“Being Caribou:” Living a New Relationship with Creation
by Teresa Looy
This past weekend at the “Under Western Skies” environmental conference in Calgary, I had the immense pleasure of hearing Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison. This husband-and-wife team combine art, academics, and what some might call publicity stunts to influence our knowledge and thinking about the human relationship with the non-human world.
Karsten hiked from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon by foot, horse, canoe, and ski. Through snow and bad weather he traveled, stopping at towns along the way to present his message of the importance of wilderness connectivity and preservation to often hostile audiences. He started the journey with one girlfriend, and ended it with another, his only constant companion his dog. The trip spanned 3400 kilometers and lasted from June of one year until September of the next, hiked in two six-month sections. This trip is known as the Y2Y hike, and is commemorated in Karstenâ€™s book â€śWalking the Big Wildâ€ť.
His wife Leanne is no less incredible. Karsten (a biologist) and Leanne (a filmmaker) decided to emulate the experience of the cariboo by following a caribou herd in the Yukon and Alaska for five months. They recorded the experience in the film and the book â€śBeing Caribou.â€ť These two truly did â€śbecome caribouâ€ť as they watched the massive herd flow over ridges of ice and snow in their migration. They sometimes slept for only two half-hour periods a day, traveling fast and hard to keep up with the running caribou, being bitten by bugs and swimming raging rivers where there were no fords. When they lost track of the herd they would pause and listen for the deep rumble: a rumble they could hear only through ears sensitized by months away from noisy civilization. When they returned from their epic journey they told their story to a small village that still depended on the caribou hunt. The big hunters of the village began to weep when they heard Karsten and Leanne speak, because, they said, the very cadence of their speech had not been heard since their grandparents had been brought off the land. I think that rhythm must have sunk into their bones, as they spoke in such a way that simultaneously captivated and calmed me.
This humble couple call their adventures their â€śnecessary journeys.â€ť Their third such journey was by canoe all the way across Canada with their two and a half year old son, Zev. They followed in Farley Mowatâ€™s footsteps, experiencing the settings of most of his books, as they paddled, portaged, and sailed. From Canmore to Cape Breton Island, Leanne captured the familyâ€™s journey through varied settings as they experienced and honoured Mowatâ€™s legacy. Her NFB film â€śFinding Farleyâ€ť pulls together moving and profound footage to tell this journeyâ€™s story.
They now live in Calgary and often wish they could leave this all behind and live in the wild. Yet they know that this is not what they are called to do. They are storytellers, and they undertook these journeys so that they could return and share: what it is like to be a migrating carnivore; how the caribou hear; what the landscapes of Canada truly are. Their message is one of conservation, but they convince not by pointing out destruction, but by telling enraptured tales of beauty (without leaving out the bugs). I invite you to listen to their stories and let them sink deep into your knowing.
Karsten and Leanneâ€™s website will take you further than I ever could with these third-hand words: http://www.beingcaribou.com/Â (all images in this post were taken from that website)