By Shawn Perich
In recent weeks I’ve played email and telephone tag with Seth Kantner of Kotzebue, Alaska, attempting to set up an interview. Kantner is the author of Ordinary Wolves, a novel about a boy growing up in a sod igloo on the tundra and then coping with the outside world as he comes of age. Although the story is fictional, it was clearly written by someone intimately familiar with the Arctic’s traditional way of life. Although the book isn’t about hunting, it contains some fine writing about the land and the hunt.
Had I interviewed Kantner, quite likely the focus would have been living with land in the Arctic, which remains a substantial part of his life. To a certain extent, my hunting was one reason we were playing email tag, when he was around, I was gone and vice versa. As it turned out, we were unable to talk prior to Kantner’s visit to Grand Marais, where he gave a talk last Saturday.
Hunting darned near interfered with getting into town to hear his talk. My friend, Alan Lutkevich, shot a buck early Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, the buck kept going. We dogged the deer’s blood trail like a pair of ordinary wolves until we caught up with it three hours later and a long way from the truck. Daylight was fading when we finished field-dressing the buck, so we decided to haul out the deer at daybreak on Sunday. We made it home with just enough time to shower up and head to town to hear Kantner speak.
While it wasn’t the same as an interview, Kantner said so many interesting things that I decided to share some of them with you. An outdoor photographer as well as a writer, he showed slides depicting life in the Arctic.
“We’ve seen a lot of change,” he said by way of introduction, “and I’m gonna talk about some of that.”
At age 47, Kantner is old enough to remember what life in the Arctic was like before snowmobiles were used for winter transportation. Instead, everyone kept a team of sled dogs. Life revolved around hunting and fishing on a daily basis to provide food for people and dogs. Caribou were the mainstay of the human and canine diet, supplemented by salmon and other fish, waterfowl, moose, seals and whatever else could provide the fat necessary to sustain life in a cold climate. When snowmobiles became commonplace, everything changed.
“People let their dogs die on the chain,” he said.
While working dogs disappeared, mushing was transformed into recreation, primarily sled dog racing. The dogs used for mushing as a sport are smaller and less heavily furred than their predecessors. Kantner apparently has little interest in sled dog racing, telling the Grand Marais audience they likely knew more about racing dogs than he did.
When Arctic people no longer had dogs to feed, they had less reason to hunt. Around the same time, they began having more contact with the outside world. Now, says Kantner, people may go out hunting and then go home and have frozen pizza for dinner. He also said that while hunting remains part of Arctic life, there is less understanding of what you do after the game is down.
Another big change occurring in the Arctic is the warming climate, which he dramatically showed with two slides. One was a photo of an open tundra landscape taken when he was a boy. The second was a photo of the same location, taken a few years ago. The once-open tundra is now a conifer forest. While the warming climate has led to more wildlife on the landscape, it also means a melting permafrost, more uncertain ice conditions and more extreme weather events.
The Arctic economy is now more about money than it is about subsistence and may grow significantly if planned development projects occur. New mines and oil fields, as well as roads into now-roadless tundra expanses are planned. Kantner says while projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge attract public outcry and media attention, they are but a fraction of planned and ongoing development projects. Another growing industry in the Arctic is climate change research. He remarked on the irony of how climate change researchers seem to spend a lot of time roaring around in fossil-fuel-sucking helicopters.
He also commented that if a black man comes to the Arctic to study climate change, he’s “just another white guy” in the eyes of the Eskimos. Kantner, who is white, is keenly aware of the Arctic’s racial issues, which he discussed somewhat during a question and answer period after the talk. For instance, he said his Minnesota-based publisher was troubled by his use of the word “Eskimo” to describe the local people, because it is a word that has fallen out of favor in the politically correct Lower 48.
“The publisher wanted me to use the word ‘Inuit,’” he said. “But back home people would say, ‘Inuit, what’s that?’”
Racial tensions are just beneath the surface. He said he was unaccustomed to being around happy people, as he was in Grand Marais. While there are a lot of jokes and laughter in the Arctic, chronic unhappiness manifests itself in alcoholism, high suicide rates and a host of social problems. Kantner’s daughter is attending a boarding school in the Lower 48, because her home town is a very difficult place for a 14-year-old white girl to be.
While Kantner at times presented an unvarnished view of Arctic life, his talk wasn’t gloomy. I suspect many folks who listened to it went home that night and dreamed of endless herds of caribou. Afterward, I bought a copy of his second book, Shopping for Porcupine, which he signed for me. When I introduced myself, he said, “I’ve been carrying the little piece of paper with your phone number on it in my pocket all week. How’s the hunting?” I told him we tracked a wounded buck and killed it just before dark, and that we planned to haul it out of the woods in the morning.
“Why did you leave it?” he asked.
“We were a long way in there and we wanted to get out so we could hear your talk,” I explained.
“Won’t the bears get it?” he asked.
“What about the wolves?”
“I’ve left deer in the woods before and never had a problem,” I said. “Maybe there is enough human scent to keep them away.”
“What about the ravens?”
“We pulled it away from the gut pile and hid it under a tree,” I said. “We’re going back for it at daybreak.”
Kantner seemed satisfied with my answers, but I suspect if he were in our place, he would have skipped the talk and brought the meat home. In the Arctic, you can’t afford to take chances with your meat supply or anything else if you intend to survive.