Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted December 20, 2020 at 5:30 am by

“Freez­er Burned: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka” is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi.

The Mail Will Be Delivered: Part I

On a daz­zling autumn day, some­time in the mid-1930s, Eddie Hin­der­mann tipped his hat back paus­ing in his labors, lean­ing on a shov­el, catch­ing a blow.  He squint­ed while look­ing upriv­er into the sparkle of reflect­ed sun­light.  His sweat­ed shirt cooled his back as he scanned the col­or-splashed ter­rain of the Yukon Riv­er. Hard frosty nights, always a chance at a moose or two now.  In the alpine back­ground, grey lime­stone peaks long ago pushed up from an ancient ocean floor that was raft­ed in from the depths of time, shoul­dered the deep val­ley of the Taton­duk Riv­er that quick­ly flowed to mix with the broad milky river. 

For the lanky man with strong Atha­paskan fea­tures, it was a famil­iar, yet very dis­tinct land­scape giv­en the tight warp and weave of old nat­ur­al ele­ments and recent human inter­ests. Sto­ries with­in sto­ries revealed.  The notable land­forms exhib­it high­ly var­ied geol­o­gy, slow­ly sculpt­ed by the time­less flow­ing riv­er, but not u‑shaped by vast bull-doz­ing val­ley glac­i­ers.  The deep con­ti­nen­tal region was far too arid.  Remark­able cliffs tow­er many hun­dreds of feet above the shore­line or stand majes­ti­cal­ly beyond a grey-green scrim of for­est.  Unique­ly col­ored and shaped, they all car­ry notable names. 

The scat­tered loca­tions of indi­vid­u­als and camps, all deter­mined­ly engaged in resource use, were equal­ly dis­tinct out­crops, but of human­i­ty.  The recent New Deal recov­ery poli­cies includ­ed increased gold prices from $20 to $35 per ounce and for­bid­ding hoard­ing, to stim­u­late late Depres­sion mon­e­tary expan­sion.  Coastal fish­eries and log­ging shrank back but the scant pop­u­la­tion of Alas­ka (less than 2,000 res­i­dents in Fair­banks) and espe­cial­ly bush Alas­ka, hardy and self-reliant, changed little.

In the 1930s the south bank plac­er min­ing oper­a­tions at Eagle, 4th of July, Coal, Ben and Wood­chop­per Creeks ben­e­fit­ting from the huge Tinti­na Fault zone, buzzed with activ­i­ty and increased mech­a­niza­tion. No gold was ever found on the north­side of the huge fault and present riv­er course. Stern­wheel­ers trans­port­ed all the mate­ri­als; pipe for hydraulic noz­zles, build­ing mate­ri­als, heavy equip­ment, rails and cars for nar­row gauge rail­roads and huge float­ing buck­et dredges shipped piece­meal from indus­tri­al cen­ters like Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia to be reassem­bled on site.

As the con­tract U.S. mail car­ri­er, fol­low­ing in his father’s snow­shoe tracks, he was hard at work prepar­ing for a win­ter of freight­ing and mail deliv­ery by dog sled over the 160 mile stretch between Eagle and Cir­cle City, Alas­ka.  His broth­er, Adolf, was his part­ner and back­up carrier. 

With deep fam­i­ly roots, “Yukon water in his veins”, Eddie was one of nine sur­viv­ing chil­dren from the last­ing mar­riage of an enter­pris­ing Bohemi­an immi­grant and a deter­mined Atha­paskan woman who hap­pened to be the grand-daugh­ter of a clan chief of renown.  An old­er broth­er died in 1919, dur­ing the influen­za pan­dem­ic, out at Nome.  A favorite lit­tle sis­ter had drowned in a boat­ing acci­dent and was nev­er found.  For years after Eddie walked back sloughs search­ing log jams for some sign of her remains.  The cold north­ern waters have tak­en many native lives through his­to­ry as swim­ming is not a life skill taught.

Hin­der­mann Camp had been pur­pose­ly built halfway between the two shrink­ing fron­tier riv­er towns for the good fish­ing sites.   A patch­work of stur­dy log cab­ins, a large gar­den patch and roofed dry­ing racks for split salmon clus­tered on a lev­el bank twen­ty feet above high­wa­ter.  Scores of local sled dogs were board­ed and chained along the beach in sum­mers, while sev­er­al tons of dried salmon were baled for trans­port via steam­boat.  Old man Hin­der­mann suc­cess­ful­ly bid on the win­ter mail con­tract for “the loneli­est mail route” in 1912 as the region steadi­ly depop­u­lat­ed fol­low­ing the waves of migra­tions to new dis­cov­er­ies fueled by viral rumors of new rich­es after all the good ground was staked.   In 1925 or there­abouts, after over a decade of car­ry­ing mail he bad­ly froze his feet, lost some toes, and teen-aged Eddie had to step up to fin­ish out the win­ter and keep the contract.

Sev­er­al long, nar­row riv­er boats hugged the cob­bled shore at their home­site as two large fish­wheels turned in the tur­bid cur­rent caus­ing their wood­en axles to moan with each splashy turn.  Sev­er­al hun­dred fall chum salmon were still labo­ri­ous­ly processed by the fam­i­ly every day even as the peak sea­son wound down.  The drop­ping water lev­els required reg­u­lar adjust­ments to the wheels and sub­merged ‘fences’ that guid­ed the migrat­ing salmon into the curved wire baskets. 

Eddie had come from Eagle and was hard at work repair­ing shore­line access to the wide trails in the for­est that had been used for decades to cut across large riv­er bends, con­nect­ing most of the active road­hous­es and gold min­ing oper­a­tions strung along the riv­er. Come Novem­ber 1st he would be bat­tling rough ice and open water where steep bluffs forced stick­ing to the riv­er to reach the trail cor­ri­dors with his large dog team and tra­di­tion­al sled.  With few excep­tions, 500 pounds was the load limit. 

High sum­mer water always left drift logs and cut banks that need­ed to be cut out and filled in before snow­fall.  Treefall and wild­fire wreaked hav­oc, and if oth­er locals hadn’t already cleaned things up, would neces­si­tate rerout­ing or clear­ing for mail trans­port lat­er on. Shov­el, pick­axe and cross­cut saw work left him and his teen-aged nephew, Joseph, sweat­ing and brush­ing away a few mos­qui­tos in the mid-day warmth.

They built a tea fire, fried up sliced Spam, and warmed fry­bread for lunch while sharp­en­ing tools. Eddie teased his teen-aged nephew as they smoked.  He well knew that his church-going sis­ter dis­ap­proved of tobac­co use and grinned while imi­tat­ing her wor­ried voice describ­ing dis­cov­er­ing women’s under­gar­ment pages ripped from the Sears Cat­a­logue under Joseph’s bed frame.  Blush­ing and mut­ter­ing some the seri­ous young man stood and start­ed packing. 

As they kicked grav­el over the coals and tot­ed the lunch box and tools, the rhyth­mic churn­ing of a steam­boat announced the approach of the SS Yukon II push­ing a barge and car­ry­ing mail from Fair­banks to Eagle and riv­er out­posts.  Prob­a­bly one of the last runs of the sea­son.  Cap Cob­bett sound­ed the horn from the high wheel­house as a cou­ple of deck­hands waved to Eddie as he hur­ried to motor their 32-foot wood­en river­boat out to cut the rolling wake of the stern­wheel­er that steadi­ly pushed upriv­er in the main channel.

Eddie hollered over the two-jug diesel “not too much wood on her deck, bet he woods-up at Miller Camp.  Lot of those fuel bar­rels prob­a­bly for his trac­tor.   You see Bar­ney Hanson’s new truck on the barge!” Joseph nod­ded as they turned down­riv­er, but was think­ing of Heinie Miller’s attrac­tive daugh­ters and the berry pie they had shared yes­ter­day.  Over strong cof­fee, the for­get­ful Heinie repeat­ed the sto­ry about his wood­cut­ter who had been felling on Wood Island in ear­ly May, when the surg­ing breakup ice jammed at the bluff.   The rapid back­up of swirling cold flood water forced him to belt him­self high in a big spruce tree for 24 sleep­less hours before the ice dam broke and murky water reced­ed.   The high water and ice had float­ed off 75 cords of neat­ly stacked boil­er wood and flood­ed a cou­ple of cab­ins around the busy camp.

Eddie knew most of the con­tract wood­cut­ters oper­at­ing every 15–20 miles along the riv­er.  Many were native fel­lows.  They labored all win­ter to pro­vide a con­tract­ed amount of 4‑foot cordage at the bank where a com­pa­ny stern­wheel­er could nose in.   These sim­ple camps were lone­ly out­posts where dense stands of small­er trees stood.  Dark to dark, the brief days of win­ter were punc­tu­at­ed with the thunk of dou­ble-bit axes and rhyth­mic cross­cut saw­ing.  Miller used a cranky old cable D‑2 cat, more rust­ed than yel­low, to pull tan­dem wood drays to the riv­er bank.   Most oth­ers used a few big dogs or hors­es with lighter loads. 

The shal­low draft stern­wheel­ers burned a cord (128 cubic feet) or more per hour to make steam to churn at tops 7 mph against the cur­rent, loaded with every imag­in­able kind of freight.  The fire­men were low­est on the pay scale and toiled in pairs to fever­ish­ly stoke the cav­ernous fire­box while under­way.  All of the load­ing and unload­ing at the bank, almost with­out respite under the mid­night sun, required human toil and inge­nu­ity using long ramps, met­al wheeled bar­rows, large block and tack­le and boom hoists. 

The shift­ing riv­er bars and chan­nel changes required excel­lent nav­i­ga­tion skills and read­ing the roil­ing waters.  Get­ting free of a sand­bar, espe­cial­ly when ground­ed on a nervy down­stream run, could only be rec­ti­fied in a few ways, all time-con­sum­ing; tem­porar­i­ly offload freight, run winch cables to large shore­line trees, wash out the bar with the pad­dle wheel reversed or use the bow spars to “walk” off the bar like on crutch­es.  Or pray and wait for more water.  The haz­ards to flesh and bone from the immense counter-forces involved in these oper­a­tions were many.

Eddie had once put in a sum­mer as a deck­hand but soon regret­ted the end­less hours and noise, much-pre­fer­ring activ­i­ties around the fam­i­ly home­stead dur­ing the sum­mer and being his own boss all win­ter.  He was angered by the crude­ness and overt racism of some of the crusty deck­hands, espe­cial­ly those from the Mis­souri Riv­er.  The loud brag­ging about the vil­lage women they plied with alco­hol dur­ing fes­tive fid­dle dances sick­ened him.  His only sea­son was cut short when he bad­ly crushed two fin­gers (los­ing one) while off-load­ing steel fuel bar­rels.  The next spring, due to his exten­sive local knowl­edge, he was hired to help map and mark the changed main chan­nel on the offi­cial nav­i­ga­tion cutter.

As the pair motored down­riv­er there was smoke on the water from many stoves and camp­fires, seem­ing­ly at every creek mouth where boats and stuff were beached.  Eddie dropped Joey and an ax at the ruins of Mon­tauk Road­house plan­ning to meet him at the oth­er end of the 5‑mile trail cours­ing through stunt­ed black spruce and annoy­ing sedge tus­socks (every­one called them ‘nig­ger­heads’).  As expect­ed, there was lit­tle main­te­nance need­ed giv­en the small, sparse trees.  Eddie had a smooth ramp con­struct­ed by the time Joseph showed up thirsty and sweat­ed up, say­ing that he had jumped a mul­li­gan bull and cow moose.  He dunked his head in the riv­er.  The win­ter trail from where they sat would course behind miles of islands and in dry sloughs, “about as good as it gets” said Eddie.  All the way to Trout Creek.

As they motored down­riv­er, Eddie expect­ed that Chris Nel­son would be build­ing a cab­in at Nation Bluff after fix­ing old trapline cab­ins far up the Nation itself over the sum­mer.  Nel­son was a tall, wiry ‘Scan­da­hoov­ian’ bach­e­lor who like every­one else prospect­ed some and trapped fur.  Eddie knew that Nel­son had attract­ed the atten­tion of Sam White, a wide-rang­ing bush pilot and game war­den, over trapline infringe­ments and reput­ed ille­gal use of strych­nine to kill wolves and bears.  Nel­son was nick­named “Phono­graph” for his habit of fill­ing any lulls in a con­ver­sa­tion with mean­ing­less utter­ances.   Smoke drift­ed through the spruce to the river­bank, float­ing on the water, as they qui­et­ly eased in and tied up next to a tun­nel boat that had seen bet­ter days.

Nel­son was mut­ter­ing and cussing a blue streak using a gin-pole to raise a log to his new cab­in wall when heard Eddie call out “Hey the cab­in!” and saw them come around the pole cache.  His old mangy husky was all but blind and deaf, curled sleep­ing.  “Jesus H Christ, Willie, ya good for nut­tin’ mutt, Eddie got the drop of me!”.  He leaned down and gave Willie a rub then greet­ed his vis­i­tors.  “Hey dere fel­las!, Eddie whatcha car­ry­ing there, any­hoose?  How ‘bout tea”, point­ing to the stumps and black­ened tea can at the fire pit.

“Chris, this here is a nephew Joseph, and we brought along your mail and some books, most­ly those detec­tive sto­ries you like, from Eagle.  Looks like a roof over your head by snow if you’re ready to bend down some, eh”? joshed Eddie in his easy-going man­ner, sip­ping the caus­tic tea. “That lap sid­ing from the Fort will go up quick for the entry if that’s your plan, I guess”.  “Ya, dats the big idea, Eddie.  I know I got­ta get my dogs back up from your old man and pay up, those cab­ins up ta Nation are good to go, workin’ all sum­mer on ‘em, you betcha”. 

Joseph sat back lis­ten­ing in but was enjoy­ing perus­ing the lurid paper­back cov­ers in the open box, that main­ly seemed to be about bosomy blonds in dis­tress.  They spoke of min­ing camp doings, the “Mad Trap­per” and the sto­ry of Louise Paul fend­ing off a griz­zly com­ing in a win­dow with a chair to pro­tect her kids at a Coal Creek cabin.

After a time, Eddie glanced at his pock­et watch and tossed the dregs of his tea while ris­ing.  “Chris, your dogs are good alright, so come get ‘em”.  “Ya, Eddie, I tell ya one t’ing, you see those damned Van Bib­ber broth­ers comin’ through lat­er on you tell ‘em stay the hell off my trails and out­ta my cab­ins.  Can’t help if dere lead dogs step in my main trail wolf sets, can I now?  Ain’t gone sign em’ tat’s fer sure!  Damned nosey Canucks mus­ta turned me in to dat fly­ing war­den both­erin’ us now.  I won’t for­get it”!

Eddie nod­ded with­out com­ment but knew that Nel­son had been break­ing the new laws.  He nudged Joseph out of his fan­tasies and start­ed back down the wind­ing path with Chris and Willie bring­ing up the rear.  “Good wet­ter sure now ta hang a moose, wood cut­ting you bet…ah ah ah ya ah eh ah ah ah em, and tanks for dem good books! Chris con­tin­ued his mut­ter­ing as they nod­ded, tugged hats tighter and eased the long­boat back out on the wide riv­er that flowed toward the roseate skies to the west.

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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