Seth Kantner: With warm December winds, shaken faith in Arctic weather

Seth Kantner
Photo by Seth KantnerRichard Monroe takes advantage of good cold weather to jig for tomcod on the lagoon south of Kotzebue
Seth Kantner, author from Kotzebue.040826
Fran Durner

KOTZEBUE -- It's raining again. Was that a pop song from the '80s? I don't know -- I just wish it would stop. This is December, after all, and in a place that used to be cold and our people called it the Arctic.

Outside, in darkness, wind buffets the house -- the way it should -- but rain and ice pellets rattle against the windows, too. Out there my snow machine is gassed and ready. Packed on the freight sled are axes and a shovel, tiktaaliq (mudshark) hooks and an ice chisel. Andrew Greene and I had planned to head up the Noatak to set hooks under the ice today. We're not going anywhere in this rain. We haven't exactly cancelled -- I think we're too depressed about the warm weather to even bother.

Folks here are famous for being able to handle the cold, but anything wet in December has always made us nervous. Especially wet falling from the sky. Lately, weather, our favorite nemesis, has broken the rules. Our confidence in the most-trustworthy feature of the Arctic -- winter -- has been wounded. If anyone starts to forget that, all they have to do is look at the mess of ice shoved up against Front Street, or walk out in the pouring rain.

In late September, ice formed on the inner sound here and in the rivers, as it should, but then weeks of warm wind and rain melted us back to late summer. As trapping season loomed, the water remained open, and around town people joked about setting traps by boat, or jet ski. Actually, "joked" might be the wrong word. Mostly we growled, and grumped. The whole region had cabin fever. Those of us who are addicted to the country -- to getting out, and hunting and fishing and trapping -- had it the worst, and at times we resorted to cynical humor: about drowning ourselves, or moving to Anchorage, things of that nature.

Now, before noon, daybreak doesn't help. The windows are opaque, coated in half an inch of ice. I can't see out and can't stand staying inside. Again, the door doesn't want to open, and as usual it won't close. The doorknob seems to come off in my hand, but it's only a circle of ice, and immediately a gust of wind takes advantage of me being off balance to try to fling me down the stairs. At the bottom I fall -- twice, in the same spot.

My neighbor, Larry Schweigert, comes my way, wary on the glare ice, walking his black lab, Tripper. Or maybe it's the other way around; Tripper's walking him.

"That didn't..." Larry's saying. I can't hear him in the wind and step closer. He's in his work uniform, a neon green Alaska Airlines reflective vest.

"Tough morning to de-ice the jet?" I ask. "I just heard it launch; thought they had got out hours ago."

"You're telling me!" He shakes his head.

I kick at glinting rounds of firewood, trying not to slip, thinking about fish, and de-icer draining off the nearby tarmac--basically humans spitting at Mother Nature when she's already pretty well fed up with us.

My woodpile looks like someone dipped the logs in glass. I pound at it but the ice doesn't want to come off. The trees already had ice on the south sides when I cut them last week. A porcupine had been working nearby, and I wondered how he felt about all that water frozen to his daily bark.

Now the spruce splits sluggishly in the warmth. Under his porch, Larry digs crusty snow aside and fights free a whole thawing caribou. I go back in to feed the stove and decide how I feel about raingear today.

Back in early November, winter gave it a good third try. One day I awoke to not only ice spanning the lagoon, but fresh snow blowing past, beautiful and white and powdery -- like snow should be. I grabbed my beaver hat and camera, excited to get some frost on my eyelashes.

Out there on the ice toward the airstrip, Robert Monroe was putting a hole down to fish for tomcod. It was good to see a young man out there first, and alone. Further down toward the mouth of the lagoon, other figures hunched over holes in the ice. I think all of us were relieved, our confidence in cold weather slowly beginning to return.

Ten days later, another warm storm roared up the Bering Straits. Waves pounded the shores, and a storm-surge flooded coastal communities and surrounding lowlands. The rain returned, pouring down, coating the land in glass. When it was over, that beautiful new ice out in front of town looked like earthquake rubble, and we didn't know if we should believe in winter anymore or not.

That's why, now in the dark of December, we're sensitive, uneasy and mistrustful of the sky dumping more rain. For years, word has had it that the Arctic is and will be "ground zero" for global climate change. These past nine weeks have brought those predictions home, made them seem real like never before -- and this, of course, directly following the strange uncertainty of no caribou moving through in August and most of September.

I grew up -- 30 and 40 years ago -- being warned about the Greenhouse Effect. I've never been a doubter. But it's so big; it's like thinking about a comet someday hitting Earth. What am I going to do about that?

Now, in the dusk of early evening, I give up on tiktaaliq for another day, take my camera and tripod, and walk out into the jumbled ice. Being out here on the ice at night is addictive; it's so huge and black and beautiful. Uncertainty in my life has always sent me hurrying back out to the wild, to what I know and trust. I've always believed most in my ability to find food. Nothing in a city or along any highway has felt as real to me.

But, this rain isn't helping with any of that. I picture Dall sheep dying, musk oxen sheeted in ice, and caribou kicking down through frozen layers for lichen. These warm winds of a weakened winter carried in doubt with all that moisture, and I question more than ever, what will be living out here in the future when we need food? I believe, tonight in the wet darkness, across this vast land and ocean, that all of us creatures are working to survive, in some form of glass home.


Special to the Daily News