Monday, September 3, 2007
We got up early today in anticipation of getting to the falls campground by noon. It took us about two and a half hours to have breakfast and pack up the gear and we were on our way down river by 11:00.
Alex and Tania led the way and at the bend in the river took a detour up the creek leading to the Oxbow lake. The rest of us followed into a quiet creek that wended its way through reeds and grasses hanging with dew, eventually opening into a lake which curved to the right much like an elongated "j". The lake was peaceful and inviting and I wondered whether the campsite we had heard about was at the crook of the "j" about 150 metres to the right.
When I suggested to Glen that we investigate to the end of the lake, he rather vehemently rejected the idea. His rationale was that the rest of the group had not planned this sojourn, and it would be selfish of us to pursue the adventure without consensus. I suggested to him that no one had given Alex and Tania the approval of exploring the creek and the lake in the first place, and that since we were only going to be here this one time, it might be interesting to explore a little further. This was the first time that a dispute had led to hard feelings between Glen and I on this trip; the rancor, however, persisted until we reached the Falls.
Through the next section of the river we followed the Sunblood Mountain range on river left and the Marengo Creek valley on river right. The interpretive maps suggest that on the left, on the mountain slopes there are mineral licks that are an essential part of the habitat for the Dalls' Sheep (see insert, Robert Bateman "The Dalls' Sheep"). These impressive animals visit the mineral licks to lick on the mineral deposits that are a necessary part of their diet. We were unsure whether we had located any of the mineral licks, which would have been more obvious had we the fortune of actually seeing sheep visiting them. The mountain ridges were impressive nonetheless.
Virginia Falls Campsite
About a kilometre before the falls there is a well marked organized campsite and ranger post. We approached the dock in the early afternoon and slipped in beside a De Havilland Beaver bush plane. Arriving at the campgrounds meant that we had to check in at the ranger station, pick a camp spot, unload the canoes and make camp.
The campgrounds were situated along a boardwalk that was suspended above the marshy ground by posts drilled into the permafrost. The main purpose of the boardwalk was the protection of the flora from the trampling feet of the visitors to the park. It also provided a level of accessibility to people who may not be able to explore the area because of the uneven terrain.
We found tent sites side by side the would accommodate our three tents. The sites were wooden platforms that were built into the boardwalk; it was all very neat by comparison to the sites along the river so far. With the tents pitched, we began preparing supper and organizing the gear for our two night stay at the falls.
Moose Can Fly
Just before dinner we became aware, through the park warden, that a cow calf moose had been swept over the falls earlier in the day. The main concern now was that the moose carcass, which had found a final resting place on a gravel bar below the falls, would attract a nearby grizzly bear. Grizzlies, we learned, become very territorial about their food and posed a very real danger to anyone who ventured to close. This meant that the trail to the base of the falls was cordoned off while a helicopter was brought in to remove the carcass to a safer location.
Glen and I were excited to get a good look at the whole operation so we took the trail to the top of the falls. Along the way we met Jenn, a summer patrol officer , and her mother pushing a wheel barrow. They were on their way down to the bottom of the falls to assist in the "rescue". Glen and I eagerly offered to help and between the two of us took over pushing the barrow along the trail. The two of us were just glad to be able to do our duty, as volunteers, in a state of apparent park emergency. We asked Jenn to deputize on the spot, so that we would be official. Jenn informed us that we don't deputize people in Canada, but she would nonetheless accept us as official volunteers. Jenn's mom gladly let us take over and went on her way to where the crowd was gathering for the evening's entertainment. A dead moose being air-lifted out of the canyon!
Once we had safely delivered the wheel barrow and its contents - a sling, yellow "danger" tape, knapsack, 3030 rifle plus ammo (this was a serious potential grizzly terror attack) and other gear - to the end of the boardwalk trail, we were asked to return to the top of the falls. Jenn was not going to let us go any further, despite our dejected looks. Upon returning to the top of the falls, no one seemed to know of the risks we had taken to ensure public safety.
We had time to explore the top of the falls for about an hour and a half before the helicopter arrived. People had gathered with cameras and binoculars not wanting to miss the excitement. We could see a brown object on the sand bar and three park wardens and a pilot working in the spray of the falls. They worked for about 30 minutes securing a sling to the animal's legs. The work seemed to be painstaking and slow because of the spray and the wind in the valley. We were to learn later, as well, that the moose was broken up pretty badly, and that if they hadn't secured the sling just right, blood and entrails would have spilled along the valley floor.
The climax of the incident came when the moose, at the end of the sling rose into the air with the helicopter. The moose was being taken to a marsh up Caribou creek where it would provide food for any scavengers that might find it; it could be monitored there by park staff who could assess its rate of decomposition and what animals might feed on it.
The crowd atop the cliff cheered and applauded as the helicopter lifted into the air. Later people went to greet the heroes; the wardens and the pilot, when they returned to the campground, mission accomplished. When they emerged from the helicopter, the crowd cheered again with even more enthusiasm. It was then that I recognized Jonathan Tetso, the young warden we had met some days earlier at Rabbitkettle lake. The third warden was we were introduced to was Dan.
I was impressed by this group of young men and women in many ways. They were fit and energetic and quite knowledgeable about the ecosystem that they were assigned to protect. They took their responsibilities seriously and acted both in a professional and a friendly manner.