Seth Kantner: Tracking the Herd

Seth Kantner on the arctic tundra

The day is gray and snowy on the tundra—visibility low. In the new drifts, I spot a line of tracks. For a moment my mind refuses to register caribou. The hoofprints have that freshly disturbed look, and the white crystals glint. Maybe twenty passed here, heading south an hour ago.

A mile back down the trail, the igloo where I was born and raised is buried, covered under winter’s thick blanket of snow, insulated by soil and sod. Behind it, up the hill, sits my “newer” (40-year-old), modern sod home—with caribou skin weatherstripping and an old bearskin couch. I’ve hunted this land for food and furs all my life—back half a century, hunting and fishing were the primary source of food. My family slept on hides, lived off caribou and fish, beaver and bear and other animals, and gathered from the land most days of the year.

“A lot has changed,
but the aim of subsistence remains.”

These days I still hunt, and I cultivate my food too. I’m also a writer and photographer and have fished commercially for salmon for nearly five decades, making a “living” from an intermingled version of both the old and new ways. A lot has changed, but the aim of subsistence remains.

Seth Kantner

I hoist the rifle strap over my shoulder, trekking ahead. After long months of searching unsuccessfully for the animals and a few years of the herds not migrating the way they did in the past, it’s hard not to tense with familiar anticipation formed from decades of experience. Much has evolved in the northwest Arctic—and in the world. Technology. Climate change. How we interact with the land here. Yet my focus and primal instincts remain the same. Tightening my snowshoe bindings, I turn south toward the Waring Mountains, hurrying down the trail left by the herd.

Herd of caribou

A herd of caribou on the arctic tundra.

About the author

Seth Kantner’s latest book, A Thousand Trails Home, was released in September 2021 by Mountaineers Books. Kantner was born and raised in the wilderness of northern Alaska and has worked as a trapper, fisherman, wilderness guide, and adjunct professor. His debut novel, Ordinary Wolves, received a Whiting Award and won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and other awards. He followed his fiction debut with a memoir, Shopping for Porcupine, and a collection of essays, Swallowed by the Great Land. His writing and wildlife photographs have appeared in the New York Times, the Smithsonian, Outside, and Orion, and he has been a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Kantner was schooled at home and on the land, and attended the University of Montana, where he earned a BA in journalism. A commercial fisherman, he divides his home between Paungaqtaugruk and Kotzebue where his family lives.


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