Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot With an Arctic Herd

by Karsten Heuer

Published by McClelland & Stewart

235 pages, 2006

Buy it online



March of the Caribou

Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham


Karsten Heuer, a wildlife biologist and park warden by training, and a romantic and environmentalist by choice, and his filmmaker wife, Leanne Allison, have completed a multiple award-winning National Film Board film. An accompanying book, Being Caribou, records the five months in 2003 when the couple trekked behind the Porcupine caribou herd on a 61,500 kilometer round trip from Old Crow to the herd's calving grounds in the midst of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Well known to the caribou, the 27,000-year-old migratory route crosses four mountain ranges, dips down numerous passes and valleys, and meanders back and forth across creeks, streams, bogs and rivers such as the Porcupine, the Blow, the Babbage, the Trail, the Kongakut, the Clarence and the Firth. As Heuer describes so well in his book, the journey, whether taken by man or beast, is fraught with dangers from bears, wolves, lack of food, bone-numbing cold, gale force snow storms, icy slush covered fords and breathless hot spells plagued with bugs and mosquitoes.

On a crusading adventure that doubled as their honeymoon, Heuer and Allison wanted "to become caribou" to experience as much as possible what it would mean from the caribous' point of view to have the animals' pristine 1.5-million- acre calving grounds opened up to the oil explorations that both the United States and Alaskan governments continue to propose. The scientific sources Heuer quotes in his book indicate that a tapping of the estimated 3.5 billion barrels of crude reserves in the area could result in a minimal four per cent decrease in the US' 69 per cent reliance on its addiction to foreign oil, and this for a period of only six to 12 months over 15 to 20 years of drilling and extraction. As Heuer eloquently expresses, this is a very short term gain balanced against the long term disruption for the caribou and the local Gwich'in nation. He also reminds us that the US, with only five per cent of the global population, sucks up and spews out 25 per cent of the world's energy resources.

He notes other assets and liabilities for the oil development balance sheet as well. On the one hand, several of the individuals he quotes in his book, including aboriginal elders and Inupiat leaders, favor the economic benefits from promised employment and shares of the oil drilling proceeds. Others, however, point to the downsides of alcoholism, wife and child abuse, suicides, abandoned work sites and diminishing caribou herds that have occurred at locations such as the Nuisqsut village in the Prudhoe Bay catchment area. Additionally, as Heuer relates, there could be major disasters for the ecological and environmental balance of the region, especially for the more than 130 species of migratory birds that fly in from seven continents to join the Beaufort Sea polar bears that den on the coast and for the foxes, lemmings, musk ox and other animals that reside there with the caribou during their annual calving.

What distinguishes Heuer's book from others that argue for and against human and industrial impacts on the environment is his up close -- very up close -- and personal approach to his subject matter. At times he writes with the objectivity of the scientist, keeping meticulous diarized records, quoting from a US Geological Survey, referring to a research paper about the history of the Porcupine caribou herd, noting temperature changes of 20 degrees in one day, or measuring four-inch bear claw tracks. But he has an eye and an ear for poetry and drama. We see this in vivid descriptions of a golden eagle swooping down on a ground squirrel, or the caribou herds migrating across the tundra and the thrumming of the herd that becomes such an integral force in his attempts at understanding their migration. Heuer's vivid depictions of both the beauty and the harshness of the pristine environment he and his wife experienced are outstanding. His descriptions of attacks by predators and the hazards and hardships the female caribou of the 123,000 member herd endure as they roam the 96,000 square miles of their range on their way to and from the calving grounds are indelible etchings.

The revelations of the intimacies, misunderstandings and even vociferous arguments about whether to quit or to continue their trek that Heuer and Allison engaged in are empathetically memorable too. Married only a few months before they began their trip, their honeymoon was far from ordinary. In fact, it became truly extraordinary with its days and nights of one sleeping bag proximity, smelly socks and underwear in a cramped tent, a couple of episodes of near starvation, various encounters with bears, bugs and wolves, episodes of falling through ice and ending with bleeding feet, storms when they and their tent were nearly blown away, and temperature changes from below freezing to mosquito-infested hot. All the while they had to keep an eye out for the caribou that sometimes came close enough to graze their tent, and at other times left them in their dust, literally and figuratively.

All in all, Heuer and Allison were glad to have taken the trip and hope their record of it in literary and visual form will be a wake-up call rather than a eulogy for the Porcupine herd's calving grounds. The result of their idealistic crusade remains to be seen; the record of their amazing arctic adventure is available right now for all to read, enjoy and ruminate on. | August 2006


M. Wayne Cunningham is a former community college English instructor and administrator and once served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. His reviews have appeared in Books in Canada, The Mystery Review, Mystery Readers Journal, The Vancouver Rain Review of Books and in a weekly column he formerly wrote for The Kamloops Daily News. He is a resident of Kamloops, British Columbia.