Seth Kantner: Watching the Arctic come alive in spring

Around AlaskaJune 8, 2013 

Caribou cross the Kobuk River on their spring migration north.

PHOTO BY SETH KANTNER

Along the river, just before midnight the north breeze falls away and the sun drops low enough in the north to spread golden light across the tundra.

The smell of melting-out soil and last autumn's leaves and cottonwood buds and pussy willow pollen is almost honey-sweet in the air. The night is calm and still, and at the same time ringing with song, a million avian tourists just arrived -- sparrows and thrushes and warblers, all busy and excited and singing about it; robins announcing some shrill irritation, and terns and gulls crying and wheeling over the river ice, Canada geese honking in the distance, sandhill cranes, and overhead the invisible and relentless warbling wings of kuukukiaq (snipes) reminding everyone of their territories.

I grab my binoculars, skirt around the woodpile and scramble up our old wooden tower. I'm looking for caribou -- and everything else too. I've been up here a dozen times today already, to look out over the land and see what breakup is up to.

I climb fast even though some of the steps are loose, the spruce crosspieces rotten. It's lucky I'm light because the whole tower is gray, weathered and rickety. My brother Kole peeled the poles and built it more than 30 years ago.

The steps peter out. Below, the world is a huge fling of white and blue river, tundra, mountains and sky. Most of the treetops are under me now, and I grip the platform and clamber up onto the last section, the old steel tower from the Sioux City Wind Charger my parents bought in 1976. At the very top, I brace my binocs under the tail and swing it around, to start from upriver, as far as I can see around the shoulder of this bluff, toward the land south of Onion Portage to the low distant blue mountains.

Down below me the current carries ice pans down this side of the Kobuk and the far side too. The center ice is still a wide white highway, upriver as far as I can see to the island opposite Ole Wik's old igloo and down to the west, past the Hunt River and Clarence Wood's wind-shredded cabin perched lonely on the tundra bank.

Widgeons and pintails paddle in the flooded willows, whistling and quacking, scooping up floating seeds. Across the river spruce line the shore, glowing pale green the way they do this time of year in the night sun. Snowdrifts below the timber are bright white and a cow moose stands there, munching willows from the platform of the packed drift, stopping occasionally to stare at ice pans gliding past.

Incrementally, I swing south to glass the huge brown tundra stretching to the Waring Mountains. There, finally, are the scattered dots of caribou, marbles glowing in the evening light. It's great to see them. What took so long, guys?

For months the traveling has been firm and solid, lots of windblown tundra. Now the ice is breaking up and the shoreline and sloughs are a maze of flooded willows and alders, the waterways treacherous crossing. And the cows are pregnant, just hours away from having their calves.

It was an icy spring, with temperatures near zero into mid-May. Meltwater refroze, wind and snow blotted out tundra that had already gone brown. I spent time up here on the tower, clinging on in the wind, peering at gray sky shrouding gray land. On my snowgo I was lucky to find caribou, a few weeks ago, back toward the Jade Mountains. We needed meat, but I wanted the normal fare for this season -- fresh goose. I haven't seen caribou since. I've been watching daily, lonely for them.

I sweep my binocs down and bump into the huge dark lump at the top of a tall spruce directly across the river -- a spruce growth that my wife and daughter have named the Aapakiilik tree, for my Eskimo name. There along the riverbank, three swans take off directly toward me, wings thumping the water. They've got some martial issues to sort out and they've been squabbling and beating wings all afternoon.

Further south something catches my eye behind a row of spruce, beyond Horseshoe Lake. Finally, I get a better glimpse -- gray cranes flying low. Caribou fill the binoculars, a small herd grazing. On a ridge a distant dark lump looks unfamiliar. I breathe and watch. It's miles away, but I hold still and wait. Finally, the shape elongates. The color shifts to black and then almost white. For a moment it's clearly a grizzly bear, and as quickly turns, again a non-descript dot on the land.

Along the base of the Warings, the Kobuk Sand Dunes are a long, sandy line. Closer, on the tundra, a string of caribou stretches in this direction. I get excited, and try to remember what lens I left on my camera.

I slide my binocs down the snow along the riverbank, past a fake moose -- a big black stump that's been fooling me. Above the willowed island a small group of caribou stand on an ice pan, surrounded by water, indecisive and awaiting leadership. Small gulls circle and perch beside them.

Beyond the Hunt, clumps of alders dot the tundra. Snow drifts are white squiggles. Almost too distant to distinguish, I imagine movement, and then it is -- a half dozen caribou moving toward the mountains.

The Duck Pond is flooding, floating the ice, and through willow thickets I see the Nuna is running ice, flooding pans over the bank. A marsh hawk patrols a grassy swamp. Poor guy, I think, no mice this spring, none even in our sod house where they always make camp. All last summer and fall were too rainy, too much flooding -- a tough thing for mice.

Where two ponds meet, in the reeds and grasses, goose necks are visible; I hear their distant hollering -- fighting and mating, I guess. On the north side of the biggest lake, the ice runs to the snowdrift and two black dots show on the snow in front of a black half-buried lodge. Mister beaver has been out in the sun for the last few days and now I'm glad to see he's finally brought his wife out. Or maybe it's the other way around.

I can't help wondering -- as much as I love spring, maybe it's nothing compared to how a beaver feels to poke his or her head out into the air and sun after being stuck in the lodge all winter, in the dark and under ice. Maybe my exhilaration is little compared to how a moose feels after all the terror and hardships of winter. And the bears in their dens. And all these songbirds, sandpipers and Arctic terns, so happy to arrive from all the places they've been -- the States, Antarctica, open ocean and wherever else they've gone.

I don't want to climb down yet. I start again, glassing the whole world again, in the opposite direction. If my friend Alvin Williams were here, he'd stay up even longer than me, inhaling the land through his eyes. We grew up together, staring at this land, searching it, wandering across it in the bright nights, hunting and hunting and hunting, and we both know this addiction.

There -- already in the river, swimming this way, backs bleached white as ice -- is a herd of caribou. The lead cow struggles in loose ice, trying to climb out on the main ice sheet. Behind her, the herd is like a rope beginning to swing sideways in the current. The pale knobs of warbles show in their hair and, on the bulls, the black of velvet antlers.

I sprint down the tower. Usually I glance below my boots and around the woodpile for a bear -- which has happened before. But now I want to get my camera and tripod before these caribou splash into the willows and begin climbing this bluff.

As I swing onto the ground, behind me there's a roar and shuddering of the air. For an instant a spruce grouse startles the heck out of me. It settles in a tree, alert and alarmed too. I smile at her and then glance around the brush quickly. I don't mind my heart beating faster. It's part of spring. And I run to meet the caribou.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column usually runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

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