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.
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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.