Mission: Caribou- Trip Report
By Moe Witschard- Guide and Photographer www.moephotography.com
Flying from Fairbanks in two Heliocouriers, small, but very sturdy bush planes that carried up to 3 people with all our gear, we arrived at the shore of the Beaufort Sea at 70 degrees latitude. We buzzed the area looking for a good camp and I chose a flat area next to Marsh Creek, about a mile from the ocean. Whooosh… minutes later we had landed, were unloading, and then setting up our most deluxe base camp with a huge cook tent that everyone enjoyed spending time in. We proceeded to spend the last week of June at this camp watching early spring change to early summer.
The number one goal of our Mission: Caribou trip was to closely and viscerally experience the magnificence of the Porcupine Caribou Herb migration, while base camping at a location within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By communicating about herd movements with pilots and biologists right before the trip, we were able to drop ourselves right in front of a large west-moving mass of caribou, and all the other animals that move with and respond to the herd.
Each day, we stuffed day-packs with cameras, binoculars, warm clothes, and lots of yummy snacks and then set off in a different direction to hike, explore, and experience the tundra waking up and launching into a short, but furiously productive summer. Some days saw us hiking inland. Other days we hiked to the coast and walked the beaches for hours: a grey cobble strip with tundra on one side and an ocean full of ice cubes on the other. Totally surreal! The family of four that I was guiding were from Tucson, Arizona. They wanted a vacation where they’d be out of their element. You could see it in their eyes that they’d gotten their wish as they marveled at the unique, humbling, and stunningly gorgeous landscape. Each day, we stopped for lunch at a spot that had firewood and we would build ourselves a nice fire to warm our bones as we replenished ourselves on gourmet bites before setting out to explore again.
HIGHLIGHTS: Seeing thousands and thousands of caribou daily, sometimes right in camp; Seeing a wolverine traveling down the beach up to 100 yds. from us before seeing us and bolting ; The surreal landscape of the Beaufort Sea in early summer: sky, ice, and a little bit of water; Seeing a grizzly bear pass by our camp and move downwind of us until it smelled us and then getting to watch it run a distance of 2 miles in about 7 minutes; SO many different species of birds; Seeing the tundra vegetation come to life – at the start of the week, tiny willows starting to put out leaves. By the end of the week, they had gone to seed…and last but not least: not seeing any bugs until 5 pm on the day before we flew out, when all of a sudden it was summer, bugs were everywhere, and we were all running for the insect repellent.
If experiencing the essence of caribou migration and the spirit of the Arctic coastal plain in early summer from a deluxe base camp sounds appealing, Mission: Caribou might be the trip.