On The Trail: Caribou hunting in Alaska

On The Trail: Alaska

Conor Knighton is back on the trail to our National Parks. This morning, it takes him almost to the ends of the Earth: 

Despite its name, Gates of the Arctic National Park doesn't have any gates. There's no entrance sign, no cafeteria, no roads. This stretch of Northwest Alaska is so wild and so remote, it doesn't see many visitors. 

But, twice a year, it's paid a visit by the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

At more than 200,000 animals, the Western Arctic is the largest Caribou herd in the United States. And for the rural residents of our 49th state, their arrival means that dinner has finally come to town.

"What we do is subsistence hunting, and that's for food," said In'uli Toopetlook. "It's what we eat. Everything that's in the animal that we catch is used."

Toopetlook's freezer is full of caribou meat.  "My mom and dad were divorced, and so I'm pretty much the man of the house, even though I'm only 16," he said. "So I go out. I hunt, I fish and I trap. It's just what I do to help out the family."

A caribou herd in Alaska. CBS News

He and his family live in Anaktuvuk Pass, population just over 300. The main way in or out of this village is on a plane.  Flying in, you wonder how on Earth the first settlers even got here.

But the WHY is simple: they followed the caribou. Long before this land was a National Park, it was a source of food.

"This fall, hunting season, there'll be people hunting caribou in the same place that's happened for 12,000 years," said Lois Dalle-Molle, a research coordinator for the Alaska National Parks. "Most of the parks in Alaska are established under a different law than the parks in the lower 48."

In the Alaska National Parks, local rural residents are allowed to hunt just as they have for millennia.

"It's just tradition. It's really why we do it," said Toopetlook.

Knighton asked, "Is there a cost savings, too?"

"Yeah. A box of bullets costs less than a frozen pizza does."

Groceries in these tiny towns are understandably expensive. A half-gallon of milk, for example, costs $12.85.

Knighton flew to Ambler, Alaska (population less than 270) to meet Don Williams, a former Park Service employee who moved out here 40 years ago so he could live off the land.  You don't have to be native to be allowed to to hunt on parkland; you just have to be local.

From the caribou to fishing, Williams said, "It was just subsistence life that I really went for."

A caribou herd in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Zac Richter/National Park Service

Today, most of his caribou hunting days are behind him. He now counts them for Alaska Fish and Game Service. But his grandson, Kituq, still heads down the river into Kobuk Valley National Park, where the caribou reliably cross in the same place every Fall.

"You can make some caribou burgers," Kituq said. "You can make caribou soup. You can just boil it and have caribou meat just like that. Or you can fry it on a pan."

There's no mystery to this meat, which is partially why rural Alaskans love it.

Knighton asked, "Is that important to you knowing exactly where that meat came from?"

"To me? Yes," replied In'uli Toopetlook. "Then I know it was killed respectfully. I definitely know that I was the one that brought it home to the dinner table."

Respect is a big value here. Respect for the land … respect for the animals … respect for a tradition and lifestyle that have existed for thousands of years. 


For more info:

Also visited by Knighton while "On The Trail":