Caribou captured by photo and pen

The sun was softer by the time Fritz Mueller and Teresa Earle reached the ridge. While it shone perpetually during their trek into the remote…

The sun was softer by the time Fritz Mueller and Teresa Earle reached the ridge.

While it shone perpetually during their trek into the remote wilderness in north Yukon, it had a different quality at 11 p.m.

After spending the better part of the day slogging up a steep slope with camping gear, food and camera equipment, the pair set up camp on a ridge and prepared to photograph and document what Earle calls “the marrow of life in North Yukon — the Porcupine caribou herd.”

Over the past five years, the photographer-writer duo have trekked many trails into the wilderness on the vast tracts of land between Old Crow, Inuvik and Herschel Island.

After seven trips spent tracing the movement of caribou through their summer grounds in territory’s northern reaches, the memory of this one particular ridge is etched vividly in Mueller and Earle’s minds.

After setting up camp, Earle fell into a short-lived sleep. Mueller made a discovery on the ridge, however, that he insisted was worth kicking off the sleeping bag and pulling on the hikers.

It was a ring of stones grown over with lichen and moss.

“We just walked a little ways up the ridge, a couple hundred metres and he showed me a ring of rocks,” said Earle.

“It’s a sign of habitation from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”

The ring was likely used by hunters to hold down a tarp made of caribou hide.

Camouflaged behind the blind, hunters would hunker down in wait for caribou to spill over the ridge, before leaping out to spear them.

“You’re in the middle of nowhere and then you find this sign of previous presence,” Earle added.

“It was startling. It was almost disconcerting to think that we, Westerners, have a sort of explorer mentality — that we’re going into this place where nobody has been.”

With 24-hours of light and few bugs in the air, the following days were perfect, said Mueller.

“Caribou went by us for three days; there was the tent ring there, and the light had an amazing quality,” he said.

 “It just felt like caribou had been doing this for thousands of years.”

How do you translate that experience into a gallery display?

Mueller has done it by experimenting with light, lenses and filters; while Earle has woven it into words with the Porcupine Caribou — Rhythms of the Herd exhibition.

The display features a series of Mueller’s photographs, taken over the past five years, as well as journal entries Earle wrote during their time with the herd.

“The story of caribou is quite compelling,” said Earle.

“They migrate these vast distances and they have their calves in this really inhospitable climate,” she said.

That wilderness nursery is “a really fascinating place.”

The photos attempt to capture the width and breadth of the landscape and the size of the herd, said Mueller.

“There’s lots of caribou but the area they live in is enormous,” he said.

“I tried to get photos that would express the herd, the huge group of animals.

“It’s an amazing thing about the caribou. It’s not just a few of them, there’s tens of thousands of them.”

 Capturing the movement of the herd across the terrain was another goal for Mueller.

“Having them in those big tight, groups trying to avoid bugs or migrating in groups with their calves following, it’s amazing to watch,” he said.

“They’re almost like flocks of birds flying in unison. They very much move in patterns that are fascinating to watch.”

The two-part exhibition is currently gracing the walls of the Grotto Gallery at the Yukon Arts Centre and Zola’s Café Dore in Whitehorse.

A large panoramic shot, called Valley of Caribou, takes up most of the wall above the row of computers at Zola’s.

A large mountain rises from a green valley at the centre of the photo, with ridges like the rounded backs of ancient dinosaurs.

Hundreds of caribou graze at the foot of slope, scattered throughout the valley.

“This was in a two or three hour window that we had probably 10,000 or 15,000 caribou,” said Earle.

“We sat on a knoll and they just spilled around us … how do you tell that to people?”

The technique Mueller used to express this particular caribou landscape was to use a special camera the size of a small suitcase.

When the film is enlarged, the details remain clear and precise, said Mueller.

“That panorama format, the long format, I feel that really helps to tell the story of the Yukon,” he said.

“The Yukon is very expansive and that crop helps to describe it.”

Panoramic scenes of caribou herds remind Mueller of the Serengeti, the vast grassy plains in Western Africa across which about 200,000 zebra and one million wildebeest migrate each year.

“A lot of people travel to Africa to see this, but we actually have this right in our own backyard,” said Mueller.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Mueller lived in the Serengeti, conducting research on the topi, an animal he describes as a “quirky little antelope.

“That’s one of the things that brought me here. I used to do research in the Serengeti and just got fascinated by big groups of animals.”

To translate the herd’s movement, the vast space, and the sense of an ancient connection, Earle combed through her notebooks.

A few of her handwritten passages, gleaned from a pile of travel journals, hang beside the photos in the two galleries.

“There are five or six passages that we felt helped to tell more of a story,” said Earle.

“I didn’t want to tell the same story that you can visually. I wanted to tell more of the personal experiences that we had.”

One journal entry, hanging on the back wall of the café, is dated July 19, 2003.

“Though it’s one of the most peaceful and unoccupied places I’ve ever been, the tundra is not silent,” it reads.

It is flanked by a shot of a landscape in brilliant reds and oranges.

With the combination of words and images the pair hope to bring the viewer into the herd.

“It’s trying to give a sense of what it’s like to be there,” said Mueller.

“This is in a really remote place that most people can’t go to very easily. And even when they do go there, it’s very hard to find the caribou.”

The photos are part of a larger project, a photo book of the Yukon, which will require another year’s work.

Mueller and Earle also hope to send the photos south.

Arrangements have not been finalized, but Ottawa residents may soon enjoy the opportunity to view the Porcupine herd from Earle and Mueller’s privileged perspective.

Their days on that ridge presented clear parallels between the ancient migratory patterns of four- and two-legged animals across the face of the Earth, and the current controversy surrounding oil and gas development in Caribou calving grounds in Alaska.

“Oil and gas activities in the calving ground — it all seems kind of shortsighted,” said Mueller.

“That we might jeopardize something that’s been happening for so long, that we would risk it, that we would risk hurting that, for some oil.”

Those wishing to experience Porcupine Caribou — Rhythms of a Herd, can visit the Yukon Art Centre’s Grotto until March 19 and Zola’s café during the entire month of March.