Life in the far North

I’m probably especially interested in this subject, since I’m looking forward to another Alaska trip at the end of the summer, but I’ve been reading a bi-monthly journal at Orion magazine’s website called Dispatches From the Edge: Seth Kantner’s Changing Alaska.

It’s dark, and finally a little cold. Twenty below. A sharp little north wind streams white exhaust away from each smokestack and tailpipe in this close-packed town. The red lights of huge Dodges and Fords—and even one Hummer now—roll past me, delivering children the few hundred yards from homes to school.

I’m on my bicycle, bundled to the eyeballs: heavy snowpants, polar fleece, jacket, facemask, and snowboarding gloves. My Ice King shoepacks only partially fit on the pedals. Behind frosted goggles I can’t see very well. I’m accustomed to the instant falls on snow and ice, but today with this box of frozen vegetables bungy-corded to the bike’s rear rack things are more precarious.

Courtesy of our Visa cards, fossil fuel and Full Circle Farms, a CSA in Washington state, these waxed boxes of vegetables once a week jet their way to the Arctic. My wife likes vegetables. Alone, I’d probably just eat meat and cranberries. Today I’m packing home solid salad, thanks to someone carelessly leaving the order out to freeze.

My mind wanders from icefog and giant vehicles to those people I meet on my book tours who repeatedly tell me how envious they are of me living in the pristine wilderness, not using up resources.

With Kotzebue virtually surrounded by ice, just one mile long and less than that wide, and with only a few miles of roads that lead to the deconstructed Air Force site, a person wouldn’t think we’d have hundreds and hundreds of trucks jammed in here together—half of the time idling to keep their interiors warmed. Plus hundreds more snowmobiles and four-wheelers.

Kantner’s website has some photography and a biography that lists jobs he’s had, including igloo builder (your guess is as good as mine). The town of Kotzebue is a couple hundred miles north of Nome on a small peninsula on the West Coast, closer to Russia than to Fairbanks or Anchorage. There have only been four entries so far, but the intersection of modern and traditional culture is a recurring theme.

The other day I shoveled out the door to the porch and brought in a caribou hindquarter. It was thirty below out, the hindquarter hard as stone. I clanked it against boards, knocking off snow and marveling at what a great club the meat made. You could kill someone with it.

Beside the stove it turned gray with frost. My intentions were to cut it into strips to dry. Paniqtuk, in Inupiaq. Dried meat. I grew up on the stuff. We ate dried caribou and fish most lunches, dipped in seal oil or bear fat. My dad taught me to cut the meat half-frozen so as to shave the strips thin and perfect. Everybody else we knew cut it thawed; their strips were thick, still tasty, but requiring more jaw…

…Mid-winter is chapped—good for drying things. This cold weather wrings the moisture out of the air. Frost can fall out of a clear blue sky. By morning the paniqtuk is ready to take off the rack. Some of it is dry and I send China to school with fresh pieces in her lunch. Kids hit her up for it. Apparently even the coolest girl in fifth grade, the one with the Hannah Montana purse, likes it. China’s Inupiaq language teachers are worse—they seem to be able to sniff it out. One of them corners me in the school hallway, asks me to make her some.

It’s a busy world and even I have to force myself these days to take the time to dry meat. The Arctic used to run on bartering, and people who still make paniqtuk trade it. Mary Williams has told me she’s gotten calls from as far as California asking for some. Paniqtuk for money? That would have been crazy in my former life, but I guess it’s no different from people now who spend a hundred bucks for a block of whale muktuk.

A hundred bucks for a block of whale muktuk — who would ever have thought it? His goal seems to be to focus on small incidents in his daily life — a hunting foray on his “snowgo” (snowmobile), or boiling medicinal plants for his wife’s flu and then going out to play in a storm with his daughter and the dog — and to use them to explore how modernization and climate change are altering the far north. I might prefer a broader brush that described his town, the landscape, and the culture of the place, but he seems content to touch on those only when they happen to come up in his entries. Maybe he’s holding back so that people will feel more inclined to buy his upcoming book of essays and memoir.


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