Thelon Expedition: Caribou on the Barrens

(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.  Follow their journey.)

I write in the light of the endless Arctic dusk, filtered into a golden hue through the walls of my tent. Outside, I hear wolves howl across the river.

They don’t call this the barren lands for nothing.

The landscape is rolling, endless without being monotonous. It has the kind of emptiness that can, in some circumstances make you a bit mad, I think. It is not the emptiness of deserts, brimming with sparseness and sterility. Rather, it’s the emptiness of solitude; in this bigness I feel very small, and sometimes achingly alone.

There is life here, of course. We see tracks of virtually every animal that inhabits the tundra — but apart from three moose we saw on the first day, the life that lives here seems lost to us in the largeness of the place.

We want to encounter caribou because the Dene we are with plan on hunting one for fresh meat for our journey. It is not that we don’t have enough calories to stay alive. We carry plenty of bulk dry goods packed in barrels for the journey. Rather, the act of hunting and eating caribou for the Dene is of supreme importance. It is culture, not just calories, that is being consumed.

Last evening, Joseph Catholique (our Dene guide) tells me that the “caribou know when we are hungry.”

We must have surely been starving, because when we woke up this morning, right across camp on an island in the middle of the Thelon River, stood a big bull caribou.

In 40 minutes, and I timed it, Joseph had taken a canoe over and shot it, from perhaps 100 meters away, with a single shot to the lung. The caribou died in knee-deep water, and we hauled it in using the canoes.

He and James Lockhart (our second Dene guide) along with several of the kids quickly butchered the animal, first severing the head and placing it ceremonially away from the body, and then skinning it and quartering it. The whole operation was over in about an hour — precise and with the efficiency of practice that can only come from necessity.

Before he left the island, Joseph offered a prayer that I could not understand (he recited it in Chipewyan), but its significance was clear. He was giving thanks for the gift of the caribou, and left behind some tobacco and matches as an offering.

At camp, everyone got to work without being asked. A rough wooden drying rack was built, a smoky fire lit underneath, then the meat butterfly filleted into thin layers was left to hang and dry, ready for transport. In a pot, the ribs were boiled.

Even we got into the act, trying our unaccustomed hands at a little butchering with both James and Joseph lightly instructing us as were the kids; gently schooling us in a traditional custom that still holds here, but elsewhere hovers on a knife edge of extinction.

No more than two and a half hours had passed from when we had sighted the caribou to us stripping, with our teeth, the tough boiled ribs for lunch. People ate quickly, ravenously, straight from the bed of spruce saplings that served as a rude platter, while sitting in a circle on the ground. The whole affair had an almost ceremonial quality about it; a scene played out for thousands of years and now embedded into the life of the Dene.

For dinner, we had caribou again, this time in a stew with bannock (a native fry bread, much like a donut), next to a beautiful boulder-strewn bend of the river. As we ate and planned the next day’s journey, Joseph started to talk about what the barrens and the caribou meant to him and the Dene, whom he refers to as the caribou people.

“This caribou was given to us by our ancestors because they are happy we are on the river. That’s the way I see it,” he says.

And just like that, the barrens don’t seem as lonely to me anymore.

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

(Image: This large male caribou appeared on an island in front of our camp. Caribou are a critically important species for the Dene culture and the arctic and boreal ecosystems. Image credit: ©Ami Vitale)

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  1. Your writing is wonderful. I was almost there. Thank you for the experience.

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