Worth reading

Worth reading

It was a close call, but Being Caribou made the worth-reading list. It is the story of a Canadian wildlife biologist/author Karsten Heuer, and his filmaker bride, Leanne Allison, who chose to spend five months traipsing 1,000 miles to find, follow and keep up with the Porcupine caribou herd during its migration from inland wintering grounds in Canada's Northwest Territories to summer calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeastern Alaska, and part way back. Their undertaking was an ambitious camping trip and a rather odd honeymoon.

Walking, skiing and slogging over tundra and mountains, crossing cold waters, tenting in snow-, wind- and rainstorms, eating freeze-dried foods and testing the limits of their endurance, the couple made a go at experiencing the compelling forces of caribou migration. Theirs was a quest to comprehend the animals= eons-old migratory impulse and, by doing so in the most subjective manner possible, to become part of the herd, i.e., to succeed at being caribou. Ostensibly, they sought to understand and experience what drove the animals, when and where, or at least to confirm quite firsthand what other biologists had already noted. But there were other motivations_a book and a film, with which to protest the proposed opening of ANWR's unprotected 1002 area, the herd=s calving ground, from the sunder of oil and gas extraction. Noble stuff.

I enjoyed this book for a couple nonliterary reasons. First, I liked the couple's gumption and pluck, and for giving me the opportunity to use the word pluck. And both gumption and pluck were necessary. For the average pedestrian, attempting to negotiate the mountains, tundra and watercourses of the Brooks Range would be to tempt full-body blisters, frostbite and dementia. I have spent some weeks in that vast and remote region and, as an average pedestrian, escaped the above consequences, but not by much.

I especially liked their tight and convincing litany of arguments against turning 1002 into Prudhoe Bay East and another boom for Big Oil under the shallow guise of national need and at the expense of an even rarer commodity_wilderness. And I was captivated by Karsten=s repeated reference to hearing some sort of mysterious, intermittent, low thrumming.

On the other hand, Karsten and Leanne's excellent adventure was premeditated hardship. It was not easy for me to empathize with a couple that wittingly elected to face difficulty, court danger, then modestly imply something heroic in their sufferings. Vintage Farley Mowat. Both Heuers were veterans of wilderness trekking and camping, but they admittedly started out not physically fit enough for what they were doing. They began with packs much too heavy for an effort to keep up with animals that are lifetime marathoners. They weren't prepared for poor going in lousy snow conditions. Their precautions against inevitable bear encounters were minimal at best and not a little stupid. They didn=t ration their food as wisely as they might have. All in all, the newlyweds knew precisely what they potentially faced. Chutzpa is admirable if one survives it, and the Heuers did just that.

They did so by Being Cold, by Being Hungry, by Being Grungy, by Being Vulnerable and by Being Deluded into thinking they somehow were being caribou. Unlike the Heuers, however, the Porcupine caribou didn't have a tent and sleeping bags to ward off the weather, or repellent and firecrackers to ward off predators, or netting to ward off insects, or food drops every two weeks, or Gore-tex anoraks, or a satellite radio to call for an airlift time-out to the village of Kaktovic. The couple was mainly Being Human Beings on one helluva hike.

It is a little awkward to criticize people who completed something epical_something I wouldn't have considered (the pluck variable) and probably couldn't have accomplished even during my immortality phase a score or two of years past. The book is an intriguing read, but it occasionally mires in baldfaced existentialism, e.g., "for but a few brief weeks we=d become caribou, content in our suffering, secure in our insecurity, fully exercising the wildness that had been buried within us all along." And there are some amazing ironies. When the Heuers had about finished their journey, they met up with two hunters who had killed caribou. Karsten helped pack the carcasses, but conjured up some anthropomorphic angst over the fact of the animals hard-earned survival, only to become meat and trophies for the hunters. For her part, Leanne glared indignantly at the hunters. Apparently forgotten was the fact that, just days before, the newlyweds hadn't shown much concern about the inherent survival difficulties of the Arctic ground squirrels they dug from their dens, chopped up, cooked and "wolfed down."

Another irony was featured in the epilogue. Less than a week after stumbling back from "a dimension that neither university education, religious teaching, nor anything else" could have taught them, the Heuers found themselves in Washington, DC, to talk congressional types into giving up that ANWR drilling nonsense. It didn't go well. Congressional types and their officious minions, it seems, don't extend their five-minute audience rule just because someone has walked to and been stuck in a tent on caribou calving grounds. Thinking they had the right ammunition to sway politicians and forgetting about Republicans amounted to Being Na?ve. More precisely, they sucked at Being Lobbyists. As shell-shocked as they were by caribou antipathy in DC, the plucky pair did get to hear there a relatively loud and entirely constant thrumming, which turned out to be congested vehicle traffic, the grousing of migrating commuters and the squeaking wheels of government, altogether the din of humanity a world away from the Arctic on the same planet.

I haven't seen Leanne's film, but am told that it is quite good. I hope so.

Being Caribou, published in 2005, is available for $24.95 from Mountaineers Books of Seattle, Washington. Call 206-23-6303 or e-mail http://www.mountaineerbooks.org/.

April 14, 2006