Listening to the landscape

It wasn’t drinking caribou pee that changed Karsten Heuer’s life — although that may have played part in it.

It wasn’t drinking caribou pee that changed Karsten Heuer’s life — although that may have played part in it.

It was time spent in the wilds that forced the wildlife biologist-cum-park warden to question his scientific training.

And it all started with one radio-collared wolf.

Working near Canmore, Alberta, the young scientist set out to track the wolf’s domain.

“We thought it would travel about 200-square kilometres,” he said.

Turns out, it could travel that before breakfast.

The wolf wandered from Canmore to Kamloops, British Columbia, down through Idaho and Montana and back up to northern BC.

“It was using 120,000-square kilometres — it blew everyone away,” said Heuer.

It set him thinking about parks.

Instead of standing on their own, Heuer realized animals use parks as interconnected wilderness corridors.

While this often looks doable on a map, with parks linking Yellowstone in Montana to the Yukon, there may be some major barriers on the ground.

Heuer decided there was only one way to find out.

He spent 18 months walking from Yellowstone to Watson Lake.

“I left with a black and white viewpoint about resource extraction and what was good and bad,” said Heuer.

But on the ground, interacting with foresters and ranchers, things got a little greyer.

Some loggers were doing small-scale selective cuts and one rancher had put a conservation easement on his land, so it would be preserved after he finished ranching it.

As he got further north, Heuer saw more and more evidence of wildlife, particularly grizzlies.

By that time he’d crossed several mountain ranges and switched girlfriends.

“I started with one and ended up with another,” he said with a laugh, speaking to a crowd at the Beringia Centre as part of the Polar Year lecture series.

The second girlfriend, now Heuer’s wife, should have been prepared for an unusual honeymoon, given their first trek.

But she probably didn’t suspect it would involve water with essence of caribou urine, instead of champagne.

Smitten with the Yukon, Heuer ended up accepting a warden posting in Ivvavik National Park, on the territory’s  northern-most tip.

Patrolling the park’s rivers in a blow-up raft, Heuer got his first whiff of caribou. The bulls were crossing, following the cows to the calving ground.

The river was rough and as these caribou tried to swim through the raging rapids many were washed up as carcasses, feeding grizzlies on the shore.

“There was such drama,” said Heuer.

“And something in my heart made me want to go and follow them.”

So began Heuer’s honeymoon — a five-month journey with the Porcupine caribou herd to its calving ground and back again.

The couple ended up crossing three mountain ranges in the winter, with temperatures dropping to minus 35 and packs weighing 36 kilograms.

There were no bridges across the rivers or trails to follow — just caribou tracks, he said.

They were stalked by grizzlies, watched spectacular wolf chases, and were pushed by the moving herd at a pace that only allowed a half-hour of sleep every 12 hours. Then the pair spent 10 day stuck in their tent during calving, because of the animals’ sensitivity to disturbance during this period.

“Every piece of food we ate had caribou hair on it, the water tasted like caribou urine — we were living and breathing caribou,” said Heuer.

It was about this time that Heuer started having visions.

“Like shamans, the caribou pushed us to this other realm of consciousness,” he said.

He woke up and related a dream to his wife — “We’re going to see our first bull today, standing on a rocky ridge with a green hill behind him.”

She thought he’d lost it.

But a few minutes later, the bull appeared just as he’d described.

Soon after, they started hearing the “thrumming.”

That’s the only way Heuer could think to describe it — a subtle sound the caribou make to communicate.

“As all the clutter and walls fell away, we started to hear this sound with clarity,” he said.

“We had started listening in a way few of us ever listen.”

Back in Old Crow, after their journey, Heuer and his wife shared their stories with the first people they’d seen in months.

“It just poured out of us,” he said.

And as they talked, they noticed more and more people in the crowd crying, even the big burly men.

“They told us we were stringing together words as their ancestors had talked,” said Heuer.

“It was like the landscape was speaking through us, and we were vehicles for its stories.”

It was a hard concept for a scientist to accept — “I had difficulty coming to terms with it,” he said.

But the family’s next trip, now with a two-year-old son in tow, solidified Heuer’s suspicions.

This time, by car, canoe, train and sailboat, the threesome made their way across the country hopping through the settings of Farley Mowat’s books. (Heuer was befriended by the kilted literary icon after sending him a manuscript describing his time with the caribou).

As they passed through the area where Mowat wrote Never Cry Wolf, they came across old dens and a lone wolf visited their camp.

Then, sailing on the East Coast just off the bay where Mowat wrote A Whale for the Killing, a sperm whale, which didn’t belong there at that time of year, surfaced beside their boat.

“I realized stories reside in a particular landscape, and these stories were written through (Mowat),” said Heuer.

“But we are all vehicles for stories, if we stop, listen and wait long enough to let them live through us.

“Those stories are out there to be discovered and rediscovered.”

Heuer doesn’t want to come across as flaky.

He is, after all, still a scientist first and foremost.

And he’s worried, like most scientists, about climate change.

But unlike his counterparts, he’s not interested in researching how the change is happening.

Instead, he wants to learn the stories told by the landscape and share them.

“Because if we keep telling these stories it will inspire people to take action,” he said.

“You have to go with your heart.”

For more information on Heuer and his adventures go to

Contact Genesee Keevil at

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