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Learning from the memory trap: how the Forty Mile caribou herd bounced back

Allan Code woke up one morning in the upper Blackstone valley of Tombstone Territorial Park to grunts, snorts and the sounds of hooves clicking.

Allan Code woke up one morning in the upper Blackstone valley of Tombstone Territorial Park to grunts, snorts and the sounds of hooves clicking.

Thousands of caribou from the Forty Mile herd passed by in a thick cloud no more than a few hundred metres from his tent.

As Code filmed the scene for about an hour, he was amazed by the fact that they probably hadn’t been in that area for more than 75 years.

“It was very surreal and just amazing,” he said.

“I heard the caribou had shut down the road but to see them in such numbers and so close, it was mind-blowing. You could tell they were different caribou, too, by the way they looked and acted.”

The Whitehorse-based filmmaker shot the footage as part of his documentary called Memory Trap: The Herd that Wouldn’t Disappear, which tells the story of how modern science and traditional knowledge brought the herd back from near-extinction.

The film will screen on Feb. 8 as part of the 14th Available Light Film Festival, held at the Yukon Arts Centre and the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

Code went to great lengths to follow the herd - by plane, helicopter, car and foot - as it migrated from its calving grounds near the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve to its winter range west of Dawson City.

He’d always been interested in caribou and the story of the Forty Mile herd, which once numbered close to 600,000 in the 1920s.

But he never expected to find himself making a documentary about its precipitous decline and eventual comeback.

“There’s a lot of resistance to those ideas, and telling those stories,” he said.

“I had to find a new way of telling it, of getting everyone together to tell that story. If you preach to the choir and weep like Suzuki, you won’t get anywhere.

“But if hunters look at it and say ‘Well, that’s not a good idea,’ then you have some common ground and you get a conversation happening.”

Code interviewed several biologists, First Nations elders and authors who speak passionately about the animals.

Rick Farnell is one of them. A former caribou biologist with Environment Yukon, he was hired in 1978 to research the Porcupine herd and the threats it faced from hunting along the Dempster Highway at the time.

Farnell heard stories from locals about a herd that had vanished, and it intrigued him even more than the research he was already doing.

“I knew Rick had put a lot into bringing the herd back,” Code said.

“His connection with elders is really cool, too. He’s one of the biologists who doesn’t give lip service to that, he pays a lot of attention to what elders have to say.”

The herd is a perfect example of a memory trap, Farnell explains, because it shows us how we had forgotten about the caribou’s importance to the Yukon and Alaska landscape.

It’s something we have to be careful about in our environmental policies as we move into the future, he says in the film.

The herd’s range once stretched from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, according to a study done by Environment Yukon.

The caribou provided food, clothing and other materials for many First Nations within its range.

By the 1940s, the herd numbered in the tens of thousands of animals. Overharvest and wolf predation were thought to have caused the decline.

It fell to about 4,000 by the 1970s but rebounded when the attention of hunters and resource managers shifted to the Porcupine caribou herd, according to the study.

The documentary screens on Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre.

The film festival is also screening Arctic Secrets: The Wild Sea, an episode of a nature documentary Code directed about a bowhead whale sanctuary on the northeast coast of Baffin Island.

Code, along with Michael Code and Adam Ravetch, went into “survival mode” towards the end of filming as strong winds pounded one of their boats against the rocks.

They loaded all their supplies into one boat and used a short window of favourable weather to escape the area, Code said.

The episode screens on Feb. 7 at 11 a.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Two other Yukon films are making their world premiere at the festival.

Daniel Janke’s The Grubstake Remix is a hybrid film where actors and musicians perform onstage alongside a 1923 silent film, speaking and thinking in Shakespearean English and French. It screens on Feb. 8 at 8:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Director Lulu Keating and producer Max Fraser will present one episode of the two-part comedy-drama called Broke Down Dawson Town, which looks at a couple’s relationship as they flee a troubled past in Nova Scotia and wind up in the Klondike. It screens on Feb. 8 at noon at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

Contact Myles Dolphin at