To Be Caribou
Caribou — Who are you kidding?
have evolved to be the perfect long distance arctic travellers. Splayed
hooves, arteries and veins designed for heat conservation, and hollow
hairs for insulation are some of the adaptations making them well-suited
to travel in the cold of winter and across the spongy tundra in summer.
Leanne and Karsten aren’t so lucky. Human knees and ankles aren’t
designed for the bone-jarring tussocks of the tundra, and hairless
human bodies offer little in the way of protection from cold air, freezing
rivers, or stinging bugs.
will it be possible to keep up with these perfect travellers? Nobody
knows. Some biologists, Gwich'in and Inuvialuit elders suspect it will
be difficult to stay with an individual animal, but it might be possible
to stay amid spread-out groups for weeks at a time. In other words,
if the hikers leave with the leaders of the spring migration, they
might limp into the calving grounds with the last stragglers of the
herd. Then it will be a matter of catching a week or two of rest while
the caribou calve and the young learn to walk.
Step: Consulting with the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit
of the caribou’s range falls within settled aboriginal land claims.
Inuvialuit, as well as Gwich’in tribal councils, hunter and trapper
associations, renewable resource committees, and chiefs and councils
have been consulted and contacted for permission. Although everyone
has supported the trip in principle, initial reactions have varied.
In the town of Aklavik in the Northwest Territories, for example, the
hikers were told they’d find out everything they wanted to know
about the caribou in two days because “that’s how long
it will take to get left behind.” In the village of Old Crow,
an old-time Gwich’in resident saw things differently and jealously
imagined the hikers would “see things no one has seen before.”
2: Getting in Caribou Shape to Carry a Turtle’s Load
weight training, running, stairs, and ski touring trips help Leanne
and Karsten get in shape and guard against injury. High repetitions,
rather than heavy weights, typify their training regime. While not
as ideal as constant outdoor training, the gym allows the hikers to
improve their fitness while tackling other aspects of preparation,
such as drying food and fundraising. Regardless, the hikers will be
at a huge disadvantage for the simple reason they’ll be carrying
everything they need – food, shelter and clothing – on
their backs. In fact bug jackets and head nets may
be the only advantage they’ll have over the caribou.
number of things will help keep loads light: a floorless tent made
from strong but lightweight parachute material, lightweight fibreglass
and wood skis, dehydrated food, the lightest backpacking stove, a shared
sleeping bag, and to eliminate dishes, eating from pots. Even toothbrushes
handles will be cut down to save a few precious grams. Regardless,
the hikers will carry 60-70 lb. packs across unforgiving terrain.
3: Planning the Route – or lack thereof
isn’t like any other trip Leanne and Karsten have done. Because
their goal is to follow caribou whose migration path varies from year
to year, they won’t know where they’re going until they’ve
left. In other words, it’s impossible to plan the route ahead
of time, or even speculate where they’ll be on any particular
date. Past studies and traditional knowledge of the caribou migration
offer a rough idea of where they can expect them to go (see Route and
Schedule Backgrounder), but they’ll know nothing about specific
valleys or ridges. This introduces logistical problems for knowing
where and when to place food caches.
4: Packing Food – “Are you lichen those
beans and rice?”
caribou feed on grasses and lichen, the hikers will rely on approximately
14 food caches made up primarily of beans, dried meat, and rice. If
all goes according to plan, the caches will be delivered to the hikers
by ski and floatplane once they call in their position using a handheld
satellite phone. And if the satellite phone breaks or gets lost? Then
the snaring wire, fish hooks and slingshot packed for emergencies will
become very important!