Alaska author's new book follows life among Arctic caribou herds
Seth Kantner sees his life today as a continuation of the subsistence life he grew up with in northwest Alaska, with some new additions: commercial fishing in the summer, writing in the winter and photography in the spring and fall.
In the last several years, he’s gathered images and stories from the caribou herds that live near his home on the south side of the Brooks Range. His latest book, “A Thousand Trails Home,” recounts those tales, his own story and how they all intersect in a part of the country that’s experiencing climate change at a staggeringly rapid pace.
Kantner capped off a three-week tour through Alaska, Washington and Montana with a visit to Homer this week.
KDLL: Seth, thanks for being here. Your new book, “A Thousand Trails Home,” came out last month.
Can you talk about how long this book has been in the works? When did you start writing?
Seth Kantner: Probably about nine years ago. And the photographs, probably 30 years ago, without the idea of a caribou book. More just wanting to get photos of the land, and the caribou were hard to resist — big herds of caribou — when you got a camera.
The book was supposed to be out September 1, after all these years, and then was held up for a couple extra months in a shipping container on the barges. And so it was a little bit of a rocky start.
KDLL: Affected by the supply chain problems that we’re hearing a lot about.
SK: Yep. Yeah.
KDLL: I know that you're a big photographer. And you have managed to capture these really vivid descriptions of the things you're doing and seeing while also taking photos and writing.
How do you balance all of that at once? Do you have a process when you're out and how you think about writing?
SK: I don't have a process at all. I don't think I was born with organizational skills.
But they're along the south side of the Brooks Range, where I was born and raised. Our life was so focused on the land, I think I carried on with that, a searching-for-food type of life. But then I just added searching for stories and searching for photographs to that.
So, in my mind, it feels like a subsistence way of life with some new additions. And then the seasons kind of decide — maybe winter would be more writing, and fall and spring would be more photographing and then summer would be trying to make a living.
KDLL: Do you see the photos and writing as complementing each other? Do you think that when a reader takes it in, they have to take in all of that to get the full picture of what you're trying to communicate?
SK: I think it helps with this book. Obviously, if I wrote a novel I would feel like photographs would take away from that experience you have, or you fall into another world and you're surrounded by that world.
And so my first book was “Ordinary Wolves” in 2004 and, similarly, there were things I really wanted to say. I just chose fiction as the way to say it.
And so with this, yeah, I feel like kind of to say enough about caribou, I really wanted photographs mixed with words. Which definitely makes a much more complicated project.
KDLL: Yeah, your first book is a novel and this book of course is more autobiographical.
Do you feel like there are things that you were able to freely write about and say in a novel that maybe you aren't when you're writing in such a first-hand way? I mean, the things that character deals with in “Ordinary Wolves,” I imagine, are paralleling your experience. But, of course, you're writing through another character.
SK: Yeah, you hit it dead on there. That book is autobiographical and I was urged to write it as nonfiction. Apparently it would have sold better, et cetera.
But I was adamant that if I wanted to describe a situation that may or may not be admirable for the for the person portrayed by my words, then writing a fictional person, I could say “so-and-so did this.” And if you had a real person's name tied to that, well, good luck with feeling free with what you say.
KDLL: A lot of the people reading your work will have never been to this part of the state. And, at the same time, you're writing about issues of identity and issues about race that are very real to the people who live there.
How do you balance explaining a place to people who have no frame of reference, and doing a place justice for the people who are actually from this part of the country?
SK: That, I would find, wasn't a balance. It's more like all at one end of the teeter-totter. I just spend endless amounts of time weeding through my words and being suspect of each one. Does this do its job, is this fair? But also, is it as descriptive as possible?
And so this book, I joke — but it's not too much of a joke — that it took an extra five years because of the politics of talking about some issues that a lot of people disagree on, like the difference between sport hunting and subsistence and user rights, and then ways of hunting caribou now versus 50 years ago. So each one of those felt like a dangerous swamp I was heading into as far as trying to say the truth and and be fair at the same time. And then not always good things to be said.
KDLL: Right. And your educational background is in journalism. So I imagine fairness and considering things from a lot of sides is very front of mind for you.
SK: Yeah. I think my upbringing is stronger than my journalism training. But the journalism training in Missoula, Mont., they were adamant about if you're using a quote, it has to be the real thing, you can't just sort of make one up. And adamant about, you know, if something's 95% true, it's fiction still. It's not nonfiction.
So yeah, I hadn't thought of it until you said it, but I think that those journalism ethics from that school have kept me on the desire to stay as true as possible.
KDLL: Then, of course, you mentioned controversial topics.
A big part of life in northern Alaska is dealing with the effects of climate change. Do you see communicating messages about how climate change is impacting that part of the state as a major reason that you're writing these stories? Is that something you think about a lot in your writing?
SK: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it would be different if I made a living off of writing, that I might be writing for money. In this case I'm not, so I write about what I care about. And that's the land and the caribou and being able to hunt in the future and have wild lands. And I don't mean wild lands to look at, I mean wild lands to live on.
But yeah, climate change has really affected that part of Alaska. I guess it's sort of the ground zero for the most warming and the most effects of climate change on the planet.
And so the permafrost is melting and the ice is not freezing as consistently as it did, and then we're getting rain in the winter which would coat the land with ice and make so animals perish and or have a hard time getting their food.
And so all those effects are sort of exaggerated in my mind because of the fact that I'm so tied to the land and I expect the caribou at this time of year, as do other people there.
Twenty five years ago, I was sort of nervous about talking about climate change, which I did, but people were very quick to call you a “greenie” or a “bunny hugger” or something. And that's interesting because the amount of change up in northwest Alaska is so intense that now, 25 years later, I'm not a bunny hugger and everybody's a believer. You can't help up there being that, because of the change.
One simple thing is we travel on ice, we don't have roads. So those are our roads, and if it doesn't get cold like it used to and we don't have those trails and traveling routes, then you can't kind of pretend that there's no climate change.
So, anyway, the long and the short of that is that it's kind of a relief not to be accused of being some animal lover, making up this weird stuff — that climate change is finally not such a big discussion.
KDLL: Well, it sounds like you recognize, too, that you're in this position where you see these effects so prominently in a way that most people — even in this part of Alaska — just wouldn't really see.
SK: Yeah. I think that getting your food from the land makes you notice. And if I shop totally at Costco — which, I love Costco — and traveled in cars on roads, I think it would be so much harder to see, even if it was around you. And so traveling on ice and eating from the land just makes those changes obvious.
KDLL: You also have written a children's book. What was it like writing for a younger audience?
SK: The children's book — I guess that the whole publishing effort was so dismaying that I've kind of lost memory of what it was like before that, just the actual writing of the story. At that point, my daughter was pretty young when I was writing that. So I considered her and I more like siblings because we played together a lot, and mentally I'm sort of on that level.
So yeah, I was always making up stories every day and night for her and it was fun to write one down.
It was surprising to me how complicated the next steps were with publishing and illustration and stuff. And otherwise, I think I would love to write children's stories. Just because I like that age. I like kids and I like that age.
KDLL: Speaking of kids, do you have a first memory of caribou? Is there a memory you can think back to?
SK: Yeah. The funny thing is that the caribou were so ubiquitous in my life that they just sort of flowed through everything, in spring and fall. We didn't see him in the middle of summer.
But yeah, I do have that first memory of waking up in the old igloo and scared because there was nobody there and stumbling outside, probably no shirt, and who knows what else, probably four years old. And calling for my parents, and they were just sort of around the front of the hill there, gutting a caribou.
So in that time of year, the caribou swim across the Kobuk toward our place. Caribou are constantly flowing by the house and constantly — not constantly, but every day — so some would come ashore. And apparently they needed a caribou, needed meat, and they were working on it.
And so I remember the caribou in the melting grass and my parents bending over it and me sort of really grateful to see them.
I don't know about the caribou. I was just a little kid looking for parents.
KDLL: Well Seth, is there anything else you'd like to add or that you'd like people to know about this book?
SK: Well, I hope people read it. I hope they buy it for Christmas presents.
I'm grateful for the last three weeks of traveling around Montana and Washington and Alaska to meet people and then old friends. I think I've sort of become a hermit and a lot of those old friends just are somewhere else on the planet. So that's been pretty reassuring. And then my first attempts with the lost books on the barges and stuff was the opposite, really not reassuring. So this has been a good month so far.
KDLL: And then after this, are you headed back up north?
SK: I am, Sunday. And it's been three weeks and it's been a change of seasons.
You know, when I left there was water and now there's some ice and snow. And I usually like to be there during that season and watch the ice develop and know kind of what it did and how safe it is and what froze first. And so it's a weird feeling, to have been driving through Montana during that time and 50 above zero and bright sun. So I’m going to have to get my fingers warm here soon.