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Senior Correspondent

There Will Be Tears in Your Eyes

There Will Be Tears in Your Eyes

Bull caribou on the march south. (Photo by Fred Sparling)

An endless line of a huge herd of caribou marched south along the Kazan on a ridgeline above us, magically colored gold by the low circling Arctic sunlight. My wife and I worried that we might be among the last to see such a sight.

This was 2005. Joyce and I went to the eastern Canadian Arctic 11 times between 2001 and 2011, in various guises starting as tourists on small cruise ships. The best times were in canoes paddling the great northern rivers of the Inuit lands, the Kazan and the Thelon and the Back, and living with Inuit friends in their small hamlet towns or isolated tundra camps. Two of these early trips were with HG Jones, a neighbor at Galloway Ridge, a retirement community near Chapel Hill, N.C. Love for Inuit art was the original impetus, but Inuit and their land were the driving force for most of our adventures. 

Our visits to the Canadian Arctic had an idyllic quality to them, an escape to a world still almost perfect and untouched, a vast treeless wilderness. Unfortunately, all is not as it seems. There are social problems in the North, including drugs and alcohol and suicides. There are not enough jobs and not enough housing. Despite global warming, it is very cold most of the year, and mosquitoes and black flies are a problem when the cold abates. Most worrisome, however, are ecological problems. Caribou are the beating heart of Inuit culture, especially to the Inuit of the central Barren Grounds where we traveled most often. Many of the herds are in dramatic decline. 

Caribou herds have always fluctuated in size, but recent news of caribou populations has created alarm. Most of the migratory herds of the open tundra west of Hudson Bay (the Barren Grounds) are rapidly shrinking, and on some of the more northerly islands they have disappeared. The Beverly herd, which our friend Alex Hall has seen so many times on his paddles through the Thelon and Back River watersheds, declined by 98 percent from an estimated 276,000 animals in the 1990s to about 5,000 by 2011, and may be entirely gone now. He has seen none for several years. 

All is not necessarily lost. Caribou herds undergo cyclical expansions and contractions, with a 30- to 40-year periodicity. Decades ago, the once monstrous Georges River herd of Arctic Quebec crashed, declining from over 700,000 to only 5,000 animals, but miraculously recovered with the assistance of hunting bans, so recovery certainly can happen. But knowledgeable people despair of the future.

The Toll of Global Warming

Are we to blame for causing global warming? There is no doubting global warming, and most believe the cause is human activity, accelerating in the last 60 years. Satellite images prove that the surface area covered by Arctic summer ice is shrinking. Cruise ships now ply the waters of the Northwest Passage, which was impossible 15 years ago when we saw masses of summer ice blocking Lancaster Sound. The permafrost is melting in many areas of Alaska. Ice in the Antarctic is in decline as well, and glaciers on mountains all over the world are melting, disappearing. Whatever the cause, loss of ice and snow cover means loss of the albedo effect: reflection of the sun’s rays from the ice, which decreases temperatures. The result is a vicious cycle of warmth begetting warmth; loss of ice leads to accelerated loss of ice. As the globe warms, trees and birds and insects and shrubs are extending their range north, not only in the Arctic, but also further south in our own gardens. We almost certainly have passed a critical tipping point. 

Some would dispute the anthropogenic causes of global warming, and point to particular problems in the accumulated evidence as proof of lack of human causes of the problem. Such critics do not understand that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Controlled trials to prove the point are impossible. We must be satisfied with correlations, fortified by common sense and reason.

Loss of ice and warmer weather are having broad effects on the ecosystem of the Arctic. Animals that depend on ice, including polar bears, walrus and seals, will suffer. Polar bears already show the effects of loss of sea ice in the southern portions of their domain, along the western shores of Hudson Bay. Less ice and shorter periods of ice cover mean loss of seal hunting habitat for the bears. The potential tragedy for them is fully equal to that of the caribou. 

How does warming cause caribou decline? Earlier emergence of the most nutritious food may mean that the caribou migration arrives too late. The herds depend most of all on survival of cows and calves on the summer calving grounds, and loss of nutrition reduces survival. Thawing and freezing in winter affects their ability to get to winter lichens through the snow; their hoofs and shovel antlers are not equipped to penetrate ice. Longer and hotter summers may increase numbers of their insect predators, including mosquitoes, black flies, nose bot flies, and the warble flies that bury eggs under their skin. As caribou decline, so do tundra wolves that depend on caribou for their survival.

Other Threats to Caribou

Sunrise on the frozen Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Joyce Sparling)

Changing weather is only part of the problem. The North is rich in minerals, and the number of leases and permits for mining in the region of the caribou herds calving grounds is astounding. There are many large diamond mines northwest of Yellowknife, which might help account for the decline of a nearby herd. A new gold mine north of Baker Lake and a proposed uranium mine up the Thelon about 40 miles west of Baker Lake also will disturb rich feeding grounds. 

There are other threats, especially the oil and gas that lies buried deep in the Arctic. The debate over protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) off the north coast of Alaska is all about oil. Drilling there may threaten the Porcupine herd, which migrates from the Yukon to calving grounds on the coast in ANWR. This is the herd that Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison accompanied on a 1,000-mile, five-month backpacking trek over the mountains, through passes, across icy rivers and out onto the calving grounds and back again, following the migration and becoming so close to the herd that they seemed to talk to the caribou. [1] The decision of Shell Oil to abandon its Arctic drilling program is a temporary relief, but higher oil prices eventually undoubtedly will force renewed pressure on the North. 

It is not for us to judge how these changes will impact our Inuit friends. They will have their own opinions, and certainly many welcome the jobs that accompany mining or drilling in the region, even while they worry about the changes to the environment. Many of the jobs are going to outsiders, but some are going to Inuit. Warmer seas may bring new fish to the North, providing new commercial opportunities, especially as the summer ice recedes. Warmer weather in itself will be a positive for those who suffer through long periods of intense cold. No doubt exists, however, about how they will feel with loss of the caribou. It is hard to put a value on sense of place and sense of self, on tranquility, on connections to the past. It is not only the substance but also the idea of caribou that sustains Inuit.

The caribou are only a symptom of a much larger tragedy that is unfolding, the era of the sixth great wave of extinctions on the planet. The last one was about 65 million years ago, following a crash by a large asteroid into planet earth off the Yucatan Peninsula. Clouds from the crash cooled the earth and extinguished the dinosaurs and many other species. The other extinctions were natural, but the present one is man-made. Species are being lost around the globe at a rate at least 100 times greater than new ones are being created. The most critical endangered regions are in the tropics, where biodiversity is greatest. Frogs and toads are disappearing, lizards are going extinct, birds are being lost, all classes of life are threatened. We are in danger of entering what E.O. Wilson has termed the Eremozoic Era–the age of loneliness. We will have done it all on our own, conscious of what was happening. [2]

An Uncertain Future

Fred and Joyce Sparling in a caribou skin tent on the tundra. (Photo courtesy of Fred Sparling)

To preserve the integrity of their place we are confident that Inuit and their aboriginal neighbors who also hunt the caribou will do what is required, reducing hunting pressures on herds that are highly threatened. But Inuit can’t possibly solve all of the problems of their animals. They are victims of the growing mass of humans elsewhere on the globe, who consume energy and demand the minerals that lie in the earth. It is others who cut the forests and overfish the seas, whose industrial pollutants travel all the way to the Arctic. There are too many people, and we refuse to stop our damaging behaviors. We are addicted to a non-sustainable way of life. 

Edward Abbey understood our feelings. He took a float trip down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon just before the final construction of Glen Canyon dam, with the subsequent flooding by Lake Powell of the river’s deep gorges and hanging gardens, the extinction of the wild waters that once surged through the canyons. For him, this was a vision of “earth’s original paradise … Glen Canyon was a living thing, irreplaceable, which can never be recovered through any human agency.” [3] In some respects the North is similar to the deserts that Abbey loved so much: both are vast, lonely, wild, infused with glorious light, grand beyond description. 

With luck, humans will be enlightened enough to protect the places most vital to the caribou, and decades hence the caribou will recover. The migratory herds require great contiguous stretches of wilderness; isolated patches will not suffice. The caribou have survived previous climate changes and insults to their numbers, and they and Inuit who live close to them are adaptable. If so, our grandchildren will be able to visit the grandchildren of our friends in the North, to go char fishing together, to see caribou migrating south on a ridgeline in such numbers that from a distance the hills seem to be moving. They will see a white wolf appearing suddenly from behind the willows, hear a wolf howling from an esker, wonder at the sight of the long coat of a muskox blowing in strong winds. If not, the caribou will go. Without the caribou, and the wolves that foxes that accompany the caribou, and without the muskox and the polar bears, and the ferocious wolverines, the Barren Grounds and the entire North will be lonely and uninviting. It will be a swampy desert, devoid of the mystique that is so compelling. It will be wild in certain places perhaps, but the allure of being within an original Eden will be lost. 

A Dene elder described it best: “When the caribou go, there will be tears in your eyes as you see only old trails made by the caribou.” [4] 


[1]  Karsten Heuer explores this theme in Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd (Seattle: The Mountaineering Books, 2005).

[2] E.O. Wilson explores this theme in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (New York: Norton, 2006).

[3] Edward Abbey explores this theme in Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New York: Touchstone, 1968), 152.

[4] Monte Hummel and Justina C. Ray explore this theme in Caribou and the North: A Shared Future (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008), 65.

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