As the dawn brightens outside my sod igloo, I see the ground is white. The trees are waving madly in a snowstorm. For a second, I feel my heart beat faster—yesterday was warm and sunny, and this morning I have to set off for Tacoma and the PNBA book conference. It won’t be pleasant in a blizzard.
After coffee, I scrap snow off old boards to cover my ground-level windows—carefully—because the slats bristle with nails pounded through, to discourage porcupine and curious grizzly bears. A game trail runs down the ridge, directly past my door. Porcupines come to eat plywood, and bears stop to carve their initials in my shed. I want neither chewing into my home.
Out on the river, my little plywood boat pitches in the waves. The floorboards are white and my gas hose won’t connect. Gas leaks in the snow and the old Yamaha keeps cutting out. My gloves are instantly slopping wet. The wind howls from the east, the flakes icy and stinging my eyes. I steer the bow around and race directly into the storm.
Along the way I hope to get a caribou, for needed meat, but I can hardly see the shores and shallows. I scan the gray waves for deadheads—dangerous logs anchored to the bottom and barely piercing the current. I’m nervous about them now. Last fall in a similar storm I narrowly missed tearing the bottom out of my boat, eviscerating a friend, and drowning. In that instant all I could do was recognize Death, and watch it vanish in our wake.
Soon I’m freezing, my hands numb. My glasses are wet and useless. I protect my eyes, peering over my glove, and stop every few miles to stuff my bare fingers down my neck to thaw.
At the Inupiaq village, 30 miles upstream, a few guys help me pull my boat up into the willows, and in the morning I catch a mail plane to Kotzebue. The pilot keeps the Cessna Caravan under a thousand feet for me because of my inner-ear problem. Two days later I’m on an Alaska Airlines jet, non-stop, 550 miles south to Anchorage. I don’t try asking that pilot to fly low.
There, we walk across the tarmac in warm sun, up the steps into the terminal. My vertigo has me off balance. As usual, after weeks on the quiet tundra, I’m stunned by all the people, planes, buses, cars, lights, signs, and sounds.
Unfortunately, my flight to Tacoma doesn’t leave for six hours. There are benefits to being a writer, though, and fellow novelist Don Rearden scoops me up at the airport. He drives his truck fast through Anchorage traffic—heading for the Hillside. He’s got a pistol on his hip and stuffs granola bars at me. We don’t have much time, and this friend has been telling me for years the virtues of photographing moose at the edge of the big city—animals that are acclimated to humans.
At a parking lot above Anchorage, up near the treeline, we hop on mountain bikes and pedal an icy trail. It’s rutting season, and we’re scanning the valley and mountainsides for the distant white flash of antlers.
We pass two women walking their dogs. They tell us excitedly of a huge bull that minutes before had stepped into their path. We nod and thank them, trying to grin and keep a grip on our manly pride—we have seen nothing.
Don and I stop to eat berries and glass the valley with binoculars. Finally, we spot a cow moose, and then a bull far across at the base of a talus slope, and then a bigger bull with a slim girlfriend down in the brush of the creek. We bike further, ford the creek on foot, and approach the couple cautiously. The lighting is poor, harsh, bright sun. We shrug, acceptingly, and stoop to eat blueberries while we wait for the animals to show.
Antlers; it’s not the big bull, but a teenage boy moose resting in the trees. We inch around another clump of wind-stunted spruce. Between the branches we make out a towering black and brown form. Twenty yards away, the big bull is watching us. Don and I take a step back. We grin at each other, wordless and thrilled. Just then, we hear a sound, close beside us. We peer into the green spruce thicket.
“Is that chewing?,” I whisper.
The bull moose stares. The chewing gets louder. Something big is only yards away, and we hear another sound now, too. A gurgling, almost a growl.
“I think that’s her stomach,” Don utters. “She’s got to be right here!”
We’re unmoving now, listening and trying not to laugh at the comedy of hearing this personal stuff from a moose while still unable to see her. Slowly, majestically, the bull steps forward, and stops. Beside us the chewing moves, too. The cow appears, thin, dark, and unconcerned.
It’s as close as I ever hope to be between a big moose and one of his girls—something we can’t get away with where I live. These two ignore us. We snap a few over-contrasted photos, then it’s time to grab a few more handfuls of berries, cross the creek, bike quickly to the truck, change socks, and head for the airport and Tacoma.
There, after an $83 cab ride, I arrive between skyscrapers and enter glistening glass doors. I ride a digital elevator to a fancy room on the 18th floor, with beds made for me, hot water waiting, and towels folded perfectly. Even white robes like James Bond wore once or twice.
And in the morning, I stash my caribou jerky in the minibar fridge and ride the vertigo-machine back down to a convention center, to join the throngs of writers and booksellers, workers and volunteers. I’ve made it to the show after all.
Seth Kantner is the author of the 2005 Pacific Northwest Book Award-winning Ordinary Wolves and the collection of essays, Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska. His first children’s book is Pup and Pokey, and he recently traveled from his home in Kotzebue, Alaska to Tacoma, Washington to unveil it to independent booksellers at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association annual tradeshow. He did not steal his room robe.