Wildlife Viewing in the Canadian North

The town of Moose Factory in northern Ontario has few obvious attractions for the visitor. You can drop in on the Cree Interpretation Centre and look at old artifacts; you can visit the Hudson’s Bay Company Museum, assuming it’s open; or you can experience the local horsefly, otherwise known as a bulldog. In the words of an early northern explorer, this insect “lands on you with a thud, takes a bite out of your flesh, and then retreats to a nearby tree, where you can hear it masticating.” By comparison, Moose Factory’s mosquitoes seem relatively mild-mannered.

Or you could visit the local dump, especially in the evening, where you can watch up to a dozen black bears engage in culinary activities. Rather than fast food detritus and ancient leftovers from family meals, they’re feeding primarily on moose, goose, and fish parts thrown away by the locals. In other words, they’re eating many of the same things they’d be eating if they were in the wild.

In lieu of a cinema, the local Cree bring their kids to the dump for an evening’s entertainment. In fact, the dump is the only place in town where you can find yourself in a traffic jam — if four or five cars constitute a jam.

Millman2The bears are usually oblivious to culinary voyeurs. While I was in Moose Factory, I visited the dump perhaps half a dozen times, often getting within 20 meters of a particular bear, and only once did I come close to provoking an incident. This happened when I was taking a photograph of a bear with a moose’s head, or a portion thereof, in its mouth. The bear fixed its eyes on me as if to say: Think this is weird, eh?  I wonder if you’ll think your own head in my mouth is weird, too…

I can read your thoughts and, yes, a dump is not a particularly natural setting for watching bears. But I would argue that a zoo is an even less natural setting for watching bears…or for watching any animal. At least the Moose Factory bears still live most of their lives in the wild, heading back into the bush after they’ve eaten their fill at the dump. Not so zoo animals: they’re imprisoned forever more.

I know what else you’re probably thinking.  A dump — yecch!   Wouldn’t it be better just to watch, for example, Animal Planet? For me, however, the “yecch factor” occurs when I watch animals on television. Such animals tend to be anthropomorphized or cute-ified ad nauseam. Likewise, they often seem like they’re playing consciously to the galleries — “charismatic, aren’t I?” they appear to be saying. You never see an animal taking a dump on Animal Planet. I saw several bears taking a dump at the Moose Factory dump.

If you do decide to go bear watching in Moose Factory, you should do so soon. For I’ve heard that the dump will be replaced by a transfer station in two years or perhaps less. If you wait that long, you might find yourself watching — and then swatting — the bulldogs that are landing on you with a thud.

Lawrence Millman bioLawrence Millman is the author of 16 books, including such titles as Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Last Places, An Evening Among Headhunters, and Hiking to Siberia. As a mycologist, he has written the only guidebook to New England fungi and found a species of polypore previously thought to be extinct.  He keeps a post office box in Cambridge, MA.  Oh yes: we almost forgot — he doesn’t own a cellphone or any sort of iDevice and has never sent a text message in his life.  Nor will he ever send a text message, as he believes they destroy language.

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