Neither Here, Nor There

Posted May 11, 2020 at 1:27 pm by

Pho­to by Patrick Thun

This is the first in a series of sto­ries by Steve Ulvi…

We can all use a bit more enter­tain­ment these days. Begin by con­jur­ing up the Far North. Way up, where invis­i­ble lon­gi­tu­di­nal lines get clos­er, just short of an invis­i­ble Arc­tic Cir­cle. Near­ly all of these camp­fire tales take place in a par­tic­u­lar chunk of cir­cum­po­lar sub­arc­tic taiga; east-cen­tral Alaska. 

The mosa­ic of bore­al for­est, alpine uplands, muskeg and den­drit­ic water cours­es stretch to the hori­zon. These sto­ries are true enough except for some notable char­ac­ters and place names. In the human realm are the strong ebbs and flows of new­com­ers, boomers and fas­ci­nat­ing tra­di­tion­al cul­tures in place for ten mil­len­nia. Life in the woods, myths and big project ideas all stir togeth­er over the last 50 years in one of the most icon­ic regions of “Seward’s Folly”.

Late April. This is now the sea­son of win­try retreat in the sub­arc­tic. Moun­tain ranges and huge basins are melt­ing out and count­less wild rivers are break­ing up. Kind of a speed-shift of sea­sons toward the ease and twi­light mag­ic of sum­mer. Water under­goes an amaz­ing phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion; from hard ice to vapor to run­ning liq­uid, in a few intense weeks. Rivers are the high­ways in the bush and they can’t be safe­ly used for weeks. The sun blazes, climb­ing high­er over­head as each day gets longer by sev­er­al min­utes. The tilt of earth relent­less­ly breaks the grip of months of pen­e­trat­ing cold.

When the fabled Yukon Riv­er, 500 yards across at the Cana­di­an Bor­der some 1250 miles from the mouth, final­ly suc­cumbs to incal­cu­la­ble hydro­sta­t­ic pres­sure from beneath and ice-can­dling from above, it lifts and cracks into foot­ball field flows 7 feet thick. It is both spec­ta­cle and abrupt turn of the sea­son. The low­er Yukon, sev­er­al miles wide, breaks up first with suc­ceed­ing releas­es march­ing up the 1,800 mile riv­er to the head­wa­ters. At any one moment at any par­tic­u­lar spot, it is vast­ly silent and stead­fast, shores thawed to rock and mud, ducks wing­ing by. In the next moment a wave of ener­gy rip­ples the width of the expanse and the icy stam­pede down­riv­er begins. I have seen that moment. Just once. Slow­ly mov­ing at first, often stop and go. Then like a freight train at 9 mph pushed by 225,000 cubic feet per sec­ond of mud­dy water seek­ing the Bering Sea.

Until the flows break up into house-sized chunks and small­er, there is a great threat of ice jams where the riv­er nar­rows. Jams are expo­nen­tial pow­er mul­ti­pli­ers with the riv­er ris­ing and ris­ing behind the dam, some­times for jit­tery days, before it blows out in a spec­tac­u­lar flood of tum­bling ice that mows flat huge forest­ed islands and low­lands on the out­side of riv­er bends. Many his­toric road­hous­es and cab­ins still in use, some­times a long way from the riv­er prop­er, are flood­ed or destroyed by ice blocks. With so many immense fac­tors in play, each breakup is a unique expe­ri­ence up and down the river.

Talk about a stark lat­i­tu­di­nal con­trast! Work­ing in our gar­den these days on San Juan Island, tak­ing in lush green and flow­ers, I thought of my friend, Archie, once again emerg­ing from his hiber­na­tion. Prob­a­bly put­ter­ing around his molder­ing cab­in com­pound, perched on a sin­u­ous slough at the edge of a small Yukon Riv­er vil­lage. Rear­rang­ing tarps, chip­ping out the now revealed thick yel­low ice by the front steps, or maybe fix­ing some­thing at his clut­tered shop bench.

Leav­ing for the north after serv­ing in the quag­mire of SE Asia, Archie is now a bit long in the tooth and strong­ly opin­ion­at­ed. Still there on the Yukon. This was a tough win­ter after sig­nif­i­cant warm­ing for many years.   There, cli­mat­ic weird­ness is “slap you upside the head” obvi­ous; in 3D tech­ni­col­or, with Dol­by sur­round sound, from the front row. I rang him after recent emails that due to their para­graph count and scat­ter-shot top­ics, indi­cat­ed that his meta­mor­pho­sis from win­ter hiber­na­tion was bad­ly stalled out.

Archie’s testy atti­tude seemed main­ly fueled by the can­cel­la­tion of a rare, long-planned trip Out­side for break-up. Or as he tapped out recent­ly, “an inter­est­ing but stress­ful dive into the rat race of the con­fused mass­es chasin’ their tails and spendin’ good mon­ey on the newest tech­nol­o­gy to give away their pri­va­cy. Reminds me why I fled north in the tur­bu­lent 1970s, when the US pop­u­la­tion was half of today’s overshoot”. 

After brief niceties, I posed a change-up ques­tion as opposed to some­thing snarky, ask­ing what he was most opti­mistic about.

He coughed into his fist to buy some time, then slow­ly said “fun­gus, women lead­ing, legal cannabis and the return of the snow buntings”.

I was momen­tar­i­ly high-cen­tered, pon­der­ing that mix.

Hear­ing hes­i­ta­tion, he threw down on me, “so any­way what’s up with the good life in the crown-jew­els of Wash­ing­ton State? Once rid­ing high on tourist throngs all sum­mer. Trav­el­ers hop­ing to redis­cov­er them­selves by spend­ing a wad, con­stant­ly check­ing their umbil­i­cal tech­nol­o­gy like pro­to-cyborgs, and hop­ing locals will pro­vide back­ground enter­tain­ment. Then to top it off, get­ting out on the water to hound res­i­dent Orcas to extinc­tion while sign­ing up and donat­ing $20 to save ‘em”!  

It is fair to say that Archie is nat­u­ral­ly cyn­i­cal, anti-estab­lish­ment, and he views tourism as a form of flesh-eat­ing bac­te­ria. Years back, after read­ing an arti­cle in some con­spir­a­cy tabloid he had his mer­cury-filled molars pulled by a sketchy itin­er­ant den­tist to avoid “going nuts”. Hmmm.

Before I could men­tion the many good folks try­ing to alter the arc of that recent his­to­ry here, Archie launched into a weird, splut­ter­ing tirade about how “I only wish that this lit­tle X%8*@!* virus was the size of an orange, then I would sign up to glee­ful­ly smash them into harm­less goo with a bat”. You know lin­ger­ing cab­in fever when you hear it.

I imag­ined him stand­ing on his porch; shrink­ing snow piles, his old pick­up crowned with snow, smok­ing a roll-up with roof eaves drip­ping in the flu­id tem­pos of late April. Like his smokes, his well-rehearsed tirades (he talks to him­self con­stant­ly), are unfil­tered. He also has a spe­cial abil­i­ty to trav­el else­where in his mind, which he attrib­ut­es to a win­ter of shar­ing his drafty, clut­tered cab­in with a “bossy gal” many years ago. To add insult to injury she whis­tled along with radio tunes. In fair­ness to her, I should point out that per­son­al hygiene and will­ing­ness to adapt to some­one else, are not among Archie’s strong suits. Then, there is the prob­lem that he can make darn near any­thing. Except a living.

Archie does love his most­ly caged pet fer­rets. I have pre­vi­ous­ly relat­ed the sto­ry of a regret­table evening, long ago dur­ing a “brass mon­key” cold snap. Gulp­ing his green home brew, riff­ing about real­ly odd peo­ple we knew, we arrived at the bril­liant notion to stage a ‘fer­ret down trousers’ con­test. I pre­vailed by a few sec­onds and have the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al scars to prove it, so he calls me “Champ” as a reminder of my besot­ted victory.

I asked how the vil­lage was far­ing in the cri­sis and the lev­el of anx­i­ety about the grav­el road being bull-dozed to allow dri­ving to and from Fair­banks; a sprawl­ing, poly­glot por­tal to the rest of the viral world.

Archie scoffed “ya, well Champ, have you already for­got about spend­ing hard-earned mon­ey for a cou­ple hours of shoul­dered in with oth­er folks, often unwashed, some­times gassy at alti­tude, in a small plane wing­ing to town”?  

No, I remem­ber that well. Land­ing at anoth­er vil­lage there is the shuf­fling of head-bent, puffy clothed pas­sen­gers in and out. Some duck out for a quick smoke under the wing. There are the teens in shorts and Air Jor­dans shuf­fling in place. Cold but cool. Freight is unloaded while sub-zero air fogs on the plane’s floor. Then a very quick safe­ty brief­ing while the pilot fires up, keys the radio mic, spins the plane and taxis out as folks load­ing the freight into snow machine sleds turn their backs to the prop blast. Then we rise out of the cold ground lay­ers, hang­ing on the prop, into the bril­liant sun.

He went on to say that even pas­sen­ger ser­vice was restrict­ed now. Con­tract mail was get­ting in along with the usu­al box­es of wilt­ed pro­duce, small bruised apples and piles of soda pop and pam­pers. “Oh ya, almost for­got, thanks for the vit­a­min D care pack­age you sent up! We are all on riv­er watch now and busy with the usu­al stuff.   I dragged my skiff way back and tied her up to a big poplar. We are hopin’ to see the riv­er go out with­out ice jams and flood­ing like we hear of downriver”.

Then he achieved peak per­for­mance slurp­ing anoth­er cup of scald­ing tea and found a strange metaphor­i­cal groove. Even for him. “You know why this viral spread in Amer­i­ca is kin­da like the Mon­gols cat­a­pult­ing their plague-rid­den corpses over the for­ti­fied walls of Chris­t­ian Caf­fa in 1345”?

No, tell me Archie.

“Because far beyond out­right death, it spawns gnaw­ing fear and divi­sive­ness lead­ing to a col­lapse of social order. This virus is a nasty lit­tle trig­ger that will expose our deeply frac­tured and spoiled-soft coun­try. We are stum­bling down the slip­pery slope of empire failure”. 

I chimed in “mean­while, the cli­mate emer­gency has loomed ever larg­er over 30 years and laws of earth­ly chem­istry and physics don’t rest….”. 

Archie cut in snort­ing “and it will be a way more seri­ous mob of threats than this pis­sant virus, don’t you think”?

He went on “I feel good being here, at the end of the road, where life is already sim­ple. You know every­one. Our expec­ta­tions are real­is­tic, except for a few wingnuts and end-of-the-road­ers. There you are in your eas­i­ly dis­rupt­ed, infi­nite­ly reg­u­lat­ed, bad­ly degrad­ed par­adise. We still have nature’s pantry here. Your icon­ic salmon have been all but destroyed as the lifeblood of your watery region. Now, bye- bye Orcas, too. Your growth-drum­mers have tire­less­ly inflat­ed tourism with­out bounds. What oth­er com­mu­ni­ty-based rev­enues can you rely on in the post- COVID 19 world order? You are less self-reliant than we are up here. Buck­le up, Champ, your tax­es are going to sky­rock­et to keep the eco­nom­ic bloat afloat! 

Hey, I hear the Yukon ice mov­ing, I got­ta go”.

(Next: Spring Black Bears)

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