Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
“Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska” is a regular column on the San Juan Update written by Steve Ulvi.
Cold Weather and Fuzzy Thinking
Whenever I look into the rearview mirror of my life gone by in Alaska; feeling nostalgic, needing a laugh and reality check, I call up Archie.
But like pickled herring piled on toast for breakfast, it is not something I want to do regularly.
If laughter is the best medicine then hearing Archie’s take on things is a swig of cod liver oil. His earthy humor is not constrained to jokes with punch lines but spontaneous riffs on the human condition.
He does not suffer fools nor stupid statements (my apologies to adherents of “How to Make Friends and Influence People,” but our times are a veritable blizzard of stupid public statements).
But he does so in a way that has earned him many unlikely allies. He ought to be paid a stipend to attend contentious public meetings (remember those?) to deslime bureaucratic blather and serve as a grounding rod of local truth. All with friendly humor.
He has dirt under his fingernails, his head in the sky. He attributes his “trust but verify” attitude about things to the part of his misspent youth in Vietnam, assigned to intelligence units and stateside reporters.
He always says that “if you have a moral compass and a backbone, it isn’t really possible to swallow bigger and bigger lies. Like eating a goat’s eyeball, the more you chew the bigger it gets!”
He left a premeditated voice message about my retirement to the Crown Jewels of Washington state, “where you have perfected the absurdity of employing hundreds of locals in an economic circular firing squad of pestering, studying, viewing, and protecting the magnificent declining Orcas.” Another element of his practiced snark is to remind me of my youth in California; a dreamy, singularly self-conscious place, constipated with traffic, whose proud state flag honors a magnificent creature purposely exterminated to make yet more room for sheep and cows. Ed Abbey famously referred to these dull-witted creatures as “land maggots” fouling public lands.
If we can’t sit around a blazing campfire, we prefer yakking by phone. Years back, after a couple of weeks on Faceplant he quickly fled rather than to tolerate one more insipid or snarky comment from the obscurity of distance. We all ought to remember how those sad, frustrated, caged monkeys at zoos waited patiently until you approached the bars, then gleefully flung their own clumped feces at you with great accuracy. The same immediate branch of primate evolution as humans.
He picked up last Sunday morning (just before not going to church), at his slumping cabin on a cut-off slough, in good spirits and well-caffeinated. “Archie here!” He had just clumped home, moon boots untied and trapper hat askew I am sure, from the village post office clutching junk mail fire starter and yet another fruit cake from his sister in Texas. Being scientifically inclined, Archie has conducted many an experiment with these baked rings of unidentified candied substances and proved that they will never go bad (how would you know, I ask?).
Before he goes low, I go lower. “Hey there Archie. How’s your love life these days”? Pregnant pause. “Well, that is below the belt, Champ! But since you ask, I found out that I still had bonus points at that international dating service that made possible my short-lived cohabitation with ‘Big Katrina’. You remember that gal! Just when we were making sweet music she was deported back to Kazakhstan to face criminal charges”.
“Get this; besides a background check, that dating service now requires a recent time stamped photo of me as well as my residence! No hope there, so I paid for a shower and a haircut, patted down with ‘Odor Eater’ foot powder, and turned up my charm under the bright lights of Saturday night bingo. But the half dozen single women roughly my age laughed out loud at the mere hint of a relationship. To rub salt in the visible wounds of old age, our local barber, ‘Oscar the Slasher’, couldn’t decide where to stop trimming my back hair that he said was billowing out of my t-shirt collar like a mullet extension that had taken root”.
“Whoa Archie, I want to forget that image! Moving on, “so, I heard that after a wet summer up there, freeze-up has been stop and go for many weeks, once again. Not like that in the ’70s, although the climatic weirdness was already started. I was reading about the last dog team mail carriers in the 1930s up there. I couldn’t believe that their contracts started on November 1st between Eagle and Circle City! Nowadays they would have to carry a big rowboat on the over-loaded sled, like arctic explorers with an ice crushed ship on the shifting polar ice pack”!
“You got that right, big changes. But I think that we have a clearer sense of our local history here, very grounded. The illuminating concept of ‘Sliding Baseline Syndrome’, born right there in your fouled, greatly diminished waters, says it all. It is really destructive social amnesia that leads to shirking ecological responsibility by each generation. How many of your exurban neighbors down there on La La Island foolishly think they live in a “pristine” landscape? Most of ‘em regularly jetted all over the world before this virus, and drive fashionable SUVs and fancy trucks the whole 6 miles to the post office and store?
I think you all suffer from serious delusion as to just how vulnerable you are as our climate doomsday clock ticks down. I am glad to be here at the very end of the road where we go without a lot, but nature provides. We work together to be sure no one suffers. More egalitarian. We understand that uncertainty is the rule. Wait and see what happens when push comes to serious shove down there on the watery margins of your exploding Pugetopolis in just a few short years.”
“Ha-ha Archie, I think that is true but what is going to happen to you when fuel for local power generation triples there? Alaska foolishly went all-in on oil. With your brilliant Town Council changing long-standing street names from Jefferson or Adams to Trump! And your “Don’t Tread on Me” infinitesimal taxes are gonna help how?”
Since it was Winter Solstice, I wanted to move on to the long, cold subarctic winters that defined our early lives. Archie didn’t bat an eye, “Now deep cold is the exception rather than the age-old rule and everything is in flux. Not just the drastic disappearing tidewater glaciers and polar ice pack, but here in the Interior. I now garden outdoors a full month longer than in the 1970s. People are growing fruit trees. More thaws and rain in winter. Deer and cougars are slowly moving up from Canada. Bark beetles are killing spruce on the lower Yukon, permafrost thawing everywhere, fish runs declining”.
Getting back to cold weather I said “you know that native folks out on the land hardly ever got frostbite due to their superior circulation, good gear and smarts enough to avoid disaster. Hard-driven white folks, looking for a buck, too stubborn to ease up, lost body parts all the time. Remember, that old-timer that told us that if anybody was white-toed or waxy fingered back in the day, they had him soak the extremity in kerosene that had been stored outside then rubbed it vigorously! Why not just put a burned hand in flames and sandpaper it to heal it”!
“Sure, that was “Stumpy” Rawlins. He had other sourdough poppy-cock about the muddy outwash of placer mining being really beneficial for grayling and other fish populations in the creek! But remember all that town gab by stand-around-wannabees about working yourself or your dog team outdoors at 50 below would freeze lungs? We must have cut trail, checked traps and labored in serious cold hundreds of times, sometimes for hours days on end, and no such damage”.
“Yep, how about all that malarky about getting a bit wet out in the cold, being all but certain death? Like an overwrought cautionary tale from the imagination of good old citified Jack London” scoffed Archie. “Falling in, or repeated soaking, or on a death march like ship-crushed polar explorers, is terribly dangerous and requires serious skills and efforts to get warm and dry. You and I wore native style moose hide moccasins, got wet many times trying to get a sled out of serious slush overflow to the knees, but if you wick some of it out wading in dry snow and keep flexing your toes and working you can easily make some more miles to a tent or cabin.” I added, “oh yea, to stop, find dry wood, build a big fire to dry out, all the while cooling down, floundering in several feet of snow, would have been a fool’s gambit, especially when out alone”.
“Archie, I know you have been in good ol’ Fairbanks in a cold snap and experienced the ugly miasma of exhaust ice-fog.” “Yep, I was stuck there once or twice when no one was flying in the minus 60s when you could barely see the street lights, the air stunk and ravens stayed fluffed and perched. Once it warmed a bit you could see that the roadsides were littered with broken fan belts and other rubber and plastic vehicle parts. Some veteran taxi drivers and small tow guys made a small fortune in those cold snaps and spent April in Hawaii”.
“I know you haven’t forgotten my ignorant belief, early on, that a bottle of whiskey would not freeze. Course, we never had whiskey around, and if we did it didn’t last long enough to experiment with, but you proved that 80 proof froze hard overnight at only minus 20F or so. You also explained how wood frogs froze as hard as a brick in the mud but started up fine again in spring. Speaking of experiments, after sticking my tongue on the inside of the freezer box as a kid, leaving a textured pattern of taste buds, I didn’t need to learn that up north. But channeling Jack London tales, I did light a fire with a very last stick match once, camped at 35 below.”
“You’d have been uncomfortable, but not in grave danger. Ever noticed how many authors and undiscerning fools claim that in extreme cold a steaming pee stream will freeze before hitting the ground. You and I have relieved ourselves countless times down to minus 70F and never saw that. In fact, I once climbed a ladder onto my cabin roof at minus 55, tossed up a cup of boiling hot water that instantly turned to vapor, and pissed off the roof still able to write my name in the snow far below. Well, my initials anyways.”
One of our favorite topics about the realities of active outdoor lives in the cold is the fuzzy notions about ambient air temperatures and a wind chill factor. Certainly, if you somehow find yourself nearly naked (say barely escaping a cabin fire) at minus 30 you’re in dire straits and a wind will do you in faster for sure. Wet as well and you’re toast. Wind, whether it is blasting from the hills or just that created by trotting along at 15 mph with dogs, will find every little chink in the armor of your layered gear as the hours wear on, exposed on the big river or a mountain pass. “I will never forget the hours of warming my privates from near frostnip after mushing up the river at minus 50 with a 40-mph headwind. In the dark as well, only very good dogs will keep their heads down and bore into the awful blast”.
“To top it off when we started up the bank into trees at our place, my headlamp shined on a flapping great horned owl with a foot frozen in a marten trap. Poor bugger. I had to throw my parka over him and the trap and take them to my unheated shop. (I got the trap off, but the foot was frozen, tried feeding him but he would only “mantle and hiss”, after a couple days flew right through a soft plastic window). By the time I chained the dogs, gave them fish, unloaded our stuff (including a prized case of eggs in a down sleeping bag), and stepped into the warm cabin, my nether region burned in pain while my beard was frozen into an ice-encrusted face mask. Both took hours to warm up”.
“You remember when we learned to go beyond banking snow up the cabin walls to splash water on the upper walls to form ice for additional insulation at extreme temps? Sometimes the ice buttons on metal nails or spikes into the walls would grow to an inch inside the cabin, due to a temperature differential of 135F. Anything on the floor would freeze hard and you better have a good woodpile. Close. Cabins, especially built of green logs took forever to heat up, even with a decent woodstove. A tent and Yukon Stove were much better than those “ice palaces.”
Archie came up for air and I jumped in. “Cutting and hauling frozen hard, green birch to keep up at 50 below is not much fun. (Not to mention the deathly creosote dripping down the stove pipe that ignites into a chuffing stack fire that kills trailer dwellers every winter). Even the dogs curled tight, nose under fluffed tail, some spruce boughs under ‘em if they were lucky, and only moved their eyes if we approached ‘em. Once we got propane for lights it would not gasify below -40F, but tossing boiling water on the tank, then draping it with a ratty old blanket, got her going”.
“Well, Champ, I gotta go, our 4 hours of daylight are burning. Some friends are burning a big pile of brush and wood pallets tonight to celebrate the return of light. Sparks will waft up to join the celestial dome and aurora overhead. We will pour drinks around the circle of happy, bundled heathens, but won’t suck on the bottles to be safe. Hey, if you know any fun-lovin’ gals with money around there, who hanker for truly rustic living, please give ‘em my number. Happy New Year and Stay healthy!”