Boots on the Ground Interview Feature
The WRRB’s Conservation Biologist, Aimee Guile (AG), recently went out on the land to participate in the Tłı̨chǫ Government (TG)’s program, Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è (Boots on the Ground). Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è is a program that monitors ɂekwǫ̀ (barren-ground caribou) using Traditional Knowledge from Indigenous Elders and Harvesters. The program focuses on the Kǫk’èetı̀ Ekwǫ̀ (Bathurst caribou) Herd and looks at conditions found on the herd’s summer range. Indicators such as habitat and environment, ɂekwǫ̀, predators, and industrial disturbance are documented. To learn more about the program visit the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s website here. You can also read the most resent report: Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è (Boots on the Ground) 2019 Results.
The WRRB’s Communications Officer, Shalyn Norrish (SN), sat down with Aimee, via Zoom (an online video call program), for an interview to ask about her experience.
SN: Aimee! Welcome back from your Boots on the Ground adventure! You were in the field for 16 days, is that right?
SN: How long is the flight between Yellowknife and your destination? You were headed to Contwoyto lake, correct?
AG: About an hour and forty-five minutes, on a single Otter float plane. Yes, we were right on Contwoyto lake, on Fry Inlet. So that’s on the NWT side of Contwoyto Lake.
SN: What was it like being out on the land with the folx from Boots on the Ground? Were you the only newbie to the crew or were there others?
AG: It was really awesome! There were quite a few people who had never been to Boots on the Ground before. I was there as a researcher/biologist; our Lead Camp Manager, has been with the program since the beginning of Boots on the Ground. We also had a TK researcher, and it was her first year with the program, she and our Lead Camp Manager did the shift before mine as well, so they had been there for something like 35 days. We also had a camp cook, who has been there many times before, but everyone else was new, and there was nine of us total.
SN: Right on, so what was your role within the group, while you were there? What kind of job(s) did you perform?
AG: I was the scientific researcher, so my role was to collect the science data that is gathered as part of the program. We would come upon a group of caribou, and there is a booklet with a list of questions to ask the Elder(s), and the people who know more than I do. So, we are looking at things like herd composition – calf:cow ratio, how many bulls are in the herd, how healthy the animals look, and how their food looks, how they are behaving, etc. My role was basically to write down the information that the Elders and knowledge holders told me, and then input it into the computer in the evening.
SN: Tell me about your average day out on the land? Was there a schedule you kept to, or did you just go with the flow?
AG: We had a lot of weather days. The day we got there was a travel day so of course we set up and got to know each other, that kind of thing. Our second day is what I would call a true field day where we went out in the boat, stopped somewhere, hiked for a couple kilometers until we saw a group of caribou, then we sat down and watched them for an hour or so, until it started to get dark, then we hiked out, and boated back to camp. After dinner we would input the data, so that’s what a typical field day would look like. After that perfect day, we then had seven weather days where the winds were 35 to 45 km per hour. There was hail, snow, rain, terrible conditions. You can’t go out in the boat when it is that windy, so we had to stay at camp. Luckily for us, there were a few groups of caribou coming by camp, as well as other wildlife, so we were able to collect data and observations which was nice, but those days were mostly just checking the fish net, cutting up fish, and eating fish. Eva, our cook was incredible, we were eating eight or nine meals a day.
SN: Wow, you were well fed!
AG: We were very well fed, and we got to know each other really well, being in a small cabin for days at a time and you can’t go anywhere else. So, we learned about each other, played cards, cut fish, and helped out around camp. It was during that time that the edge of the lake was beginning to freeze, so we decided to head back to town early because if the lake freezes, then the float plane can’t get in, and we would be stuck there until a plane can get in on skis. So, we figured better to leave a few days early. By the time we were able to fly out, it ended up being just three days early, but the weather got nice again, before we left, so we went around the lake and picked up all the trail cameras, we went up to Lupin Mine because they had some wood there, and we went on some hikes. Also, by that time, according to the collars, the main group of caribou had moved away from us quite a distance so there wasn’t much we could do for observations.
SN: What did you see while out, you mentioned some wildlife? What is Contwoyto Lake like habitat wise?
AG: It’s really beautiful! Tundra landscape, there was a big esker behind the camp, and we were right on the lake in Fry inlet, so we got really beautiful displays of the northern lights, and of course it was fall on the tundra so everything was red and very pretty. There was a lot of cranberries, until they got covered in snow. For wildlife we saw Bathurst caribou, there may have been others mingled in, but it was Bathurst collars in the area, and that’s the aim of the program, to observe the Bathurst herd. There was also a group of about 52 muskoxen hanging out around camp. Every couple of days they would come over the Esker, we could watch them for hours, it was really cool. We also had a few bears hanging around camp, we had a bear fence, so we were safe, but there was one that came around every couple of days and hung out on the esker. We also saw a few bears while out on hikes. We saw a wolverine who was hanging around eating our fish guts on an island where we were dumping them. We saw lots of birds, including loons, and even some seagulls!
SN: Why is there always seagulls!
AG: We also had a ground squirrel who lived with us at camp.
SN: On nice you had a camp pet!
AG: Yes, we did!
SN: Sounds like you saw a lot of wildlife, that’s great!
AG: Yes, it was incredible! Considering we didn’t really get very many field days; we still saw a lot.
SN: Are there any moments, stories, or lessons that stand out for you from this experience?
AG: I learned a lot about caribou from everyone, but also, a lot about fish. I had never really cut a fish to traditional standards before, but having all those weather days, I now know how to cut fish for dry fish, to prepare the heads properly, so that was fun and I would say is the lesson that is ingrained in me most because I spent so much time doing it! I learned a lot about Contwoyto lake, and the history of the Bathurst around there, and how to monitor to see if they are healthy or not.
SN: If the opportunity presents itself, would you like to do this again?
AG: Yes, definitely. It was a really great experience, and I feel very lucky to have been able to go.
SN: Sounds like it was really amazing! I am a little jealous!
AG: It was really cool!
SN: Is there anything else you would like to add?
AG: I would like to say Ması̀ cho (thank you) to TG and the Boots on the Ground Program for inviting me and letting me participate.
SN: Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It has been amazing hearing about this from someone who has literally had their boots on the ground on such an exciting adventure.
Eddie Erasmus (EE), a WRRB Board Member and Tłı̨chǫ Elder, also joined Aimee out on the land with Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è (Boots on the Ground). He joined the Communications Officer, Shalyn Norrish (SN) via phone for an interview after returning from his trip.
SN: Eddie, tell me about your time on the land with Boots on the Ground. What was it like for you?
EE: I liked it because it brings back a lot of memories, being out on the Barrenlands, and caribou and all that, it was a really good sight to see. I was hungry for caribou, but we couldn’t get any. We weren’t able to harvest, so other than that, it was great. It was a good experience.
SN: This was your first time?
EE: Yeah it was my first time on this kind of trip. It was different, it was an experience on its own. We had to share a lot of knowledge [and] we had a youth with us. We were out on the boat, [and] when we saw caribou we observed - we didn’t see a big herd, we saw up to 20 caribou, maybe five, maybe four here, maybe 15 there, and that’s it. Most of the caribou were on the northeast side of the lake and we were on the southwest side of the lake, so we did observe caribou right from the camp, they came right there. We saw them swim across the lake, and we saw a lot of Muskox, we saw about 50 of them. There was a big herd that came right close to the camp, and we just observed them from the camp. We didn’t see any wolves or anything, no wolves at all. Not where we were, anyway.
SN: What did you enjoy most about this experience?
EE: Well, the observations - the caribou were healthy, the ones that we saw are all healthy, they looked good. There were only a couple wounded ones there, I think the wolves will get at those ones.
SN: What was your role within the group? Where you there as an Elder?
EE: I was there as an Elder. I talked to the group about my experience, and shared some stories with them, that kind of thing. So, for me, it was a really good trip. It was a good two weeks there, anyway.
SN: Sounds like a good opportunity to share knowledge.
EE: Yeah, it was a good opportunity to share knowledge with the group.
SN: Is there anything from this trip that you learned, or want to remember most?
EE: Well, I saw more muskox than I did caribou, caribou we saw were only in herds of as much as 20, and 10, so there was more muskox than caribou where we were anyway. At the north of the bay where all the caribou collars are, more caribou are there, but it was way out of our way. A good couple hours boat ride to get there.
SN: It’s a bit of a different experience than what you are used to seeing.
EE: Yeah it was. It was the first time I saw caribou and couldn’t shoot one!
SN: Thanks, so much Eddie! It has been wonderful getting your perspective and hearing about your experience out on the land. Ması̀ cho!