what do you think? Are the caribou starting to migrate or are they still
just moving between winter feeding areas?” We asked everyone we
met in the Gwichin village of Old Crow.
go now,” said one man. “It’s way too early.”
awhile,” said another. “Stay comfortable and rest.”
Randall Tetlichi, who had just been hunting a group the day before, figured
the spring migration was on. “They were moving,” he said. “They
were moving with purpose.”
was Randall and his friend, James Itsi, who gave us a ride by snowmobile
100km east of Old Crow, on their way to hunt more caribou along the still-frozen
Porcupine River. There were no signs at first, but then the whole river
was trampled down, the snow as hard packed as an Alberta feedlot in winter.
We stopped, scanned the surrounding slopes, then waited for a group of
50 coming our way.
men pulled out their guns as the animals stepped onto the ice and it
wasn’t long before shots were fired. On animal jumped with the
impact, pawed at the air and hit the snow hard. Another quietly lay down
and died while the rest of the group ran — upriver, downriver,
into the willows too thick to move, then back again. Chaos. More shots.
More animals down. By the time it was over both men had enough meat to
feed their families for the next five months.
helping to skin and butcher the animals, Leanne and I joined the two
men at a nearby cabin for the evening. Another group of about 1,000 caribou
filed onto the river that night.
caribou are coming to pick us up,” exclaimed Leanne. We made loose
plans to leave the next morning.
thought how easily we could have a false start, how tragic it would be
to follow one group to a feeding area while the majority of the herd
were somewhere else, already starting the migration. If we were to have
any hope of keeping up, we would need to be near the beginning of the
herd as it streamed north.
do you think, are the time and place right?” I asked Randall.
shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “You have to do what feels right.” Seeing
that we were going to leave the next morning, however, Randall settled
down by the cluttered table of the rustic cabin and told a few stories
after dinner, followed by some advice: “Expect the unexpected,” he
said, his lined face grave in the candlelight. “Take care of each
other. And pay attention to your dreams.”
next morning Leanne and I packed up.
packs were huge and Randall and James asked about everything we stuffed
in. Solar panel and batteries. Camcorder and microphones. The satellite
phone. Goretex jackets. Bag upon bag of home-made dried food. We were
excited but still full of trepidation. Should we be starting here? Now?
Randall still shrugged his shoulders. Leanne shared her dream of the
night before, a dream of warm weather, a river, perhaps the Porcupine
River, broken up and the ice was moving. That clinched it. We finished
packing, said our goodbyes, and followed the best caribou trail north
into the trees.
first days were tough. And slow.
one we traveled a meager 5 km. The next, only seven. The trees were thick
and caught on our packs, skis and poles, and the snow to either side
of the caribou trails was soft, weak and sugary. A single misstep sank
us up to our hips. It was like balancing along a narrow log for miles.
we started on one trail, we had to stick with it, we soon realized. If
it hadn’t been packed by a hundred hooves, then the snow had no
strength to support us. Not even on skis. All the literal ways we had
to describe the trip — following in the footsteps of the caribou;
being pulled across the landscape by the her; of being at the whim of
wild animals — were truer than we imagined.
wasn’t until the third day — the day we broke out of the
trees onto our first ridge in the Richardson Mountains — that we
saw a group of caribou; more than 200 cows and yearlings feeding on lichen
amid the windblown rocks. We tried to catch up but by the time we climed
the 2000 feet to where they were, they were gone.
the next four days we followed their tracks and the tracks of others
deeper into the mountains onto ever-higher ridges. The vast taiga forests
of Eagle Plains stretched to the south, the Ogilvie Mountains rose from
the other side of Old Crow Flats to the west, and to the east and north
were the Richardsons, covered with tracks and strings of animals kilometers
long. There could be no doubt now, the migration was on.
Porcupine Caribou Herd are members of what people call “barren-ground” caribou,
but judging by what we saw, “mountain” caribou would be more
appropriate. Or goats. We were astounded by some of the lines they were
taking — across mountain faces, up and down scree slopes and rock
bands that we negotiated on all fours — lines that would put the
gnarliest extreme skier to shame.
they came in waves. Streams of animals pouring like some liquid over
the hilltops, expanding, contracting, spreading across ridge crests and
passes. We followed for as long as we could each day, were overtaken
when we camped for the night, and dragged our leaden limbs out of frosted
sleeping bags in the mornings, to start a day of trying to keep up, all
is the toughest trip yet,” I finally said to Leanne one night.
can only do our best,” she answered. And of course she was right,
but it was quickly becoming apparent our best wasn’t good enough.
A few thousand more caribou passed us by that night and the next day
we saw more running up behind us, covering in two hours what had taken
us a full day.
got better on Day 7. The trail we were following up and down the ridges
veered west to the foot of the mountains. There were no trees now and
the windswept plains offered easier travel over hard drifts and more
level terrain. For the first time in a week we used our skis and covered
15 km. We were ecstatic. Both of us felt as though we’d been launched
out of a slingshot.
as our pace increased, the caribous’ slackened off. All of their
haste seems to have dissipated and instead of charging ahead, they plod
slowly from one patch of burned-offtundra to the next, connecting brown
dots of sunwarmed ground across the vast, white landscape; feeding and
lounging as they slowly drift northward. The days are getting longer.
The sun warmer. The distance between the caribou and their calving grounds
so it seems we can “be caribou”, at least for now. We pass
thousands of animals during the day, set up camp, and then watch as they
pass us later that evening in great strings along a fretwork of trails.
It’s like a game of the tortoise and the hare — us slow and
heavy with our packs, them light and fast, jogging at times, but distracted
by the offerings of the year’s first real spring-like weather.
waylaid by the odd group of wolves.
have seen quite a few now; entire packs waiting in ambush where the trails
of caribou work through a drifted-in draw, or a lone wolf that puts the
chase on a herd across the open expanse of the plain, a gray dot pursuing
a group of animals that spreads like a stain ahead of it, running full-out
for 5 miles until finally the herd splits and a yearling lags a few strides,
falters, zigs one last time, then is pulled to the ground.
rest of the caribou stop, stand for awhile, then slowly file past the
feeding wolf as they continue their northward trek to the calving grounds.
are camped at Bonnet Lake now, getting educated as to why the head of
the drainage it’s located at is called the Blow River. Gawd the
wind’s cold. And tireless. If you get this update, though, it means
the doggone plane finally got in and we were able to get back into the
mountains for some shelter.
having an amazing time.
Cold. Wet sometimes. But awesome. Life. Death. Wolves. Deep snow. Rugged
mountains. Caribou. It is impossible not to be inspired by the beauty,
simplicity and determination we see around us, by the unwavering urge
to go north. The caribou get us out of bed in the morning cold, the caribou
help us to continue on through fog, windstorms and the deep, deep snow.
is the caribou that keep our own gaze fixed northward.