‘Everyone in Old Crow was talking about the upcoming caribou migration. It was nearly the only news in town. Every house has a cache where they keep their caribou meat. For the Gwich’in it’s a way of life.’ Leanne Allison is talking about the Gwich’in community of Old Crow: the Gwitch’in are one of the major tribes that inhabit northern Alaska and Yukon and Old Crow is a ‘fly-in’ community (off the road system) in the heart of Gwich’in country in the northwestern Yukon. It is here that Allison will join the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the journey to their spring calving grounds in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge. As Allison’s partner Karsten Heuer explains, it is an appropriate starting-point for their journey: ‘This is one of the first human settlements in the Americas and thus one of the earliest couplings of humans and creatures.’ The caribou left Old Crow in the early spring. Their route is one of the longest migrations taken by large land mammals anywhere in the world. On ski and foot over hundreds of kilometres of caribou trails, Allison and Heuer follow the 120,000-odd animals of the Porcupine herd. Through the trip they investigate, and later publicize, the danger to the caribou posed by George Bush’s insistence that the Alaska Wildlife Refuge be opened up for oil companies to drill the fragile tundra. As they travel, Allison – with a couple of weeks of film school under her belt – films ‘to tell a story from an animal’s perspective through human eyes’.
Kilometre after long hard kilometre they hit the trails cut by the caribou for centuries and brave marauding bears. And then they are there – in the calving grounds of the caribou. Unbelievably, the herd has chosen to calf in exactly the spot where oil drilling is being planned. What the herd goes through now in order to reproduce defies belief. As the calves can easily be picked off by predators, the young and their mothers must avoid all threats: golden eagles, wolves, bears; even swarms of biting insects that block out the sun. When a calf wanders off and cannot find its mother, nature’s verdict is pitiless. Other cows refuse to nurse it and it dies of starvation. Allison and Heuer watch this for 10 days, crouched in their tent with a camera. They pee in bottles and crawl on all fours to get water in a way that does not disturb the herd. They are hostage to one of the great wonders of the North American wilderness.
‘Curiosity: that’s what motivates me,’ says Karsten Heuer, who has worked as a park ranger in the foothills of Canada’s Rockies following radio-collared bear, wolf and lynx to see how far the animals would range. This frequently took the wildlife – and the rangers – outside the boundaries (and relative safety) of the Park. So Heuer and Allison championed the ‘Y to Y project’: an attempt to link a wildlife corridor from Yellowstone Park in the US state of Colorado to the far northern Canadian territory of the Yukon. The two conservationists walked the thousands of miles from Yellowstone across the rugged mountain territory to the Yukon: a symbolic ‘necessary journey’ to dramatize the plight of large mammals such as wolves and grizzlies which depend on a large range for their survival. It took two entire summers. It is this preoccupation with the survival of wild animals that has led them here to the Porcupine herd and the long trek across the Yukon and Alaska.
This is the area where the largest industrial development in the Arctic is planned. The oil industry is full of brash confidence that its rigs, pipelines and trucks can live side by side with the caribou. ‘Their case rests on the logic that “the only way to know if this is possible is to do it”,’ explains Heuer, frustrated by enemies that are mere figures on a page. The combined oil reserves in this area are estimated to provide the total US oil supply for six months – some 3.2 billion barrels. In fighting this battle, Allison and Heuer are pitting the 23,000 caribou trails that ribbon across northern Alaska and the Yukon against the North American romance with gas-guzzling SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles). Their weapons of choice are poetry, humour and a commitment to the caribou.
When they venture once more on to the streets of humans after five months with the caribou, they are immediately whisked off to Washington DC, thousands of kilometres away, where the fate of the caribou is being decided. They speak of ‘a physical pain’ in making the almost immediate transition from the caribou to ‘political Washington’ to lobby US legislators.
‘You get five or ten minutes sandwiched between someone from GM and someone trying to outlaw abortions, all to get told that “cheap gas – that’s what my constituents care about”. It causes a ripping in the soul to go to this from the beautiful flow and rhythm of life with the caribou.’
Don’t miss the film that Allison and Heuer have made – it’s inspiring. Check out their website: http://www.beingcaribou.com>
Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer talked with Richard Swift