Thank you for reading my books and visiting my website. Over the years I’ve found publishing and that industry often to be discouraging, and it really has been your letters and kind words that have kept me writing. Thank you also for signing up to receive updates from the Arctic.
I recently returned to the coast after spending a cold and late Breakup along the Kobuk River where I was born and raised. Sorry to be so behind on updates—I’ve been out of range a lot. I think I’ll start back in spring 2022, in order to contrast last season with 2023. My life has always been intensely tied to the seasons, gathering food and other supplies from the land, and also gathering thoughts, insights, stories and photographs that each season brings.
Spring along the river 2022
In May 2022 river ice broke up late. Some caribou went by on the moving ice, but not lots. The mosquitoes were late melting out from under leaves where the adults over-winter; their young which hatch in standing water seem slower to appear nowadays--I think because of the permafrost melting and changes in surface water distribution. (I have more to say about that.) There were fewer songbirds than past springs--down again after previous declines—and the land was unusually quiet with the dearth of songbirds. This was a hard pill to swallow and came with sadness. These are little beautiful creatures and it is their songs that have always been the music of spring.
The male Junco generally is the first small bird to arrive, as early as late April. When one lives close to the land year after year, gathering food and companionship there, too, these alterations are noticeable. In 2022 juncos were entirely absent here on the hill around our old sod home until mid-May. Friends reported the same upriver in the village of Ambler and 40 miles east in Kobuk. Caribou, too, were down in numbers migrating north to the calving grounds. In the past I’ve seen as many as fifty thousand in May, here from the hill. On average that number has been ten thousand animals. In May 2022 I saw a total of five hundred caribou. Many factors are affecting the Western Arctic herd; presently it is 1/3rd the size it was twenty years ago (480,000, and now 164,000), fewer migrated south in the fall, and groups that wintered near Ambler got an early start returning north. Other reasons go on and on, including rapid changes in hunting, ice, climate and vegetation.
The actual Breakup in 2022 was surprisingly uneventful considering the heavy snow year and cold winter, both of which in the past would have caused exciting ice pile-ups, loud booming destruction along the river banks, ice jams and flooding. In late winter reports came from around the region of thick ice: as much as 7-8 feet on some lakes, and 5 feet here in the middle of the Kobuk—this compared to 2 feet I have measured in the same spot on recent warm winters.
Late in May I closed up my sod house and pushed the tin boat off the snowdrift. This large snowdrift is where my family traditionally stored meat until late June. These days the drift is far smaller, due to trees, shrubs and brush growing on the tundra, which impedes wind-driven snow in winter.
Before leaving for the coast, I shoveled out most of a bull caribou I’d shot a few days previous. I loaded the meat along with 15 geese, cameras and laptop, gear and gas and rifle in my tiny boat. The open water of the river felt alien after the long winter; 600 yards wide, with bright blue sky overhead, wispy clouds and white ice pans floating west. Widgeons and pintails paddled by as I worked, calling and leaving lines in the current.
On the trip up to Ambler, I passed geese and ducks, a few teenaged beaver, and one cow moose looking very pregnant. A mile below the village three harlequin ducks took off, the first I’ve seen on the main Kobuk. Over the last few decades waterfowl patterns have changed noticeably--their food supplies, preferences, and places they use seasonally—the most obvious change being the near complete lack of geese here in September for a decade now.
Along the way I saw no caribou, and no bears. All spring I didn’t see a bear, which has never happened to me before. These days the black bear population is nearly gone, displaced by grizzlies and by local hunting pressure. When I was a kid we spotted one grizzly for every 15 or 20 black bears. Now we see the opposite--on average 20 or more grizzlies for every black bear.
In Ambler I stopped in at Don and Mary Williams’ house on the hill where they’ve lived below the village for the last half century. They are basically second parents to me. It was a pleasure to visit, drink coffee and eat caribou soup together, and catch up on news of birds, bugs, water levels, caribou, and of course TV news and movie stars, which Don follows. It was great to see humans, too--the first of that species I’d seen in nearly a month!
Now this spring: April 2023 was shockingly cold, with nights the first half of the month dipping to minus 35 below. The snow was deep after severe blizzards, especially on the coast, and winter conditions stretched into mid-May. People were sick of the storms!
The first geese and other waterfowl arrived at the end of April, roughly on schedule, but arriving to a stark white cold landscape. Juncos were the first songbirds, as we’ve long grown accustomed, but were hungry and hard pressed to find bare ground. A day or two later the white-crown and golden-crown sparrows appeared, more concentrated than I’ve seen before and also hungry. They pecked at any seeds, fat, and even meat and moose bones. A few grizzly bears passed by, but there was again no sign of a black bear. With so much snow on the land, not a mosquito appeared until late May, a record in my memory.
Caribou were almost entirely absent. I saw a few to the north on the tundra near Silver Dollar lake but didn’t see even one animal cross the melting ice in front of my home. No caribou drifted past riding on moving ice pans, none swim the open water after Breakup. The lack of animals left a huge hollowness. Countless times each day I felt my eyes roaming the ice, searching for dots, missing these life-long spring companions. It’s hard to explain how big a presence caribou have always had in my life here. Well, actually, I guess I did write a book about that, but…the lack and the loss seems to keep compounding.
Caribou had wintered east of Ambler, and residents of upriver villages also had been lucky when herds passed through in late fall. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the people in the Northwest Arctic have hardly seen, or not seen, a caribou in a year or more. The herd has largely stayed far to the north, which for them is probably wise.
The ice this spring was thinner than last, and the snow deeper, and melting held off until mid-May, when days of rain and finally some warm weather caused rapid run-off. The ice was still hard, not crumbly, but, much like recent years, there were no exciting ice jams or bang up breakup. It’s now obvious that water on the land is traveling in very different channels than it did in my youth. But how and why?
I think what I’ve been noticing for years but not knowing a name for is the permafrost melting, and the creation of new avenues between surface and ground water. Beavers, brush, thermokarst lake drainage, and minerals leaching orange into Arctic rivers all fit into this new picture. Other signs are thinner ice, more salmon than 50 years ago, more insects, much more and larger vegetation, more precipitation and overall warmer temperatures. I think being out on the land, close to nature and in a familiar area, cutting firewood or hunting or trying to photograph animals, trapping furs, or just chipping a hole in the river ice to get buckets of water, one can gather repeated glimpses of these little and large changes directly affecting our lives here. Mixing one’s observations with observations made by scientists (a very different view) sometimes can broaden the glimpse. It’s still only a glimpse, though. There’s so much going on in the multitudes of interactions out there that we don’t realize or understand. When there is more lynx or more snow geese, or some increase in resources, we tend to accept that easily, call it something good, maybe something we deserve. When suddenly there are no caribou, for example—after decades of extreme abundance and us taking them for granted—we don’t react as well. Often what comes first is finger pointing, blaming, and avoidance of culpability, all handy emotions. Somewhere in here, hopefully, we can take advantage of this opportunity to be prescient, and to be better stewards.
*One last observation from spring: The birds did come back, filling the air with sounds and songs, and filling our cooking pot more than a few times. We were so grateful to them, all of the varied species. With the dearth of animals along the river, and zero people traveling, it was starkly obvious how valuable and wonderful it was to have the companionship of birds on the tundra, and how terrible it would be to lose these beautiful fellow creatures.