Dean Kapuschak was five years old when he shot his first caribou.
He’d seen caribou for the first time a year earlier, and was hooked right away. He used to beg his father and grandfather, Stanley Njootli Jr. and Stanley Njootli Sr., to take him out on Old Crow Flats to hunt with them, until finally they agreed.
On the day he got his first caribou, his grandfather gave him his pump-action .22 rifle and told him what to do.
“He said ‘Don’t take that safety off until you’re ready to shoot. When you’re ready to shoot, unclip that safety and shoot it right between the ears,’” Dean recalls.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Dean is one of a group of Old Crow youth who are busy learning traditional activities like hunting and mushing – activities that get them out on the land, learning from their parents and grandparents.
Now at the ripe old age of 10, Dean proudly calls himself a “bushman.” He hunts ducks, geese and caribou whenever he can, and hopes to get a moose sometime soon.
He can explain, in great detail, how to shoot a goose that’s flying overhead. If you’ve got a .22, he says, you’ve got to shoot about 10 feet in front of the bird as it flies. If you’ve got a shotgun, you have to shoot about 20 feet in front. “‘Cause they’re so heavy,” he explained.
He also knows how to skin a caribou and smoke the meat, and how to pluck the feathers from birds. “Ducks and geese are easy,” he claims.
Dean is an energetic kid – he seems like he might be a handful if he were cooped up inside for too long. He says he likes to hunt because it lets him “get the hell out of town.”
But his time on the land isn’t just about having fun. It’s about learning skills that will last him a lifetime, and about facing his fears.
Last fall, Dean remembers, he and his father and grandfather had just packed up their boat and pushed out from shore when a grizzly appeared on the bank, drawn toward them by the smell of fresh meat. Now, Dean says, grizzlies are the only animals that scare him, and even they don’t stop him from heading out to Old Crow Flats.
Dean said many kids his age in Old Crow don’t go out on the land much at all.
“‘Cause their parents aren’t taking them out and they don’t want to,” he said. “They’d rather be in town.”
He thinks many people are scared of being out on the land these days. That’s why his grandfather and father have been taking him out from such a young age. “The people who went out before when they’re younger, they’re not scared,” he said.
Tyra Benjamin, one of Dean’s classmates, also knows something about conquering fear.
She and some of her friends have been learning to mush and skijor this winter, thanks in part to one of their teachers, Frances Ross, who recently started running a dog team. The kids have been spending evenings with Ross, practising with her dogs and with their own.
Tyra grew up around dogs, but she used to start shaking when her father would make her run with them. Now, she’s getting past that. “It’s just fun,” she said.
A shy and soft-spoken 12-year-old, Tyra comes to life when she talks about mushing. She said she wanted to learn because of her family’s history.
Years ago, Tyra’s grandfather was a special constable for the RCMP. He used to make 800-mile trips by dog sled from Old Crow up to Herschel Island, then down the coast to Aklavik and Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories. He was often gone for a few weeks at a time.
“I didn’t know him, but my dad would tell me stories,” Tyra said.
Her grandmother also owns dogs, and she’s promised to give Tyra her old harnesses and lines once she’s got her own team of seven. For now, Tyra has three dogs, plus a couple of pups in training.
Earl Benjamin, Tyra’s father, said he supports her every way he can.
“It means a lot. It’ll encourage her to be strong and healthy,” he said. “I’m very proud.”
Tyra’s friends, Kayleen Kyikavichik and Jynestta Charlie, are often out there with her in the evenings. Kayleen is learning to mush – she said her grandfather wants her to have her own team one day.
Jynestta, who seems like a bit of a daredevil, spends her time skijoring. She said she likes to go downhill, fast, and take little jumps when she can.
All the kids, including Dean, participated in the one-dog pull during the Easter Weekend games in Old Crow this winter. Tyra said she’s hoping to run in a five-dog race next year.
This past winter, the Chief Zzeh Gittlit school in Old Crow offered a skijoring class for the first time. Ross said she’s hoping that class will continue, and she’d even like to use her own dogs as a class team, to teach more students to mush.
For her part, Tyra said she’s not sure she’d have learned to mush if it hadn’t been for Ross.
But she’s glad she did. Asked how it feels to be out on the land with a dog team, her answer is simple: “Happy.”
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