Changes to migration patterns and permafrost in Alaska create uncertainty for one hunter who relies on the land for food, in this first installment of a new series about the real-life impacts of climate change on hunting and fishing
It’s gray, foggy, and cold—the third day of a mid-May snowstorm that makes it feel like October in Northwest Alaska. Patches of tundra that recently melted are turning white again, and wet snowflakes slide down my windows.
As of last night, I’m out of caribou meat and anxious to hunt. Instead, I’m in my sod house working on another necessary task: supporting my walls. With the melting of the permafrost in recent years, the hill under my home has been shifting.
Outside, the wind gusts, while in here I feel like a beaver, impatient for the spring thaw, with woodchips and dirt littering my floor, but also with axes, auger bits, chisels, and trowels heaped on my kitchen counter. Mice rustle in the moss-insulated walls, a kettle sings on the woodstove, and boots and gloves hang drying. My dad’s old .270 is on a peg by the door and other guns lean against the workbench in the corner.
Every few minutes, I step out to scan the river ice for caribou. I’d like one for meals and to dry. But it’s hard to predict the migration anymore; this land has changed so much. Migratory waterfowl are slow to show this spring, and there are fewer songbirds each year. The ice is still solid, 600 yards wide and stretching miles upriver and down. My nearest neighbors are in the village of Ambler, 25 miles east.
From this ridge, I can see across a quarter-million acres of rolling tundra, river valleys, and timber—north into the Brooks Range, south to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and beyond. I’ve hunted and trapped here all my life, on foot, and by kayak, dog team, and snowmobile. As a kid, we wore furs, slept on caribou hides, and ate some of nearly everything that moved—moose, bears, ducks, loons, muskrats, beavers, porcupines, otters, and all the rest.
A lot has changed rapidly in the intervening decades—the weather, vegetation, ice, and especially the movement of animals. I like to think I know this land like family, but each year it is harder to recognize.
In the afternoon, I make coffee and sit on my bearskin couch to mull over my progress. I need scrap angle iron and to peel more logs. Suddenly, I hear an animal sound, distinct and linked to a lifetime of meals and memories.
Geese are flying overhead. Calling! I lunge for my shotgun.
Outside, I peer into the snow-filled sky. From the north come their fading cries: Luck, luck. Luck-a-luck. The call of white-fronted geese electrifies my blood. It carries me back 50 years to childhood.
The air is foggy, but I think, or hope, the birds will land at a nearby beaver pond. It’s hard to be sure—lakes and swamps have altered as the climate has warmed. Everywhere, there are new trees, grasslands, and brush. Sloughs don’t drain the way they used to, the ice is unsafe in new places, and the tundra disappears beneath intimidating thickets of dwarf birch, willows, and alders.
Quickly, I check the stove and rummage for ammo. I pull on snowpants, boots, a white windbreaker, hat, and gloves and strap on a machete, binoculars, and two guns—my grandpa’s double-barrel and an old scoped .22. Out behind the woodpile, I encounter deep holes, where a moose attempted to use my trail. I grin down into the depths, listen, and lace on snowshoes.
Dropping off the hill, I pass my family’s first tiny sod igloo, where I was born. It’s falling in as the soil slumps. It was always part of the hill, built low in the ground for warmth, originally with only a tunnel entrance.
I move fast across the tundra, panting as I sink into drifts and weave around new masses of tall alders. I spot the fresh tracks of two wolves. Spruces tower over me. Not long ago this was windswept tundra, and my brother Kole and best friend Alvin would snowshoe straight north after geese. Now, I navigate through thickets, and I have to jog east to avoid a lake of slush held back by mud that was released when a ravine caved in—all effects of the permafrost melting.
As I top a birch knoll, I hear Canadas honking. Tense and excited, I stop to listen. Suddenly I realize my ears hear one thing, while my eyes are watching something else: A line of caribou is crossing the ice on the pond below me.
I turn toward the geese, smiling, and thinking of Alvin. As kids we loved nothing more than hunting together. I miss him. Three years ago in May he drowned in open current where the river used to freeze, and he was swept under the ice.
My binos are wet, but the snow and wind has lessened. I spot two white-fronts and five Canadas. I only have eyes for the white-fronts. They will be fatter, easier to pluck, with lighter meat and better flavor. I slide a stained game bag over my guns, hunch over, and become a caribou.
There are trust issues, of course. The geese are suspicious and holler and walk onto snow. I keep my gaze down. Behind a spruce tree, I slip off my snowshoes, shoulder out of my guns, and peer through a shockingly large clump of Labrador tea.
My shotgun safety jams and won’t slide forward to fire. This has happened before. But I can’t recall how I fixed it. I lower the gun, raise my .22. It’s actually fine, I prefer attempting a headshot over the risk of wounding birds, anyway.
The glass of the ancient little scope is foggy and gray. I smile, watching a Canada stumble as it sinks in the snow. I judge the distance at 60 yards. The geese honk louder and get ready to fly. I aim behind a white forehead and squeeze. The goose pitches forward, flops, and then lies still. The snow absorbs the crack of the little rifle, and the birds give me time to reload and drop its mate.
I can’t believe my luck, as I plunge through soft snow, racing across grass and pocked black ice. The birds lie a few yards apart, beautiful and familiar, yet so foreign after a long winter. A long year, actually—white-fronts no longer pass through in the fall. The freeze-up comes a month late now, rainy and messy, and the birds have changed flyways.
I pluck the female first. It’s heavy and fat. The male has a bent leg—obviously shot and re-healed—and along the outer wing, I spot a black pellet under the skin. In past years, I’ve noted geese are more wary, less likely to come to my old homemade plywood decoys, and one in five carry wounds, pellets, or both. It makes me wonder about the struggles these traveling birds experience.
For a moment, I imagine a dark future where there are no annual migrations of wild geese, songbirds, or caribou. I can’t help worrying about my food.
At home, I singe and gut the birds. I save everything except the shot heads: hearts, gizzards, necks, wings, and feet, and go put the perfect female in my cold storage in the ground, to give to an elder in the village. The male goes directly into the Dutch oven, where it sizzles on the stove as I wash up and turn back to propping up my shifting home.
The harvest method and spring hunting season described in this story are in accordance with the 2022 federal regulations for the subsistence harvest of migratory waterfowl in the Northwest Arctic Region of Alaska. Click here to learn more about subsistence hunting in rural Alaska and the unique federal law that ensures the continuation of this unique way of life.
Seth Kantner is a commercial fisherman, wildlife photographer, wilderness guide, and author of the bestselling novel, “Ordinary Wolves,” and other books. His writing and photographs have appeared in national newspapers, anthologies, and magazines, including Smithsonian, the New York Times, Alaska, and Outside. His most recent nonfiction book, “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou,” was released in October 2021. He lives in Northwest Alaska. Learn more at sethkantner.com or follow Seth on Facebook.