Couple join calving herd to better grasp ANWR debate

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Imagine an incessant whining of mosquitoes, caribou hair so pervasive it sticks to food and covers clothes, days on end trapped in a tent sharing a single sleeping bag, not enough sleep, not enough food, months without a shower.

Not many backpackers would seek such a trip. But for two Canadian adventurers, the main point of a grueling five-month journey across snow and tundra was to live as much like caribou as possible.

Karsten Heuer, an author and seasonal park warden, and his wife, Leanne Allison, a filmmaker, set out in April from the village of Old Crow in Canada's Yukon Territory to migrate an estimated 1,500 miles with the Porcupine caribou herd.

Their trek is both political and personal. In the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Porcupine herd have become the poster animals, used by both sides to support arguments.

Those opposed to drilling contend oil development could disturb the herd's traditional calving grounds on the refuge's coastal plain, used by the caribou for thousands of years. And hunting the herd is integral to the Gwich'in, Inuvialuit and Inupiat way of life, they say.

Drilling supporters contend the Central caribou herd has thrived alongside oil development on the nearby North Slope. Why couldn't the Porcupine herd also fare well with cautious development of new oil fields? They also point out the refuge's coastal plain is not used every year for calving.

Heuer and Allison oppose drilling but were not satisfied with anything they had read on the subject. Heuer said they wanted to learn firsthand how the caribou lived and how they made their trip from wintering grounds in the Yukon to calving grounds on the coastal plain and back again.

The couple plan to tell their story in Washington, D.C.

Speaking by satellite phone this month, Heuer said the hike has gone well, but he and Allison are running out of energy. They were both lean to begin with, and Heuer figures he has lost 20 to 25 pounds; Allison has lost about 15.

Heuer said one of the main challenges behind this hike was the lack of a route. It was challenging mentally, he said, to sometimes feel as if they were traveling in circles.

"We had no schedule or route plan and sometimes no idea where they were going," he said. "That's been decided entirely by the caribou."

Heuer said he was also surprised by the severity of the weather. At times they were holed up in their tent for days by blizzards, running low on food. Other days, they baked in heat and sunshine.

Starting out April 10 from Old Crow, Heuer and Allison raced on skis to keep pace with the Porcupine herd, traveling over mountains, fording breaking-up rivers and warding off grizzly bears. Heuer said he was surprised by the steep routes the caribou took. Traveling behind the caribou was fairly easy going, he said, but when they veered from the caribou path, they had a hard time staying on top of the weak, sugary snow, even on skis.

In the beginning, it was hard to figure out which group to follow, Heuer wrote in a dispatch on their Web site, They were afraid they might follow a splinter group, then fall so hopelessly behind they would never catch up. Heuer said they got help in the spring from biologists monitoring the herd by satellite telemetry.

Tara Wertz, a caribou biologist with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, talked to Heuer and Allison by satellite phone and provided them locations of the herd. A couple of times, the hikers used the information to make a shortcut. But for much of the time, they were able to keep up.

Heuer said several river crossings proved tricky in the spring when the ice was going out.

Besides the river crossings, Heuer said, bears were the other big danger. Bears follow the herd and often prey on stragglers, he said.

"With not much to eat, it was only a matter of time before the bears realized we were the slowest caribou going, and we ran into a bear that didn't flee," Heuer wrote on one of his travelogues posted on their Web site.

The bear followed the skiers and eventually circled them when she got within 30 or so feet. Heuer wrote that he picked up their half-setup tent and held it broadside to make them look bigger.

After he waved the tent wildly, the bear retreated behind a small hill. Then fog rolled in for the next week or so. If the bears were still there, he couldn't see them, Heuer said.

In late May, Heuer and Allison decided to fly out to the village of Kaktovik in one of the planes that dropped food. They were run down and needed to fatten up and rest before continuing.

Heuer writes on the Web site that they spent 10 days inside their tent on the calving grounds so as not to disturb the caribou. He noted that the animals seemed far more protective and skittish then, an observation echoed by Wertz.

Heuer and Allison left their tent only to crawl slowly to the nearby river to fetch water when necessary. All around, they watched caribou being born.

Heuer said the time on the calving grounds confirmed to them the importance of the area to the herd. Predators are few, and the calving time is just before the bugs hatch. Heuer described it as a relatively peaceful time in a caribou's otherwise harsh existence.

Life got difficult again for the caribou as soon as they left the calving grounds, Heuer said. During the post-calving migration, about 25 percent of the calves die from accidents or predation, Heuer said. Insects also prey on the animals. Caribou spend the next few months trying to escape bot flies that spray larvae up their noses, warble flies that lay eggs under their skin and mosquitoes.

Heuer also said it was fascinating to watch large groups of caribou congregate on the tops of mountains to get away from insects. They noticed that the cows and calves usually ventured down first, looking for food, often to be chased back uphill by insects. He and Allison guessed that was because the cows and calves were hungriest.

"We felt like we were immersed in the herd," Allison said of the time during the post-calving migration when they were keeping pace.

"The caribou were all around us, shedding hair everywhere. The hair was all over us and in our food. And there were trails everywhere. You'd look up the sides of mountains and see them everywhere. It made us feel like we were part of something ancient, something that is still alive and thriving today."

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