Staring across a land that’s not the same

KOBUK RIVER — This August nets were still in the water, the last day of commercial salmon season, when I headed home with my family to my place on the Kobuk River where I was born and raised. Along the way, the tundra was burgundy and beautiful, bright with fall colors. On the hill at home high-bush cranberries were pungent in the air. Birch and aspen leaves glowed yellow in the warm evening sunlight.

My wife and daughter, Stacey and China, helped carry packs and boxes up from the river, and we took bear-boards off the qanisak (entryway) and windows. I got out my dad’s old Amish scythe to cut trails through fireweed, grasses and new rose brambles. We were ecstatic to be home, although every few seconds I spotted half-finished projects of mine: my log wind generator tower not yet wired up, woodpiles heaped and uncovered, and a stack of spruce boards I’d forgotten that I’d milled, to rebuild the qanisak — old, rotten, and damaged last fall by a bear.

Inside our sod house the air was chilly, damp and moldy smelling — the way it’s supposed to be, I guess. Stacey and China built a fire and heated kettles of water. In the dimness, they unpacked fresh garden vegetables and leftover salmon for a late meal. I got the batteries and solar panel hooked up, and put my laptop computer on the workbench, realizing with a stab of dismay that it held another world of my half-finished projects, writing and photography. Instantly I remembered what I’d forgotten to do: submit comments on the proposed Ambler Road.

The light was falling, but I walked down the ridge to glass the tundra for caribou. The mountains were lit against the sky. In the warm air a surprisingly insistent cloud of gnats buzzed around my face. Two wasps threatened me suddenly, close and mean, and quickly vanishing into the dusk. I saw no animals, and in the growing darkness felt disoriented by the tall new spruce, alders, dwarf birches and willows. I wondered, would I even be able to spot caribou coming through all this brush?

The next day we took a rifle and berry bowls, and walked miles north to an old favorite cranberry spot — a ridge that my dad, hunting on foot half a century ago, named the Far Birch Knoll. Along the way the blueberries were big and fat, chalky blue — no frost had come yet. The beautiful tundra swept in all directions — back the way we had come, and miles north to the Jade Mountains, and up the distant Nuna and Hunt river valleys. We saw no sign of caribou; not a track or a dark new turd, not a dot in the distance. The land felt empty, strange without their presence.

On the knoll, the cranberry plants had no berries and were lost down in tall bushy Labrador tea and other shrubs. The large lake below the hill, once blue water, was now an endless mat of floating green grass. Two swans were out there, big and white, and nearby the dots of ducks feeding. Along the shore, an old beaver lodge I used to trap from was still in use, although the grassy slope that lead down to it had grown in with big healthy alders.

Stacey and China took a nap in the sun, and I left the rifle with them while I searched in thickets for a bear den I’d spotted a few years ago when two young grizzlies crawled out one afternoon. The bank was ravaged by erosion and new ravines. Everywhere the permafrost was slumping, tearing the topsoil, leaving countless cave-ins that might have been abandoned bear dens.


I fought through brush, scrambling up steep ground, searching — for no real reason — while my thoughts carried on their own search, only to arrive again and again at the edge of a huge hole — the one left by my lifelong friend, Alvin Williams, who drowned last spring under the ice.

Alvin and I grew up together, and as children roamed this area — every waterway and dip and draw here. As adults, we couldn’t help talking about the land. We talked about guns and snowmobiles and other stuff, too, but pretty quickly came back to stories of what we’d seen on the land. One of us could mention a crooked tree, a patch of wild onions, a notch in a cutbank that the caribou used — and the other would know the spot. We’d laugh, and tell intertwined stories, rooted in this ground.

Now, at an old lone white birch on the tundra, I stopped to watch a bull moose splash away across a swamp. The voices in my head did what they’ve done since April; every minute or two they started a conversation with Alvin — I needed to ask him, has he seen many moose lately, has he noticed these swans don’t have kids this fall, or that the beaver are making flatter lodges than they did when we were young? — but again and again my silent thoughts came to the place where that trail ended. He was gone. And my eyes stared across a land not the same.

• • •

Cloudy weather moved in, windy, with rain squalls. I pried opened my computer and tried to write. As usual, it didn’t feel good, trying to use that part of my body above the neck. Instantly, I felt tired. Trying to line up my thoughts felt much harder than the strenuous commercial fishing I’d just finished, and exponentially less lucrative, in all ways. Useless, really. And to accomplish what? Especially concerning the Ambler Road. Those government people and rich businessmen weren’t here for our words; they only wanted the money in the ground.

All I wanted was to be outside — rain or no rain — and not thinking about such destruction of our land. I wanted to work hard, breathe, gather food; it was fall after all, and hunting and gathering is what I’ve always done. I gave up, snapped my laptop shut, and went gratefully out to sharpen my scythe to cut brush.

Working, I kept an eye out for bears. Lately, they’ve changed some of their rules — breaking into cabins and all and it seemed wise to stay vigilant. The air was damp and gray and too warm, and out of nowhere wasps appeared and gave me some sharp no-trespassing reminders. Immediately, I pictured Alvin grinning, and how he would laugh, when I told ...

I’d never seen so many wasps and wondered if maybe they were altering their rules, too. Their nests were bigger than I’d ever encountered, gray and melon-sized, intimidating, hanging in nearby trees. A nest was hidden in my log toolshed, too, and we had an exhilarating and terrifying battle — the wasps with semi-automatic stingers; me with a spray can of starter fluid and a Bic lighter. I’d like to say I won. As if our lives are really that simple. There will always be next year, after all.

In the following days, we walked the tundra ridges, picking berries and glassing for caribou, repeatedly bringing up memories of past years of caribou — thousands of caribou here on the land — meals, and companionship, long taken for granted. On the river, countless boats passed, local hunters patrolling relentlessly, searching for even a single caribou crossing the water. Small airplanes passed overhead — more than I’d seen before — flying north; outside hunters searching for caribou, too. The paradox between so many motorized humans and so few caribou left me feeling as if I’d stepped into the future. I couldn’t help imagining the frightening zoo of hunters a road from Fairbanks to Ambler could bring. Quickly my thoughts asked Alvin what he had ....

Still, I didn’t write anything. I wondered why simple words felt so daunting. A meeting was scheduled in Ambler, to take local comments about the road. But I’d already attended one of those, two years ago. I’d already experienced the free food platters, manufactured smokescreens, and pretend concern for subsistence. I didn’t want to boat upriver, out of this beautiful country and into a room of fluorescent lights and overwhelming deception.

I dreaded it, but knew I had to go. Every person I had talked to — caribou hunters all — were against the road, afraid of what the road would bring, and yet not one had commented publicly. I knew that feeling well. But what caused that too-tired feeling? Fatalism? Fear? Avoiding conflict? Laziness? A breakdown in trust in our democracy? What kind of love for this land had zero time for defending it?

Before Stacey and China left to return to the coast, China shot me a spruce grouse to cook. I simmered it in the Dutch oven with potatoes and carrots. The bird had been eating cranberries, and a pleasant aroma filled my kitchen — good meat — but still I felt disappointed, a bit of a failure as a hunter, my family leaving without a taste of caribou, meat that had always been our quintessential flavor of fall.

In the following days, a handful of caribou finally appeared, a few cows and calves, tiny dots miles away on the huge tundra. I definitely couldn’t face my computer now, and instead walked the tundra with a rifle and binoculars. All around me was change. Climate change — something I’ve tiptoed around in my writing because of the nonsense of politics — was on display everywhere: in the warm soil, the falling riverbanks, the silty water of the Hunt; in the beaver and swans and grayling; in the brushy tundra and the billions of sprouting spruce. In me, shirtless, and packing an unfired rifle.

Day after day the fall colors held, golden and bright. My friend, Anne Beaulaurier, hiked down from the upper Noatak, rafted the Ambler River, and joined me. She wanted to work hard, too, and gratefully we waded into my qanisak project, tearing off the old one the bear had clawed into, building new. On the hill, in the warm sun, we worked peeling logs and fighting wasps, watching for caribou, while the deadline for comments ticked away.

Until — I think it was a Tuesday — we jumped in my old plywood boat and raced upriver, running late as always. On the way, we passed boats heading downriver, hunters obviously not planning to attend the meeting. At the school, the room was windowless, the faces mostly white, non-locals. Everyone was informed of the rules: These kind strangers were here, very briefly, to listen to local concerns, as required by law; we needed to keep our comments to 180 seconds and reference a million-word document we’d never seen and most of us couldn’t have followed; we weren’t to speak against the road project itself — that was not useful information — and we could only raise specific concerns, such as would the project interrupt suckers spawning, or muskrat mating, things like that. Also, a yellow sign would be raised after 120 seconds, to inform speakers they had one minute to wrap it up.

I’d stared at my thumbs. I missed my rifle. This all seemed straight out of the movies, of treaties in the Old West. I gripped my folding chair to keep from standing, walking out. A woman with a microphone spoke of road corridors, alternate routes, and the ridiculous idea that the road may be removed in 50 years. I wondered how I was going to keep track of my 180 seconds, and not use the F-word a lot.

When my turn came, I broke the rules. I thought of Alvin, up there in the graveyard, and all those creatures on the land, struggling to live lives in a world changing too fast — all of us included — and for that reason I tried to be nice when I told the road people that what they were doing was the worst thing they could do with their lives. Every agency present — Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Nana, Northwest Arctic Bureau, Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, all of them — in the end were supposed to be working for people, not for big businesses and greedy corporations.

The only words I had to say were simple after all — and only what this land has taught me. There is nothing worse they could do: for our land, for the caribou, for the people here, for our subsistence lifestyle; for our nation, and our world. Tearing up the natural world and polluting it for money is not working. We all know that. At this point, every creature on earth has been made aware.


The last day for public comment to BLM on the proposed Ambler Industrial Road is Tuesday, Oct. 29. Comments can be submitted by email to BLM_AK_AKSO_AmblerRoad_Comments@blm.gov.

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Seth Kantner

Seth Kantner is a commercial fisherman, wildlife photographer, wilderness guide and is the author of the best-selling novel “Ordinary Wolves,” and most recently, the nonfiction book “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou.” He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.