In the Athapaskan language, the word Yukon means the great river or big river.
The following publication-ready feature story, "On the Land in Vuntut", was written for Tourism Yukon by writer Edward Readicker-Henderson. You are welcome to publish the piece free of charge and images to accompany the article are available by contacting our media relations department at the email address below. If you do print the story we would appreciate recveiving a copy of the published piece. Tourism Yukon wholly owns the rights to "On the Land in Vuntut".
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By Edward Readicker-Henderson
The sun doesn’t set; nor does it exactly rise. The closest way I can think to describe it is that it skitters around the edge of the sky like a banking pool ball, working a circle around the horizon. Every now and then it ducks behind a cloud, lighting up the puffs like a dragon skin stretched out to dry; and once a day, just for a few minutes, the sun dips quickly behind a mountain—but it’s back out quickly, as if it couldn’t stand to be away from the Yukon’s Vuntut National Park any longer.
High latitude is, after all, where light goes to play.
The helicopter sets us down about a hundred and sixty kilometers north of the arctic circle, in a dry spot in the center of Black Fox Creek. Over the week we camp, the creek will dry up, bit by bit, until we’re walking fifteen minutes for water, but these first days, the water is clear and cold and tastes as pure as glacier ice.
I’ve come out on the land with the Vuntut Gwich’in, the First Nations people who have used this land for thousands of years, hunting ducks and muskrats in the vast flats at the southern edge of the park, and hunting moose and, most importantly, caribou, in the interior. Their phrase “on the land” is the best description I have every heard, from anyone anywhere, of what home means.
Still, it’s really the caribou who own this land. Each year, as many as 35,000 animals, a third of the Porcupine herd, migrate through Vuntut each year.
Vuntut National Park was created in 1995, 4,345 square kilometers of land set aside both to preserve this territory for the caribou, as well as to “recognize Vuntut Gwitch’in history and culture and recognize and protect their traditional and current uses.” Inside Vuntut, Gwitch’in have full rights of usage: it’s both their grocery store and their connection to home and the past, a place they feel very proprietary towards. “It makes me feel like something belongs just to us,” Parks Canada warden Lance Nukon tells me. A Gwitch’in himself, he grew up with the park as his backyard.For me, it’s a chance to come into the arctic, a place where few travelers from Outside ever appear. When I ask Tourism Yukon how many people go into Vuntut each year, the best answer they can come up with is “maybe a handful.”
When the helicopter takes off, the only sounds are what we make as we set up camp, and the call of whiskey jacks in the low willows that line the streambed. I am a lucky, lucky boy, I think, carrying my tent past arctic ground squirrel burrows to look for a flat spot of land to call home for the next week.
Black Fox Creek is historically important, because it’s the site of one of the seven known caribou fences in the park. A caribou fence is a simple idea: put up long, low wooden fences to herd the migrating animals into a central corral, where they can be killed. A couple families working together could get a year’s supply of meat in a fairly short time.
But the fences themselves are enormous, with wings as long as six kilometers, corrals 350 meters long. They were used, season after season, until the introduction of guns brought a new way of hunting to the land.
We hike over to take a closer look at the fence. There’s not much left of it now, lines of sticks lying in the tundra, but it was clearly a work of genius: the fence’s lines follow the lie of least resistance through the land, exactly the path an animal would take.
We sit to take in the scope of the fence, but when one of the kids with us gets out an electronic game, Lance grabs it away. “Show some respect for your ancestors,” he says. It’s a sense of history and rootedness I can never share, coming from a background of migrants from four countries.
And, in fact, at the same time, Canada created Vuntut and Ivvavik, the country my ancestors migrated to set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But there’s a major difference: Vuntut and Ivvavik, national parks, are forever safe from development; ANWR’s “refuge” designation means that, sooner or later, short-sighted interests will start drilling for oil there, disrupting the land and doing who knows what to the caribou’s life cycle. “We might be poor in money,” Lance tells me, when I ask him about local feelings towards ANWR and the possible damage drilling could do to the migration, “but we’re always rich in caribou.” If the caribou stopped coming, it would be like trying to live in a small town where every factory suddenly closed, every store suddenly shut, and there were no roads out.
I spend my days hiking the drying streambed, looking at fossils—this whole area was once under the ocean, and I find barnacle fossils three inches long, fossil worms that stretch more than a foot—and shed antlers, watching the birds moving forever just a few steps ahead of me: whiskey jacks, long-tailed jaegers, a few things that do not appear in my bird book, and the ptarmigan, looking grumpy about the whole idea of wings, the way ptarmigan always do.
Out of the river bed, the tundra stretches as far as we can see. The Richardson Mountains are a distant horizon line to the east, and the evening brings clouds down from the arctic ocean; the always-up sun lights their edges with rainbows. This is the arctic, but it’s not the polar arctic: it’s an incredibly rich landscape where the plants are tinier than in the fussiest Japanese garden. Willow trees in tundra can be an inch high and a hundred years old. Berry bushes carry ripe berries bigger than the entire bush.
Very late one night, I get out of my tent; the sun is still up, of course, but the sky is the kind of pale, powdery blue that offers the only excuse a person ever has for using the word “lambent.” I hike away from camp, past chittering arctic ground squirrels, around a shoulder on the mountain so that I have the entire landscape to myself. The land falls away, a pure gold color, and I have never in my life been so happy to be somewhere. To be on the land.
I do the only thing I can think of: I bow to each of the four directions, and whisper, “Thank you.”
Our last morning in camp, we pack up to wait for the helicopter south. But the landscape has something a lot more interesting in mind than just a trip out. At the base of the mountains across from us, a line of caribou appears, walking single-file, stretching out over maybe a half mile or more.
We all count, and we all come up with different numbers. Fifty? More? The biggest of them have antler racks that must weight fifteen pounds or more, curling three feet over their heads.
It’s the leading edge of the migration. There are 35,000 or so more caribou headed this way.
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