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Bob Edwards: It’s hard to imagine there are people who still live off the land. But several thousand Gwich’in Indians in Alaska, and in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, rely on a single herd of caribou. They live in a dozen villages scattered along the herd’s migration route, a 300-mile (483-kilometer) path to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The plain’s rich vegetation offers newborn calves their best chance of survival, but below it lies the most promising oil prospect in North America. The oil industry hasn’t begun formal prospecting there, but the Gwich’in worry that unless the land is permanently protected, the herd, their way of life is under threat.

On this National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR’s Elizabeth Arnold traveled 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle, to the northernmost settlement in the Yukon Territory, Old Crow.

Elizabeth Arnold: It takes a few planes and a few hours to get this far north of the U.S.-Canada border, but it’s about the same distance an average bull in the Porcupine caribou herd will travel over a year’s time, and it’s an admirable journey from this vantage point. Below is an uninterrupted expanse of snow-swept mountains and braided rivers.

“Ladies and Gentlemen from the flight deck, we’ll be landing in about three minutes. Temperature in Old Crow is a balmy zero degrees [minus 18°C] and like I said the winds are strong out of the northwest about 15 to 20 miles [24 to 32 kilometers] per hour....”

For no obvious reason, the village of Old Crow sits in the middle of this vast wilderness, a cluster of buildings and boats at a bend in the Porcupine River.

And there ARE crows in Old Crow, crows as big as bald eagles, perched on top of small log houses, houses surrounded by the blunt evidence of a clash of two cultures. A satellite dish, a moose hide stretched to tan, a plastic pink flamingo, and racks of drying salmon.

Winter’s near when the temperature will drop to 70 below zero (minus 57°C), and the village is getting ready.

A four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle passes by, hauling two caribou bulls, heads and hooves severed. There’s a mound of tangled antlers behind a house like a bonfire waiting for a match, and the air is heavy with the smell of smoked meat.

Margaret Njootley, a small woman with bright eyes, brings us inside a ground cache, a drafty wooden shed with a smoldering fire.

“Just come on in. These are two caribou and some moose meat which were just recently killed and hung, cut into strips and hung to be smoked. And that’s what you call dry meat and its delicatessen, and this is where you cut the meat. And that’s two caribou heads. Now you eat the heads. Ohhh, they’re delicious.”

Margaret Njootley learned to use every part of the caribou from watching her mother. The brains are used to preserve the hide, the hides are used for blankets, the hooves are boiled down into grease to soften the meat.

Like Njootley, Roy Moses was also taught traditional ways by his elders. He was twelve, he says, when he killed his first caribou, and there was a feast and a dance to celebrate.

“It’s not just meat, it’s not just me going out to harvest some caribou to store up meat for the winter. It’s part of our life; it’s a way of life for us. If you take the caribou away, we’re in big trouble.”

Roy Moses looks at the willows turning brown and says he needs to “get out on the land.” It’s an expression that’s synonymous with going down- or upriver to find caribou. The herd is now close, passing by as it returns from the calving grounds. But this year, the animals are scattered, spotted in small groups of two and three.

We’re out on the land ourselves the next morning. Out on the river, that is, in a long flat-bottomed skiff loaded down with gas cans, tents, and sleeping bags under tarps, rifles on top within ready reach. Another skiff speeds past; in it, a family hunkered down, faces hidden by the wolf ruffs of their parka hoods. There’s a light snow in the air, and Freddie Frost and Robert Kaye steer around unseen gravel bars, eyes all the while scanning the riverbank.

Thirty miles (48 kilometers) downriver, at a place called Blue Fish slough, we surprise three caribou getting ready to cross.

“Right along there where the gravel ends, right to the right? You see ’em standing there right at the edge of the water. They look like big cows, and they don’t have young ones from last spring. They should have small young ones with them. There they go!”

We swing in a long arc as three caribou plunge into the open water, their dark eyes wide with fright, white chests and tails barely visible as they swim against the current. They churn the water as they move across and up out onto the beach where they shake once, gawk back at us, and disappear into the thick willows.

These were cows, and by tradition, cows are only be taken as a last resort. Freddie, although worried about not getting enough meat this winter, never lifted his rifle.

Caribou scientist Don Russell has followed this particular herd and its mortality rate for 24 years. He’s the manager of the Canadian Wildlife Service for the Yukon.

“If you look at the whole range of the herd, say it is on an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-sized manila envelope representing the range, the calving ground is really just a postage stamp up in the corner. If you had a place to avoid, that would be it, and that almost one-to-one is where the potential for oil development seems to be. So I am quite apprehensive that, should there be development, we are going to see a lot of negative impacts on the herd. And it is not a herd that, as I say, can really afford a lot of negative impacts.”

Today the village is blanketed in new snow; no one is out hunting. An elder has died, and here in the community center, two men are on their knees with axes, chopping up haunches of caribou like firewood. A small boy looks on.

“This is one we’re working on right now; we’re going to take it over to Johnnie Charlie’s funeral right now. He passed away this week, and he is on the lobby. He sat on the Porcupine management board right from day one which started in way back ’70s and ever since he sat on the board to protect the caribou right until he deceased. He’s going to be missed.”

Caribou is etched into the lives of these people. The trails the herd has eroded along nearby cliff walls, the Gwich’in say, are like the lines on an elder’s face.

The oil industry is convinced drilling will not affect the herd. The Gwich’in are so worried about development, they’ve hired Elizabeth Connellan to help them get their story out.

“You’re talking about risking, sacrificing a culture of people and a herd that is thousands of years old for a quantity of fossil fuel. Intellectually this is what I thought. Since I arrived here, I see and I feel the dependence that the Gwich’in people have on the Porcupine caribou. It’s in their bones, it’s in their blood, it’s in their stomachs. I mean the two things are just interwoven so tightly. It’s part of a lifestyle that is really rare.”

Sitting by the river, Roy Moses kicks at the gravel when I ask him what life would be like without caribou. It’s a question he has trouble answering.

“I’m very concerned about it. What are your grandchildren going to say about this when they can only see pictures and probably stuffed mounted caribou heads. If you guys didn’t drill for a few gallons of oil, we could still have the caribou. That is the gamble they’re taking—scary.”

For Radio Expeditions, I’m Elizabeth Arnold, NPR News.

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