Loss beyond years and miles

I’ve just checked my box at the Ambler post office on a mid-August afternoon; Sarah Tickett might have smiled and handed me my mail; instead, it’s someone else. Just across the trail stands Nelson and Edna Greist’s plywood cabin. The door is open, an armload of wood on the stoop; a familiar, fireweed-framed clutter fills the yard. But there’s no sign of Nelson sitting in his spot to the right of the door, working on a piece of spruce or jade; no huge, squinting, gap-toothed smile as he invites me in with his signature “Gonna coffee!” and he and Edna welcome me like a long-lost relative; no Inupiaq legends or tales of his youth, living from the land in the wind-raked Killik River country, his family sometimes on the edge of survival.    

Another couple hundred yards toward my place on the downstream edge of the village, I pass Minnie Gray’s house, across from the school. The spruce-pole drying rack, which should be filled with rows of neatly cut whitefish and pike, is bare; the kanisaq (storm shed) locked. But I imagine knocking and the door swinging inward toward the sound of her voice, and the warm, mingled scents of baking bread, seal oil, and woodstove, the two of us chatting as she sews or cuts birch bark for a basket, then going outside to help her move her seine from the cache. Soon it will be time to go to fish camp at Black River with her lifelong friend, Sarah—my two “Eskimo moms,” by their own declaration. They’ll drive Minnie’s skiff and I’ll malik (follow) in my own boat to pitch in on the heavy lifting and haul a huge load back 30-some miles. Meanwhile, I’ll switch from the seine to splitting and piling a few rounds of spruce, and Minnie will insist I take home a warm loaf of bread. 

Clarence Wood waits for Caribou, Nick Jans friend in Ambler, Alaska
Clarence Wood waits for caribou.

I continue homeward, and just a few steps past Minnie’s I’m jarred back to the present by a charred pile of rubble—what’s left of Clarence Wood’s house, burned to the ground in a stove accident a few years back. Though he survived the fire, my friend and traveling partner is gone, too; the ruins of his house a fitting memorial to a man who lived his life wide open as his snowmachine’s throttle, forging toward the horizon. He navigated far, hard country with a rare blend of determination and skill bordering on genius; I did my best to keep up and learn a fraction of what he knew. 

They all seem like they were here just the other day, but Nelson and Edna passed—oh, hell, I’ll say it: died—15 years ago; Sarah, several years later; Clarence in December 2018; Minnie, the following spring. I dealt with and absorbed each death separately. But the full weight of all of them, together, didn’t hit me until this past August. I’d missed my annual Ambler trip the previous year due to the pandemic and returned even more homesick than usual, knowing, too, that a big chunk of what made it home was forever lost. No escaping that reckoning, any more than I could avoid those houses and memories. 

I’d met Minnie, Nelson, Sarah, and Clarence 42 years ago when I first settled in Ambler. I was in my mid-20s, new to Alaska, the Arctic, Inupiaq culture, and bush life; add on that I was a stranger and a naluagmiu (White man), a bit too brash for local tastes, and working for a hunting guide to boot. Despite those strikes against me, I recall Minnie and Nelson each so unreserved in their welcomes that they seemed to already know me, and I them—the impression so vivid that I can still summon details of our first meeting. Becoming close with Sarah and Clarence took more gradual, separate paths. Friendships, after all, are melded one at a time, each bond unique. 

Strange, some would think, to forge friendships with people old enough to be my parents, even grandparents; but considering the magnetic pull I felt for the upper Kobuk country, being drawn to them made perfect sense.

They were all older than I—Clarence, the youngest, roughly double my age; Minnie, Nelson, and Sarah, each a decade-plus more. Strange, some would think, to forge friendships with people old enough to be my parents, even grandparents; but considering the magnetic pull I felt for the upper Kobuk country, being drawn to them made perfect sense. These people were not just on intimate terms with this landscape, they were part of it—their knowledge, skills, and culture shaped on its uncompromising lathe, their physical being chemically inseparable from this country where their ancestors had carved out a life for thousands of years. And here I stood, a polar opposite: an immigrant newly arrived, a product of restless movement extending not only through my entire life, but previous generations—someone from everywhere and nowhere, hoping for home. 

Nelson Greist in his cabin, Ambler Alaska
Nelson Greist in his cabin, 2007

Beyond love for the land, we shared at least this: the late 70s and early 80s was a time of abrupt transition for us all—I from back East into their world; they, meeting head-on the explosion of change that followed the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the gush of money-driven projects that came with it: rows of new cookie-cutter “housings” complete with electricity, oil furnaces, flush toilets, and running water; television and telephones in most houses; the village’s first high school, so that kids didn’t have to choose between family and a boarding school education far south; several miles of gravel road, a lighted airstrip capable of handling larger planes, and more. All this deep in arctic wilderness, where just a few years before there had been none of those things, and two decades earlier, no village at all in this place called Iviisapaat, where the Ambler River meets the Kobuk. 

I ended up being a purveyor of that change, teaching the ways of Outside in that school as Minnie and others taught Inupiaq language, skills, and culture, all of us hoping to blend the best of both worlds. Sarah was the village postmistress when I first arrived, helping to maintain that vital connection to the world beyond while finding time where she could for fishing and gathering. Nelson and Clarence remained more tied to the traditional, seminomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle; Nelson loaded his family into his big home-built boat each summer and headed 200 miles downriver to camp at Kotzebue, on the coast; there they hunted seal and belugas, gathered berries, and commercial fished for salmon. In the fall they’d return to Ambler just in time for hunting and school for the kids. Clarence remained upriver year-round, ranging far into the country, home briefly and gone again, restless always, his entire life an extended hunt. 

Minnie Gray harvesting birch bark on a trip with Nick. 

My own busy life intersected those of my older Inupiaq friends whenever it could, in visits both at home and in the country at their camps, and in shared journeys—gathering berries and birch bark, firewood, and spruce roots; fishing, hunting, and camping; visiting Nelson’s jade claim far up Shungnak Creek. Clarence and I roamed the land in all weathers and seasons, distances impossible to measure in miles.  

Of course, everything changes. In 1998 I married and moved to southeast Alaska a year later; and though I kept my Ambler house and returned home at least once a year, that time was short and my friends were getting older, moving slower, staying closer to home, struggling with illness. And one by one, they flickered and were gone like leaves on the wind.     

I walk the trail to my house, rimmed by shades of autumn, older now than any of my four friends were when I first arrived, just yesterday and years ago. I could wax philosophical; perhaps expound on how the loss of such elders, connected to an ancient past, reverberates through and beyond Inupiaq culture, a bell that tolls for us all. But right now, I just miss my friends.


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