Being Caribou: Caribou I Am

How do you plan an expedition to follow 123,000 migrating caribou across Canada and Alaska? Very carefully.

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Following Caribou – Who are you kidding?

Caribou have evolved to be the perfect long distance arctic travellers. Splayed hooves, arteries and veins designed for heat conservation, and hollow hairs for insulation are some of the adaptations making them well-suited to travel in the cold of winter and across the spongy tundra in summer. Leanne and Karsten aren’t so lucky. Human knees and ankles aren’t designed for the bone-jarring tussocks of the tundra, and hairless human bodies offer little in the way of protection from cold air, freezing rivers, or stinging bugs.

So will it be possible to keep up with these perfect travellers? Nobody knows. Some biologists, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit elders suspect it will be difficult to stay with an individual animal, but it might be possible to stay amid spread-out groups for weeks at a time. In other words, if the hikers leave with the leaders of the spring migration, they might limp into the calving grounds with the last stragglers of the herd. Then it will be a matter of catching a week or two of rest while the caribou calve and the young learn to walk.

First Step: Consulting with the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people

All of the caribou’s range falls within settled aboriginal land claims. Inuvialuit, as well as Gwich’in tribal councils, hunter and trapper associations, renewable resource committees, and chiefs and councils have been consulted and contacted for permission. Although everyone has supported the trip in principle, initial reactions have varied. In the town of Aklavik in the Northwest Territories, for example, the hikers were told they’d find out everything they wanted to know about the caribou in two days because “that’s how long it will take to get left behind.” In the village of Old Crow, an old-time Gwich’in resident saw things differently and jealously imagined the hikers would “see things no one has seen before.”

Step 2: Getting in Caribou Shape to Carry a Turtle’s Load

Regular weight training, running, stairs, and ski touring trips help Leanne and Karsten get in shape and guard against injury. High repetitions, rather than heavy weights, typify their training regime. While not as ideal as constant outdoor training, the gym allows the hikers to improve their fitness while tackling other aspects of preparation, such as drying food and fundraising. Regardless, the hikers will be at a huge disadvantage for the simple reason they’ll be carrying everything they need – food, shelter and clothing – on their backs. In fact bug jackets and head nets may be the only advantage they’ll have over the caribou.

A number of things will help keep loads light: a floorless tent made from strong but lightweight parachute material, lightweight fibreglass and wood skis, dehydrated food, the lightest backpacking stove, a shared sleeping bag, and to eliminate dishes, eating from pots. Even toothbrushes handles will be cut down to save a few precious grams. Regardless, the hikers will carry 60-70 lb. packs across unforgiving terrain.

Step 3: Planning the Route – or lack thereof

This isn’t like any other trip Leanne and Karsten have done. Because their goal is to follow caribou whose migration path varies from year to year, they won’t know where they’re going until they’ve left. In other words, it’s impossible to plan the route ahead of time, or even speculate where they’ll be on any particular date. Past studies and traditional knowledge of the caribou migration offer a rough idea of where they can expect them to go (see Route), but they’ll know nothing about specific valleys or ridges. This introduces logistical problems for knowing where and when to place food caches.

Step 4: Packing Food – “Are you lichen those beans and rice?”

While caribou feed on grasses and lichen, the hikers will rely on approximately 14 food caches made up primarily of beans, dried meat, and rice. If all goes according to plan, the caches will be delivered to the hikers by ski and floatplane once they call in their position using a handheld satellite phone. And if the satellite phone breaks or gets lost? Then the snaring wire, fish hooks and slingshot packed for emergencies will become very important!