Nomads of the North

A writer and photographer shares an intimate portrait of the annual migration and uncertain future of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd.

Seth Kantner grew up in a sod igloo on the tundra of northwest Alaska, his life defined by caribou. Each year, as the Western Arctic Caribou Herd migrated between their winter habitat and summer calving grounds, tens of thousands of animals flowed past his home like a living river. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) provided his family with fresh meat and pemmican; with the door and weather stripping on their home; with their bedding, clothing, tool handles, even thread for sewing—nearly everything they needed to survive, including a deep sense of gratitude for the gifts of the land.

In his new book, A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou, Kantner blends wildlife photography, memoir, and natural and human history to illuminate the lives of caribou, the “true nomads of the north.” His reverence for these ice-age animals radiates from every page, born from decades of observation—not his alone, but also the observations of his Iñupiaq and Yup’ik neighbors, whose understanding comes from generations of paying close attention to one of the greatest migrations on Earth.

By telling the story of caribou, Kantner also tells stories of the human and wild communities intertwined with them. He writes from personal experience of the pain that a rapidly warming climate is bringing to the Arctic, and of the solace that can be found by living closely with other species.

Kantner’s story begins during his childhood in the 1960s, when caribou had only recently recovered from a devastating population crash brought on by the intrusion of whalers, prospectors, and other outsiders to the Arctic.

“In those years,” he writes, “travelers stopped in when passing by and often spent the night, or many nights. My parents asked questions about the old days and especially the old ways, which they were trying to learn. We heard of times of hardship and starvation, back fifty, sixty, seventy, and more years ago—times when there had been few or no tuttut (caribou) in this area. My parents also read aloud to [my brother] Kole and me from journals written by whalers, explorers, missionaries, and prospectors who came up the Kobuk River in the 1800s and later during the Gold Rush. Accounts from these expeditions spoke of only very rarely spotting ‘deer’ and how the animals couldn’t be counted on for food or survival. …


“Stories of no caribou, here on the high tundra ridge just a few miles from Onion Portage—arguably the most famous and consistent caribou crossing site in the world—rang as untrue. Much writing about Alaska, at that time, seemed to be stuffed with exaggerations, errors, and romantic generalizations. For Kole and me, the idea of no caribou here sounded like tales of grizzly bears twenty feet tall or the Kobuk River flowing east. Strangely, though, Iñupiaq hunters who spent nights camped on our floor told similar accounts. In the cast of weak light from our lamp, their jovial faces would turn serious as they spoke of hard times, famines, and periods when no caribou could be found. …


“How lonesome spring and fall must have [been], how hungry and empty and cold everyone’s hearts. How terrible it had to be for the men daily searching the horizons, walking the tundra, staring across the vast distances, waiting, trying again tomorrow, trying ever harder to spot the distant dots that had to be there, had always been there, but now inexplicably had vanished. And the women, hushed, home awaiting word of a successful hunt and the instant joy and rush that word of fresh meat brings, and with it the fat soup, meat to dry, and skins to tan and sew into warm clothing for their families. And the children too, waiting, quiet, watching their parents’ faces and seeing the defeat carved deeper each day.”

Throughout Kantner’s early life, caribou continued to rebound. Even as Alaska was hewn into tribal, state, and federal lands, each with different hunting rules and different changes imposed on the people and animals living there, the caribou migration remained as reliable as winter ice—a “clockwork of the land” by which to mark the changing seasons.

“One evening in mid- to late-August, there comes a chill to the air. Along the shores of the river, the grasses and willows have lost the green of summer and are tinged with yellow. Across the tundra, distant ponds glow gold as the sun goes down, further than it has since April, hinting at winter returning. … The first stars scrape through the blackness after the sunny nights of summer, and in the falling twilight, the only thing bigger than this vast land is the silence. Silence as hushed and huge as space.


“Finally, one small sound floats from the nearby grasses—a rustling of voles in the leaves, there and gone. After a minute comes another noise: the flutter of wings and the soft purr of feet on water as a family of mergansers lifts off the river, vanishing into the coming night. East, over the hills, an unidentified raptor shrills, a single faint call. And then from the west floats an unmistakeable sound, the splash of caribou hooves crossing shallows. …


“Eventually, from closer, come sweeping-branch sounds from the brush—bull caribou forcing their huge antlers through the thickets—and a small herd files out onto a tundra meadow. They glance around, checking for danger, and pause to feed and make decisions.


“Today they choose to lie down on the sweetly scented tussocks, to rest during the heat of the afternoon. In no rush, they await a leader to step forward, to choose the next fork in the trail, a trail that leads perpetually to more trails—endless choices in the path ahead, a thousand forks one day, a thousand more the next—carved and cut into this land down through the ages by the hooves of a billion ancestors, leaving the earth itself altered by their journeys.”

The population of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd peaked in the early 2000s, sometime after Kantner married and became a father. One day around this time, he left his wife and daughter in their cabin and went out with his camera. Lost in the task of photographing the 50,000 caribou passing by, Kantner was unaware of the scale of change already underway.


“On my old birchwood snowshoes, I jog as fast as I can, tireless and fueled by an intensity stronger even than that I’ve always felt as a hunter, to photograph these caribou and gather what is necessary to show people how this land would be wrecked by the strip mines, roads, and development that are coming; to convince them to love, respect, and protect it. To me time feels short, and this seems desperately important for the one thing I know the most about: survival. …


“On this day, I have no idea that this season and a few more will mark the high point for the Western Arctic herd—probably for my lifetime, maybe forever. I can’t see around the corner to the coming century, and I haven’t yet realized how fast climate change is accelerating, carrying waves of species decimation. I don’t yet recognize how astoundingly rich I’ve always been to live with the wealth and companionship of thousands of caribou and other wild animals, millions of salmon and other fish, geese and waterfowl and songbirds. …


“It will be another twenty years before I begin to glimpse how only deprivation—nothing else—can measure and reveal the value of treasure in our lives. It will take Septembers with only a handful of caribou on the tundra, and more than one May with an equal lack for the realization to dawn on me with shock and sadness: I, too, will become one of those old storytellers from my youth, telling tales of times gone by that strain to ring true.”

Today, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd is down to about 244,000 animals, from a high of 500,000. Although the precise reasons for the crash are murky, Kantner believes it’s from a combination of changing climatic conditions, increased human pressures—including hunting—and natural boom-and-bust population cycles.

“On the river, a steady parade of aluminum and fiberglass boats passes, local hunters patrolling relentlessly, searching for even a single caribou crossing the water. Small airplanes pass overhead—more than I’ve seen before—flying north searching for caribou, too. The dichotomy between so many motorized humans and so few caribou leaves me feeling as if I’ve stepped into the future. Except no, I’m here in the present.


“Finally, a few cows and calves appear, and a handful of young bulls, distant dots on the tundra. I walk more miles with rifle and binoculars. All around me is change… in the warm soil, the falling riverbanks, ashen gray dead cranberry plants, the silty water of the Hunt River; in the towering dwarf birch and the billions of new spruce seedlings. In me, shirtless in September, and packing an unfired rifle. …


“I’d seen too much waste, too many wounded animals—entrails and fetuses shot out of running caribou, caribou with flapping broken legs, abandoned dead caribou—camouflaged behind both kinds of hunting, sport and subsistence alike. I’d seen National Geographic photographers, wildlife biologists, and others display equally flagrant and egocentric behavior. … I felt heavy, weighed down by all we’ve lost, and I wished we could stop long enough to stand in silence, listen to the land, and realize that what we are killing is not caribou but ourselves.”

Despite the uncertainty, the population crash seems to have leveled off. And while the abundance and reliability of past migrations are just a memory, there are still enough caribou, for now, to maintain the ancient link between people and land.

“The herd is much farther from home than I usually hunt on foot. But the sky is bright and in these modern times—like those old forgotten days—none of us can predict if more caribou will come this season or we’ll be left hungering for them. We no longer trust what we once trusted most from the land—the caribou migration, and now even winter itself, with ice to travel on. I hunch my shoulders down out of sight, cradle my rifle, and set off for a draw to drop into to work my way east. …


“Because of the changes we are throwing at them, will the caribou here, the Western Arctic herd—migratory tundra caribou—evolve to be more like mountain or boreal forest caribou? Moving in smaller groups, over smaller areas, and more sedentary, hidden and harder to find? Is that partially what they did during the last crash, as their range shrank back nearer the calving grounds in correlation with their decreased population? …


“Late in the evening, I haul in a last armload of kindling and put away the bucket of cranberries we picked in the afternoon, and stash the quarters of the caribou in our log shed for the night. Inside at the table [my wife and teenage daughter] spread out our feast: cranberry sauce, greens and potatoes and carrots from our garden, and fresh meat. We’re hungry and gather around the Dutch oven for boiled brisket and tongue, our traditional first dinner after getting a caribou. …


“The flavor of the meat and bones and broth is exactly as it should be, rich and fat and full with the taste of life, and with it the memories of a lifetime of meals gathered here. There’s something bigger too, a connection through food that caribou provide, an indelible intertwining of our separate species here on this land. And there’s some more powerful force, too, that caribou bring to our lives. It feels like love, friendship, or a nameless kind of companionship.”

All excerpts from A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou, by Seth Kantner. Copyright © 2021 by Seth Kantner. Used with permission from Mountaineers Books.

Seth Kantner

Seth Kantner (Photograph by Kiliii Yüyan)

Seth Kantner was born and raised in northern Alaska and has worked as a trapper, wilderness guide, wildlife photographer, gardening teacher, and adjunct professor. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, Orion, and Smithsonian. Kantner is the author of the award-winning novel Ordinary Wolves, memoir Shopping for Porcupine, and a collection of essays Swallowed by the Great Land: And Other Dispatches from Alaska’s Frontier. He has been a commercial fisherman in Kotzebue Sound for more than four decades and lives in the Northwest Arctic.

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