here. Something bigger than us. Something we never want to end.
another group of a few thousand animals four weeks ago, we haven't been
without caribou for more than a few hours. They seem to wait when we've
fallen behind, stop, even circle when we're delayed by weather, always
appearing to guide us as though there's something they don't want us
to miss. After four months of trying to keep up, we ARE keeping up. The
effort of it has slipped away.
Part of it,
of course, is that the caribou have been moving less. The last weeks
of July were frenetic ones that saw them rushing up ankle-breaking slopes
to escape the bugs, sometimes doing nothing but making short charges
from one breezy summit to the next with nothing to eat for three days.
And it was always the cows and calves that came down first, trying to
feed only to be driven back up by the bugs -- skinny, hungry, still in
the energy deficit that makes those early June days of feeding undisturbed
at the calving grounds all-important.
But that was
July. This is August and cool nights as well as wind, rain and snow have
knocked down the bugs, bringing a sudden end to the searing 24-hour summer
In a heartbeat
the golden season is upon us. Blueberries, cranberries and cloudberries
are everywhere underfoot and in the span of 48 hours we have seen the
tundra change from vibrant green to a muted yellow-orange. Flowers have
gone to seed overnight, the mountain tops where we sweltered two short
weeks ago are dusted with snow and the caribou that have been harassed
by biting insects for a long month are resting.
Not since the
calving grounds have we seen them lay down like this. Even the calves,
freed of their winged tormentors, have the energy and spirit to play
again. Bigger and more filled out, they zip and zag through the adults
who pay little heed as they feed and rest, feed and rest, visibly growing
fatter for the first time all trip. Even the predators seem to be obeying
some unwritten agreement in this rare, restful time. Yesterday we watched
two grizzlies roam amongst thousands of caribou without incident. Later,
a wolf trotted through the same quiet scene.
All this peaceful
co-existence leaves us wondering if the string of dramas we witnessed
during the previous weeks weren't part of some difficult dream. They
Back in the
Barn Mountains there is a trail of lost caribou calves where the herd
bolted from the bugs; already dead or close to it as they search and
wait for long-gone mothers.
There is at
least one carcass in a creek bed; a cow we saw kneeling in the water,
trying to bury her nose in the moss, seeking cool relief from the hot
buzz that burned inside, flies so deep in her head that brown mucous
poured out, delirious but quiet in her pain, dying a horrific, dignified
death as her calf, also now condemned, looked on.
Now it is only
the odd limping animal that reminds us of those panicked days. That and
the gaze from the curious cow or bull that approaches where we sit or
camp. It is the look of ages they give us, inquiring on the surface,
backed by a quiet, patient endurance that is in every animal, in every
movement. Calmness in action; intensity when calm. These are the qualities
that have been shaped over tens of thousands of years, qualities that
have eluded us for so much of the trip, so much of our lives. But here,
now after months of putting aside our own desires to follow these wild
animals, they finally seem within reach.
we are in month five of this trip and just as the mental shifts needed
caribou" take hold, our bodies are giving out. The hundreds of meals
of dried food, the six weeks of skiing followed by another six-week race
trying to keep up with the post-calving herd, have all taken their toll,
not to mention the extremes of Arctic weather. Ironic, isn't it, just
when the caribou are reaching their physical prime, we feel ours has
passed. We are gripped all night by hunger and I wake in the morning
grasping at arms, legs and torso that, after having grown muscular, are
now too thin to be my own.
If there is
any hope of us making it back to the Porcupine River, to caribou winter
range and the village of Old Crow, we will need to leave soon. We look
for a sign from the animals but they are happy here on the Arctic/Pacific
divide, despite the plummeting temperatures. They seem content circulating
and dispersing in all directions as though caught in a giant eddy, a
backwater of rest and respite in the larger flow of the migration. We
have followed them east, west, north and south for the past two weeks,
but with each passing day, realize that we may need to start the fall
migration with or without them as our guides.
For now, though,
we perch on the northwest edge of the Richardson Mountains, resting,
watching, trying to conserve our energy before the final push south.