Freezer Burned: The Ides of October

Posted November 6, 2020 at 5:30 am by

“FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka” is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update.

By Steve Ulvi, San Juan Island

Duck­ing through the plank door, cof­fee ther­mos dan­gling in hand, I paused to take in the sky while stretch­ing my sore back and shoulders.

Breath­ing deeply, I was invig­o­rat­ed by the brisk 55 degrees tem­per­a­ture drop from the cloy­ing warmth of the cabin.

Pulling on dried cot­ton gloves, I grabbed my slime gear from a wood­en peg and heft­ed my sheathed rifle. (I learned the hard way that a firearm had to be reli­gious­ly degreased with warm diesel oil, espe­cial­ly the bolt, to pre­vent the fir­ing pin from freez­ing up. Tak­ing a cold rifle into a warm space leads to “sweat­ing” and rust). Best de-oiled and left just out­side the door in winter.

Step­ping off the pole porch, I waved to my ear­ly-ris­ing, 5‑year old daugh­ter, excit­ed to be read­ing new school books at the table. The home­school pro­gram coor­di­na­tor had recent­ly flown in to land on the riv­er, vis­it and drop off ini­tial school sup­plies. Lena’s mom and her lit­tle broth­er, Eli, still slum­bered in the tiny back room. The old mul­ti-paned, wavy glass front win­dow made it a reas­sur­ing, sepia-toned scene.

A skiff of snow and cold­er weath­er ener­gized our sleek and well-furred sled dogs cir­cling on their chains. Break­ing ice on the water buck­et, I sloshed their bowls full. Per­haps they would get a boat-run lat­er. The half-dozen large work­ing dogs had gorged on cooked fish, rice and lard for weeks. It was time to build more car­dio and mus­cle for our essen­tial work­ing companions.

The dis­tinct aro­ma of fer­ment­ed high bush cran­ber­ries taint­ed the frosty air after I passed by the gar­den beds full of buried fish guts. The lone dog staked there to warn us of threats to our irre­place­able fish, greet­ed me, rump gyrat­ing. A risky job best done by a less­er dog. Step­ping down the trail to the river­bank, a pair of roughed grouse, shad­owed by about half of the young they hatched in the spring, were leap­ing up and pluck­ing shriv­eled berries. They rejoiced in their way on a frost­ed car­pet of yel­low leaves. They had plen­ty to watch for; lynx, red fox, the odd coy­ote, wolf, marten, goshawks, great horned owls and our .22 rifle. They are a sweet change of fare or “treat meat” around, tast­ing pheasant-like.

Drop­ping onto the slop­ing shore­line, by long habit I paused to look down and then up the riv­er, sliced by the cut bor­der swath, mak­ing the 141st merid­i­an vis­i­ble, and sep­a­rat­ing the US from the Social­ist Nation of Hock­ey Land, and some of our favorite bush friends. The Yukon was steadi­ly drop­ping, clear­ing like a huge moun­tain stream. Nar­row shelves of clear ice formed along the frozen silt banks and cob­ble, with the night­ly tem­per­a­tures down around 10 F. The sum­mer glacial del­uge from the head­wa­ters was shut down, stop­ping the flush­ing of mil­lions of pounds of ground-up moun­tain par­ti­cles that had passed our place hourly, cloud­ing the river.

For a moment I lost myself in the inde­scrib­able sense of sat­is­fac­tion look­ing over the neat­ly tarped A‑frame racks, where near­ly 1,300 dry­ing chum salmon“splits” and 250 whole fish were freez­ing nice­ly. At the peak Lynette and I had picked, cut and hung as many as 200 fish a day; exhaust­ed, fin­gers and hands swollen, the cuts sting­ing until salved dai­ly with fresh spruce pitch. A local raven ‘karocked’ to announce my pres­ence, echoes return­ing across the river.

We were near­ly done with the toil of dog­food fish­ing, had a good pile of stove wood, food treats and a fat bull moose hang­ing. That made me feel like a mil­lion bucks, look­ing into the maw of win­ter. Our young fam­i­ly didn’t always have a moose and so much dog food to go along with pick­led gar­den goods, cas­es of king salmon, black bear and ducks along with dozens of bags and buck­ets of sta­ple foods. Cari­bou, Dall sheep and espe­cial­ly high­ly cyclic snow­shoe hares some­times filled the win­ter larder. This had been an unusu­al­ly healthy run of fall chum, both in num­bers and robust size.

The first slush ice was slow­ly spin­ning down the edge of the grow­ing shelf ice, in garbage can lid cir­cu­lar pans. The slow water of gill net eddies would soon ice in, as brit­tle winds rat­tled the bare hard­wood branch­es. Rapid­ly coag­u­lat­ing riv­er ice would soon iso­late us at Windy Cor­ner with no means of out­side con­tact for 5–8 weeks.

The Inte­ri­or of Alas­ka, a sub­arc­tic cli­mat­ic region, is win­ter-dom­i­nant, unfor­giv­ing. Octo­ber is the month that eras­es the glo­ry of autumn and invites the inten­si­fy­ing pen­e­tra­tion of cold as each day shrinks by over 6 min­utes, and tem­per­a­tures above the freez­ing mark dis­ap­pear until April. A very dry region, it takes weeks to accu­mu­late enough dry snow, a few inch­es at a time, to allow for effi­cient trans­porta­tion on land.

Ear­ly runs with a stur­dy wood­en tobog­gan had to be lim­it­ed to 3 or 4 dogs in har­ness, to avoid bust­ing up a more frag­ile bas­ket sled. Or hurt­ing our­selves or our dogs. Novem­ber opened fur trap­ping sea­sons, and bush res­i­dents fer­vent­ly hoped for a foot of snow and the riv­er to freeze safe­ly by Thanks­giv­ing or so. Trap­ping sea­son began by set­ting some short lines and tent camps, then extend­ing them as the snow­pack improved and side creeks froze.
Stand­ing in the bloody skiff, warm­ing up the vaporous 18 horse out­board, a large vee of black Surf Scot­ers (local­ly called “jaw ducks”) flew past, wingtips on the water bor­ing south to warmer coastal waters. Near­ly all the species of birds that enlivened our woods with col­or­ful, melod­ic and deter­mined life all sum­mer, were gone. The two dozen feath­ered species that stayed around for the deep freeze-from diminu­tive Bore­al Chick­adees to huge Great Grey Owls- would strug­gle with food scarci­ty and death­ly cold.

Our best 60-foot net was still in, tan­gled and bob­bing with a night’s catch, as I turned the skiff in to grab the met­al float can. Late run males could be over 10 pounds, with exot­ic dark grey-blue and red­dish-white flames on their sides. But they have nasty large teeth that tan­gled ter­ri­bly in a gill­net as they twist­ed, strug­gling to swim on. In frus­tra­tion, we cut off the jaws to untan­gle ‘em later.

I picked 18 fish, with quite a few egg-squirt­ing females, while bent over the low gun­wale most of an hour. The low sun inflamed the pal­isade of leaf­less poplar trees skirt­ing the bank. We had decid­ed to pull out after the evening check and call it good. There remained the daunt­ing labor of phys­i­cal­ly haul­ing sev­er­al tons of fish up the bank, then up a lad­der into a 15-foot high cache, to be tarped over. Pole racks would have to be unlashed, dis­man­tled and stowed safe­ly with the tubs, nets, and cut­ting table. Soon, we would also haul the boat and out­board motor well up under the big spruce. But there could be one more chilly, 12-mile run to town for the last mail and fall gossip.

As I was hang­ing the last fish whole, by fives, with a stick through a slit near the tail, I heard the sur­pris­ing whine of an out­board down­riv­er. Maybe a trick of the gusty wind? My head cocked, lis­ten­ing, I final­ly saw the speck of a river­boat zing­ing along with a small roost­er tail. A fad­ed green met­al boat, funky ply­wood cab­in with house win­dows and a small tat­tered pirate flag. I’ll be damned, got­ta be Archie Ferguson!

As usu­al, he came in kin­da hot and bumped hard up on the sand. I grabbed his tan­gled bow rope and smiled as he stepped out into the shal­lows, grin­ning and grip­ping the neck of a bot­tle of hootch. “Mail deliv­ery and good­ies and me”! he almost bel­lowed as we shook gloved hands. I tapped my ear to remind him of his earplugs after he grabbed his bulging, stained day­pack from the bow. “You’re just in time for lunch, let’s go warm up”.

Archie told a cou­ple of crude jokes as we walked up the trail to the cab­in. His range of dirty sto­ries and jokes was ency­clo­pe­dic. A cou­ple was even appro­pri­ate for kids. We were laugh­ing like lock­er room teens as Lynette pushed open the door, kids cling­ing at her knees. Archie took off his snow­ma­chine suit and ski hat, tossed them on the porch and fol­lowed us in to the warmth and divine aro­ma of fresh bread. Lynette hugged Archie as the kids stood back a bit, unsure. Our sag­gy-dia­pered son stood way back timid­ly star­ing at his red­dened bare feet. With braid­ed hair falling well below her bum, my good wife poured steam­ing tea and a fin­ger of cheap whiskey into our enam­el cups as we settled.

Archie asked to wash up a bit, then returned from the enam­el basin wet fin­ger-comb­ing his wild hair, shap­ing his drip­ping beard. He wiped off on his sleeves to save from “foul­ing our good fam­i­ly tow­els”. By now the kids were star­ing at his pack as he reset­tled, mor­ph­ing into the affa­ble, disheveled, off-sea­son (off-col­or) San­ta Claus that he was. He pulled out some rub­ber-band­ed mail and a cou­ple small parcels with fan­fare. With a glance, we set them aside for lat­er. Then, with the tim­ing of a plaid-shirt­ed magi­cian, he pro­duced two frozen Eski­mo Pies and oranges for the kids, los­ing pure delight.

We elbowed up to fried moose steak, thick gravy and fresh bread slathered with Archie’s salt­ed but­ter, while riv­er gos­sip flowed from him between bites. He nod­ded approv­ing­ly over the pick­led beets, tak­ing anoth­er swig from his cup.

“You know that guy call­ing him­self ‘Riv­er Wind’? He left after three months of talk­ing big about becom­ing a trap­per. About all he com­plet­ed at his island camp­site was to care­ful­ly carve his far­away gal’s name on a slab and nail it to a tree”. Anoth­er younger guy we all knew, Josh, had in the spring joined a mar­ried cou­ple, Sharon and Will, as a three­some in their 20’ x 20’ cab­in. “They are still at it, but Will has become increas­ing­ly frus­trat­ed, not with shar­ing, but that he could not see the elves the oth­er two claimed to see in the gar­den”. A good woman we all knew had packed up and high­tailed it out the Tay­lor High­way to escape anoth­er grind­ing win­ter hud­dled in a can­vas tent with a lazy part­ner. “Sure wish she’d thought of me first” grinned Archie.

“Any­way, some dirty dog snapped sum­mer pho­tos of Charley Grun­der­son, who often gar­dens, you guys know, naked as a jay­bird near the boat land­ing. Nev­er mind that Charley is a kind­ly, old, skin­ny man with­out any mem­o­rable phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es. Of course, the col­or pho­tos were recent­ly shared around the com­mu­ni­ty, where I hear most of the pious Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ist women took a good long look and blushed”.

“Did you hear that good old Max wait­ed for his chance, then locked Big Junior in the town well­house mak­ing time to gath­er up Junior’s wife, Anna, and togeth­er they mushed out to his trapline? Last I heard, Junior was still venge­ful and look­ing to char­ter a plane to air­drop cement blocks on Max’s main cab­in” Archie hooted.
But the best for last. “A few days back a slack-ribbed, Cana­di­an griz­zly walked down the oth­er side of the riv­er” point­ing across the riv­er, “then was seen near the vil­lage cre­at­ing instant 5‑alarm pan­ic, some­how avoid­ed being shot, to then pull fish from a rack in town, chained dogs set­ting up a hul­la­balu. This, of course, ignit­ed a con­fla­gra­tion of fear, every­one pack­ing firearms every­where. Hard to imag­ine a griz hid­ing in someone’s out­house, eh?”, Archie snig­gered. “Bruce Janky real­ly want­ed to kill that griz­zly, so he vol­un­teered to stake out the racks each night. The next night, with nerves jan­gling in dim­ming light he touched off his shoul­der can­non at the head-lamped shape, man­ag­ing to fatal­ly wound the maraud­ing bear. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, giv­en the snarky ten­den­cies of busy-bod­ies safe­ly locked behind doors, he also per­fo­rat­ed Mikey’s 12 rental canoes that were all set neat­ly in a row”. We laughed hard at that image.

Archie depart­ed after an hour, well-wish­ing all around. He hap­pi­ly accept­ed a nice three-rack of fat­ty moose ribs. As soon as the whine of his 50 horse Merc fad­ed, we set­tled into long naps smil­ing and thank­ful for Archie’s friend­ship. Lat­er on, we bun­dled up, let the dogs loose and with kids in the wheel­bar­row, led them to the riv­er. We hur­ried to fire up (leav­ing lit­tle time for fight­ing), and ran them a hard mile down the wide shore­line. They strung out, going up and over Hole in the Rock, leap­ing drift logs, while we paced and spurred them on. Tongues lolling, pant­i­ng hard, they were easy to con­trol for chain up and feed­ing once back up at the cabin.
I had some chores then motored to the gill net, pulled the cement anchor, tied the web up, piled it in the bow and sped back. Cir­rus clouds had giv­en way to dark­er, gauzy skies. Hang­ing the last dozen fish of the year was deeply sat­is­fy­ing as the veil of dusk crept in.

After an evening lis­ten­ing to a few sta­t­ic-free min­utes of CBC news, some blue­grass on our cas­sette tapes, and rehash­ing Archie’s vis­it, we slept sound­ly. Until after mid­night. I woke abrupt­ly to insis­tent bark­ing down at the gar­den, with those near the cab­in join­ing as a pack. It was an aggres­sive ‘bear-wolf bark’ that demand­ed my rapid inter­ven­tion. Throw­ing on some clothes and slip­ping into boots, bright head­lamp and flash­light both on, I stepped out into star­less dark­ness as wind raked the tow­er­ing spruce.

Cham­ber­ing a slug in my short-bar­reled pump shot­gun, I swept light across the dogs bark­ing and star­ing toward the gar­den 75 yards away in the black­ness. I walked quick­ly, direct­ing the fee­ble light to both sides of the trail look­ing for eye shine in the sur­round­ing for­est and behind me, until I could see the bark­ing watch­dog riv­et­ed on the unseen fish racks below. Step­ping quick­ly to the top of the steep ten-foot bank my light beams and gun bar­rel repeat­ed­ly swept the racks and beach where wind waves rhyth­mi­cal­ly dashed the small ice pans onshore, rock­ing our skiff. The bark­ing abrupt­ly stopped. In the Big Qui­et, I stood tin­gling, icy flakes strik­ing my cheeks, ful­ly alive in myth­ic human time.

You can support the San Juan Update by doing business with our loyal advertisers, and by making a one-time contribution or a recurring donation.


Categories: Freezer Burned

No comments yet. Be the first!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

By submitting a comment you grant the San Juan Update a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate, irrelevant and contentious comments may not be published at an admin's discretion. Your email is used for verification purposes only, it will never be shared.

Receive new post updates: Entries (RSS)
Receive followup comments updates: RSS 2.0