On Wrangel Island, a small patch of tundra between Alaska and Siberia, woolly mammoths survived six thousand years after the rest of the species went extinct. They were alive as the Egyptians built the pyramids, long after the Ice Age thawed. Scientists believe the herd of probably no more than five hundred were cut off from the mainland around the tenth millennium BCE, after the Bering Land Bridge melted and separated the great Mammoth Steppe into two different continents, with Wragel Island floating between them.
Over centuries of isolation, the Wrangel mammoths, who faced fewer predators than their mainland cousins, shrank to about the size of modern Asian Elephants. A lack of genetic diversity softened their tusks but, largely, they remained healthy until the environment warmed past the temperatures they needed to survive. The plants changed, their territory dwindled as the ocean rose, and humans finally made it through the ice and to the island. The Wrangel mammoths couldn’t survive hunting and the environmental changes, but no evidence exists of one big mammoth massacre or a meteor wiping the herd out like the fate of the dinosaurs. A human spear may have killed the last mammoth, or he may have just laid down and died one day because he was sick or starving. But the last mammoth hunters didn’t die with him.
I met Ross Schaeffer one evening at LaVonne’s Fish Camp, a collection of cabins scattered along the coast of the Chukchi Sea, about ten miles from the isolated, Inupiaq Alaskan village of Kotzebue. I was leading a conservation crew in Kotz, but the crew and I lived at Fish Camp along with a few village elders who’d been spending the short summer season at LaVonne’s for years.
LaVonne welcomed anyone who happened to stop by the camp around dinner time to join us in the kitchen cabin for a meal. So, when Ross popped through the screen door, quickly opening and closing it to let in as few mosquitoes as possible, the crew scooted our folding chairs closer together to allow for another plate at the table.
Ross was in his late sixties, but he looked much younger. Other than the deep-set crow’s-feet, his face showed few signs of his age. His hair gleamed white, but the sideburns along his jaw bone struck me as the stylistic choice of a younger man. Toned biceps pulled at his flannel shirt. He greeted the elders before acknowledging us. “You the college kids LaVonne was talking about?” He asked.
None of us were college kids, but we were twentysomethings from the Lower Forty-Eight, so that’s often how the elders described our group. Ross didn’t really have to ask who we were anyway; all of Kotzebue knew about the new “kids” working for the Park Service so he just went on . “Look what I just found down at Sadie Creek.” He held up a melon-sized, marbled brown sphere. Jagged edges poked out from the opposite side, but not randomly, like a rock; there seemed to be a purpose to the shapes. He handed it to our crew carpenter, Nate.
Nate tapped the sphere with his fingernail and spun it around. “It’s not wood. It’s heavy.” Ross and the elders watched with knowing smiles on their faces, like the way adults watch toddlers try to complete simple tasks. Nate passed it to Flan, and Flan passed it to me, and I passed it to Dan, and finally, Ross said, “It’s mammoth.”
I’d seen mammoth bone before. Kotzebue sits on the end of the Baldwin Peninsula, a narrow spit of land jutting out into the Arctic Ocean. A remnant of the Bering Land Bridge, the spit is littered with mammoth ivory and bone. But I’d only seen thin, rough, chips, never anything so pristine.
“It’s a hip bone, see? It fits into the socket like this.” Ross cupped his hand and held the ball to it. “See? Man, it’s a good piece. I was driving down the coast just now and spotted it at the edge of the water. I’m going to make a good piece with this. I’m a carver.” He explained to us. “I make jewelry, masks, all different things. I once carved a scene of the caribou drive on a whole mammoth tusk.”
Once we knew what it was, everyone wanted to hold the mammoth hip again. We passed it around, guessed at its weight. After the bone had gone around the table again, Ross tucked it in his jacket pocket, said goodbye to the elders then to us, and headed towards town on his four-wheeler. He’d only stopped by to show off his find.
It was maybe a week before I saw Ross again. When the summer Arctic sun barely dips below the horizon, it can be hard to keep track of days. Time seems to separate into moments rather than a twenty-four-hour schedule. The crew should have been able to track time based on our progress at work, but we didn’t keep a typical agenda.
We’d been sent up to Kotz to build a community park next to Park Service headquarters. They expected us to build massive planter beds and harvest native tundra plants to fill them with. The seating was going to require weeks of rockwork and fifty feet of mini sand dunes needed to be shoveled into place. But once the crew arrived, we found out that none of our supplies had been shipped. So, we showed up to work every day and asked if anything had come in on the cargo plane. As the supplies slowly trickled in, we did what we could on the park, but some days we just putzed around, completing a collection of minor tasks very slowly. Rarely did we have a clear-cut day when we completed a clear-cut task that we could pin to our mental timelines. One day, our boss left us a to-do list that just read, “Think about moving whale skull.”
Usually, life at Fish Camp held more excitement than work. It had a routine, but you never knew who or what was going to ride down the beach. The crew came home from work one day to find Kay, a Japanese student studying subsistence cultures, at the kitchen table with the elders. After dinner, I asked him how he’d gotten from town to camp. He said he’d rented an ATV from the mayor, which meant he could go much further down the coast than our beat-up old crew truck could ever take us.
In honor of Kay’s visit, the elders started a bonfire after diner. While everyone stood around, soaking in the heat, I looked for a nice rock on the beach. After a minute or two I settled on a decent one and approached Kay. “Kay, the crew would like you to drive us past Sadie Creek on your four-wheeler. We will trade you this rock from above the Arctic Circle.”
“That’s not even a great rock,” Kay complained. It wasn’t, but he accepted the deal and all five of us climbed onto his ATV. Completely overloaded and audibly struggling to gain speed, it limped down the beach.
At Sadie Creek—the unofficial line between the relative safety of Fish Camp and the relative wilderness beyond—we all jumped off the four-wheeler and waded across so that Kay didn’t sink. But once we sped past the creek and out of sight of Camp, he yanked the throttle back and we tore off. The crew clung to what little room we could find. We yelped and howled as Kay swerved between the tundra cliffs and water’s edge.
The joy ride slowed as we approached a log cabin. A “No Trespassing” sign was posted on a metal gate blocking the beach path. The gate wasn’t attached to a fence, so we could have ridden around it, but the handful of empty shotgun shells laying under the sign seemed to suggest we shouldn’t.
“You know these people?” Kay asked. We didn’t. I jumped when I heard the cabin door open.
“Oh! Hey!” Ross yelled from the porch. “LaVonne’s kids.” I glanced at the crew to see if they looked as relieved as I felt. Ross invited us in.
Inside, the cabin remained unfinished. Ross was working on the kitchen cabinets. He explained that he’d built it himself; all dovetail notches, like real life Linkin Logs. Over five summers, he felled the trees up river and brought them down by boat. I ran my fingers over the smooth wood, feeling the individual knots and bends; Ross must have chosen each log specifically to match the one before it.
“You like those? You should see these.” I hadn’t realized Ross was watching.
He led us onto the porch corner where a twisted, ashen gray log, about two feet wide and four feet tall, held up the corner of his porch railing. “That’s diamond willow.”
A fungus common in boreal forests causes the deformations and color changes in diamond willows. The wood is infected, but its unique characteristics make the willow popular among carvers. Tourist shops in South East Alaska often sell diamond willow walking sticks, but Ross found his far up the Kobuk River, near the Brooks Range. The land that far north hasn’t had the right conditions for diamond willows since the days of mammoths. “That stump is thousands of years old.” Ross said.
He explained that snow and ice had protected the wood. It wasn’t petrified but kept in the deep freeze. As the earth warms, the ancient willows become exposed.
Ross climbed down from the porch and came up with a cardboard box full of bones and ivory. “Here, take some.” None of it was as pristine as the hip bone he’d brought to dinner, but some of the ivory pieces were large enough to see the telltale layers of tusk growth on their interior sides. “This is just little stuff I’ve found around. Can’t do much with it.” Ross said, nonchalantly.
We dug through the box like kids going through a bin of Legos, our hands running into each other—touching everything, flipping the pieces over, feeling how strong or brittle they were. Ross seemed amused.
“Did you find all of this here?” Dan asked.
“Mostly. The waves bring it in or they wash out of Sadie Creek. When it gets raining and the creek blows, there’s always something good hidden in there. But I have better spots for bigger pieces.”
Ross told us that mammoths shed their tusks every five years and occasionally fought with them, so chunks of ivory aren’t very hard to find today. Larger bones or full tusks are the real prizes. His regular spots are mostly small ponds, which he wades through with a long stick, poking at the floor until he hits something hard. “Mammoths went to the same places to die, like elephants, so there are some soft spots on the tundra that have dozens of animals buried there.” One of those spots netted Ross a four-foot-long femur with the marrow still frozen inside. “Looked like moose; almost good enough to eat.” He said. He was saving that bone in his freezer for the right project.
“How can you tell it’s not a rock?” Nate asked.
“Pick it up and look.” Ross giggled. “But it’s easier for native people, we’re hunters, our eyes are better trained. And we can smell the mammoth bones.”
I didn’t doubt that even in his late sixties, Ross had better eyes than I did, but I couldn’t resist the obvious question. “What does it smell like?”
Before we hopped back on Kay’s four-wheeler, we each took a piece of bone and a piece of ivory from the box and helped Ross put away his tools. When we stopped to wade Sadie Creek, Dan turned to me and sniffed the air. “Smell that? Mammoth.”
“Smells like mammoth,” soon became a crew catchphrase. In the evenings, Nate and Dan would wander out towards Sadie to scan the shore for mammoths. Neither Flan or I had the patience to spend hours searching for chips of brown bones among the thousands of brown driftwood bits washed up in the rocks.
Nate had some early successes: be brought back a big hunk of bone that the camp elders guessed was part of a shoulder. Dan only came back with small pieces until one night he burst into the patio, smug-faced and looking for someone to brag to. “Look at this!” From under his coat he pulled out a brown, curved piece as long as his forearm. “It’s a tusk.”
“You think?” It was impressive, but it looked too thin to be a tusk and the inside had the hard sponge look fossilized bones have.
“Look at the curve! It’s a baby tusk.”
“You should show the elders.”
“You don’t think it is.”
“I think it’s a rib.”
The next time Ross stopped by on his way back to town, the guys presented their finds to him. He agreed that maybe Nate’s was a shoulder, it was hard to tell. Dan’s was a rib. “You can’t know if it’s mammoth There were small, mini mammoths here and a type of horse, even something similar to a camel. My friend Charles once found a woolly rhino horn” Ross explained.
Ross had been heading home to his wife, but once we got him talking, we knew we had him for a while. He told us that he remembered spotting a full mammoth skull, complete with tusks, jutting out of a cliff along the shore while whaling as a boy. It took him and his friends five hours to dig it out, balancing in their small boat and fighting the rising tide. Once they removed the whole skull, they gave it to the oldest boy who kept it in his living room for a time. Ross didn’t know where it went after that. The market for mammoth didn’t exist then. Today, Ross can sell a raw sixteen-foot tusk for twenty thousand dollars. A decorative ulu or a small, six-inch carving of an ice fisher can go for a few hundred. He couldn’t even guess at the value of an intact skull.
In addition to the pieces he’s sold, Ross donates his work to village schools. Under his Inupiaq name, Qualqayk, he completed a massive, four-part series of wood carvings for the school in nearby Kiana. Each of the four wood panels shows the village passing through the seasons; hunting the migrating animals.
Ross looked again at Nate’s shoulder bone. “You have to think about what each piece is for. See this here, looks like a nose. Maybe a flat piece like this would be a good mask?”
Once he pointed out the small dip in the bone, it did kind of look like a nose. With coaching, anyone could see how the bone could become a mask, but Ross had the eye for shaping it. His talent was particularly impressive because he’d been given no training. At fourteen he was sent to Copper Head in the Alaska interior, a native boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not known for its dedication to the arts. From there, Ross went to college and then returned to Kotzebue to be a fur trapper. He’d spend days riding through the wilderness on his snow machine, checking traps for furs to sell and hunting to feed his family. “I can call a muskrat right to my feet,” he said. “And I can put a bullet through a fox’s head doing thirty-five on a Honda.” Ross put his index finger to his temple and pulled the imaginary trigger at the thumb.
He only became an artist after a hunting accident in 1985. While riding his snow machine through a ground storm and pulling a sled loaded with six freshly killed caribou, he drove off a cliff. The sled flipped and landed on top of the caribou. Jackhammering over the handlebars, Ross smashed his head on impact and knocked himself unconscious. When he came to, the machine wouldn’t start, so he flipped the sled, pounded its skis back into place with the barrel of his gun and strapped the caribou back on the bed. Then, he tied the sled to his torso and skied twenty-six miles back to the village of Candle. The spinal injuries he sustained left Ross bedridden.
“I was scared. I thought, how am I going to feed my family if I can’t hunt? I hunted all my life. Then, my wife said to me one day ‘you got hands, don’t you?’ Do something.’ So, I thought ‘what can I do?’ And I started messing around with carving.”
Along with innate artistic ability, Ross’s years of trapping and subsistence living made him an excellent mammoth hunter. He tracked down carving material like it was a living animal outmaneuvering his traps. The tundra held traces of mammoths the same way it left hints for caribou and moose hunters and Ross knew how to interpret them.
Ross stayed that night until our camp generator turned off.
The next day, the lumber for our planter beds appeared at the park site, along with a truckload of rocks. Suddenly, we had so much work to do I had to chase the second truckload of rocks away. The day after, our seating supplies came in: the next, cement. Back at Fish Camp, the guys spent less time walking down to Sadie Creek. After work, everyone seemed content to sit in the patio cabin and listen to the only radio station while doing the Anchorage Daily crossword. If one person had to use the outhouse, the rest of us begged them to go for more instant coffee in the kitchen so we didn’t have to get up. Then one evening, Dan asked me if I wanted to walk down to Ross’s place. I really wanted to sit on the couch, but our time in Kotzebue, our “hitch,” was winding down. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to talk to Ross; even in Kotzebue his set of stories are not the thing you come across all the time. So I put on my rubber boots and tagged along.
When we got to Ross’s, we found him clamping down his new table top. He welcomed us in liked he’d been expecting guests. “Hey! Saw you kids working today. Looks like a lot of rock.”
Dan asked Ross if he could record his thoughts on how climate is changing in the Arctic. Ross didn’t mind; he wanted to talk about it. “It’s totally affected our livelihoods here. Like last year, we maybe only got a week of good ice, where before, the whole sound used to be frozen for months. Then the break up comes too soon and we miss the beluga. All the animal patterns we depend on have been mixed up. They come too soon or too late.”
The beluga were once pushed into Kotzebue Sound by the freeze-up, Ross explained. The surrounding land acted as a natural barrier; it trapped the whales on three sides once they’d swum in. “Now, there’s no way we can teach our young people our old ways of hunting. You have to go way out with a motor boat and a gun.”
Years ago, Ross built a traditional kayak out of seal skin with the hope of teaching his nephew how to hunt. On its maiden and only voyage, he caught a bowhead whale. He speared it, and then put a whale-sized hook through the jaw. The hook was attached to a rope, which Ross gripped in his teeth while he rowed back to shore. The technique, he explained, protects the whaler from flipping his kayak. If the whale twitches, you can open your mouth and drop the line without slipping into the frozen water. But, you can’t spear hunt in open water with just a kayak.
The kayak story was the beginning of another long talk with Ross. The subjects flowed in and out of each other without prompting. He told us about his grandfather, a German who ended up in Kotzebue after a failed attempt to strike it rich in the Klondike gold rush. He told us how the culture changed when the first snow machines came to town in the late sixties, and the dog teams were relegated to hobbies. He talked about the Cold War days when Kotzebue had a small Air Force base where airmen listened to the Russians on the other side of the Chukchi Sea—it had a bowling alley and two bars. He told us stories he’d heard of the community before alcohol came to the region and blueberry bushes that grew right up to Second Street. He explained the difference between mammoth ivory and walrus ivory and how poached, headless walruses wash up on the beach every summer to rot. He’d tried to dry and stretch a walrus stomach over a handmade drum, but when it ripped, he found that there was no one left alive who remembered how to prepare the delicate stomach lining. He knew how to properly ferment fresh walrus flippers in the ground, so they could be eaten during winter.
It was the kind of knowledge I’d witnessed only a few times in my life. He wasn’t a professor who had researched the tundra biosphere or the Inupiaq language; he spoke of it all as though he knew it on a personal level. He described how his ancestors swallowed thick, slimy, congealed seal fat, which their stomachs slowly digested, to maintain their energy on long hunts. As he spoke, he tilted his head back and held an imaginary sliver of fat over his mouth before slurping it down his throat—not mimicking the action, but summoning it like a distant recollection on the edge of his memory. Dan and I sat there, silent, for more than an hour.
At some point, Ross returned to Dan’s climate question, although in a way it didn’t feel like he’d ever really left it. He said climate change was making mammoth hunting easier as it ruined everything else. The warmer temperatures melted the permafrost and made the coastal tundra unstable. Huge swaths of land were regularly sinking into the water. They exposed the bones hidden underneath, but so much land was disappearing, that Ross anticipated having to move his cabin inland within the next five years. “There’s a big slough that just fell a couple days ago, farther up the coast.”
“It’s still there?” Dan asked.
“Be there for a long time. I can take you. You want to go look?”
Of course we wanted to go.
Dan and I hung on to back grate of Ross’s four-wheeler, shivering in the wind. I didn’t really understand when Ross said that the land “fell” into the sea, but looking at it, I could think of no other way to describe the slough. Half a football field of tundra had slid down the twenty-foot cliff like a completed row of blocks in a Tetris game. It protruded out past the beach line and into the water. Thick, cold, gray permafrost—normally hidden under the tundra—lay exposed like a wound, where the slide began. In some spots, the tundra plants still sat atop of the dislocated land. Salmonberry shrubs and sour docks the crew had spent weeks harvesting from the hilltops were now out to sea.
We climbed up onto the edge of the slough and Ross led us towards the center, stepping on patches of tundra where we could and sinking into the permafrost where we had to. I tried to walk in Ross’s steps, but it felt like climbing through a carnival game rigged to force a fall. A wrong step into a soft spot nearly lost me my boot. I reached down and yanked it out with my foot still inside.
The bald, plant-less center opened into a crater with ice patches melting along the walls. “That ice hadn’t seen daylight for more than a thousand years before last week. It like dinosaur ice.” For a normally talkative guy, Ross didn’t say much else. I couldn’t read the emotion on his face, but he wandered away from us and walked out to the end of the slough. Clearly, the slide distressed him. I barely understood the consequences of what I stepped on, but anyone could see that it was irreversible; the peninsula shrank overnight. I couldn’t imagine what Ross thought about it.
Dan wobbled over to me and whispered “shit” or “damn,” or some kind of response that meant he didn’t know what to say. I said “yeah” or “I know,” or something that meant the same thing. Then we were all quiet for what felt like a long time.
Ross walked back over and broke the silence. “I haven’t seen any mammoth here.” He said. “Someone will have to come down with shovels and build a path through it. You seen enough?”
We nodded and scrambled down to the four-wheeler. At Ross’s cabin, Dan and I thanked him for the time and the ride. When we got back to Fish Camp, the rest of the crew was jealous.
By the weekend, we spotted four wheelers heading down to the slough, loaded with shovels. All along the coast, other clumps of land were falling away from the earth and uncovering valuable mammoths. Professional and amateur carvers alike needed to mine the changing land to gather as much material as possible. Ross might be one of the best artists in the area, but he is far from the only one. People even pay pilots to fly over the coast and radio the locations of new sloughs to hunters on the ground. We guessed that the green kit plane, which swooped over the cliffs and flew low along the shore every weekend, was involved in one of these operations. The pilot would tip his wings for us if we waved.
A few days later, one of the last in our hitch, I ran into the hardware store to buy a handful of rebar while Dan waited in the crew truck. I was rushing, scrambling to finish the park before we left, so when I saw Ross at the counter, I ducked down the hardware isle before he saw me to avoid a long conversation. We really did have a lot to do, but the time crunch was only one reason why I didn’t want to run into Ross. News of his brother John’s death was running every fifteen minutes on the radio station and I didn’t know what to say.
Everyone knew John didn’t have much time; a few years older than Ross, he’d long suffered from the effects of a series of strokes. Only weeks before, I’d seen the elder Schaeffer hunched in his wheelchair and draped in blankets at a ceremony naming a new the Coast Guard station in his honor. The state governor, along with friends and family gave eulogistic speeches about Major General John Schaeffer Jr’s contributions to Alaska.
Born before statehood, he’d served in the Alaska National Guard for more than thirty years, and John also represented the last generation who knew the old Kotzebue—before the radio station, and the grocery stores, and the two daily flights to Anchorage. He and his brothers grew up with elders who only spoke Inupiaq and spent their lives only traveling as far as their dog teams could take them. They retained a link to an extinct way of life and soon there would be one less Schaeffer brother.
Afterwards, Ross said what I suspected the whole crew was thinking; the event felt like an official funeral. But standing in the hardware store with John really gone, I knew I could never completely understand what his death meant, or give any condolences that hadn’t already been given at the naming ceremony so, somewhat cowardly, I lingered around the buckets of rebar hoping Ross would leave, listening to his conversation with the girl behind the counter. He was buying supplies for the private funeral at the family plot in Ivik. The public funeral would be held in the high school gym so as many people as possible could attend. As they chatted, it didn’t sound like Ross planned to leave soon, so I grabbed what I needed and headed to the counter.
“Hi, Ross!” I said far too cheerfully.
He extended his hand but looked a little surprised to see me; I realized we’d never seen each other in town, only down the coast. I felt his evenly calloused palm meet mine. “How are you?” I asked and then instantly regretted.
Ross again looked a little surprised—why would even ask that now— and shrugged. “Ok.”
“I, I heard about your brother…John. I’m, ah, sorry to hear…”
Ross saved me from myself with a strong, stoic nod.
I nodded back, asked the girl to put the rebar on the Park Service account, and left. Back in the truck, Dan asked what took so long.
“Ross was in there.”
“Did you say goodbye?”
“No.” I drove the truck out of the muddy unpaved parking lot and considered going back in for a second. “We’ll see him again.”
Author Bio: Victoria Sanderson is a graduate of Oregon State University’s MFA program who writes about the territories she’s explored, classic movies, and any other topic that sends her down an obsessive research hole. She currently lives on an island floating around Mobile Bay in a 1984 13ft Scotty Trailer named Honeybear. She shares Honeybear with her dog Spree and writes when she’s not at her day job leading a conservation corps crew along the Gulf Coast. Her work can also be found in the upcoming issue of The Sonder Review.