by Karsten Heuer
Sounds pull me from my slumber – the same sounds that interrupted the last nap and the nap before that: snorts, groans, coughs, sneezes and footfalls, punctuated by the clip-and-pull of grass. But there’s also something different – something new and urgent. I shuck off the damp sleeping bag, fumble for my glasses, and open my eyes, trying to discern if it’s day or night.
Judging by the softening light it’s late evening. Leanne is already up, silhouetted inside the vestibule, hunched over the whirring video camera. Without looking up from the viewfinder, she flashes me a smile and drops a shoulder, silently inviting me to come alongside. I lean forward and kiss her weather-beaten cheek, then squeeze past to look out the tent door. There, 100 feet in front of us, a groaning caribou cow lies on the tundra, her ribs rising and falling in great heaves.
It is June 2. We have migrated alongside the Porcupine Caribou Herd for six weeks and 400 miles to witness this moment, and despite the demands of my bladder, I stay put. I watch as the thin cow struggles up then drops to her knees again, sliding into a nest of dwarf willow bushes and grassy tussocks. She’s surely uncomfortable, even in pain, but of the thousands of animals sharing this fertile strip of ground with her, Leanne and I are the only ones who notice. Dozens of other pregnant caribou continue to graze, a nearby pair of Brant’s geese continues their courtship, and the Lapland longspurs keep filling the air with their trilling songs.
This indifference, however, is redressed by how well the cow fits into this corner of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Wedged between the 8,000-foot peaks of the Brooks Range and the icy Arctic Ocean, this 20-mile-wide swath of coastal plain is more caribou than anything else. The sun-bleached tines and mossy beams of antlers cast by the millions – if not trillions – of laboring cows that came here before our cow protrude from a mat of tundra layered with hair, scat, bone fragments and afterbirth that are generations deep. From these layers grow the protein-rich grasses she’ll convert into high-fat milk for her newborn, repeating and completing a nutrient cycle spanning tens of thousands of years.