If you are planning to pitch
a tent on the banks of the Clearwater,
stay away from the bearberry
patch, and be sure to hang your
food pack high in a tree. The
Clearwater region, with its
mixed forest cover and ample
wild berry supply, is an ideal
habitat for the black bear.
Although 80% to 90% of the black
bear's diet is vegetative, camp
meals are likely to appeal to
the bear's highly developed
sense of smell. Though considerably
smaller and less aggressive
than the legendary grizzly bear,
black bears are still formidable,
standing up to 1 metre tall
and weighing up to 140 kilograms.
Their short, curved claws are
well-adapted to climbing trees
in response to danger, but when
threatened, they can be lethal
weapons of self-defense.
Seasons of the
Late summer rafters and canoeists on the
Clearwater are a fortunate lot. Water levels
are manageable, temperatures are tolerable,
and the mighty moose that appear on the
river's banks can be viewed in their red-coated,
Even if they are already familiar with
this quintessentially Canadian mammal, river
travellers may be startled by the massiveness
of the Clearwater variety. With its huge
head, long, broad snout, bulky bodies, lanky
legs and short, stubby tail, the moose is
by far the largest of the deer family. Bulls
may weigh up to 750 kilograms and stand
2 metres high, while cows will be of similar
height but somewhat lighter in weight.
The adult moose that appears
on the Clearwater in mid-August will have
shed its faded, grayish winter coat in favour
of a new, short, dark brown hide that has
gradually turned a rich, reddish-brown and
black. It will be mid-September before its
heavy undercoat of wool and coarse guard
hairs thickens in anticipation of colder
The white, shovel-shaped antlers ("rack")
of the mature Bull Moose will have reached
their full size by summer's end, and will
be covered in a velvety coating of skin
and hair. (In just a few more weeks, the
blood supply to the antlers will be cut
off, and the velvet will begin to shed.
The moose will scrape continuously against
trees and bushes until all the velvet is
gone. The antlers will eventually darken
and fall off during the winter season.)
Moose cows will not have any antlers at
all, but both sexes will sport a characteristic
"bell" below their throats. This
hanging flap of skin can grow as long as
25 centimetres in males and plays an important
role in transferring scent from bulls to
cows during "chinning" behaviour.
As a means of sensory perception, the bell
compensates for the moose's relatively poor
The moose of the mellow summer
season is likely to appear mild and serene,
as it calmly chews its herbivorous way through
the boreal forest. Stripping off fresh leaves
with its tough, thick tongue, the moose
uses 12 sets of broad, flattened teeth at
the rear of its mouth to consume its woody
Barely a month later, however, the lumbering
giant that grazed so sedately on the riverbank
can become a noisy, unpredictable and even
dangerous animal. During the mating "rut,"
bulls emit a deep, remarkably loud grunt
and cows bawl with a high-pitched wail.
Bulls with larger antlers will be dominant,
but courting males of equal size may lock
antlers and fight to the death, overcome
with exhaustion and starvation. Cows can
be similarly ferocious in spring and early
summer. Moose mothers protecting their helpless
newborn calves will be fiercely aggressive
in their defense, charging at any threat
and striking viciously with both front feet.
The moose is a sturdy survivor. Despite
its awkward appearance, a healthy adult
moose can run quickly (up to 55 kilometres
per hour) and swim long distances. Its long
legs and large feet, designed to wade through
deep snow and muskeg, can also defend it
from predators. The main threats to moose
Predation - Most moose can fend off
a lone timber wolf, but a group of 4 or
5 wolves can overcome an adult, particularly
when they are grouped together or "yarded"
in deep snow. Newborns, yearlings and sick
or disabled moose are more easily preyed
upon by wolves, wolverines and black bears.
Snow Conditions - Wading through
snow depths of over 90 centimetres is a
challenge for even the tallest moose. Heavily
crusted snow may pierce its forelegs and
crack its hooves, making it more vulnerable
Disease - Parasites such as bladder
worm can sicken and weaken the moose. "Moose
disease", spread by white-tailed deer,
can be fatal.
Eagles in Abundance
Bald eagle watchers can quickly confirm
that the birds are not actually bald, but
white-headed. They are the only large bird
species on the continent that is also white-tailed.
Their adult plumage, which includes a sharply
contrasting blackish-brown back and yellow
feet and bill, takes about 4 years to develop.
Female bald eagles are slightly larger than
males, measuring 90 centimetres in height
and 5-6 kilograms in weight, with an impressive
wingspan of up to 2 metres.
It's not surprising that visitors to the
Clearwater River may become a little nonchalant
about bald eagles. In the undisturbed wilderness
of this northern waterway, these North American
birds of prey have flourished. Upriver canoeists
quickly become accustomed to the sight of
the soaring birds rising and falling on
columns of air.
The eagles glimpsed by a summer visitor
will have no difficulty adapting to the
much harsher temperatures of the winter.
Their feathers - about 7,000 in all - are
lined with down. They are also strong and
flexible and can adapt to weather changes
simply by changing position. Feet are mostly
tendon, and beaks have little blood supply.
The bald eagle is a type of fish,
or sea, eagle and will often be seen swooping
down to the river's surface to snatch fish
from the water with a lightning-quick swipe
of its talons. The eagle doesn't have to
eat every day, but when it does, it can
consume up to half a kilogram within one
minute. The bald eagle's diet is not restricted
to fish. It will prey upon small animals
such as otters, ducks and muskrats and as
a scavenger, will also dine on carrion.
Bald eagle nests, usually located close
to the river's edge, are impressive structures.
Since eagles return to their roosts year
after year, nests can become enormous, measuring
up to 1.5 metres in diameter, and weighing
hundreds of kilograms. They may be conical,
disk-shaped or bowl-shaped, depending on
the shape of the tree branches that support
Remember to keep your distance when observing
or photographing bald eagle nests. Getting
too close may cause the birds to abandon
Entering the Taiga Zone
A journey on the Clearwater River is also
a journey through the heart of one of the
world's most extensive forest zones. Known
by its Russian name, "taiga,"
this forest type is sometimes referred to
as "boreal" or "northern
The taiga is a nearly continuous belt of
coniferous (cone-bearing) trees that sweeps
across both North American and Eurasia,
lying south of the tundra over formerly
glaciated areas. Corresponding to subarctic
and cold continental climates, the taiga
forest has several distinguishing characteristics:
Tree Species such as spruce and fir are
ingeniously adapted to the taiga climate.
The narrow, conical shape of their needles
promotes the shedding of snow, and reduces
the surface area through which moisture
may be lost during the winter freeze. A
thick, waxy coating on the needles protects
them from drying winds, and an internal
chemical repels grazing animals.
Winters are long and severe, and
summers are short and warm.
Rainfall is moderately high and is
spread throughout the course of the year.
Little water is evaporated by the
sun, resulting in numerous ponds, lakes
and bogs known as "muskegs."
The forest is a mixture of successional
and subclimax plant communities. Tree species
are relatively few in number, and include
spruce, fir, pine and deciduous larch (tamarack),
alder, birch and aspen.
Leaves continuously cover the ground,
contributing to acidic soil which slows
down the process of decay.
Soil remains moist, promoting the
growth of moss and lichens.
Retention of evergreen needles year round
allows them to begin photosynthesis as soon
as warmer temperatures arrive, without devoting
precious time to growing leaves. Even the
dark colour of the evergreen is an asset,
helping the trees to quickly absorb a maximum