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Dateline Alaska: Holding on to the last of the Arctic snow

  • Author: Seth Kantner
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 17, 2015

NOATAK RIVER -- It's an hour past midnight and I'm staring out the window I just framed in this cabin I'm building. I sawed the opening on the north side, and you can see across the Noatak Flats that the snow is specked with tundra and beginning to melt. The sky is orange along the horizon, the sun barely going down before it starts up again.

The glow in the north is so many colors besides orange -- a flame color rising to pink, a hint of pale green, and finally the neon blue of Arctic spring night. Far away on the edge of the world, the spires of beautiful mountains are dark. Below the cabin, the overflow ice in the Agi River booms and pops, refreezing in the night chill. The ice shines in curved lines, reflecting the sunset like burning metal, as if God had leftover light and cut ribbons of it to lay on the land.

Spring is here, and this is the first time I've stopped moving in weeks, the first time I've picked up a pencil in months. My tablet is dusty and tattered. After winter darkness, spring light makes many of us manic, crazy to be out traveling on the snow, inhaling the land and light, the sky so blue, the sun searing off the ice, and the mountains so close.

This has been what we call a good spring, with enough snow and ice, cold and sun. Here in the Northwest Arctic we are lucky to have this. All winter the news from south has been of a new Alaska -- one with little snow and thin ice, birds and buds in Anchorage, slush in Fairbanks and mud in villages near Bethel. I picture those things and feel for those folks. Tonight I wonder where to the south the line lies, where winter is over.

Roaming beyond the hills

After these past few years of early spring rain and brown tundra in April, this year we can travel as far as the eye can see and farther. The lure to be out is overpowering. People are traveling in all directions, hunting and camping, fishing and hauling firewood, tanned in the faces, up half the night roaming far beyond the hills.

The land is balanced between winter and summer on that freezing mark. When our snow and ice melt, this season is suddenly gone, rolled up and put away. We know that time is coming, and it's hard to let go. Every moment inside feels like a wasted one, every moment outside twinged with a need to hit the trail one more time.

The night sky is bluer now, if that is possible. I've written a few pages, but I can't be sure of the words. It must be 2 or 3 in the morning. There is little night left, and soon it will be getting lighter. It's been a hard winter but a beautiful spring. This year it came like it did in my childhood.

Back 35 or 40 years ago, my brother and I were home-schooled kids. We did our schoolwork at night with a kerosene lamp on a little wooden table, after a day of hauling wood and water, running dogs, checking traps and skinning furs. We did school seven nights a week from November until February.

One reason we worked so hard to finish our classes early was so we could be free when the sun came back. We knew that sun would come back stronger than ever, glaring relentlessly on the spring snow. We were scared of getting trapped inside.

Change of diet needed

I glance out the front windows to make sure nothing is bothering the wolf skin tied in my sled tarp. I don't want a fox dragging it off. The dark knob of a shrew on the snow catches my eye, and I toss out a hunk of musk ox fat for it to focus on.

In my swivel chair, a castoff thrown away from some office in Kotzebue, I stare at the night. I adjust my boots carefully in the dimness so I don't knock my shotgun sprawling from where it leans in the corner. I'm keeping it handy. Out on the land, the first geese have arrived somewhere. And like most hunters here, I hunger for a change of diet after a long winter.

In the four years I've off-and-on been hauling and nailing together scraps and thrown-away materials from Kotzebue to build this cabin, the spot has grown on me. The land is so spread out, rising and falling, huge and stunning, around me, and every kind of local animal out there walking on it. Musk ox often watch me work -- wondering why, I assume. (I wonder sometimes, too.) Moose are down there in the thickets, wolves up on the ridges, and caribou in the distance, digging down to feed. Gray jays are my closest company, and a lynx -- though mostly invisible -- crosses every few nights out past my sled.

Behind the cabin, just up the rise, are a half-dozen or more graves, and I've grown accustomed to their company. I've grown to like the feel of continuum with these elders passed, who came from elders, who traveled miles and miles on this land.

I stare at the white light of a gibbous moon, while my fingers explore my cracked nails and bunged-up knuckles, and clean the sawdust out of my hair and ears. Everywhere I look, I see what I've done with my hands, so much skin and blood and work. This cabin I'm putting together for my daughter from naily boards and castoff building materials has taken more effort than expected. If I'm good at one thing, it's making things as hard as possible. These last weeks I've been hauling dry spruce boards I made by hand with a chain saw, hauling them on sleds a couple hundred miles down the Kobuk River and up the Noatak. Sometimes I wonder who would be so foolish, to make their own boards, then haul them down one river and up another. But I don't wonder quite as often as I used to. By now I know that fool well. For a moment I chuckle, thinking of my wife and daughter, Stacey, believing I need to get a pet beaver -- a beaver that works constantly, they say, hauling wood back and forth, making sawdust, too busy to stop and talk.

Tough old-timers

Lately, I've been reading about the old Eskimos, how they walked north into the Brooks Range, all over the mountains, to haul caribou skins and fat home. I can't believe they traveled such distances on foot and on rafts with such loads. All the old-timers, not just the Eskimos, were tough, traveling the world when it was far more wild. When I think about that, none of my miles and efforts seem like more than playing house.

The pages are almost too dark to see now. For months, each time I have a chance to come up here to work, I kick myself for not bringing a second pencil. This poor yellow thing is so chewed from carpentry, this tablet so ruffled and bent from being underfoot.

In the dimness, I spot the word love and peer down at the paper. I love this night sky, this beautiful land, this life we struggle through. I'm grateful that this spring we still have snow and cold. Tonight, I guess, I'm still that kid at the little wooden table, working terribly hard to get my schoolwork finished because when the sun comes up yellow again, I want to be gone, heading back out into one more crisp, glistening morning.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves." His new book, "Swallowed by the Great Land" from Mountaineers Press, will be out in September. Kantner lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.

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