Thelon Expedition: Caribou and the Dene

(Editor’s note: The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist Sanjayan and Canada program director Dr. Richard Jeo are on an expedition through one of Canada’s most pristine areas with young members of the Dene First Nation. They will canoe along the Thelon River and end in North America’s largest and most remote wildlife refuge, the Thelon Game Sanctuary. This post was written by Dr. Jeo.  Follow their journey.)

Joseph Catholique never was sent away as a kid to Catholic boarding school. Tuberculosis had sidelined him for three crucial years in an Edmonton hospital, and he returned afterwards to his village of Lutsel K’e to go to a local school and learn from his father the land and how to hunt it.

“To know it so sharply,” is how Joseph puts it.

The “residential school” had the insidious side-effect of severing aboriginal people from the Arctic to Australia from their lands.

On the Thelon Expedition, Joseph is one of our Dene guides (the other is James Lockhart — also Dene) and he likes to guide from way out in front.

On the water, his canoe on point is often a speck on the broad, white-capped back of the Thelon River — and when we make camp at the end of the day, he is the first to crest the biggest hill. When I catch up to him, he is invariably on his stomach, his .243 rifle by his side, glassing the barrens.

The camp we picked, after a long 40 km day on the water, was a wooded bluff with soaring dune fields all around.

The dunes held prints beautifully, and Joseph pointed out to my untrained eyes what had come and gone by. Fresh wolf tracks, huge deep moose prints, smudged grizzly paw prints, dainty arctic fox paws, and for me, most miraculously, wolverine tracks, running right through camp. I spent a lot of time photographing the tracks as Joseph explained the defining characteristics.

Then he spots something that stops him. He is completely transfixed by these odd looking, almost horsy tracks.

It didn’t matter that the tracks were old and washed out. For him it was as if a unicorn had pranced by. Joseph lit up.

For the Dene, caribou is almost everything, and the animal far exceeds the simple provisioning of calories. It is not just protein any more than rice is just carbohydrates to an Asian.

When Joseph looks through the glasses, it is to look for caribou; everything else is icing. He follows the herds, he worries about their well-being, and he trades information on their movement and numbers, like stock tips. He will shoot a few dozen in good years, enough for his extended family and friends. It all works out to a couple of animals per person for Lutsel K’e, and almost every part of the animal will be eaten.

Today, at our lunch stop, we come across an old uranium claim. A few dozen wooden stakes in a loose bundle scattered on the barrens — an attempt to demarcate a swath of it for a potential mine. It was probably chucked out of a helicopter, without even the courtesy of landing on the ground claimed.

Uranium mines are not popular amongst the Dene of Lutsel K’e; they see them as a threat to the water and to the caribou. Water is widely accepted as essential for human life — but for the Dene, caribou may be no less important.

As long as the Dene continue to track the caribou, to fret about its abundance, to feed their community with it, to light up at the sight of days-old track, they will be the most powerful voice for the stewardship of the Thelon.

As James Lockhart puts it: “Other meat fills my belly, but only with caribou am I no longer hungry.”

On his first hunt as a young teen, Joseph rode standing on the running board behind the sled as it was pulled over the frozen tundra by an eight-dog team. His dad rode in the sledge cradling his rifle.

Upon sighting a suitable caribou, his dad would flip the sled on to its side, thus arresting the dogs — and, using the sled as a rest, would shoot.

They had been out for two days when they sighted in the far distance a herd, and as the dogs surged forward in their excitement, Joseph lost his grip on the sled.

When he tumbled on to the snow, his dad kept going.

Only after he had knocked down the caribou did he return, maybe half an hour later, to pick up his frightened son, tracking the sled tracks in the snow.

Joseph laughs as he tells me this, as I stare in mild shock. There is no acrimony here, no therapy required; what his father did is perfectly understandable.

At that moment the caribou are everything.

Traditional knowledge reproduced with the permission of Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation.

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(Image: “I never get cold in the barren lands; for me it always is like summer.” – Tristen Lockhart
All Rights Reserved–Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures)

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  1. reminds me of my trip to whitefish lake, years awesome..wishing you all a safe trip..<3

  2. when the by plane nevered canoed there would love to try it someday

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