Return of the caribou

A pair of golden caribou antlers poke above the snowy horizon. A group of 20 caribou saunter past with confused yet quizzical looks in my direction. 

A pair of golden caribou antlers poke above the snowy horizon. A group of 20 caribou saunter past with confused yet quizzical looks in my direction. The silence is broken by the whizzing sound of a bullet flying overhead.

I hunker down behind the safety of a rock and wait for the shooting to stop. It sounds like the bullets are only feet above me, but I know they’re not. I’ve never been attracted to war photojournalism, but am getting a small taste of what it must be like.

I begin calculating the odds of being hit by a stray bullet. Maybe 1 in 100,000, although I recall hearing of a hunter struck by a stray bullet on the Dempster over a decade ago.

A snowmobile comes flying up the hill chasing a group of caribou. Two excited youth give me a quick wave and head down the other side. Their enthusiasm is infectious.


RELATED: View slideshow.


It has been two long years since the Porcupine caribou herd have visited the part of their traditional wintering grounds that lie along the Dempster Highway. When I heard from friends that the caribou had finally returned, I loaded up my camper and headed straight North. I thought I’d be gone for five days, tops. At least that’s what I told my partner Terri.

It would be two weeks before I finally returned home to my girls.

After a marathon 17 hour drive I arrive at the Yukon-N.W.T. border. There are caribou and Gwich’in everywhere and the joy is palpable. I wander over to a group of hunters with a pile of caribou. Peter Tetlichi and Dakota Koe are cleaning animals behind their vehicles. They are two young men, probably still in high school, but missing classes for a more important education.

Like most young men from Fort MacPherson, they are hunting for their families and community. They load up a truck of caribou for their parents, a truck for their grandparents, a truck for their great grandparents, and they have also harvested two caribou for an elder in the pullout who doesn’t have a snowmobile.

The 20 caribou they harvested seems like a lot, but it is split between five or six families and will be consumed by spring. The boys are understandably proud. They have spent the last two days on the land, hunting at the same site their people have hunted for generations.

The Gwich’in of Fort McPherson are caribou people. After thousands of years of surviving on caribou, they are caribou. Their stories tell of how every caribou heart is part Gwich’in and every Gwich’in heart is part caribou.

After spending the day photographing the harvest, I strap on my skis to shoot a few caribou with my camera. The inclement weather on the Dempster is perfect for photography, and I can’t go 100 metres without tripping over a caribou. Thousands of caribou trails braid across the fresh snow.

I spot a wounded caribou limping along a trail, her useless leg dangling by a tendon. Likely injured by a hunter, she won’t survive long. Injured caribou is an unfortunate reality of the Dempster hunt. In my two weeks following the migration I witnessed two instances where caribou were injured by hunters and managed to escape their prey: once by licensed hunters and once by Gwich’in. In both cases the hunters lost the caribou when it reached the forest. A three-legged caribou can easily outdistance a hunter on foot.

A few days later I hit the land with some Gwich’in youth from Fort McPherson. Only in Grade 10, Tony Alexie and Clifton Francis have a wealth of knowledge and experience in hunting, trapping and living on the land. During our hunt we bump into a pair of conservation officers from Dawson who are enforcing good practices along the highway. Clifton informs them of four bull caribou that had been killed near the border and left to rot. Like the vast majority of the people from Fort McPherson, the boys are really upset about the wasting of meat and the disrespect shown to the caribou.

After a long day of hunting, Tony and Clifton are cleaning caribou alongside the road. They place the kidneys, liver, hearts and gut sacks in the clean snow beside a can of coke. The contrast of red and white is striking. So is the contrast of old and new. A pair of bull caribou crack antlers in the background. It is easy to picture a pair of young men on dog sleds cleaning caribou beneath the rounded mountains a hundred years earlier.

Hunting caribou along the Dempster involves many complex issues and many different perspectives. Too many animals are injured, perhaps too many cows are taken, and the hunting season must to be shortened to ensure the caribou return. However, there is also so much to be celebrated. The return of the caribou to the Dempster is a hugely positive experience leaving all the people along the highway filled with joy and excited to be out on the land filling their freezers, their bellies, and even their memory cards.

Peter Mather is a Whitehorse writer and photographer.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Most Read