KOTZEBUE — In this town, rumors swirl worse than any tidal currents. Over the years I've heard that Seth Kantner took so-and-so's grandma's salmon out of her net, he steals crabs out of people's pots, and he made another million off that little kids' book. (It was actually $406, but anyway ...)
This summer I heard 40 or 50 rumors about a second fish buyer to open soon, way too many about former Iditarod champion John Baker, a few about beluga whales in the bay and one stray and unusual one: President Barack Obama was coming to Kotzebue.
I would have discounted that too-tall tale without a second thought, except a conversation came to mind. A recent acquaintance mentioned how he'd been talking to the president, trying to convince him of a couple things, one being to visit Alaska's Arctic. At the time I'd joked, "What a great idea. Tell Barack to take me along!"
The Obama rumor bounced around town, almost dying down, then swelling back stronger, supported by new details. The president would visit Kivalina, too, on a Blackhawk helicopter. He was coming to see coastal erosion, global warming and maybe Shell Oil's new stomping grounds. Allegedly someone had seen Secret Service dudes out by the airport. White House staff reportedly had visited the hospital, to check on the local trauma center's capabilities.
About that time, a more exciting rumor circulated: The price for salmon was rising to 45 cents a pound. Sadly, within a few days it instead dropped to 27 cents, and we were limited to 1,500 pounds of fish per captain. It was sunny weather, no big storms all summer, but our fishing season suddenly was on the rocks. Obama visiting our dusty little community seemed about as unlikely as seeing a star in July.
I didn't listen to very much news this summer, and was loading nets with Andrew Greene and Elmer Brown when I first heard that Donald Trump was above zero in the polls. How could that be true? I had no idea, but Elmer said it was. He also verified the beluga sighting — he was the one who saw the whale — and yes, President Obama was really coming north.
Out in our fishing boats, a lot of crass humor gets tossed back and forth. Last year I coined the name ElmerBrownKnowsDotCom — because Elmer seems to know every boat and every fisherman: how many fish they caught, how many meshes deep their nets are, what pitch prop they use, which crew members drink Red Bull. His Inupiaq grapevine is amazing. Come winter he'll again know who spotted caribou, who's lost on the trail and if the new store in Kivalina is out of cheap .223 ammo.
Hunched in our Helly Hansens picking fish, we tell humorous hunting stories and share local news, otherwise known as gossip. When that gets worn, Andrew and I pour insults on each other: He jeers at me for drinking too much, for being white and owning a Ski-doo, for being tight and sandbagging my new gear while we fish with holey nets. I harass him about the junk, snowgoes and dead animals in his yard, and how he's such a lucky Native — getting paid by the Department of Transportation to shoot birds off the runway when he's not murdering fish.
Then we turn and barrage poor Elmer for a while, with abuse about his AskElmerDotCom "news feed" and his ElmerKnowsAll blog. (None of us are really sure what a blog is. It sounds like something you catch in your net that you wish you hadn't — like an algae-overgrown bed spring.) Next we ask him which local leaders are vying to shake Obama's hand, and is so-and-so planning to give the president muktuk or stink-fish?
Elmer grins, picking fish and half ignoring us. He's big, powerful and calm, his darkly tanned face handsome and smiling. He wipes his glasses, stares a mile across the channel toward Kobuk Lake. "Bergman's net really splashing," he comments. "His boat getting low. Seth, call Liz at Copper. See if she raised the limit today."
In those moments, out on the water, we're pretty much who we are, connected to the land and totally at home here at the northern corner of this nation. Our days, actions and words bounce back and forth from Native politics to national ones, from past ways to present realities. Yes, Shell Oil is in our town, and yes we see climate change every day. We've already been told to prepare for a too-warm winter.
Elmer and Andrew don't have to imagine what that can mean — Elmer's dad and Andrew's grandfather drowned together, hunting on the sea ice. Climate change is real here, as is coastal erosion, and Shell's drilling rigs are just out of sight over the horizon. It's all here, what those rumors said the president was coming to see.
Hercules in the sky
We look down into the blue-green water at these beautiful fish in our webbing, shining like flashlights in the current, and like everyone across our great country, we wonder about the future. And yet, in our boats, we're quickly back to speculating on the travels of a world leader as well as those of a toothy chum salmon we just released, cheering him on toward happy spawning grounds.
As the wind picks up today, a storm moves in and fishing is canceled. And there is no more doubting those rumors of a presidential visit. A massive dark military Hercules just thundered off the runway and into the sky, the first of many, carrying in vehicles and personnel. Rain slashes down while city crews wearing bright orange-and-green raincoats and reflective vests slash away the willows along Third Avenue, our half-mile "highway" from the airport to the high school.
Cutting down the willows — just what we need in a gravel town with too little vegetation and a world with too much carbon. Crews also are hauling away heaps of junk and wrecked vehicles around town. It's really happening. The president of the United States is coming to Kotzebue, Alaska. It's time to take out the trash — and those upside-down four-wheelers, and that dead thing that might have been a seal.
Meanwhile, my daughter, China, and I are packing to head upriver for a month. She's got her rifle laid out on the floor; I've got my cameras and dried meat, and we both have books we're bringing. We're excited to head home to our old sod house. I'm a bit disappointed to miss Obama coming to Kotzebue, though. It really is a big deal. It makes me a little sad, too, that most likely no locals will be able to show him the country.
Sights fit for a president
I wish someone could take Barack out to a net, to see salmon being caught in the pristine water up by the Noatak; I wish an aana (grandma) here could take him blueberry picking, and he could smell the heavenly smell of Labrador tea and tundra; I wish I could show him where I was born along the Kobuk River. There he could see the sky stretching so far north, and the deep-blue Jade Mountains rising above the glowing burgundy tundra. He might see the white dots of a coming caribou herd, while the distant caws of happy ravens announce their arrival.
Of course, someone should show him the permafrost banks melting, and areas along the coast that once had beaches. Instead, though, I imagine he'll have to shake a lot of hands, and drive down Third, to the high school gym. I don't really know the plan; I haven't heard any rumors about what the Secret Service has in mind. I should call Elmer, I guess. If the White House hasn't contacted him for information, they should.
I do know that compared to the natural world of Northwest Alaska, this town can appear less than impressive. I'm afraid Obama will see so little while many try to touch him. But if he can get to the edge of town — any edge — he will see across the water from Front Street to the dappled Igichuk Hills, or north toward the Noatak. Just a little ways out the loop road, he could stop and pick a handful of blueberries. Hopefully the sun will be out. Maybe a flock of swans will fly overhead.
I'll be upriver, where I've been every fall of my life, with my daughter, picking cranberries, glassing north for caribou, probably eating porcupine, and still hoping our president can see, share and experience a small part of this amazing land we call home.
Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves," "Shopping for Porcupine" and, newly released this month, "Swallowed by the Great Land." He's an occasional columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.