Sundogs, snowdrifts, and caribou soup: Snowmobile trip to Old Crow returns after pandemic delay

Snowmobile trip

Grandparents Ernest and Alice Vittrekwa brought grandchildren Brendan and Leah Vittrekwa on 2023 Johnny D Charlie Memorial Skidoo Trip from Fort McPherson to Old Crow. Photo: Karli Zschogner/APTN.

After three years of pandemic cancellations, 27 travellers left from Teetl’it Gwich’in-Fort McPherson N.W.T. on March 15 and crossed the snowy and windy mountains to the small Vuntut Gwich’in Yukon fly-in community of Old Crow by snowmobile.

Fort McPherson Elder Alice Vittrewka travelled with her grandchildren.

“My husband Ernest is the one that made a trip every year,” she said taking a break from cooking caribou at Curtain Mountain camp. “There was times when I want to go but I always felt that I had to stay home and look after my home.”

The 700 km round trip through the Richardson Mountains is a full two days with a stop part-way at Curtain Mountain Yukon camp.

Former Teetl’it Gwich’in chief Johnny D. Charlie was the first to organize the trip in 1992 in an effort to preserve the routes and family connections to the land and prove something to the government.

James Ross from Fort McPherson remembers taking on the trek as a young Teetl’it Gwich’in chief.

For him, the annual trip is a constant reminder of how hard the Gwich’in worked to negotiate their modern treaty land claim.

“We were always questioned by the government about if we actually used or occupied any of the lands that we were talking about, and the only way to truly show that was to, to know the land,” he said. “The elders started talking about how they used to travel in the Yukon by dog teams and through the mountains to Old Crow.

“And someone mentioned, ‘Gee, we should try to do that trip to Old Crow’ and Johnny Charlie and William Teya said, ‘Well, we can show the way.’”

Watch Part 1 of Karli’s story about the snowmobile trip: 

He attributes Charlie as a mentor, a protector of caribou, and a key person to the land claim discussion throughout the 1970s.

“Right up until his passing, he gave the community his time and he was always on the land to ensure the caribou was respected,” said Ross.

On March 22, the crew arrived back, one month to the day before the 31st anniversary of the signing of modern Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement surrounding the four N.W.T. Western Arctic communities.

The Gwich’in own approximately 22,330 square kilometres of land in the N.W.T and 1,554 square kilometres in the Yukon which includes and environmental management, exclusive rights to hunting and fishing, and the on-going process towards self-governance.

As for Elder Vittrewka, she was asked by organizers if she would like to be flown back, she refused.

“I really want to make this trip with the kids,” she said. “That may be our last trip after this… and some of the teachings of our traditional way of life I tried to share with so that they won’t ever forget.”

Watch Part 2 of Karli’s story:

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