The hunt at the top of the world

ANDREW NIKIFORUK November 11 1985

The hunt at the top of the world

ANDREW NIKIFORUK November 11 1985

The hunt at the top of the world



Stephen Frost abruptly cut the motor on his boat and slid a bullet into his bolt-action rifle. In the clear light of an autumn Arctic afternoon he spotted several caribou, members of the great Porcupine herd, clambering out of a mudbank on the Yukon’s Porcupine River. “There are three of them. Three big bulls,” whispered his friend Johnny Abel, a former Loucheux chief, loading his .30-30 Winchester. As the hunters drifted silently toward their prey two more bulls, with snow-white manes and long-limbed antlers, walked onto the sandbar. Two hundred feet from shore, the two men stood up in the boat and fired. One by one, the bulls staggered and collapsed. Like seesaws, they rose, fell and rose again. Finally, the biggest bull, drooling blood, sank to the ground dead. Ten feet away, another male crashed into a pool of partially frozen mud. When the shooting stopped, four of the animals lay dead or dying. The fifth escaped into a willow thicket unharmed—a survivor of the Arctic’s annual August-to-October caribou hunt.

For thousands of years, according to archeologists, the Porcupine caribou

herd has roamed the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. And for generations it has fed and clothed the region’s human inhabitants. Six communities still depend on hunting the Porcupine caribou; the Loucheux Indians who live at Old Crow, 770 km north of Whitehorse, count on the hunt for their year’s supply of meat. But the Porcupine—numbering 150,000, it is Canada’s fifthlargest herd—is well-known for other reasons. Because the group wanders over 96,000 square miles of spectacular Northern geography—craggy mountain passes, dark boreal forests and enormous stretches of tundra—it is probably the most photographed and studied herd in North America.

It also causes political problems. Biologists from the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alaska have closely watched the migration patterns of the Porcupine herd because of frontier developments near its migration paths, such as the building of Yukon’s Dempster highway in the 1970s. The involvement of three governments in protecting and studying the herd has led to a jurisdictional tangle: each government has a different set of regulations gov-

erning hunting and data collection. That situation may be changing: on Oct. 26 the two Canadian territories signed an agreement to co-ordinate research and hunting regulations, establishing a basis for a possible future treaty with U.S. officials.

The herd provides a livelihood for the residents of Old Crow, a community of 250 on the banks of the Porcupine River. For Old Crow’s Loucheux, the “vuttzui”—Loucheux for caribou—is an important source of food and clothing. It is not their major source of income; that comes from muskrat trapping in the spring. Still, the meat provided by the fall caribou is necessary to offset the exorbitant cost of groceries flown in weekly from Whitehorse, four hours away.

The hunt begins after the herd moves from the calving grounds on the Alaska Arctic coast to winter in the forests south of the tree line. At that time, after a summer of feeding on the tundra’s rich willow and grasses, the bulls bear the most body fat. Despite the fact that the Loucheux community kills between 700 and 1,200 caribou annually, biologists and local hunters estimate that the herd has actually in-

creased in size by as many as 60,000 in the past 10 years.

According to many Indian hunters, the herd’s migration patterns are unpredictable. In some years they actually pass through the town of Old Crow; at other times they are more than 120 km away. Moses Tizya, a village elder who estimates his age to be 86, recalls one occasion when a change in migration pattern ended in tragedy. Before white men began arriving, he said, the Loucheux’s nomadic ancestors hunted caribou in the mountain passes north of Old Crow. Then, one year the caribou did not pass through their regular route and hundreds of people starved. “So many died,” said Tizya, “they called one mountain ‘Chunchol,’ after the skulls.”

Now, the people of Old Crow wait for the caribou to cross the river at well-known fording spots. Then the hunters bring their boats alongside the swimming mass of heads and tangled antlers, and fire. “That way you cannot miss—it takes only one shot,” said Abel. “The wounded or crippled cannot get away.”

This year the vanguard of the herd was first seen in August, 50 km east of Old Crow. One day in September Frost and Abel prepared to get their share of the kill. They filled the gas tanks of Frost’s 32-foot-long boat and began the long journey to the herd. Periodically, they stopped along the river’s willow-lined banks to build a driftwood fire and boil a kettle of Lipton

loose-leaf tea. “Can’t dance,” said Frost. “Might as well as drink tea.”

Frost and Abel prefer to hunt the animals when the caribou are swimming, but their fellow hunters had reported that the main herd had already crossed the river long before and they knew that only stragglers remained. When they sighted their targets on a sandbar they killed them on the spot; otherwise they might have run off before trying to ford the river. “This is a hell of a place to kill caribou because of the sand,” declared Abel. “The worst damn thing is biting into meat with sand.” As Frost sharpened his bone-handled knife, Abel cut willow branches to hold the carcasses and meat. Then, Frost methodically cut off the bulls’ heads and planted the antlers upside down in the ground. He slit the bellies and plunged his hand under the rib cage to grab the stomach cord. That way, said Frost, you can pull all the guts out like a sack of potatoes, without spilling its contents —the semidigested forage—on the meat. When asked if he could name the organs as he removed them, Frost grimaced and scratched his head. “What do you think we are, doctors?” A moment later he held up a mysterious organ. “This is what we call the Bible. See the pages,” said Frost as he flipped the multilayered folds of part of the four-chambered stomach.

The hunters saved almost every part of the caribou, including the brain. Abel’s wife, Rosalie, would later roast

or boil the heads, a delicacy. She would crush and pound the bones to process them for grease and make moccasins out of the skin. In Old Crow a family of five might eat at least seven to 15 caribou a year. “We eat it twice a day and half a dozen times in between,” said Frost.

Among hunters it is a tradition to make tea after gutting the animals and then to boil a pot of caribou ribs. “That is where we get our vitamins, with the soup we make,” said Abel quietly, as the driftwood fire crackled in the late afternoon. The cooked ribs tasted like tough and sinewy beef.

Rather than return to Old Crow on the river in the dark, the hunters covered their meat with skins, willow branches and even an old lawn chair from the boat to scare away the crows. That night they camped at one of Frost’s trapping cabins just an hour downstream from the kill. Late into the evening, Frost told tall tales of “Mr. Son-of-a-Bitch”—the grizzly bear—and of Yukon winter days so cold that brittle firewood split apart by itself.

The next morning, under grey skies and a light snow, the men hauled the heads and heavy carcasses of the four bulls into the boat. As they set out downstream, Abel lit a menthol cigarette and looked back. “That place was good to us,” he said. “We will remember it.”