Seth Kantner: Wave of gun violence raises anxiety in bush Alaska

Around AlaskaOctober 14, 2012 

These past months, in Northwest Alaska there has been a rash of gunplay. The violence with guns has been hard on people. Terrible for those involved and for their relatives, and not easy for the rest of us to figure where to fit that kind of thing into our days, our thoughts and who we are.

Lately, we've had shooting in the villages, along rivers, in the vicinity of the governor's plane attempting to land; an all-day standoff in open sight of the community of Kotzebue in which Troopers were wounded; a shooting in a village in a lawman's home, in front of his children; tragic suicides mixed in with the gunfire, lockdowns, SWAT teams, manhunts -- all smeared across this beautiful landscape we call home.

I guess there has for years been a certain amount of violence here with guns, and of course the news is faster now because we're connected by phones and computers. But still, something seems different this summer.

When I was a very young boy along the Kobuk River -- before CB's and TV and all the rest of this communication tying us "together" -- a few miles below our home four men were murdered. The men were caribou hunters from Kiana and beyond. The perpetrator was a teenager from California who they had taken hunting.

It was January, cold, calm, and sound carried far, but we didn't hear the shots. Maybe it was too late in the evening and our sod house too buried under the snow. Lorrie Schuerch was an Alaska State Trooper from Kiana back then, and we didn't know anything about the incident until troopers landed in a skiplane.

We didn't know a murderer was out on the frozen land, walking the river ice. I wonder what would have happened if he'd walked to our door instead of heading downriver? Surely we would have invited him in for coffee and food and to get warm and spend the night. Hospitality back then was nearly a law. Tradition, weather and hardship all dictated you must be supremely generous to what everyone called Travelers.

That was 40 years ago. Not everything has changed, but a lot has. Since then a million tons of new buildings and wires and equipment has come north. Hills of paperwork and candy and all-sized glowing screens. It's hard to say where we're at anymore when it comes to being generous and nice and appreciative. But things do seem different.

This fall, alone at my old sod home along the river, I called Don Williams on the VHF. He just happened to be on the phone with my wife down in Kotzebue. He pressed the mic, and I heard her distant voice saying, "Tell Seth be careful! ... somewhere on the river... he shot two guys last night ... stole their boat ..."

After I clicked off the VHF, I went outside, got my binoculars and peered down the shoreline at all the brown and gray willows. And then at my boat anchored below, the red gas tank hooked up. I glanced around for bears. They're common on our ridge, occasionally walking past the woodpile or clawing their initials in the sauna. Suddenly now they started feeling like friendly neighbors.

I glassed again for sign of a human along the river. The river was flooding, choppy gray and not easy to see if a boat was coming, or hear one. The land felt different, eyes out there, eerie and painted evil. If someone did pull ashore, was I going to offer coffee and a warm fire, or grab a pistol? Or both?

All day it poured wind-driven rain. I hauled in firewood and buckets of rainwater and cut meat for dinner. I put on rain gear and walked up the hill and out on the tundra to see what the caribou were doing.

That evening I tuned in APRN to get some news. Troopers were being close-mouthed. Two unidentified men had been shot, by another unidentified man, who had stolen their inflatable boat, forty miles upriver from Kiana. They didn't say which river, or specify "river miles" or straight line miles. No descriptions were given.

Outside it got grayer, and finally dark. Our sod house is buried in the ground, windows on only the south side. It's hard to hear motors, or even wolves outside. In the past, I don't know how many times the first sound I heard from a bear or moose was its claws or hooves on the roof. Or how many times Lorrie Schuerch or Luke Wood or others travelers on snowgos have surprised me -- the first I knew a person was out there, in miles of black wilderness, was a face peering in a window.

Most of my life we never even had a latch on the door. I've had to hold it closed when bears were standing and pushing on it. I remember once getting impatient, telling my wife, "Stace, just hold the door while I get my pants on and get my gun."

I have a healthy imagination. (Writers are that way.) I easily picture a world run out of gas. Famine. Virus outbreak. Nuclear war shutting off connection to the outside world. Countless times I've imagine what it would be like to try to defend my family in the wilderness. Or even in present day Mexico or Iraq.

This was nothing at all like that, of course. But the land felt different, huge, a human hunter potentially prowling the dark shore.

The caribou frying in my skillet came out splendid. The cranberry sauce too and steamed potatoes and cabbage leaves from the garden. I wished I had someone to share it with. I glanced at the windows, warm and golden on the inside, black and rain-streaked on the outside. I kept my pistol on the table. It was a strange feast.

The following evening, news came that the shooter had been apprehended, the victims had survived. The next day the clouds lifted. I loaded my boat and went across the river, to roam the hills looking for cranberries. When I found a good patch, I leaned my dad's .270 rifle against a tree. I wandered around, head down, intent on red berries. Every once in a while I glanced up, to keep track of where that tree was.

Squalls occasionally dragged drizzle overhead. The leaves were wet on my fingers, not great for picking berries, but good enough, with winter coming and all. It was good to have the land feeling like it should, good to have a gun and be near it in that subsistence kind of way -- not the other kind.

It's worth more than we realize sometimes, peace is. It's worth so much, a bountiful land without gunplay and with humans getting along. Maybe peaceful behavior doesn't get all the news, or much anyway, and getting along is certainly not easy. But being allowed to have guns, and carry guns, and feed our families with guns is worth so much. Every day on this planet it's worth more. It's worth it all to remember there are times to put our guns down.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

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