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Assholes of the Tundra

Stay Wild

Story by Charlotte Austin 

Photos by Bryan Aulick

 

Brooks Range, Alaska

Caribou are assholes. That’s the first thing I learned while bowhunting in the Brooks Range. Before I joined the hunting expedition — which required flying from my home in Seattle to meet friends in Anchorage, Alaska, loading 16 duffel bags into two pickup trucks, driving due north for more than 800 miles along a hurl-inducing highway, and camping in sub-zero temperatures on tundra for a week — I had been feeling confident. Very confident. 

“They’re basically reindeer,” I boasted to my next door neighbor before the trip. “The herds are well managed. We’ll be responsible hunters, culling the herd. Our chances of bagging an animal are great.” She nodded sagely, scooping her apricot-colored Labradoodle’s poop into a biodegradable plastic bag, and we walked together back into our LEED-certified condo building. I offered to bring back some caribou meat. We’d have a potluck, I said. Everybody was welcome! She promised to provide organic salad greens and a bottle of vino verde. Maybe some good mustard. 

Later, somewhere in the Arctic Circle, I related that story to my Native Alaskan hunting partner. The herd, a small cluster of six or eight caribou, we were stalking knew goddamn well that we were there. They seemed to be meandering toward the horizon at a relaxed, amiable pace as we crawled on our bellies through a semi-frozen mixture of mud and musk-ox poo. Dusk was falling. “I just really wanted a caribou burger,” I said, watching the last of the animals disappear over the horizon. He looked at me, his bow slung over his back, and smiled. “Most people have no idea what’s involved in hunting for your own food.”

I nodded, humbled. I’m an inexperienced hunter — greener than a tree frog, if we’re being honest — and so, trying to be conscientious, I’d done lots of soul-searching before agreeing to join the hunting party. How would it feel to kill and butcher a mammal? I’d only ever hunt an animal with the intention of eating the meat, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to be more consciously involved in sourcing my food. Accountability, honesty, respect — those are big in my world, and I thought I’d done my mental homework. Somewhere along the way, I’d come to view bringing home a caribou as a tangible landmark in my ever-present journey to be more aware. I’d eat that smug bastard with whole-grain mustard, I’d thought, and I’d be more connected to my food sources, and therefore to the world. I’d be a thoughtful carnivore, an enlightened consumer. Namaste, bitch.     

But it clearly wasn’t going to happen. I shivered grumpily, assessing how much usable light remained in the day. Caribou are assholes. Hunting is hard. We trudged back to our pickup truck, which was parked less than a hundred yards from the Alyeska Pipeline. The pipeline transports 520,000 barrels of oil per day. It’s one of the biggest oil transport systems in the world, and it’s the state’s only reason for maintaining the gravel road we’d taken to penetrate the Arctic wilderness. We headed back to a camp that we’d set up less than a hundred feet from the pipe itself.     

We dumped our shit in the bed of the truck, then crawled into the cab. My hunting partner opened a package of gummy bears. We cranked the heat. My nose started to run. Together we watched the golden glow of the sunset over tundra, and it started to sink in. There were no caribou in sight, but the pipeline stretched as far as we could see in either direction. I thought: I hear you, Universe. Accountability is complicated, and I’ve got a long way to go. But I see what you did here, and I’m grateful.