Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wholly Frozen Caribou!

Some mysterious photos are circulating across the North Slope and they are quite the humdingers.

But let me begin by saying two things.  

1.  I received these photos in an email.  I don't know who took the photos, the circumstances involved, or the date on which they were taken.  

2.  My only purpose in sharing them is to illustrate the harsh reality of extreme cold and the impact on all life inhabiting this region.  It is not my intention to trivialize an animal's misery or death.  

Unfortunately, every year, a few animals do freeze in the Arctic.   However, there is much debate around the community about whether or not this poor caribou froze on the ground and was set upright for the photo or did actually freeze as it stood alone against a frigid wind.  According to local hunters, either is possible.

The message that accompanied the photos in the email was short:

"Check this out...the caribou was found frozen in place by DEC personnel on a site inspection on the North Slope. That is some cold weather....temps were down in the -40s F wind chills to -70 to -80.

Caribou froze standing still at -80 wind chill in Kuparuk AK."

When I googled Kuparuk, I found this map...

...and this article about the nasty oil/water spill that occurred there a few months ago.  (for those who might be interested)

All around the village, caribou chip away at packed snow with their hooves and graze on last year's honey-colored grass buried beneath.  I've seen areas where small groups have bedded down on the tundra, the warmth of their bodies melting snow a foot deep or more.  I think it would be difficult for a lone caribou to survive for long during the coldest, darkest nights of winter.

In my opinion, the legs are positioned oddly for an animal who died on the ground.  And caribou hooves are large, unlike the narrower hooves of a deer.  The snow seems to be hugging the legs very closely.  If someone had picked it up and "planted" it in the snow, it seems like there would be hoof-sized holes around the legs.  I don't see that.

On the other hand, in the first photo, there is a white patch on the caribou's left hind leg that looks like a chunk of packed snow.  It's hard to imagine how that could become fused to an animal's fur without some prolonged contact with the ground.   Still, that could be a remnant of snow from another, less challenging, day.

It's hard to know just what to think.

It's a mystery.

An unfortunate secret only Winter knows...and will probably never tell.


S N B said...

I wonder if it is still a thrill for you to see caribou. I often see wild turkeys on my drive to school and it is always a thrill. Can't quite fathom seeing caribou.

Kimberlee said...

Absolutely! Although they graze peacefully along the fringes of the village, they are still completely wild and will bolt in an instant if they feel threatened. They are comfortable with the normal movement of cars and people, but will move on quickly if someone gets too close.

Not only do I notice and enjoy watching them, but the kids keep an eye on them as well. When I say "kids," I mean anyone at our school, PreK-12th grades. I OFTEN have to steer high school students away from the windows in my classroom because they are all staring out at grazing caribou!

Kimberlee said...

A few more thoughts...
I had mixed feelings about sharing the photos of the frozen caribou because I wasn't sure if it was staged or not. I did a google search and read some other things that are out there referencing these photos and someone suggested that the caribou was stuffed and placed back on the tundra.

I find that idea completely ridiculous. Native people DO keep the antlers from the caribou they hunt. They often use them for knife handles, etc. They skin the animal on the tundra, cut up the meat, and wrap it in the hide before they carry it home. They do not hang trophy heads up on the wall. I have never seen an animal stuffed for display except in public places like museums (there are bears in several airports).

No, I thoroughly believe the caribou in the photos died of exposure on the tundra. It may have been sick. They often become separated from the herd for that reason. Whether or not it was standing up at the time of it's death is the only mystery here.

Floridacracker said...

It seems amazing that anything with such skinny legs could survive in the arctic!
It seems like their legs would freeze all the way through!

Kimberlee said...

You're right about that! They really are amazing creatures. Their fur is extremely dense, unlike any other grazing animal I've ever seen. I have no idea if that does their legs any good or not, but under normal circumstances they seem well-suited to the environment. Unfortunately, when something goes wrong, that same environment is completely unforgiving.

kristina said...

That is incredible. I can't imagine such extreme cold. I can barely stand the cold here. I don't think I have ever seen a caribou.

Bhavesh Chhatbar said...

Poor caribou. I feel bad for it.

Forehead Stamp

Kimberlee said...

I'd never seen a caribou either, until I moved here. They don't look it, but they are really tough animals.

I feel sorry for it too. It was probably sick or it wouldn't have been alone. Still, that's a painful way to go.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't think it would be such t a painful way to go. It's more like falling asleep. It almost happened to me once. But, I would think the animal died of sickness and fell over and froze. I think someone came along and propped it up - to amaze and impress gullible folk living in AZ and FL. The impression given in these photos is that it's so cold in Alaska that caribou are freezing solid in their tracks! (-40 is really not THAT cold)

Kimberlee said...

I've seen death by freezing depicted in movies the way you described...a peaceful drift into sleep. It's hard to imagine there is no pain involved (at least initially) as the extremities begin to freeze. I have experienced fairly severe pain in my fingers while taking photos around the village. It's not peaceful.

You're right about -40 not being all that terrible. But, unprotected, -70 windchill is nothing to play with. Maybe the photos were meant to fool people. Maybe they were simply meant to be funny and were misinterpreted. Or maybe the caribou was sick and exhausted and just stopped moving to brace itself against the wind. Only those responsible for taking the photos know for sure.

Thanks for adding your opinion to the mix!

sam b. said...

Hello Kimberlee,
I'm sorry, my message has nothing to do with the frozen caribou. I've been offered a teaching job in Atqasuk and was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the community and maybe a little about the school. If I take the position I would be moving up there with my wife and three little sons (4yrs, 1 1/2yrs, and new born). My e-mail is fsseb@uaf.edu.
Sam B.