KOBUK RIVER — It's been a cool spring, and this evening, finally, the wind is easing to a breeze. The sun dips toward the mountains in the north, and down from the sky floats that familiar wavering sound of kuukukiaq (common snipe) high in the air, newly arrived and hurrying to claim territories.
Flies buzz around the goose guts in my dogpot, and a big black bumblebee, and everywhere birds are chirping and singing — sparrows and robins and warblers flitting in the branches, rustling in dead leaves, busy setting up homes here on the hill. Pintails zoom by in the sky, and from across the tundra come the calls of cranes and swans and geese and gulls, talking and cheering, arguing and mating.
I'm glad for a break from the wind, to hear the birds, even the hum of a mosquito or two, and the rattle of freshly melted-out frogs in the ponds, and to smell the warming soil and the sticky buds coming on the poplars. It's nice, having all these new neighbors. I'm alone here but starting to feel like I'm part of a bustling city — no people, just so much else: birds and bears, the squirrels and porcupine, fireweed and bluebells and birches, so many creatures busy preparing for summer.
The tundra is finally melting out, turning brown, and soon green, and tonight I have to put my sno-go away. That's always traumatic for me, the end of spring travel and letting go of winter. Regardless of my constant concern about pollution, consumption and wasting resources — regardless also of any inaccurate reputation I may have as a greenie, an environmentalist or whatever — I love roaming this country on that old Arctic Cat.
Out front, gray clouds and orange sky reflect off a huge new river. Water, so much of it, feels foreign after winter. White chunks of ice drift past, like lost mattresses moving slowly on an unseen current. Out in the middle, a raft of tiny dark dots appears and disappears — diving ducks, the ones we call ahaalik — feeding and calling, and eventually flying back upriver to float this stretch again. Ah-haa-lik. Ah-haa-lik. Their small, refined voices carry across the water, a beautiful sound, confidential conversations full of meaning I don't know — and memories I do: They're telling me winter is over, the time of water has come again to the Arctic.
A few caribou have finally showed up, crossing above and below the house. They're weathered-looking, shedding, bleached white, gray and light brown from the long winter and spring sun. On the tundra, miles away, they look like tiny rice working their way north, heading to the calving grounds.
Caribou have been absent this breakup — a first in my experience — and I've missed their company. Not a single animal crossed the rotting river ice in front of the house. In the past, I've seen hundreds, usually thousands, from my doorstep. One spring, May 1998, a biologist friend was flying aerial surveys and told me he estimated 50,000 came through here. It was relentless; day and night, caribou everywhere. Like refugees from a war.
Today a little line of cows and calves swam across — 31 animals, 500 yards, in four and a half minutes — and waded ashore below where we used to tie our dog team. They stood in the dusty yellow grass before entering the willows, shaking off icy water and slush, looking around, checking for danger, shaking off again. It was good to see them, to welcome them back after winter. It was strange, too, to wonder if maybe I'd watched these same animals depart this shore back in September, heading south. A long time ago — a labyrinth of survival for them, I'm certain — and in some ways for me too.
The ice went out a week ago, with low water, no exciting jams here, no smashed trees or gouged shorelines. Breakup was surprisingly polite, considering the amount of snow and the flooding that might have happened. Wind and cool weather slowed melting, and a lot of snow is still in draws and in the trees and the mountains are pearly white.
It's always hard to believe how fast spring comes — even these slower breakups — and how quickly the land changes, and we change. Yesterday it was 40 above zero, and I went in for a jacket. A week ago I sno-goed halfway to the Jade Mountains; now they're miles across the tundra and I won't get back there for months.
Two weeks ago the river was white, snow and ice. A wolf showed up out there, below my waterhole. It headed this way and I lost sight of it for a minute. When I looked again it was back where I first spotted it. That happened twice, before I realized there were three wolves. Ravens had woken me that morning, cawing. I'd left my twice-gnawed sheep backbones outside the door and assumed the birds were working on them — until I saw the wolves and understood what they were really discussing.
That same day, I sno-goed out back, toward Silver Dollar Lake. I figured to sacrifice a gallon of gas to look for a goose for dinner, to check for sign of caribou and see what the world was doing to the north. The tundra was white, deep and soft, tough going for my fan-cooled engine. A mile back, behind the big birch knoll where we pick cranberries, I ran into two grizzly bears, fresh out of their den, hanging out on a snow cornice, with the Jade Mountains behind them. Darn. I'd left my big Nikon home — after all spring of carrying it, every day, everywhere.
I got out my little camera, snapped a shot, and then turned for home to get my Nikon. When I glanced back, something was moving on the lake ice. A tiny plastic bag, riding the wind. I squinted, surprised, wondering who tossed that trash? But of course there was no one, just me; I'm the only person I've seen in weeks. That bag had slipped out of my pocket.
I almost wish I could have said to heck with it. But I couldn't, not after my strict upbringing of don't pollute, and especially don't waste. My parents were always scrimping — on butter and bullets, rope, and soap and socks, matches — even on cardboard. "Don't use too much! When will we get more cardboard?" I had no choice, had to zoom across the slushy ice, snatch that bag. I didn't get stuck in the water, but the bears spotted me and by the time I returned they were traveling north.
I drove around them, tried to get a few photos, but I felt bad bothering them, and the light had gone flat. They were clumsy, scared, unsure and confused. One stood up on its hind feet, staring at me, a paw on the other's shoulder. Looking through my 500mm lens it was suddenly obvious: A voice in my head said, "Oh, they're just kids! Leave 'em alone." They were: small and fluffy, and disoriented after their long, long nap.
I disassembled my tripod, embarrassed about wasting gas, to accomplish what — be nature's nuisance? I knew the bears had their own problems. The snow was wet and deep, and the tracks of those three wolves were all around on the knoll. If those teenagers stumbled into them — or worse, one of their huge brown hairy scary Uncle Pervys — they might be meals by morning.
When I last saw them they were playing, meandering north toward the Nuna River. I headed for home, keeping an eye out for dinner. But there's more to the story. That little bag is here on the table now, wet and red with spring cranberries I picked for a pie. It's the type for vegetables, thin and flimsy, with a green and orange fruit basket printed on it and the words "Picky-Picky-Picky PRODUCE." I have a roll of them. Twenty-five years ago it was fat as a roll of paper towels, heavy. That was when my friends Bob and Dorene Schiro last returned to Ambler, when they moved to California, and let me pick through old tools and junk in their cache. I asked for a spool of yellow rope and that roll of bags. Bob gave me an old .22 rifle too, from a friend of his who died and never returned to retrieve it. It had a broken stock, glued and wrapped with twine where someone had obviously gotten mad and used it to beat a sled dog.
The yellow rope proved terrible, that hideous polyester stuff that unties your knot almost when you're done tying it and rots into nasty splinters. I still have most of it. The rifle works, and the bags — well, they've been great, and educational.
When I boated home that day I made a little vow: Seth, for once in your life, practice NOT worrying about wasting; don't ever wash one of these little bags out like you do Ziplocs; just frigging use them like there's no tomorrow. Over the years, I kept that promise, and it's kind of been a little relief. And they still haven't run out. Right this minute, over by the back wall the lip of one is sticking out of my second drawer. I can grab one anytime I'm gutting a goose, or a rabbit, or I need to stuff a wad of .22 ammo in my pack. Each bag helpfully reminds: OPEN HERE, OPEN HERE.
Everything else in my life — every square of toilet paper, every shotgun shell, every galvanized nail — still has to deal with the parental voice in my head, constantly questioning: "Hey, are you wasting?"
This past January, when an Anchorage newspaper writer said I was inconsequential to the future of Alaska, I had no problem agreeing. Aren't we all feeling that — concerned about our country, while fearing and feeling ourselves sliding toward some version of inconsequential, marginalized more and more from decisions being made about this land we call home?
The writer also accused me of being a big polluter — for flying to New York, a flight I took grudgingly, after much consideration, out of respect for a group of people who have honored and respected me. That second accusation was harder to take and left me unsure of which direction to proceed — because again, nowadays aren't we all doing that, polluting? I was confused and mostly saddened because I don't wish this to be the America we have become: attacking each other while our world goes to hell?
Out here alone, I've been thinking a lot about relations between humans —between us and caribou too — thinking how different we might act, every day, if we knew the hard, hard pieces of each other's lives. If that guy only knew the requests I have turned down — to be paid to pollute — to travel on jets across the world to speak for an hour, about global warming, of all things. Or if he knew the portions of my life carved and whittled, caught and skinned, saved and sewed, or hauled home from the dump.
What matters here, I think, is how badly we are failing in our relations with nature, and now with each other. Somehow, we need to navigate a new way to get along; something needs to remind us how to respect and to realize for even a minute that every living thing is struggling to make the world a better place — even if just for themselves.
Ah, well, it's almost midnight, and as usual I have other problems, closer to home. Dinner, and I'm half done putting my sno-go away, covering it with old tattered roofing to keep bears from eating the seat, biting holes in the gas tank. The snow out there behind my woodpile is up to my knees. That old yellow rope is splintering in my hands, alders scratching my arms, and a crowd of mosquitoes showed up to help. Meanwhile, I keep slogging back inside to poke and prod my wood stove. It's smoking, burning poorly, and the oven isn't coming up to temperature. Tonight, I'm doing what my neighbors out here are all doing — eating what's in season. My cranberry pie is almost done, my goose not yet tender.
Ah well, these things I can handle. Meanwhile, the sound of kuukukiaq and cranes and songbirds fill the night and sunlight leaks between mountain peaks, doing that thing it does at this time of night at this time of year, shining out of the north, throwing shadows and light on the wrong sides of the tall timber across the river, making the spruce trees stand alone, glowing like dusky green castles. A thousand beautiful green pinnacles, over there on the far shore.
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.