Today we passed two major milestones. We left the hard wind packed surface of Great Bear Lake and began the long portage to Tuchay Lake. It has taken us 12 days to travel more than 140 miles from Deline to our current location on the eastern end of Great Bear Lake. We are over 100 miles from the nearest town and perhaps the nearest person. Being out in such a vast wilderness makes you feel small and appreciate how special places like this are. The second milestone was seeing our first signs of caribou. The eastern side of Great Bear Lake is the wintering area for the Blue Nose East herd of Barren Ground Caribou.
For the first time we spotted their distinct tracks in the snow shortly before leaving Great Bear Lake. In the winter the caribou generally stay in small groups as they search for food. Their main source of food is lichen, which grows on the ground. When the snow is deep, like it is this year, they have to work hard to dig through the deep snow to access their food while also staying alert and looking for predators.
We also saw wolf tracks today along side the caribou tracks. The caribou are a major source of food for the wolves and the people living in this vast wilderness. A few days ago Leeroy Andre brought us some food and supplies with his snowmobile. He combined his visit with a caribou hunt and was hoping to bring two caribou home with him. The day after his visit we heard several gunshots, but we are not sure if he was successful.
During Leeroy’s visit he talked about how important caribou are to the Dene people. He also told us about how from a young age Dene children are taught the importance of respecting the caribou and the environment and only taking what they need. They also use all of the parts of the caribou. From the hooves to the brain and everything in between has a use.
The meat is eaten as well as most of the organs and bone marrow. The hide and bone can be used for clothing, tools, artwork, sleeping mats, and hundreds of other things. Traditionally the Dene made their houses out of caribou skins, but now they live in modern houses.
Leeroy explained that the blood of the caribou is often saved and can be made into a soup, or drank raw. Drinking the blood is supposed to make you strong and give you lots of endurance.
Hopefully as we journey through the caribou wintering grounds we will see more signs of caribou and meet more caribou hunters. Perhaps we will even see a few of the thousands of caribou that are wintering in this area. There are very few vast tracks of road-less wilderness left that are large enough to sustain the Barren Ground Caribou. I feel lucky to spend a few weeks exploring their home.
Barren Ground Caribou of the North West Territories
General information about Caribou from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
This is a very comprehensive educational resource for teachers who want to study caribou of North America. There are tons of really great lessons and activities on this site.