The Trail to Words #1 by Seth Kantner

Along the Kobuk River in the early 1970’s books were rare.  People shared what they had, and a few stray paperbacks got beat up and tattered as they were hauled to camps and in the load on dog sleds. I remember Don Williams bringing a “new” Louie L’amour western downriver one spring, in his plank boat, after the ice went out. And I think it was Pete MacManus who had a copy of a book called The Hobbit, which my dad and brother both read but I never did. I didn’t like the name Bilbo.  Also, I was too young, and slow to read, still stumbling over big words like “dirt” and “again”.  And especially “fuel,” which I still can’t pronounce and have an uneasy feeling about. 

My parents and my older brother Kole had an amazing ability, one I could only dream of acquiring–they could read silently. Somewhere inside their minds stories were spinning along. It seemed impossible, and was a lonely and left out feeling, marveling at that magic, and longing to be included in the separate tales unraveling in their heads as we sat around the Kerosene lamp. Meanwhile, I labored aloud, struggling, and no doubt providing plenty of irritation in our tiny sod igloo.

By 1975 when I was ten, I still couldn’t pronounce my own name, but I had the hang of silent reading, a relief for all involved. We had more books and I had just discovered the best adventures ever chronicled: The Hardy Boys. I didn’t realize that Frank and Joe Hardy, with their never-changing hair and ages, girlfriends and problems—those incredibly formulaic plots–were reassuring to my dyslexic brain. 

None of us knew about dyslexia; it was a simpler world back then, with simpler classifications, and along the river it was known that Kole was brilliant, and his little brother was small. He read everything that got in his path: Edgar Rice Burroughs; the entire stack of World Book encyclopedias; transistor and Integrated Circuit catalogs; anything with information. By then we were getting library boxes shipped to the village post office in Ambler. Hunter and travelers brought them downriver. The boxes came from the center of the known world, Fairbanks. Now, looking back at the myriad of astronomically expensive government programs in the years since, that book service sponsored by the North Star Library was an economical and worthwhile one.  Once a month we received a box with 10 or 20 books; they came with a return label, and for most of my young life my family read most of those books.

My brother and I were home schooled, at night, and only in mid-winter. After dinner my mom wiped the greasy table with a rag; that was the signal: Kole and I had to put down what we were reading, stop carving wood, or skinning foxes or whatever else we were doing, and study. 

I was poor at all of it, except multiplication–19 times 160 and that type of simple equations. Mostly I liked using my hands, and only remember writing one story for school. “Cinderfella,” about a boy who went to dance or something and had difficulties with ashes…or a stovepipe…I can’t remember. Maybe he met a princess, though that seems improbable. I didn’t know about such things. Grade after grade, I couldn’t remember verbs or nouns and especially hated those foggy prepositional phrases and dangling modifiers and all to do with phonics. I wrote my numbers and letters backwards, couldn’t read my own handwriting and trying to look up a word in the dictionary made me feel hopeless and angry. How was anyone supposed to find a word they couldn’t speel? 

History and science interested me, but most things on the writing side of school were hideous and seemed designed to make me feel stupid. They did a perfect job at that. I was never going to be anything besides a hunter and trapper and fisherman.

Books were important, though, and so valuable in the long winters and storms and dark nights, with no neighbors or friends or TV.  I read hundreds and never once, not for an instant, ever imagined writing one. The trail to learning my dad’s tools, shovels, axes and guns was one that made sense. Kole and I built things out of wood, hunted and trapped, dug snow caves and wandered the tundra and new ice with our dog team. At night, we read. Books were treasures, almost always much better than the movie (the few times we saw those stories on the screen.)

In my teen years I branched out to more authors; I liked Mulford and his series about Hopalong Cassidy and other cowboys.  Alistair MacLean was my favorite: Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra. There was nothing like an Alistair MacLean novel. Actually, I didn’t know the word, “novel,” never looked it up, never understood what a narrator was, or a theme, or any of that terminology. Genre wasn’t a word I knew, either, but there was one subject that Kole and I did recognize as unreadable and disgusting: non-fiction writing about Alaska. Yuck. Why would anyone read that?  It was boring, much of the time inaccurate and fake. Most of all it was boring.

I had my own way of judging a book. By the cover. And by the weight and thickness. Vague covers were uninteresting, and irritating. Big books were intimidating. I avoided them. Anything over 300 pages was a NO. When everyone was reading Shogan, I waited an extra 5 or ten years. It was too thick, too scary. And why did they put only that red thing on the plain white cover? 

I didn’t trust long chapters. Too long—I might not make it. I skipped over unknown words and only remembered their shapes. “McKinley” had uneven peaks and valleys; “procrastinate” was long and flat. I thought it was a disease, for years. Maybe it is. I certainly haven’t looked it up in the dictionary.  

Poetry, too, made no sense. It was baffling, and equally baffling was why a person would write that when they could write a story? Kole and I didn’t know anyone who read poetry; my parents didn’t either; neither did their friends.  Walt Whitman, and being forced to read Leaves of Grass for school, is still lodged in my memory as worse than hepatitis. Actually, I kind of feel like that book gave me hepatitis.

Through all those seasons–all those great stories I read in flapping tents and in the back of buried cabins and igloos, in slow boats and quiet goose blinds—and through each ascending year of school, one thing remained solid and clear and unwavering in my mind: I was more likely to get rabies, win the Iditarod, or be President of the United States, than ever be a writer.

Until-.  Well, that’s the next chapter, isn’t it?


Seth Kantner was born and raised in northern Alaska and has worked as a trapper, wilderness guide, wildlife photographer, gardening teacher, and adjunct professor. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, Orion, and Smithsonian. Kantner is the author of the award-winning novel Ordinary Wolves, memoir Shopping for Porcupine, and a collection of essays Swallowed by the Great Land: And Other Dispatches from Alaska’s Frontier. He has been a commercial fisherman in Kotzebue Sound for more than four decades and lives in the Northwest Arctic.

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