Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer

Subtitled “Five Months on Food with an Arctic Herd”, Heuer’s book chronicles the period of time in 2003 that he and his wife, Leanne, spent migrating with the Porcupine caribou herd on foot and on skis from their winter range to their breeding grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The ANWR is located in northeastern Alaska and abuts Ivvavik National Park in Yukon, Canada, but the protection the Porcupine caribou herd is afforded in Canada does not follow across the border into the ANWR. Different management schemes and different statues (wildlife refuge versus national park) already complicate the management of the Porcupine caribou herd in trans-national wildlife park, but the issue is further complicated by a fierce debate in the United States over drilling for oil in the ANWR.

Drilling for oil in the ANWR sounds impossible – it is a national wildlife refuge, after all – but Section 1002 of the act establishing the ANWR outlined that additional research was needed before Congress could designate a key 1.5-million-acre parcel along the coastal plain as part of the larger wilderness area. In 1980, when the act was passed, it was suspected that one of the largest reserves of oil in the entire United States existed under this land.

Not only is the area critical to the habitat of the Porcupine caribou herd, “it is breeding and nesting habitat for 130 species of migratory birds from seven continents; it contains the best and highest concentration of onshore denning sites for the entire Beaufort Sea population of polar bears; and it is key birthing and rearing habitat for musk oxen, foxes, lemmings, and a host of small mammals that live in the area year-round” (pg. 16).

Furthermore, the Gwich’in people filed a complaint to the United Nations that the proposed development of the ANWR would violate the International Charter on Human Rights as it poses a threat to their culture, which considers the caribou to be a mainstay of dietary and spiritual life. But, at the time of Heuer’s travels with the caribou, the production of oil from non-Middle Eastern sources was a popular policy and considered more important than the lives of the animals and people listed above.

This book documents an adventure I’m glad someone else wrote about so I can read and experience their trip from the comfort of my home. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to visit the ANWR (it sounds breathtakingly beautiful), but this trip is riddled with requirements that are far outside this hiker’s comfort zone – relying on food drops, multiple encounters with starving bears, crossing frozen rivers barefoot, sleeping outdoors during 24-hour sunlight, dealing with mother cows protecting their newborn babies, and Alaska’s notorious mosquitoes and bugs. No, thank you.

Despite the discomforts, it is easy to get swept away by the beauty and heartache of such an awe-inspiring journey. The descriptions of the animals herd mentality – pausing and then pushing the pack leaders into treacherous river crossings – are not easily captured in still photographs, and the slow death of a cow still nursing her calf moved me to tears. I started to get an appreciation for the ANWR and the Porcupine caribou herd that all the documentary films, congressional hearings, and propaganda posters could not impart upon me. And then there is the disconnect Heuer and his wife experience as they follow the caribou:

 “There’s still pressure, but it’s different, surging through instead of gathering within us. No schedules, no timetables, no flashing lights and signs saying which way to go next. It is wolves that tell us when to stop and caribou that urge us forward, pushing and pulling us across the landscape from behind and ahead.” (pg. 57)

Their time may have been about being caribou, but something about this description really spoke to me. This idea that I can step outside of this fast-paced life, go into the woods, and experience a different kind of urging that doesn’t involve a buzzing phone or a chirp of an email notification. And isn’t that what wild places like the ANWR are also about? The protection of species and their habitat, but also the preservation of wild areas that speak to our souls and keep us human?

Book Mentioned:

  • Heuer, Karsten. Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2008. Originally published 2005. Print. 240 pgs. ISBN: 9781571313089. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Milkweed Editions. Retrieved: September 8, 2013.
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