Freezer Burned: The Ides of October
“FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Interior Alaska” is a regular column on the San Juan Update.
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.