, ultimately, would have led us to the herd, we’re happy to see Mike come for us with the zodiac, for a short cut across.

We quickly catch up to Beth and Dominique on the ridge. Down below on the other side lies the muskox herd. Although it looks close, it’s still a little ways away, so we gobble our lunch hastily before making our way down.

As we get closer, Thomas and Mike call for a halt to explain their approach strategy. The seven of us are to walk as one, forming one single line, so that in any given direction, the muskoxen on the lookout will only see one sole person. And as soon as we are discovered, we are to stop and crouch in the meadow until they let their guard down, at which point we can keep moving, and so on until we get close enough. What a thrill!

Luck is on our side, with the wind blowing in the other direction, and soon we find ourselves just below the mound on which the muskoxen have decided to take their afternoon nap. Staying low, we slowly climb to the rocky edge and pop our heads out just enough to peep. They are right there, a few steps away.

We all get our cameras ready and start shooting, thinking this cannot last forever. But they’re not going anywhere. In fact, they don’t even seem to know that we’re there. They just go on with their daily routine, some resting, others quietly grazing, mothers tending to their young, while the single males try to fool around with non-bearing females; it is, after all, mating season. Two big bulls even put on a show for us, butting heads together to impress the ladies.

After a single day out on the tundra, I’m already content; my memory card already full of striking images that will forever stay imprinted in my mind. Over the next few days, we’ll get to know these enigmatic beasts that Inuit call umimmait — the bearded ones — which, although intimidating, have somehow accepted our presence, granting us the privilege to get up close and personal.

Isabelle Dubois
For more information on muskox and other wildlife observation and photography expeditions offered by Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures in Nunavik, visit their website at www.thelon.com or contact Tundra Tom directly at 608-370-5071 or tundra@thelon.com.

VIAIsabelle Dubois
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