Opinions

A trip to New York reminded me what’s worth fighting for in Alaska

  • Author: Seth Kantner
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 28
  • Published January 26

Caribou of the Western Arctic herd migrate past Kotzebue on the recently frozen ice. (Seth Kantner)

KOTZEBUE — This fall I came downriver and spent freezeup in town, and I ended up shoveling more snow than I expected. The tundra and ice — where there is ice — has been white and the snow keeps falling and drifting.

I've been hauling sled-loads of snow out of the yard and dumping them on the lagoon ice, upwind. I know, that sounds futile — like the myth of Sisyphus endlessly rolling that boulder uphill — and it feels apropos with other stuff in my life lately, but still, the snow has to go somewhere.

Luckily, I enjoy menial labor. My brother, Kole, and I grew up doing daily labor — peeling logs and sawing boards, cutting fish and scraping hides, and shoveling snow. The north wind buried the entrance to our sod house and we had to dig our way out, and then dig out our buried dog sleds and woodpile and water hole, and whatever else. When we weren't moving snow because we had to, Kole and I tunneled down into the big drifts and carved caves and snow caverns with our shovels. That was our entertainment.

Back then, most of our stuff was homemade. We liked flipping through mail-order catalogs — Sears, Herter's, Edmond's Scientific and others — marveling at amazing items from the Real World. Looking was about the limit, though. My family had little cash. Our meals were mostly from the land. Whatever moved in the river or on the tundra, and tasted OK, sooner or later ended up on the dinner table. My mom and dad were raised at the end of the Great Depression, too, and living off the land boiled our family philosophy down to about three words: "Don't buy it."

Nowadays, I mull over the price of this modern clutter, while religiously avoiding a steady job. I still prefer menial labor over the mental kind, although I will admit my brain is busy when I'm moving snow or scraping a bear hide or chiseling holes in the ice to set beaver traps. Somehow that feels OK — the way physical shoveling leads to mental shoveling — sifting heaps in your head, hunting for bits of truth. Maybe because the truth feels rare these days, and valuable.

Lately I've been thinking too much about caribou. It's hard not to, with our pasts so tied to that animal, and with how unpredictable the weather and the herds have become. This fall caribou were scarce again, and local people were in a frenzy to find them, boating up and down the Kobuk and Noatak rivers, in too many new aluminum boats, searching and mostly not finding animals.

After freezeup — after the rut started — the herd suddenly began migrating south, and in front of Kotzebue long lines of dark dots were visible on the white ice, plodding past town. For a while a 200-mile-long vein of caribou stretched from Kivalina to Kotzebue, and to Buckland and beyond. Folks could stand on Front Street, or in line at the post office, and watch out the windows as caribou passed.

The ice was very thin, so I waited to hunt. Afternoons, I'd quit work, clear a place at the table, and eat lunch on a piece of cardboard — dried caribou, and the last of my turnips we grew this summer, and either seal oil or bowhead muktuk or bear fat. Most days I have about the same food while listening to the news and afterward making coffee.

The news mentioned another thing I think about too much: that road the big mining corporations want bulldozed to Ambler, a gravel ribbon tying our world to the Lower 48. They've held a lot of meetings about it over the years, and I'm sure more behind closed doors.

FAR FROM HOME

I just got back from a quick trip to the land of a thousand roads and zero caribou: New York City. It messed up my head. I've spent too much time on the land — a lot of it alone, talking only to myself — to adjust overnight to that blizzard of people and traffic, sirens and signs and stink and noise. My inability to live life through my iPhone made it worse. Apparently, half a century of learning not to get lost on the tundra has little value. What matters now is not to be virtually lost.

That first morning leaving JFK Airport, the lines for coffee were too long, I hadn't slept, and it all felt like a science fiction movie — complete with underground trains and aliens wearing headphones, staring into devices, avoiding eye contact. I ended up missing my luncheon and heading back to my hotel to hide.

In my tiny room, I had no shovel to sort my thoughts. The TV newscasters didn't help, their plastic faces spouting differing views of a pervert running for Congress and a tax cut for corporations. I felt walled in by buildings, cut off from my country, and vulnerable — surrounded by millions of humans living lives precariously wired to dollars, with no view of the horizon, or looming weather, no connection to where their food and water comes from.

Walking the streets, I stared up at skyscrapers, wondering at the immense wealth up there behind reflective glass. The absence of nature left me disoriented. I felt invisible, and missed home and the sprawl of open tundra, and the dark dots of life crossing white snow. I was thankful I'd brought a bag of dried caribou meat, and watchfully guarded it from the cleaning staff.

After I got my bearings, I promptly ran into more confusion — that new fog bank of political correctness. Over the years I thought I'd gotten a handle on conversational limits down in the States — I'd learned not to talk about guns, and of course it's best not to mention eating beaver or seal or whale or lynx or swan or stink fish, or to talk about wearing wolves or skinning loons — but this time I wasn't sure if I was even allowed to say "I'm white" or "He's black" or "She's beautiful."

People I met seemed uncertain, questioning of the past and fearful of the future. It was surprisingly contagious and I came home confused, relieved to fly north beyond the last roads, to return to the Arctic and step onto snow, to inhale the air and horizons and let the craziness of the Lower 48 grow distant.

HOME AGAIN

A few days later, I packed my camera and a rifle, fired up my old sno-go and headed out to see what the too-warm weather had done to our ice, and how the caribou were faring. It was the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday.

The tundra was plastered white from the last storm. Up on the ridge, I stopped to glass the huge sprawl of the land. The snow was trampled with caribou trails. Below me, the ice was alive with activity: Groups of caribou milled off Front Street, and a mile farther out a large herd was headed for town. Sno-goes zoomed here and there, and dead caribou were visible on the ice, circled by the tiny black blips of ravens having parties. To the north, toward Lockhard Point, half a dozen machines were parked, people hunched nearby, cleaning carcasses.

As I watched, three more sno-goes streaked away from town, traveling like comets, snow billowing behind as they raced toward the herd. I stared in dismay as they scattered the migrating animals into frenzied fleeing bunches. It was like a video game, except with a beautiful orange sunset in the background and the bobbing yellow headlights, rapid gunfire and dark fleeing animals.

I couldn't stand watching it, to tell the truth. Chasing down a herd with a sno-go and a semi-automatic rifle isn't what I think of when I think of hunting caribou. I guess I grew up in a different time. I think of snowshoeing hard behind hills and along draws, crouching down and sneaking closer, until finally peering over a rise — lying there in the snow, watching as the caribou feed, deciphering which is rutting, or limping, or nursing, or fat — and aiming carefully, and shooting, and with luck shooting another, and another, and then walking back for my sled.

I put my camera away, left my gun in the scabbard. The sky was blue and big, so beautiful, and the ice too, and the animals, but I wanted no photo of this. I needed meat — I haven't gotten a caribou this fall, and like every hunter in this region I'm allowed five per day — but I had no stomach now to add to the herd's hardships. It felt like Black Friday had somehow come here, too, to this land of caribou and caribou hunters.

In the following days, acquaintances reported dead and wounded caribou scattered around Kotzebue and other villages. Worse were the calves, orphaned and wandering our streets; a calf behind the grocery store, one huddled at the airport, more at the softball field, the hospital, and in people's yards.

On the tundra, I found strays, and again couldn't make myself take out my rifle. One young bull stood beside the trail as I drove my sno-go past. In the low sun my shadow crossed its face. It didn't move, or run, or turn away. It stared as if I were an alien. It made me sad. I don't want to be an alien in my homeland.

A calf caribou stays for days near his mother’s head and gutpile after hunters have come and gone. (Seth Kantner)

AMBLER ROAD

A week later, I went to the Bureau of Land Management meeting about the Ambler Road. I dislike meetings and have spent my life successfully avoiding them. They make me nervous — doubly so when it comes to regional politics, where being a white man generally is not what you want to be.

The turnout was dismal. A third of the group were presenters from BLM, the National Park Service and the state. The remaining folks worked for NANA and other state, federal and local agencies. Other than myself and one other person, I thought possibly everyone in the room was on the clock, being paid to be there.

There were trays of store-bought fruit and cheese, beef and turkey. Eventually two women presented graphs and maps of the proposed 220-mile road from the Dalton Highway to the Ambler River. They spoke of concerns for subsistence and caribou.

I sat in the back corner, trying to concentrate. On my flimsy Styrofoam plate, one chunk of cantaloupe tasted moldy. I set the plate on the floor. I glanced around, recognizing truths of our region: local people don't believe Outsiders hold these meetings to actually listen; large door prizes bring folks to meetings, not fruit and cheese; and people who live closest to subsistence stay the furthest from meetings.

Slowly it dawned on me: the presenter was talking only about the effects of their road, not the massive mines that road would bring. When it was time for questions, I raised my hand first. I told myself, "To hell with political correctness. The Kobuk River has always been my home." I asked if I'd heard correctly: Are you saying you want to build a road that would drop a bomb on our way of life — huge copper mines tearing apart the mountains at the headwaters of our rivers, polluting land and water, fish and animals, destroying what remains of subsistence culture — and you're asking only if we have concerns over the dust, or where the route crosses a river, or the sound of the trucks carrying that bomb?

The woman taking questions did listen; she seemed kind and sincere; she admitted finally, yes, they were speaking only of their road, not what that road would bring.

I was at a loss. The sheer fallacy was disorienting. I reminded them of the last mega-project that brought this many meetings and studies: Project Chariot, a 1950s scheme to open up this region to mining by blasting a harbor between Kivalina and Point Hope with atomic bombs. Government officials and politicians then, too, assured villagers that their plan for the Northwest Arctic was progress, and wonderful, and safe, and local subsistence lifestyles would be protected, and the caribou and seals and whales and other animals would be unaffected by nuclear weapons detonated near our villages.

Suddenly I remembered something from New York City. One day I visited the memorial site of the Twin Towers — now two square holes in the ground, with water flowing endlessly over perfect square edges, down into the pits. It was somber and very moving, and afterward I walked to the old Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington and others hung out in the 1700s, drinking and eating, making plans and proclamations. There I was told the urban legend of the Dutch buying Manhattan Island from a group of Native Americans for $24.

I pictured the Natives who lived there then paddling back now, in 2017, disembarking where they once hunted — staring in consternation at the glass and metal monsters that have replaced the landscape. I wondered, what would they say?

In the meeting, other folks asked thoughtful questions. I stared at my boots and nudged my cantaloupe. All I could think was: Don't buy it. If the state builds this road and brings huge mines to the headwaters of the Kobuk River, villagers will get that centuries-old rate for their priceless homeland — the equivalent of that legendary $24.

The meeting wound down. People had places to go, planes to catch. I was lost in thought, hoping my neighbors and friends would recognize this turning point in our region — in our nation, too — and realize we need to count on ourselves. Nobody else will protect our land. In a way, it is the story of Sisyphus, endlessly rolling that boulder uphill — how every tribe, from the beginning of time, has had to ceaselessly defend its land.

I hoped people could turn off their radios and TVs and iPhones, shut off their sno-goes — and shut off their desires — long enough to stand in a little silence. Maybe on the sea ice, or on the banks of the Kobuk, the Alatna, the Koyukuk or the John or Wild rivers, in villages or out alone in camp. Stand and stare over your land, at the sky and mountains and maybe animals out on the tundra. Listen to no voice except your own. Ask yourself nothing about whom you hate. Ask only what you love, and what sustains you. And protect that.

Jan. 31 is the deadline for comments about the proposed Ambler Road. Comments can be emailed to blm_ak_akso_amblerroad_comments@blm.gov.

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.