Sitting in Bob Uhl’s hospital room, I stare at my fingernails and then down at my beaten leather boots. The wisest naturalist and subsistence hunter I’ll ever know slumps in a wheelchair. He’s tearing at a box of tissue. His fingernails are long and they aren’t very clean, either.
It’s evening and an attendant comes in with a tray. She puts it down, disappears, and quickly returns with a second tray. Before coming here I’d been cutting caribou meat all afternoon, the way Bob taught me years ago, and I know what I want for dinner—not whatever lays under those identical brown plastic domes.
“What have you been eating, Bob?” I ask.
“Oh, flounders,” he says quickly. “With that incident upriver we’ve been eating flounders all week.” He rambles on, mixed nonsense, or maybe not. He grows silent, struggling to fold tissues that have tumbled out of the box across his knees. Suddenly I’m so sad.
I didn’t visit Bob as many times as I should have these past months. When Carrie died unexpectedly last summer I promised myself that I would. Last winter I chopped ice for him for water, and hunted and took caribou and moose meat to his senior-housing apartment, but what he wanted most was more visits.
Winter was little snow, so I left in April, traveling home upriver to beat breakup. After the ice went out the bare ground thawed and dried unseasonably early. I had to jumpstart the garden project that I manage for nearby villages—a frenzied time of year for me with the short growing season. By July the tundra was parched, very few song birds yet, and that strange flock of yellow scooper/dumper airplanes buzzing overhead, attacking the many forest fires. The salmon came, the largest return in decades. They were fat and silver, thick in the body, so good to see in this age of environmental bad news. But that meant I was busy again—Andrew Greene and I fished two 600-foot nets, intense work where often we hauled in 1000 fish in six hours, only to get up at 3 a.m. and head out again. Our hands were like claws, arms tough, vocabulary infested with cuss words. I sent my daughter over to Bob’s with a fat Arctic Char. By the time I visited him, the roasted fish was picked-over leftovers on the table.
Now, the caribou brisket and tongue I saved for him are too late; he’s done cooking meals from the land. In his wheelchair Bob murmurs, “Dogs are barking. I wonder what that’s about.”
I glare at the flat screen bolted to the wall. “It’s the TV.” I snap it off. Bob doesn’t ever watch TV. Living all those years in a wall tent and cabin with Carrie they liked the radio. “You need a radio.”
After fishing season I immediately headed upriver again. September along the Kobuk was crazy hot―many afternoons in the 70’s. Caribou were scarce. Aluminum boats were not; they roared up and down the river seeking meat. Everywhere more baby spruce had popped up, endless green juveniles underfoot. Below my dad’s log cache and in front of our old sod igloo I stared north, remembering writing about these marching trees and thinking then I was seeing global warming in my life. Now I recognized my naïveté—I have only yet glimpsed the shadow of the beast.
Here, back downriver, back in Kotzebue, the beach pebbles of historical Front Street have been replaced with a quarter mile of sheet steel piling; cranes loom over the walls of a new hotel; the town roars with mega-construction. And I’m in a hospital room, talking to an old slumped white man in a wheelchair. He folds and refolds tissues. “Seems to be a revival in dogs hollering today,” he says. “I don’t know if it means nothing or everything or what.”
A tear gets away from me and I laugh. It’s great to see Bob. Somewhere in his scrambled head he’s still questioning every detail of the natural world. I glance around the room for paper to write notes on. I find a marker. No paper. I see a Bible and consider tearing out a page. Maybe I better not. Finally, I find a paper, marked up with Bob’s scribbling of Biblical events and names, Gomorrah and Delilah and others. Half way down in pencil he’d written “Ammunition.”
I tear the bottom off. “Bob, do you need anything?”
He raises his head, looks me in the eye, chuckles his old familiar chuckle. “Well.” He sighs and lowers his head. “Just the same stuff as always.” He unfolds a new tissue and refolds it. “Just seals. And flounders. Seal oil occasionally.”
Seth Kantner is a commercial fisherman, wildlife photographer and author of Shopping for Porcupine and the national bestselling novel, Ordinary Wolves. He was born and raised in northern Alaska where he presently lives.
His original piece on Bob Uhl appeared in Orion in 2005.
Seth also blogged about his experiences with climate change in the far north for Orion’s website in 2009.
Photo by Seth Kantner.