The unbearable weight of snowflakes
Imagine it’s -44C. A gale is blasting snow crystals into your face, sharp as metal shavings. Your nostril hairs crackle in your nose, any exposed skin burns and your eyelashes are freezing together.
The trail you tramped out with snowshoes yesterday has disappeared under drifts and you’re stumbling thigh deep in snow. This was my journey to the bloody toilet most mornings in January.
|View from indoors|
The drifts outside the house are now higher than the windows. Homer is snowed into his doghouse and ice dust blows in under the back door. I won’t be surprised if we wake up one morning under blankets of soft, cold white.
The trees and rooves are all sagging under the tremendous icy weight. Stand still for too long and we too are sagging, hoods and hats packed with it.
|Stuck in deep snow|
Travelling by snowmachine has been a frost-bitten slog of swimming the skidoos through unbroken white powder, with the wind nipping at our cheeks and the cold chewing on toes and fingers.
On one journey to town we were lost in ice fog for what felt like hours with no idea of where we were, where we’d been or what was ahead.
Every trip out feels like a rip-roaring polar adventure. Even going to the outhouse. And the excitement hasn’t stopped there. A limited hunt of the Forty Mile caribou herd was opened this winter.
|Towing our old broken down snow machine home at 40 below from our pal's place downriver|
The herd migrates from Alaska into Canada in the autumn and then back again, so they straddle two jurisdictions and two ways of thinking. Numbers crashed from over half a million in the 1920s to 5,000 in 1976 due to over hunting. Wisely, a decision was made to restrict hunting, rather than shoot every last fucking animal and then blame wolves and shoot them too.
Alaska takes a limited quota but hunting of the herd was banned in Canada. For reasons I can’t fathom, Alaska declared this year that unless us conservation-minded maple leaf-ers took a few hundred animals, they would shoot them for us. Apparently, there are too many now and “they are going to places they shouldn’t”. The mind boggles- Public swimming baths? Bingo halls?
|Dawson City. Forty Mile caribou territory?|
The hunt was contentious and some folk within Chief and Council of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, on whose traditional land we live, were not happy. So, it was a bitter-sweet gift, but having no fresh meat this year, we snatched it.
|37 below. Driving into town to get a piece of paper for hunting|
The week I got my 10 day permit, temps hovered around -40C. That’s too cold to start the skidoos unless we really have to, so one afternoon, we went snow shoeing with the dog. I spotted a small band of caribou plodding around the bend in the distance.
We dashed back to the yard, grabbed the rifle, ammo and swapped my pillow-sized mitts for gloves. I stumbled through waist deep snow to a spot on the riverbank where I could see them pass. At 40 below, I couldn’t touch the gun metal barehanded. The action was so stiff I could barely draw a round into the chamber and just managed to load as the first couple of animals came into view.
They were wandering, sniffing the ground, seeking out the steps of their colleagues from a few weeks ago. At that depth of frost, sound travels easily and lightly through the air and, even with ear plugs, I could hear the crunch and rustle of their trudging through the deep snow.
The hunt was only open for bulls. As the animals walked on, I began looking for penises. Bulls will mostly drop their antlers by now, cows mostly retain them. But not always. There is often no great difference in size, so there is really no sure way to determine sex unless you see that penis.
Male? Female? Govt photo, taken from Indigenous Radio Chon FM website
The shaggy belly fur of a cow can look like a cock, so I was petrified I would make a mistake. The second animal from the back, a yearling calf, was the animal I was most sure was male. As I watched him through the scope, they all stopped still as photographs, a few wisps of fur ruffling in the wind, and looked in my direction.
|Ice fog from water vapour in Yukon valley|
I didn’t dare breath. I didn’t feel my achingly cold fingers against the gun or my uncomfortably twisted knee in the snow. All I could feel was the pounding of my heart, so loud I am convinced they heard it too and that is what they were staring at.
As suddenly as they had stopped, they relaxed and took up their determined plodding down river again. I waited for my prey to walk directly in front of me. Everything else disappeared. The whole world could have fallen down behind me, I wouldn’t have known.
There is a fierce, primal thrill to hunting, like falling head over heels in love or being utterly terrified, feelings left over from our distant past that visit us rarely in modern life. Nothing else existed except that calf in the scope. Not Neil, not me, not even the rifle.
My first shot was a lung shot. The whole band took a short trot forward and then turned, wondering whether to head back the way they came. I knew I had hit him, but locked into tunnel vision, I didn’t see the spray of blood across the snow. If I had, I would have let him have his last few moments on the planet and not shatter his ribs twice with another bullet. He was still, looking. Not yet aware of his fate.
I shot again. The bullet shredded the top of his heart and he fell like a stone. The rest of the band cantered away, leaving him dead in the snow.
I ran on snowshoes down the bank to the calf, desperate to be sure it was male. I couldn’t see anything in the thick fur so I reached down to his belly. I have never been so glad to feel a penis in my life.
We quartered the animal quickly as at 40 below it will freeze fast, and so will we. We worked swiftly, painfully in the deep cold to get the guts out, the hide off, the offal removed. Then we removed the legs and head. After a quick discussion about whether to warm up a skidoo, and believe me everything is done fast at those temps, we decided to put Homer to work and have all 3 of us, canine and human, drag the meat up to the yard in the dogsled.
Aside from the top of the heart and one lobe of liver that was shot damaged, nothing will be wasted. The meat, offal and viscera froze within hours. The hide is rolled, ready for me to tan in the spring.
If the herd can sustain it, we would love to stop hunting moose and take a caribou or two each year. The September moose hunting season is warm. Without a freezer, it is a race against time to dry the meat and can the offal. The hide must be left on the legs to silt off and is, anyway, too big for us to work. Viscera we could have fed to Homer is too heavy and unwieldy to bring home.
Hunting an animal we can lift between us, in the cold, with no blow flies and on snow is just perfect.
Despite the efforts of the lovely Conservation Officers and staff, someone did their best to make this hunt onerous for people living in the bush. Bits of paper had to be collected, signed and returned and a piece of jawbone delivered to the office in town within 3 days of my permit ending. Must be a gift to poachers as it keeps the COs busy in the office filing stuff.
|Side hilling on a snow machine in deep snow for urgent teeth delivery. Harder damn work than it looks here.|
$120 of gasoline, maybe 10 hours of travelling on 2 skidoos, our lives at risk at 40 below, to drop off a few fucking teeth. I’d love to know when these so-urgently-needed teeth are actually going to be examined.
|Rolled machines. 40 below- Got to get those teeth to town, though!|
Happily, our sensible local COs have been as flexible as they can on that, and we are very grateful to them.
Between the incredible thrill, the 40 below, the senseless bureaucracy, and processing the harvest, there was not much time to think about the calf. The meat on a yearling is tender and I hope there is perhaps more benefit to the herd to leaving adults alive with the learned skills to survive. But I don’t know.
|Boby of caribou, defrosted and ready to process|
It wasn’t until we had stripped the backstraps and tenderloin from the body, sawn off the ribs with a hacksaw and carried the backbone and neck out for the birds, that I realised how tiny he was. I held his remains easily in my arms. Moose are such massive, majestic creatures, I cannot lift any significant part of one without Neil’s help, and mostly we struggle between us. This was like holding a child. The lightness was unbearable, and I felt suddenly heart-broken at what I had done.
A pal said recently of caribou hunting, “That’s what they’re there for!”
No. They are not there for us to eat. They do not belong to us, nor the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, nor Yukon Natural Resources or Alaska Fish and Game. They exist for their own obscure reasons. They go where they will, even places they aren’t supposed to, and it is tremendous privilege to have one.
Mähsi Cho, thank you caribou.
Next month’s blog- We undertake our longest snow machine journey ever. Or that’s the plan anyway, if we are not disappeared under fathoms of snow.
Mähsi Cho is Han for Thank you. In this article Chief Roberta Joseph talks about the feelings of Chief and Council regarding the hunt.
|Snow quiffs for our bird boxes and a cornice building off the roof.|