Migration

The calf remained nestled among the tussock sedges.  The cow licked the calf’s hair cleaning it of fluids.  A few minutes old, the young caribou was frozen in place, its muscles still unable to provide support and balance.  Other caribou milled around the pair, feeding on the cotton sedge blooms.  It was near the summer solstice on the Arctic Coastal Plain, tens of thousands of caribou were congregated together over an area of a dozen square miles as they fed on the fresh vegetation and had their young.  The opening scene was repeated thousands of times across that expanse within a week’s time.  The large numbers offered the herd the slight modicum of protection, ensuring the group’s future success.

The caribou weren’t alone on the plains.  In their immediate vicinity, insects swarmed the ungulates.  Bot and warble flies nestled among their hair and entered any open orifices.  Mosquitoes danced around the animals by the hundreds, alighting on their bodies and drawing blood.  All day long.  The only respite from this continual torment was a steady wind.  With their calving grounds on the flat coastal plain, near the Arctic Ocean coast, the wind provided for a constant companion.  However, some of the newly born calves would succumb to this onslaught.

The insects didn’t serve as the caribou’s sole tormentors.  High above, soaring in the sky were eagles, hawks and falcons.  Like the caribou, they had migrated north for similar purposes, for food and to have their young.  Adults often fed on small mammals like voles and lemmings.  But occasionally, when given the opportunity, would sweep down from high in the sky and kill an unsuspecting calf.  Many of the calves huddled close to or under their mothers in their early days, though not all calves were so lucky as to survive this additional onslaught.  Again, the young population decreases.

As summer wore on, the calves grew rapidly with almost constant feeding. Nearing fall, bands of cows and calves began to peel away from the large herd, beginning the migration back in to the mountains. The weather became colder as each day passed.  The first frosts brought a reduction in mosquitoes and flies.  Many of the birds fled further south on their own migrations to warmer climes. But as the caribou continue on they meet a new set of predators among the foothills.  Wolves trot on the outer edge of the herd attempting to identify a target.  They advance strategically, separating calves from their mothers and weaker members from the mass of the herd, confusing the individuals before making the kill.  Grizzlies also prowl among the herd, with enterprising bears running down and killing any unsuspecting calves.  On rare occasions, even the small wolverine can be involved, taking down a calf.  The young population further diminishes.

In the fall, people flock north to the edge of the mountains.  By road, river and plane, individuals and groups set out to hunt caribou.  The herds continue making their way south, feeding intermittently along the way.  At times, certain bands will lose individuals to the people, the one species that has the ability to reach out and kill from hundreds of yards away.  Calves lose mothers.  The population dwindles and the herd continues on.

In winter, the herd has made its way to its feeding grounds within the mountains.  The bugs are long gone, grizzlies are in hibernation and the hunting season is over.  A couple of wolves linger away from the herd, but for now it has found relative safety. The calves that remain are just a small fraction of those that had been born a few months prior.  Those lucky few now dig beneath the snow, eating ground lichen.  Here the herd will remain, until the sun becomes bright again and the snow begins to melt.  They will then north, as the species has done for thousands of years, beginning the cycle all over again.

 

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