Old Crow, Yukon, celebrates Porcupine caribou's return

For the first time in years, the Porcupine caribou are back in Old Crow. Fittingly, their return came just before the community's Caribou Days festival.

For years the herd strayed far from the community, for reasons not fully understood. Now, they're back

Elder William Josie of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, says that after years of straying far to the north, the Porcupine caribou herd is once again using its traditional route near the community. (Heather Avery/CBC)

The Porcupine caribou arrived in Old Crow just in time for the annual spring festival named in their honour.

The executive director of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, William Josie, says this year the animals arrived close to town, just in time for the celebration of Caribou Days.

"There's a lot of excitement around at that time and a lot of good food for the Caribou Days weekend," says Josie.  "We haven't had caribou meat in a long time."

The herd has been elusive for the past few years. Hunters in Old Crow have had to travel far up river to find the animals, and there hasn't been an abundance of meat in the community.

Elders and scientists suspect the caribou have been staying farther north because wetter weather means the ground freezes in fall, sealing off the lichen that serves as a winter food supply for the animals.

This year was different. Josie says the caribou were easy to find near the community.

"I went on one hunt on the river on the Caribou Days weekend, we saw about 50 animals and we harvested four bulls," said Josie. "It was good to work with meat again. Me and my family, we worked on the caribou for about a week, right down to dry meat, we have dry meat now."

"I also went up the mountain where I saw some smaller caribou, I went up just to have a look and watch the animals, they were mainly cows and yearlings."

Elder Robert Bruce, left, and Shawn Cindrich work on caribou. (Submitted by Dinah Laing)

Lorraine Netro is an advocate for the Porcupine Caribou herd and member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee. She says people are happy to eat their traditional food again, but they still worry about what would cause the caribou to stray from their route.

"This is the first time this spring that we have seen caribou come this close," she said. "We face extreme food insecurity when that happens.

"That's all part of the impacts of climate change, of how the condition is along their route."

Save some for later

Now that hunters and their families have their caribou, they're busy butchering, smoking and drying the meat.

"Once we get caribou there is the smoking process to preserve the meat for later use," says Josie. "Some people prepare what we call ch'itsuh, that's roasted meat mixed with fat and marrow grease and made into balls and quite the delicacy."

But it's not just the meat. Josie says his family also spends weeks preparing the hide.

"Soak and smoke and soak and smoke," said Josie. "Then the final big smoke on one side to brown one side, and then use on clothing or crafts."   

Josie says it's busy around town as people prepare to head out on the land.

Now that the spring caribou hunt is almost over families are packing up and preparing to go to their family summer camps at Crow Flats up the Old Crow River, where they will harvest muskrat, duck and, the Vuntut Gwitchin hope, more caribou.


Heather Avery is the afternoon news reader for Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, based in Whitehorse. Prior to that she worked in Yellowknife as the producer of CBC Northbeat, CBC Igalaaq and the senior producer of TV news for all three territories. Before moving north, she worked as a writer at News Network and associate producer at the National. Contact by email