Yesterday, our journey perfectly intersected a movement of life so powerful and awe-inspiring that it will stand out as an experience of a lifetime. The days waiting with empty stomachs and detours around snowy mountains suddenly seemed fortuitous. We had been delayed for a reason.
We heard tendons clicking and brush cracking as more caribou moved towards us. We crouched down to hide beneath a willow as they came from all sides. A calf sniffed us, curious, and we could have reached out and touched it. Several others stepped carefully over our outstretched legs. As we sat motionless, brown eyes glanced sideways, muscles flexed beneath skin, bodies steaming in the cool air. Wave after wave of animals converged at the river bank, plunged in, and swam across. They floated head to tail, cows and calves tightly paired in the swift water. We were embedded in their migration for hours, hearing them snort, seeing them react to the obstacle ahead, and smelling their presence.
The western arctic caribou herd is said to be a quarter of a million strong – as we watched, perhaps a couple of thousand passed. A nearly constant stream of animals continued until it was too dark to see and we could only hear their splashing and quiet grunts. Over the past several months we have grown to admire the caribou, our clumsy steps constantly in search of their routes. The privilege of witnessing a herd in such an intimate setting with their dynamics and decision making unfolding in front of us, has brought a sense of completeness to this experience.