It wasn’t long after setting off that Peter Mather and his expedition partner Marty O’Brien realised their journey wasn’t going to be easy. Their aim was to capture a never before seen photograph of the caribou migration and despite having everything planned down to a tee, curveball after curveball was thrown their way. But they carried on, cross-country skiing overnight through wolf infested lands, all in pursuit of a photograph.
We caught up with Peter to hear more about his story “In Pursuit” and what it took for Peter and Marty to reach the migration ground on time.
What caused you to initially be interested in the caribou and their migration?
I grew up in the Yukon. I spent a lot of time on the land, with my father, hunting. Growing up in the Yukon, everyone hears about the caribou. They are larger than life. Everyone who has seen the migration – thousands of caribou moving together – never forgets it. It was all these many stories that built my interest in the animals over the years.
Why is the migration of the caribou so unique? And can you explain in more detail the photograph that you’ve set out to capture?
The Porcupine caribou herd is thought to have the longest mammal migration on the planet. The image I wanted to capture is hard to describe, but while doing research on the caribou, I saw videos of the caribou migrating in long line formations of thousands of caribou. It reminded me of images of the Klondike Gold Rush a hundred years ago, where there was a line of four hundred men following a trail straight up the mountain. I wanted to recreate this image, but with caribou. I wanted it to be an intimate image, so it was important to have the lead caribou captured very close to the camera. I was looking for caribou trails going up a mountain, where I could set up the camera trap, so it would photograph the lead animal, but you would see a line of caribou leading down the mountain and across the valley floor to give you a sense of the amount of caribou and the teamwork that the employ when moving in winter.
How did you plan for an expedition of this scale?
That was the hard part. The longest expedition of this nature I’d done before was only one night, and Marty didn’t have any winter expedition experience at all. I was lucky, because the most experienced ski trip expeditioner in the Yukon is a friend – Peter Heebink. He has been doing trips like this for 40 years, so I met with him a dozen times and he imparted 40 years of wisdom to me. We could never have done this, without his knowledge. He was the one who advised us not to use a tent, that all you need is a good winter sleeping bag and sleeping mat. This was invaluable for us, and we loved sleeping outside. Tents fill with condensation in winter and are a huge hassle without providing you with much warmth. Our sleeping bags were so efficient that when it snowed on us, the snow wouldn’t melt on the bags because the outside of the bag is minus 10, while inside we’re nice and warm at plus 20.
Did you and Marty expect to hit such difficulties on your expedition? Are problems like the ones you faced something that you have experienced on previous expeditions?
I’ve never experienced such a sustained and hard expedition as this one. We were forced into the most intense physical and emotional journey either of us will ever experience, where everything seemed to be going wrong at every point. We had both been pushed to our limits before in smaller doses, with sports and previous expeditions, but this was something else.
After several days of struggling to ski over soft snow, you decided to turn nocturnal and ski overnight, to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and icy crust that formed. Were there any safety concerns, skiing overnight?
We didn’t have any concerns skiing at night because it never actually got totally dark. Since we were getting into spring, the days were getting really long being so far north, so the sky would simply get a dark blue for a few hours. If something went wrong with an accident or bear attack, we could get a helicopter to our location within a day – not something we really wanted to think about but we had contingencies in place. It never been completely dark meant that we didn’t really get our nerves up about not knowing what was around us, which made a huge difference to us.
Your journey to the caribou was evidentially not an easy one. What did you find hardest to cope with, when it seemed like everything was going wrong?
Physically, the skiing was exhausting. It took every ounce of energy we had to keep going and it is hard at these points – when you’re every muscle in your body aches – not to give up. I found these the times when I’d been leading the way for hours the hardest, praying with every move that the snow underneath me wouldn’t break and I’d sink metres down, having to push through to soft snow to dig myself out of the hole my skis and pack had made. But we’re a good team, Marty and me. Whenever I got to this point Marty could always tell and would offer to take over as lead, as I would with him.
On this particular trip, you weren’t successful in getting the photograph of the migration that you wanted. Do you find that disappointment hard to deal with?
Yes, it was a shame – when we finally made it to the spot we were aiming for, we found out that the caribou had stopped migrating and were still about 150km – roughly a week – away. But I didn’t find the disappointment hard to deal with. Failing is simply part of the process. I know that I may spend a month chasing a perfect caribou photo on skis and not get it, but that I may be driving down some remote road a month later and get the best caribou photo of all time. It is all part of the process and things always work out in the end. All you can do is put the work in.
Are you planning on venturing back out on another expedition to try and get the photograph you want?
Although Marty and I made a pact to always look back on this expedition with fondness and good memories, we did also make a pact to remember the hell that the expedition was, to ensure we never try something so stupid again. But, the pact hasn’t lasted long as we’ve already tried – unsuccessfully – again. The chase will always continue!
What are your hopes for the future, in terms of the caribou and their habitat?
I want the 200,000 strong caribou herd to carry on migrating through these lands, just as they always have. I want it to stay the way it is, when I’m 100, when I’m gone and for another 5,000 years.
To read more about Peter’s expedition, click here.