A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou
By Seth Kantner. Mountaineers Books, 2021. 306 pages. $28.95.
Seth Kantner made his impressive literary debut with the novel “Ordinary Wolves” in 2004. After that, he authored three more books — a memoir, an essay collection, and a children’s story about the friendship between a wolf pup and a porcupine. Now, the book he has been writing for many years — we might reasonably say all his life — brings together the facts of his unusual life, his acute observations of the natural world, and his concerns for the north country he so treasures. Beautifully written and deeply introspective, “A Thousand Trails Home” may be the book Kantner has been aiming his powers at all along, a masterwork only he could deliver.
Although there is a great deal about caribou in Kantner’s book, do not think that this is a book about caribou. The lives of caribou, as they migrate through the seasons, are the framework on which the book is built, a framework that holds together the timbers of memoir, natural history, history, culture, science and philosophy. Caribou and their “trails home” serve as an overarching metaphor for serious thought about the author’s own movements through the world and, by extension, those of us all.
Organized into four parts corresponding to the four seasons and broken into 20 chapters, “A Thousand Trails Home” begins with descriptions of late summer in Northwest Alaska, amid the migration of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Readers know immediately that the author is keenly aware of all that transpires in that place. “The north wind blows relentlessly now. In the morning, ice is on the ponds, with windy blue waves lapping in narrow slits not yet frozen. Afternoon sunlight is the color of straw. Meanwhile, still coming, are the endless caribou herds...”
“You stare out over the tundra, inhaling the fragrance and beauty with your lungs and your skin and your eyes.” Thousands of caribou appear and move past, “surrounding you in every fold and crevice of the land. The feeling of belonging fills your chest and overflows out across the tundra to the walls of your world, the mountains and the blue edges of the sky.”
Chapters after that alternate between detailed memories from Kantner’s childhood, portraits of elders Kantner and his family learned from, history and natural history of the area, observations of change — both environmental and cultural — over time, caribou biology and life history, details of hunting and food preparation including lessons in making caribou soup and paniqtuq (dried meat), commentary on the ethics of hunting, and scenes from the author’s recent and current life.
Kantner, readers learn, had an uncommon childhood. Born in 1965 to parents originally from Ohio but who chose to live a traditional northern life in a sod house along the Kobuk River, the author and his brother grew up without modern conveniences but with the richnesses of hunting, gathering, traveling by dogsled, running barefoot in all seasons, and building their own toys and tools. In the first chapter, Kantner recounts early memories of his father coming home from hunting, with stray caribou hairs floating off his clothing “to join the caribou hair on our dirt floor.” The two young boys eagerly collected the empty rifle cartridges (”brass treasures”) to play with before helping to reload them. Kantner understood, before all else, that caribou were the most important creatures in his family’s life.
So traditional were the Kantners that they remained in the sod house, hunted on foot, traveled by dogsled, and wore fur clothing long after nearby villagers transitioned to modern homes, speedy snowmachines, and goods ordered from catalogs. In one chapter, Kantner tells of traveling 25 miles upriver for Thanksgiving in Ambler, again when he was a young boy, and how thrilling that experience of being with others was. Yet, he was well aware, then and always, of his differences — including his white skin. Late in the book, he says, “Now, looking back, I’m realizing that I was in my own unique whirlpool of confusion, coming from out in nature, with animals for neighbors, and coming-of-age squarely in the no-man’s-land between Natives and whites. ... and stuck as an Outsider everywhere I went.”
Any yet, those differences are precisely what position Kantner to write with sensitivity and knowledge about the complexities of life in today’s North. His in-between place gives him a singular authority for both describing and interpreting certain values passed down through generations along with contemporary challenges.
In critiquing changes that have come to the North, Kantner doesn’t spare himself. He laments the shift from single-shot rifles to semi-automatics and the loss of dog teams to snowmachines, both of which have resulted in wasteful hunting practices, while acknowledging his own eagerness for new technologies and his participation in a hunt that left him feeling ashamed. He’s critical, too, of the work of some biologists and of government employees and regulations that fail to recognize the needs of rural residents—but tells, as well, of his time working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a study that required killing caribou calves.
Other carefully observed changes in the Kobuk area include weather and climate. Kantner documents, among other effects, the northern march of vegetation, permafrost melt and the drying of lakes and wetlands, ice storms that freeze over the ground caribou need to paw through, and shifts in animal numbers and movements.
As summer turns to fall once again, Kantner notes, “Climate change is on display everywhere: in the warm soil, the falling riverbanks, ashen gray dead cranberry plants, the silty water of the Hunt River; in the towering dwarf birch and the billions of new spruce seedlings. In me, shirtless in September, and packing an unfired rifle.” And caribou: “With eons of experience enduring the harshest conditions, caribou are now caught in the midst of these cataclysmic changes with no time to evolve to face these new threats. They can only adapt or perish. They have no choice as the earth under their hooves transforms into a different planet.”
Kantner describes himself as a reluctant writer, driven to words and to photography — his dozens of photos gracing the book are superb — for a purpose. He wants to convince people to love, respect, and protect the land, even as Americans retreat farther from nature and as new developments, mining and the Ambler Road among them, threaten an older way of life and the caribou that have sustained it. “A Thousand Trails Home,” text and photos, should make any reader consider what we value in life and how our actions will affect the future.