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It's caribou time on the tundra, which delights photographers

Photo by SETH KANTNER

Caribou are flowing down the coast, from as far as Kivalina or farther, coming across the ice, and up over the tundra near Kotzebue. There's fresh snow on the ground, good enough for traveling, even if many creeks are still impassible thickets and the ice not entirely safe.

The lines of animals at times make you dizzy; it looks as if the dark clumps of willows on the white tundra are all moving, but no, the brush isn't moving -- that's caribou!

I've gotten some meat, as have other people. This is good, because there has been some stress these past couple of years -- caribou have been too far north when people are accustomed to hunting, and the herds have been late to migrate. Many hunters got less than they hoped for last year and the year before. That's hard on communities, hard on the region.

This is no longer simply about lack of needed meat in the soup pot -- there's a world of feeling and attachment and connection to the land here that caribou symbolize. Coming home with fresh fat meat has invisible ties to the past and some sort of truth. It's not like coming home with a pizza and six pack of Pepsi. It's not like being elected to office. Somehow it's separate from all that.

These days, I'm cutting meat, or if the morning light looks good I head out with my cameras. I get across the tundra on what I facetiously call my magic carpet -- a '96 Arctic Cat with a rusted undercarriage, a secondhand piston on the fan side, and a clutch that grabs. The windshield is busted off, which adds to that feeling of the ice zooming under you, hence the name.

Around 11 a.m., the first glint across the tundra surprises me -- some bright metal over there? Some chip of light far across the snow? No, wait, that's the sun.

I leave my snowmachine and walk.

Pretty soon orange light falls on a few caribou. The rest stand around, or lie comfortably. Some feed, still in blue-gray shadow. The animals paw at the snow, digging down for lichens to eat. The big bulls feed, but also stand looking thoughtfully over the expanse of land and sea ice. Now that the rut is over the bulls are a bit confused, maybe melancholy; they are hungry, and skinny, and about to lose their magnificent antlers and become bald-headed. Sadly, the party is over. Until next fall, that is -- and only if they make it through the hundreds of hardships of another year out here.

The cows paw at the snow then look up quickly; watchful, fretful, eyeing the strange white guy with a black camera and gray wolf ruff. They trot forward, stare one more time, and then get a few others moving. The entire herd suddenly is on the march.

There's awe and something humbling about being so near to hundreds and hundreds of animals on the move. Young bulls and old ones, cows and little calves hurrying along -- as if some parallel nation is out here, traveling through.

Finally, I slog through the snow back to my snowmachine. It's cold and I hope it will start. I pull the starter and it spins to life. As always I'm instantly aware of how not a part of nature this loud contraption is. I can't help questioning for how long I will have a machine to carry me streaking across the tundra, and when I might again be strapping on my snowshoes, or like when I was a kid -- hitching up my big old slow, slogging dogs.

Dusk is falling as I zip my cameras into my pack. The big white moon hangs in the silver dimness. I steer away, leave the lines of caribou moving relentlessly on. My magic carpet skims west across the snow. The caribou, they walk, in the opposite direction, into blue-gray darkness, across the tundra and thin ice, up steep willowed bluffs, across knobby tussocks buried under shin-deep snow. Slowly, crossing the real world.

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 & Life section.


SETH KANTNER
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