Being Caribou: Arctic Summer

We follow a giant, endangered caribou herd from the Yukon to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 5.
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We follow a giant, endangered caribou herd from the Yukon to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 5.

Babbage River to Headwaters of Blow River, Yukon

140 kilometers

The following is the fifth update flown from the Being Caribou 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 by ski and on foot 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 ~2,000km-long journey is to understand what's at stake in the decades-old debate over whether or not to open the herd's calving grounds to oil and gas development.

Something's happening here. Something bigger than us. Something we never want to end.

Since finding another group of a few thousand animals four weeks ago, we haven't been without caribou for more than a few hours. They seem to wait when we've fallen behind, stop, even circle when we're delayed by weather, always appearing to guide us as though there's something they don't want us to miss. After four months of trying to keep up, we ARE keeping up. The effort of it has slipped away.

Part of it, of course, is that the caribou have been moving less. The last weeks of July were frenetic ones that saw them rushing up ankle-breaking slopes to escape the bugs, sometimes doing nothing but making short charges from one breezy summit to the next with nothing to eat for three days. And it was always the cows and calves that came down first, trying to feed only to be driven back up by the bugs -- skinny, hungry, still in the energy deficit that makes those early June days of feeding undisturbed at the calving grounds all-important.

But that was July. This is August and cool nights as well as wind, rain and snow have knocked down the bugs, bringing a sudden end to the searing 24-hour summer days.

In a heartbeat the golden season is upon us. Blueberries, cranberries and cloudberries are everywhere underfoot and in the span of 48 hours we have seen the tundra change from vibrant green to a muted yellow-orange. Flowers have gone to seed overnight, the mountain tops where we sweltered two short weeks ago are dusted with snow and the caribou that have been harassed by biting insects for a long month are resting.

Not since the calving grounds have we seen them lay down like this. Even the calves, freed of their winged tormentors, have the energy and spirit to play again. Bigger and more filled out, they zip and zag through the adults who pay little heed as they feed and rest, feed and rest, visibly growing fatter for the first time all trip. Even the predators seem to be obeying some unwritten agreement in this rare, restful time. Yesterday we watched two grizzlies roam amongst thousands of caribou without incident. Later, a wolf trotted through the same quiet scene.

All this peaceful co-existence leaves us wondering if the string of dramas we witnessed during the previous weeks weren't part of some difficult dream. They weren't.

Back in the Barn Mountains there is a trail of lost caribou calves where the herd bolted from the bugs; already dead or close to it as they search and wait for long-gone mothers.

There is at least one carcass in a creek bed; a cow we saw kneeling in the water, trying to bury her nose in the moss, seeking cool relief from the hot buzz that burned inside, flies so deep in her head that brown mucous poured out, delirious but quiet in her pain, dying a horrific, dignified death as her calf, also now condemned, looked on.

Now it is only the odd limping animal that reminds us of those panicked days. That and the gaze from the curious cow or bull that approaches where we sit or camp. It is the look of ages they give us, inquiring on the surface, backed by a quiet, patient endurance that is in every animal, in every movement. Calmness in action; intensity when calm. These are the qualities that have been shaped over tens of thousands of years, qualities that have eluded us for so much of the trip, so much of our lives. But here, now after months of putting aside our own desires to follow these wild animals, they finally seem within reach.

But we are in month five of this trip and just as the mental shifts needed to "be caribou" take hold, our bodies are giving out. The hundreds of meals of dried food, the six weeks of skiing followed by another six-week race trying to keep up with the post-calving herd, have all taken their toll, not to mention the extremes of Arctic weather. Ironic, isn't it, just when the caribou are reaching their physical prime, we feel ours has passed. We are gripped all night by hunger and I wake in the morning grasping at arms, legs and torso that, after having grown muscular, are now too thin to be my own.

If there is any hope of us making it back to the Porcupine River, to caribou winter range and the village of Old Crow, we will need to leave soon. We look for a sign from the animals but they are happy here on the Arctic/Pacific divide, despite the plummeting temperatures. They seem content circulating and dispersing in all directions as though caught in a giant eddy, a backwater of rest and respite in the larger flow of the migration. We have followed them east, west, north and south for the past two weeks, but with each passing day, realize that we may need to start the fall migration with or without them as our guides.

For now, though, we perch on the northwest edge of the Richardson Mountains, resting, watching, trying to conserve our energy before the final push south.