Canadian photographer R. John Knight shares the stories behind some of his nature and wildlife images

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Arctic Foxes in Southern Labrador

On the prowl
During our visit to Battle Harbour (NL), August 2011, we learned that there were Arctic Foxes living in the collapsed ruins of the old school house at the abandoned communities of Matthews Cove and Trap Cove on Great Caribou Island (NL).  We were intrigued.  Surely Arctic Foxes didn't live this far south.  We had to go and see for ourselves.

Summer cabins, Matthews Cove (NL)
And so with our new friends, John and Robin, who were from Goose Bay and whom we met at Battle Harbour, we were taken in a small boat around to an old stage in Matthews Cove.  From there, we walked uphill a short distance until we could see the remains of the old school.  We waited and watched from a distance for a short time, but saw no activity.  With a light, but steady, rain falling from grey skies, and not knowing where the best place was to set up, we decided to explore around some of the old abandoned houses in Trap Cove.

Abandoned home, Trap Cove (NL)
Periodically, we'd carefully peak over the small intervening hill to see if there was any activity at the school.  Eventually, one fox made a cautious appearance, and then, another.  We slowly and quietly crept back and set up our tripods about 10-15 m from the school.  

The foxes were initially unsettled, particularly with the four of us nearby.  We sat quietly and waited.  Eventually four foxes appeared, one at a time.  Instead of the beautiful thick white winter coats that we had seen at Churchill (MB) during November a few years ago, these foxes had scruffy brown to grey to off-white coloured fur.  These were Arctic Foxes in their summer duds.  The seasonal variation in colour allows the foxes to blend into the rocks or vegetation during the summer, both for protection and hunting, just as their winter-white's made them almost invisible in snowy terrains.   

Visitors at collapsed old school, Matthews Cove  and Trap Cove
The collapsed framework of the old school with its multiple entrances (exits) was a convenient and easy alternative to living in a burrow in the ground or snow.

Foxes are carnivores and scavengers, and typically feed on rodents (mice, lemmings), small birds, fish and vegetables.  Such food was readily available from the nearby abandoned homes, stages and stores, summer cabins and locals.

Arctic Foxes typically range in weight from 3 - 9 kg, and from 75-115 cm long.  Their bushy tail is about a third of the their overall length.

Foxes at play; look carefully under floor-board
Locals indicated that they had seen as many as 9 foxes at the old school.  Arctic Foxes can have litters with up to 14 pups each spring (late May to early June).  During our brief stay at the school in early August, we saw only four foxes.  Where the other five foxes were was a mystery.  To our inexperienced eye, we could not differentiate the parents from the pups.

Ever watchful!
On the move ... coming at you!
With just the two of us nearby, the foxes quickly figured out that we were not a threat, so they just ignored us.  They groomed themselves, played with each other, found things to chew on, dozed, and hunted, either nearby or on the remains of the old school.  At times, they came closer than our cameras could focus.

Lookout ... behind you!
We saw them chewing vigorously on sharp scraps plastic and other debris from the school.  It left us thinking that such items would not be good for them if swallowed.

One way to get some iron in your diet
We could only stay for about 3 hours before having to head across the spongy tundra of Great Caribou Island in the rain, and back to Battle Harbour.  We enjoyed the rare opportunity to be this close to Arctic Foxes.

Battle Harbour, Matthews Cove and Trap Cove are communities that were resettled by the Provincial Government in the early 1960's.  Some of the old buildings are used for summer cabins in Matthews Cove and Trap Cove.  Many of the buildings at Battle Harbour have or are being renovated under the guidance and support the Battle Harbour Historic Trust Inc. to recreate a living outport.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Battle Harbour, Labrador

Last August, when we decided to return to Calgary from Newfoundland via Labrador, we realized that we had an opportunity to visit Battle Harbour (NL), a place that we had long wanted to visit.

View from the rocky hill overlooking Battle Harbour and tickle
Battle Harbour is an old community that is situated on a small rocky island, Battle Island, about an hour by boat, depending on the winds and sea state, west of Mary's Harbour (NL).  The tickle between Battle Harbour and Great Caribou Island to the west forms a sheltered narrow natural harbour.  The community became an important permanent settlement for the Labrador fishery with establishment of a mercantile saltfish premises there during the 1770's.  Battle Harbour prospered from the processing of salt-fish, salmon and seal until its residents were forced to relocate/resettle to Mary's Harbour between 1965-1968 under a provincial government sponsored program.  Some residents continued to use their homes seasonally as a base for fishing until the Government of Canada closed the cod fishery in 1992.

Restored mercantile premises and other buildings, Battle Harbour
Many original residents continued to use their homes as cabins during summer vacations, but clearly the community and the outport life was in decline.    In 1990, the Battle Harbour Historic Trust Inc., a not-for profit registered charity, was established to hold donations of property rights and funds, and to oversee the seasonal work of restoring the old buildings by volunteers and staff.  The intent of these dedicated people is to continue the lifestyle and community of an old outport for others to visit and experience.

The buildings of the old saltfish premises have been restored.  They contain numerous displays and artifacts that relate to and describe the Labrador fishery and life in the community.  There are other historical buildings, several of which are used for visitors to stay in overnight.  Visitors can take a guided tour through the fish premises and community, walk the numerous walkways and paths on your own, or hike around and over the rest of the wind and salt spray-swept island.  Many of the staff were born in Battle Harbour, or nearby, so they have many first-hand stories to tell.

We stayed comfortably at the Battle Harbour Inn, one of the restored buildings.  Here, we met John and Robin who were on vacation from their home in Goose Bay.  We spent our evenings chatting with them, and other visitors, in the cozy veranda, usually with a glass of wine in-hand.  There was a full kitchen for our use, but we chose to eat in the dining room that was located upstairs over the old General Store.  The food was great, and it gave us an opportunity to meet other guests and converse with some of the staff.

Battle Harbour Inn with 'sticks' in the foreground
Battle Harbour Inn with cozy veranda overlooking tickle

The geology of Battle Island is complex and fascinating.  The rocks include deformed and metamorphosed Proterozoic supracrustal rocks with mafic igneous sills in the northeast part of the island, and complexly folded  granitic pegamatites (intrusives) in the western half of the island.  According to Gower (2008), one pegmatite from the southern end of the island has a preliminary age slightly older than 1 billion years.  For those wanting more information about the geology of Battle Island, download the following PDF files: "Battle Harbour - A Geological Treasure in Eastern Coastla Labrador" and "Tourist's Guide to the Geology of Battle Harbour, Labrador" by Charles Gower (Newfoundland & Labrador Natural Resources).

Granitic pegmatites and old fishing boat
Deformed granitic pegmatites in a mafic hoast rock
The staff will take you by boat to Great Caribou Island which is just across the tickle to the west.  There, you can spend the day hiking and exploring the rugged natural landscape, and the old abandoned communities of Matthews Cove and Trap Cove.

Surprisingly to us, Battle Harbour is also the destination for adventurous sailors who have the right skills and equipment to sail through the cold, iceberg infested waters and along the rocky and 'sunker' strewn shores of Labrador.  Jamie and Lori, whom we met here, had sailed from Boston aboard their boat, "Sea Quester".  And, this was not their first visit. 

Jamie and Lori's boat, "Sea Quester"
Battle Harbour is rugged, but beautiful place that immerses you in the lifestyle of an old outport.  It's a place that we hope to visit again.

For more information about Battle Harbour, visit their website.