The first sign of the caribou was blood from the previous day's kill: a crimson stain in a wilderness of white. The herd—3,000 animals that had wintered in the vicinity of Arctic Village, Alaska—was foraging somewhere in the nearby hills. Joel Tritt, the wiry 44-year-old Gwich'in Indian who was leading the three-man hunt, wasn't sure if the caribou had gone over that rise or the next. The three snowmobiles on which the hunters rode, each dragging an empty sled to carry the kill, were a big improvement over the dogsleds and snowshoes that Tritt's parents and grandparents had used. What they really needed, however, was a helicopter. It's a measure of the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness above the Arctic Circle that 3,000 caribou can vanish like a flock of quail.
Tritt headed away from Airport Lake toward a ridge. His cousin Albert Tritt followed, while the third hunter, Blue Sky, stayed behind, walking parallel to the lake. Signs of the caribou were everywhere: scattered hoofprints, patches of snow that had been pawed down to the ground cover, frozen droppings. But it was hard to tell whether the signs were two hours, two days or two weeks old. The day was still. Tiny ice crystals sparkled in the air like diamond dust.
"There," Joel said a few minutes later, stopping his snowmobile and pointing through some trees. He silently unsheathed his rifle, a .30-30 Winchester. Tritt's skin is copper-colored, and his shoulder-length black hair is tied back Indian-style with a broad black bandanna, but on this day his dress is Western: jeans, Sorel boots, a black fleece-lined parka under a camouflage jacket. Not a stitch of caribou skin, the traditional garb of the Gwich'in Indians. "I was born right in the middle, between the old ways and the new," he said later. "I understand both very well."
Like most Gwich'in his age, Tritt has no front teeth. When he was a boy, Western civilization introduced soft drinks and sugar to Arctic Village (pop. 152) before it brought toothbrushes. In the old days Tritt's grand-parents had chewed on hardwood sticks to prevent tooth decay, and some elders had kept their teeth for 90 years.
Modern man brought other changes too. Tritt remembers when it was an event to see an airplane fly overhead. The village, which is 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, was utterly isolated, unconnected by road to any other community, the nearest of which was 100 miles away. Now Arctic Village has its own runway, and mail and supplies arrive on a scheduled flight every day.
Tritt remembers when the first snowmobile arrived, in 1965. Now electricity has come to the village, and gas is $4 a gallon. There's a small school. Satellite TV. There's still no indoor plumbing in the homes, simple plywood structures heated by wood-burning stoves. The residents still dig outhouses in the permafrost and have to carry water to their houses from a purification station. But a lot else has changed since the late 1960s, when the oil fields to the north in Prudhoe Bay were discovered.
"We were so untouched and wild," Tritt says. "So innocent in the ways of the world. When I was young, the older people in the village thought the white men's ways were the best. They could fly. What a wonder. So we were taught English in school. Some of our young men went to work in the oil fields. But starting around 20 years ago, that thinking began to change. We'd seen the new ways. We knew they were wrong for our people. It was prophesied by the elders that things would change a great deal for the Gwich'in for a while, but then we'd need to learn the old ways again. So my father tried to teach me the old ways real fast." How to trap marten and lynx and wolf.
How to snare fox and rabbit and wolverine. How to skin and tan and fish. Tritt went to his first caribou hunt as a young child on his father's back, and he shot his first caribou when he was 12. The caribou of the Porcupine herd migrate past Arctic Village twice each year, going to and coming from their calving grounds 800 miles away. It's why the village was built where it is, on the banks of the East Fork of the Chandalar River.
The caribou Tritt had spotted were moving now, through the spruce trees a couple of hundred yards ahead, unsettled by the sound of the snowmobiles. He jumped on his snowmobile and took off after them, disappearing over the ridge, saying he'd try to drive them back toward the other hunters.
It was 45 minutes before he returned. On the back of his sled were two caribou. "I'm pretty sure that one might be with calf," Tritt said, pointing to one of his kills as he sharpened his knife. Both animals had to be skinned, gutted and cut up on the spot, and there were only two hours of daylight left. Steam rose from the dead caribou, their body heat making it unnecessary for the hunters to wear gloves. Tritt and Blue Sky worked skillfully, methodically with their knives. Both animals were pregnant females. He carefully set aside the fetuses, clearly outlined within the wombs. "This is a delicacy that we give to the elders," Tritt said. "They can chew the meat without any teeth."