As part of the Dawson Youth Fiddlers entourage, I have just returned from Vadzaih Choo Drin, Caribou Days, in Old Crow, Yukon – four days of celebrating the Spring migration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd en route to their Northern calving grounds and feasting on food from the land!
Caribou Days is a wonderful four day celebration of feasts, games and music, with jigging and dancing that continue to the wee hours of the morning. Everyone takes part, young and old, men and women. One of the Dawson contingent coined a new slogan for Old Crow: “Old Crow – where men dance!”
Much of the feasting celebrates food from the land. The caribou, vadzaih, features front and centre, but also rabbit, muskrat, whitefish, salmon, duck and beaver. For me, it was my first taste of muskrat! (Although I took my tub of Dawson local food with me, I also treated myself to some tastes of local Old Crow food while I was in Old Crow!)
There is a wonderful synergism to the games and feasting at Caribou Days. The log sawing competition and the kindling competition help keep the outdoor fire going for the huge grill that cooks the food from the land. The rabbit skinning contest and the muskrat skinning contest are perfectly timed before the meat hits the grill!
Muskrat meat ready for the grill, and fur ready for use. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Muskrat tails on the grill. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Beaver was also on the menu. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Prepared caribou heads ready to go in the pot. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Whitefish being cleaned for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, Stan Njootli Sr. demonstrates how to skin a muskrat. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Crow River ice after break-up. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The outdoor grill being prepared for the Caribou Days feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Almost ready. Checking on the caribou. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
Food from the land ready for the feast. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
The caribou are vitally important to the Vuntut Gwitchin who have relied on the caribou for tens of thousands of years for food and for clothing. All parts of the harvested caribou continue to be used from the head to the hoof to the hide. The Vuntut Gwitchin and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, with the support of many Canadians and Americans, continue to fight for the protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s calving grounds, wintering grounds and migration routes from oil and gas exploration.
Massi Cho Old Crow for welcoming the Dawson Youth Fiddlers so warmly to Caribou Days with amazing Old Crow hospitality. We had a fantastic time!
> Read more about the Porcupine Caribou Herd
Finding nutrient-rich soil in the far North can be tricky, but as Old Crow demonstrates, it’s not impossible.
Old Crow, home to the Vuntut Gwitchin, is the most northerly community in the Yukon, located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.
A fly-in community of approximately 300 people, Old Crow rests at the confluence of Crow River and the Porcupine River. Vuntut Gwitchin means “People of the Lakes”, named after the many lakes at Crow Flats, the second largest wetland in North America, and the main hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering area for the Vuntut Gwitchin.
With no road access, grocery store prices in Old Crow are very high.
Old Crow has seen detrimental effects from climate change over the past decades. The permafrost is melting. Water levels and subsequently salmon stocks are declining. Lakes are drying up.
In adapting to climate change, more folks in Old Crow are growing vegetable gardens.
One couple, in the 1990’s, planted their vegetable garden about two miles upriver from Old Crow on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 50 feet back from the edge of the riverbank, in front of a drained out lake. The soil must have been nutrient rich as the garden produced an abundant crop of carrots and giant cabbages that Old Crow resident, Mary Jane Moses, still remembers well.
Take 26 minutes to watch “Our Changing Homelands, Our Changing Lives” to hear from Vuntut Gwitchin about climate change and food security in Old Crow
To learn more about Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation check out www.oldcrow.ca
And don’t forget to check out the Old Crow Recipe Page for delicious caribou, muskrat, rabbit, duck, ptarmigan and whitefish egg recipes!
Juniper is a coniferous shrub that produces berries. In Old Crow, Yukon it is sometimes known as ‘sharp tree’ thanks to its very prickly needles which are very familiar to all who pick juniper berries. Juniper berries should be picked with great respect as it takes 3 full years for a berry to ripen! When ripe they turn from green to a dark blue. The ripe berries can be picked any time of the year, but you may have to dig to find them under the snow in the winter, as juniper is a low lying shrub.
Eaten raw, juniper berries have a distinct aromatic spicy flavour reminiscent of gin. Juniper berries make an excellent spice — especially once ground into a powder. A coffee grinder works very well for this. A small amount of ground juniper berry goes a long way. It can be used in marinades or dusted on wild game including moose, caribou and grouse. It can even be lightly dusted on salmon. A small amount can also be added to soups or stews. According to Boreal Herbal, in Sweden a conserve is made out of juniper berries and used as a condiment for meats.
Juniper berries have a few extra qualities as well. They help digest gas-producing foods such as cabbage. Also, because juniper berries have a light coating of yeast on their skin, a few berries are often added to ferments to help out the lacto-fermenting process. So adding a few juniper berries when making sauerkraut has a triple effect: flavour, aiding the fermentation, and less gas when you eat the kraut! The yeast coating on the berries also makes them a useful ingredient in creating sourdough starter (which is another form of fermentation). Mix some flour and water and add a few juniper berries. Once it becomes bubbly and smells yeasty, you can remove the berries and the sourdough starter will be well on its way! In Old Crow, juniper berries are also boiled as a tea, which the Vuntut Gwitchin say also helps ease colds and cough symptoms.
Juniper berries should be used in moderation and avoided in people with kidney disease and in pregnant women.
Research for this post is from Boreal Herbal by Beverley Gray and Gwich’in Ethnobotany by Alestine Andrew and Alan Fehr.
Miche here. When you go up to visit Old Crow you never know what that unique and generous community will send back with you — a haunch of caribou traded for some Taku River sockeye, or several pounds of King salmon roe. This year a friend and colleague presented me with a whole, wild, specklebelly goose.
I had never tasted a wild goose before. Bringing it home to Whitehorse, I plunked it in the freezer while I decided how to cook it.
The specklebelly, or greater white-fronted goose, migrates through Old Crow every fall and spring on the way to and from their nesting grounds in the Arctic. These geese are an important part of the traditional diet in Old Crow.
In early May the hunters were out on the Porcupine River, bringing home the birds for the family pot.
Every year, the hunter who got my goose gives all the women in his family a bird for Mother’s Day. He tells their men, who cook the goose, to follow the magic formula: 2-2-2. That is, slow-roast the specklebelly with two cups of water for two hours in a 200°F oven.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the specklebelly “provides the makings for one of the most delectable wild game meals you’ve ever eaten.”
This cook concurs. I followed a modified 2-2-2 formula, and that specklebelly was the best wild fowl I’ve ever tasted. Thank you Old Crow.
> Check out the recipe for Specklebelly Goose—Michele Genest, The Boreal Gourmet
Suzanne is looking for ways to keep her ever-hungry 17-year-old son, Sam, full next year. Sam suggested that pemmican might be a reasonable locally-sourced snack food that will help him get through the year, especially since he spends lots of time doing physical activity. After all, Canada was practically built on pemmican. Trading posts would seek this high-protein and high-energy food from the natives, and it was used to sustain the voyageurs, especially in winter, as they traveled long distances.
Mary Jane Moses of Old Crow shared some of her ch’itsuh (pemmican) with Suzanne. Click here for a couple of classic pemmican recipes:
Have a recipe for pemmican for Suzanne to try? Please share here.
The Caribou cookbook has arrived! Learn how to use all parts of the caribou. Traditional recipes such as ch’itsuh (pemmican), head cheese, and Caribou Bone Broth combined with new recipes such as Caribou Wonton Soup and Mushroom and Caribou Brain Ravioli.
Continue reading “Vadzaih: Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof”
On April 21 and 22 Vuntut Gwich’in citizens, conservationists, scientists, members of the public and families got together to celebrate the Porcupine Caribou Herd with two days of presentations, films, panel discussions, kids’ activities, and caribou tastings at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse. The event was hosted by Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (VGFN) and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), all of whom have a keen interest in the health of the herd.
There was lots to celebrate. The herd is robust and growing in size. The relationship between northern indigenous peoples and the caribou that sustains them is respectful and strong. Harvest management strategies and hunter education programs are helping to ensure the herd continues to thrive.
But there’s bad news, too. Of 15 barren ground caribou herds the Porcupine herd is one of only two that are known to be increasing. The others have decreased alarmingly in recent years. Barren ground caribou have been listed as threatened in Canada. And the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are once again under threat from oil and gas exploration. VGFN and their First Nations and Inuvialuit neighbours, conservationists, scientists and concerned citizens are working together to ensure protection of the herd, and Porcupine Caribou: Celebrate and learn about the herd was part of that effort.
To watch the proceedings from the Porcupine Herd celebration event, visit yukonconservation.org.