What Did You Do in School Today?

You probably did a little science, a little history – maybe some geography.

Sometimes school can feel like the same old thing – day after day. Imagine how you would feel if your teacher suddenly announced you would be going out in a boat – coming face to face with caribou?

© Alaska Dept. Fish & Game, photographer Sue Steinacher

What makes a caribou a caribou?

Students of Noatak and White Mountain high schools in northwestern Alaska were given the opportunity to get out of the classroom and into the icy waters of the Kobuk River. They were invited to help biologists of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with their caribou collaring project.

What’s a caribou collaring project? Well, scientists attach radio or satellite collars to caribou so they can track the movement of the herd. They also take blood samples from caribou so they can monitor their health.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

The timber wolf is the forest dwelling woodland caribou’s main predator – but is it the biggest threat to this caribou? No! Unfortunately, we humans are the biggest threat to the caribou.

But how in the world do you get close enough to a caribou to take a blood sample from it or attach a radio collar to it? It’s not easy. Often biologists fly over a herd in a helicopter. They shoot tranquilizer darts at the caribou in order to capture them. Of course, they set the caribou free as soon as they’ve taken the blood sample and attached the collar. But the whole process can put stress on the herd. So biologists decided to do their work with caribou in the water!

Caribou cross the Kobuk River heading south on their way to their wintering grounds. All biologists would have to do is grab the caribou in the water, hold them still for a few minutes, take a blood sample and attach a collar. How difficult could it be?

Students and biologists work as a caribou collaring team © Alaska Dept. Fish & Game, photographer Sue Steinacher

Students who participated in the program, got to see how difficult it could be. The students didn’t just watch biologists doing the work, they actually got to take part in the work. They helped hold the caribou close to the side of the boat. They helped hold calves (caribou babies)– so they wouldn’t get separated from their mothers. Students also spent time on land – using binoculars to spot the next group of caribou entering the river. Sure most of the kids involved in the project had seen caribou in the wild before – but they had never been face to face with caribou before and most described the experience as “awesome”.

The project didn’t end with collaring the caribou. Some students went on to work with a scientist in the lab – trying to sequence the DNA in the blood they helped collect from the caribou.

The students also wrote articles about their experiences for local newspapers and online publications. They even wrote and self-published a book about their experiences. Pretty awesome.!

Onion Portage is where thousands of caribou cross the Kobuk River © Alaska Dept. Fish & Game, photographer Sue Steinacher

Our Incredible World team