Freezer Burned: No Matter What

Posted October 11, 2020 at 4:30 am by

“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.”

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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