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Alaska Life

Moments of truth: Life and change on the Kobuk River

  • Author: Seth Kantner
  • Updated: May 18, 2018
  • Published April 28, 2018

Deep snow this winter left the tundra buried into spring. (Photo by Seth Kantner)

KOBUK RIVER — It's getting dark in my sod house. I'm alone, and the heaped snowdrifts out my windows make me feel more buried down in the ground than usual in this subterranean home. In the dimness, along the north wall, my Mason jars and hanging cups and the pinned-up photographs of my family's past here on this hill reflect the faint and fading glow.

I'm hoping my solar panel charged today; I'd like some light, maybe some music. And I promised myself I'd write this evening, about caribou. I promise that every day, but every day I just want to be outside, snowshoeing after rabbits, chipping a waterhole, hauling firewood, doing what I grew up doing, what I love — working and hunting and inhaling the land and wind and returning sun — not struggling with unruly words. Being alone is easier outside than inside, too.

Writing, for me, is tougher than all the toughest things I do, and lately there's a new hole in the trail — another added difficulty besides my dyslexia, bad spelling and jumbled thoughts — a steady blizzard of mixed messages in my head, questioning what matters most in these modern days, what will help, how will I write about caribou without making people mad? The most discordant voice demands: Why write? Who reads? Who out there is not on their phone, or busy buying a newer phone? Who has time or even cares anymore about caribou, or porcupine problems, how tall the Labrador tea has grown, or how thin the ice on the river is this year?

Speaking of ice, the traditional trail along this section of the river has been snowed-in this season, unused, buried. Finally, this week some travelers are passing, mostly because of the Kobuk 440 dog race. They are sticking to the fresh trail, though. That leaves me uneasy, strangely — feeling at home but a little out of place — to have almost no people out roaming the country for food and furs.

Beside me here, on the old table my dad made, under my stained coffee mug, a yellow sticky Post-It note says, "Tell a truth you didn't know." There are a lot of notes scattered on my table, like yellow leaves in the fall. I can't recognize most human faces, and have virtually no short-term memory; I live under the vague impression that I have a hundred sagacious thoughts each day, but I'm not at all sure about that, since I can't seem to remember any of them. Hence the yellow sticky notes. Lately, I've been threatening to get tattoos, too, to help remember essential stuff. The first one, on my chest — or better yet, my forehead — will say: nwob ti etirW.

The cabin table. (Photo by Seth Kantner)

I shift my coffee cup. Scrawled underneath: Do you still believe in heroes? Hunters? Humor? At the bottom corner is one more tiny word. kids. Hmm, I wish I could remember what I meant there, exactly.

I miss the old hunters stopping in when they were traveling the land. I miss one constant in my life, since I was a little kid — one as consistent as the north wind: Clarence Wood's face showing up at the door, at any hour, black, frostbitten, sun-cooked, often needing gas, wanting coffee — at any hour, of course — sitting awhile, joking, teasing, telling stories of hunting and the rough country he'd crossed, and then rising stiffly, aching from the miles but unable not to stare hungrily out at the landscape, and travel on.

All my life, Clarence has been the most persistent hunter on this land, here and traveling north to Point Hope, Anaktuvuk and beyond, traveling some of the wildest country left on Earth, in the worst weather, in every season — until his name grew to almost be more than a name, to be the epitome of a true hunter and that culture he came from — but I think these years might finally be catching Clarence. And I'm not sure there's a place anymore for anyone to take his place.

***

It's midnight now: This day has been another beautiful one, sunny and bright, white snow and blue sky, splendid traveling conditions, to the mountains and more mountains beyond. This evening I've done my countless chores, sharpened the chain saw, wired the split rusted stovepipe, filled the kettles, hauled in a last armload of wood, finished frying some caribou meat and muskox fat, and now the ice and the sky out there are bluish-gray, descending into night.

The spring light reminds me of half a century of Aprils on this hill. The sun returning, the long sun-drenched days; the slow letting-go of winter while still half-expecting more snow, still waiting on the first caribou herds to appear from the south and the first fat geese to fly overhead — both species navigating separate migrations north, their arrivals announcing the coming flood of birds, mosquitoes, green leaves, and that exhilarating, almost unbelievable transformation of Arctic winter melting back to summer.

Actually, I did see caribou last week. When I snowgoed to Ambler to buy gas and see the dog mushers, I was surprised to run into a small herd standing in the trail. I don't think they are part of the migration, though. The main herds have been far away, absent here most of the winter, and these likely are survivors from stragglers that wintered farther east.

I stopped, and they watched me and then bolted up the hard-packed trail, sprinting straight for Ambler, a few miles away. In the next moments I experienced some dismaying realizations: Somehow I'd forgotten my wallet at home; Martin Cleveland at the Ambler city gas pump would be locking up in about 12 minutes; I was going to arrive late, broke and driving a herd of caribou into town — this on the big race day, with out-of-town visitors and villagers gathered and watching the river, waiting to greet arriving mushers — and with a hundred high-strung racing dogs already staked out behind the community building, resting. Or trying to.

Quickly, I did something I usually avoid: I gunned my snowgo and managed to zoom past just yards beside the fleeing animals. "Sorry, guys," I muttered. They were mostly girls, actually, bravely running their hearts out — sadly not in the wisest of directions.

At Don and Mary Williams' house, along the river at the lower end of town, I left my machine running, knocked and rushed in. "Oh! Hi!" Don shouted, alone, surprised, pleased to have a visitor.

I didn't have time for that. Gas is too important. I held out my hand. "Can I borrow some money?"

Later, over lunch in town with Don and Mary, I grinned at Mary and said, "I probably shouldn't tell you this …" She was slicing bread and glanced up, curious and expectant. She's in her 70s and has been sick, coughing, and had spent half the night at the clinic, but had just been prescribed Prednisone and now was bustling around, heating leftover caribou soup, making coffee. "I passed a bunch of nice-looking caribou, on the river, below your old igloo."

Her face lit up, shocked, thrilled, and then teasingly miffed that I hadn't shot any. "Ah! Ah, you!" She waved her hand, and then smiled acceptingly. That's something the elders here are amazingly good at: acceptance. It is kind of necessary, with the alien changes they've experienced in the last five or 10 or 20 decades, but still it's remarkable.

Mary Williams cutting up caribou legs (Seth Kantner)

Mary has a perspective from the old culture. No matter the season, she's always excited to have fresh meat; she'll never say no to a fresh caribou. Picture yourself driving by $100 bills heaped along the side of the road and deciding to not pick up even one, and then stopping in and telling your Depression-era grandma about it. To Mary, that's how juvenile I can be at times. That was the surprise, excitement and then acceptance on her face.

Don just chuckled. He's from Ohio, a long, long time ago, and more pragmatic at this point, more inclined to think of the work involved, and the fact that their freezers are fairly full. He grinned, eating, gripping a marrow bone in his fingers, and pointed his knife over his shoulder. Beside the stove, the black hooves and gray furry ankles of four lower legs stuck out of a box, thawing. "She got them legs need skinning," he assured me.

Like so much else, that afternoon was not as simple as years back. The rifle I wore is new, a .17 HMR bolt action, but I'm pretty sure it's illegal to hunt caribou with it because it's rimfire. Meanwhile, Mary is far from young; moving slow, gone on medical trips a lot — and she'd want a female caribou, what people are accustomed to shooting in April. Half of the herd had hard antlers, which means female, pregnant and, hopefully, carrying some brisket and back fat. My eyes had instinctively — hungrily — latched onto those animals, and nothing makes me feel as worthwhile as delivering good meat to good people. But these days it's more complicated. I worry about waste. I'm hesitant to shoot a pregnant animal. Or break new laws.

***

Windblown lynx tracks cross an exposed area. (Photo by Seth Kantner)

Outside, it's as dark as it's going to get now, a low twilight, and the bare branches of the birches and aspens out on the hill are jagged forks, reaching like delicate black lightning up into the night sky. Across the river ice, the timber on the far riverbank is dark.

I just flipped on the 11-watt bulb over my table. There is power in my batteries. Under shards of thin light, I reread that yellow note, still pondering what I might have meant. I do like kids. I relate to young children better than to most adults. Probably it's my childish nature, limited vocabulary and boundless imagination. I admire their unfiltered view of the world, too, their attraction to furry animals and bugs, berries and flowers, rocks, mud and water, and all the intricacies of nature.

Maybe that's a part of what I like and miss about the old Eskimo hunters and elders, too — besides the friendships, laughter and heroic stories — that intense focus on animals and the endless and uncertain providences of the land. Me, as a kid, all I wanted was be outside, hunting and trapping and running my dogs, or if stuck inside, hopefully hearing tales of adventures out on the land. Unfortunately, with this dyslexic brain, the only thing algebra, Shakespeare and Walt Whitman ever taught me was to feel retarded.

I remember some schoolteachers back then saying that villagers weren't teaching their children the old ways, as if they had zero confidence that their vast cultural knowledge would have any value going forward. It's a strange feeling now, after all these years, to be staring into that same storm.

Maybe that happens when you've lived in two different cultures, or through too much change too quickly. Still, I don't know where I'd be without the things my parents taught me. Even the small stuff — especially the small stuff: how to tie knots and sharpen my knife, how to gut geese and render bear fat. The modern world places little or no value on those things, but oddly I don't know how I would have survived without them — and the land — to fall back on, in so many ways. Maybe that is where caribou and kids intersect for me.

With how fast everything is changing, children these days are basically living in more than one culture. It seems that's what the past, present and future have become for all of us: separate cultures. I wish I could advise them, tell them some good trails. I wish I could tell them to trust in that instinctive fascination with nature, and we (tech-dazed adults) will instinctively trust in you. But that would be old-fashioned. Touchy-feely. Too weird. Maybe not even useful at all.

In schools, I just show slides of caribou and other animals, and encourage students to write a good sentence or two. Maybe one perfect paragraph. A few words that might change their lives. I give examples: a job application; a letter to Cabela's informing them they sold you leaky waders, and you need a new pair; a note to your best friend telling him or her how loved they are, truly, and please don't ever forget. I don't mention letters to the president anymore, or our Congress people. I stay with the handful of things I know are still true. And tonight, maybe that is what this little yellow sticky note under my cup of coffee is trying to tell me.

Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves" and most recently the nonfiction book "Swallowed by the Great Land." He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.

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