A Human Migration to understand Caribou Migration

The 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.

The 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 they handle?

That 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 'Be Caribou'

The 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 they'd come?

Those 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.

While 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 the caribou’s 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?

Being Caribou was the result.