An Encounter with Another Kind

Large bull caribou on a rocky mountaintop

I spend a lot of time exploring and enjoying the natural world. So it’s not unusual for me to have an intimate encounter with a wild animal. Each of these is special and enjoyable, and reminds me that every creature and I share something very fundamental. We have in common the basic building blocks of life in our cells and also a common heritage in the process of evolution. We also share the mysterious element of consciousness or spirit that exists in all living things.

While each observation of or interaction with a wild creature is thrilling, some are extra special. I remember the first time I saw a wolverine close up in the wild. I was so excited I was vibrating and wept with joy at the gift of such a rare sighting.

Recently, I had another exceptional interaction with an elusive animal. Three friends and I were hiking in a remote part of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. We spent a couple of hours climbing onto a high ridge where we had an expansive view of the valleys below and mountain ranges far away to the west and north. We had not seen many large animals on this extended backcountry trip, and we several times mentioned to each other how special it would be to see a caribou, a species once abundant in the region but recently and somewhat famously suffering a severe decline.

We had been sitting on the ridge quite a while and were chatting after eating our lunch, when I turned to say something to the friend on my right. To my astonishment a mountain caribou was crossing the ridge behind us! I loudly whispered “caribou!” to alert my friends and grabbed for my camera.

He appeared to be a young bull. He trotted to the top of the ridge and then turned around to watch us. I’ve seen caribou several times in the past, both boreal caribou like this one as well as the more northerly barren ground caribou. They are curious animals and frequently will circle around several times to examine human visitors before moving off.

This guy clearly was as interested in us as we were in him. He trotted back and forth several times before disappearing over the ridge. I managed to get a few photos and thought that this was the last we would see of him. So we were very surprised when his antlers, head, and then body appeared over the ridge again, and he had brought a friend! The second caribou was a much larger bull, clearly a strong, healthy, dominant male. His signature rack of antlers was magnificent. Now the two of them ran back and forth along the ridge, stopping every once in a while to look at us. We were all rapt, enjoying the moment and taking photos as best as we could.

When the two fellows finally headed off down the ridge for good, we all just looked at each other and kept repeating “Oh my God, I can’t believe that, it was so amazing!” We were ecstatic. We couldn’t believe our luck in having such a wonderful sighting of two members of a breed that is in serious trouble. Mountain caribou are a subset of the boreal or woodland caribou. Their behavior makes them unique. They migrate seasonally between the old growth forests of lower elevations and these high mountain ridges. Their forest habitat is disappearing in Alberta due to logging and the network of oil and gas wells, pipelines, and roads.

Partly because every interaction with another species feels miraculous and partly due to the rarity of seeing mountain caribou, this was an experience that I will never forget. It was extra special because I shared it with good friends who were as excited about the sighting as I was.

As humans we intuitively feel connected to other animals, even those as wild, free, and elusive as a mountain caribou. Encounters like this remind us of our responsibility to use the planet’s resources – the many great gifts of nature – in ways that allow other creatures to thrive and experience life to their full potential.

Please feel free to comment on this story, perhaps addressing these questions. Have you encountered animals in the wild? How did it make you feel? Why do you think the caribou were so curious about us? Do you think the younger caribou communicated something to the larger bull to entice him to come and look at us? How might that work?

Picture of Wendy Francis

Wendy Francis

Wendy has spent most of her career advocating for wilderness and wildlife. Her love of nature was nurtured during her childhood in Ontario, where all weekends and summer holidays were spent outside in neighborhood woods or at the family cottage near Algonquin Provincial Park. Trained in biology and law, Wendy served at senior levels leading wildlife or wilderness protection campaigns with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Ontario Nature, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and the Sunshine Coast Foundation. She currently serves as the president of the Wildlands Network. Wendy is a member of the Earthfire Institute Advisory Circle.

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