Seth Kantner: Man confronts mystery beast in Arctic sauna

Seth Kantner

I've never really believed in aliens. I stay close to home, hunting and roaming the land, more or less accustomed to the creatures I'm out here with. Probably the closest I've come to thinking I spotted one was on Alaska Airlines.

It's been an unpredictable winter, though -- rainstorms in the Arctic in November, December and January, little snow, thin ice and breakup starting in April -- and it's hard to know what to expect next.

All this climate change stuff puts you on edge and depletes your trust and confidence. Each new cave-in along the river -- is that the permafrost melting? Every unrecognizable plant creeping into your favorite cranberry patch -- is that an invasive species? All the helicopters zooming around -- what are they after?

It's hard to know. For those of us who have lived lives closely tied to the land, these are confusing times.

In April, in the disarray of dealing with such an early spring, I had a dream in which I figured out why a vegetarian friend of mine couldn't keep the details of caribou and seal and seagull eggs and seasons straight -- she wasn't eating enough life.

I woke up and made coffee. As I packed my cameras and shotgun shells to head upriver for breakup, I thought about that idea in relation to processed food, too. I remembered the first musk ox I shot -- not because I wanted to kill one but because I wanted to learn that animal on the inside. I wanted to know every part that tasted good and how they all fit together. Now I do.

I guess I was contemplating too much that morning; I forgot to pack duct tape, spare underwear or that second pound of coffee for spring. (Not necessarily in that order of importance.)

By late April, breakup was in full swing along the Kobuk. The tundra was bare and brown and the river flowing water along the sides. The ice looked as it should in mid-May. Geese had arrived, but no songbirds yet, and no sandhill cranes. Wolves were about, but not a single sign of a fox. And a nerve-wracking amount of mosquitoes were already out -- for such an early date.

Caribou were crossing, which is always reassuring in so many ways. The caribou really is the animal all of us count on most. My wife Stacey and I quickly settled into the routine of spring. Spring here at home involves being pinned down by breakup, just living around camp, staying up late at night on the hill, watching animals and listening for new birds. And eating some of both.

A lynx walked behind the house and three bears showed up behind the cache -- before the sow led them crashing away in the alders. A wolverine ran down the center ice and otters crossed downriver where three cow moose were busting willows.

The weather was cold with a strange, relentless south wind. When the wind switched, caribou came across the ice in good numbers. I had my camera out, trying to get videos -- something I'd never tried before.

On a day that was finally warm and sunny, Stacey was outside reading her book and watching caribou while I scurried up and down the hill with my tripod and camera. Lines of animals were fighting through rotting ice, working their way toward us in the floating pans and current, crossing the quarter-mile-wide river.

I was hot and tired and had changed into cutoffs when a golden eagle started circling. I forgot about the caribou, trying to focus my lens on the eagle. It landed in a spruce near the cache and I ran past the sauna to get a shot -- barefoot and worrying about rose thorns.

Passing our little sauna, I noticed the door was open. I'm always careful to close it because I don't want a porcupine getting in and crapping and gnawing and crapping more. That's what they did with our old log sauna. They chewed the door off. And then a marten dragged a dead ptarmigan in there and forgot it. And a family of weasels moved in. It turned into sort of a drafty turd museum.

Also, the front of this tiny structure is a storage area, where we store our blankets and clean clothes to keep them from getting mouse-chewed and moldy in the old sod house.

Suddenly, I heard crashing coming from inside. I planted my tripod and started to lunge in to confront the intruder. About then I noticed how wide open that door really was and remembered a caribou kill just up the ridge -- one I'd been expecting might bring a big brown visitor down the trail. I decided to grab my double-barrel shotgun for company.

Our sauna has two doors -- the outer one leading into a cramped storage area and the next in where the barrel stove is. When I started through the second I got a bigger fright than any brown bear has given me in years. In the dimness, something screamed at me, a shrill bark so loud it hurt. A creature I didn't recognize -- like a teenage wolverine, but with round nostrils, protruding front teeth, gray fur, long fingers and a tail that I'd never seen before -- was coming at me.

I retreated. Over the years I've learned the hard way that it's nice to have pants on when a wild animal is chasing you. My jeans suddenly seemed like a good idea. And boots. And maybe welding gloves.

So began the standoff with the alien.

I banged on the outside walls. He wasn't budging. I lit Buhach in a coffee can and slid that in on a plank. I got screamed at. The place filled with smoke. Nobody backed down. I tossed in my headlamp -- on strobe -- and got screamed at more.

I reached an arm in with my camera and got an unfocused photo of a powerful face in the dark behind the stove -- vaguely reminiscent of Uncle Prick, a big old porcupine my daughter and I used to watch out here in the willows.

The most curious part, for me, was what my mind did. I'm so used to being accustomed to everything furry here on the tundra that I was confounded by that strange face, long claws and weird tail. If I hadn't been used to knowing all the animals passing through, I would have been fine, maybe like a happy tourist in Tennessee -- "Look, a cute little fella." And if this were a bear or otter or wolverine, I would have gone in, chased it out or shot it. But I didn't want to shoot some alien creature that I'd never seen here before. My mind kept circling through possible invasive species -- something from the southern states, or Siberia. What do they have? Nutria? Groundhogs? Olinguito? Coatimundi?

Stacey mentioned a YouTube video she'd seen of a honey badger. Then she tried to talk me into the fact that it must be a muskrat. She looked one up in a book; it said they were gray. I tried to believe her, but it wasn't easy. I've eaten a lot of muskrats. The first animals my dad taught my brother and me to trap were muskrats in their little sod dwellings on lake ice. I even know how hard they bite. And they're not gray, they're brown.

I remember Clarence Alexander of Fort Yukon telling a story making fun of a white guy for eating muskrat tail without trimming the hair off. At the time I didn't laugh quite as hard as everyone else -- my brother and I grew up eating plenty of them. We knew their tails had fine hair, but we never trimmed it, just ate it -- skin, hair and all.

Even our first pet was a muskrat; he lived under our floorboards one winter. Squint used to eat out of our hands and bite when he was bored, grumpy or just not paying attention.

All that to say -- a person gets used to knowing animals, having history with them. And whoever was hiding in the dark behind the barrel stove looked like he had larger chompers than old Squint ever did.

Regardless, someone had to go in. It wasn't Stacey.

I set up my camera on video and took an old broken CB antenna, gloves and earmuffs. It was a hell of a racket -- me banging on the stove and the critter shouting at me -- before he ran out. When he finally did, I was vindicated. Stacey let loose with a shout: "What the ---- was that!?"

We rewound my camera, watched the footage and still didn't know what it was. It was a 10- or 15-pound animal with burly arms, beautiful gray fur, long claws and a fat, cheerful face with woodchuck teeth.

That night, Stacey looked up marmot in the World Book. Then I remembered old stories I'd heard as a kid: hunters telling of siksikpuk, northeast in the mountains toward Anaktuvuk. My brother and I had always wanted to see one.

After breakup, hunting boats came downriver from Ambler. Alvin Williams said he'd seen a marmot once at Red Dog and he took my photo to town and showed it around. No one had seen one there before. Minnie Gray, an esteemed elder, in her 80s and wise with a past of living on the land, had never seen one, but she had heard of them.

Clarence Wood, old now and one of the most famous hunters around, stopped in along the riverbank in his boat. He squinted at the picture, nodded and said they were fat -- he'd eaten some in Anaktuvuk.

"They always move big rocks," he said. "Got fancy house." He wanted to know why we weren't eating it.

About then I was starting to wonder the same thing. It is intriguing, though, to have a new visitor here along the Kobuk after all these years.

I just hope he builds his own house in the ground and doesn't plan to inherit ours.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com.

 


Seth Kantner
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