Tales of an Arctic garden boy

Seth Kantner
Gardeners tend lettuce in Shugnak.
Carrots grown north of the Arctic Circle.
Eleanor Morena searches for cabbage from a table of diverse plants in Ambler.

When I was a kid, workers from the Maniilaq Garden Project would come to Ambler to assist gardeners. A lady named Sue Cohn ran the program. I remember she gave my parents some of the leftover supplies for their gardens: rakes and a tiny shovel called a trowel that you dug with instead of just using your fingers.

The project brought rototillers, and built people greenhouses -- which everyone promptly used for storage. They're still using them for storage. They also brought young cabbage starts, and seeds and tools. Those Ambler ladies were crazy for the plants. (Actually, they still are.)

My parents never asked to boat a tiller downriver to our place or tried for any of those little head lettuces or anything. They sprouted their own.

The green vegetable starts were for villagers and were sought-after items. People pretty much met the mail planes they came on.

When my brother was 8 and I was 7, we asked my mom if we could plant two wrinkly old potatoes. In September we dug up our crop -- five pounds from each plant. A heap, and they were good!

As teenagers, the UAF Cooperative Extension Service sent my brother and me a dozen different species of potato to grow and to keep records of which produced best in the Arctic. Some were purple inside; one beautiful red one was called IditaRed; a yellow one I think was called Yukon Gold.

When I went out to college, I could grow potatoes, skin wolverine and pick fish out of a net, but I couldn't talk on a phone without getting nervous and I had no clue how to interview for a job.

I peeled logs one spring for $8 an hour, dug ditches with a shovel another, drove taxi in Fairbanks for a month. I dreamed about playing guitar or being a bartender, but around people I mostly looked at the ground, shifty-eyed and mumbly. Nobody would hire me.

I was more successful at ending up on the other side of the bar, handing my earnings across. I pretty much knew I wouldn't ever be the kind of person to have a steady job. Still, I wondered about that one Sue had.

Seventeen springs ago I signed on with Maniilaq, here in Kotzebue -- a seasonal job, to run what everyone called the Garden Project. I must have done OK on the job interview. It helps when you're the only applicant.

Growing lettuce was easy, and I thought I knew how to buy shovels too, but was wrong again. Corporation paperwork was a whole new zucchini: everything TR's and PO's and Check Req's. It took a week to figure out how to purchase a pound of nails.

Back then I ran a greenhouse behind Chukchi College, I flew to villages with vegetable starts, rebuilt rototillers, plowed gardens and was enthusiastic enough to even try to grow a lawn here for Don Strickland -- on almost pure gravel.

Big Greg Garrett, who worked as a librarian at Chukchi would come out on the wheelchair ramp, lean on the rail and harass me. "What's garden boy up to now?" He'd chuckle and shout, "These people are Eskimos! They're hunters. Not farmers. Bring me some deep-fried lettuce."

I experimented with strawberries, asparagus and even overwintered oxytropes for the Air Force for replanting after the White Alice teardown. I had boundless energy and thought a big turnip, a plate of seal oil and a sack of dried caribou was the best food a person could gather, and why not work hard for it?

In June 1996, in Shungnak, I remember struggling to till Wesley Woods' big garden. Wesley was one of the best gardeners in the region and grew enough turnips to last all winter. The previous day he'd flown down on Hageland to Kotzebue to get his knee checked and instinctively I knew to get that garden finished before the mail plane returned. I almost made it. Sweating and dirty, I glanced up.

Here came Wesley, limping fast down the hill. He waved for me to stop. I shut the rototiller engine down.

Wesley was born in the 1930s at the top corner of Alaska Territory, along the trail on the five-year reindeer drive from Buckland to Mc-Kenzie Delta. He knew what he was doing when it came to gardening. He tore open bags of sawdust and spread buckets of ashes in the dirt. Fish scraps and scales glinted in the soil.

He gestured briefly with his big hand. "Now you plow again."

I remember in Deering planting turnips with Flora Karmun. She was elderly and explained how as a girl the miners taught her to grow turnips and salt the greens in wooden barrels for the winter. She made me tea afterward. Her husband was old, cropped white hair, and sat there in the room smiling but not saying much.

"He got a hearing aid," Flora commented. She nodded to it on a shelf. "Three hundred fifty dollars. He should have got teeth."

I remember in Noorvik knocking on a door where I was told a young woman wanted to garden. Finally, a tousled head peered out. It was Marlene Downey, half asleep, and she came out in the bright sun and we chopped roots and tilled a garden.

"Talk to your plants," I suggested. "They'll like you better." I handed her some sunflower seeds. "Try these."

In the fall, Marlene took me on her Honda down to the end of town. Her garden had grown, green and lush. In front of the house the sunflowers were tall.

"I talk to them," she said, smiling. She pointed at one, only two feet tall. "Except that one. I never talked to that one."

But, for every success there have been plenty of wilted dead lettuce over the years, broccoli gone to seed, vandalized rototillers. At times it gets depressing.

Last season Audrey Aanes of Arctic Access asked how she could assist the program to make gardening more accessible to elders and handicapped people.

"An assistant!" I said. "Every June I'm trying to be everywhere."

Her program didn't have the funds, and neither did mine. I wrote a proposal and she worked on grants. Conoco Phillips stepped up with $4,400. Unfortunately, her other casts got only small bites. The winter rolled by. Bering Air generously offered her 50 percent off plane fares and I arranged for Audrey to hire Linnea Wik, a gardener formerly from Ambler. Still, the numbers were too tight to pay a worker and to fly her around the region.

Two days before my trip to Kobuk, I picked up the phone -- I'm not as nervous on it anymore -- and dialed the old Hageland Aviation number, now Era Alaska.

Back a decade, a blond woman named Cindy Poeppe worked there. She had a smile and a way that kept everyone laughing, even when it seemed half a village was crammed in the small building, babies crying and people bustling in with boxes of groceries and tubs of seal oil as luggage, all waiting on flights. When Cindy moved away I seriously wondered if I could even make the Garden Project happen without her pleasantly pulling it all together -- me with my tillers and boxes of plants and switching itineraries.

Now I spoke with the new station manager, Karmen Monigold. She suggested I submit a proposal. Uh-oh, I thought, another proposal -- when carrot seeds should already be in the ground.

I hung up, but couldn't decipher my own handwriting to spell "Monigold." My daughter corrected my spelling and finally at 9 p.m. the email sent. Early morning the phone rang. Yes, Karmen said, Era would be happy to fly the elders' garden assistant to all seven villages we intended to serve -- free.

I like to work fast, but her promptness startled me. Now I could spend just enough time here on the coast to keep the starter plants alive while the Arctic Access gardener could fly wherever she was needed.

I guess times haven't completely changed. All the women behind the counter down at Era treated Linnea and me like gold -- laughing and joking around while dealing with armloads of rakes and shovels, even switching planes to Kobuk to make room for all our plants.

These days Wesley's passed on, and so has Flora, and a bunch of the other gardeners. But others, like George Goldie, keep showing up too, enthusiastic.

I'm pleased each year when Nina Harvey in Kobuk shows up for seeds and plants, and her sister Mildred Black in Shungnak, and when Eleanor Morena works her way over to the Ambler IRA with her heavy homemade cane, nearly blind, her hands feeling for plants I've laid out on tables, hollering, "TIS ONE CABBAGE?"

There are others too. I guess by planting gardens, we show the youngers what a garden is, and in the end I still believe growing your own food is cousin to hunting it -- and a lot more than just that same-sized turnip from Costco. For me, it's definitely healthier to be a garden boy a couple months a year, and better no one hired me to be a bartender anyway.

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