Posted by: John Munro | May 2, 2010

The Caribou in the Room

By John Munro

In the early 1960’s I was working as a Forester for the Newfoundland Forest Service (later the Newfoundland and Labrador Forest Service). I had just graduated from the University from New Brunswick in the spring of 1961 and was new on the job, with a lot to learn. My learning started in earnest with the onset in June of one of the worst forest fire years in the history of the Island of Newfoundland. We fought fires in various parts of the Island all summer and well into the fall. That winter we were involved in assessing the damage and preparing for next year.

While Labrador had been spared major fires in 1961, there was concern about the potential for major future outbreaks and the Forest Service needed to strengthen it’s presence there. There was also increasing interest in developing the forests of Labrador. It was decided that a Regional Forester should be based at Goose Bay and I was assigned to go there in late June. I had a small office in the basement of the Happy Valley home of the Commissioner for Labrador, Mr. Gus Edwards. For fire fighting, all we had at the time was a small base camp and crew at North West River, one old pickup fire truck and an EPA Beaver Airplane equipped with water dropping tanks on it’s floats. There was also a supply of hose, five or six pumps, other assorted fire fighting equipment and a weather ststion. In the event it was needed, a Canso water bomber could be called in from Newfoundland. Luckily, 1962 was not a major fire year and we avoided any serious problems that summer.

My office was in Happy Valley but the fire crew and base camp were at North West River, which was about 41 kilometers away. This made for interesting traveling arrangements. I could drive from Happy Valley to the Goose River in an old Volkswagen truck we had, but there was no bridge across the river at that time. The Forest Service had a small flat-bottomed boat at the crossing and I could use it to cross the Goose and leave it on the other side. I would take the fire truck (which we left parked there) and drive to the south side of North West River. Then I would take the swinging cable car to the north side of the river and walk to our base camp. There was a small garage for the fire truck and boat near the cable car at North West River. Other people sometimes used the forestry boat for crossing the Goose River, but they always got permission first and always returned it to it’s proper place.

The fire crew at North West River that year consisted of Joe Foley, Chester Vey and C. Lethbridge from the Island, and Percy Chaulk, Joseph Nuna, Ponus Nuke, and Max MacLean from Labrador. The pilot of the Beaver was Lionel Clark, from New Brunswick, and Margaret Paddon of North West River was hired as the cook.

During the fall and winter I undertook to familiarize myself with the forest conditions in the Lake Melville area and this was how I got to know Percy Chaulk. He was kept on staff over the winter as a woodsman and guide. And, luckily for me, a fine guide and woodsman he was. One early trip with Percy was by canoe up the Goose River to assess the timber. This would probably have been in mid or late November. The first afternoon we got about 10 miles upriver as far as the Falls and camped there for the night. We expected to continue farther up the next day, but it started snowing overnight, the temperature dropped, and slob snow started to form in the water. We had to pack up and head back as fast as we could to Goose Bay, as the wet snow started turning into ice.

After winter set in, Percy and I made a number of trips with a double track skidoo and sled and one of these outings was to the Mulligan River area. Percy had lived at Mulligan Bay at one time and he still had a house there that we could stay in while we explored around. As I recall we set out from North West River about mid or late January of 1963 and covered the 40 kilometers or so over the ice of Lake Melville to Mulligan that day. We were well bundled up because of the low temperatures and the biting wind sweeping over the lake. We reached Mulligan and got set up in Percy’s house, which took quite a while to warm up. The next day we traveled up Mulligan River as far as the snow conditions would allow. It was early winter and one thing I learned, was at that at that time of the year in Labrador the snow tended to be soft, and even with good snowshoes, I would sink down pretty deep with each step, and sometimes, in really deep snow, went up to my waist. This going was really difficult in places for me with my snowshoes from the island but Percy fared better with his Labrador Beaver Tails.

Percy didn’t talk a lot, but he had a sense of humor. One day we were snowshoeing along and noticed some tiny tracks crossing the trail made by a small shrew or vole. Percy looked at me and said, “You know what that was don’t you?” I bit and said, “No what”. He grinned and said, “A Labrador elephant”.

There were some other hunters and trappers staying at Mulligan at this time and one evening Percy took me over to another house to meet them. I don’t recall any names, but there were about five local men who had obviously been out hunting, probably over to the Mealy Mountains. The first thing I noticed when we entered their cabin was a full sized frozen caribou lying on it’s side in the center of the room. We all sat around it, had something to drink, and talked about the weather, hunting conditions and probably told stories and yarns. The one thing we didn’t mention the whole evening was that caribou in the middle of the room!

I guess the others didn’t mention it because they knew I was from the Government and they were waiting for me to say something. I didn’t say anything because I was new in the Service and not too familiar with the wildlife regulations, especially as they applied to Labrador. Also, I was a guest in that house. I decided I better know what I was talking about before I brought up anything about the Caribou. So we sat around and enjoyed the evening and ignored that Caribou in the room. Percy and I left Mulligan the next day so I never did get to taste it.

John Munro
Halifax, NS

Percy Chaulk and Joe Foley, Goose River, 1962

Forestry Crew Sleeping Tents, NWR


Responses

  1. I well remember that Volkswagen truck. I learned to drive on it! I also remember a trip to NW River in another forestry truck that ended in the ditch. My father was Gus Edwards and I remember well your kindness.
    Regards
    Michael Edwards


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