People of the Caribou
A trip into the bush with the last true subsistence hunters in North America
Editor’s Note: This story first ran in the February 2011 issue. This is the first time it has appeared online.
As the single-engine Caravan touches down on the gravel runway at Arctic Village, women driving red Arctic Cat quads suddenly appear, each at the head of her own dust cloud, and converge on the aircraft. Several appear to have small children strapped to the racks, so I’m pretty sure this is not an attack. I unfold myself through the plane’s rear door and stand there blinking in the bright 5 p.m. sun. The women fall to, unloading boxes of frozen food and cases of soft drinks onto the ATVs. All are destined for the town’s two-room store. One of the women, seeing me idle, gives me a nudge. “Get busy,” she says. I do.
I’ve come to Arctic Village, one of 15 villages scattered throughout northeast Alaska and Canada belonging to the Gwich’in Indians, to see what life is like among one of the last subsistence hunting cultures in North America. The Gwich’in, an Athabascan tribe who count the Navajo and Apache tribes among their relatives, believe they have been following a single group of caribou—the Porcupine River herd—for 20,000 years. I hope to follow along for a week or two.
If I was expecting museum Indians (you know, the ones in the diorama: two women fleshing a hide by a brook, with a hunting party of braves returning in the background bearing caribou slung on poles), this is the wrong place. They have satellite TV, snowmobiles, video games, and the more popular varieties of Doritos: Nacho Cheese, Cool Ranch, and the new Pizza Cravers. They watch the CBS Evening News and Oprah. The young boys hang around the village with the same low-slung jeans and sullen looks you see on kids in Fairbanks.
On the other hand, they live on tribal land—the status of which is still in dispute—run largely by and for their people. And it’s not like where most of us live. Arctic Village is one of the most isolated communities in North America, 120 miles by river from its nearest neighbor, another Gwich’in settlement. Alcohol is not allowed here; neither are unsponsored outsiders. There are no roads—the only reliable way in or out is by charter plane—and therefore no cars. There is no running water other than at the Washeteria near the school, which supplies treated water and has showers and clothes washers. There are no motels, restaurants, or theaters. The one store sells little more than a few canned goods, frozen food, and the more popular calibers of rifle ammo.
It’s a tough place in which to survive, let alone make money. Most people live well below the poverty line, and the only paying jobs are seasonal, working on firefighting crews and building the few houses that go up each summer. Meanwhile, with the cost of air freighting outside goods effectively tripling prices, a gallon of gas will set you back $10, a pound of ground meat about $6. What this means, among other things, is that no one can afford to eat “store food” year-round, so about two-thirds of the meat eaten in this community of about 130 people is bush meat. It’s primarily caribou—at least in good years, when the animals pass near the village—but also ground squirrel, hare, ptarmigan, porcupine, muskrat, beaver, lynx, Dall sheep, and moose, as well as waterfowl and fish from the Chandalar River and nearby lakes. The proper name of the village is Vashraii K’oo, “place with high creek banks,” and it was a seasonal fish camp for thousands of years before being settled.
Economic necessity aside, however, many Gwich’in prefer bush meat and even say that if they don’t get it regularly, they feel weak, even sick. It’s not an easy place to get a handle on. The common saying here is that the Indians have to live in two worlds, which, while true, only takes you so far in understanding who they are. You could just as easily maintain that they live between two worlds.
In my 11 days here, I will come to see that the physical act of hunting is key to beginning to understand the people. The food value of the meat, while important, is just the hunt’s most obvious product. On another level, hunting is how they connect to the land and the animals, to one another and to one another’s families, to their ancestors and their nomadic culture, and to their spiritual life. If you overlay the map of Gwich’in traditional homelands with the map of the range of the Porcupine River herd, you find that the two match up almost exactly—except for one place, Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the grounds where the caribou give birth each spring. This place, literally “the sacred place where life begins,” is off-limits to them. No one in Arctic Village has ever seen it, much less entered it. As Charlie Swaney, one of the town’s chief hunters and my host, puts it, “That place belongs to the caribou. It’s where they take their first breath, first step, first bite of food. The forage there is better, there are few bears or wolves, and the winds keep the bugs away.” A good chunk of this sacred place lies on the North Slope in Sector 1022 of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the very place that oil companies have been trying for decades to drill wells. They assure the Indians that drilling will have no impact on the caribou.
The Gwich’in, who refused to take part in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, an act of Congress wherein the U.S. paid nearly $1 billion for taking Alaska Native lands, don’t buy it. As a woman told me one night, “We’re not conquered. They never conquered us. They think they bought us, and they didn’t even do that. Now they want to buy us again. Money, it goes away as soon as it comes. That land is what has always kept us alive. We can’t sell that.”
At the airport, of course, I know none of this. All I know is that I should have brought sunglasses, and I’m in a place as foreign as anywhere I’ve been in the world. Within 10 minutes of landing, the plane is long gone and the loaded quads have rumbled off one by one. My boss, one of the last to leave, wants to know where I’m staying. I give her Charlie Swaney’s name. I learned of Charlie through a mutual friend and persuaded him to let me come on a hunt. The village looks to be a mile or so away over rough gravel, a good hump with a 60-pound duffel on your shoulder. The woman sighs and rolls her eyes. “O.K., get on,” she says. A few minutes later, she lets me off outside Charlie’s house. I thank her and introduce myself. Her name is Joyce.
“He know you’re coming?” Joyce asks.
Of course, I tell her. Why? “Because his best friend died day before yesterday. Albert Joe. Accidentally electrocuted himself. He was gonna go hunting with you guys. Now the whole town’s getting ready for the funeral.” She guns the four-wheeler and is gone.
I stand there while six or eight dogs, chained and standing atop little houses scattered in the nodding foxtail grass, howl at me and my intruder’s scent. Even if I’d known what I was getting myself into, everything has changed. Albert “Joe” James, 67, I will learn, was a beloved figure in the community, a sort of unofficial grandfather. He had climbed a power pole with a transformer on it just as work had been ending on Wednesday. Somehow he touched the wrong wire. To Charlie, 20 years his junior, Albert Joe had been about as much as one man can be to another: longtime hunting buddy, closest friend, best man at his wedding, father figure.
I turn my attention back to the dogs, which are smaller and skinnier than I’d expected. They look nothing like the big sled dogs in the Disney movies my 10-year-old, Emma, watches obsessively. They do not know that I’ve watched too many Disney movies myself, that I secretly pride myself on my ability to connect with strange dogs. Several, especially one with a part of its right ear missing, look as if removing a portion of my lower leg would make their day.
The house is unpainted plywood on the outside. Leading up to the front steps like a carpet is the 12-foot-long rubber track belt from a snowmobile. Rusting steel drums full of junk lie in the grass along with derelict snowmobiles and four-wheelers, scrap lumber, rusted machine parts, ends of rope, and sections of old blue tarp. It occurs to me that my yard would look something like this if the county stopped picking up trash. A telephone-booth-size wooden frame with blue tarp walls must be the outhouse.
An ample woman in a brown Columbia Titanium jacket shuffles out of the house and yells at the dogs. “You must be Marion,” I say brightly. I am way out of my comfort zone and so double-down on the only resource I have, a defensive screen of desperate extroversion. I introduce myself to Charlie’s wife and nearly force my welcome gifts—a carton of Marlboro Reds and an oversize tub of Folgers coffee—upon her. I tell her I’m sorry to hear about Albert Joe, who turns out to have been her uncle. There are, I’ll find, basically three families in Arctic Village—the Tritts, the Franks, the Johns—and virtually everybody is related.
“Charlie’s sleepin’,” she says. “He went out hunting Wednesday and got back late last night. Ya goin’ ta stay here?” Marion asks this last in a tone that is less than wholeheartedly inviting. “If it’s convenient,” I say, in a tone so desperately ingratiating that even I find it offensive. Evidently it is not convenient. She thinks, then directs me to the nearby house rented by her son, Rocky, who has gone upriver to hunt moose. She says to get settled and come back in a couple of hours.
I hump my stuff up to the unlocked house and go inside. It’s a one-room affair, with a mattress on the floor, a card table and three stools by the window, and a centrally located woodstove but no wood. Pop-Tarts wrappers and Rockstar drink bottles litter the floor, where the dust is thick enough for a vacuum cleaner proving ground. It’s straight out of the 19th century except for two bare electric bulbs overhead and, on the far side of the room, a brand-new Nintendo Wii hooked up to a small monitor. Other than that, the place is empty. I unroll my sleeping bag on the bed, lie down, but can’t rest. I get up and look around again.
On the shelves above the bed I find a pint Ziploc. Inside are a 1-ounce bottle of Pic X-100 insect repellent, a whopping 98.11 percent DEET, with the top duct-taped shut against accidental discharge; a 7.5-ounce can of Huberd’s Shoe Grease (“Since 1921. The original pine tar and beeswax waterproof/conditioner”); a 1.5-ounce bottle of industrial-strength military-surplus athlete’s foot ointment (20 percent zinc undecylenate, 2 percent undecylenic acid powder); and a 1-ounce tin of Bag Balm, “Vermont’s Original” since 1899. I study these objects like an anthropologist excavating an ancient site, hoping for insights into the collective psyche of my hosts. What I come up with is this: Death by mosquito-inflicted blood loss is an itchy way to go, so be prepared. You will be using your feet a great deal, so take care of them. Bag Balm, developed to moisturize cow udders, contains a mild antiseptic and is good for all manner of cuts and abrasions. I happen to know that it was used by Allied troops in WWII to keep weapons from corroding and was also taken to Antarctica on the Byrd Expedition in 1928, where it was reputedly used on the frostbitten feet of sled dogs.
I meet Charlie later that evening. Marion and some other people are sitting at a table talking when Charlie shuffles out of the bedroom, looking like he just woke up. He is 45, with the black hair and high cheekbones typical of Gwich’in. He is taller and lankier than anyone else I’ve seen here and seems at once open and reserved. There is something in his carriage—an unstudied and easy commingling of humility and dignity, humor and seriousness. It’s a quality I’ve encountered before in certain soldiers: leadership. He is a guy you would want nearby in a tough situation and whom you would follow. Still half asleep, he touches my hand and accepts the box of Winchester .270 Ballistic Silvertips I brought with a smile. “I like these 130-grain bullets,” he says. “Flat shooting.” He has already taken out several hunters after caribou, returning with six bulls one trip and one bull last night. “You can feel the whole mood in the village change when they see that meat come in,” he says. “People know they’re gonna eat good.” They had seen two bulls the other day but only got one before the fog rolled in, forcing them to spend the night up on the tundra. He’d brought a tent but forgot the poles, so they slept inside the collapsed tent and got soaked. He returned to the news about Albert Joe. I tell him that I’m sorry for his loss, that he should make me the least of his worries, and that we’ll talk about hunting after the funeral.
“He just got careless,” Charlie says, the understatement of the year. He shakes his head, presses his lips together hard.
The sudden death has struck a hammer blow. Albert Joe was a beloved, profane, silly, and public man, still full of life at 67. Lately he had devoted more time toward weaning the village boys off video games and getting them up into the country to learn the skills by which the Gwich’in had defined themselves: how to hunt and fish and run a trapline; how to predict the weather by what the clouds were doing in the far-off mountains; how to find your way in the endless steppe of tundra; how the caribou behaved and why.
And the behavior of that Porcupine River herd is changing. It has been 11 years, since 1999, that the animals have shown up in any significant numbers, 11 years since the villagers have set up their traditional September camps on the ridge 4 miles southeast of town. Many of the children have never experienced those camps, which are normally a highlight of the year, a time to renew old friendships, to remember what life was like once for the Gwich’in. This year is shaping up like it might be better. Some caribou have already been brought in, and a number of hunters have reported glassing animals on distant mountains. Tents are going up on the ridge. The hope is that this year will be different.
“There’s something wrong with the earth, and it’s telling us the only way it can,” Charlie says simply. “We’ve had more rain this year than I can remember. The winters are getting colder, and the summers are getting hotter.”
I ask what they do when the caribou don’t show up. “There are moose upriver sometimes, which they didn’t have in the old days. We eat more store food, more noodles. We set nets under the ice on Old John Lake for whitefish, pike, and lake trout. Sometimes you can catch grayling upriver. But it’s not the same without caribou. Fish is better than store food. But it doesn’t make you strong. Once you get used to wild meat, you don’t feel as strong unless you have it.”
“The land is turning into a bowl of water,” says a woman at the table. “We’ve had so much rain that the river’s eroding the banks. It’s getting wider.”
“The willow is growing tall,” notes a man who has not spoken until now. “Twenty years ago, it never grew above your knees, and now it’s over your head some places!”
“Tell him about the polar bear,” says another woman.
Polar bear? I thought polar bears were coastal animals. We’re 100 miles inland. The bear was first sighted up on the ridge two weeks ago, Charlie says. Since then it has been seen three times outside of town, including once by Charlie himself. The villagers are accustomed to large predators. They’ve lived with brown bears and wolves for millennia. Usually, it’s the young, curious bears that are troublesome, especially if they smell meat in a hunting camp, and no one leaves the village without a rifle.
(Indeed, when I walk up to camp one afternoon, mostly for the exercise, I encounter three teenagers, two girls and a boy, just outside the village. “Oh, good,” says the boy, handing me the rifle he has been carrying across his shoulders. “You can give this back to my mom. She was worried about not having a gun in the tent tonight.” The boy hands me a bolt-action .30/06 with open sights. “Chamber’s empty but the magazine’s full. You know how to shoot one of these things?” I tell him that I do. “O.K., good to go, then. Oh, yeah. The safety’s broke.” And with that the three resume walking and chatting. I find later that children are taught to shoot well before they write their age in two digits.)
People seem afraid both of this individual animal and of the new and unknowable threat it implies. Alaska Fish and Game back in Fairbanks has been alerted. They’re supposed to be sending an agent out to investigate, but no one knows when. Several people at the table openly state that they’ll shoot the animal if it comes near the village. Charlie says, “They’re having trouble finding seals, and they’ve gotta eat. So they’re following the caribou now.”
The next morning I encounter Charlie carrying a gas can. “Go down to the river,” he says. “We just heard on the radio that they’re bringing two moose in.” He’s going to gas up his Argo, an ATV that is like an eight-wheeled tank that never goes fast but goes through anything. Charlie has the only one in town. It’s a somewhat public vehicle, and the only thing big enough for the job at hand.
The East Fork of the Chandalar runs wide, shallow, and muddy past the opposite end of town. I go down and sit on a bench by a log church built in the early 1900s. Grass is growing on its roof. By the water are a number of 20- and 24-foot johnboats with 40- and 60-hp engines. A fish net stretches across the creek that joins the river here. People come and go, smoking cigarettes. Two hours later, the boats finally arrive, one so loaded it has barely 4 inches of freeboard. The hunters are tired and dirty but smiling. They land with two young bulls quartered and skinned. The Argo, well lined with the blue tarp the Gwich’in adapt to endless uses, is backed up to the boats, and four young men from the village jump to form a bucket brigade. They grunt as they transfer huge hunks of moose flesh from shoulder to shoulder. In less than five minutes, the Argo is loaded and on its way, eight hooves sticking up out of the well at crazy angles.
It takes 15 minutes to walk back to Charlie’s, where women are already cutting meat on makeshift tables of plywood laid atop sawhorses. A woman named Alice Smoke, 75, opens a bone the size of a baseball bat with a 21-inch bow saw and scoops out some marrow with her knife. “Better than Chinese food,” she tells me, smiling as if she has waited a long time for this moment. She offers me a sliver. It’s white and jellylike, surprisingly mild and less rich tasting than I’d expected.
Sitting nearby is Maggie Roberts, the same age, who cuts me a piece of sinew from a leg. “Babiche, we call it,” she says, chewing some herself. “Good for constipation.” I’m happy to report that moose sinew tastes fine, which is good, because you could chew a piece for a week without appreciably altering its structure. Meanwhile, Maggie volunteers that when she was little her parents still traveled seasonally, following caribou, moose, Dall sheep, small game, and fish. Her father didn’t want to live in Arctic Village or any village. Once alcohol came, there was trouble too often. Mostly they were living in cabins by then, she says, rather than wooden-framed skin huts used in the old times. “If we found a place with a lot of caribou, we’d stay there,” she says. “You’d make a rack of dry willow and hang meat on it. We’d make a fire underneath it and smoke it. We didn’t have tarps in those days. We’d make a roof of spruce bark so it wouldn’t get wet when it rained.” Then they’d move again, with the family’s dogs carrying everything: food, blankets, tents, the various parts of their stove, the caribou skins the family slept on. Dogs were seldom used to pull sleds. “That didn’t happen until after the white people came. The Russians, I think, were the first ones here. We traded furs with them. Before that we didn’t have pots and cups.”
Sometimes, she remembers, the men would go up in the mountains to hunt. “The dogs carried the meat down, maybe 40 pounds each, in leather packs on their sides. The men would send them down from the mountain. ‘Go to grandma,’ they’d say. And they’d come to us. And the women would send them back with tea or tobacco if we had any. ‘Go to grandpa,’ they’d say. Just those words. And the dogs, they knew what it meant, they’d do it.”
She works as she talks, guiding an Old Hickory butcher knife through a haunch, the haunch growing smaller as the pile of boneless meat grows bigger. Occasionally she stops to give the blade a few strokes on one side only with an 8-inch tool file, the common practice here. Every house I’ve been in has the same carbon-steel knives, made by the Ontario Knife Co., and at least several files with which to sharpen them. She tells me about the time her mother made new boots for her father. He had been working waist-deep in the river tending his fish traps that fall, and would frequently have to come out to dry off and warm up. So her mother decided to make him better boots. “We didn’t have rubber in those days. I mean that we knew what it was, but we didn’t have any ourselves. So she took skins she’d tanned, the skin from the lower leg is the strongest part, and she sewed them good, real tight with babiche. And then melted the moose fat, you know, and just worked that in for a long, long time to waterproof them. After that, he didn’t get wet.”
She just vaguely remembers going hungry once or twice when game was scarce. It wasn’t famine-hungry, she says. They didn’t have to eat their dogs or anything. But the children got only a bite or two of ground squirrel each and some broth. Their mother kept the cabin warm and told them to drink water and not to move around too much. Maggie says she was very small and just barely remembers this. “But my father, he was always talking to us about the famines in the old days, about coming across a tepee and the whole family lying inside like they were asleep. But dead. ‘So you have to learn to do things for yourself, to hunt and fish and trap,’ he’d say. In famines, you know, people would try to eat anything. They’d even boil old hides. Usually they couldn’t eat that, but they would try. My parents, when they’d butcher a caribou, they’d throw the hooves with some of the leg attached over a branch or a tree. That way they could be found, even in the snow, if there wasn’t anything else to eat. You could make soup from that and it would keep you alive.”
I stand there looking at this small woman quietly chewing moose sinew as she cuts meat. She is a person who doesn’t take up space or call attention to herself. And it occurs to me that she knows more about animals and plants, about hunting, trapping, and fishing, about dogs, shelter, and survival, than I will ever know.
The only male fool enough to hang around a group of busy women, I am soon pressed into service loading cardboard boxes—which are falling apart under the weight of meat packed into garbage bags—on ATVs and helping deliver it to various houses. Sometimes there is somebody home, and sometimes I just follow my assigned partner into the unlocked house and dump the meat in the electric chest freezer that most people have. The mood throughout the village does seem brighter with the arrival of the moose. It’s as if the meat is doubly nourishing, strengthening both the body and the bond between the one who gives and the one who receives. It does not feel like charity. It feels like community.
Four days later, one day after the funeral, we are finally going hunting. I ride along with Charlie and two other men, Jonathan John and Roy Henry, up to the camp on the ridge. The plan is to go out on top the next day to hunt. At this time of year, the beginning of September, the bulls are just coming out of velvet. For now, their priority is bulking up. In a month, with the start of the rut in October, they’ll stop eating, focusing only on mating. They’ll lose 30 percent of their body weight and some will die in the violent sparring over females. And their meat will become so rank that not even the dogs will eat it. I’ve never seen caribou fight. It’s hard for me to picture these herbivores, which sometimes congregate in peaceful herds numbering in the tens of thousands, turning fratricidally violent.
At camp that first night, I get my first taste of ground squirrel, a meat that I find almost addictive. They’re found in the drier ground near ridges and the tops of hills, where they live in extensive colonies. The Gwich’in catch them in small steel leg-hold traps, and dispatch them—after grasping them firmly behind the head to avoid their formidable buckteeth—by pinching their hearts through the skin. The animal is thrown whole on the fire until the fur is thoroughly singed, which is not the most appetizing smell. After the singed fur is scraped off with the back of a knife, the animal is gutted, scored at the four limbs, and placed in water to boil for an hour or so. Singed ground squirrels are a little like Ball Park Franks; they plump when you cook ’em. A blackened, bloated ground squirrel is a fairly grotesque and accusatory thing to ponder for any length of time. The expansion of fat tissue caused by cooking contorts the face into a death grimace. And although quite dead, it looks as if it would love to make use of its yellow incisors one last time. If you can get past this—and it’s not hard if you’re hungry—you are rewarded with meat so sweet and rich that it needs nothing more than salt to make a satisfying meal. The people at camp are amused that I take such a liking to ground squirrel. One young mother teases, “You’re like the elders. They love these things. We usually take them back to town for them.” I protest that I’m an elder, too, but am offered no more ground squirrel.
Nothing up here happens in a hurry. The Gwich’in themselves joke about “Indian time.” But I have now been here long enough that I’m losing some of my natural impatience. Besides, “When you hurry is when you make mistakes,” as Charlie says. With daylight lasting until nearly 10 p.m., there’s seldom a compelling reason to rush. Before departing the next morning, we have a big breakfast of pancakes with syrup, fried caribou, and coffee. This is followed by a few cigarettes, which leads to another pot of coffee and another round of cigarettes. Finally, a little after noon, Charlie, Jonathan, Roy, and I load the Argo. We each bring a sleeping bag, rain gear, and extra layers. The weather is in the high 50s, but it can change fast anywhere, and change almost instantaneously up top. Charlie brings a tent, a cooler with a few provisions, and some wood. “Not much to make a fire with once you’re up on top,” he says. The others each have rifles. I’m unsure as to whether I’ll be allowed to shoot and figure it’s best not to push, so I don’t ask.
Once we reach the ridgetop, the trail turns and follows the crest for a ways, then drops slightly into the tundra and passes a tiny lake. A half mile on, we climb to a saddle between two hills, then hike to the top of the taller one. Just below its summit, we sit in the lee of a windbreak constructed of carefully piled stones. And then I realize where I am. In front of us lies an endless tundra steppe, a larger swath of the earth than my eyes have ever swallowed at a single glance. It is literally hundreds of square miles of gently rolling land, rising to three or four waves of mountains of the Brooks Range in the north, each taller than the one before it. The lower country is ablaze with fall yellows and reds. The top 6 feet of the tundra is alive with the stunted plant life that survives here: blueberry, cranberry, salmonberry, willow, lichen, grass, and moss. Beneath that lies permafrost. It’s a place that probably looked pretty much the same 5,000 years ago. It has never felt the blade of a plow or dozer, never been broken by roads or roofs or cut by wires or pipes. I make out no definite trails of any kind—animal or man—just faint changes in colors that help you decide how you might want to travel from one place to the next. There are at least three weather systems in play, competing with one another: a rainstorm, fog, and bright sunshine. Between the fog and the sun is a short, wide rainbow, the most vivid I have ever seen, jutting up from the ground like the broken-off stub of a sword. It’s like being in God’s upstairs workshop. I could drink it in all day.
Charlie sits, anchoring his elbows on his knees and raising his 16X binocs, while Jonathan mans the spotting scope I’d seen on Charlie’s kitchen table. Wordlessly, they put the Vise-Grip to the scenery, squeezing it for caribou. I already tried the binocs in camp and found that I couldn’t hold them steady enough to resolve an image. God only knows how Jonathan free-hands the spotting scope. No one speaks for a good while. Roy, an old friend of Albert’s who has come in for the funeral and stayed on to hunt, exchanges a shrug of shared uselessness with me. Neither of us brought optics and we’re not going to spot anything these guys don’t.
At last Charlie grunts and asks Jonathan what he makes of the group on the second mountain range where the gray of the rock face meets the uppermost yellow of the willow. I haven’t given much thought to Jonathan until now. He’s a taciturn man in a Navy ball cap and scraggly facial hair. He says little and sounds a bit like Oscar the Grouch when he does speak. Turning the scope to the indicated spot and cranking it to higher power, he finally deigns to make use of its tripod. “Yah, some nice bulls in that group,” he murmurs. “Two real big ones on the right I had in silhouette for a moment there. They’re moving pretty good.” Charlie and Jonathan both try to show me through their respective optics, but I simply can’t see anything that could be caribou. “It helps if you already know the country,” Charlie says. “That way, you know when you’re seeing something that wasn’t there before.” He tells me to look for “little black dots.” If the dots move, they’re caribou. This is the shortest glassing lesson of all time and fully covers the topic.
I ask how many and how far off these ones are. Charlie thinks and says, “There’s about nine in that group. And they’re about, oh, 25 mile or so.” Jonathan nods in agreement.
“Yah, about that.”
“So they’ll be here in…” I ask, letting my voice trail off.
“Two days,” Charlie answers. “If they keep coming this way.” Charlie identifies four more groups of bulls, none of them numerous. One of them he estimates is 40 miles from where we’re sitting. He watches long enough to see how the closer groups are behaving, and from this deduces where they’re headed. “It’s only in the past couple of days that their antlers have gotten hard,” he says. “They’re real careful of them until that happens. They’ll keep to themselves, sort of quiet and out of the way. But now, they don’t care about anything but finding the best feed to fatten up. They’ll go anywhere.” He sights one group that he thinks is coming our way. If they keep coming, they’ll pass through some time tomorrow. He knows a better spot from which to keep tabs on them. If they do as he expects, it’s also a better spot to intercept them. He says it’s a rock dome about 12 miles away, farther out into the tundra. We get back into the Argo for the four-hour ride, having to stop several times to winch our way across streams.
When we arrive, we climb up the dome to glass the group and look for other caribou. Charlie hands me his .270 and we stalk our way forward. He whispers that the caribou like high places like this. The winds give them relief from flies and mosquitoes, which can bleed them to death in the worst times. “Be ready,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to jump one up here.” I am a lousy offhand rifle shot and have told him this but am happy to be holding a rifle. I decide I won’t take any shot over 100 yards unless I can get to a sitting position. I stay as close to him as I can in case I need to give the rifle back in time for a shot I won’t take. It’s hard. Charlie covers ground.
The light has gotten angular by now, the tundra seeming to glow from within rather than reflect light. I ask how he keeps track of where he is out here. He says it’s all by triangulating known features. “But when the fog socks you in, you can’t do anything but wait. Me and Albert once got stuck out here for eight days. We weren’t in any danger or anything, but after six days we had to start rationing our food.” I ask if he ever uses a GPS. He frowns at the mention of this, as if I’ve asked why they don’t employ Predator drones. “We don’t have anything like that up here,” he says, slightly irritated. I can’t tell whether I’ve suggested something far beyond his fiscal means or whether it’s something else, that maybe he is thinking that as an Indian it is necessary to register your land, send in a map or something, before a GPS unit will display where you are on country your people have been inhabiting for millennia.
We glass until it’s too dark to see. Charlie can’t locate the group he was watching and seems comforted by that. If they’re coming this way, they’d be below our line of sight, having come into the lower part of the tundra, with its hills and valleys. He seems to think we’re where we need to be. I’m thinking of something Jonathan said last night around the fire about people in the old days. “My grandma said we used to live just like animals. Because animals were all what was in their brain.” Charlie, I suddenly realize, is like that. He doesn’t talk much about caribou, but when he does his observations are always presented in terms of what they need at a particular moment and why.
We get water from a pool in the moss at the base of the dome, make coffee and a pot of instant macaroni, and fry up some caribou. I am exhausted. We haven’t walked that far, but traveling in the Argo is like riding a slow-motion mechanical bull all day. The tent is absurdly small, about right for two men staying at a tropical nudist resort. We squirm into our bags fully clothed, rifles lying between us in what I’ve come to think of as “Alaska camp ready” condition: the bolt closed, the chamber empty, the magazine full. It’s so tight in here that whatever position you land in when you hit the floor is the one you keep for the night, despite the rock in your back. I’m so tired that for once it doesn’t matter.
I wake and open the tent flap the next morning to see a cow caribou 60 yards off and running away. Charlie is gone. Jonathan and Roy are still asleep. I climb up the dome to look for Charlie. I walk for an hour, trying to stay downwind of where I think he might be, before I see him returning. He has killed a cow farther on for camp meat, which explains the other cow I saw running. He saw the group again and says they should be passing close to here in a couple of hours. We walk back to camp, have a quick cup of coffee, and all head up in the Argo to get the cow. Jonathan and Charlie make short work of field dressing the animal, making it look as easy as slitting open the mail. Jonathan removes a lacy membrane of fat covering the stomach so that it’s a single piece, almost like a doily, and hangs it on a bush to dry. “Icha’ats’a chu, we call it,” he says. “Old-timers used to use the stomach as a cooking pot,” he continues, rolling the carcass so the guts spill downhill. “They’d clean it out and put pieces of meat in it. Then they’d dig a hole and put hot rocks in, some dirt, and then that stomach. In an hour or so, it’d be ready. That was before we had pots.” This is the most I’ve heard Jonathan say so far. We load quarters into the Argo and return to camp, where Jonathan starts to fry up some of the meat, and Charlie uses the moment to stand atop the Argo and glass for our bulls. The group must have changed course or moved faster than he thought, because the next thing I see is Charlie jogging across the tundra with the .270 in one hand. The fact that he said nothing tells me how dire the situation is. I take off after him. By now, he has slowed to a brisk walk, which is good, because I sure as hell can’t run in this stuff. At every step I sink 4 inches into the ground. It’s like running in cement. He is headed for a rock outcropping about a mile away, which must be where he hopes to shoot from. Even a brisk walk winds me, and I start removing layers as I heat up. Within 200 yards, I’ve removed my parka, vest, hat, and fleece pullover. Meanwhile, Charlie is pulling away from me steadily, long legs scissoring away.
He drops to a crawl as he gains the top, by which point his lead has increased to 300 yards. When I’m within about 200 yards, he looks back long enough to give me a single, emphatic “down” motion. I stop, hit the wet ground, and freeze. The last thing I want is to be responsible for a busted stalk. After a minute, he looks back again, seems pleased that I’ve obeyed, and motions for me to approach low and from further downwind. I dogleg in that direction, walking in a Marx Brothers crouch, and finally come up behind him. When I finally get to him, he is calmly smoking a cigarette. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he says quietly. “You’ll get tired.” I ask in a whisper how far the bulls are. “About 100 yards,” he says. Then he stubs out the cigarette and stands.
When he does, I rise to midcrouch and see three bulls calmly walking along. They stop when they see Charlie. All three look large and fat, with dried scraps of velvet still clinging to their antlers. A few hundred yards behind them are a few cows with calves. Charlie drops the first one with a neck shot and drops it again with another when it rises. He puts two shots into the next caribou, which staggers, stands still for a long moment, and topples over dead before it hits the ground. The third bull, farther off, takes a bullet and stands, seemingly not bothered by the lead insect beneath its skin, as if trying to remember something. I hear the click-clack of Charlie reloading the magazine, and at the next shot see the bull rock slightly as it absorbs another bullet. The animal turns and begins walking directly away from us. There is no shot at this angle, and neither of us speaks as we hope and pray for it to turn. After another 40 yards it does, offering a quartering-away shot at about 175 yards. Charlie’s first shot is high, splintering antler just above its head. The second shot appears as a discoloration, a red blossom behind its ear. The bull falls in a heap.
Charlie shows no elation. If anything, he seems somewhat subdued. I can’t tell whether it’s because he didn’t kill as cleanly as he would have liked. Maybe, as with many hunters, the final act of the hunt, the killing, while necessary, is the part he enjoys least. Maybe it’s some combination of the two or something altogether different. In any case, he is suddenly all business. He hands me the rifle and a handful of shells. “I’m going back to get the Argo,” he says. “I don’t want any crows or bears on that meat.” With that, he is gone, walking in that same ground-covering stride. I put four in the magazine, one in the chamber, and engage the safety. I look around. The cows have altered course away from me. In the distance I see another group of caribou on the heels of this one, though they’re too far to distinguish bulls and cows. No birds or bears come. I mark and memorize the location of the downed animals, which are surprisingly easy to lose track of in the low brush. The easiest way to pick them up again, I decide, is to look for the only things in sight that don’t respond by moving slightly in the wind.
Half an hour later, the Argo arrives and we spend about two hours dressing and cutting up the caribou. Roy and I work together silently, skinning the caribou and using the skin to stack the meat on. We’ve got about as much meat as we can carry with four men on board, so we leave the skins behind. By the time we load everything, Jonathan and I, riding in the back of the Argo atop meat and gear and guns, are sitting noticeably higher than Charlie and Roy in front.
I lost my Filson waterfowler’s hat, my favorite, on the walk, and the sun is powerful. I can feel my skin burning, but there’s nothing to be done about it. We ride for four hours, stopping only for water. Shortly before we get back to camp I see a hat on the trail and ask Charlie to stop. It’s a camo military-issue boonie hat. Charlie thinks he knows who it belongs to, one of a group of younger guys who were up here drinking a few days back. “Keep it,” he tells me. “Anybody drinking on a four-wheeler deserves to lose it.” I do, and am happy to have the protection.
We finally reach camp about eight o’clock. I suddenly realize how beat and bloody I am. My hands are covered with dried blood; my shirt and pants are stained with it. It’s strange, but after you’ve had blood on you for a while, it doesn’t feel dirty. Almost the opposite. I am hungry, too. I attack a plate of fried meat and rice without washing, using my hunting knife to cut the meat. After dinner, awaiting the cup of coffee that I hope will keep me awake long enough to dig my sleeping bag out and find a place to unroll it, I wash my plate and the knife in a tub of warm, soapy water. Back at the fire, Jonathan shakes his head. “Don’t wash your knife like that,” he says. “Soap and hot water, they’re bad for a hunting knife.”
Charlie nods in agreement. “Rolls the edge.”
“Rolls the edge?” I repeat, dumbly. My knife is a Benchmade Rant with a blade of 440C stainless steel. It’s almost indestructible. But I’m more interested in what these guys think than in winning an argument.
“You can’t see it, but if you put it under a microscope you’d see that hot water and soap roll the edge,” Charlie says. He and Jonathan both seem vaguely uncomfortable, almost embarrassed at having to tell me something so obvious. But they seem to be doing it out of a sense of duty, as if I’m now inside the tent and must be taught certain things.
“When it’s all over, your trip,” says Jonathan, “you gotta make a conclusion about it, right?” That’s right, I tell him, I do. I ask what he thinks it should be. “Well…” he muses, the tip of his cigarette glowing as he takes a puff. “This world, this country, it’s rough, you know? You see it. So you got to be tough. Not just in your body but also in your mind. That’s what I’d say.”
I’m about to say something when Joyce, the woman who told me to get busy the first day and had me loading boxes, says, “You got a new hat!” I did, I tell her. I lost mine and found this one. “It suits you,” she decides after a moment. “You’re starting to get Indianized.” This somehow starts a discussion on the merits and faults of wearing floppy-brimmed hats while riding four-wheelers. The verdict is that they can obstruct your vision at crucial moments.
I bid everyone good night, find an empty tent, and am almost instantly asleep. When I wake late the next morning, Charlie is already gone. “He took some other guys out up top,” Marion tells me. “There’s still a lot of people in the village who need meat.”
Lead photograph by Subhankar Banerjee