Freezer-Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted March 7, 2021 at 5:00 am by

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

Contributed Photo/Loren Isaac. Snowy Alaska mountains.

The Confines of Heaven


The Ala­pah carves sin­u­ous bends in a spa­cious val­ley side to side, flow­ing into the upper Kuuk Riv­er, a large trib­u­tary of the Yukon Riv­er whose milky waters bend west across the Inte­ri­or of Alas­ka well to the south.  Forty miles up the Ala­pah Riv­er (mean­ing ‘cold’ in Inu­pi­aq) the cloak of bore­al for­est slow­ly gives out to a few dwarf spruce and poplar, wracked by decades of eco­log­i­cal strug­gle, mark­ing the cir­cum­po­lar north­ern tree-line.   From there the riv­er land­scape is raw and angu­lar, large boul­ders and gray talus slopes drap­ing dark peaks, ripar­i­an wil­low and tun­dra margins. 

The Ala­pah forks again and again, becom­ing a creek, small­er and steep­er, falling from the rocky clefts of the Brooks Range that arcs across north­ern Alas­ka. His­to­ri­an Bill Brown pro­saical­ly referred to this north­ern-most major moun­tain range on earth as a place of “gaunt beau­ty, ten­u­ous life”.

Sit­ting at his rough table, strewn with maps and books, eased by the muf­fled song of rush­ing water as the Ala­pah mixed with the larg­er Kuuk, the last thing that Nathan Cut­ler fan­cied, as his ardu­ous prepa­ra­tions for the onset of win­ter slowed, was to endure being alone at his remote cab­in for sev­er­al more months.  But there was no way to change that sit­u­a­tion now. 

He was in a famil­iar state of lim­bo, cloud watch­ing, await­ing win­ter storms to trans­form his world.  Ice-build­ing tem­per­a­tures and espe­cial­ly blan­ket­ing snow, would enable him to expand his activ­i­ties; there were loads of dry wood to drag in, water to haul and open­ing his estab­lished trapline trails in readi­ness for furbear­er sea­son open­ings.  For now, he had time on his hands to tend to small tasks, rethink new marten lines and stew over the heart-wrench­ing lone­li­ness to come.  Look­ing up into the immense empti­ness of the uncount­able stars, sep­a­rat­ed by unimag­in­able emp­ty dis­tance, said to be expand­ing end­less­ly out­ward, fed his aloneness.

The solace of his win­ter occu­pa­tion was always a wel­come change from the fre­net­ic, bug­gy, almost tir­ing light of sum­mer.  The down-shift­ing from “the sweet lie of sum­mer” to the iso­la­tion of win­ter was rapid and unfor­giv­ing.  Now his efforts and deci­sions, along with lady luck, were the sole arbiters of his suc­cess.  Soon after arriv­ing back at the Ala­pah, shoul­der­ing a 75-pound pack from Hendersen’s, he hap­pi­ly launched into cab­in repairs, cut­ting dry wood and hunt­ing cari­bou and bears, meat and fat, in his home country. 

The boul­der maze at the canyon just above Hendersen’s Bend, pre­vent­ed the com­par­a­tive ease and flex­i­bil­i­ty of riv­er boat resup­ply and access to his cab­in dur­ing sum­mer.  Rivers are the high­ways of the vast Inte­ri­or.  It also kept oth­ers out until the late win­ter when rivers were acces­si­ble to those capa­ble of break­ing trail in the deep snow laced with treach­er­ous over­flow under the frozen insu­lat­ing cov­er.  Some of the rough crew that worked for the Lucky Strike mine on the Yukon made spring trips rid­ing pow­er­ful snow machines in order to camp, guz­zle cheap liquor and poach game on the upper Kuuk.  There had been sev­er­al trou­bling inci­dents over the years. Lars Hen­der­sen, stand­ing up for his old­est daugh­ter, had forced a con­fronta­tion that quick­ly turned ugly last spring.

As a hazy fog lift­ed a day after sched­uled air­drops, a plane buzzed the cab­in with a high deci­bel growl that would star­tle any­one but the dead.   Grin­ning, Nate hur­ried­ly threw on a coat and watch cap to trot the well-worn path to the mar­gin of Swan Lake, where a near­ly tree­less tus­sock flat, of foot­ball field length, had approach­es that allowed a small plane to slow, pull flaps, hang on the prop and air­drop his win­ter sup­plies in sev­er­al roar­ing pass­es.  His old Kel­ty pack frame and cordage was already there. 

Wav­ing his arms, glad that he had not missed watch­ing the first pass, his friend and no-non­sense men­tor, Lars, flew the Cess­na 185 with the car­go door off, while one of his teenagers, heav­i­ly dressed for the wind­chill, worked in back as the “kick­er”.  The smoothest area with­in the dry sedge tus­socks was marked by sur­vey tape, but the slight­est wind and vagaries of roar­ing by at 75 mph a cou­ple hun­dred feet off the deck, always result­ed in some burst­ing grain sacks (even triple bagged) and dam­age to more frag­ile sup­plies.  A bomb­ing run, real­ly.  There would be a sweet note and a treat from Lars’ wife Trudy.

Inex­plic­a­bly, he had nev­er locat­ed some bun­dled stovepipe he had watched fall a few years back.  They had all heard the hor­ror sto­ries of attach­ing para­chutes of some kind to damp­en the veloc­i­ty of sup­plies, but such finarky rig­gings could tan­gle on the plane’s tail feath­ers or tail wheel and cause a dev­as­tat­ing crash.

Neck and back stiff after a day of pack­ing the 800 pounds of scat­tered sup­plies, Nate awoke in the predawn hours, bur­ri­toed in a sleep­ing bag star­ing into the black void.   There was lit­tle to hear oth­er than his own breath­ing.  His first feel­ings in cog­ni­tive sur­fac­ing were feel­ings of secu­ri­ty and com­fort, replen­ished food.   His was a stur­dy log cab­in, grassy roofed, set in a forest­ed penin­su­la between the rivers and the shal­low lake, built by shared dreams and the bound­less ener­gy of young love, hard­ly ten years before.

But once his wak­ing mind stirred, his con­flict­ed mem­o­ries flared to replay many trag­ic moments and fail­ures of char­ac­ter.    Cer­tain­ly, hap­pi­ness and sat­is­fac­tion reg­is­tered often in the dai­ly course of things, but in a flashy, ephemer­al way, dilut­ed by the pas­sage of time.  Nate was plagued by a sad­ness and anger, fos­tered by cor­ro­sive fam­i­ly inci­dents dur­ing a trou­bled upbring­ing on the Yukon Riv­er out­side of Eagle City. 

He strug­gled with a brit­tle tem­per and his per­son­al­i­ty ‘quirks’ seemed to dis­till to greater poten­cy as his years accu­mu­lat­ed. His love for his long-suf­fer­ing moth­er, now dead sev­er­al years, was over­shad­owed by his con­tempt for his lying, fun­da­men­tal­ist father who had poi­soned the young soul of his old­est son, with years of stress and anx­i­ety.  His youngest sis­ter, Han­nah had recent­ly implied oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly destruc­tive, unfor­give­able dis­tor­tions of parental nur­tur­ing in the years after Nate left for college. 

Before decid­ing to take some col­lege cours­es, he and a young friend had lived off the land for the bet­ter part of two years, chan­nel­ing the life­ways of Rocky Moun­tain fur trap­pers, on a small trib­u­tary of the upper Yukon.  He rarely vis­it­ed his home and fam­i­ly. At the time he thought such a foot­loose, scoff-law life in the woods to be the ulti­mate out­door expe­ri­ence, but now he thought differently. 

The Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act of 1980, had been like a slow-motion mete­or impact in alter­ing much that was left of “Old Alas­ka”, cre­at­ing strife and tur­moil among Alaskans.  Sto­ries of motor­ized use clo­sures, pro­hi­bi­tion of long-stand­ing sport hunt­ing and guid­ing activ­i­ties and restric­tive cab­in reg­u­la­tions were run­ning hot and spark­ing like dry light­ning across the huge state.  In his eager­ness to see more of the vast region of the upper Kuuk, recent­ly des­ig­nat­ed in a Nation­al Park, and earn sum­mer wages as a uni­formed sea­son­al ranger, he rec­og­nized that it was a pact with the dev­il. Local­ly he was viewed con­temp­tu­ous­ly as a frig­gin’ turncoat. 

His cab­in (on a native allot­ment claimed by his ex-wife’s par­ents) as well as much of his win­ter trapline, along with the life­ways of many peo­ple he respect­ed, were now in the slow­ly focus­ing, unpre­dictable pol­i­cy crosshairs of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.  He had lost sleep for weeks while con­sid­er­ing send­ing an appli­ca­tion for a sea­son­al posi­tion.  Even­tu­al­ly the scale of weight­ed val­ues (and few oth­er out­doorsy ways to make mon­ey) even­tu­al­ly tipped toward his con­cerns for the wider preser­va­tion issues of threat­ened landscapes.

When enjoy­ing sum­mer time off and unwind­ing at camp­fire gath­er­ings in the bush enclave of Bet­tles, or even the out­skirts of Fair­banks, he tried to avoid the inevitable vent­ing and rumor-mon­ger­ing that flared as the booze flowed.  He was paid to deal with plen­ty of that when on duty.  He couldn’t win, even efforts to be help­ful by dis­sem­bling false rumors often result­ed in angry words or worse.  Many casu­al friend­ships implod­ed and per­son­al threats were voiced.  But he had cho­sen to put a tar­get on his own back. 

Like most men his age he took every oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet unat­tached women.  When he did, he care­ful­ly shift­ed from the ‘who do you know, what do you do’ slow dance to casu­al­ly describe his win­ter life­way with boy­ish enthu­si­asm.   Their reac­tions were cau­tious­ly set aside for future con­ver­sa­tions.  He knew bet­ter, as a result of con­fus­ing and painful expe­ri­ences, than to even sug­gest a win­ter invite until there was a deep­er emo­tion­al con­nec­tion.  Of course, a robust sex­u­al rela­tion­ship was a pre­req­ui­site to spend­ing months togeth­er in a small cab­in in the bush.  Only then did he share his enve­lope of pho­tos and a tat­tered, marked-up topo map of his beloved Ala­pah country

To Nate’s dis­may, his efforts to attract a capa­ble female part­ner failed in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber, with the dead­lines for com­mit­ment loom­ing.  The two out­doorsy gals he had been court­ing all sum­mer, declined his earnest invites to join him.  He had been as hon­est as he dared.   He knew well that it was a real­ly big ask with unan­tic­i­pat­ed strains like­ly and mutu­al regret pos­si­ble.  Unre­solved con­tention would cre­ate a kind of pur­ga­to­ry togeth­er for long hours in the cab­in, while sur­round­ed by a wild heaven.

Anna’s old boyfriend had returned unex­pect­ed­ly, so that was that.  He tried to keep him­self from falling any fur­ther than he already had for Susan’s earthy charms and obvi­ous abil­i­ties.  Once emo­tion­al­ly attached it was always tough for him to dis­en­gage. As a sum­mer riv­er guide in the Brooks Range, she had long been inter­est­ed in liv­ing out in the bush, seemed enthralled with the idea, but final­ly said tear­ful­ly that the com­mit­ment was just too steep and irrev­o­ca­ble.  Per­haps next win­ter?  She may have sensed that ghosts lin­gered.  Per­haps some­one had told her the sto­ry of his infant son’s trag­ic death on the trail that caused his wife to leave him and nev­er return to the Ala­pah, as their joy­ous mar­riage shat­tered like a mir­ror of the past.

Nate was unable to rid him­self of that intense sad­ness and guilt, that was always a dark shad­ow fol­low­ing his nor­mal­ly bright and ener­getic per­son­al­i­ty and con­fi­dent ways.  Some women could sense his con­flict­ed emo­tions right away and it gave them pause when con­sid­er­ing at least two months iso­lat­ed at the Ala­pah cab­in before the frozen riv­er would even allow a retreat, or the usu­al hol­i­day trek down to Hendersen’s. 

Dai­ly rou­tines and out­door work were essen­tial in tamp­ing melan­cho­lia.  Same motions every morn­ing this time of year; about six a.m. by the con­sen­sus of the two mechan­i­cal clocks he kept, the wood­stove was rekin­dled, lamps lit and water on for cof­fee and wash­ing up.  Irreg­u­lar AM radio recep­tion allowed him to reset his wall cal­en­dar and clocks.  There were still sev­er­al hours until the first nat­ur­al light of the day at the turn of the new year, a shade less than four hours of dim light if the skies were cerulean clear.   The heav­i­ly forest­ed val­ley floor would remain in indi­rect light and gloam for many weeks yet.

Reach­ing under the low­er kitchen shelf, the cold stor­age spot, he pulled out a fat-encrust­ed cari­bou hind quar­ter from which to slice fry meat on a blood-stained piece of card­board.  Prac­ticed knife strokes cut steaks and ham­mer blows to the leg bone revealed the suc­cu­lent mar­row. Nate paused to exam­ine a flick­er­ing win­dow reflec­tion of him­self looked back, beard­ed and unsmiling

He could nev­er be sure that the bat­ter­ies or the old radio itself might not crap out.  Heavy wind events some­times pruned branch­es that broke his cop­per wire anten­na.   Day­dream­ing over cof­fee, near­ing sev­en am he leaned across the table to the radio to try to tune in the morn­ing news out of Fair­banks.  There was lit­tle in the way of good news anymore. 

The announc­er spoke with an easy cadence and south­ern drawl, a com­fort­ing voice despite pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian pro­gram­ming that only allowed short seg­ments of reg­u­lar news pro­gram­ming.  Regard­less it was a wel­come con­nec­tion to the world and a famil­iar voice in the dark­ness and dis­tance. King Jesus North Pole (the shab­by berg just south of Fair­banks, not the geo­graph­ic pole) was broad­cast on 50,000 watts and had a lot of reach.  The favorite hour was Trapline Chat­ter in the ear­ly evening with mes­sages to and from far flung peo­ple that was like lis­ten­ing in to a busy par­ty line.

Occa­sion­al­ly aid­ed in an ‘atmos­pher­ic skip’ dur­ing high pres­sure cold lay­ers, radio pro­grams arrived from a great dis­tance.  Talk radio pro­grams often informed Nate of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics and strange events that he would not nor­mal­ly hear of.  Recep­tion was decent but in and out on this morn­ing, with the drop­ping barom­e­ter and impend­ing storm.  Nate refilled his stained enam­el cup, treat­ed him­self to a spoon of sug­ar, set the meat and mar­row but­tons into the fry­pan to a sharp splat­ter, and set­tled back.  Fried cari­bou on wheat-corn bread with gravy was favorite break­fast fare.

Gath­er­ing his lighter cloth­ing and gear, a bat­tered ther­mos of tea and some pilot bread slathered with jam, he donned a head­lamp, blew out the kerosene lamps and stepped out into the dark morn­ing.  As always, he paused a moment to look toward the rock cairn that recalled the short life of his son, Jacob and the end of his mar­riage to sweet Angela. 

Always hope­ful that he would run across a cari­bou, wary of the ter­ri­ble pos­si­bil­i­ty of run­ning across a starv­ing ‘win­ter bear’, he slung his rifle across his back.  His oak mil­i­tary snow­shoes clacked as he shuf­fled down the bank onto the lake to fol­low the near­ly invis­i­ble curv­ing trail skirt­ing bank wil­lows in the lee of the pre­vail­ing win­ter winds.  There had been sev­er­al days now since the cold-snap and he expect­ed to see promis­ing fresh sign of mov­ing ani­mals.  Nate eased into a steady stride that would get him to the small inlet creek at the base of the ridge in a half hour or so.  Squint­ing toward the out­line of the ridge gauzed by clouds, and the first small danc­ing flakes touch­ing his cheeks, com­fort­ed him.

After clear­ing and re-scent­ing blown-in lynx cub­bies along the lake flats with no catch­es or fresh sign, Nate labored up the trail angling up toward the crest of the ridge, adding three frozen marten from pole sets to his pack.  The immense qui­et of the late morn­ing swal­lowed up his heavy exha­la­tions, occa­sion­al chop of his trail axe and dis­tant graawk of ravens below as he crest­ed the ridge.  Despite the expand­ing clouds, there were moments of lift­ing and part­ing that allowed an expan­sive view of the Kuuk bend­ing southward.

Sip­ping cold water to rehy­drate him­self and the cari­bou pem­mi­can he was chew­ing, Nate antic­i­pat­ed the descent down a creek val­ley and back onto the Kuuk, a bend above his place.   Feel­ing the chill of sweat­ed cloth­ing he casu­al­ly scanned, then quick­ly lift­ed his binocs from under his par­ka, to relo­cate and focus on a dark fleck on the gray­ing expanse of down­riv­er snow as dusk crept in. 

A lone cari­bou or wolf.  No, the approach was slow, direct and his heart lift­ed as he began to think it might just be a lone trav­el­er.  After a few min­utes, a per­son with a large pack on snow­shoes took form in moments of bet­ter light.  Nate could not imag­ine who it might be as the Hen­der­son teens always ran a few dogs with a tobog­gan to break out the first trail con­nec­tion of the win­ter.  Set­tling clouds erased the moment.  Nate dropped down the ridge, his pack already heavy with sev­en frozen marten and his heart soar­ing with the antic­i­pa­tion of unex­pect­ed company.



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. Required fields are marked *

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