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Caribou blog

On TV and Radio  

Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

I'm back in Yellowknife and back to work. This week in the newsroom is way different than last week, when I was out on the land with the students.

It's time to go through all the video footage I shot at MacKay Lake. It's a nice way to get into the memories of the trip. Sitting here in the newsroom, watching all this video, I wonder how the transition from land learning at MacKay Lake to classroom learning at St. Pat's is going for the students. Smoothly, I hope.

I wanted to make one last post on here to let people know when the stories are going to air. There will be two television stories and two radio stories.

The TV stories will air on CBC's Northbeat, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Northbeat begins at 5:30pm and ends at 6:30pm.

The radio stories will go to air Thursday and Friday mornings on the Trailbreaker. The Trailbreaker starts at 6:00am and goes until 8:00am, but the stories will run between 7 and 8 Thursday and Friday.

Thanks again for your interest in the blog and in the stories of the students who travelled to MacKay Lake. I hope you enjoy the radio and TV stories.


Mahsi and Safe Travels

Friday, Oct. 2, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

Brent's stories
After giving thanks, Jimmy Laboline, left, and Peter Zoe drummed a prayer for those who came before us and for safe travels. (Photo courtesy Taylor Jacobs)

On our last full day at MacKay Lake, we pulled out all the stops. Four boats packed to the gunnels with students, guides, gas, rifles and bologna sandwiches headed northeast on the foggy, windy lake, looking for caribou. We had to stop short of our destination, the northernmost tip of the lake. The fog lifted, but the wind kicked up the waves so we turned into the mouth of the Snake River to take refuge. Good thing we did. It turned out to be a ptarmigan hangout. We shot, plucked, cleaned and feasted on ptarmigan. Alas, no caribou.

It was a nice final outing. People got to sit together and eat food they had harvested and prepared themselves. The chatter around the fire was reflective and happy. After bouncing over the waves, through the wind to get home, the evening was all about expressing gratitude for the week. Standing in a circle out in the cold clear night, each person took their turn to say thanks, mahsi and koana.

The "thank-yous" are a window into the kind of week the students have had. Here are a few:

"Even though we didn't see caribou, it didn't matter. Thanks." - Ryan Charlo
"Thanks to the moose for the meat. And thanks for the sandwiches." - Terrance Liske
"I had the best week of my life." - Terrance Tsatchia
"I'd like to thank the creator-God for keeping all of us safe this week." - Mr. Stewart, assistant principal, St. Pat's
"No offense, Mr. Stewart, but I learned more here in a week than I do in a whole year at school. Thanks so much for this." - Taylor Jacobs
"Thanks to the ladies who cooked. You guys are awesome. Thanks for letting me work with you." - Sam Roach
"I want to say thanks and to remember people who are gone: my cousin Jason, Michael, Tyler, Justin and Junior." - Chad Loutitt

Brent's stories
Following the prayer, everybody moved inside for a drum dance. Seen here are (left-right): Terrance Liske, Jimmy Laboline, Peter Zoe, Herman Catholique. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

I had the honour of being present and the discomfort of recording while the students said their thanks. The circle ended with me. Before this week, I was thankful for the chance to see the Barren Lands and to spend a week working out on the land. In my thanks, I noted those things -- it has been amazing to see this part of the world. But for me, the students stole the show. They seriously knocked my socks off for how fun, thoughtful, honest and open they have been. And so for that I am most thankful.

I will post again once we're back in Yellowknife. In the meantime, thanks for reading.


Sleepless on MacKay Lake

Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

This is what people are talking about at MacKay Lake: a lot of people are having trouble sleeping out here. Not because it isn't serene and peaceful. Not because the air isn't fresh. And not because people aren't exhausted at the end of the day. It's because one of the students, Brent Martin, is a powerful storyteller. He's been holding court every night while people get ready to hit the hay. By the time he's done, people's imaginations are torqued. As soon as they start to drift off, they're visited by a lake creature, a bushman or another supernatural being conjured in Brent's stories.

Brent's stories
Cole Turner, left, behind Terrance Liske, as they both listen to Brent Martin weave a tale. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

The stories were passed to Brent by his family and now he's passed them to other students here at MacKay Lake. His telling of them is dramatic. Before he drops each detail he pauses and seems to draw it from a barely accessible memory bank. He shared his stories with me. And now I'm passing them along. But they're not for everyone. Some in camp, students and guides, have preferred not to talk of supernatural beings that are said to have long terrorized hunters and trappers. For those who want to continue reading, below are my written versions of Brent's stories.

Bushman, Nahga'a
Parents warn their kids to stay inside because Nahga'a takes little kids at night. Brent's dad told him about Nahga'a.

There is now a 70-year-old man who knows plenty about Nahga'a. The man had an older brother taken when they were young boys in the 1950s. The two were staying in a canvas wall-tent. Bushman snuck in under one of the canvas walls and took the older brother. The parents searched for days. They didn't find their son, and they know it was Bushman because there were no tracks, no trace. Years passed. The younger brother, now an old man, stays in the city during fall because his older brother, long gone missing, comes and tells him to take children too. In the summers, the younger brother would go into the bush and talk to his brother. But the younger brother, now an elder, has not heard from or seen his missing brother for six years or so. They say he may have gotten too old to be walking in the bush or passed on.

Creature in MacKay Lake
A couple of hunters were out on the land on the shore of MacKay Lake. They got a caribou and made a fire and were waiting for the meat to settle down. Then they saw something out of the corner of their eye. At first, they thought it was an island that they had never seen, so they jumped in their boat. What they thought was an island went under the water. They became scared and headed back to land. They stayed there for days. Eventually, they went back to Yellowknife and told some elders of what they saw.

Hoofed Lady
A semi-truck driver heading home to Hay River saw a woman walking on the highway from Yellowknife to the Mackenzie River crossing at Fort Providence, N.W.T. When he got closer, he stopped and asked if the lady wanted a ride. She said yes. Time flew by as they were going towards the big river. The trucker offered his passenger a smoke and she said yes. The driver lit his smoke and offered the lady a light for her cigarette. They hit a bump on the road and the man dropped the light by the lady's feet. When he reached to get the light, he saw that the woman had hooves. So he told her to get out of his truck. As he was taking off he could hear her laughing really loud. He kept looking back and there was nothing there, but he could hear her laughing as if she was right behind him. It was a nasty cackle of a laugh. He went back to Hay River and published it in the newspaper. The trucker quit his job and had to go to therapy.

Little People
Further north than MacKay Lake, there were "little people" that lived on the land, out on the tundra. A couple hunters made a camp on the tundra in that area. At the end of a long day of hunting, they went to sleep. They left their washtub outside and when they woke up, it was gone. They asked around when they saw people and heard elders tell stories about the "little people." So they went back to their camp and made a small canvas teepee, too small for a human. When they woke up it was gone, just like the washtub. Brent said that was all he had heard.


Barren Lands Birthday

Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

Herman Catholique, left, with Sarah Taylor. (Photo courtesy Brent Martin)

I'm hoping the students don't notice that whichever group I go out on the land with comes home empty-handed. Day 1, I went after caribou. We had a great day, but didn't even see a caribou. So Day 2, I went for a sure thing -- ptarmigan. We came home with bags and bags of food -- cranberries. Left to my own devices, I fear I'd have to become a vegetarian. And if these students notice a pattern, I fear they may turf me from the group.

To be honest, I doubt they would do that. The students do an awesome job of looking after each other, and me. The 29th of September is my birthday -- a fact that came out in a conversation with a couple of students at the beginning of the trip. I figured this would be a memorable birthday, out on the Barren Lands at MacKay Lake. And it was. Especially because two students, Sam Roach and Kendra Qilluniq surprised me with a birthday cake. Chocolate marble swirl cake. Moist and gigantic, with four candles to signify a three and a one. 31. So kind and fun. Made my day. Memorable birthday for sure.

Arctic hare encountered on an unsuccessful ptarmigan hunt on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy Taylor Jacobs)

Other than thinking about getting old, I've been thinking about learning on the land. Since I got going here I've spent time with Sarah Taylor, who goes out on the land as an aspiring biologist. She's not sure yet weather it will be plant or animal biology. When I was out looking for caribou we had two official guides and a student who became a third guide. Terrance Liske helped pilot the boat, scouted ahead for caribou and pushed us all day to keep looking when we were losing steam. I trusted his judgement and leadership completely.

Making bannock
Left-right: Chris Silzer, Kadee St. Croix, Michael Olila and Sarah Taylor. (Photo courtesy Taylor Jacobs)



Taylor Jacobs, who is contributing photos to the blog, was at a loss for words after seeing a moose shot, skinned and butchered. She told me it could have been sad, but instead it was a moving experience. Part of one of the best days of her life, she tells me. Wow.

The birthday cake came out while I was still eating dinner. We feasted on Taylor's moose and some melt-in-your-mouth bannock made by the group in the afternoon. The students belted out a round of happy birthday. When it came time to say my name, some said "Loren" and others sang, "happy birthday, Mr. Cameraman. Happy birthday to you." After the song, before I blew out the candles, people were yelling, "Make a wish, make a wish!" Before I did, Terrance Liske shouted over to me, "Wish for some caribou for tomorrow." Good thinking, I thought. Then I made my wish.




No caribou today

Monday, Sept. 28, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

Supper-time at MacKay Lake Lodge reminds me of supper at a work camp. Windburned faces gather around tables covered with red and white plastic table cloths. After a day out in the cold, hauling boats and tracking animals, each person tucks into a huge plate of food. The conversation is all about who did what throughout the day. And people are tired.

Corbin Loutitt
Terrance Liske, left, stands with Tlicho guides Peter Zoe and Edward Williah. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Twelve hours earlier, at breakfast, students were split into four groups. The lucky group, or so we thought, got to go looking for caribou. It's the end of the season at the lodge and some of the guides from Gameti, N.W.T., offered to take a group out to help them on a hunt. I decided to tag along. The less fortunate three groups were stuck, so to speak, going after ptarmigan, fish netting and heading out for a shore lunch.

What a difference a day makes. By supper my group, the caribou group, had covered over 150 cold, rib-rattling kilometres on the lake, and what felt like as many by foot. No caribou. Not one. Didn't even see one. We did get teased by a couple of wolverines whose paths we crossed.

Corbin Loutitt
Corbin Loutitt holds up two ptarmigan his group hunted on Monday. (Photo courtesy Chris Silzer)

On the other hand, the group that set out to hunt ptarmigan came home with electric enthusiasm, huge smiles and enough killed and cleaned birds to feed everyone (supper was spaghetti, salad and ptarmigan). The group that went netting dropped their nets, caught trout and jack fish and then learned to dry them -- brilliant.


Moose kill
Guides Jimmy Laboline, far left, and Herman Catholique break down a moose they hunted Monday, while Kylie Tsetta, Michael Olila, Kadee St. Croix and Jesse Nasogaluak watch. (Photo courtesy Taylor Jacobs)

The surprise hit of the day was the group that went out to make a shore lunch and happened upon four moose. Three moose survived. The shore lunch group, come hunters, carried the day.

Bedtime on the first night did not seem important to the students. They were enjoying the new digs and the chance to live in a camp-dorm with friends. On Night 2, after the first full day out on the lake, people are beat and excited about bed. Me included.



Beautiful Barren Lands

Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

Marlyn Hori
A tangle of caribou antlers, along with a sign, greet visitors to MacKay Lake Lodge. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

We are here, at MacKay Lake.  My first impression is how beautiful the barren lands and the lake are. Mind-blowing, really. Our plane touched down in time to catch the sun setting. The light was golden and gave the tundra a red, candle-lit look. And despite the name Barren Lands, there is a fair bit of rugged vegetation: dwarf willow, dwarf spruce, lots and lots of muskeg, and some lichen.

My second impression was passed along by the organizer of the trip, Dave Radcliffe: Rather than make rules to keep students from wandering off by themselves, he let us know that there's a been a grizzly bear visiting in the night. The buddy system is in effect and nobody seems too keen to venture far from camp (and where would you go!?). I don't have a buddy, but I'm sticking close to the group and have decided not to carry an all-bacon lunch in my back pocket.

Marlyn Hori
Sam Roach, left, and Kendra Qilluniq pose in front of an antler-festooned truck at MacKay Lake. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

There is evidence of caribou everywhere here. When we got off the plane, we were greeted by a truck with antlers as a hood ornament. Below the sign that welcomes people to MacKay Lake Lodge, a tangle of antlers. But the staff at the lodge say they haven't seen many caribou lately. Saturday one animal wandered by camp, but was hustled off by the camp's resident black Lab, Ranger (who may end up being my grizzly buddy). There are rumours in camp that there are caribou at the northeast tip of the lake, about 90 kilometres from camp. Weather permitting, that's where I'll be heading with my camera and a group of students.


Marlyn Hori
Washing dishes on Sunday are (left-right): Terrance Liske, Ryan Charlo and Brent Martin. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

The students who don't go after the caribou on Day 1 are going fishing with nets and rods, making dry fish, ptarmigan hunting, berry picking and shore-lunch-making. Unfortunately I can't be at all those activities with my camera at the same time. The good news is there are some students with their own cameras who have offered to take some photos for the blog. Cross your fingers that their cameras will talk to my computer.

Thanks for stopping by for a read. It's unbelievable to be out here, and I'm really glad to share the experience on this blog. More photos and news tomorrow.  


Heading to the Barren Lands

Friday, Sept. 25, 2009 | Loren McGinnis, CBC News

Lucky us. Twenty high school students, a couple of teachers, a half-dozen guides, and me. That's who are travelling to MacKay Lake Lodge to spend a week tracking barren-ground caribou and participating in other cultural activities. We fly out Sunday, Sept. 27, and come back on Oct. 2. In between we'll be busy.

The trip was initially going to be a caribou hunt, but with communities cancelling their hunts and the government reporting extremely low numbers, hunting is out. Already the scarcity of caribou and how that will affect traditional Dene practices is part of this story and the experience of the students. The students will focus on caribou monitoring. In part they'll be tracking how the caribou are doing in the MacKay Lake area. Me, I'm not much of a hunter anyway.

What I'm most excited about is getting to know the students. I hope this experience is challenging, and that with my camera and radio gear, I'll get to witness and document their transformation. But that's the big picture. For now, I've got a list and I'm checking it twice: I can't forget my long undies, rubber boots and a toque. Could be chilly out there on the Barrens.

Once we touch down at MacKay Lake I'll be taking photos, shooting footage and recording voices. As time and communication technology permits, I'll pass along daily info about what the group is seeing and doing. Hopefully this blog will help you see the Barren Lands and this experience through the eyes of the student caribou monitors. I'll be in touch.