Howie Kantner

Kapakagvik | ambler

when i first came to alaska...

[What brought me to Alaska was] reading about it. There’s an old library built by the WPA, and I used to like going there and reading everything, and it was a book on Alaska. And it was pictures of the College of  Agriculture and Mines [in Fairbanks]. And I remember going home and saying, "Ma, I think I’ll write to them." And I always thought I had good grades in high school, but they weren’t very good-- but they were looking for students [in Fairbanks]. So I painted barns to pay for the way up. ... It was A&M, "College of Agriculture & Mines." And that year they quit agriculture and it was just the mines, and English. And then a few years later it became the University of Alaska.

from fairbanks to the kobuk

[Edward] Teller wanted to set off an atomic bomb off up at Cape Thompson, in northern Alaska. And the university professors said, "You can’t do it until we have a test, you know..." They wanted to make a harbor up there [with an atomic blast]. … Anyway, my partner did some biology work there, studying caribou and looking for parasites, and I got up to Cape Thompson in the springtime. You know, chasing caribou, stuff like that. And then-- getting back to my feeling of being separate-- I wanted to go to Greenland. And so the reason was to go back to Cape Thompson years later to see if I could do it on my own… To live with this [Inupiaq] family [at the Cape]. That’s how I got up to northwest Alaska, with Cape Thompson Project they called it, doing studies… Once I got up there, it was real hard to go back to Fairbanks. Especially after the Kobuk [River], I could never. 'Cause we tried to go back to Fairbanks: I was building geodesic domes, and I had a cabin up there. Anyhow it was too late. 

Kantner outside relatives' home in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by D. Zapotosky.

Kantner outside relatives' home in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by D. Zapotosky.

"A lot of time people will say, well, 'How long have you been here?' 'Oh, three months... Two years...' You know, 'Two days!' And it just kept going on: pretty soon it was thirty years. It just grew and grew. ... I say, I tell people, that's where my heart is. In Alaska."

getting out from behind the desk

I realized that I wasn’t going to work as a career [man]. I remember [Alaska Department of] Fish and Game said, "Well, Howard, we’ll have a place for you…" There was no way I was going to sit behind a desk. So it was perfect [living on the Kobuk River]. But I also remember that one winter when I said, you know, "I don’t know if I want to be a hunter." And then I spent the next 24 years up on the Kobuk with Erna as a hunter! ... And I never made it to Greenland. Or the North Pole.

what made me stay

I think the people. When we were [visiting] Europe, back when Erna was pregnant, and we had the choice to go [back] up on the Kobuk or go to Israel, and we got as far as Spain. But before that, we met up with some friends from the university, and I remember all us talking, and what was important to all of us was the people in Alaska. Which surprised me, because I’m not much of a people person. There were people around us [at our home on the Kobuk]. ... And you know, living in such an environment, especially for a man-- I always felt that Alaska was for active [people].