Freezer Burned: No Matter What
“FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Interior Alaska” is a regular column on the San Juan Update written by Steve Ulvi.
The aging sow grizzly burned with an incessant urge to gorge on calories as her 10th winter hibernation neared. To provide for herself and both cubs through another denning, required an ongoing smorgasbord of nutrient-rich food as the days grew short and frost whitened the uplands.
Successful denning, getting through six months of a merciless subarctic winter, is do or die for a bear.
The bears followed the faintest promising odors as the profuse berry crop was done; eating fall sprouting mushrooms, dried grass, salmon carcasses and a few ground squirrels they dug out.
With cubs to defend, she gave a wide birth to dangerous boars trolling the best places. A few days further upriver, the water from a shallow slough smelled of fish and they eagerly waded in to scavenge a few salmon carcasses resting where the gulls and ravens couldn’t reach them.
Yellowed leaves formed windrows at the water’s edge as the river dropped. Small skeins of waterfowl streaked over, wings whistling. Moving toward her denning country, shuffling several miles a day, she waded into the river to swim powerfully across a sweeping bend. Angling to the shore she nearly failed to notice the alarming whine of a riverboat approaching at speed from downwind. Together the bears churned up onto the cobbled shore, shaking water at a run to bolt into the alder belt. Within moments the old sow spun and bit furiously at her bloody hip reacting to being struck by a bullet. Excited human voices and sprays of gunfire tore into the curtain of brush. Adrenalin coursed through them as they glared back through the thick spruce trunks. The noises faded and disappeared upstream.
Days later, the distressed sow limped heavily, oozing blood and fluids. They found a recently vacated fish camp rank with odors and blood stains of weeks of salmon harvest and campfire drippings. Licking fish rack poles and eating dirt beneath the places where hundreds of fish had dripped promised little caloric intake but was irresistible. They dug into a soggy garbage pit finding little.
Youthful curiosity, even under watchful tutelage, can be the undoing of a young bruin, even one destined to becoming an “apex predator”; an adult grizzly. Natural caution is clouded by hunger stress. Several days earlier the leaner male cub had impulsively attacked a porcupine waddling in the dried leaves on the edge of the forest. In increasing agony for nearly a week, he fell behind to succumb to weakness and quills that penetrated his brain.
Hardly resting now, the duo followed their snouts along the river bank and inflowing creeks turning over rocks and logs, nibbling at anything; freshwater snails, old bird nests, wood frogs and dried scatters of brown moose droppings. Moose with strapping calves moved away from them easily. Bands of caribou, heels clicking, descended with purpose through the steep river defile to regain historic trails trending south on scarlet splashed ridges.
As the sun sank again, they lolled behind a barrier of yellowed willows. The wounded, hyper-alert sow heard distant splashing and rock clatter across the river. She rose carefully with menacing focus to see scattered animals swimming the river toward them. As the lead cow caribou rose out of the water to shake off on the cobbled beach, animals were strung out lunging into the shallows. Alert, they splashed ashore quickly, trotting upward to the open hills, as was hard-wired in their predator avoidance behaviors.
Bulky creatures, now catlike, the bears low-crawled closer on the sand under wind-rattled willows. The trotting cows called their calves to follow. A lone calf stood breathing hard, dripping, while looking upriver as the pair broke from cover only yards away. Despite the sow’s weakened body, both bears hit the wide-eyed calf together at the edge of the rippled water. The other startled animals broke hard to escape up the brushy slope.
The sow crouched over the limp body of the calf tearing into warm flesh, crunching bones and hide while chuffing and snapping at her cub, guided by the strongest of all survival instincts. At length the female cub deftly snatched chunks of flesh and bluish ropes of intestine as ravens circled and kited down to land on nearby boulders. They raucously announced the promising death. Little but hooves, long bones, hide scraps and green stomach contents remained for them on bloody beach gravel once the bears padded on.
Early in the night, the pair again swam the river slowly and walked into a grove of faintly golden paper birch. There they rested fitfully beneath bone-colored cliffs just visible in the gauzy moonlight. Denning ravines were not far off now. Strong caribou scent held promise as the deteriorating weather pushed the larger bands southward. She stiffly moved out through the brush, where hoof-gouged trails descended to water and the distinct scent of recent human tracks wove through on rippled sand.
Smells of fish and blood tanged the air and shallow eddying waters exciting her brain. A bear’s nose is like air-filtering radar that scans miles upwind. She pushed through the air born edge of human stink on the downriver breeze. Her overriding fear of humankind was potently shaped by countless brown bear generations that had learned to survive by consistently avoiding humans in northern Alaska.
After the evening gillnet checks, two sisters, mothers both, laughed easily with their teens during the slimy tedium of cutting and hanging fish. “Finally enough dry fish now”. The little kids flicked salmon eggs at one another and skittered gaily around the table. Old Peter sat nearby watching them, remembering his own youth at this same camp, more than three generations past. “Good. Boys, don’t let ‘em fresh ones touch. Looks real good, alright”. The Athapaskan practices of harvesting fall salmon sprang from more than ten millennia of successful occupation and cultural adaptation in this tenuous region.
The rheumy-eyed old man and his doting female relatives sensed that a cold storm was quickly arriving on blustery winds. Kids skipping flat rocks were called in to help. They worked together to better fasten tarps over sagging fish racks and wall tents. The canyon funneled the cold air descending from the mountains. Kids gathered up loose stuff under close direction; some moved gas jugs, then struggled to move cutting tables and totes higher up to the low willows, others moved water jugs and firewood to the cabin porch.
The old man supervised, then turned to slowly drape a small tarp over some firewood and bent to scratch the eager young husky’s ears. Engrossed in a distant time, Old Peter stood with his back to the fire, thinking of the boatload of rowdy partiers who came up from the village hunting caribou a week ago. He had firmly shamed them at the beach and turned them away. Flames licked up yellow and sent searching sparks to the darkening water’s edge. A fish camp at the end of the run of salmon, was ending with a powerful storm front.
The roiling, leaden clouds lowered in the first hours of night, smearing the early stars then quickly obscuring them. Cold raindrops began to pock the dark grey sand in the firelight. The thickening veils of rain began a steady staccato beat on the taught blue tarps and cabin roof. Fish soup and warm fry bread contented the extended family eating in the cabin and on the porch, as rapidly dimming light enveloped the camp.
After a long two weeks of fish harvest and tedium and being bossed around, the older boys wanted to retreat to the tents and relax in their own way. They happily ducked in following a final check of the riverboats, their only lifeline to the village. Sonny tied the tent flaps closed as wet coats and ballcaps were hung. The young men smiled while rubbing hands and wrists over the comforting box stove. They made tea and flopped down onto sleeping bags to lounge, talking village basketball and girls in the hissing lantern light. Two boys lit cigarettes and puffed furtively causing Sonny to shake his head dismissively.
The campfire that still pitch-popped in steamy defiance projected a flickering light on the canvas tent walls. The metal stovepipe whined and rattled in the rush of stronger gusts. Drivels of water ran down the pipe and popped as they skittered like liquid mercury on the hot stovetop. Sonny smiled knowing that the end of fish camp was at hand.
After a bit, as they settled, he turned the lantern knob down and off. They all stared at the hissing mantle quietly flaring yellow, until it finally blinked out giving way to utter dark except for the red ember of their smokes. After a time, their joking faded as the sounds of the storm grew louder.
Hours later, events well beyond their experiences were unfolding in the darkness. Desperation overcame caution as the sow padded closer to the silent camp nose up, testing the swirling, wet air. She nervously stopped, fidgeted, almost turning back again, then led her cub forward. A rich mix of wood smoke, stinking humans, dog and hanging fish overwhelmed her conflicting senses as she approached with much of the wind in her face. The thick odors of desperately needed calories stoked her drive to live on.
Padding past the tethered boats, coming within a few paces of the nearest wall tent shape, she stopped, raised her broad nose and cocked battle-torn ears. With her head lowered and brown pig-eyes focused on the fish swinging nearby, some movement near the steaming fire drew her attention.
As her wet bulk loomed in the dark, her rank odor flooded the shaking pup with dread. His defensive reactions, deeply formed by eons of violent wolf-bear competition, were negated by the inability to flee as the jaws of certain death gaped. His whimpers, cowering at the far end of the short chain were drowned out by flapping tarps and drumming rain as the sow lunged with a skull crushing bite. A gust of wind momentarily flared the sputtering fire, casting an orange light on her glistening form bolting meat and hide and a still-beating heart. The cub was cast in the same dim glow paused at the racks of fish.
The edgy bears aggressively pulled down slabs of protein-rich salmon to shred and swallow without concerns for their safety. The young bear pulled down a whole rack of fish creating a sharp cracking sound followed by urgent growling as the lashing rain lulled. Only then did the camp erupt in awareness of grave danger in camp.
A woman’s strained voice called to the teens, then escalated to shouts of alarm as she threw aside the tent flap and raked her flashlight toward the falling fish racks. She screamed from the depths of human experience as she reacted to the savage danger and chaos. The bears steamed in the jouncing light, broad heads down, a glint of red eye shine like from beyond the cave mouth of distant time. The winter’s dried fish were being torn apart like cardboard and devoured in the slant of rain.
Momentarily frozen in place, transfixed by overwhelming fear just steps from the frenzied beasts, the woman cried out again before the sow hit her hard and low, knocking her to the ground. The savage biting and shaking of her limp form were a blur of shocking violence, an instinctual threat response geared to meet much larger and more powerful beasts in close quarters. The sprawling camp became a cacophony of terrified shouts and sweeping beams of hand lights. Someone loudly banged a metal pot and called to Jesus. Some younger kids wailed, abandoned in tents. Flapping tarps snapped wildly on the collapsing racks.
A dark visage struggled into the screen of wet brush, dragging a limp form as errant muzzle blasts momentarily lit the awful scene. “Stop shooting, God Dammit! Stop! Stop now!”. In the sudden quiet, ears ringing, ignoring concerned pleas, Sonny edged to the place his Mom had bravely stood, stepped up on the wood-splitting stump, and stared into the expanse of brush.
His anguish and fear were claustrophobic. Rocking side to side, rain mixing with tears, he repeatedly shouted to his mother, rifle at the ready, desperate to react to a response of some kind. He swept his magnum light and rifle barrel together but saw nothing other than the thick alders waving violently further and further upslope into the dark wall of spruce. Then no sounds but dead spruce branches snapping deeper and deeper into the thick forest.
The wind strained through the invisible treetops and the rain pelted Sonny as he stared in disbelief. Stepping down, he folded to his knees in the sand. Too stunned and dry mouthed to shout any longer, he trembled in confusion. His light shone on a blood-stained scarf in the waving tangle of soggy brush. He listened but didn’t want to hear. There was nothing but wind and rain and muffled commotions at the cabin.
His cousin Edward lifted him to his feet from behind with impossible strength, urging him up and toward the cabin to join the others. The last to seek refuge, they slammed the heavy plank door behind them. In the hissing light of the lantern, wide-eyed women tried to soothe huddled, sobbing children. The terrible weight of the tragedy and the sickening realization that a loved one, a family leader, was out there in the darkness alone, smothered them as they stared, heads shaking, at one another. Tears flowing on his cheeks, Sonny nervously paced, hands on head, softly, repetitively calling his mother’s name.
Each scraping of branches on the cabin walls elicited cries and intense stares toward the rain-lashed windows and door. Old Peter, feeling helpless, motioned to Sonny to help fill a couple of kerosene lamps on the table. After shakily trimming the blackened wicks, he lit them knowing that the gas lanterns could not last much longer. Every noise jangled nerves. Darkness was unthinkable. One of the sobbing kids remembered the pup, but no one responded.
The group trauma waned over the first hours with the crash after an adrenalin dump. It had been a shared primordial experience of fight or flight response for all but the infants. Another lantern still hissed brightly as it hung from the porch beam, while small white moths circled in the dying breeze, confusing it with the moon.
Talk faded, youngsters slept fitfully, adults stared unseeing. Sonny and his older cousins leaned against the window frames squinting out the rain-smeared windows into the wet gloom, flashlights in hand. The cramped room quieted with the cessation of women soothing youngsters as everyone settled into a stupefied state of endless waiting for first light, nauseated by what it could portend. As the night hours passed and the gentle white noise of steady rain thrummed, Sonny began to find a voice for what he aimed to do once the first moments of light returned.
Old Peter, hunched forward seated on an old wooden box, nodded in agreement knowing that Sonny could not, would not, hold back. Without mentioning the hoary beasts by name, he sternly cautioned Sonny about the left-pawed nature of grizzly and the ferocious danger lying in ambush in the thickest brush. The old man whispered “you see big dirt pile, come back. Right away. Take Edward, spread out, walk real slow”.
The laid-back hooting of Great Horned owls who perched, large eyes blinking on the far ridge, belied the human calamity playing out into the crucial last act. Sonny repeatedly promised aloud that he would find his mother. He looked grim, staring into the abyss, while the others watched him in concern and little hope. He gripped his rifle tightly, rolling extra rifle cartridges in his palm like rosary beads, then repeated in a strong voice “No matter what.”