being caribou – the book – a review

Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd
by Karsten Heuer
McClelland & Stewart, 2006
235 pages

Recently, I posted a review of the documentary Being Caribou. Having enjoyed the movie, I decided to read Heuer’s book in the hope that it would fill in more of the details of this epic journey in the footsteps of the Porcupine herd of caribou. Without detracting from the movie, the book provides more insight into those aspects of the story that could not easily be addressed on film, such as logistics, nature observations, the passage of days, and the more personal side of what, at times, must have seemed an impossible journey.

While the narrative follows the progress of the caribou herd’s trek along a continuum spanning three seasons, it is interwoven with backflashes to planning and preparation for the expedition, reflections on the ecological and cultural place occupied by caribou, and forays into the politics of oil exploration and its impact on the Arctic wildlife.

Having now watched the movie and read the book, I remain amazed at the logistics of this journey — from both the perspective of this expedition, and for the caribou which they follow. The book fleshed in much of what I suspected from the start — that the annual migration of the caribou is a grueling marathon through a landscape that is both beautiful, but fraught with perils far beyond our imaginings. That the caribou have survived and flourished within this environment for thousands of years, is a testament to their inherent toughness, but also an indication of how integral they are to the ecology of the land. With lives lived so close to the line, it becomes obvious how fragile is the balance of their existence — and how easily it could be destroyed through the negligence of outside forces.

From the perspective of adventure writing, Heuer delivers a fast-paced narrative that provides for a good understanding of the landscape and the logistics of the journey. We are given enough details to almost feel the weight of a 70 pound backpack, the chill of wading a half-frozen river, and the helpless sense of frustration while watching a lost caribou calf straying from the herd to certain death on the tundra. We’re given a generous glimpse into the thoughts of the writer as he and his partner face fear, pain, and fatigue, but also joy, excitement, and the growing sense of respect for the caribou – and grave concern for their future.

But this book should be regarded as much more than a travel or adventure narrative. It provides a much-needed window into the lives of the caribou and their place in the web of Arctic ecology. It should also be regarded as a call to action for readers to seek protection for this unique and fragile part of our world.

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