Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
December 2003

Wonderful Caribou and I at Onion Portage

By Rebecca Haviland
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Students from the village of White Mountain teamed up with Fish and Game biologists in September to collar caribou. L to R: teacher Chris Brown, (back row black cap), Paul Tomalonis (red cap), Becca Haviland, Crystal Lincoln (front - yellow bibs), Mi

I heard the caribou trotting in the distance as I walked along a path they had made through years of use. As they marched past me, I heard their unique grunting. I heard the thunder of splashing as a herd of caribou waded and jumped into the river on their migration to their winter grounds. As I listened, the pleasant smell of the aiyu and pine trees surrounded me. I would have never imagined being so close to a live caribou or holding them with my bare hands.

Nine White Mountain students ages 12-14, (including myself) and Chris Brown, our teacher, helped Alaska Fish and Game biologists collar caribou. We did this at Onion Portage near Ambler on September 12th through the 15th. This annual activity allows biologists to estimate the population and mortality rate of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

We worked with biologists Jim Dau, Kate Persons, Philip Perry, Geoff Carroll, Auggie Nelson, and Meghan Smith. Jim Dau, the head biologist, drew blood from the caribou and told us which ones to collar. Auggie and Meghan, the technicians, helped grab the caribou and drive the boats. All of us put together (the biologists, my class, and my teacher) did an exceptional job. We collared twelve caribou total. We put the collars mostly on females so the biologists could later figure out how many new calves enter the world each year.

The land these caribou live in remains beautiful and free. The tundra has scattered cottonwood and pine trees. A picture couldn't even describe it and caribou blend in perfectly with their brownish colored fur.

When I first touched the fur, it felt soft. Before I went to Onion Portage, I thought it would be rough, but I was wrong. The fur camouflages and keeps them safe from predators. The buoyancy of their fur also helps them swim easily in deep water.

I loved the sight of them swimming, especially when they were in shallow water. The caribou bounced up and down and caused water to splash everywhere. I wish I could see this again.

The place we camped wasn't too bad either. However, we had a challenging hike from the beach to camp. I thought it would just be the beach then the tundra. However, I looked up and saw a steep, narrow hill standing before me. I looked at my bag that sat beside me, I had no way of getting out of it so I picked it up and started hiking.

When we actually collared, we went downriver to a camp where we could look up and down river for caribou crossing. The actual act of collaring caribou stands out as the most exciting part of the trip. Three boats had certain jobs. First, the capture boat's job was to grab the cow or the bull. This boat also did the collaring and blood drawing. Second, the calf boat's job was to hold the calf until the capture boat freed the cow. This boat also helped sandwich the bull for safety. Third, the picture boat's job was for the remainder of the students to go in and take pictures and keep other caribou in the water. The capture and calf boat only had room for two students as well as two or three adults. Personally, I loved being in the capture boat, but we all took turns and everyone got a chance to go in each boat.

I had a great experience at Onion Portage. I am lucky to have had this opportunity. When I look back at this trip, I think that someday I may want to become a biologist. I hope that in the future more people get this opportunity. Personally, I would want to go back because I loved the sights I saw and activities I did.

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