Telling the story of the caribou

Moving north to live like an wild animal is a popular thing to do. I’m writing from Haines, Alaska, where bald eagles cruise the Chilkat River for late-migrating silver salmon. Here, and north of here, great migrations are still underway. Every year, thousands of salmon return to this river system, and horizon-wide herds of caribou stream to the Arctic ocean.

In 2003, Karsten Heuer and his wife Leanne Allison set out to follow the porcupine caribou herd on a five-month journey to their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Because ANWR is threatened by oil and gas development, they hoped to “tell the caribou’s story” to lawmakers and voters. Along the way, Heuer wrote and Allison filmed the project “Being Caribou.”

Heuer described their intent to leave behind “fixed goals, objectives, or destinations. Our task would be to follow (caribou), move like them, act like them, perhaps even think like them, and see what we learned along the way.” He went into the trip armed with a wildlife biologist’s training and a park warden’s experience. But, after five months of wandering through mountain ranges, across arctic rivers, through clouds of insects, sometimes for days without food, he emerged as a prophet of wildness.

At the start of their journey, Heuer met an old Gwich’in man who had subsisted on caribou for his whole life. He related how his ancestors snowshoed after the herd to survive.

“Back then,” he said, “people could talk to caribou and caribou could talk to people.”

Heuer, still a scientist, is skeptical of the poetic benediction, and powers through chapters like “Post Calving Aggregation,” and “Summer Wandering” in chronological format with occasional verbatim diary entries. He begins clear and neatly journalistic. But, after a few months months of walking, he feels “subsonic thrumming” from the herd, and follows his gut instead of the compass.

Yet, “the contradiction of using modern technology to ‘be’ caribou wasn’t lost on either of us,” Heuer says. Humans can’t grow fat of cottongrass, outrun wolves, or intuit upcoming weather. Throughout the trip they remained tied to human lifelines. Cut off from the herd, they called a biologist for locations of radio collared caribou. Every two weeks, a pilot supplied them with food, and once they spent a week at a small town on the Arctic Ocean.

As long as their equipment and bodies held up, and their food arrived on time, keeping up with the migrating herd was just barely possible. But after the fourth day without a food resupply, Heuer wondered at the irony. “People in Old Crow are going to laugh pretty hard if we starve surrounded by caribou.”

Heuer and Allison idealize “the power and strength of (these ancient people), when being caribou wasn’t what hung in the balance but being alive,” but they never participate in the ancient relationships of life and death. Five months of “being” caribou is an intriguing story. But the Gwich’in elder didn’t say that his ancestors were one and the same with the caribou. He said that they could talk with one another. Perhaps “being human with caribou,” would be a more environmentally compelling ideal.

To the people of Old Crow, caribou means food. If a man on the verge of starvation finds the herd, he’s saved. Yet Heuer and Allison were constantly hungry, even in the midst of the migration. Heuer invokes Rilke: “How strange and devouring our ways must seem/to those for whom life is enough,” while they impersonate what Allison calls “perfect animals. They don’t have to eat meat, or kill anything”

They never eat caribou, but Heuer and Allison imagine themselves as ancient hunters, and caribou shamanism raises its many-tined head. After five months, they’re well qualified to speak from the caribou’s perspective. They head for Washington DC, where they unsuccessfully lobby distracted politicians.

“If it’s change we want,” Heuer said, discouraged, “we have to take a different tack.”

Pretending to be caribou didn’t change the world, but their project is still more than elaborate role-play. Being Caribou is an act of faith in wildness. To the extent that environmentalism is a type of spirituality, Heuer and Allison succeed in their goals.

The book, and the film, which is available for free on the National Film Board of Canada’s website (www.nfb.ca), are both beautiful and uninhibited. Heuer doesn’t hide their humanity or dissatisfaction with it, which is the story’s greatest strength. “Being Caribou” acknowledges weakness, absurdity, and insignificance, and tells the story of a young couple on the trail of a great symbol of wildness.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.


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