National Geographic : 2014 Feb
yukon 109 begins 400 miles to the northwest in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Each spring more than 100,000 caribou converge on the coastal plain to gorge on protein-rich cotton grass. Massing in groups of tens of thousands, the cows give birth almost in unison—possibly a “swamping” strategy that allows the majority of calves to survive the predations of grizzly bears, wolves, and golden eagles. When the calves are just a few weeks old, the herd begins to move south, a cacophony of clacking hooves, bellowing cows, and bleating calves. Though the adults’ towering antlers give them a top-heavy, somewhat comical appear- ance, caribou are among nature’s most graceful travelers, custom-built for their journey across mountain ranges and rivers into the windswept marshland that is the traditional hunting ground of the Vuntut Gwitchin. the snow is flying as my plane banks over the Porcupine River and touches down in Old Crow, the Yukon’s northern- most community. Unconnected by roads to the rest of the world, the village is a jumble of raised wooden houses whose outer walls are decorated with caribou and moose antlers. The Gwitchin are among the last people in North America who meet most of their nutri- tional needs by hunting and gathering. Through the slats of smokehouses, I can see strings of drying meat and fish. The caribou are due to begin moving through the area at any moment, and the mood of the village is energized and upbeat. Barrel-chested men pilot all-terrain ve- hicles through snowy gusts, and children run around in T-shirts chasing sled-dog puppies. Robert Bruce, a genial, Santa-like man in his 60s, rides up on an ATV, a smile stretching across his broad face. “ The caribou!” he yells. “ They’re here!” A few minutes later we’re inside his house eating caribou stew, talking of the herd’s long- awaited arrival, and sharing family history. Bruce grew up on the land, moving with the seasons to harvest wild game, fish, and berries. Though he, like most Gwitchin men, still hunts or fishes nearly every day, life in Old Crow is not primitive. A village store offers expensive packaged food flown in from Whitehorse, and satellite television and the Internet have enabled the Gwitchin to see themselves in the context of the wider world. Alcohol is banned, but substance abuse and identity issues have had profound effects on the community, especially young people. As we talk, Bruce’s adolescent grandson, Tyrel, sprawls on the couch, half watching a Th r e e’s Company rerun. “Tomorrow,” Bruce says, wink- ing, “we’ll take him hunting.” The government had claimed nearly all of the Yukon territory as crown land. A hard-fought land-claims process recently returned control of some of the land to its native inhabitants, al- lowing them to again be the guardians of the places where they travel, hunt, and fish. But some threats, such as climate change, are outside the community’s sphere of influence. “See those riverbanks collapsing?” Bruce says as he steers his aluminum motorboat upstream. “ That’s the permafrost thawing. Ten years ago we’d have ice on the river by this time. And now we have ani- mals like cougars coming here, and new plants that cover our blueberries and rose hips. That’s where we always got our vitamins.” Like other Gwitchin elders, Bruce has traveled to Washington and elsewhere in the U.S., appeal- ing to the American people to protect the Por- cupine herd’s calving grounds. Politicians have tried multiple times to open ANWR’s coastal plain to oil and gas leasing. Drilling could tap a reservoir of billions of barrels of oil—and, biolo- gists say, displace the caribou from their core calving grounds. “We call it vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii,” Bruce tells me, “the sacred place using bicycles, a beat-up boat, and mostly their own feet, the two men began to home in on millions of ounces of gold.