being caribou – a review

Last night, I watched an extraordinary documentary film. Being Caribou, is a National Film Board of Canada (NFB) production, shot on location and “en route” by Leanne Allison, the cinematographer half of a husband and wife team – the other half being wildlife biologist, park warden and writer, Karsten Heuer. The film traces a journey of 5 months and 1,500 kilometers in the footsteps of the Porcupine herd of caribou as they make their annual spring migration from the Yukon to their calving grounds in coastal Alaska, then back to the Yukon in autumn. Walking, skiing, wading and sometimes even swimming, Leanne and Karsten travel with the great herd, both observing and occasionally sharing what it means to “be” caribou. They must endure blizzards, hunger, biting insects, fatigue, and at one point, are stalked by one of several hungry grizzly bears that are following the herd. The land is beautiful, but the terrain rugged and challenging, as the herd’s path leads over mountain ranges and across wild rivers. At the calving grounds in Alaska, the pair remain concealed in their tent for days as they observe without disturbing the caribou giving birth all around them.

As mentioned above, this seems an extraordinary film. In the first few minutes, I admit to thinking, “Are these people crazy? They’re going to follow the caribou on foot and on skis?” It may sound simple enough, but when you see them hoisting 60 to 80 pound packs – their entire “survival gear” – onto their backs and then struggling to ski or plunge, on foot, through snow broken up by the tracks of the caribou, it’s soon quite clear that this is not going to be a walk in the park. Believe me, I’ve (briefly) plunged around through deep snow enough times in my years of winter hiking and skiing, that the thought of hiking many kilometers per day for weeks is almost unthinkable. The tenacity of this pair is truly astounding. But there’s much more to this film than a story human endurance. The larger story is about the caribou and the journey which they make each year — have made annually for thousands of years — each migration a struggle for survival. Leanne and Karsten’s documentary reveals the life-or-death nature of this journey — one that is entirely outside of human experience and subject only to the laws of the wilderness.

Much of the reason for this film’s making was to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by the caribou, especially in these times when oil and gas exploration and production threaten to change the face of the Arctic regions. Leanne and Karsten’s documentation of the fragility of the caribou while on their summer calving grounds gives reason enough to question any assurances that oil fields and birthing caribou are compatible neighbours. The movie concludes with the couple’s trip to Washington in an attempt to speak of their findings with congressmen and others. The mission was, for the most part, disappointing. In the end, they rethink their strategy, realizing that enlightenment must begin at the grassroots. This movie should go a long way toward raising greater public awareness of the impact of human activity on the caribou. Since the release of the movie in 2004, Karsten Heuer has published a book by the same title. It’s on my “to read” list. To view a map and read excerpts from the expedition’s trip diary, visit their website and select from the list of dates in the sidebar. The film is available from the NFB.

Film Running Time: 72 minutes
Directed & Written by: Leanne Allison & Diane Wilson

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9 Responses to “being caribou – a review”

  1. Wayne Says:

    More good stuff from Canada, and it is just this sort of thing that fuels my optimism. I just read the Apr 9-21 entry on the website.

    When you said it was available from NFB, I assumed it was by purchase. No, it’s viewable online!

    Keep us updated on your storm, Bev!

  2. Wayne Says:

    Oops – no it’s not downloadable. I’m not sure why it took a half-hour to appear, which to me promised a download, but the page that ultimately showed up is an order page with screenshots.

  3. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – I just read both your first and second messages. I didn’t think it could be downloaded, but then I just have dial-up and thought, “Hmmm… maybe there’s something there I didn’t see!” But no, not available by download. However, it is available from the NFB, but I checked and it’s also available from places like Amazon. However, it’s also been airing on some of the channels (at least up here). Don says it was on one of the documentary channels last week (he has satellite tv). I actually borrowed the tape from our city library system as they have an excellent stock of NFB movies – probably darned near everything that’s been produced over a large number of years. Not sure if you’ll see it airing on U.S. channels though!

  4. burning silo Says:

    Oh! As for the weather — It’s a rainy, dreary day, but so far, not much wind. However, the wind warning is still up on the Environment Canada website. It sounds like the winds are supposed to start sometime this evening.

  5. robin andrea Says:

    Sounds like an incredible documentary. I can’t imagine trekking all that way in snow and ice. What an endeavor, and truly for such a good cause. I’m going to do a little hunting around to see if I can find somewhere to download it. Thanks for the heads up on this.

  6. Ontario Wanderer Says:

    Sounds like a great movie. I am going to check the local library web site in a few minutes, before I forget.

  7. burning silo Says:

    Robin – I just picked up the book yesterday and it is excellent (I’ve read over 1/3 of it already). The text goes into much greater detail about the physical challenges of the journey, the logistics of trying to keep up with the caribou, and also the politics of trying to protect the territory of the caribou and the many other creatures with which they are closely associated. If you aren’t able to see the film, I’d definitely recommend the book as a good alternative.

    OW – I hope you can get the movie. As mentioned above in my previous comments, our library system has it (in fact, I think they’ve got about 5 or 6 copies in circulation), and the film has also been showing on television, so definitely watch for it. The book is also super.

  8. sarala Says:

    I’ll look for the movie and book.

  9. burning silo Says:

    sarala – I hope you’re able to get one or the other. If you do get a chance to see the movie, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.