Adventures with the Forty Mile Herd

    The Comeback Caribou: Across Northern Canada, the health of caribou herds is of great concern. In the Yukon, the Forty Mile caribou herd once numbered 500,000. In the 1970s the herd was reduced to 5,000 animals, but cross-border conservation initiatives with Alaska have brought the herd back from the brink. Numbering 50,000 caribou now, they are returning to their traditional wintering grounds in the Yukon for the first time in generations.

    In the fall of 2013, the Forty Mile caribou herd returned to the Yukon for the first time in generations, wintering in Tombstone Territorial Park.

    By Maya Cairns-Locke | Photos by Peter Mather

    Below, our expedition to find the herd.

    The trip was Peter’s idea. One summer afternoon he just jumped up and said, ‘Hey, wanna go photograph ten thousand caribou?’ It really didn’t occur to me that he wasn’t joking until he made me do a ton of research on the Forty Mile caribou herd. I grudgingly scoured the internet. After a few hours of thinking and researching, I answered Peter’s question with a wry, “Yeah, sure, I guess” and soon we were en route. Our trip began with a drive from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Tok, Alaska. As we got onto the Alaska Highway, I remember thinking, “A total of nine hours travel, just for some crummy caribou?’ After about seven hours of driving, only stopping to eat and use the bathroom, we arrived in the empty-looking town of Tok. Tok is a small junction that separates the two highways between Fairbanks and Anchorage.

    We then checked in with the pilots who were taking us to the caribou. They were ready to go. Peter would be flying in a separate plane, because they were only two-person airplanes. They also had the huge cartoon-like wheels, which made me smile even when I was nervous about getting on the plane without Peter.

    Bulls, cows and calves cross a small river in Alaska during their annual migration.

    Once in the air and heading into the abyss of mountains, I realized three things. It was freezing in the plane; I was feeling queasy; and those planes reminded me so much of the Snoopy and Red Baron cartoons, I found myself laughing. The mountains looked like the clay-models of topographical maps that you make in art class. Some of the mountains looked like they were moving because they had so many caribou on them! I tried to take it all in; it was quite the view. I had already seen more caribou in 30 minutes than I had in my entire life and we had barely begun our adventure!

    After 50 minutes of flying, we were finally set to land. I searched for the landing strip… a safe, flat, paved road that would guide me to the welcoming safety of the ground. There was none to be seen. At about 10 feet above the ground and after some long moments of curiously sticking my head out the window in search of safety, I realized our little plane would be landing on… a boulder-strewn gravel bar?

    Twelve-year-old Maya Cairns-Locke feeling a bit unsettled for her flight back to civilization.

    After a bumpy, terrifying landing I met up with Peter, who had arrived just before me. He ran up to me exclaiming, “Dude! We had to fake our landing four times to scare all the caribou off the strip!” I believed this story because while we were mere inches above the ground preparing to land, caribou were still scattering on our so-called “runway.”

    Peter was obviously as excited as a kid who got a puppy for Christmas. After about an hour of unpacking and setting up the tent, we walked along the riverbank to set up Peter’s camera traps. Our camp site was on an open and welcoming part of the riverbank. There were no bushes or shrubs, and we had set up all our stuff next to a small, fallen tree that we used as a bench. I found a small patch of sand to set the tent up on so I wasn’t sleeping on the hot rocks. Peter set up his Nikons all over the river beds, strapped them to tripods, and made a small effort to camouflage his contraption with branches and leaves. He put the camera on a very interesting setting, so that when the trap senses motion, whether a caribou or a fish jumping, it takes a picture. I thought that was cool. Peter explained that it would save him a lot of time, so he wasn’t spending hours crouched in the woods, waiting for any sign of caribou.

    We headed upriver to see if we could get close to all the caribou as they swam the river. There were a few bugs. Eventually we stopped hiking and saw around 200 caribou cross the river. They would emerge from the bushes along the river, sniff around for a while, and then skittishly swim across. Some groups of caribou noticed us, and they nervously ran down the bank and crossed at a different area, hence the multiple camera traps we had set up. The enormous herd eventually regrouped at the top of a small hill, which was located just above our tent, then five minutes later another 200 would cross. The caribou kept that pattern all day. They looked exhausted; I would be too if I spent an entire summer migrating with thousands of caribou.

    Quite a few calves were crossing as well. The babies looked very eager and excited, as if to say, “Mom, can I please climb up the hill with the adult caribou? Or can I at least cross the river on my own?” It was quite surreal seeing all those caribou at once. It occurred to me that there are so many things humans should be paying attention to. Going out into the bush for even three days can be quite the eye-opener. In a way, I felt like I was intruding on a tradition, being rude, but when I saw the first animal cross the river, the way they looked at us was welcoming. It was as if the caribou was in my head saying, “It’s okay, you two can stay.” It was quite the experience. Some people just don’t realize what they are missing.

    A snowshoe hare jumps out of the willows startling a group of Forty Mile caribou on the Blackstone River in the Yukon Territory.

    I was tired. It had been a long day of adventure and excitement so I made my way back to the tent and fell asleep even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Around two hours later, Peter woke me up to eat dinner and it was so hot outside! At least 23 degrees, which is really hot for the Yukon-Alaska area. I ate and watched another 500 or more caribou climb up the hill next to the riverbank. Soon it was time for bed.

    The next day, I woke up roasting. I put on shorts and a tank top and went outside to meet Peter for breakfast. He told me that he had already gotten enough good photos and that the caribou were going to move on in the next day or two so we could leave tomorrow. I was disappointed yet a bit relieved that we didn’t have to spend five days in the heat. I spent the rest of the day in leisure: reading, dunking my head in the river, walking around with Peter, napping, eating, and watching thousands of Forty Mile caribou cross the river and make their way up the hill.

    At one point, I was relaxing in the tent reading, when suddenly around 20 caribou passed about five feet away from my head. I thought all the noise was a bear coming to maul me. I was very relieved to peer out the screen to find some harmless woodland creatures. The caribou looked as if they did not have a care in the world. Some of them looked me dead in the eye. I personally thought they were thinking of charging me, but they just strutted away. I don’t recall seeing too many antlers on the caribou, but boy, did they ever look scrawny! Perhaps the heat was getting to them too. I had grabbed the bear spray, but they appeared to be the happiest beings in the world.

    Finally, it was evening and was so much cooler outside. As I prepared for bed, I dreaded having to get up early to catch our planes. However, in the morning, I was sad, probably because I had spent three days in the middle of nowhere and had become a little emotionally attached to the caribou. As my plane took off, I said goodbye to the caribou and prayed that this would be a safe place for them for a long time.