Deferring to the Wisdom of the Herd

Is it Possible to Actually Migrate with the Caribou?

From what we'd seen, and from what biologists from the Canadian Wildlife Service and elders from local Gwich'in and Inuvialuit communities said, we didn't have much hope of keeping up with an individual animal.  Individual caribou can average 20km per day across rough ground. Muskeg, unbridged rivers, and no roads, trails or trail signs make it slow going for humans. By leaving at the beginning of the spring migration, we hoped to limp into the calving grounds with the last stragglers of the herd, get some rest while the cows calve, and do our best to keep up when the animals head into the mountains for the rest of the summer. We anticipated losing animals, getting passed by others, maybe not even seeing caribou for days.  We planned to revert to an average migration route in those times (based on radio collared caribou studies) and follow real caribou again when we found them.  In dire straits, we could also call the Yukon biologists who monitor satellite-collared members of the herd and try to catch up to one of those tagged groups.

Route and Schedule (or lack thereof)

It was impossible for Leanne and Karsten to plan their detailed route ahead of time, or even speculate where they would be on any particular date.  Because they were trying to follow caribou whose migration path changes from year to year, they didn’t know where they were going until they’d left!  Past studies and traditional knowledge about the caribou migration offer a hint of how the animals might move ( table below), but the details only became known as the hikers crested each rise the caribou lead them to.  Maps, compasses and Global Positioning Systems are virtually useless on a journey like this.  The hikers put their fate and faith in the wisdom of the herd.

Caribou Season


Rough Route

Hikers’ Mode of Travel

Approx. Distance

Spring Migration

Early April to late May

Eagle Plains (Yukon) to Alaskan Coastal Plain via Ogilvie/Richardson  and British Mountains

Ski + hike

~ 500km


Month of June

Alaskan Coastal Plain and Foothills of the Brooks Range


~ 200km


Early-mid July

Alaskan Coastal Plain into British Mountains, Yukon


~ 300km


mid July – late August

British and Barn Mountains, Yukon


~ 500km

Fall Migration

Late Aug – late Sept

Richardson Mountains, Yukon and Northwest Territories


~ 400km


Early October

Richardson and Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon and Northwest Territories


~ 300km

To Winter Range


Richardson and Ogilvie  Mountains, Yukon and Northwest Territories.


~ 300km


~ 7 months


~ 2,500km