Couple Follows Porcupine Caribou Herd

FIVE-MONTH TREK: Pair wanted to show why they think it's crucial to preserve ANWR

The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / February 12, 2004

WHITEHORSE, Yukon -- For five months last year, Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison followed the Porcupine caribou herd from Old Crow to the calving grounds in Alaska and back.

The married couple, both 35, wanted to tell the story of the herd, which numbers 123,000 animals.

"We figured the only way we could do that was try to be caribou," Heuer said in an interview Monday in Whitehorse. "Walk a thousand miles in their hooves."

During the hundreds of miles of walking and skiing, they shot 300 rolls of film and 50 hours of videotape.

The two were familiar with the herd. Allison had worked on a film with the Gwich'in people in Alaska. For two years, Heuer was a park warden for Ivvavik National Park in North Yukon.

They said their intent was to show why they believe it is crucial to prevent oil and gas exploration on the herd's calving grounds.

The couple arrived in Old Crow early last spring. They departed the Gwich'in community on April 9 with a man who had been out hunting caribou the day before. He left them at the confluence of the Bell and Porcupine rivers, in the company of caribou.

As they began to move north it was difficult going. The snow was soft and deep, rendering their cross-country skis ineffective. They were forced to follow in the troughs left by the caribou.

The snow eventually became wind-blown and hard, allowing the use of their skis and making it easier to keep up.

"We would be with a group, and we would kind of lose them and then another group would pick us up," Heuer said.

There were times during the migration, however, when they would remain with the same bunch for seven or eight days. While difficult to estimate, some of the groups they attached themselves to were likely 5,000 to 6,000 animals.

It was in late May as they were still moving northwest toward the calving grounds that Allison came closest to calling it quits, after a scrawny grizzly bear followed their trail right into camp.

A bear banger did nothing to deter the animal. They had brought no firearms. It was only after Heuer picked up the tent to make himself appear somewhat formidable, and began thrusting it toward the bear, that it lost interest. But it only meandered away slowly, showing no signs of feeling threatened.

For 10 days in early June, Heuer camped on the Porcupine herd's calving grounds. They never left the tent and conversed in whispers so as not to disturb the herd.

Heuer said it's no coincidence the caribou have chosen the coastal plain in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to have their calves. Predation is low, there are no bugs and food is abundant, he said.

The couple arrived back in Old Crow on Sept. 8, tired and each about 25 pounds lighter.

Three days later, they arrived in Washington, D.C., as part of the ongoing lobbying effort to protect the herd's calving grounds from oil development.

Heuer said he's writing a book about their experience to help cover the $65,000 cost of the journey. Allison is working on a documentary with the National Film Board of Canada, which has purchased exclusive rights to the video footage.

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