Stomachs churned as our tiny plane jerked up, then left, right and back down. I glanced up and saw Nathaniel vomiting into a Ziploc bag. We passed a mere 100 feet over a jagged ridge and were once again thrown around like rag dolls. Beneath us, mountain ranges were sliced open by the blue and white waters of a wide braided river. We’d been flying for an hour and hadn’t seen a road, trail or any sign of human touch.
A series of 20,000-year-old caribou trails emerged on a mountainside. The Gwich’in people, who have lived on this land with the caribou for the entirety of their cultural memory, say that the caribou trails in the mountains of the refuge are like the lines in an elder’s face.
Our team headed into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home of wolverines, grizzlies, snowy owls and a herd of 200,000 caribou. This was the first in a series of expeditions organized by the International League of Conservation Photographers to document the incredible landscapes, wildlife and people that depend on the refuge. Our small but strong team of four—Nathaniel Wilder, Bethany Pacquette, Katie Schuler and myself—hoped our images and stories would be part of a groundswell of voices calling for the refuge’s protection.
As we approached our landing strip, I saw the white face of the flat coastal plain and Arctic Ocean over the last mountain range. The coastal plain is the heartbeat of the refuge. In summer it is a lush field of flowers and grasses and is abuzz with wildlife and bugs. Hundreds of thousands of migrating birds come to nest, rear and feed in the small lakes and ponds that mark the landscape. Grizzly bears roam the open plains in search of young caribou, but it is the caribou bringing the landscape to life.
The 200,000-strong porcupine caribou herd complete the longest known mammal migration on the coastal plain, where they give birth to 40,000 calves in the first week of June every year. We were here to photograph and film this exceptional event, but nature lobbed us a surprise this year. An extremely late spring saw the coastal plain covered in snow and ice, which is no place for caribou calves or their paparazzi.
In efforts to avoid the icy and snowy traditional calving grounds, most of the caribou birthed in the foothills east of us in Canada, where the food is less plentiful and predators run rampant. Surprisingly, the biggest predator of newborn caribou calves are golden eagles and rough-legged hawks, who live in the mountains and foothills just off the coastal plain.
Our best chance of seeing the caribou was to camp in the foothills of the Arctic Refuge, hoping that the coastal plains melted and the caribou passed through our view on their way to their calving grounds. Unfortunately, this meant boarding another rickety plane. Our aircraft dipped beneath the mountains, into the foothills and came to a stuttering stop alongside the Kongakut River. We landed on what could loosely be called a boulder field but somehow passed as an airstrip up here.
Over the next three days, we hunkered down on the Kongakut River and watched small groups of 10 to 20 caribou passing by. The caribou we saw were barren cows, yearlings and young bulls. They left the vast bulk of pregnant cows and newborns back in Canada, since those were not yet ready to travel. On our third day, we spotted our first calf. Only days old, it already could outrun a grizzly bear. It followed the mother, full of energy, determination and a panicked desire not to get left behind.
Frustrated by the lack of caribou calves, we decided to hike east out to the coastal plain in hopes of intercepting the herd. The two-day hike was a lesson in misery; snowdrifts, snowstorms, snowfall, frozen tussocks, frozen swamps and more snow. The glue that held our group together was Anchorage-based photographer Nathaniel. His infectious enthusiasm almost made the first day’s hike through the tundra a fun jaunt. His continued optimism, when the second day turned into 12 hours of slush mucking, made me want to punch him in the stomach so that I could enjoy my anger and misery in peace. Luckily I didn’t, as he probably would have cheerfully beat me to a pulp.
When we arrived at our destination, where the coastal plain meets the foothill mountains, the weather turned, and we got a chance to explore. To our delight, we were no longer walking on snow and frozen tussocks but solid ground. A 2-mile stroll suddenly took an hour and required little energy. Our enthusiasm was quickly compressed into stress knots when we spotted our first grizzly bear. Four hours and five grizzlies later, and our nerves were really frayed. Grizzly bears out here are much wilder than down south. In more southern regions, a curious grizzly is often a dead grizzly. Up here, curiosity is usually rewarded with food, so the bears tend to be more aggressive with everything they see, including what could be viewed as colorful caribou that walk upright but are actually four nervous photographers hoping not to become dinner.
In the five days that we straddled the edges of the still-frozen coastal plain, we encountered eight grizzlies, eight wolves and dozens of birds of prey. This was the predator gauntlet that the caribou had to run, one of many reasons that they rely on the lands designated in Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act passed by Congress in 1980—land that recently has been opened to the fossil fuel industry. The vulnerable land provides caribou with an abundance of high-protein food, protection from wolves and golden eagles who stick to the mountains to raise their young, protection from grizzlies that are easy to spot on the open plains, and relief from the hordes of mosquitoes that can drive any living being crazy.
The cows and calves didn’t make it to us in the foothills. We stayed as long as we could, but we ran out of food and had to return to our base camp at the Kongakut River and eventually back home. It was weeks before the caribou and calves finally made it to their core calving and nursing habitat. It was a very hard year for the caribou. I hoped this wasn’t a portent of their future. I believed we could band together to make an impact. Our team hoped that the stories we told and the photographs and videos we produced gave a glimpse of the beauty, the biodiversity and the need for this incredible refuge to be protected.
The calving grounds expedition was tough, but we certainly didn’t have the toughest luck of the eight iLCP expeditions to the area. We saw hundreds of cow caribou and calves in small groups, had some epic grizzly encounters and a grand adventure. Two weeks after our expedition, a 12-person team embarked on a 12-day hike through the steep mountains in the center of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They spent countless hours trampling up and down mountainsides on caribou trails over 20,000 years old. The objective of the expedition was to experience and capture photos and footage of the porcupine caribou herd as they aggregated into tightly packed groups of 50,000 animals migrating east through the mountains to their summer range in Canada. Envious that I wasn’t on the trip, I imagined myself as a rock in the middle of a flowing river of caribou. I envisioned the wonder of seeing them as one big organism moving in unison.
Unfortunately, that team had worse luck than us. After 11 days without seeing a single caribou, it embarked on a grueling 30-mile, 18-hour desperation hike based on tales of thousands of caribou to the north. As the group flew out the next day, they passed over 10,000 animals heading straight to their abandoned camp—a lesson that no matter how much you plan, nature is unpredictable and sovereign.
Later in the summer, I was in the Gwich’in community of Arctic Village, on the southern edges of the refuge, with photographers Mark Kelly and Justin Taus. Once again, we were waiting for the caribou to pass through. The small village is nestled in a flat valley protected by a series of gargoyle mountains cut with a ribbon of twisting dull green water. It was late August, and the land was painted brilliant red, green and yellow. The bugs died with the first cold snap, and the air was sharp and intoxicating. We came to document the reciprocal relationship of the Gwich’in and caribou.
Community matriarch Sarah James’ hunting camp was nestled in a little dip valley on the mountain plateau on the outskirts of town. We spent days on the mountain with her and a few young hunters. We didn’t have the patience of the Gwich’in, who have spent years of their lives waiting for the caribou.
We wondered, “When will they come?”
“They will come, they always come,” replied Sarah assuredly. “The caribou are our life. Healthy caribou means healthy Gwich’in. They must come.”
We flew home the next day, yet again missing the elusive caribou. The late spring altered the patterns of the caribou and threw our best-laid plans to waste. Every expedition seemed to miss the elusive ungulates by days. It is amazing how hard it can be to find 200,000 caribou in this massive landscape.
We were sad and frustrated when we missed the caribou, but there are no tangible consequences for us, simply some missed photo opportunities and disappointed editors. If the people of the Arctic Village miss the caribou, they struggle to feed themselves. If development occurs in the calving grounds, then what would they eat? How would that affect their culture and community? It is no wonder they have been laser-focused on protecting the caribou and their calving grounds for decades.
These expeditions served more than their intended purpose. Our team faced many challenges, physically, emotionally and with our photography and filmmaking. We had to make snap decisions in efforts to produce results, and we encountered frustration and disappointments. But we were fueled by our passion for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and our aim to tell some of the fascinating stories within this stunning region.