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Souls on ice

April 27, 2008|Kristina Lindgren

THE caribou may be majestic and the ancient Gwich'in people dependent on them for survival, but when it comes to the oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- for what experts say would supply the United States for no more than a year -- "the bottom line for voters . . . is cheap gas," a congressional aide told Karsten Heuer.

Or is it? In "Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot With an Arctic Herd" (Milkweed Editions: 240 pp., $15 paper), the wildlife biologist makes a case against drilling with a gripping, cinematic tale of following the refuge's herd of 120,000 bulls, cows and just-born calves on a 900-mile migration across the tundra in the spring and summer of 2003.

You can smell the scat, feel the icy slush in minus 35-degree weather and hear the thundering hoofs, the bleats of newborn calves sucked into frigid whirlpools and washed downstream to waiting grizzlies, wolves, hawks and other predators.

This "surge of life and death" was captured in the award-winning 2004 documentary "Being Caribou," made by Heuer's wife and trekmate, Leanne Allison. Now his book takes us step by grueling step up sheer cliffs, across mosquito-thick bogs, sometimes running from a "river of caribou" on their heels.

We hear tribal elders hoping that his story will be "what saves the herd." Most of all, Heuer conveys the awe-inspiring wildness of "being caribou." "Some things," he writes, "just need to be left alone."

Kristina Lindgren

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kris.lindgren@latimes.com

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