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Spruce trees like old men

Kobuk River—It’s been a rainy fall. Again today the clouds are low, mist fills the air and raindrops pelt the windows. Water drips off tree branches. Down the hill through the wet grasses and fireweed and roses is the gray shine of the huge flooded river, 550 yards bank to bank, too muddy to drink, and now not easy to even clamber ashore in the endless thickets of submerged willows.

Inside my sod house, my companion Aakatchaq and I have the barrel stove roaring. Thankfully, we have lots of wood. I have a muskox roast simmering in the Dutch Oven, the last of our fresh meat. There’s been no caribou this fall, and we’re thinking a spruce grouse or porcupine, or beaver, or maybe a mallard will be next in the pot. Both windows that open are pried wide, letting moldy air flow out. I’m not sure what’s flowing back in, probably more of the same. I’m allergic to mold, and worried I’ll have to start taking prednisone again.

Squirrels occasionally peer in the windows carrying mouthfuls of moss and gray jays, too, are relentlessly hauling away scraps, and at night an ermine chases mice in the moss walls. I find that I appreciate their company more than I used to. I’m less excited about what’s eating the roof—ants, I think, or some new termite—and the old ridge poles are twinged with a hint of mold and the panes of glass in my windows don’t let light in the way they did years ago.

Here on my home hill, on the west end of Paugnaktagruk bluff, this fall the birch and alder leaves are blighted, blotched with brown, and the spruce look worse--not green and shiny as usual, but now frosted with dead needles from the summer’s plague of spruce needle rust. Daily, Aakatchaq and I walk the game trail that leads up the ridge. In the lush forest, we marvel at mushrooms, everywhere, and beautiful lichens and glowing green moss. Around us the spruce trees look like old people. They remind me of friends I haven’t seen in twenty years, gray and disconcerting to see so aged, different, but still recognizable as old loyal friends.

I know these trails well, from a lifetime walking them, and now even the trails feel strange. The lack of animals is obvious; these ancient paths have hardly been used and are overgrown, not marked and marred with hoof prints, moose and caribou turds, or splats of bear scat.

The river’s been at flood stage for so long it’s starting to feel like a new normal. There will be no setting a net in the big eddy for fish, not for a while, and no sandbars or shorelines to watch for moose. Lakes and bogs and sloughs are filled, the tundra is soggy and squishy, and the forecast is more rain. Even hunters were largely absent, until a stray rumor of one caribou caused a brief flurry of boats. High water, especially in September, often brings a deluge of hunters, but with Facebook communication and a lack of caribou the river has been quieter than usual.

In the afternoon the sky is brightening as I put on the AM radio to listen to All Things Considered. Aakatchaq brings in a small bag of muktuk. We have a box of lovely garden vegetables, and I slice homegrown turnips and carrots into the whale oil and get out dried caribou from last spring. We listen to news, of President Biden at a meeting of world leaders, and later a story about the percentage of Americans who now believe in climate change. Apparently, an even smaller percentage are also having mental anguish over it. I listen, chew muktuk and mumble self-deprecating comments about my own mental instability caused by lack of caribou. I joke about whether the announcer calibrated her numbers against the percentage of Americans who believe in Gravity, or know which planet food comes from.

After lunch I climb my 40-foot spruce tower to glass for caribou. Actually, I do this throughout the day, every day—more each week that passes without caribou. Each trip up the wooden ladder I scan the land carefully for distant dots. I’ve scanned this terrain all my life, for more than half a century now, and my memories are filled with encounters with animals—bears, wolves, moose and wolverine, otters and eagles and thousands of birds—and especially caribou. Caribou dotting the distance; antlers moving in the brush; lines of caribou stretching as far as the eye can see; caribou riding moving ice; big bulls swimming the river. Today there are none. I can see south to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, north into the mountains. The tundra, like those spruce trees, is tough to even recognize. Small spruce and clumps of alders, dwarf birch and willows are covering the once open land. Willows hide the view of creeks and sloughs and have walled off many of the old trails.

Finally, white glints make me catch my breath. It’s not caribou but a family of swans, eating blueberries, far away on the still-open tundra west of the Hunt River.

The following evening my friend Nick Jans stops in his jetboat. With him are his brother, Tony, and his nephew, Paul, first-time visitors here. I open the stove, point out nails to hang their wet gear, and tell them they can leave their Xtratufs on. Outside, it’s raining and blowing north wind, not a usual combination. I’ve known Nick 40 years and though he lives far south nowadays, he’s part of the past and remembers the land how it was, the old people and the years of countless caribou. He, too, looks like those spruce, gray now and older, still getting out on the river but more cautious, moving slower, and equally dismayed about the changed landscape.

We drink coffee, tell stories of camping and traveling into the mountains, and of influential and iconic elders: Clarence Wood, Merrill Morena, Tommy Douglas, Tommy Lee, and Minnie Gray, Sarah Ticket, Lillian Johnson and so many others. We don’t speak long without returning to caribou. We--all of us here along the Kobuk, consciously or unconsciously—were people of the caribou; eating them, wearing them, sewing with their sinew, sleeping on their hides, and photographing them, too, and writing about what it meant to live in the path of such colossal seasonal migrations. All the while doing what humans have always been good at: taking such miracles for granted.

The funny thing is, the other species here too are creatures of caribou. Ravens miss the gutpiles. The grizzly bears have lessened their patrols of the shores. The moose that stood along the river banks, ignored by hunters in favor of caribou, are now shot or gone. Surely even the tundra plants feel the lack of grazing, and hundreds of thousands of hooves, and the rain of millions of dropped turds.

What feels wrong stretches in every direction. Well, I guess not wrong, just very different. For so long I written love stories for this land, infusing each with carefully worded warnings of the value and sensitivity of nature. Now, it feels as if that future has arrived. There’s something else here that I’m trying to understand, and accept. I know I’m tired of the term Climate Change, and growing more so every day. The truth is we are changing.

Late in the evening it’s still raining. A few yards from the door, down the path under the dripping birches, the cranberries are glistening red. I’m grateful they are here. I will miss them terribly if they are ever gone. In the dusk I pick a couple cups, wet and leafy, and then make a pie. We eat leftover muskox and boiled vegetables, and I get up occasionally to feed the oven firebox. As we’re clearing the old spruce table, I joke about gnawing the big gnawed bone again in the coming days. Aakatchaq heads out carrying the heavy black pot. “Hard times coming,” she says. I murmur agreement. As the door closes behind her, I faintly hear her say, “I was joking.”

Alone in the silence I smile at the beautiful cranberry pie and say, “I wasn’t.”

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