has defined this trip so far — two months of it through blizzards,
past wolf packs, across frozen rivers and snowy
mountain ranges. But all that changed fifteen days ago when we arrived
at the Jago River in the heart of the caribou’s calving grounds, deep in the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s coastal plain. For the first
time in 50 days the caribou were staying put, feeding, resting, even
sprawling out and closing their eyes.
cue, we pitched the tent.
We had no idea
it was the start of 10 days of being hostage in that tiny four-by-six-foot
space. But by the next morning, hundreds of cow caribou surrounded us
and their numbers soon swelled to over a thousand. Accepting of the tent
but not of us, we went to extraordinary lengths not to disturb the skittish,
expectant mothers. We talked in whispers for days, crawled on our bellies
to fetch water and got creative when it came time for that water to come
out the other end. In those instances, with calving cows paranoid of
the slightest human movement, we asked ourselves how oil and gas companies
that wanted to drill there could possibly claim there would be no impact.
a lot in ten days of sitting still. We watched the birds arrive: mergansers,
terns, spotted, common and upland sandpipers, and by the end of the first
week we not only had mapped the favourite travel routes and singing posts
of a Lapland Longspur, but had watched it attract a female and, in the
flutter of wings, mate. We watched the ice shelves calve off the riverbank,
the river rise and grow muddy, the snow slide into meltwater pools that
in turn shrank with the revolving sun. We watched winter turn to summer
and in that narrow week of Arctic spring, sat silently as the caribou
began to calve.
of the calves arrived in the first few days of June, precocious dark
balls of fur graced for a life of travel with a generous helping of
legs. And they learned to use them quickly. One calf, born less than
50 metres from the tent, was standing and searching the underside of
belly only 20 minutes after the silvery umbilical cord was severed. Four
hours later, something helpless had turned into a fully mobile caribou,
running with the rest of the calves zipping like jets around their feeding
new arrivals change the character of the herd. Stoic cows that guarded
us through the spring migration are now vigilant, proud mothers. Their
weariness has dissipated with the endless energy of the bounding, bleating
calves. Having traveled with them for the last two months, it is hard
for Leanne and I not to share those feelings and we do our best to
contain our laughter and appreciation for the calves’ antics
within the confines of our cramped tent.
There are three
things that make these endangered calving grounds so critically important
and we witness all of them during the course of our stay.
is the food. For ten days we see the energy-starved cows do little
more than feed on the area’s diverse array of wet grasses, ground lichens
and willow shrubs, a protein-rich diet that translates into good milk
for the calves’ all-important first meals. Second, while the season’s
first mosquitoes and biting flies emerged in the warmer mountains, Leanne
and I, like the caribou, were unhindered by insects on the cooler coastal
plain — passing days in the tent with the bug screens wide open.
And finally, in contrast to our experiences in the mountains and foothills
while getting here, there is an absence of predators. Unlike the multiple
bears and eagles we saw daily then, in more than a week we spot only
one grizzly from where we sit on the calving grounds. There are no blizzards,
no wolves, no endless travel to keep us moving day after day. The ceaseless
work and harshness that otherwise dog the caribou seem to have taken
a short hiatus in this sacred place at this sacred time of year.
the caribou finish calving and start to move again, Leanne and I are
ready. Stiff, sluggish and tired of inactivity, we pack the tent and
follow as the herd heads toward the 8,000-foot peaks of Alaska’s Brooks Range.
Climbing on foot instead of on skis now, we make our way into the foothills
and stop to look back at the shimmering coastal plain. Like the herd,
an unborn part of us came alive there and we wrestle with the thought
that all of it —birds, caribou, the wildness that stretches human
consciousness — could be sacrificed for the equivalent of a six-month
supply of oil for the US. Ninety-five percent of Alaska’s Arctic
Coast was open for business. Given all we’d experienced on the
calving grounds and during the two-month migration to get there, there
was little doubt what should be done with the five percent that was left.
And so we move
with the herd again. Slower now that the ranks have thickened with calves,
and with far more drama between the normal stops to feed and rest.
day, a grizzly bear appeared a kilometre away and sent the herd running
over a six-foot-high drift — nothing but a leap for the cows,
but impassable for many of the calves. Some mothers noticed and went
back for their young. Other calves figured how to get down on their
own, but one headed uphill over the rise where the grizzly had briefly
emerged, and disappeared. The distraught mother returned half an hour
later, grunting, thrashing back and forth through the willows in panic.
She searched all night, pacing, calling as Leanne and I tried to sleep,
haunted by the sound of her voice over the river. She was silent but
still there the next morning, standing still, listless, vacantly staring
into the river.
The next day
an eagle tore a strip out of an unguarded calf, a cow and calf got permanently
separated at a routine river crossing, and we stumbled across the strewn
and picked-over carcasses of other calves that had met similar fates.
We knew this
was going to happen. Of every 100 calves born, 25 die of such natural
causes in the first month, even with the calving grounds undeveloped.
But still, it is hard to stomach. As with any companion on a long journey,
a bond has formed between ourselves and the caribou; a relationship,
no matter how one-sided, that makes it difficult to digest how quickly
the miracle of birth can be followed by the tragedy of death. So we prepare
ourselves for both the joys and sorrows that await us as we continue
with the herd towards the Yukon, into the insect season and beyond, following
their movements as they travel back to the winter range over the next