In Search of the Porcupine Caribou Herd

Text by Doris Hausleitner

Images by Peter Mather

We peer out at the Yukon River from the dusty roads of Dawson City. “The smoke is definitely worse,” Jonathon concludes. “I see less of the other shore today than I did yesterday.” It is the end of June, and wildfire season has come early to the Yukon and Alaska.

Aggressive fires burning north of Fairbanks have already changed our original plan—to fly into the Kongakut River in Alaska and hike to the Firth River in the Yukon with the hopes of intercepting the migrating Porcupine caribou herd. Now the fires burning between Dawson City and Old Crow and problems changing our landing permit into Ivvavik National Park are threatening to thwart our plans completely. 

Our team is a diverse group. I’m a wildlife biologist and instructor at a local college in southeastern British Columbia. Peter Mather and I, close friends from high school in the Yukon, now middle aged, recently reconnected on one of our family trips to the north. Peter has followed his high-school passion and is a thriving wildlife photographer and conservation advocate. I had met Jonathan Hawkins, a fit 36-year-old chiropractor from Whitehorse on a river trip the previous summer. Jonathan, originally from the East Coast, is embracing northern life and the experiences that come with it. Caleb Charlie, the youngest member of our team at 25, is Vuntut Gwitch’in and hails from Old Crow, Yukon. Peter is acting as a mentor to Caleb on this trip, with Caleb showing incredible raw talent as a cinematographer.

Just a few hours before Canada Parks personnel are leaving on a three day-weekend, they issue us a permit to fly from Inuvik with Aklak Air, and we embark on the 10-hour drive north with renewed hope. As we drive north from Dawson City on the Dempster Highway, Peter points out some of the caribou’s winter grounds. The black spruce of the northern boreal forests are precisely where the wildfires are burning, and with increasing temperatures predicted by climate change, these forests will experience bigger, more intense, and longer wildfire seasons over the long term. Moreover, the forests are not returning the way they used to. Recent studies show that following fire, black spruce forests are not regenerating at all, or they are hosting incursions of new species such as birch and aspen.

A newly born caribou calf builds a critical connection with its mother in their calving grounds on the 1002 lands of Alaska’s Arctic Refuge. The calves and cows must build an immediate bond; in less than a month they will be traveling in a densely packed herd of over 50,000 caribou where they can become easily separated.

The implications for the caribou are huge.

Much of the caribou’s winter diet is lichen, a slow growing plant that is sluggish to return following fire. Lichens grow in the understory of black spruce forests. A study funded by the USGS Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative and the University of Alaska Fairbanks concluded that as much as 21 percent of the lichen-producing habitat caribou use in winter will be lost by the end of the century. 

The Vuntut Gwitch’in of Old Crow have been inextricably connected with caribou and the Porcupine River, after which this herd was named, for over 10,000 years. Caleb and his ancestors have witnessed the pregnant cows move through their village as the river ice breaks up on the Porcupine River in the spring to calve in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska and return in the fall to their wintering grounds south of the Porcupine River as the weather cools. On the coastal plain, the forage is good, and the open terrain enables the caribou to watch for predators. The migration we are hoping to witness is the movement of these caribou, mostly mothers with month-old calves, to their summer grounds in the Yukon and Alaska. As the summer heats up, the North’s legendary mosquitoes activate, and the caribou look for relief on windy ridges and snow patches. This is the motivating force of the Porcupine herd migration. 

When 100,000 caribou move through the tundra landscape of Alaska’s North Slope, they leave an array of trails that mark the land for years. 

It is not until we pass over the maze of channels and islands in the Mackenzie Delta from Inuvik that the thick wildfire smoke abates to a light haze. We arrive at the Sheep Creek confluence on the Firth River. It is the first week of July, and even at this northern latitude, it is a sweltering 86 degrees. “These temperatures should make the caribou move,” Peter remarks, although I personally don’t feel much like moving with my 65-pound pack. 

But we do move, and we adapt to the heat by traveling in the evenings and throughout the short night, aided by the midnight sun. Our base camp destination is the Malcolm River and a camp near a peak aptly named “Halfway to Heaven.” We follow ancient caribou pathways, deeply carved into the hillsides and ridgelines to the northwest. 

On our third day of hiking, we gain a ridge north of our camp as storm clouds gather. We welcome a rain shower as a reprieve to the heat. Scanning with binoculars, we see nothing but are encouraged by the scent of musk in the air. Storm clouds build overhead, and thunder and lightning are suddenly all around us. We count eight seconds. We decide to climb to the top of the mountain to scan the valleys running west-to-east from Alaska, paralleling the Beaufort Sea. Six seconds. Jonathon suddenly spots the silhouettes of caribou cresting a col. We promptly rename the landmark Jonathan’s Saddle. Our celebration is cut short, when, CRACK, lightning strikes, and the deafening thunder flattens us on the mountain top. We scramble off, hair on end, flooded with endorphins by the near miss and the sighting of our first caribou. 

A steady torrent of rain accompanies us as we contour just off the ridge tops, trying to elude the dangers of the storm. Then, in the valley bottom below us, small shadows become caribou, numerous as grains of rice with legs, fanning up the hillsides and across snow patches. We make ourselves comfortable behind a rocky outcrop and are rewarded with the passing of the herd for the next 12 hours. In an uncharacteristic outburst of emotion, Caleb exclaims, “This is bananas!”  He sports a broad grin. 

First there are mostly cows but as the hours pass the herd becomes a mixture of cows with calves and the occasional bull. A cow and calf separate, passing on either side of a rocky outcrop. The cow continues with the flow of animals, and we watch, stricken, as the calf moves against the flow of animals, crying in search of its mother. Over the next few days, we witness several of these lone calves, many of them coming right up to us in camp to see if we are their mamas. Often, they retreat to the last place they have seen their mothers. Sometimes, several days after separation, we see cows retracing their steps in transect fashion, running zig zag back over the paths, nosing the air for their calves. The reunion consists of a nose-to-nose greeting, a brief milking session, and on they go, reunited in the wake of the herd, as if nothing has happened.

Camped in the middle of the caribou migration.

After many hours watching the streaming herd, Jonathan and I make our way back to camp. We walk among the herd, the animals maintaining a constant distance. We travel together on the ancestral paths, freshly churned by the hooves of this year’s herd. I think of their long journey ahead to the boreal forest and the uncertain future of their winter range.

I am a worrier by nature—about nature—and sometimes the uncertainty and anxiety of climate change flattens me. But strangely, in this moment, as the caribou single-mindedly stream along the valley, passing above, below, and beside us, in the sheer volume and exuberant movement of the life proliferating around us, everything feels just right.    

Doris Hausleitner’s first biology job was with the Porcupine Caribou Management Board out of Dawson City. She has spent her career researching and conserving wildlife, particularly species at risk. Peter Mather is a professional photographer, writer, and teacher who lives in Whitehorse. petermather.com

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