AMBLER -- Last month in Anchorage I had lunch with Susan Johnson -- formerly Susan MacManus. We talked about the old days, growing up at Paungaqtaugruk along the Kobuk River, and later times in the villages. We laughed a lot, as we always do, and Susan reminded me of things I'd forgotten, which these days seems like nearly everything.
A few weeks later I had dinner with my friend Tom, who was a Kotzebue-based VISTA volunteer in the 1970s for the then-newly-formed Maniilaq Association. More memories came back over that meal, too. He first came to Paungaqtaugruk 25 years ago when I was a kid. Wait, no! Thirty-five years ago.
Back then, I was 14. Two white guys boated up from Kotzebue and moved into MacManus' sod igloo a couple of miles above our place. Pete MacManus had met them in his travels and agreed to let them live there in trade for cutting him new house logs. They arrived in September amid blowing snow. I still remember that storm and their plywood boat out in it. They had dogs and sleds and gear, and motored ashore to introduce themselves and warm up. My parents served them our usual lunch — dried fish, dried caribou and seal oil, and then crackers and jam and coffee.
Neighbors at last
The men were old – 28, twice my age. Their names were Tom McKenna and Dave Fleming. They were polite and nice, although they both lit cigarettes inside our small house. We were surprised, but excited, too, at the prospect of having real neighbors just two miles upriver. My dad quickly found a coffee can to use for an ashtray.
After freeze-up, we showed them how to set nets under the ice for whitefish, which make excellent dog food. When we could cross the river ice, we showed them where the best firewood was, along Otter Slough.
Tom and Dave didn't have much food and ate peanut butter out of a 5-gallon bucket with jam and pilot crackers. Once they tried a tough rabbit they didn't know how to cook properly. They were skinny and hungry a lot, and every Sunday they mushed down to our place for dinner — caribou or ptarmigan, potatoes, fresh bread and always cranberry sauce. On Thanksgiving, they came down for roast lynx, our family tradition.
They told us about growing up in Monmouth, Illinois. Dave played guitar, and had a way of telling stories that made everyone laugh. Tom had broken his jaw in a car accident in high school and both had been in a band. My brother Kole and I were in high school. We studied at night after ice fishing and running dogs. We didn't have good stories like theirs. Our stories were boring -- about bears and picking berries, hunting and falling through the ice — hardly worth mentioning alongside stories of cars and girls and beer.
Tom and Dave were well liked along the river and in the village, too. "Tom an' them," people called them — because Tom talked more and louder than Dave.
After a few years Tom moved to Fairbanks to go to college for a second degree. Dave met a woman named Marcia in Nome at the Iditarod. About that time, Dave made a deal with Lulu Nelson to build a log cabin on her native allotment above Ambler, in trade for being allowed to live on her second allotment below the village. Tom was gone, and people took a while to grow accustomed to his absence. Clarence Wood would come down to our place, sip coffee and say, "I stop in see Tom an' Dave." (That, of course, was Dave and Marcia.)
When I was 17 or 18 and my parents were in the Lower 48, Susan took me down from Ambler to get my dad's Arctic Cat. I snowmachined back up in April to stay with Dave and Marcia. They were living in a wall tent and hauling logs to build Lulu's cabin. That place is along a high cutbank. When you stepped off the cutbank the snow was soft and deep. You sank in up to your thighs. The holes were big and you had to be careful not to fall in.
I'd brought along my shotgun and watched the sky for the first spring goose. By spring everyone was hungry for a change in diet from caribou and fish all winter, and the first geese were welcomed into the soup pot, like Thanksgiving every night.
One day we heard Dave's dogs barking. Along the river came the dark dots of four dog teams on the ice. It was Anore Jones, Sasha Wik, Sue Bucknell and Kristi Carnes, heading up to Anarak Lake, where Kristi lived. Susan MacManus was an hour behind them on the trail, training a team of pups.
They stopped and we walked down from the tent and dropped over the bank to say hello. Their dogs flopped down in the snow in the warm sun. At that time, Dave and Marcia had a skinny German shepherd named Sam. Sam had gotten porcupine quills in her knee and was crippled, and now she sniffed around the working dogs cautiously.
Can't keep it down
Anore untied her tarp. She got out sandwiches and offered them around. Dave and Marcia declined. I almost did the same, but I was young and hungry all the time, and said, "Sure! I'd have one."
Anore handed me the sandwich. The adults were all visiting. I bit into it, hungry and hopeful. Immediately I realized I'd made a mistake. The bread was dark and whole wheat, with extra wheat berries or something. Spread inside was akutuq (Eskimo ice cream) and something that I thought was worms or hair but turned out to be old, tired alfalfa sprouts, and peanut butter. There was no jam. Back then none of us had freezers. It was springtime, so the caribou fat and seal oil in the akutuq were both fairly strong.
The adults were talking and laughing, unaware of my predicament. I had a full mouth and wasn't talking, just trying to decide what to do next. I glanced around. There behind me was one of those deep holes in the snowbank. No one was looking. I bent quickly and opened my mouth. The unpleasant mouthful dropped down into the depths. I wiped my lips, and for a moment stared at the sandwich in my hand. I glanced at the adults, then at the sandwich again. My fingers opened. Down it went.
Causally, I kicked snow in the hole, then meandered down to the sleds to pet the dogs.
After 10 minutes or so, Kristi closed her tarp. She re-tied her sledload. The other ladies did the same, getting ready to continue along the trail. "How was your sandwich?" Anore asked.
I glanced up quickly. "I- It was, ah, good," I said.
They were about to pull their sled hooks when Marcia noticed Sam up near the cutbank, digging in the snow. "What's Sam doing?" she asked.
The ladies paused. Sam had her head out of sight, pawing and flinging snow. I looked around the sky, hoping to see a goose more than ever now. I had a very unhappy feeling about what Sam was going to find.
Eventually, she popped out of the hole, something in her mouth. She tried to wolf it down, the way a good dog should, but her tongue started going in and out, dealing with those alfalfa sprouts and peanut butter.
"What is it? What did she find?" the ladies asked each other.
Marcia exclaimed, "Is that a sandwich?"
It took a moment for reality to settle in. All eyes turned to me. My face got red. I mumbled about akutuq and sprouts. That didn't help; Anore indignantly said she liked her sandwiches just fine. She lectured me on lying and wasting food. All I'd had to do, she said, was tell her I didn't like it. Which was true, I guess.
For a shy kid, it was terribly embarrassing. That afternoon I slumped around camp, mostly wishing I'd found a deeper hole and stomped it in better.
Eventually, the incident blew over. I was nervous the next time I saw Anore, and didn't ask for food, but she was nice and never mentioned it and I forgot all about it. I forgot another thing, too: Dave loves a good story.
Return of the sandwich
A couple of years passed. In Ambler one afternoon at Don and Mary Williams' place, Dave told them the story of the akutuq sandwich. He was wearing his easy grin, wringing enjoyment out of every detail, pretending to be Sam, her head tilted. "Huh, what's this? Smells like...a sandwich." I got red and grinned down into my coffee until they stopped laughing. It took a while.
Well, Dave and Marcia moved to Arizona — luckily! -- and the years ticked by. Decades now, actually. Four or five years ago, we met up at a reunion of friends from the old days. Everyone brought food, and we cooked salmon and caribou, moose and musk ox, and even got out muktuk for lunch. We made pies until we couldn't think straight. It was great to see everyone, like a grand Thanksgiving with 50 old friends.
Eventually, Anore's daughter, Willow, and Sasha's daughter, Linnea, decided it would be a good idea to have a talent show. They chose Tom and Dave to emcee it. We all sat on folding chairs.
Dave rubbed his hands up in front. "Well, Tom and I are going to start off with a little skit. I'll be playing myself and a couple other folks you all know."
"And I'm going to play Seth Kantner," Tom said.
I glanced up, suddenly wary. Everyone in the audience was mystified, happy and waiting.
"Tom will actually have a couple parts," Dave said, feigning seriousness now. "He's also going to play our old dog Sam, who some of you may remember. This is before she drowned through the ice up the Ambler River."
I glanced around, clueless as to where they were going with this.
Dave described the riverbank up by Lulu's camp, the warm spring day, with the snow soft and starting to settle. He shaded his eyes. "Hey, Seth, are those dog teams coming?"
Both he and Tom were holding back grins. Tom pretended to stare off downriver. "I believe they are!" he said, hearty and very much not the way I talk.
In my head, chunks of memories slowly floated to the surface. I glanced at Susan's mom, Barbara, and past her, over at Anore, in a chair by the windows. Ah! That sandwich! After all these years, that old akutuq sandwich keeps coming back to me, dug up out of the snow of the past, over and over again.
Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.