SETTING OFF

April 9 - May 21

“ So, what do you think? Are the caribou starting to migrate or are they still just moving between winter feeding areas?” We asked everyone we met in the Gwichin village of Old Crow.

“ Don’t go now,” said one man. “It’s way too early.”

“ Stay awhile,” said another. “Stay comfortable and rest.”

But Randall Tetlichi, who had just been hunting a group the day before, figured the spring migration was on. “They were moving,” he said. “They were moving with purpose.”

It was Randall and his friend, James Itsi, who gave us a ride by snowmobile 100km east of Old Crow, on their way to hunt more caribou along the still-frozen Porcupine River. There were no signs at first, but then the whole river was trampled down, the snow as hard packed as an Alberta feedlot in winter. We stopped, scanned the surrounding slopes, then waited for a group of 50 coming our way.

Both men pulled out their guns as the animals stepped onto the ice and it wasn’t long before shots were fired. On animal jumped with the impact, pawed at the air and hit the snow hard. Another quietly lay down and died while the rest of the group ran — upriver, downriver, into the willows too thick to move, then back again. Chaos. More shots. More animals down. By the time it was over both men had enough meat to feed their families for the next five months.

After helping to skin and butcher the animals, Leanne and I joined the two men at a nearby cabin for the evening. Another group of about 1,000 caribou filed onto the river that night.

“ The caribou are coming to pick us up,” exclaimed Leanne. We made loose plans to leave the next morning.

I thought how easily we could have a false start, how tragic it would be to follow one group to a feeding area while the majority of the herd were somewhere else, already starting the migration. If we were to have any hope of keeping up, we would need to be near the beginning of the herd as it streamed north.

“ What do you think, are the time and place right?” I asked Randall.

He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “You have to do what feels right.” Seeing that we were going to leave the next morning, however, Randall settled down by the cluttered table of the rustic cabin and told a few stories after dinner, followed by some advice: “Expect the unexpected,” he said, his lined face grave in the candlelight. “Take care of each other. And pay attention to your dreams.”

The next morning Leanne and I packed up.

Our packs were huge and Randall and James asked about everything we stuffed in. Solar panel and batteries. Camcorder and microphones. The satellite phone. Goretex jackets. Bag upon bag of home-made dried food. We were excited but still full of trepidation. Should we be starting here? Now? Randall still shrugged his shoulders. Leanne shared her dream of the night before, a dream of warm weather, a river, perhaps the Porcupine River, broken up and the ice was moving. That clinched it. We finished packing, said our goodbyes, and followed the best caribou trail north into the trees.

Those first days were tough. And slow.

Day one we traveled a meager 5 km. The next, only seven. The trees were thick and caught on our packs, skis and poles, and the snow to either side of the caribou trails was soft, weak and sugary. A single misstep sank us up to our hips. It was like balancing along a narrow log for miles.

Once we started on one trail, we had to stick with it, we soon realized. If it hadn’t been packed by a hundred hooves, then the snow had no strength to support us. Not even on skis. All the literal ways we had to describe the trip — following in the footsteps of the caribou; being pulled across the landscape by the her; of being at the whim of wild animals — were truer than we imagined.

It wasn’t until the third day — the day we broke out of the trees onto our first ridge in the Richardson Mountains — that we saw a group of caribou; more than 200 cows and yearlings feeding on lichen amid the windblown rocks. We tried to catch up but by the time we climed the 2000 feet to where they were, they were gone.

For the next four days we followed their tracks and the tracks of others deeper into the mountains onto ever-higher ridges. The vast taiga forests of Eagle Plains stretched to the south, the Ogilvie Mountains rose from the other side of Old Crow Flats to the west, and to the east and north were the Richardsons, covered with tracks and strings of animals kilometers long. There could be no doubt now, the migration was on.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd are members of what people call “barren-ground” caribou, but judging by what we saw, “mountain” caribou would be more appropriate. Or goats. We were astounded by some of the lines they were taking — across mountain faces, up and down scree slopes and rock bands that we negotiated on all fours — lines that would put the gnarliest extreme skier to shame.

And they came in waves. Streams of animals pouring like some liquid over the hilltops, expanding, contracting, spreading across ridge crests and passes. We followed for as long as we could each day, were overtaken when we camped for the night, and dragged our leaden limbs out of frosted sleeping bags in the mornings, to start a day of trying to keep up, all over again.

“ This is the toughest trip yet,” I finally said to Leanne one night.

“ We can only do our best,” she answered. And of course she was right, but it was quickly becoming apparent our best wasn’t good enough. A few thousand more caribou passed us by that night and the next day we saw more running up behind us, covering in two hours what had taken us a full day.

Things got better on Day 7. The trail we were following up and down the ridges veered west to the foot of the mountains. There were no trees now and the windswept plains offered easier travel over hard drifts and more level terrain. For the first time in a week we used our skis and covered 15 km. We were ecstatic. Both of us felt as though we’d been launched out of a slingshot.

Just as our pace increased, the caribous’ slackened off. All of their haste seems to have dissipated and instead of charging ahead, they plod slowly from one patch of burned-offtundra to the next, connecting brown dots of sunwarmed ground across the vast, white landscape; feeding and lounging as they slowly drift northward. The days are getting longer. The sun warmer. The distance between the caribou and their calving grounds shorter.

And so it seems we can “be caribou”, at least for now. We pass thousands of animals during the day, set up camp, and then watch as they pass us later that evening in great strings along a fretwork of trails. It’s like a game of the tortoise and the hare — us slow and heavy with our packs, them light and fast, jogging at times, but distracted by the offerings of the year’s first real spring-like weather.

And waylaid by the odd group of wolves.

We have seen quite a few now; entire packs waiting in ambush where the trails of caribou work through a drifted-in draw, or a lone wolf that puts the chase on a herd across the open expanse of the plain, a gray dot pursuing a group of animals that spreads like a stain ahead of it, running full-out for 5 miles until finally the herd splits and a yearling lags a few strides, falters, zigs one last time, then is pulled to the ground.

The rest of the caribou stop, stand for awhile, then slowly file past the feeding wolf as they continue their northward trek to the calving grounds.

We are camped at Bonnet Lake now, getting educated as to why the head of the drainage it’s located at is called the Blow River. Gawd the wind’s cold. And tireless. If you get this update, though, it means the doggone plane finally got in and we were able to get back into the mountains for some shelter.

We’re having an amazing time.

Tired. Cold. Wet sometimes. But awesome. Life. Death. Wolves. Deep snow. Rugged mountains. Caribou. It is impossible not to be inspired by the beauty, simplicity and determination we see around us, by the unwavering urge to go north. The caribou get us out of bed in the morning cold, the caribou help us to continue on through fog, windstorms and the deep, deep snow.

It is the caribou that keep our own gaze fixed northward.