|Sometimes human arrogance and shortsightedness is breathtaking. A perfect example is the plight of the Porcupine caribou herd, which lives in the Yukon and Alaska.
Some U.S. politicians have been actively lobbying for years to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska where the Porcupine caribou herd goes to calve to oil and gas drilling. Experts fear that such drilling could threaten the long-term survival of the herd, which archeological evidence has shown has been migrating to the area for at least 27,000 years. Meanwhile, drilling would only provide enough oil to supply the U.S. demand for as little as six months.
In an attempt to bring the caribous plight to the attention of the world, Albertans Karsten Heuer and his wife Leanne Allison followed the Porcupine caribou on their annual migration from Yukon to Alaska, an epic 1,500-kilometre trip they achieved on skis and by foot, which Allison chronicled in a National Film Board documentary and Heuer in a new book called Being Caribou.
The couple were stalked by grizzlies, went without food for several days while waiting for a food drop, and had to cross swollen rivers on foot with heavy packs, but the experience travelling among a multitude of caribou only made them more passionate in their mission to save the herd.
Heuer says he finds it incredible that politicians keep trying to open up the calving grounds to oil and gas development.
"These animals have been doing this migration that Leanne and I followed for five short months since tens of thousands of years before the Roman Empire came about and fell, before the whole concept of even a human economy existed when woolly mammoths and mastodons were roaming the landscape with them and sabretoothed cats," he says. "Theyve outlived all those things and beside that you say, Yeah, but we might have to sort of threaten them or even snuff them out now because theres anywhere from six months to a years supply of oil for the U.S. underneath those important calving grounds.
For me, juxtaposing those two things is all you have to do. You dont even have to read the book or understand the whole story to understand that our priorities as a society have gone way off track if thats what we decide to do."
Heuer describes the experience of migrating with the caribou as life changing, and although they were only among the caribou for five months, he says it felt like years or a lifetime.
"It was just like there was a different measure of time that happened out there
. We were just swimming in existence."
Before they set off on their trip, Heuer and Allison had a conversation with a Gwitchin elder from Old Crow, Yukon a community that still has a traditional culture thats closely tied to the caribou. The elder told the couple some legends and myths one of which was about how Gwitchin in the past could speak to caribou and caribou could speak to people.
"The scientist in me thought, Whatever. Thats your native thing and Im this guy from a different kind of world and this is what I believe. Then five months later, Leanne and I emerged from the expedition and this landscape and wed experienced just that
. The caribou talked to us in terms of how we learned how to navigate across that landscape and follow them, by paying attention to our dreams and having various visions of where wed find them next when we lost them."
They also started to hear a sound that Heuer describes in the book as "thrumming," which he believes is the sound caribou use to communicate with each other.
The book isnt just about the necessity of saving the Porcupine caribou, but also about the profound beauty of connecting with nature. He believes something has been lost in a culture where humans now spend most of their time sitting in front of computer screens and stuck in traffic in chaotic cities.
"This book, I think, couldve been called Being Human in a way, too, because I think the caribou guided us back to what it really means to instinctually and intuitively live as a human and to open up all the senses to their full potential," says Heuer. He adds that since returning to civilization, he sometimes feels like hes "living in the shallows of existence."
Since writing the book, Heuer has been spending a lot of time in the U.S. lobbying for protection of the herd. He says the reaction to his book has been extremely positive and thats what inspires him and gives him hope.
"People are incredibly moved by this story and what we experienced and I think are thirsty and hungry for this story. What Ive been kind of tapping into is that were supposedly living in the most affluent, comfortable and secure times ever in human history, yet theres a remarkable amount of discontent. Id even hazard to say spiritual discontent a kind of void that were all trying to fill. Weve been told to fill it with consumerism and materialism and thats what will bring us happiness," says Heuer.
"I really see people latching onto this story about the almost forgotten potential of nature and our reconnection with it.... I want people to become inspired about the possibilities, even if they dont ever see a caribou herd thats made of 123,000 animals. Maybe they are experiences with deer or elk in the foothills, or geese along the Bow River.
"Its a hard thing to articulate, but the transformation is profound. In an age where people just flock to yoga studios and meditation retreats there are all sorts of different pathways to get there and I think nature is becoming a forgotten pathway. Im hoping this will really open peoples eyes and hearts to that potential."
Yet it will be increasingly hard to experience that connection with nature if we destroy the last wild, pristine places that exist in the world, like the caribou herds calving grounds. Heuer says whats required to save the caribou is a major cultural shift away from our addiction to oil and gas, so we dont have to go into places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in our desperation for a rapidly diminishing resource.
"Are we going to take down this caribou herd and the Gwitchin culture with it, or are we going to make some hard decisions and start making the transitions we need to make?"