Pass isn’t the sort of place you want to sit out a spring blizzard.
Nestled between the Richardson and Barn Mountains in the northern Yukon,
it is the lowest gap between the Arctic coast and the interior plateau,
a funnel in an area renowned for its strong winds. But luck wasn’t
with us at the end of April, and, after following caribou through the
sunny Richardson Mountains for two weeks, we sat pinned in our shaking,
need a snow wall. The tent isn’t going to hold much longer!” Leanne
shouted from beside me. Frazzled from two sleepless nights, we watched
as the poles flexed and another gust forced ice crystals through the
Gore Tex walls. While Leanne braced herself against the poles, I donned
every bit of clothing and muscled my way through the door into the storm.
worked fast and hard, cutting blocks from the packed drifts, trying not
to panic as flying snow sandpapered my face. But anxiety grew with each
gust. I finished the snow wall as best I could, re-anchored two of the
tent’s guy-lines and groped for the tent zipper with numb, gloved
was then the caribou caught my eye, grey shapes in swirling white, limbs
so obscured their bodies seemed to glide like ships in a gale that had
found a calm current. I called Leanne to look and we watched incredulous,
as more than fifty animals filed past, some stopping to feed, even bed
down, while the purple sun glowed through ominous clouds. We were comforted
by their presence and climbed back into the tortured tent to sleep through
the rest of the storm. Just another day for the caribou.
picked up a trail of wind-sculpted hoof prints the next morning to follow
them to the Barn Mountains where we found more than a thousand animals
scattered across sun-warmed slopes. Signs of spring were everywhere:
ground squirrels emerging from snowy dens; pussy willows and the odd
clump of phlox flowers already blooming; ptarmigans turning brown from
their winter white; creeks running; and more and more bear tracks merging
with the caribou trails that continued northwest.
wasn’t long after that we ran into the first of many grizzlies — a
tawny bear with a distinctive limp, searching for a mishap where the
caribou crossed the deteriorating ice bridges that still spanned some
sections of the Firth River in Canada’s Ivvavik National Park.
There were no easy meals, though, only hungry bears, and the wintry weather
that blew in for the next week only made the situation worse. It was
good for the caribou – the ice bridges formed solidly again – but
the ground squirrels, roots, and other foods that the bears relied on
remained inaccessible in the frozen ground.
not much to eat, it was only a matter of time before the bears realized
we were the slowest caribou going, and we ran into a bear that didn’t
flee. It was the day we left the Firth Valley and continued west towards
the Alaskan calving grounds. Throughout the day we had been tracked by
grizzlies, and like the caribou, we’d felt tracked. The first two
bears kept their distance, the third was curious enough to force us to
move our evening camp, and the fourth – a sickly looking female
with a ragged coat – sent both of us scrambling for knives and
had seen her earlier in the day, a few kilometres before choosing our
first camp, up the mountainside. But then she was right behind, following
our ski trail into our second camp, nose to the ground, eyes fixed on
us. We whispered at first, talked, then shouted for her to stop, but
she kept coming, ignoring our waves, not reacting to the booms of two
bear bangers shot overhead, indifferent to our increasing tones of urgency.
When she was within 10 meters, she circled. There was no shelter. Nowhere
to hide. No cabin to walk into and close the door. No refuge.
downwind she paused. I fingered the safety on my bear spray, considered
giving her a burst of the lung-searing contents, then remembered the
half-setup tent. I picked it up, held it broadside to give the appearance
of greater mass, and with a ski pole waving in the other hand, lunged
forward. She took a few steps back – the first sign of concern
she’d shown – took a few more when I wildly waved the tent
again, stopped, looked over her shoulder with indecision, then retreated
behind a small hill. After tense moments without her reappearing, Leanne
and I let out sighs of relief. With one of us looking out and the other
packing up, we moved camp for the third time that day and climbed to
a nearby ridge where we spent a short, sleepless night.
was ten days ago and the bears we’ve seen since have retreated
into the fog that has enveloped us as we continue skiing west. The world
is gray and featureless, but the mist helps us cope with the fact we
were stalked. It helps reduce the vastness of this place, keeps the bears
that are out there hidden, and somehow makes things manageable in a place
too indifferent, too wild, to fully comprehend. And so we grapple with
our insignificance but in a way that allows us to remain focused on the
enriching details. We celebrate the return of the white-crowned sparrows,
horned larks, Lapland longspurs, phalaropes, long-tailed ducks, rough-legged
hawks and short-eared owls. We watch and laugh as a group of pregnant
caribou crowd around a cow moose and her newborn twins for an impromptu
tundra mom meeting. And just after crossing into Alaska’s Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge four days ago, we marvel at the harsh beauty
of seeing our first caribou calf of the year, born early, already running
beside its mother from some unseen threat hours after being born onto
a bed of deep snow in a cold, north wind.
land is beginning to fill up. With each passing kilometre, we see more
and more caribou converging towards the heart of the Wildlife Refuge,
trails and animals streaming out of every valley, off every ridge, like
a gathering river. Above, flocks of geese, gulls, ducks and songbirds
pass on the same airborne tack. Only now, within a few days walk of the
threatened calving grounds, are we beginning to understand the full breadth
of what we’ve been a part of for these last six weeks. Ours has
been only one of hundreds of thousands of difficult journeys streaming
past their own wolves, their own bears, and across their own mountain
ranges, icy river crossings and fickle weather systems.
motivates such arduous migrations? What is it that makes all the risk
and effort worthwhile? These are the questions we ponder as we take the
final steps before stopping for a week or two to watch our guides give
birth to the precious cargo that bulges in their bellies.
and Leanne just phoned in. They are in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,
in the 10-0-2 lands, the very coastal parcel coveted by the Alaskan and
U.S. governments, the oil companies, and the caribou. They are looking
south into the Brooks Range on what Karsten describes as “the most
beautiful day we’ve had”. It’s 10:39 pm and they’re
watching the sun set. They’ve been held hostage in their tent for
the past six days — held hostage by the caribou giving birth all
not afraid of the tent,” said Karsten, “but they’re
very skittish of us and we don’t want to disturb them. So we’ve
been peeing in our bottles, carefully opening the tent door and disposing
of the contents outside the tent, moving slowly the whole time. We haven’t
been drinking nearly enough water, rationing it because we can’t
leave the tent to go down to the river.”
laughs, but I tell him for goodness sake not to survive the grizzlies
only to die in his tent of dehydration.
more exciting than I can describe,” he says. “The caribou
don’t come much closer to us than 50 metres, but they are giving
birth all around us. We’re watching them be born. We can see the
umbilical cords, we can see them taking their first steps. All around
us the calves are frolicking, trying out their new legs. Moments ago,
one calf, careening out of control, came to a full stop in front of the
tent, looked directly at me in the tent door and careened off again.
I only hope my camera was working.”
and Leanne will spend the next week or two in the Refuge with the caribou,
then join them in their post-calving aggregation.