When news broke last week of the mass drowning of thousands of caribou in northern Quebec—a bizarre, horrific event that appalled even veteran wildlife experts—SI's editors moved quickly to cover the story. They obtained film of the disaster from free-lance photographer Dan Budnik, who happened to have been in nearby Labrador shooting pictures of migrating caribou for the West German edition of the magazine Geo when the drownings began, and then they dispatched staff writer Robert Sullivan to the scene.
Piecing together what had happened turned out to be quite a challenge. Says Sullivan, whose story begins on page 100, "Everyone I talked to about it was helpful and very concerned but also a little bit guarded. Even to the conservationists, this thing is still kind of a mystery."
Sullivan's first problem was simply getting from New York to Kuujjuaq, Que., the tiny town 600 miles north of Quebec City near which the drownings occurred. After a minor mix-up in the Time Inc. travel department—which nearly sent him instead to Kuujjvaraatik, another Canadian village farther west, near Hudson Bay, Sullivan flew to Montreal, where he spent a three-hour airport layover doing interviews on a pay phone. Then it was on to Kuujjuaq. "I stepped off the plane," says Sullivan, "and into a waiting helicopter, which flew me through a snowstorm to the scene of the drownings."
Sullivan, 30, who joined SI in 1980 after two years as managing editor of New Hampshire Profiles magazine, is no stranger to wintry climes or difficult assignments. A graduate of Dartmouth who grew up in Massachusetts, he has been a member of our crew at the last two Winter Olympics and has either written or done reporting for virtually every investigative story we've run in the last four years. Perhaps our busiest staffer at this year's Summer Games in Los Angeles—he had a hand in the coverage of seven sports and wrote our closing essay on Rafer Johnson—Sullivan has contributed stories since on horse racing, the future of the USFL and the future of the Olympics. But last week was the first time he had to sleep on the floor of a hotel room (photographer Budnik's) while in the process of getting a story. "There's never been anything like this in Kuujjuaq," says Sullivan. "There was no room at the inn."
October 14, 1984
For Sullivan, the impressions linger. "You couldn't imagine what it was like until you saw it," he says. "Until you saw the sea gulls and the ravens at work on the bodies...on the thousands and thousands of carcasses. Even though I knew what to expect, it was still shocking."