Being Caribou: A Mountain Of A Shortcut

We follow a giant, endangered caribou herd from the Yukon to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 4.
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We follow a giant, endangered caribou herd from the Yukon to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 4.

Jago River, Alaska to Headwaters of Babbage River, Yukon

350 kilometers

The following is the fourth update flown out from the expedition. Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison started their expedition in the Porcupine Caribou Herd's wintering range near Old Crow, Yukon on April 8, to travel with members of the 123,000-strong herd to their endangered calving grounds in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back again. The purpose of the 2,000 kilometer journey by ski and foot is to understand what's at stake in the decades-old debate over whether or not to open up the herd's calving grounds to oil and gas development.

It was hard to know it was happening at first, or maybe we just didn't want to admit it. The week and a half of rest at the calving grounds, followed by another week of leisurely roaming the Alaskan foothills with caribou mothers and newborn calves, had been a welcome break from the intense travel of the spring migration. But now, with group after group racing past our camp in the Egaksrak Valley, there could be no question that the next phase of the caribou's migration was on. There was new urgency to their movements, the year's first mosquitoes and flies were about to hatch and when they did, the caribou would likely band together in huge groups and race for relief in the windy Yukon mountains. Deemed by many to be the most dramatic stage of the entire migration, the post-calving aggregation was something we didn't want to miss. Packing up just an hour after pitching camp, Leanne and I passed on sleep that night and followed the caribou east.

It felt like we kept up at first, but with backpacks laden with twenty days of food, it was a pace we couldn't maintain for long. We adopted new strategies to better our chances: cooking meals on the fly, and moving day and night with only short naps between. It worked for awhile, long enough to see our first bulls of the trip merge with the cows and calves, and to experience the awe and exhilaration of clattering hooves and rushing bodies as wave after wave of animals passed in a narrow mountain constriction. But after seven days of racing, as we entered back into Canada, the pace took its toll and we began to falter. We were still with caribou but the stream of animals was slowing. We were somewhere near the end of the strung-out herd instead of near the beginning.

And so we made a fateful decision: in an effort to recoup lost time, we would shortcut through the British Mountains of Yukon's Ivvavik National Park to the herd's most common crossing point of the Firth River. We cut the corner in one 40km-long push along ridge tops and arrived wobbly kneed, exhausted, on the verge of fainting.

Then we waited. But they never came. Five days later we received a message from biologists: the majority of animals were moving along the coastal foothills instead of through the mountains. Speculating where they were headed, we swam the Firth River and, in another bid to catch up, set off to cut the corner again.

This time it worked. After two days of walking old trails with no fresh sign, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of three large groups aggregating in a rocky defile at the head of the Trail River. There were thousands of them, carefully picking their way through a tilted field of jagged boulders, filing past for five hours in the early morning shadows, only to disappear in the foggy valley below. We slept long enough for the mist to clear, and the caribou with it.

Uncertain whether we had been dreaming, we ventured around the corner the next morning and came across another group of thousands of animals, clustered in a giant sweep of tussock grass, a ball of bodies shifting in the sunlight -- east, west, north, south -- moving in unison but without pattern, at the mercy of biting flies and a changing wind. We watched for a long time, long enough to see them run for a ridge when the breeze dropped off, swarming the summit in search of a breath of moving air, turning the gray peak brown with their bodies. When they descended, we dropped down from our lookout as well, sitting quietly as they streamed off the mountainside, hands hunched into our sleeves, bug nets cinched around our necks, waiting.

Then all our dreams were realized. The herd moved towards us. Soon we would be engulfed in animals.

It took half an hour for the feeding group to reach us and when it did, there was none of the skittishness witnessed on the calving grounds of Alaska's threatened coastal plain. Cows and bulls approached within metres, stopped for a moment with a blade of grass or half-chewed flower hanging from their lips, then continued to feed unperturbed. Curious calves ventured even closer, cocking their heads to figure what we were, then promptly bedded down. Soon we were surrounded by animals, their soft grunts, clicking hooves and chewing all but drowning out the incessant whine of mosquitoes and buzz of flies.

It was there, amongst the animals, that we truly began to appreciate the extent to which they are harassed by insects. Not a second passed without one shuddering, not a minute without an outbreak of snorts and half-sneezes as another tried to expel the flies burrowing up its nose. No wonder there was the odd animal charging through the her in a desperate rampage, bucking and kicking at the flies, eyes wild and rolled back in a crazed panic. These animals were tired, we realized, harangued and worn down, an impression only heightened by the sight of them in their half-shed winter coats; a motley, tattered, blotchy looking bunch. Whereas Leanne and I welcomed the summer weather for how it makes outdoor life easier, such warm, still days and the bugs that come with them are yet another discomfort for these caribou that must be endured.

After four hours, a guttural thrumming rose up from the group. Calves searched out their mothers, outliers from the herd moved in and the throng of animals began to move. We considered following them into the late evening light, foregoing sleep once again to stay with them, but couldn't find the reserves.

Being surrounded, being accepted, Being Caribou all afternoon, had left us exhausted.

After cooking another spartan meal of dried vegetables, jerky and rice, we sank into a deep sleep and the next morning had only their trails to follow; brown tamped-down lanes of dirt striping narrow green valleys heading southeast towards Muskeg Creek and the massive, lush basin where huge congregations have gathered in past years. Our anticipation was high as we approached the gateway out of the mountains, images of tens of thousands of animals in our minds as our feet brushed through avens, cotton grass, lousewort and arctic poppies, already past their prime and going to seed. But there were no great gatherings when we arrived. Only three ravens circling and a pair of upland sandpipers crying out their chattering call. Plenty of caribou tracks littered the ground and fresh trails of bent grass headed in all directions. We stopped for the night and I suddenly realized the futility of what we were trying to do in this, the bug season: we were trying to follow animals whose movements were ruled by insects which, in turn, were ruled by a shifting wind. Disheartened, we left the basin the next morning following the only hint we'd received in fourteen hours: three lone caribou, all heading east.

That is where we find ourselves now, moving without caribou as much or more than with, following fresh trails of a large group somewhere ahead, having to be content with the company of the odd cow/calf pair that, like us, has fallen behind. And although there is humility, even a sense of failure in having lost our group, the absence of caribou has brought new perspectives.

We have an inkling of what it might have been like for the Inuvialuit, Gwich'in or Inupiat hunter; the frustration, desperation, the life and death relationship between caribou and hunter.

For the first time in three months, we have a sense of what this land might be like without the caribou; what it might be like if short-sighted human greed and the quest for more, faster, bigger modern conveniences lead to oil and gas development in the herd's Alaskan calving grounds.

The land feels empty without them, the valleys vacant, as though the long history that has terraced every hillside and mountain has abruptly ended. When the caribou aren't around, one of this landscape's shaping elements is missing; something as powerful as wind and water.

And so we are determined to find the caribou again and stay with them as they disperse in the mountains for the rest of the summer before returning south to the taiga forest this fall. Because we can. Because they are still out there, wild, free, determining their own routes, their own future, as capable of bringing life and light to an otherwise quiet valley as into two humbled and awed human spirits.