October 2008

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd by Karsten Hauer and Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska by Seth Kantner

I have alternated between bemusement and horror in the past couple of months as Sarah Palin made Alaska the most talked about weird state in the country. From the repeated assertions about the damn bridge to nowhere to her conviction that Alaskans have foreign policy experience because Russia is right next door (how anyone could believe this I’ll never know), I have found myself fruitlessly waiting for sanity to return to media depictions of the Last Frontier. As it happens, I lived in Alaska full-time for ten years and still maintain residency there. Alaska is my home as much as Florida, where I grew up, and just as residents there continue to struggle against the inanity of jokes about hanging chads, I think Alaskans will be shaking their heads over mooseburgers for years to come. What has been missing in all of the recent crazy discourse is the huge divide between urban and rural living in the state. While differences exist everywhere depending on where and how you live, in Alaska ethnicity, wildlife and history elevate the city versus village argument to a radical level. You live in Town or in the Bush and basically that is all someone needs to know about you up there in order to know just about everything.

Seth Kantner was born and raised in the Bush; twenty-five miles from the nearest village, Ambler (current population about 300), and two hundred “river” miles from the nearest settlement of any significant size: Kotzebue (current population about 3,200). In his new and heavily illustrated memoir, Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska he shares how his Lower 48 parents ended up in such a remote location and how he grew to love it. (Kantner still lives in the region.) Told through dozens of vignette-style chapters, the text covers everything from the first home the Kantners built and their relationships with neighbors and friends to the daily life of hunting, trapping and fishing. While the stories about taking care of sled dogs and living near a huge caribou migration are fascinating, the author clearly had more in mind when he wrote this book. Kantner goes beyond offering a peek at rural living to explore some of the rarely discussed aspects of Alaskan life. It is this serious consideration of the state’s distinct social structure that makes Shopping for Porcupine a uniquely personal piece of journalism on an under-reported aspect of American society.

Kantner’s family lived a subsistence lifestyle and he writes about how subsistence has become a flashpoint for the state’s politics and a source of division between urban and rural populations. As eloquent as he is when writing about wolves, moose and caribou, his questions about hunting and subsistence carry a valuable weight to those seeking to understand the “real” Alaskan way of life. Although he uses a camera more often than rifle now, the author clearly still has a great deal of respect for a lifestyle that incorporates “wild food from the land.” But he is not so certain that claims for subsistence hunting privileges are fair when balanced against reliance on “Hondas and Arctic Cats and airplanes” and when enjoyed by those who “eat chicken more often than muskrat.” The definition of life in the Bush has changed radically in the days since he was born and while tradition demands one thing, modern living tends to veer in another direction. Kantner is as conflicted as anyone else on this subject but he bravely asks the questions and voices the concerns that usually go unheard. When you couple this with his observations about the changing climate in his “backyard,” the book becomes a powerful exploration of our rapidly evolving world and a primer for understanding the dichotomy between the two strongest versions of Alaskan life.

In reviewing Shopping for Porcupine I must also point out the author’s many stunning photographs that fill the slightly oversized design. Kantner also includes a chapter on respected wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino, “the Ansel Adams of Japan,” who visited Kotzebue and became a personal friend to the author prior to his sudden death. Kantner’s conversion to photography is well documented in the book and in many cases his reflections on the landscape and the people within it are reflected as strongly in images as they are in his words. The overall literary package is thus significant on multiple levels and a most worthy introduction to a life lived as closely as possible to the natural world.

An overview of a more specific Alaskan topic can be found in Karsten Heuer’s nature title, Being Caribou. In 2003, Heuer, a wildlife biologist, and his wife, filmmaker Leanne Allison, set out on an audacious journey to follow the Porcupine caribou herd on its annual migration from the Yukon Territory in western Canada to its calving grounds in Alaska. The welfare of the herd is a major consideration when discussing oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and while the author’s concern for the herd clearly played a part in their decision to embark on this trip (and create a documentary film) Being Caribou is a surprisingly nonpolitical book. Mostly this is a report on the sort of dirty, difficult, on-the-ground and in-the-field nature title that has not been written about the caribou. Farley Mowat blurbs the cover (“evocative and hard hitting”) and he seems right at place there as Heuer and Allison did the sort of thing that Mowat excelled at: they followed a group of animals in their element as inconspicuously as possible and recorded everything they witnessed. Along the way they experienced extreme climate conditions (to be expected but uncomfortable to say the least), escaped more than one potentially dangerous encounter with bears and wolves and were nearly swept away by a river. Heuer does not emphasize the difficulties of the trip but rather stresses, again and again, the amazing feat the caribou accomplish by making this journey year after year. What starts out in the beginning as an attempt to understand the mechanics of the caribou migration becomes something more visceral and emotional by the book’s conclusion. Heuer and Allison develop an enormous respect for the animals and this new awareness dramatically changes the way in which they see themselves and the natural world.

For those interested in understanding ANWR better, the author does conduct some political conversations during a few days spent in the village of Kaktovik. In need of a few days break from the hike, Heuer and Allison fly out of the Bush and stay in the small settlement on the Beaufort Sea (current population approx. 300). It is here that the many complicating issues surrounding the decision to drill or not drill come into focus. Officially, Kaktovik, which lies within ANWR, supports drilling. There are those who point to the experiences of the village of Nuiqsut, a coastal village near Prudhoe Bay, as a cautionary tale however and worry about might happen if the rigs arrive. Heuer mainly serves the role of curious visitor in these conversations, carefully navigating the territory between topics of potential economic advancement and collapsing boomtown. Back in the wilderness he and Allison must then measure the significance of the herd against the hard truths in Kaktovik’s struggles. Biologists are not certain just how oil drilling would affect the Porcupine herd (and the many animals who live off of it) and there is also the cultural consequence on the region’s Gwichin people, whose close ties to this herd in particular have led to their strong opposition to the drilling. Heuer leaves these human discussions around the fringes of his narrative however, focusing again and again on the powerful achievement of the annual migration.

The book’s closing pages includes a description of discussions between Heuer and Allison and the aides of several senators and congressmen about their experiences in the north. Their Capitol Hill reception is dismissive at best. The two resolved to “work from the bottom up” and bring the story of the Porcupine caribou herd to the voters. This book is one step in that process and however you feel about drilling in ANWR, you will understand after reading Being Caribou that the refuge is not desolate. As Heuer learned all too well, the only way to understand the caribou and the refuge is to follow them on the ground. That is a truth that Seth Kantner would certainly agree with as he stands firmly planted in Northwest Alaska. It’s easy to flyover the state and think you understand it or catch a soundbyte on the nightly news and think it encompasses the opinions of everyone who lives there. Alaska doesn’t have those kinds of easy answers however, not on oil, not on subsistence and not on way of life. It’s a complicated place with complicated issues as Kantner and Heuer make clear in their appealing and informative titles.

Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer
Milkweed
ISBN 1-57131-308-7
233 pages

Shopping for Porcupine by Seth Kantner
Milkweed
ISBN 978-1-57131-301-0
234 pages