Being Caribou: Calving Grounds

We follow a giant, endangered caribou herd from the Yukon to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Part 3.

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Jago River, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The following is the third report from the Alaska bush. Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison started their expedition in the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s wintering range near Old Crow, Yukon on April 8, and hope 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.

Movement has defined this trip so far – two months of it through blizzards, past wolf packs, across frozen rivers and snowy mountain ranges. But all that changed fifteen days ago when we arrived at the Jago River in the heart of the caribou’s calving grounds, deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s coastal plain. For the first time in 50 days the caribou were staying put, feeding, resting, even sprawling out and closing their eyes.

Following their cue, we pitched the tent.

We had no idea it was the start of 10 days of being held hostage in that tiny four-by-six-foot space. But by the next morning, hundreds of cow caribou surrounded us and their numbers soon swelled to over a thousand. Accepting of the tent but not of us, we went to extraordinary lengths not to disturb the skittish, expectant mothers. We talked in whispers for days, crawled on our bellies to fetch water and got creative when it came time for that water to come out the other end. In those instances, with calving cows paranoid of the slightest human movement, we asked ourselves how oil and gas companies that wanted to drill there could possibly claim there would be no impact.

One notices a lot in ten days of sitting still. We watched the birds arrive: mergansers, terns, spotted, common and upland sandpipers, and by the end of the first week we not only had mapped the favorite travel routes and singing posts of a Lapland Longspur, but had watched it attract a female and, in the flutter of wings, mate. We watched the ice shelves calve off the riverbank, the river rise and grow muddy, the snow slide into meltwater pools that in turn shrank with the revolving sun. We watched winter turn to summer and in that narrow week of Arctic spring, sat silently as the caribou began to calve.

Most of the calves arrived in the first few days of June, precocious dark balls of fur graced for a life of travel with a generous helping of legs. And they learned to use them quickly. One calf, born less than 50 meters from the tent, was standing and searching the underside of its mother’s belly only 20 minutes after the silvery umbilical cord was severed. Four hours later, something helpless had turned into a fully mobile caribou, running with the rest of the calves zipping like jets around their feeding mothers.

These new arrivals change the character of the herd. Stoic cows that guarded us through the spring migration are now vigilant, proud mothers. Their weariness has dissipated with the endless energy of the bounding, bleating calves. Having traveled with them for the last two months, it is hard for Leanne and I not to share those feelings and we do our best to contain our laughter and appreciation for the calves’ antics within the confines of our cramped tent.

There are three things that make these endangered calving grounds so critically important and we witness all of them during the course of our stay.

First is the food. For ten days we see the energy-starved cows do little more than feed on the area’s diverse array of wet grasses, ground lichens and willow shrubs, a protein-rich diet that translates into good milk for the calves’ all-important first meals. Second, while the season’s first mosquitoes and biting flies emerged in the warmer mountains, Leanne and I, like the caribou, were unhindered by insects on the cooler coastal plain – passing days in the tent with the bug screens wide open. And finally, in contrast to our experiences in the mountains and foothills while getting here, there is an absence of predators. Unlike the multiple bears and eagles we saw daily then, in more than a week we spot only one grizzly from where we sit on the calving grounds. There are no blizzards, no wolves, no endless travel to keep us moving day after day. The ceaseless work and harshness that otherwise dog the caribou seem to have taken a short hiatus in this sacred place at this sacred time of year.

When the caribou finish calving and start to move again, Leanne and I are ready. Stiff, sluggish and tired of inactivity, we pack the tent and follow as the herd heads toward the 8,000-foot peaks of Alaska’s Brooks Range. Climbing on foot instead of on skis now, we make our way into the foothills and stop to look back at the shimmering coastal plain. Like the herd, an unborn part of us came alive there and we wrestle with the thought that all of it -birds, caribou, the wildness that stretches human consciousness – could be sacrificed for the equivalent of a six-month supply of oil for the US. Ninety-five percent of Alaska’s Arctic Coast was open for business. Given all we’d experienced on the calving grounds and during the two-month migration to get there, there was little doubt what should be done with the five percent that was left.

And so we move with the herd again. Slower now that the ranks have thickened with calves, and with far more drama between the normal stops to feed and rest.

One day, a grizzly bear appeared a kilometer away and sent the herd running over a six-foot-high drift – nothing but a leap for the cows, but impassable for many of the calves. Some mothers noticed and went back for their young. Other calves figured how to get down on their own, but one headed uphill over the rise where the grizzly had briefly emerged, and disappeared. The distraught mother returned half an hour later, grunting, thrashing back and forth through the willows in panic. She searched all night, pacing, calling as Leanne and I tried to sleep, haunted by the sound of her voice over the river. She was silent but still there the next morning, standing still, listless, vacantly staring into the river.

The next day an eagle tore a strip out of an unguarded calf, a cow and calf got permanently separated at a routine river crossing, and we stumbled across the strewn and picked-over carcasses of other calves that had met similar fates.

We knew this was going to happen. Of every 100 calves born, 25 die of such natural causes in the first month, even with the calving grounds undeveloped. But still, it is hard to stomach. As with any companion on a long journey, a bond has formed between ourselves and the caribou; a relationship, no matter how one-sided, that makes it difficult to digest how quickly the miracle of birth can be followed by the tragedy of death. So we prepare ourselves for both the joys and sorrows that await us as we continue with the herd towards the Yukon, into the insect season and beyond, following their movements as they travel back to the winter range over the next four months.

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