A Human Migration
to understand Caribou Migration
purpose of this trip was not to go on a 1,500-3,000km Arctic expedition.
It was, and still is, an urgent quest to understand one of North America’s
last great mammal migrations before it’s too late — and communicate
what we found, to the rest of North America.
decades-old battle over the fate of the 123,000-member Porcupine Caribou
Herd is heating up and could be over within the first few months of
2005. Pro-development oilmen in the US Oval Office, along with a Republican-controlled
Senate and Congress, make development of oil and gas reserves in the
Alaskan portion of the Porcupine Caribou’s sacred calving grounds
more likely than ever (see Calving Grounds).
But what do we
really know about these caribou and how they might be affected? What
hardships do they already face, and how much more, if any, stress can
is the goal of Being Caribou – to go beyond the quick visits of past media
coverage and arm’s length science to live life as a caribou for
seven months. We will swim the same rivers, plow through the same snowdrifts,
and endure the same clouds of insects, cold nights, and miles of endless
travel on an annual migration. We will go deep into the life of the herd,
encounter the same grizzly bears, wolves, and eagles that they do, and
witness the daily struggles that lead to birth and death. And when we
return from the experience seven months later, we will have a truer understanding
of what’s at stake.
The Idea to
idea for this trip came in June 2001, when Karsten Heuer (expedition
leader) pulled off the Firth River in Yukon’s Ivvavik National Park while on a
10-day park warden patrol. As the fog lifted, what he’d assumed
were bushes on the surrounding slopes turned into caribou and, for the
next two days, he found himself amidst a river of animals as 20,000 caribou
passed, followed by dozens of golden eagles, foxes and grizzlies. It
was difficult to sleep during those two days, so numerous were the dramas
unfolding around him: cows bleated for their lost calves after swimming
the frigid river, and on more than one occasion, life-and-death chases
between a grizzly bear and a newborn calf began and ended before him
on the tundra. For more than 48 hours the migration continued until the
last stragglers in the group disappeared over a far ridge. While Heuer
continued down river in the following days, his thoughts stayed with
the caribou. Where were they headed? What struggles awaited them in the
next valley? How important, really, were the calving grounds from which
and other questions pursued Heuer as he continued to work in the area
for the next two summers. With each storm that blew in and each outbreak
of midsummer insects, he found himself wondering how the caribou
were faring. And he also came to realize the ridiculousness of his
own job as a park warden given the scale of development that was being
proposed a few ridges to the west.
he worried about whether or not ground squirrels were becoming habituated
to a few campers, a huge oil and gas development could be built in
Alaskan calving grounds less than a hundred kilometers away. What, he
wondered, could be done to bring the story of these endangered animals
and their threatened migration alive?
was the result.