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  March/April 2006
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Sierra Magazine
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A Real Refuge
Canada's Vuntut and Ivvavik National Parks, where arctic wilds are protected, not drilled.
By Edward Readicker-Henderson

(page 2 of 2)

Caribou without borders: The Porcupine herd travels from well-protected national parks in Canada to a potential oilfield in the United States. The Native Gwich'in on both sides of the border depend on the animals for sustenance.
A Gwich'in hunting cabin on Old Crow Flats.
The oil lobby says that drilling won't affect enough land to matter, that the caribou will have plenty of space left. But the coastal plain is the prime calving ground where the caribou can get away from the mosquitoes and blackflies that plague them, a place safe from predators for the newborn calves. If it were no longer available, no one knows what the caribou would do. Every Gwich'in I speak to has the ever-present worry that if the Arctic Refuge were opened to oil drilling, it might change or even stop the caribou migration completely, altering Gwich'in life in ways that could never be repaired.

Delegations of Gwich'in and other Canadians have lobbied in Ottawa and Washington, D.C. There were protests against drilling the Arctic Refuge in Whitehorse, and Prime Minister Paul Martin came out strongly against the drilling, pointing out that it puts the Porcupine caribou herd at risk, that the economics don't make sense, and that it is simply morally wrong.

But here's the difference between the U.S. and the Canadian sides: Vuntut and Ivvavik are national parks established through Canada's settlements with Native peoples. At their creation, the Canadian government withdrew all claims to oil and mineral rights on the land. Despite a likelihood that there is oil off Ivvavik in the Beaufort Sea--the area was explored during the oil boom of the 1970s and '80s--the Canadian side of the caribou's migration route is simply not open to development.

What happens if the caribou stop coming? One night, Lance gives me his take on the issue: "We're still all tied in together. We're still coexisting. We look after the land, the animals look after us. The caribou are our whole way of survival. We never have much money, but we're always rich with caribou."

Black Fox Creek, where we are camping, is right in the middle of the caribou's migration route. The creek is a thin tributary of the Crow, which is itself a tributary of the Porcupine, which gives the herd its name. It's historically significant for two reasons. Margaret Black Fox, part of the family for whom the creek is named, was the first Vuntut Gwich'in to get a rifle. She traded wolverine skins with Inuit from Herschel Island, and that changed everything.

The Black Fox family was also the traditional owner of a caribou fence along the creek. "Owner" isn't quite the right word--"hunt master" might be better--but that's how it's explained to me by Dave Arthurs, an archaeologist sent here by Parks Canada to document the fence.

There are seven known caribou fences in the park, but despite careful surveys, Arthurs says more could be waiting to be discovered. A caribou fence uses long barrier walls to block the migration route and herd the animals into a central corral, where they can be killed and butchered relatively easily. A couple families could get together to build and maintain the structure and then reap the benefits of securing a winter's worth of meat in a fairly short time. The biggest fence found in Vuntut so far had walls that stretched nearly four miles; the biggest corral was more than 380 yards long.

According to Arthurs, the same fence line might have been used for hundreds of years, repaired by generation after generation until the introduction of rifles and the area's depopulation due to diseases brought by new settlers made the fences unnecessary. What's left of this fence at Black Fox Creek are thin logs lying on the tundra, bleached by a hundred arctic summers. Near the corral are the remains of meat caches; antler and bone peek out from under the wood, but they're all aged in a way that forces you to look carefully to see which is which.

The fence sprawls down a hillside from the corral, across a small stream, then out of sight up other hills. I climb a nearby mountain and can see how the fence line exactly follows the line of least resistance through the landscape, the path an animal would naturally take. Clearly, it was built through the genius of close observation.

Back at the camp, we have a problem: Dick can't eat much store food or he gets sick. He needs "meat"--and when people at the camp say that word, they mean fresh wild game. If it was wrapped in plastic or put on a Styrofoam tray or just bought from a shop, it's something else, not meat. Not even our caribou jerky is cutting it anymore.

On the slopes around camp, arctic ground squirrels pop out of their burrows to yell at us and do whatever squirrels do, so two of the Gwich'in kids set up snares, and by morning we have meat. They singe off the fur and gut and quarter the squirrel, dropping bits in boiling water. "It tastes just like porcupine," they tell me, then look at me with pity when I say I don't know what porcupine tastes like.

Dark turkey meat, apparently. At least that's what the squirrel leg Dick holds out to me tastes like. I'm oddly relieved that it doesn't taste like chicken.

The sun is always up. I never take my sunglasses off during waking hours and get a really interesting raccoon tan. After two days of heat, a cold wind starts to blast, gusting 60 or 70 miles an hour. Being inside the tent is like being inside a bass drum, so I walk along the sheltered streambed, stepping around fallen caribou and moose antlers, the wind moving above me. I can hear each gust coming like a train approaching.

Long before even the mammoths roamed, Vuntut was part of a great ocean, and there's evidence everywhere in the form of fossil barnacles and corals. On a rock the size of a coffee table, I find brachiopods, fossil worms an inch around and more than a foot long. As I did with the plants on the tundra, I sit in a dry part of the streambed and take a close look. I can stretch my arm and touch seven kinds of fossil.

When I get up to get a drink, I dip my hands in the cold stream. They're numb before I drink my fill, and I see tiny fish in the deeper pools.

Vuntut is so rich with life it feels like the mountains themselves are breathing. On other days, I track black spiders through the tundra. Whiskey jacks dart out of the trees along the riverbanks, and ptarmigan waddle along as though their wings were an unfair burden. Long-tailed jaegers swoop over our camp, their kite-streamer tails barely moving in the wind. A butterfly, copper and brown, stops, and I am stunned for as long as this particular blade of grass holds its interest.

Each day, I head off on my own to hike, circling the mountain behind us, where the view stretches as far as the jagged edges of the Richardson Mountains and drops down into golden valleys. I watch a lone moose walk toward a shimmering pond, and one afternoon, when the light changes suddenly, I look up to where the sun has ducked behind a cloud. There's nothing strange in that, but the edges of the cloud, and of three or four more clouds around it, have been lit by rainbows, pale red, orange, green, and blue tracing the contours like flowing water. Spend any time in high latitudes, and you learn that the Arctic is where light comes to play.

With the sun always in the sky, nobody knows what time it is; the days are marked out by hunger, and meals are occasions for more of Dick's stories. "One time," he says, "I found two caribou with their horns locked." His hands are gnarled by repeated frostbite--he can grab the boiling kettle bare-handed--from so many winters spent hunting. "These two caribou circled around each other, but they couldn't get loose. I got a rope and tied the antlers as tight as I could, and then I got my hatchet. I hit them--I had to hit the antlers ten times before they broke free--and they just ran off." He smiles. "I would have shot the caribou, but it was too much meat."

In the end, all his stories are about the caribou. He remembers herds that were a mile long and two or three miles wide, that left behind ground so beaten down it looked like a road. At the Old Crow airport, I had picked up a brochure titled The Vuntut Gwitchin: Their Culture & Coexistence With the Caribou, which reads, "We are grateful that the caribou come back our way, close to Old Crow every year. Sometimes they are delayed; however, we still wait patiently, because the caribou never let us down yet."

The caribou are on their own schedule, with priorities that have nothing whatsoever to do with our lives. Thinking we should afford them the same respect and leave them this stillness, I take off on our last day on the land, heading across the now dry streambed, through a line of trees that don't even reach my thighs. The base of the mountain I make my target is a mile or so away, and it's an ankle-twisting walk at first, over foot-high tussocks that give way under each step. Finally, though, firmer soil appears, and I skirt the mountain's lower edge, crossing a pretty little stream lined with flowers the size of snowflakes.

For no good reason except the pleasure of being here, I climb halfway up the next mountain, then find a flat gray rock and sit to rest. It's silent except for the wind in the grass and the two-note call of a bird I can't see.

And then, coming across the cirque at the head of the valley, eight caribou, moving quickly. In minutes, these caribou, the leading edge of the thousands that will follow over the next weeks, cross territory it took me an hour to cover.

This year, at least, the waiting is over. The migration has begun.

Edward Readicker-Henderson has been writing about Alaska and the Yukon for more than 25 years.


Map by John Blanchard, photo courtesy of Yukon Government Photo; used with permission.

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