Being Caribou: The Route

How do you plan a route following 123,000 migrating caribou across Canada and Alaska? Try to keep up.

Is it possible to actually migrate with the caribou?

Judging from what we’ve seen in the area over the past two summers, we won’t have much hope of keeping up with an individual animal. Biologists from the Canadian Wildlife Service and elders from local Gwich’in and Inuvialuit communities have said as much. Individual caribou can average 20km per day across rough ground. There’ll be lots of muskeg, unbridged rivers, and no roads, trails or trail signs. If we leave at the beginning of the spring migration, we might limp into the calving grounds with the last stragglers of the herd, get some rest while the cows calve, then do our best to keep up when the animals head into the mountains for the rest of the summer. We’ll invariably lose animals, get passed by others, maybe not even see caribou for days. We’ll revert to an average migration route in those times (based on radio collared caribou studies) and then follow real caribou again when we find them. And if we don’t see any animals for more than a week, we’ll call the Yukon biologists who monitor satellite-collared members of the herd and try to catch up to one of those tagged groups.

Route and Schedule (or lack thereof)

As mentioned in the Preparations Backgrounder, it’s impossible for Leanne and Karsten to plan their detailed route ahead of time, or even speculate where they’ll be on any particular date. Because they’re trying to follow caribou whose migration path changes from year to year, they won’t know where they’re going until they’ve actually left! Past studies and traditional knowledge about the caribou migration offer a hint of how the animals might move (see table below), but the details will only be known as the hikers crest each rise that the caribou lead them to. Maps, compasses and Global Positioning Systems will be virtually useless on a journey like this. The hikers will be putting their full faith in the wisdom of the herd.