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Homesick for breakup in the Arctic

  • Author: Seth Kantner
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 28, 2015

My daughter, China, is back East, about to graduate from one of the toughest boarding schools in the country. She's studying hard every day and getting good grades -- all the while dealing with a rough bout of homesickness. Winter wasn't so bad for her, but spring is a different story.

Here along the Kobuk, the ice is still stacked and jumbled on the riverbanks where breakup recently shoved sheets of it into the trees. Birds are singing, with sun shining most of the night, and caribou in lines are crossing the big, muddy new current. Breakup in the Arctic is an amazing season, and I sure know what my daughter is feeling, not getting to be here at home, after spending most springs of her life at our old igloo, roaming the surrounding river and tundra.

I remember that same terrible homesickness at college, down at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As soon as the first goose arrived there at Creamer's Field I was ready to drop out -- which I did repeatedly in the 10 years it took me to get a degree. Luckily the finals used to be in early May, and as soon as the last one was done I'd buy No. 2 Remington shotgun shells, butter and lemons and book the next flight north.

I just wanted to be home when the geese got here. No grade, diploma or degree seemed quite as important. It didn't bother me a bit that the only flights were on Aurora, an airline that flew ancient Twin Beech aircraft with regular mechanical problems. In Ambler people called it Aurora Scare Service, which, as is often the case in the villages, was an accepting and humorous way of dealing with potential death. Having an engine cut out during the flight home was never news. But again, that's another story.

From what China has told me, her high school -- besides being harder then the colleges I attended -- has another thing making it tough to stay in school; there at the Phillips Academy, flocks of Canada geese stroll around the lawns. China's friends don't acknowledge the birds; they just hurry on past, heading to class, lunch or their dorms. Apparently, none of the other students stare at those dark gray plump bodies, straight upright necks and black-and-white, watchful goose faces. Back East those other kids don't watch a flock glide overhead on curved wings and instantly forget about class, or what day of the week it is.

Meanwhile my daughter stops walking, and stands lost in a fog of memories of so many hunts for so many dinners -- memories of traveling by SnoGo across melting lake ice, kneeling behind homemade willow blinds, watching the sky so intently, listening intently, calling: Lonk! Lonk! Lonk!

Her friends think she's half-crazy -- suddenly crouching forward, pretending she's a caribou, meandering closer and closer to the bossy birds -- just to see how close she can approach, and to see if the geese too remember that other place, the Real World.

My wife, Stacey, is the reason China's at such a great school, studying science, genetics and other complex subjects, and on her way toward more of the same at Stanford University. All that predatory behavior -- that is my fault. I'm the reason she knows how tasty the Canadas on the campuses of America are, the reason she knows how to pluck, clean and cook them, too.

It's a strange and interesting time -- watching her pulled so strongly in two very different directions. Sometimes I feel bad and maybe mistaken for getting animals and the land so deeply lodged under my kid's skin. I don't believe this is going to be an easy century for those of us a little too addicted to spending our days surrounded by caribou, geese and other wild things, gathering our own meals. I didn't exactly intend to have my daughter turn out like me in that regard.

But on the other hand, what else in this whole wide world would I rather have shown her? Something on the computer? Some mall or museum? Miley Cyrus? I don't think so.

Outside, spring in the Arctic is in full swing. Geese and cranes call across the tundra; ducks skim along the shores; in the willows and on the birch knolls, robins shriek and sparrows sing -- all the birds hollering with joy to be arriving again in a land of no night, unlimited space, endless food and -- ahem -- frenzied mating.

Now another line of caribou is crossing the river, heading this way. Grunts carry across the quarter-mile-wide water -- the animals working hard against the cold, current, stray ice pans and bot flies clogging their sinuses. Their backs are brown, necks pale, almost white this time of year, the hair weathered from a long winter and followed by so much glaring sun off the snow, and their flanks are terribly knobbed with huge warble larvae under their skin.

Cows lead the group, with hard antlers still, which means they are almost surely pregnant -- very pregnant and needing to get hundreds of miles farther to the calving grounds before their calves come. I see some big bulls, too, even more obvious in the distance because of the beautiful black velvet covering their growing new antlers.

For a minute my heart aches; if China were here, we'd be scrambling for our boots as we have so many times before -- to race up past the outhouse, along the trail in the trees, to hide behind spruce and let the wet, wide-eyed animals pour around us.

I tell myself what she's doing and what she's studying is important. I guess for years and years folks in the villages and across the north have had to face this same dilemma concerning their kids' futures, to lesser and larger degrees -- staying home on the land while their kids go Out -- all the while wondering what really is more important, what will prove best for their offspring, and how much or how little knowledge of the land will be worth in the future.

Now the swimming animals arrive at north shore. It has taken them eight minutes. They are met by high walls of ice -- sheets and pans, jumbled and smashed back in the willows by breakup. The animals swim in circles in the current, like a washtub of caribou, all crammed together and peering about, each and every one trying to decide what course to choose. On the far shore another herd splashes in, following the footsteps this herd so recently took. The first group swims back the way they came, while the second bravely continues on across.

They meet in the middle, milling and meanwhile steadily getting carried west on the current of this huge river. Many of the caribou have been treading ice-cold water for 20 minutes now. Not for a second do any of the animals show the slightest sign of panic or giving up. Nothing about their journey looks easy, and as always, I can't help absorbing some strange acceptance from watching these amazing creatures face such adversity.

All of the animals and birds out here in the wild -- grizzly bears and beaver, geese and ducks and hawks and owls, wolves, caribou, moose and all the rest -- they all are so energetically living lives, raising offspring, and so confident, unquestioning and unwavering in passing on their knowledge of this land. And I guess that is still good enough for me. I guess I'm honored that my daughter, thousands of miles out in the big shiny world, is terribly homesick for this place.

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.

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