Arctic adventure 

A courageous couple track caribou into controversial territory

click to enlarge Caribou march to Washington, D.C., to protest the - drilling of their stomping grounds.
  • Caribou march to Washington, D.C., to protest the drilling of their stomping grounds.

With the Bush administration poised to drill oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and environmentalists screaming bloody murder, it's easy to become confused amid the heated rhetoric.

Drilling advocates claim the 19.6 million-acre parcel of land abutting the Canadian border within the Arctic Circle will hardly be touched. Environmentalists, on the other hand, liken the move to dipping the crown jewel of North America's wildlife system into petroleum.

With so much hot air blowing around, a film like Being Caribou, which the Pikes Peak Sierra Club will show on May 13, is a relief.

This concise, wry and visually stunning documentary follows two newlywed Canadians for six months as they track migrating Porcupine caribou into the refuge. In doing so, they present a razor-sharp critique of the drilling plans by showing what's at stake.

In the film's introductory sequence, filmmaker Leanne Allison, wife of biologist Karsten Heuer and half of the exploring duo, argues that the proposed drilling spot is the exact location to which caribou migrate to give birth.

Armed with this fact, Allison and Heuer decide to take up a challenge issued by George W. Bush during a 2001 press conference: "I would urge you all to travel up there and take a look at it, and you can make a determination as to how beautiful that country is."

In fact, the couple decide to take Bush, in the form of a 6-inch stuffed doll, along on the trip -- their only companion for more than five months. To say they discover the beauty of the refuge would be an understatement.

With phenomenal photography for a two-person film crew, they capture footage of the caribou packs as they swarm across the shimmering snow. The caribou dance across the frozen surface while the duo trudges along, sometimes falling into waist-deep snow. And the mountainous landscape, filled with huge, lumbering grizzly bears, is a marvel to watch.

The adventurous pair undergo such a grueling trial by nature, enduring punishing hunger and swarms of biting insects, that they become, in effect, a part of the caribou pack. Their senses become so open to the natural surroundings that at one point Allison remarks that if she were so alert in the city she'd go crazy.

Finally they arrive at the calving ground, where the caribou mothers are so skittish the couple hole up in a tent for days to avoid spooking the animals away. Heuer marvels that anyone would plop a drilling operation on such a sensitive spot. And after watching the pair toil to follow the herd to this climactic moment, it's hard not to concede his point.

But when Heuer and Allison travel to Washington, D.C., in the film's epilogue, they find themselves far from triumphant.

"It really shows the importance of wilderness," said John Stansfield, a Pikes Peak Sierra Club board member. "It's an incredible adventure story, in relating to their 900-mile trek on foot and the big and small troubles on the way."

The May 13 event is designed to encourage citizens to write letters to their representatives, protect the reserve, raise money and, according to Stansfield, "have a cracking good time."

-- Dan Wilcock


Being Caribou, 72-minute documentary film and silent auction

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 730 N. Tejon St.

Friday, May 13, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $5 suggested donation to Sierra Club

Call 520-5381 for more info.


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