WE BETTER GET GOING,” ALVIN WILLIAMS SAID “Daylight’s burning.” A dozen of us stood with shovels and axes on a snow-covered knoll on the south side of the Kobuk River, five miles below the Inupiaq village of Ambler. Weathered wooden crosses rose through the drifts; before us, a rectangle of cleared ground. My companions had known Clarence Wood all their lives. I, the oldest and sole naluagmiu—white man—had known him four decades, as my traveling partner and friend. Most of the gravediggers had once been my students at the village school. We stood together in the deepening cold, 15 below zero and falling. The January sun sagged on the southern horizon, casting the Jade Mountains in shades that had no earthly name.
A trio of moose browsed in the willows a few hundred yards below us. I imagined Clarence watching, lips split in a half-grin, hips slouched forward, hands in pockets, Marlboro dangling. He murmured to me, Well, at least I let you get cold one more time.