Winter scene on the James Bay Road
If you wanted to see Woodland Caribou in the wild, how could you do it? They have been pushed so back into the far reaches of Canada that in most places you’d have to fly into some northern community. But there are one or two places where you can also drive into the north. It’s a long drive, but Mary Beth Pongrac set out from Ottawa in mid-December to drive the James Bay Road, a 2400-km round trip into northern Quebec.
Photo of Willow Ptarmigan in winter plumage
Mary Beth watched constantly out the windows for wildlife, and soon saw species that you just don’t ever see in Ottawa. Willow Ptarmigan had come out to the road to peck at sand grains, and waded around in the soft snow to get at the buds of deciduous shrubs for food. They were in winter plumage, white as snow except for their bills and a few tail feathers. It isn’t unusual for them to get hit by cars, so she had samples of their feet, densely feathered to the tips of their toes. There were other animals typical of the boreal forest, such as ravens and foxes, that no doubt patrol for roadkill. But the caribou were not wintering along the road this year and she didn’t see them.

On a still day, it was the deep silence that impressed Mary Beth. She described it as being so quiet she could hear individual spruce needles falling out of the trees, and a car approaching along the road could be heard a quarter hour before it appeared in the distance.