Editor’s note: This excerpt from Seth Kantner’s latest book, A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou, is published with permission from Mountaineer Books.
The herd begins to move, slowly, indecisively, but soon rapidly, a steady pouring away of animals, dropping over a ridge and disappearing down into alders. Finally, below, a quarter mile away, the leaders appear again along the bank of the river. An adult female wades into the water. In the distance comes the faint grunts and bleated “Ert! Ert!” of cow caribou calling their calves and the calves answering in their more plaintive: “Eerrt! Eerrt!” In the sky, ravens caw, and somewhere high overhead and unseen, sandhill cranes circle, dots in the blue, conversing in their rusty-hinge-like calls.
Another raven passes overhead, and then two more, scanning the tundra and brush and shoreline, their wings panting sharp breaths out of the air. Randomly, in midflight, their black forms plummet, falling toward the ground, only to roll back into flight and smoothly fly on, playing yet always watching, patient and missing nothing, cawing their commentary of caribou across the miles. Occasionally one will land in a treetop, perch and make suggestions, and soon fly on toward other opportunities. Far away on the tundra, dark dots will be black bears—but no!—those too are ravens, congregated to eat blueberries while they wait for a successful hunter. Or wait—maybe it’s a caribou they are feasting on, dead down in the tussocks, left by a grizzly bear. Sure enough, more ravens are arriving, flocking to enjoy their favorite feast—caribou eyes and tongues and intestines, sweet and fat, fresh and warm.
Overnight the beautiful burgundy tundra fades to brown. A few more days and the land is almost gray brown in its acquiescence to winter’s coming. The north wind blows relentlessly now. In the morning, ice is on the ponds, with windy blue waves lapping in narrow slits not yet frozen. Afternoon sunlight is the color of straw. Meanwhile, still coming, are the endless caribou herds, their presence making this fleeting fall bearable, all part of life here.
The caribou change almost as fast as the land—moving in the opposite direction along the plane of beauty. In the time it takes birch leaves to turn yellow, fade and fall, the animals change from drab indistinct dark brown and gray to rich brown, with white bellies and rumps and lines along their lower flanks. Their neck hair grows long and white as snow, almost too quickly to believe. Oestrid flies, a curse in the lives of caribou, for now have receded with summer, and the flies’ offspring—torturous warble and nose bot larvae—ride as tiny hitchhikers under the skin and in the sinuses of the animals. The bulls are heavy, burly after a summer of putting on fat—averaging three hundred fifty to four hundred pounds, with thick powerful necks draped with white manes—and holding high their glorious antlers, tall and broad, burnished and hard. The cows are half their size, with antlers half sized, too, and are healthy and plump, with a soft stressed look in their eyes. The females are the leaders of this nation, and they take turns guiding groups across this dangerous hungry land. At their sides are their calves, still nursing, with small velvet antler spikes and lovely gentle dark-and-silver faces.
Already the adult males are entering a hormone haze. Soon they will be lost in it—arrogant and proud, careless and stupid, thinking only of mating—and doing little to assist in this major migration to the wintering grounds. The bulls will eat little or nothing, their stomachs will shrink, their penis sheaths will become extended, and they will spar vigorously with other bulls. Many will die of wounds inflicted on each other, and from wounds that slow them enough to be eaten by wolves and bears. Along the riverbanks, lost calves will bleat for their mothers, separated and confused, pacing in fear. On other shores, distraught mothers will call and call, often for days and often in vain. In the willows and tangled thickets along creeks and sloughs, randomly groups will flee from threatening sounds and the scent of wolves or bears. The terrified cows and calves and young bulls will outpace the big bulls with their huge antlers tangled for precious seconds in branches and limbs—time enough for grizzly bears in the last days before fall denning to end these animals’ journeys in the cool and pleasant privacy of the deep dark brush.