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Special time with daughter

Seth Kantner
Photo by SETH KANTNER

Flying into Kotzebue in early May -- coming back from Mount McKinley -- I saw it was still winter, good traveling, and that I could head upriver to my old home along the Kobuk.

My wife, Stacey, couldn't go along. I was surprised when China, my 14-year-old daughter, said, "I'll go."

China's been along with me since she could walk and helped skin plenty of caribou and a few bears. But that was back when she was 4 and there was no iTunes, when she was 8 and hadn't heard of Facebook. About the time she turned 12 she started liking rap music and texting and all that, and I figured it wasn't in the cards anymore to hang out at camp alone with boring dad.

She started packing a rubberized backpack. Quickly, it got heavy -- mostly books. "Can I bring my biology text book?" she asked. "I weighed it, it's eight pounds."

Surrounded by my stuff -- important stuff, like shotgun shells and hipboots and camera gear -- I glanced unenthusiastically at the huge book. It was as big as a VCR. I didn't even know they made books that big.

"I guess," I said. "Could we, uh, just cut some of the pages out?"

China looked at her mom. Stacey shook her head. "No."

In Ambler, we borrowed a snowgo from a friend and drove west into warm evening sun, down the slushy river with Alvin Williams and his son Kituq leading. Kituq is 15, capable and helpful, and was darkly tanned and smiling -- happy to be the lucky one to drive the borrowed machine home

Alvin and I have been friends since before we can remember, so plenty of things don't need to be said. We all found shovels, dug out our old sod house and then, before midnight, got the barrel stove going and made coffee, got out muktuk and dried meat and cookies. We talked of waterfowl and wolves and sheep, shotgun shells, and our winters -- hunting mostly, getting meat and wood, and camping. Standard stuff.

At 2 a.m. the temperature dropped below freezing and Alvin and Kituq headed up the gray ice. Up on the ridge, China and I waved goodbye. As it was, we didn't see another person until after the ice went out in late May.

At home, we settle in. We sweep up the mouse turds on the counters and table and floor and fill kettles and buckets with snow to melt. Mostly we work outside, keeping an eye on the sky and ice, for birds and caribou. Everywhere things need to be shoveled out -- the woodpile, outhouse, the old snowgo. And we need meat.

The first afternoon, at the top of the ridge, we find a lot of the tundra has melted out. China cradles my grandpa's old double-barrel shotgun while I glass for caribou. We walk slowly on the tussocks, enjoying the bare ground and sun, and calling to passing sandhill cranes, admiring baby spruce at our feet, and pausing to eat crowberries and fresh cotton grass shoots.

I glance up, thinking we still need dinner, but being careful not to get relentless like I often do -- dragging my daughter too many miles in hard conditions just because I've got caribou or some crazy idea crossways in my head.

China asks if we can pick cranberries to make a pie. The over-wintered berries are hard to find, one or two at a time, and they break easily, the red staining our fingers. We take my camera out of its plastic bag, put the berries in.

Afterward, at Silver Dollar Lake, China shoots her first goose and we pluck it in evening sun. Silver Dollar is the lake she did her science fair project on -- documenting thermokarst lake drainage in the Arctic -- which won her awards from NPS, COSEE and others. So it's interesting to note that the birds are using the new drained grassland -- and at the same time harvest dinner here ourselves.

At home, we singed the bird, and under my supervision she guts it. I have her cut the skin at the top of the neck, and the base of it, and pull the windpipe and throat out, then cut the belly, and force her hand up between the gizzard and breastbone to get the intestines and lungs and heart out.

China splits kindling, and I light a fire in the oven. We start the goose simmering and make a pie crust. It's 10 p.m. but the sun is high in the sky. At the table she gets out her school books.

I roam outside, listen to a great horned owl in the timber and passing Canada geese. After awhile China comes out for a break. We wander down the ridge to check if sap is running in the birch trees yet and to see how sweet the buds are on the willows.

I like the way time is coming back around to the way I remember it when I was a kid here -- time being what you had more than enough of -- that, and wilderness. Things like ammo, canned butter and company were what you had to worry about running short of.

We settle into a routine: we get up at noon, work around the place until 3 p.m. and then eat cold goose sandwiches while we listen to "All Things Considered" on the radio. We hear stories about Syria and Iran, a private space flight, the competitive job market, earthquakes caused by fracking and a prediction of seven billion people living in cities by the year 2050. Apparently a million people a month are moving to urban areas.

Afterwards, we shut off the radio and go hunting for meat for dinner. We still haven't seen a caribou, so every night we eat goose, or leftover goose, and cranberry pies -- about the same as when I was a kid. The only sign of new construction we see anywhere on the land are two big beaver lodges.

One afternoon a grizzly bear shows up on the far bank. She's blond and in no hurry to do much. She digs roots and then flops on a snow drift in the sun to sleep. I go split some wood. When I look again she's standing up, pulling down branches with her claws to get pussy willows -- the same way my parents taught me, the same way I've shown China.

I guess some of us teach our kids simple things. Me, I always seem to be focusing on animals, pointing out my version of their feelings and difficulties and joys. Even the equisetum poking their heads up out of the black dirt I step beside and marvel at their existence. I chuckle at sandpipers, give unheeded advice to baby trees, feel bad when I wound a goose and can't seem to help believing that having your knife sharp will always be more important than having a degree.

Words are in my head, but just playing there. Words like, "that was a wild goose chase." The expression is right on -- China and I sure have had some scrambles trying to chase down our dinners -- but how many of those millions of people in those cities will ever really know how talented a wounded wild goose is at running and hiding?

My mind mulls over another expression: "Your goose is cooked." I think that one means it's all over, you're done for. But on the other hand, it's always meant it's time to eat.

Maybe all the stuff I teach my daughter is backwards. China's going off to boarding school next year. There are going to be brilliant mathematicians there, kids with Porsches probably, maybe future CEOs. I keep thinking about those million people a month moving to cities. And that private space trip. Where she's going, knowing how to gut a goose is bound to be pretty unimpressive.

One night, after the river ice first moves, I'm sitting on the bearskin couch out on the porch, watching the big river. A pair of goldeneye ducks have been circling, eyeing the stovepipe for a nest. They're gone when China comes out.

I tell her about a goldeneye flying in our cache when I was a kid, and the best story, about Alvin's dad, Don, finding one standing in their cold woodstove one morning.

She's listening, trusting, yet half-disbelieving too, her bare feet tangled in the bear hair, her fingers scratching mosquito bites.

It does feel like I'm exaggerating. I wish those ducks hadn't flown off. I glance up. Two birds are flying straight our way, skimming low across the ice, over the water, up the bluff.

"Here they come," I say. "Hold onto your tonsils."

At the last second the male drops his red webbed feet -- like he's going to land on China's face. They blast over our hair. China's laughing, right now, for a little bit longer totally impressed with her dad's 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 and Life section.


Seth Kantner
Around Alaska