A Local's Guide to Kotzebue
Lifelong resident of the Arctic, Seth Kantner is a writer, wildlife photographer, and commercial fisherman. He’s a columnist for Orion and the Anchorage Daily News, and is the author of the bestselling novel, “Ordinary Wolves.” The novel won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and Kantner received a Whiting Award naming him one of the nation's top 10 emerging writers. Kantner was also nominated in 2006 for the position of Alaska State Writer Laureate, which he turned down to pursue work on “Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska,” which was released in 2009. His most recent book "A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou" was published in 2021.
On your left is sea — or ice — stretching west toward Siberia; on your right the first low mountains of the Brooks Range spanning east to Canada. Kotzebue has no roads to anywhere, a rare thing in America. The town sits barely above sea level, treeless, windswept, and under a huge sky leading your eye out over a vast land.
At midnight, the summer sky is painted in pastels, winter in lavender, or dark and dancing with aurora. Or, a roaring snow-filled blizzard. The planet’s mood swings are guaranteed here, and if they don’t scare you, if you love wilderness, welcome to the Northwest Arctic!
Front Street, Kotzebue
In early June, skip bedtime at the Nullaġvik Hotel and take a walk along Front Street. Night is best, with the sun low over ice flowing past town. Listen to a sound like no other — the current and tinkling glass of a square mile of moving ice. Orange sun glints on the needles. Seagulls glide and cry overhead. Passersby stop on the shore and chat. It's possible there’s a boat out there in the ice — Iñupiaq hunters heading out in search of seals. Enjoy the bright night — it may be summer where you come from, but an hour from now west wind can blow in off the floes, drop the temperature to 31 with freezing fog, and wind chill near zero. Bring your polar fleece.
Seeing the Sights
I like nothing better than packing my camera and lenses and heading across Kotzebue Sound by snowmobile or boat to hang out with the hangout kings — muskoxen. Muskoxen make their home along the coast and on the barren rounded mountains of Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Bring your windbreaker, and your bear spray if you’re nervous about bears. Give the muskoxen space. Mild-mannered and sedentary, they despise wasting energy. Charging you, or running away, classifies as that. In June, the rocky hilltops are miles of forget-me-knots and wildflowers. It is light all night; you might see caribou, brown bear, or wolves on the tundra.
For a Rainy Afternoon
If you’re weathered in or waiting on a boat or airplane, stop in at the Sulianich Art Gallery. Local and Alaska Native art festoons the walls and display cases. On your left is work area — knock, and walk in. Craftsmen may be there carving mammoth ivory, whale bone, or baleen into traditional masks, baskets, and carvings. Cross the street when you’re done shopping, walk a block north and check out the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center and Alaska Geographic bookstore. Take in a slideshow of the region and learn about the more than 10 million acres of national parks, preserves, and monuments in our area. Sign out a bear-proof container, buy a map, and plan a trip to the headwaters of any number of wild rivers. Rent a kayak or raft from Northwest Alaska Backcountry Rentals. If you do, in addition to needed camping gear, bring your mosquito dope, raincoat, and sun block — Mother Nature is as unpredictable as she is beautiful, and that’s why we love her, right? If this sounds a bit much, call Bering Air for a flightseeing trip up the Kobuk River and to the far-flung villages along the way.
A Hot Meal in Kotzebue
When you get back from camping, and after you shower off the bug dope, drop in at one of the local restaurants for a bite. Count on coffee, tea, or assorted sodas, but no Moosehead, Miller, or Manhattans — Kotzebue is a "damp" town, which means no alcohol can legally be sold here. (You can bring it for personal consumption, but you can’t buy — or sell — it.) After lunch, if your legs need stretching, walk south on the beach, down toward South Tent City. Don’t mind the four-wheelers drenching you in dust and the $40,000 trucks bouncing along the shore. In July and August, nets will be set off the beach and we’ll be fishing for salmon. There’s nothing quite like stretching a net offshore in the ocean and pulling in flapping fresh salmon! Look hungry or wave something that looks vaguely like a five-dollar bill and us fishers may boat over and you can have your pick.
Head to the Races
In early April, the last big race of the Alaska dog mushing season takes place right here in the region. Teams from around the state come north to compete in the Kobuk 440, a dog sled race that begins with a mass start here on the ice in front of the post office. The course crosses the Baldwin Peninsula, Kobuk Lake, and goes east 220 miles up the Kobuk River, passing through six Iñupiaq villages before returning to Kotzebue, usually in three to four days. This is April: Springtime in the Arctic is warm and sunny, which means temperatures can be 40 above to 40 below. Bring more polar fleece. If you’re snowmobiling or flying the race course, then bring your cash — villagers make great caribou soup, but laugh at credit cards. Gas is $8 a gallon. Wendy’s is not on the corner. Isn’t that great?
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