On a cool summer evening in 1999, a few of us went walking into the country along the Seal River in northern Manitoba. Our group of six was camped along the river during a two-week canoe trip that would take us to Hudson Bay.
Typically, it’s hard to get far from camp on these northern river journeys — the rivers we paddle are usually bordered by dense jack pine and spruce. But along the Seal, we were walking in wide-open country on eskers, the raised gravel beds of rivers that once flowed beneath glaciers. Eskers are almost like roads — smooth and mostly flat, dropping off on either side. It’s hard for vegetation to get a foothold in that dry, porous gravel and so these eskers endure like a network of raised veins across the landscape.
They were littered with caribou antlers that had been shed as the animals migrated through this country. Caribou antlers surely rank among the most elegant varieties of headgear worn by critters that trot the backcountry. The antlers, bleached white by the elements, were long and gracefully curved, infinite in variation of form. Who knows how long they had been lying here? Maybe we were looking at several years’ accumulation. Perhaps decades.
Walking across the littered landscape, we couldn’t help imagining the great herds of caribou that passed through here on their annual migrations. What must that have looked like — thousands of the animals flowing over the land, on their way from calving grounds to wintering grounds? What must it have sounded like — their breathing, their grunting, the clicking of their hooves on the loose gravel?
It was enough to make our little human odyssey down the river seem like a pretty humble endeavor.
Most of us have come across other relics on the landscape, some natural, some man-made. We have happened onto shed moose or elk antlers, deer ribs, buffalo jumps on the prairies with ancient vertebrae and hip sockets revealed by eroding soil.
I find it hard at such moments not to be humbled. Here is tangible evidence of another being’s existence, a sign that a wild creature or other humans passed this way, maybe even carved out a life on the land. Like us, those who passed this way required water and sustenance. They, too, sought comfort and nourishment — and, no doubt, an escape from the scourge of blackflies. They, too, passed their genes onto future generations.
I am merely another mammal doing my time here on Earth, moving across the land or down the river, trying to stay warm and dry, hoping to rustle up enough to eat.
I have thought about this: When my time is up, you can stow some of my ashes in a pack and carry them to the Seal River. Take a hike on an esker and throw those ashes to the wind. Let them fall among the bleached caribou antlers.
I would consider myself in good company for eternity.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.