Flower of the Fringe

ON THE FISHCAMP SPIT of Nuvurak, in 1974, Bob Uhl taught me how to make rice. “Four cups of water.” He paused and thought for moment. “One cup of rice.” He was wearing hip boots, stacking salmon net on the deep beach pebbles. I was barefoot. We stood in front of my parents’ tent. Out back stretched miles of mud flats and marsh. Grass seed-heads bowed and glistened in the afternoon west wind. Down the shore toward Shield Downey’s camp a dead, headless walrus was beached and stinking, sending a blubber oil-slick angling out into the glinty blue water. Across Kotzebue Sound, a dark line of land ended in twin bumps that looked like smokestacks of a distant ship, but were the White Alice radar towers, watching Russia.

I was nine and had lived up the Kobuk River below Onion Portage my whole life; Bob was that white guy we’d heard rumors of over the years. The one who came at the end of World War II to join “Castner’s Cutthroats,” the Alaska Scouts — a platoon of tough, rough frontier soldiers with dog teams. He’d married a native woman and faded into the Arctic to become legend. “Tat fella live more Eskimo than us,” Inupiat travelers had told my family. I’d listened only to the part about this man knowing sea hunting — sea ice, fast ice, open leads, currents, seal hunting, harpoons, seal pokes, black meat — everything sea. Stuff we didn’t learn upriver, didn’t have, had to trade for. My parents had come from the States, too. As a young man my dad had lived in an igloo with Inupiat up the Chukchi seacoast and had dog-teamed, traveled, and hunted the sea ice, but that ancient history remained like Bob’s — experience out of my reach.

Inside our white canvas wall tent, I put rice on to cook. My brother and parents were off pulling net. I was too little, no help. The rice took a long time to cook and came out different than expected. Bob was aged, hunched even then. He should have known how much water to put with how much rice. And now? More time has gone by, and that too has come out different than expected.

RETURNING FROM HUNTING CARIBOU beyond the Igichuk Hills, I angle toward Uhl’s cabin. Bob and his wife, Carrie, have wintered for fifty years there in a protective patch of spruce, out of the wind and worst drifting. It’s five or six miles from their summer camp on the open ocean beach at Sisualik.

When I cross their trail it’s getting dark, blowing, snowing big flakes in the headlight of my snowmobile. I drop down the bank of a frozen creek, then climb up to trees. Bob comes out in unlaced Sorels, terribly hunched and wearing that grin under his bright eyes. I’m reminded of a rare thing about this man: his welcome has always been the welcome of one who values a visitor more than his own day. Maybe this the old Inupiat taught him.

I pull off my otter hat, my parka, shake the snow out of the wolf ruff, take off my binocs, untie a sack of caribou tongues and hearts for Carrie, and follow him. Under a buried lean-to I hear the throb of a portable generator. Inside, their plywood cabin is small, crowded, bright with fluorescent lights hanging from eight-penny nails pounded into the ceiling and bent over. The heat fogs my eyes. A kettle sings. A Canada goose honks and I start, then realize the sound comes from Carrie’s bird clock on the wall, striking five. No wall escapes the miscellany of hanging calendars, photos, postcards, pins, Coleman mantles, mukluks, mittens, cartridges, cups. There seems no place to hang my overpants, sweater, face mask, hardly room even to pile them on the floor. On the left of the entrance is a washbasin, on the right a honey bucket. In the middle of the floor is the big wood stove. Carrie sits on a bed against the back wall, smiling big.

“My little sweetheart! About time you visit!”

“There’s hot water” — Bob gestures — “tea, instant coffee.”

Both are aged three-quarters of a century and more; they incorporate modern technology into gathering the old food, the last of a vanishing few who live Out, who know the old ways. Newcomers to camp life do exist — a tiny handful — yet they are just that, newcomers, more and more firmly plugged into seasonal jobs, the Internet, Sheetrock walls, frequent flyer miles. Subsistence fine points, such as what aquatic feed the pintail prefers to fatten on in late August, are irrelevant, forgotten, not noticed in the rush.

“You missed the quaq (frozen fish) we had for lunch.” Bob moves slow, stiff, mumbles something about this winter’s drought of visitors. I nod and blink, cross the floor to an old and polished schoolroom chair. My senses are numbed from the day of white ice, white land, wind, overflow, drifting snow, and cariboulike dots of distant shrubs on too much tundra. Bob and Carrie set out pot-roasted caribou pelvic meat that is dripping with fat, crackers, paungaqs (blackberries) and akpiqs (salmonberries), caribou backbone soup, cookies, quagaq (fermented sourdock) — food until there is no table space left. The table is plywood with a bright flower-print plastic tablecloth. The cabin is hot. Sweat sticks my shirt to my back. Bob feeds the stove relentlessly. He checks his cooking, edges Carnation canned milk and the sugar bowl my way. The carved spruce-root spoon in the bowl, and the way his huge thumb hooks over the rim, suspend me in the grip of childhood memory — seasons of visits and meals at the Uhls’ summer camp.

Just now Bob is not saying a lot — surprising, for he likes to talk. But not that surprising, either. Carrie’s guest book hanging on the wall reports only three visitors since the new year began a month previous. From my days of living alone upriver at Kapakavik after my brother and parents moved away, I remember the strangeness of speech after a hiatus, the struggle to make voice, corral feral thoughts, and shape the two into sense.

I sample the caribou soup. We begin talking about caribou. Bob knows more about the animals outside on my sled than I do. He explains that the young bulls’ necks look plucked because they continue to spar after the older bulls have dropped their antlers. He explains that the leg bones of larger bulls will be thinning as the marrow grows white and sweet and rich with approaching spring; pregnant cows will gain fat first on the back below the ribs, and will make better roasts — if the meat is not frozen too quickly. It goes without saying that he also knows in which season which hides will be good for parkas, mamilliks (waterproof mukluks), qaatchiaqs (sleeping skins); in which month the itchaurat (gut fat) will start to be worth saving; why the lungs sometimes stick to the ribs — and a thousand more details of this single species, caribou.

His knowledge is vast, impressive, not quite astonishing.

Folks hunt caribou here in northwest Alaska. The law says we may each shoot five per day, every day of the year. Over the course of a lifetime people eat plenty. A scant few still sleep on caribou hides, wear a skin garment or two, pay some attention to flavor.

What’s surprising is Bob’s affiliation with the daily goings-on not only of this staple food animal, but of a thousand more of Earth’s tribes: the wigeon, swan, gray jay, beluga, lowbush cranberry, wolverine, west wind, wolf, storm-warning waves, cirrus cloud, fall ice, spring ice, new ice, thin ice, raven, fireweed, willow, aspen, flint, obsidian, ivory, eider, otter, ugruk (bearded seal). For each, his experience encompasses the tastes and tools therein — seal oil, seal-oil lamps, sealskin mukluk bottoms, sealskin rope, seal-intestine raincoats, seal intestine braided dried eaten. Subsistence in this home permeates all. The paradox here is the extent to which gathering information has transcended simple food collection. Wingspans. Lifespans. Famines. Patterns. No minutia of nature, it seems, has eluded Bob Uhl’s inquisition.

Glancing around at the heaped clothes and clutter, the sheer lack of space created by the concentration of this lifestyle with its focus on survival, I find the idea of writing more than a note inconceivable. Yet Bob has made the extra effort over the years to write a portion of his knowledge down. In the 1970s, the National Park Service asked Bob and Carrie to research and write Tagiimsinyakmiit, a comprehensive manual of subsistence living patterns in Cape Krusenstern National Monument. And in 2004 their decade-long journal of animal, weather, and land conditions — Daily Observations from Sisualik — also was published.

But it’s for the gentian flower that Bob saves his most passionate written words.

THE WIND GUSTS IN THE TREETOPS. Big flakes swirl down outside the window. We hunch on firewood stumps under the harsh fluorescent light, drinking Lipton tea. Living across Kotzebue Sound, in town, I’d forgotten the hunching of tent life, cabin life, and sod igloo life — hunching on Blazo boxes, near the table, by the stove, on the edge of a bed. Hunching waiting on animals to approach. The years show this in Bob’s shoulders. The years inexorably press them forward and down, toward the earth.

Now he puckers his lips, thinking. Lines in his face divulge the story of half a century out in savage Arctic conditions, constant hunting and gathering beside and beyond the holler of hunger. And Carrie, more: eighty years out here on the land.

I slice one more bite of meat and good fat, thankful that I can appreciate their niqipiaq (Eskimo food). This is important. And though my knife is homemade, my parka sewn by me, my life started and spent in the Arctic too, I feel immature, inattentive, unlearned. It’s an insecurity some of us bear, we the children of changing times on a frontier falling apart. It is hard to look Bob in the eye. Impossible to debate him. Nodding has been my wisest comment. In the silence my mind wanders. I spoon a bowl of quagaq. The tea is good, the water melted lake ice. I wonder, will the conversation turn to his passion, his unusual friend? On visits before tonight we’ve talked of this flower he’s devoted to. I’ve photographed it for him, nodded, agreed, and still am no closer to comprehending. I don’t get it. I struggle enough attempting to describe my friend, let alone his from another kingdom. That remains his story to write:

How many important things do we miss as we go pell-mell through life, from day to day pushed by those chores we believe imperative to our existence? One cannot deny the necessity of meeting our own physical needs, those of our family, and sometimes of our neighbor. However, it seems most of us are so intent on these that we pass unaware some aesthetic treasure that in itself can make the hardness of living worthwhile. So it was with me, following the daily challenges of life for thirty years, bypassing a treasure that, once recognized, I could not then imagine life complete without it.

The treasure is a purple-blue flower on a fragile salt-marsh plant. It lives just one place on American soil, one narrow coastal strip of land above the Arctic Circle. Part of this zone of occurrence is our backyard in Sisualik, a sand-gravel spit on the north shore of Kotzebue Sound.

It seems unthinkable now that for so many years in pursuing a subsistence life, I could pass or even trample this jewel underfoot. Life — or making a life — in those years was very intense and left little time for aesthetic concerns. So far as we know, this wild plant species is not eaten by any creature, is not used for shelter, serves no utilitarian purpose. Appreciation of it involves the spirit — beauty, design, color, and perseverance — not practical usefulness.

There is, however, much more to this plant than meets the eye. The part that does meet the eye, for only a week or ten days each July, has a mesmerizing effect on me. The budlike flower with a light green base and four sharp fingers holding fast to the near-luminescent purple-blue petals has a beauty that cannot be described adequately with words. The delicate tubular blossom opens for one or two sunny days to reveal pistil and anthers — opens so briefly and unexpectedly that one might think the plant dares show off its deep inflorescence only before the much paler summer sky. In spite of this short, shy exposure of secret parts, the cycle of life is completed. The color of the petals quickly fades, the seed completes its maturity, and the whole plant becomes straw colored and again anonymous in the chaff of the salt marsh.

The exceptional nature of survival of this fringed gentian has caused me to focus attention on this bit of life and form a relationship with it that is hard to explain in words to another person. What kind of relationship can one have with a plant, you ask? I would reply that maybe quite a unique relationship can develop. I say unique because it may be unique to me.

Animals develop close relationships to plants on a nutritional level. The caribou must have his lichens, the moose his willows, the bear his berries. These attachments are easily recognized. Perhaps man is unique in being able to have a more spiritual rapport. After looking for, anticipating, and watching this remarkable flower for many years, I find that at any time during fall, deep winter, or early spring I can close my eyes and visualize these gentians: the beautiful color, the attractive form, and even the erect, defiant stance the plant seems to take against Arctic gales, floods, and early frosts or snowstorms.

“Well. How did your caribou look?” Bob asks.

“Pretty good,” I mutter, joking, “till I started shooting.” I’m not sure he hears. “I got a cow, and a couple bulls,” I admit warily.

“Hmmm.” He nods, makes no comment. I again get a flash of suspicion that he already knows everything I might say. I briefly describe my mile-long sneak through deep snow. (He has already noticed that I left my snowshoes home.) The telling feels wrong. It does not mix well with hunter humility — a tradition we both wear with our skin. But he will press for details, banking them the way so many gather and bank dollars. Also, I include this information knowing he is one of very few hunters in this region who, like myself, feels less than comfortable with the new practice of chasing down animals with machines.

I admit that my stealth was better than my shooting. Bob grins. Carrie listens to our conversation, yet also to the AM radio, the VHF, awaiting the ring of their camp phone — electric boxes that connect her now to a different pulse of the planet.

I sit at their heaped table, comfortable yet feeling trapped. Beside my shoulder the disarray on the wall mirrors my mind, yet offers consolation: a note card is penned with the words “My life has been the poem I would have writ, / But I could not both live and utter it. — Henry David Thoreau.” Above the table an aged yellow napkin reads SKINNY COOKS CAN’T BE TRUSTED.

The trapped feeling comes because here in our region crimes — time in jail even — carry no stigma compared to bringing home skinny meat. These elders could use meat. And I hit the fat cow in the guts, and the large bull only slightly better. I can’t give them an animal less than perfectly shot. I have to give them the smaller bull, which will be the least fat of the three. Worse, in haste, with the wind rising and the horizon vanishing, I’d cut the bony lower legs off the bulls and left them for the foxes. Fat bull patiq (marrow) bones are Carrie and Bob’s favorite. How could I have been so thoughtless? Bob and Carrie’s food from the land has always been of sterling quality. There is no compromise. This requires an intense amount of an almost extinct element: respect. Respect, that forgotten forsaken unromantic reality — taking the best care of what you harvest is the valorous fundamental of harvesting.

Nowadays, snowmobiles crisscross the tundra around their cabin. Hunters raised on machines and video games chase down fur bearers, and much of everything that moves, counting coup with the numbers. Hunting no longer makes livings; livings are made to hunt.

We drink more tea, talk about rice for a while. Jasmine rice, according to Bob, makes great rice, not such good caribou soup. Plain white rice is better for that. I mention basmati rice. It comes in a little burlap bag, from India, I think, via Costco. Our rice conversation eddies for a time around Michio Hoshino, the Japanese wildlife photographer a brown bear took from us, a friend we miss. Outside it is black by now, blowing snow. My home is miles across tundra and frozen ocean that tonight, in a thirty-knot wind, will look pretty much the same up, down, and sideways. Also, there is overflow (water under the snow) out there somewhere, dangerous. I decide to spend the night, what they have been requesting since I came through the door.

Bob and I talk on while I eat bowls of mixed akpiqs and paungaqs. He explains overflow and ocean currents under ice, strangely caused by wind even in winter when the ocean is frozen over. Carrie overhears someone on the VHF, from a house in Kotzebue, selling a wolf skin. $350. The static coming out of the small white radio pierces the cabin, the volume so loud my teeth ache. Bob talks on.

“Shh! Bob!” Carrie commands. This is not simply news. A substantial percentage of the residents of the region are related to her. Apparently the seller is from the village of Noorvik. An unpleasant-sounding woman’s voice blares, demanding, “What color? Black or gray?” Static and voices rip the room, prompting images in my head of Inupiat homes in Ambler, Kobuk, Kivalina, and other villages.

“Gray one,” Carrie translates for us. The price drops to $250. She flips on AM radio KOTZ in Kotzebue. A careless-voiced sixteen-year-old kid is announcing tonight; Carrie’s not impressed with his lack of reverence for the elders’ choice, gospel music. She snaps it off.

She tells me of two wolves they’ve heard this winter, howling up the valley. The wolves, she says, were killed by a friend, yesterday. The man called Carrie on a hand-held VHF immediately after chasing down and shooting the animals.

Earlier today I’d seen the skinned carcasses at the top of a pass, beside a snowmobile trail. Bob chuckles, mentions that fat wolf is better eating than skinny caribou. This starts him on a new line of questioning. Where had I been? Where were the wolf carcasses? Where did I first spot caribou? Where exactly? He rains words and place names on me. Situkuyok River, Sivisok Slough, Napaktuktuk Mountain, Aukulak Lagoon, Nauyauruk. Exactly, to Bob, does not mean somewhere behind those mountains. It means beside which shrub in the million acres to the north did I find meat?

He shows no chagrin at the death of these wolves. He showed none a few years back when the first marten he’d ever seen came through these hills, set up housekeeping here in the spruce, and became his newest tutor — until young men came and killed it. There is no malice in his voice. After all these years, not a shred of disappointment. I realize I will have to ask him how he keeps his humor and hope. I need some of his wisdom, and peace. Every week or so some hunter tells me in gloating detail of chasing down a wolf, or three, seven, a whole pack.

I back away now from my vituperative thoughts, marvel again at this man’s temperance. How he cherishes each phalarope, each sea gull, each red fox, moose, grizzly — each gentian seed whose path crosses his.

Those who delve into the mysteries of this successful form of truly wild life, we find that it thrives in the harshest of environments and is an annual in our area, one of few Arctic annuals. It must grow from seed, come to flower, and produce seed all in a condensed summer. This is its total life.

Quite by accident one year, through a chance photograph of a plant right in camp, we learned that seed might have lain dormant for eight years before another plant appeared on that exact spot. This seemed a miraculous resurrection of life. What magic for maintaining existence is in that almost microscopic seed?

The fringed gentian, commonly called shaved gentian, has small, weak-looking roots, a thin, sturdy, upright stem, and a few narrow, light-green leaves. It does not appear to have enough root-feeding or photosynthetic equipment to produce the large terminal flower that is the glory of this bit of Arctic life. Its numbers vary much from year to year in our location at Sisualik. There can be hundreds, even thousands some years, in others a single plant is difficult to find.

All this is no excuse for my living with the plant for thirty years without ever noticing it. Nor am I excused because its spectacular blossom is obvious in that form for just a few days each summer.

I will be eternally grateful to a friend who one day stooped to point out what I had not seen for myself in these many years of walking on this spit of land in pursuit of various things to sustain our life. It may be that this is what friends are for. He did not know the full name of the plant but recognized it as a gentian. Once I had seen the perfect blend of petal color, I wanted to know more about this flower bud that I assumed, at first, must never open to the outside world of pollinators.

Even more odd was a bit of information a botanist later told us: the nearest place to our Noatak Delta/Baldwin Peninsula that this plant is found is the delta of the MacKenzie River, a thousand miles up the coast in northern Canada. Why such odd gaps in its circumboreal distribution? Why is it not found in the Eastern Siberian Arctic nor on river delta areas in the sub-Arctic south of Kotzebue Sound?

These questions and other mysteries add to the attractiveness of this plant living, and making a success of living, in a zone at the northern edge of the habitat for most plant, animal, and fish species. In its own vascular plant world, it joins caribou, arctic char, and Eskimos as forms of life that can thrive on the very edge of conditions that seem to prevent other forms from existing.

Because the plant seems so fragile and its numbers vary so, as I grow older in years there seems a certain parallel of plant with human life. Will we meet again for that short week at July’s end? Will I survive another winter to be there for the meeting? Will this be the summer that no plant of this species raises its most beautiful head above the marsh grasses of Sisualik?

The lights flicker. Bob and Carrie turn to each other, question at what hour he filled the generator, when the light will extinguish.

“Bob always get me any kinda furs, all those years.” Carrie is up from the bed, shoving dishes around. Her wrist hurts her; cutting even bread is painful. Spending the night here reminds me of forgotten details, such as serious pains and sprains that never see a doctor, the need to not take up extra room, to not use extra cups of water. This evening brings back the times of listening to stories (nearly always of the land), not requiring entertainment to be entertained.

Carrie laughs. She’s still thinking about wolves. “He hunt better than all of them, but he never get me wolf. Here this time I thought he’s going to get me wolf.”

“Well.” Bob starts to feed the stove and changes his mind. He seems to lose his train of thought and momentarily stands staring out the small high window. Again, I think I recognize a shard of myself in his movements — myself at Kapakavik, pleased to have unexpected company, yet nervous around people, repeatedly feeding the fire, shifting the kettle, heating water, offering coffee to a guest already holding a mug. And something else, something I hardly recall yet miss so much about living Out. Could it be the valuing of every human more because of the daily lack of society? Bob resumes feeding the fire. He raises a stick of firewood in his hand. He half-kneels, lowering himself stiffly to the mouth of the stove. “Carrie, you know the wolf is a fellow creature of mine. The polar bear, too. I’ve never shot either of those creatures, and it’s unlikely that I’ll start now.”

Their exchange is humorous. Bob is old, gray, stooped, no tooth anywhere in his smile. He wears a plain white t-shirt. His arms and hands are huge, young looking, and powerful. His bright eyes are the eyes of a naturalist born in California when Hitler was an unheeded young complainer, Hoover our president, Ford the future. A naturalist taught to be Eskimo before most humans on the planet were born. Taught by the Old People, the last of the few who remembered the remains of what being Eskimo once meant. His sheer knowledge and experience leave no question in the night. If this elder decided to hunt the wolf or polar bear, the land would open to his hands.

When one first becomes acquainted with this Arctic beauty, given its fragility and vulnerability in the harsh habitat that it chooses, one believes that it exists on the very edge of oblivion, a species endangered by its own choices. It is, remember, an annual. Its local chosen habitat is where a large river delta meets an often violent Arctic sea. Marine flooding, when temperatures are far below freezing, can cause the formation of a salt-saturated liquid deadly to all vegetation. Also, freshwater flooding from the river system is a periodic event both in the ice-free portion of the year and after ice formation. Temperatures can fluctuate from negative sixty degrees Fahrenheit to as high as eighty degrees through the seed and growth period.

At one time, it seemed to me that even a few random meteorological circumstances could bring about the extirpation of this fringed gentian. I was unaware that this fragile lifeform had hidden virtues that compensated for its apparent vulnerability.

Those virtues are in the indestructible seed. A severe environment is needed to spark the near microscopic seed into germination. Soaking, maybe in salt- and fresh water, freezing, maybe at very low temperatures, then soaking again at high early spring meltwater temperatures — this seems to be the combination that unlocks the life trapped in the seed.

Earlier I suggested that a relationship had developed between this unusual plant and me. What kind of a relationship could that be? One would think it would have to be pretty one-sided, and perhaps it is, but then we may not know all there is to know about relationships between the various forms of life. From my side, I do know that each late June or early July, I develop what I can only call a heartache to see the first pale green shoots pointed like a spear that will prove that there will indeed be a fringed gentian to see again this growing season.

The heartache also comes in part from long dark winter months when one wonders if the sun will come back again with its warmth and light and life-generating rays. Amid those thoughts a luminescent purple-blue image with delicate angular lines and curves appears in the dismal darkness and one finds a broad smile spreading and wiping the countenance clear; the sun will return and there will be gentians to be seen!

The generator is off, the cabin black. “Well.” Bob is somewhere in the blackness, near the table, still talking. “Thanks for the conversation.”

And I could cry in the dark on this iron cot. I visit Bob and Carrie when I can. I try to listen. It is hard with my big mouth, poor memory, and cluttered thoughts. Often in desperation I fear the only thing I’ll remember clearly about them is that Carrie has always called me Little Sweetheart, and Bob was wrong about the four cups of water. Lying here in the dark, I have trouble believing what has happened to the way of life into which I was born. Subsistence has melted in our hands. Living off the land, how did we let it drip away? How could the cash and computers, the materials and machines, have taken so much, left so little? So many of us trusted we would be true hunters but learned only how to kill, never made it anywhere close. We wander instead, adrift yet chained to the conveniences and cardboard contraptions. The old life has vanished. Bob and Carrie lived that life, breathed the land, and walked from that past, carrying their mukluks and parkas and belongings into this twenty-first century.

And now I’m falling asleep, realizing that I am thirsty for some way to respect. Here in the dark in their presence, I recognize a tenderness, a bottomless respect for the creatures and creations of the land, and I have no idea what to do with that recognition.

Seth Kantner was born and raised in the wilderness of northwestern Alaska. He has worked as a trapper, fisherman, gardener, igloo builder, wildlife photographer, and adjunct professor. His writing and photographs have appeared in Outside, Prairie Schooner, Alaska, and other publications. He lives in Kotzbue, Alaska.

Bob Uhl has lived for more than half a century on Kotzebue Sound in northwestern Alaska. The site he calls home is the same salt marsh habitat chosen by the fringed gentian, a remarkable and beautiful far northern flower.