When we read about a reindeer migration in Arctic Canada, we knew we had to go to Inuvik. And we would follow them with the snowmobiles. The beginning of another Arctic adventure!
How the Reindeers Came to Inuvik
Back in the early 1900s, the Inuvik region faced a shortage of caribou, a major diet element for the local Inuvialuit population. The United States and Canadian governments launched the Alaskan Reindeer Experiment to bring self-subsistence to the region and created the Canadian Reindeer project in 1935. As such, a herd of 3,000 reindeers was moved from Scandinavia – a trek of 2,400 kilometers (1,491 miles) that took five years and saw the loss of 1,000 reindeers. With them came the Sami, an indigenous people with centuries of reindeer experience and who taught the local Inuvialuits how to manage the herd.
The herd since rebuilt itself to another 3,000 heads. The herd is now owned by the Canadian Reindeer, a private company in Inuvik with shared management between the Binder family and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. The reindeers are herded by Henrik Seva, the only reindeer herder in Canada. A Sami from Finland who came to work for the Canadian Reindeer company in 1999, Henrik, also known as the Tundra Cowboy, brought his reindeer herding skills with him and has taken care of the herd even since.
Today the reindeers’ migration take them from their winter grazing grounds, an area north of Jimmy Lake, to Richard Island, west of Tuktoyaktuk. Once the ice melts in the spring, the reindeers can roam freely but constrained to the predator-free island, giving Henrik a nice summer break from herding.
Celebrating 80 Years of Reindeer Migration
The year 2015 celebrated the 80th anniversary of the first reindeers’ migration across the slippery Mackenzie River Ice Road. Though this is not a natural event since the reindeers are handled by a professional herder, this is an impressive moment. And on this end of March day, we stood on the ice road for a while as the herd crossed. The migration is a popular day, and people from around Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk came to experience it. Elders, families with kids, and tourists – all gathered in excitement. This was, however, the coldest day of our trip, and since we were not moving, we had little chance to warm us up. The day was windy too and added to the cold temperatures, probably in the -35° Celcius (-31 °F). But nothing could have kept us away from the place!
Once the reindeers crossed the ice road, they soon disappeared from our view as the wind sent white snow on the river and masked the visibility. As part of our stay at the Arctic Chalet, our hosts had organized for us to follow the reindeers. We jumped onto the snowmobile and got to follow the herd through the rolling hills of Richard Island long after everyone left the road. We were the only ones on site, a personal experience in what was already a unique event.
Snowmobiling to the Reindeers
This was our first time on the snowmobile. Bruno quickly mastered his powerful machine and headed across the river. On my end, I had a hard time as I could not drive a straight line. It was stop-and-go until I managed a smoother speed. I caught up with the rest of the crew before we started up the hills. Going from an icy surface to heavy powder on uneven grounds was tough.
Still behind, I was careful how I negotiated my way up but my lack of speed got me stuck in the snow at an odd angle. I tried to move the snowmobile but only made the situation worst. At that moment, I was alone on the tundra, no one in sight. I felt a long moment of solitude. I figured Bruno and the crew would eventually realize I was missing and would return. After what felt like a long while, I heard and then saw a snowmobile coming towards me. It was Bruno on his shiny black snowmobile. But even the two of us did not manage to move the machine. Luckily, our host Olaf came by on his way to the van and stopped to help. Within seconds, he pulled my snowmobile free. It was obvious he had done this a few times before…
We finally reached the rest of the team. Our outfitter Judie hat set a campfire on the tundra close to where the herd stood. While Judie’s staff prepared our lunch, we walked the few steps that separated us from the animals. We were a quarter of a mile away but we did not dare to approach any further. We did not want to spook them. After the excitement of the snowmobile ride, the quiet and peace welcomed us as we watched the reindeers.
The herd was moving slowly across the hills, scratching the snow with their hooves to uncover the lichen. A few males stood to watch around the main group and we could admire their long antlers from afar. Two young males fought though it was more play than a real fight.
Our lunch was ready and we had the tastiest grilled cheese ever. We used pie cast irons to grill the cheese sandwiches over the open tundra fire. It was a first for us – fun and real yummy!
The lunch time gave us the opportunity to talk to Hendrik. As you might wonder why he was here, and how we got this privileged access to the reindeers, he is the husband of our musher master Anna Sofia Johannson. Dressed in traditional Sami clothes, he was enjoying a break from his surveillance but quickly returned to his troop.
After our tundra picnic feast, we headed to check on the reindeers one more time. We could not get enough of these wonderful animals, and reflected about the traditions and culture involved in maintaining them alive across the frozen tundra.
We found Hendrik as he kept a watchful eye on them. Here and there he would drive down to the herd to prevent them from spreading too thin.
We were able to admire his herding skills as they had barely moved from their previous location.
It was time to leave, but not before we had a last glance at the reindeer herd.
Bruno and I settled back on our snowmobiles. We still had to maneuver around the bushes and rocks of the hills.
I felt more confident this time and took on the slope straight down. A better approach than sideways as the skidoos skis don’t have edges. I reached the icy Mackenzie River flat surface, pushed on the throttle, and gained speed within seconds. It was a real thrilling feel, just the two of us on the frozen river, blasting our snowmobiles.
Not a fan of the machines in general, I have to admit they allowed us to travel further and faster. We wouldn’t have been able to observe the reindeers in their natural habitat otherwise.
The truck was a distance away so we drove a while on the Ice Road again. This time, I drove at full speed and enjoyed every second of it.
What a day it had been! Snowmobiling through the tundra to watch the reindeers up close, another day of our Arctic Adventure Week to remember.