Natural resource technician students from Aurora College are showcasing their skills in science and survival at this year’s ongoing winter camp, held a two-hour bush plane ride northeast of Fort Smith in the heart of caribou country.
Thirteen students from across the North – nine from the Inuvik campus and four from Thebacha campus in Fort Smith – are spending two weeks in the freezing cold of the South Slave winter, hunting caribou, collecting data and proving they can survive in the wilderness.
It is the final, longest, most comprehensive and definitely most hands-on of the students’ camps, which have seen them canoeing, fishing and sampling natural resources across the territory for the past two years on their journey with the Environment and Natural Resources Technology Program (ENRTP).
“This is a climax for them,” said Larry Penner, an instructor with ENRTP in Fort Smith, out at winter camp. Penner has been working for the program since 1989 when he completed it himself.
“They get to show us everything they’ve learned in the past two years and we get to rough them up a bit,” he joked.
After spending a couple days setting up camp, complete with cook tent, sleeping quarters, meat-cutting shack, woodstoves and styrofoam bush potties, students broke into groups rotating through three stations of caribou sampling: hunting, necropsy and butchering.
The first were aided by guide Earl Evans, a Métis hunter from Fort Smith who has spent decades assisting government biologists with their caribou and other wildlife surveys. Evans and the students went by snowmobile to hunt the caribou, each shooting and bringing back their own for sampling.
After a caribou was killed, it was weighed and measured, then skinned and dissected on the frozen lake by the necropsy group, with the assistance of GNWT biologist Allicia Kelly and Inuvik instructor Alice Graham. Every inch of its body was examined and pieces from all the organs and blood were taken for later testing.
The remaining meat was then hauled to the cutting tent where a third group, helped by Thebacha instructor George Peterson, butchered the animal into choice cuts, from ribs to roasts to steaks.
On Saturday they were sent away from camp and forced to survive on their own, just as though their bush plane had crashed somewhere and they were awaiting search and rescue. Students had to construct lean-tos, quinzhees and signaling fires, and make it to Monday when they would be “rescued” by their instructors.
The rest of the week is now dedicated to completing wildlife surveying exercises, from both land and air.
This was the third time the winter camp has been shared by students from both campuses, something students and instructors look forward to as Inuvik’s three-year program means the opportunity only comes around every second year.
“This is a capstone. They all get to meet each other, which is great,” said Inuvik instructor Joel McAlister. “And they can demonstrate all their skills – both the technical bush skills and the scientific.”
For many of the students, living off the land is nothing new. Lawrence Rogers, a 57 year-old from Inuvik who has spent his life on the land, decided to go back to school after 37 years to take the program in order to become qualified to work for the government. He said the experience was a tough but rewarding one.
“I’m an active guy. I really like to go out hunting and trapping, so sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day – that was hard,” he said. “But I wanted to get all of my certification.”
Similarly, James Gordon said it was not the first time he had hunted, skinned and butchered a caribou.
“When you’re born and raised in Inuvik, this is what you do,” he said. “I’ve always done the spring and fall hunt.”
For others it was their first time shooting a living creature; but for nearly everyone, it was the first time doing real necropsies, looking for cysts in the lungs and liver, warbles under the hide and parasites in the eyes, among other potential abnormalities.
But regardless of experience, students worked together cooperatively to make sure tasks were completed efficiently while ensuring that everyone gained confidence in different areas. What resulted was a sense of positivity despite the physically demanding environment.
“I try to enjoy it all, to make everything fun,” said Maja Haogak from Inuvik. She said that while skinning and cleaning the caribou was “the coldest and most energy-consuming for sure,” the fun she had hunting and doing data collection balanced it out.
Like many in the program, she said she chose the ENRTP path because it fit who she was and where she came from.
“My family did hunting and camping all throughout my life,” she said “It suits me; it just made sense.”