Photo: Seth Kantner: The Problematic Princesses
The house is shaking again, sheets of snow howling past, the way it is supposed to be here in the Arctic on the second-shortest day of the year. Out there in the dark my dog is barking. Whatever it is that’s got him hollering must be important—if he spends more than a minute out of his doghouse it will be drifted with snow.
China is out too, playing. I bundle up and head out to check on her. The door is buried, the air full of moving snow. Worf, my third-hand dog, is curled up beside his house, his face and body crusted white. He springs to his feet, overjoyed. I pound his frozen snap with a moose bone until he is free.
I find my daughter and her friend, Sarah Seeberger, at the top of a drift, obscured by passing snow. At least that is who I believe these two snow-crusted apparitions to be. I scramble up beside them. Snow whips in my eyes like sand and leaves me nearly blind, and breathless. I kneel and gather oxygen and my wits for the battle. I lunge at them, arms wide. “Ah, problematic princesses! I must send ye to the rat-piss dungeon!” The girls squeal and plunge over a cornice.
After twenty minutes—much of it spent being ridden like a sled headfirst down to the various dungeons—I inform them that the king must go write his Orion dispatch.
In the dark and swirling gusts, China hunkers low; she suggests I write about the storms lately. Another idea she has is baby salmon. When I ask her what she means, she reminds me of the low river, and all the salmon we saw this past fall—dead on the shores, and spawning in the last channels left in the dried-up streams. Apparently, she’s been worrying with Freezeup so low and very little snow until now, that the ice has frozen down to the developing salmon babies.
Me, I’ve been thinking to write about fox hunters from the past—what Bob Uhl described to me, how in the 1920’s red fox skins were worth twenty bucks apiece, and hunters snowshoed for days on the tracks of foxes. The good hunters knew each and every patch of willows on this coastal land; if a fox’s trail angled in the direction of a distant and known thicket, the expert could make a valuable shortcut, knowing exactly where mister fox hoped to hide.
Now, ninety years later, there are a thousand thickets. Millions maybe. Willow-guessing where a fox may hide is an art form gone. Verifying this vegetation influx are more of Bob’s exact facts—about how moose, a willow-eating species, first arrived in the late 1940’s, and thrived.
But foxes, willows, or moose alone make not climate change, nor a story here. Throw in a human. Throw in the fact that Bob Uhl—old and bent and gray, and by far the wisest man I know when it comes to the land—is one of the few here that firmly, gently, steadfastly won’t believe in global warming. And as always, I’m not certain where to put this piece of the puzzle.
This ends my year describing my Arctic homeland to strangers. My charge to unveil examples of change—on these pages anyway—is done. In a way it is a relief, and yet an unfocusing, too. Looking extra hard for change, when you don’t like change, is tough on a person. Scrutinizing carefully for cracks forming in ice you’re standing on, or a frozen land you love, is not necessarily good for man or lemming.
I leave you now, climb into my icy overpants and parka, to return to my problematic princesses and my dog with his almost-wolf Star Trek name, out in the beautiful windblown kingdom.