SPRING MIGRATION

April 22 - May 27
Bonnet Lake, Yukon to Kongakut River, Alaska

Blow Pass isn’t the sort of place you want to sit out a spring blizzard. Nestled between the Richardson and Barn Mountains in the northern Yukon, it is the lowest gap between the Arctic coast and the interior plateau, a funnel in an area renowned for its strong winds. But luck wasn’t with us at the end of April, and, after following caribou through the sunny Richardson Mountains for two weeks, we sat pinned in our shaking, snapping tent.

“We need a snow wall. The tent isn’t going to hold much longer!” Leanne shouted from beside me. Frazzled from two sleepless nights, we watched as the poles flexed and another gust forced ice crystals through the Gore Tex walls. While Leanne braced herself against the poles, I donned every bit of clothing and muscled my way through the door into the storm.

I worked fast and hard, cutting blocks from the packed drifts, trying not to panic as flying snow sandpapered my face. But anxiety grew with each gust. I finished the snow wall as best I could, re-anchored two of the tent’s guy-lines and groped for the tent zipper with numb, gloved hands.

It was then the caribou caught my eye, grey shapes in swirling white, limbs so obscured their bodies seemed to glide like ships in a gale that had found a calm current. I called Leanne to look and we watched incredulous, as more than fifty animals filed past, some stopping to feed, even bed down, while the purple sun glowed through ominous clouds. We were comforted by their presence and climbed back into the tortured tent to sleep through the rest of the storm. Just another day for the caribou.

We picked up a trail of wind-sculpted hoof prints the next morning to follow them to the Barn Mountains where we found more than a thousand animals scattered across sun-warmed slopes. Signs of spring were everywhere: ground squirrels emerging from snowy dens; pussy willows and the odd clump of phlox flowers already blooming; ptarmigans turning brown from their winter white; creeks running; and more and more bear tracks merging with the caribou trails that continued northwest.

It wasn’t long after that we ran into the first of many grizzlies — a tawny bear with a distinctive limp, searching for a mishap where the caribou crossed the deteriorating ice bridges that still spanned some sections of the Firth River in Canada’s Ivvavik National Park. There were no easy meals, though, only hungry bears, and the wintry weather that blew in for the next week only made the situation worse. It was good for the caribou – the ice bridges formed solidly again – but the ground squirrels, roots, and other foods that the bears relied on remained inaccessible in the frozen ground.

With not much to eat, it was only a matter of time before the bears realized we were the slowest caribou going, and we ran into a bear that didn’t flee. It was the day we left the Firth Valley and continued west towards the Alaskan calving grounds. Throughout the day we had been tracked by grizzlies, and like the caribou, we’d felt tracked. The first two bears kept their distance, the third was curious enough to force us to move our evening camp, and the fourth – a sickly looking female with a ragged coat – sent both of us scrambling for knives and bear spray.

We had seen her earlier in the day, a few kilometres before choosing our first camp, up the mountainside. But then she was right behind, following our ski trail into our second camp, nose to the ground, eyes fixed on us. We whispered at first, talked, then shouted for her to stop, but she kept coming, ignoring our waves, not reacting to the booms of two bear bangers shot overhead, indifferent to our increasing tones of urgency. When she was within 10 meters, she circled. There was no shelter. Nowhere to hide. No cabin to walk into and close the door. No refuge.

Directly downwind she paused. I fingered the safety on my bear spray, considered giving her a burst of the lung-searing contents, then remembered the half-setup tent. I picked it up, held it broadside to give the appearance of greater mass, and with a ski pole waving in the other hand, lunged forward. She took a few steps back – the first sign of concern she’d shown – took a few more when I wildly waved the tent again, stopped, looked over her shoulder with indecision, then retreated behind a small hill. After tense moments without her reappearing, Leanne and I let out sighs of relief. With one of us looking out and the other packing up, we moved camp for the third time that day and climbed to a nearby ridge where we spent a short, sleepless night.

That was ten days ago and the bears we’ve seen since have retreated into the fog that has enveloped us as we continue skiing west. The world is gray and featureless, but the mist helps us cope with the fact we were stalked. It helps reduce the vastness of this place, keeps the bears that are out there hidden, and somehow makes things manageable in a place too indifferent, too wild, to fully comprehend. And so we grapple with our insignificance but in a way that allows us to remain focused on the enriching details. We celebrate the return of the white-crowned sparrows, horned larks, Lapland longspurs, phalaropes, long-tailed ducks, rough-legged hawks and short-eared owls. We watch and laugh as a group of pregnant caribou crowd around a cow moose and her newborn twins for an impromptu tundra mom meeting. And just after crossing into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge four days ago, we marvel at the harsh beauty of seeing our first caribou calf of the year, born early, already running beside its mother from some unseen threat hours after being born onto a bed of deep snow in a cold, north wind.

The land is beginning to fill up. With each passing kilometre, we see more and more caribou converging towards the heart of the Wildlife Refuge, trails and animals streaming out of every valley, off every ridge, like a gathering river. Above, flocks of geese, gulls, ducks and songbirds pass on the same airborne tack. Only now, within a few days walk of the threatened calving grounds, are we beginning to understand the full breadth of what we’ve been a part of for these last six weeks. Ours has been only one of hundreds of thousands of difficult journeys streaming past their own wolves, their own bears, and across their own mountain ranges, icy river crossings and fickle weather systems.

What motivates such arduous migrations? What is it that makes all the risk and effort worthwhile? These are the questions we ponder as we take the final steps before stopping for a week or two to watch our guides give birth to the precious cargo that bulges in their bellies.

JUNE 5, 11:30 pm:

Karsten and Leanne just phoned in. They are in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the 10-0-2 lands, the very coastal parcel coveted by the Alaskan and U.S. governments, the oil companies, and the caribou. They are looking south into the Brooks Range on what Karsten describes as “the most beautiful day we’ve had”. It’s 10:39 pm and they’re watching the sun set. They’ve been held hostage in their tent for the past six days — held hostage by the caribou giving birth all around them.

“They’re not afraid of the tent,” said Karsten, “but they’re very skittish of us and we don’t want to disturb them. So we’ve been peeing in our bottles, carefully opening the tent door and disposing of the contents outside the tent, moving slowly the whole time. We haven’t been drinking nearly enough water, rationing it because we can’t leave the tent to go down to the river.”

He laughs, but I tell him for goodness sake not to survive the grizzlies only to die in his tent of dehydration.

“It’s more exciting than I can describe,” he says. “The caribou don’t come much closer to us than 50 metres, but they are giving birth all around us. We’re watching them be born. We can see the umbilical cords, we can see them taking their first steps. All around us the calves are frolicking, trying out their new legs. Moments ago, one calf, careening out of control, came to a full stop in front of the tent, looked directly at me in the tent door and careened off again. I only hope my camera was working.”

Karsten and Leanne will spend the next week or two in the Refuge with the caribou, then join them in their post-calving aggregation.