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Dispatches From The Edge

Seth Kantner's Changing Alaska

From his vantage — both as a resident of the Alaskan coast and a man who grew up attuned to the land and its ways — Seth Kantner experiences climate change and globalization almost daily. Many of us read about these changes; Kantner and his neighbors are living them. Orion will post a new dispatch here twice a month as Kantner chronicles the story of change coming to his land, and his doorstep.

December 22, 2009

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.

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December 8, 2008

Photo by Seth Kantner: Midday Sun

The sun is fouled in an orange cloudbank to the south and seemingly not going anywhere.  At this time of year sunrise and sunset are joined, glorious in pastel colors, but a failure if success means the sun lifting off the horizon.

Snow has been moving; it’s been blowing twenty to thirty out of the northeast, with temperatures ten below zero to ten above.  Night—which is long—the moon is up there looking cool and white, about how your nose and cheeks look after a few minutes walking into the wind.

At the Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation hardware store I’m carrying a can of starting fluid and examining plastic bucket lids when I run into Herbert Foster.  He’s wearing a sealskin hat and a big parka with a fur ruff. We shake hands and talk about the weather.  Herbert used to have some of the best dogs around, and he gave me and my brother our first two sled dogs, at the beach tent camp at Nuvurak, in 1974. We were nine and ten years old; we named the puppies Murphy and Bonehead. They grew up to be good pullers.

I don’t know exactly how old Herbert is now, maybe seventy-five. He’s in good shape, and like many of these old Eskimo guys, still gets around the country hunting and traveling by snowgo and by boat. 

“You living in camp?” I ask him.

He tells me he’s living in town, since before Freezeup.  He steps closer. “Seth. This fall, the weather. Like it used to always be.” He goes on to tell me what I’ve been noting, too—that the ice froze when it should, in October, the way we remember Octobers. The days slowly dipped colder and colder, until travel was possible on the ice, and it grew thicker, until chopping down to water took effort. No surprise rains had poured down on the new trails, as has been the case most falls for a decade and more.

“Seem like no more global warming now,” Herbert informs me. 

I smile. “I wondered if you were going to say that.” I go on, mentioning how climate change is not solely about warmth but more an unpredictability in weather patterns. Herbert is not wasting a lot of effort listening to this meaningless white babble.“I know how to predict the weather, not like some of these people.  Those old people let me learn.  You watch the sky.  Clouds. Moon in falltime.”

I glance down at the plastic bucket lid in my hand, and wish I had a good memory—or nowadays, at least a good digital voice recorder. Inupiaq elders, of whom English is their second language, have a unique and boiled-down way of describing the world. It’s not only fun to listen to, it’s often right-on. (And then again, it’s sometimes way off, too.)

“I wish I was good at predicting weather,” I comment. “The old-timers spent all their lives outside, no wonder they were good at it.”

Herbert’s talking. “I won’t teach you. The moon gonna move all around in the sky again.  I know what it means. I don’t need computer.” He shakes his head. “That weatherman on KOTZ, he always make mistake.”

Finally I relax, and give up wishing for a voice recorder. It’s good to see this old friend of my parents, and I’m happy too to have a normal fall again after how many “strange” ones. As quickly, Herbert shakes my hand and heads down the aisle, looking for nails or gloves, or maybe just conversation.

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November 23, 2008

Photo: Seth Kantner

When I was young, my brother and I listened for snowtravelers—what folks named the early snowmobiles. If we heard a drone we raced down the snowdrift to the ice, looked upriver and down for a black dot or yellow headlight. Travelers! People: they were rare, and exciting.

Sometimes the humming was simply our ears making up sound in the silence of huge mid-winter wilderness, and a moving dot in the distance turned out to be a fox or a wolverine crossing the ice. Disappointed, we’d wander back to the dog yard or our snow tunnels.

Snowgos, as we’ve come to call them, brought change fast. Before them, everyone used dogs. Food for the dogs came the same way it did for us—by fishing and hunting, constantly. Snowgos needed a new kind of feed—constantly—and it didn’t grow on the land. In a few short years, jobs became more important than hunting, a previously inconceivable and upside-down notion.

My friend Alvin acquired a used snowgo before I did, and then he bought a new one, an Arctic Cat Panther. It would go eighty miles per hour. Man, he went up the river like a comet. I can still picture his mom, Mary, worried at the window, watching him disappear in a streak of snow, icefog, and exhaust. “Adii!” she uttered. “Aachikaang!”

Now thirty, almost forty years have passed. I own three old snowgos and one old dog. And it’s easier to name acquaintances who fly to Anchorage twenty times a year than to name even one person that uses working dogs anymore. TV and iPods have come, strip mines have brought high-paying jobs. Snowgo racing and basketball have made local stars that outshine the hunters.

A few days ago my daughter, China, met me at the door when I came in from snowmobiling. I’d been out all day helping a friend set beaver traps. I was frosty, iced, bundled up and stinking of two-cycle exhaust. “I thought you were Bailey,” she said. “Can I have a friend over?”

It was cold, getting dark, overhead the sky bruised blue, and orange in the west over the ice. “Sure,” I said. It was past the point in the evening when I allow her to walk alone across town. It is too dangerous with kids roaring around, lawless on snowgos and Honda four-wheelers—some so little they can hardly see over the handlebars, and some in their forties now.

An hour later Bailey’s mom, Tracey, dropped her off. Tracey was heading into the night to take a visiting doctor out on her racing dog-team. She asked briefly about overflow (water on top of the ice and under the snow), and I reassured her that I hadn’t seen any out on the trail.

At ten p.m. we started noticing the time. Before eleven the hospital called. Out on the ice a snowgo probably traveling a hundred miles per hour had hit the dog team from behind. The doctor had been brought in without a pulse; Tracey was alive, although soon to be medivaced.

Over the course of the evening and morning details leaked in: the driver and passenger on the snowgo were from the village closest to where my brother and I grew up; for one reason or another, they left the scene. The doctor’s leg had been severed, and he bled to death on the ice while Tracey, with all her ribs on one side broken and internal injuries including a ruptured aorta, at fifteen below zero in the dark had tried to fashion a tourniquet.

Travelers the next day reported blood all over the trail. The newspaper reported that alcohol was involved on the part of the twenty-year-old driver. Friends reported a six-hour surgery in Anchorage and Tracey in critical condition and on a ventilator. Gossip said the snowgo was wrecked and the dogs uninjured.

I’m reporting that this accident, and others, has been coming toward us for decades. That may sound too symbolic and pat, but it’s true. Technology has flooded up from the Lower Forty-Eight, washed over Alaska all the way to the Arctic shore and beyond. Here on the once-frontier, technology is colliding with the environment, the animals, and the old ways, outpacing its own limited illumination like a snowmobile roaring up behind a dog team in the dark.

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Seth Kantner was raised close to the land in Alaska's Brooks Range...


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