Migration of Arctic caribou herd is awesome spectacle

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

KIANA, Alaska (AP) -- It was early September but already the spongy tundra was draped in reds and rusts while trees lining the Kobuk River wore showy yellows and golds.

Daytime highs were running in the 40s and the chill, wind-whipped rain unerringly found the seams in our layers of cold-weather gear.

It was full autumn in the Arctic, and hundreds of thousands of caribou from the Western Arctic herd were on the move, migrating from their calving grounds in Northwest Alaska to their winter range hundreds of miles to the South. It's by far the largest barren ground caribou migration in Alaska.

Like their predecessors through the ages, the animals were running a huge gantlet, trying to dodge the grizzly bears, timber wolves, and subsistence and sport hunters who lined in wait.

They were moving in bands numbering from three to 300. They'd emerge suddenly from the trees, hooves clattering across the rocky bars before plunging into the water.

You didn't need binoculars on this hunt; you simply needed ears. Caribou have hollow-hair hides and large, concave hooves that act as paddles. They swim high and fast. Their antlers in silhouette resemble the forks of a spiny tree where the limbs divide from the trunk.

Caribou are the only member of the deer family where both sexes grow antlers. Some of the bulls carry racks so large that they extend fully down their backs when they lift their heads to snort. This time of year, the bulls are as showy as the vegetation. Their antlers are rubbed free of velvet and the white rings on their necks and rumps gleam through the mists of a dwindling daylight.

The Inupiat Eskimos who make up this land, about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, rely on caribou meat to carry them through the long, harsh winters. Entire families wait in their skiffs along the shoreline of the Kobuk River for the animals to work their way into the water before choosing those they need for their larders. It's all business for these subsistence hunters, who generally bring home enough meat to satisfy the protein requirements of everyone in the roadless villages. That includes native elders grown too frail to hunt.

Visitors observing the Marquis of Queensbury rules of sport hunting -- fair chase -- try to guess were the animals will cross and wait for them there.

Caribou are stout animals. An average bull weighs anywhere from 350 to 400 pounds. Most females run anywhere from 175 to 225 pounds. That's a lot of cholesterol-free meat on the hoof.

Alaska has more than 30 free-ranging caribou herds, numbering about a million animals.

''The Western Arctic herd, with 400- to 450,000 animals, is by far the largest,'' says Bruce Bartley, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage. ''They're more than twice the size of the next largest, the Mulchatna herd.''

The Western Arctic herd ranges across the entire Northwest quadrant of Alaska, including portions of the North Slope. The fall migration can see them moving upwards of 500 miles, to the southern edge of the Seward Peninsula, Bartley says.

The Kiana (pronounced KI-ann-uh) Lodge sits squarely in the middle of this migration. Guests can do their hunting within easy walking distance of the massive log building.

''That makes it a special opportunity for handicapped or disabled hunters,'' says Lorry Schuerch, the easygoing Eskimo who owns and operates the lodge with his wife, Nellie. ''We try to tailor each trip to whatever each hunter wants to do and the way they want to do it.''

What isn't advertised is the cultural enrichment available while on the trips -- lessons learned from centuries of hunting and fishing in the Arctic. Also unadvertised are the little touches enriching the experience -- cooked king crab delivered to your rented cabin or Nellie's special fare at the lodge.

Solitude seekers can go as we did, on self-guided hunts from a rented A-frame 10 miles upriver, or via drop-off float trips.

Three of us comprised our hunting party: Mark Hamilton, president of the University of Alaska; Martha Stewart, the university's director of federal relations, based in Washington, D.C., and me. I was a writer based in Anchorage.

Hamilton is a retired Army major general, a West Point grad comfortable with a rifle in his hands and at ease in the wilderness. Stewart at another time had been a public health nurse and then a newspaper publisher at Kotzebue. She did everything there from running dog teams to flying emergency medical missions. Now she was our outfitter and organizer -- and back on familiar ground.

The hunt started slowly, with no animals spotted the first day. But things picked up quickly the following morning, when a few animals crossed over. Soon a few became scores, and it became a matter of deciding which animal we'd stalk and then try to beat it to the anticipated crossing point.

The odds were about even we'd wind up within rifle range. The caribou were easily spooked. They'd often return to the opposite shore with the sound of a boat motor. Or they'd wait nervously for some other animals to show up.

In our case, we guessed right. When we finally put our rifles down, it was after firing three shots and downing three caribou. All were young bulls. We were meat hunters and not interested in trophy racks.

We skinned and quartered the caribou along the river's edge, dropping the lean red sections into mesh bags for the lug up to our rented cabin. None of the shots had been longer than 65 yards. None of the carries exceeded 40 yards. Weatherwise and otherwise, it was an extraordinarily easy hunt by Alaska standards.

Nonresident hunters in that region of Alaska are allowed to take five caribou per year. Nonresident hunting licenses run $85. Nonresident caribou tags cost $325 per animal. Factor in the lodge, guiding, meals and other services, and you're looking at another $500 per day or more per person.

But where else can you see thousands of caribou answering the timeless call of the seasons and moving relentlessly southward, grazing as they go?

And all in pulsing color.


On the Net:

Kiana Lodge: http://www.alaskaoutdoors.com/Kiana

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