The feather tethered to the tip of my recurve bow flickers gently towards the river. I peek out over the waist-high boulder I’m crouched behind and watch the bull tip his nose up and momentarily break his cadence. He knows, I think, the wind has betrayed my presence. The exhausted bull presses forward, choosing to face an unknown danger rather than extend his time laboring in the river’s strong current. I hook my three fingers on the bow string. My heart is pounding, my body shaking.
I close my eyes, and envision an arching arrow’s flight finding its lethal mark in the chest of the caribou. My eyes open wide. Instinct, is now in control.
The bull rockets its massive frame out of the water and onto the river bank. I spring upward and outward, twisting my torso, left arm thrusting the bow forward while the other draws the bow string back. My index finger finds the corner of my mouth. My fingers relax. The arrow darts forward. Time inches onward in slow motion frames.
Splashes of water and gravel spray, propelled forward by the bull’s inertia, hang in the air. The bull and the arrow move closer to each other with each passing frame. Finally, impact, a puff of hair and time returns to normal.
A percussion of gravel reaches me first, stinging my face, bouncing off my body and ricocheting off my wooden bow. It’s immediately followed by a rain of water, quickly exploiting any openings in my outerwear. The arrow was too far forward, harmlessly shaving a swath of hair off of the front of the bull’s chest.
The bull, 80 paces away now, is standing broadside and looking at me. Chest heaving in and out, bellows of steam pouring out his nostrils with each exhale; we hold each other’s stare. He rocks his head from side to side, the motion greatly exaggerated by his wide-sweeping antlers. Like a wild horse, he lifts his entire body upward, balancing on his hind legs, and pedals his front legs in the air. A millisecond later he’s gone, lost in the shrubby, broken landscape.
My body is shaking again, and I sit on a nearby boulder. I watch the clouds racing overhead. The silence is deafening, and I feel like I’m the only living creature in this vast and seemingly empty country. I already miss the bull. In my mind, I see him standing there, a safe “wolf” distance away, both celebrating and paying respect with his post-danger rituals. I’m thankful to the bull, and this wild place, for the gift of participating in the intimate dance of predator and prey.
What is wilderness? Is it unfamiliar, distant and vast places, largely untouched by humans, and governed by the hand of nature? Or can it be much closer, more intimate and reduced in scale?
For most of us, spending time in expansive and remote locations, as I did over three decades ago in Northern Quebec’s Ungava Bay region, isn’t feasible. But the essence of wilderness is much closer than we think.
It’s not any particular place, wild animal, plant or natural event. Rather, the essence of wilderness is what we feel when we connect with nature. It’s in us. Emotions of amazement, discovery, spirituality, wonderment, belonging - all bubbling up and capturing our attention - giving us a rare moment to experience our humanity.
I’ve seen it in kids searching for critters under submerged rocks in a stream, a grandpa helping his granddaughter reel in her first fish, and a land restoration work crew hovering around a newly found rare plant. I’ve heard it in passionate work crew lunchtime conversations around a burn pile, the trumpeting call of a sandhill crane, and the “loud” silence of a group of Northern Lights spectators. I’ve felt it the toils of my ecological restoration work, the stunning beauty of a blooming prairie, and a long ago encounter with a woodland caribou.
The reality today is wilderness, in every sense, is shrinking. So many species are at risk. For those of us who pay attention, the mantra of learning about another species in trouble is all so depressing.
But there is another reality we should focus on. It’ that ecological restoration, in spite of all we do not know, is working. I can bear witness to the positive impact it has had on my life. My chance to escape the hopelessness of a shrinking natural world.
During my adult life, I’ve watched nature grow fragile around me. I don’t run from this fact (mostly), nor do I ignore it (largely), but instead choose to devote my remaining time to experience the essence of wilderness through the fruits of my labor.
Editor’s note: Quebec’s migrating woodland caribou population is in steep decline. According to Quebec’s Ministry of Forest, Wildlife and Parks (MFFP), the George River herd has sunk to 5,500 caribou (2018 estimate), a decline of 99% from the 1993 population estimate (a few years after the time of my visit) of 820,000. Quebec’s other herd, Leaf River, has declined to an estimated 2018 population of 187,000 caribou, a 67% decrease from the 2001 estimate of 600,000. Sport hunting is no longer allowed. Reasons for the caribou decline are not clear. A warming Artic and pressure from human land uses are thought to be major factors in the decline.