July 25 – day 17 –  Ursus Island

Despite the storm’s threat last night, no rain and this morning only clouds remain. But everyone slept long and deep with the cooler temperatures provided by overcast skies. The humidity dropped as well, reducing the number of biting flies. For the first time in days, bug jackets are off – at least while on the river. 

The Thelon cranks around a corner and flows due north. Right past a large spruce grove, the tundra sneak close to waters edge. Bare rock, sand blowouts and dry grasses cover a bald hump. Up on this hill still rests a wood marker carved by wildlife biologists Kelsall and Perret in 1953. Apparently Tyrrell also noted this hump on his maps as it marked the last of the big trees.

The view ahead. A caribou antler is a convenient weight pinning the map case down against canvas canoe pack. Far in the distance , a tiny dot: Katherine and Alfred, waiting for Ron to catch up for a floating lunch.

With good weather on our side, the mood to explore struck deep in all of us. We decided to take the road less traveled and follow the north channel around Ursus Island. It’s a narrow gap between low sand points, easy to miss. Likely in August, the water levels would be too low to paddle the gap at all – as it was, Ron grounded out a few times in the solo boat.

But exploring has its rewards! Right at the southern tip of the island, a lone white wolf stared down at us from the high sandy banks. We hopped out, hoping to catch another glimpse but he was long gone in the underbrush.

Then, out of now where, a pair of terns start to aggressively dive bomb us. At first it’s funny but they are deadly serious and fly low, hovering, beady eyes hostile, intent on driving us away from their invisible chicks, camouflaged somewhere along the sand. With two paddlers in the canoe, Alfred and I manage to get downstream, out of their range.

Ron however, has no chance. First one bird and then the other bird take turns dive bombing him, sharp beaks aimed at his head. We watch for 3 minutes and I grow concerned – we start to paddle back upstream to distract the terns – but the current carries Ron downstream enough that the terns are satisfied their young are safe. Who would expect that the most aggressive encounter on the river would come from a bird?

The water continues to get shallower. A sharp end in the river, we’ve rounded the western point of the island. A moose feeding in chest deep in the river, raises his heavy head, water dripping rack, watching us. He turns, lumbering easily through impassable willows that line the shore. We try to follow the retreating moose inland but its impossible. The bushes are so dense, the bow of the canoe will not penetrate enough to allow for a landing. I’m mystified how such a large animal with huge rack could vanish so effortlessly.

Thinking campsites might be difficult to find, this sand blow out offered an easy route to the top of the island. Scrambling up, we were delighted to find a huge level expanse of marram grass, tree stumps and sandy pockets perfect for camping. The site is littered with tracks including grizzly – I wonder how fresh those are. With a name like ‘Ursus Island’ I expected a bruin or two would be cruising, out looking for dinner.

Poking around later, we find a single polished moose antler gleaming in the fading sun, discarded by rightful owner.