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.
Mail Will Be Delivered, Part II
On a September day in the 1930s, mail carrier Eddie Hindermann steered his longboat away from Chris “Phonograph” Nelson, who was talking to himself onshore starting into the tall spruce fringing the river. He gently nudged his blind dog along, starting and stopping again. Arm extended high he waved at the boat growing smaller on the broad river. The Norwegian loner was again occupied with his thoughts and cabin repairs.
Joseph, a teen with an unusual sense of self, zipped his heavy coat and squirmed lower in the bow, looking back beyond his suddenly smirking uncle toward Nelson’s cabin and tall cache that distance revealed. He cringed imagining that lonely way of life, a chosen solitude that his Athapaskan roots rejected. He was anxious to call it a day and get the chance to turn a few pages of the steamy detective mystery he had slipped under his coat at the cabin. He looked down and realized that it had fallen to the floor of the boat within view of his favorite uncle.
But It was now mid-January. Eddie rested at the handlebars of his mail sled, smiling with the autumn memories of cranky Chris Nelson and Joseph ‘growing horns’. Later he talked with Nelson at his family fish camp when he boated down to pick up his sled dogs boarded for the summer. That was the last time he had seen the likeable old man. Now he stared across a half mile of grey-blue blocky ice, threaded by fogging open water, to the site of the Bluff Cabin.
Squinting, smoking a butt, Eddie worried about the old trapper, not seen since freeze up. He had learned from ‘Nation City JJ’ that in a first visit after freeze up, he found a foot of undisturbed snow around Chris’s home cabin. Most telling, there was no discernable trail up the Nation River toward his far-flung trapline and cabins as there ought to be. The cabin was shut up but hard-frozen. The rusty box stove was set with kindling and bark for cold hands to easily ignite. Plenty of dry wood. The only life was the voles scurrying out of depleted bags of oats and beans into a hole in the plank floor. Nelson’s dogs and sled were not there, either. It pained Eddie that all of this troublesome news was a month old. The tentacles of deep cold could quietly finish anyone sickened or badly injured.
Eddie knew the “Hump”; being halfway into the winter’s long grind of mail trips from Eagle to Circle and back. A grueling 140 miles every week, one way or the other, no matter what. The rumors of airplanes taking over the mail contracts created additional pressure to get through on schedule. The temperatures had been brittle cold, more early snow blanketed the Yukon country than had been seen for years. He was down to 8 dogs healthy enough to make the difficult run from the 15 he readied in November. His hickory sled had been battered and broken; backed-up mail made it hard to keep the loads under 500 pounds, temporary trailside repairs were improved during his one day off at Circle or Eagle.
It was a hellish winter, even for sourdoughs inured to extremes. Most other veteran mail carriers in the region lost valued horses and dogs to serious injury or sheer exhaustion and curling up to die. Mail was nearly lost when his horses fell through the ice on the cross-border run between Dawson City and Eagle. A few weeks earlier, Canadian Percy DeWolfe, the “Iron Man of the North”, very nearly drowned struggling to unhitch his loaded sled from his terrified horses after they fell through thin ice. Eyes bulging, front legs churning in the dark water, they weakened and slipped under the ice edge leaving DeWolfe in stunned silence.
The normally daunting Twelve Mile summit, between Circle City and Fairbanks was a nightmare of drifts, icy sideling hardpack and merciless howling wind leaving gullies and creek headwaters packed with floundering snow. Horse teams, even hardy dog teams, gave in with repeated efforts by determined carriers to get mail over to Central and Circle City. Circle was only a skeleton of its goldrush fame as “The Biggest Log Cabin Town in the World”.
The more heavily traveled trail in front of him lessened Eddie’s concerns. He would drop 80 pounds of packages and mail at Nation City just ahead. They seldom loaded much for Circle. He figured that J.J. Kelly, the caretaker, post-master and dentist would have recent news of Chris Nelson. Just one leaning cabin stood, serving as the point of contact on this stretch of the river. Locals referred to JJ as “Smelly Kelly” for his withering halitosis. One wag claimed that the dead flies on the window sills in his small cabin were the result of deadly air.
As Eddie stopped the dogs, the miners on nearby 4th of July Creek, flanked by limestone spines fired orange by the low sun, could be heard hauling diesel fuel sledges and parts behind clanking caterpillar tractors. Johnny stepped out, stuffy warm air fogging, with a hearty “Hallow Eddie, lemee give yoose a hand” as Eddie tethered the lead dog and sled to yellow-iced trees. Eddie pushed back his parka hood, caught a breath, “Some tough trail yet, JJ. Acres of glare ice now at Montauk. Pedro is limping, I gotta drop him with Cap at Charley Crik tonight”.
He tossed chunks of larded dried salmon to each ravenous dog and turned hopefully to inquire “So what you hear about Chris, I don’t see no smoke over there”? “Nothin’ good” barked Kelly. “The Fish Brothers broke out a coople miles of deep trail up ta Nation, and found some of Van Bibber’s older trail but not mooch. Lot a bad overflow. Turned back short of Chris’s lower cabin, learnin’ nothin’ moore dan we knew. It ain’t good!” The men smoked, ruminating on dark thoughts, while Eddie swallowed the last of the bitter black tea and corn bread Johnny shared. “Christalmighty, JJ, somebody got to get up there! Chris must be holed up hurt”. Eddie exhaled and returned to the moment, “What kinda mail ya got for me, JJ, my daylight’s burnin’.”
The next morning leaving the company of Cap Dolphus, his leather-faced always smiling partner, he felt energized by what he would see later in the day. With a couple of dogs changed out, Eddie anticipated making good time as the mercury had rapidly risen to minus 10F. He had a put a faster trail leader up front. Passing right by his family’s summer homestead and fish camp later, he would give it a quick look-see. There were hundreds of dried dog fish bagged and hanging in the locked barn.
But he was most curious to see the ongoing transformation of the large pieces of the two massive bucket line dredges barged all the way from Oakland California. All of it was being cat-trained up to the historic mining grounds on neighboring Coal and Woodchopper Creeks. Big money doings by the new mine owner Dr. Ernest Patty, a university man. The huge diesel-electric machines would be reassembled by welder, winches and many gloved hands (often missing fingers) to be fastened together by thousands heavy rivets and bolts. Eddie had seen such monsters floating in ponds of their own creation, chewing down into ancient creek beds, turning valleys upside down, near Dawson City.
Trotting along crisply, Eddie rode the runners taking everything in, then halted the team right below Slaven’s Roadhouse. A pot-bellied, apron-clad Frank Slaven stood jawing and smoking while three cat tractors chained to loaded sledges idled, billowing dark smoke into the tall poplars above him on the cut bank. Several fellows waved and hollered greetings that were drowned out by the throbbing motors. Eddie whistled up the fresh dogs and pushed on, not wanting to get caught up in distractions, looking forward to a good team rest later at Woodchopper. He made good time on the shore ice, just skirting the rockfall zone along the base of towering bluffs.
Despite the damaged, now drafty two-story roadhouse, he stayed overnight out of habit. A strong sense of loyalty and pity, really. A haggard, but stoic Mrs. Welch was still trying to soldier on even though her husband, Jack, was said to have ‘gone around the bend’ during the devastating spring break up of the river. Twice, in fact.
An ice jam in the canyon backed 12 feet of dirty water into the Roadhouse for a couple days; soaking, spoiling, muddying or floating off nearly everything. Jack, a quiet man in his late 60’s, seemed crushed, unable to recover. He often stood staring, sucking on his empty pipe, trying to get his mind around all the work to get back to barely getting by. He muttered incoherently refusing to eat. A week later, while light ice continued to flow, he pushed his empty skiff out and rowed into the main current scrunching floes to slowly disappear around the river bend shouldered by the dark cliffs. He was never seen, or heard from, again.
His long-suffering wife, always addressed as Mrs. Welch, somehow carried on to muck everything out, purchase goods on credit and start over again. A kindly sternwheeler captain wooded up at the Roadhouse, directing his hardy deck crew to help her with her freight and flood debris removal. As winter settled in, she gained a reputation of her own, striding out to holler and fire her rifle over the heads of travelers on the nearby winter trail, if they looked to be by-passing her musty, slumping Roadhouse.
Chilled and fatigued after hours of jouncing trail, Eddie chained up his dogs away from the main trail at the Roadhouse. He noticed the owner emerge and dump buckets of dish water. He tried hard to sound upbeat “Hello Mrs. Welch! I’ll be in shortly, ready to warm up, alright”. “Hey Eddie, glad you made it. Fresh bread and rabbit stew on the stove. That quiet back bunk is yours tonight”. Wiping her reddened hands on her dingy apron, she smiled faintly and quickly turned back into the arctic entry to close the heavy door, shutting in the yellow lamplight.
Later in the evening as his parka and gear dried behind the stove, Eddie was smoking and loudly passing gas while jawing with two weary, bearded men. Both were ‘cheechakos’ from some place called Friday Harbor, Washington, hiking on to jobs at the 4th of July Creek digs. Eddie was smiling but quickly tiring of their naive questions when his resting team suddenly erupted in energetic barking. He jumped up, tugging on his fur hat and gloves to step outside, his smoke clamped between his front teeth. Not a loose dog. His whole team stood looking downriver into the darkness, quieting some at his hollering. Minutes later a large team with a recognizable black leader pulled in panting hard.
The stocky, heavily clad musher set the hook, strode up the line of dogs petting each, to de-glove and shake hands with Eddie. “Figured I would catch you here, Eddie!”. “Hallo, Mac! What’er you doin’ barreling up the trail like yer racin’? Them sportin’ gals run you out of Circle now?” “Not hardly! But I got an urgent telegram for ya from the Federal Marshal in Fairbanks. I got a bit of return mail with me to go to Eagle and I’m ordered to take your mail down from here. We are both officially deputized as marshals and OK’ed by the Postal Service for this switch so you can look for Chris Nelson. Snotty weather movin’ in fast keepin’ them flyboys tied down”.
Eddie and Mac departed Woodchopper in the early hours, to the east and west respectively, as the weather front rolled in. Mac had knowingly passed on another EverReady flashlight and more batteries as Eddie would need them. Eddie reached Charley Creek early as his team was spirited by a break in the grueling weekly routine and a light load. Cap Dolphus fed and watered generously. He swelled a bit with his role in the growing mystery. Eddie forced himself to his bunk early, after grabbing some stored camp gear. His mind was spinning knowing that tomorrow would be a grind and he would likely siwash camp on the lower Nation River.
Kelly, holding down Nation City, was surprised to see Eddie return so soon but was energized by the information that he was now privy to. He relished spreading the news. After slurping a cup of tea, Eddie pulled the hook and kicking hard commanded his lead dog across the Yukon below the bad jumble ice. He ran up the smoother shore ice, quickly inspecting the empty cabin scene and wasting no time settling into breaking trail up the Nation River darkness.
His leader, Ol’ Chief, found some of the old trail left by the Fish Brothers’ teams but active overflow and refreezing was erasing and changing everything. He soon strapped on snow shoes to save the dogs, breaking trail to avoid creek mouths and hidden slush, following dry sloughs while light snow fell in the sweeping beam of his flashlight. His tired dogs walked behind, the big sled weaving, climbing up on one runner then the other in the narrow trough trail.
Eddie grew leg weary after several miles, choosing a decent spot to siwash where the wind had scoured the snow a bit on a low willow bar. He lit a small campfire for snowmelt- as much for solace as hand warmth and water- then tied and fed the dogs. After taking a leak, he pulled the tarp edge over his heavy sleeping bag with his outer clothes as padding. Turning off his light, chewing pemmican, he lay in the immense quiet moving his feet and legs to warm up. Before drifting off, beyond the light patter of snow-flakes and his dogs shifting some, he heard faint wolf howls upriver.
Eddie woke and turned over many times. The last time stove up and feeling confined, unable to hold his bladder longer, he sat up. Still nearly 4 hours of darkness before dim natural light. He tugged on his outer pants and moose hide footgear to stand and drink warm metallic snow water from a thermos. Light snow floated down. His dogs stood, tails a-wag and tore into the fish Eddie dropped while he repacked the sled and melted snow.
Snow-shoeing in front, the energetic front dogs repeatedly stepped on his snow shoe tails, eliciting frustrated rebukes from Eddie. He peeled outer layers as he warmed quickly. As the gloam of night retreated he pocketed his flash light and slogged on. He recognized a rock outcrop that placed him two bends below Nelson’s lower cabin. As he fretted over the slim chance of finding any clues there at all, several ravens pumped overhead, dipping and diving, acknowledging his presence in their world. Wolf and fox tracks increasingly laced the snow as he forged on.
Eddie caught his breath before turning the sled on its side and tying off his reliable leader. All the dogs were tense but Ol’ Chief growled from deep within his chest. He grabbed his 30-30 rifle and trail axe to shuffle up the bank to check the cabin. Ravens jumped from the ground and left their perches to noisily fly. The wide trail and the small open area ahead were heavily tracked. He reached a point where the cabin was visible ahead of him. The stove pipe, barely protruding from the roof snow, emitted no smoke. Eddie’s shoulders dropped. As he shuffled closer he cussed sharply and froze. Excruciating sadness gripped him as he saw several rib cages rimmed with snow, surrounded by stain, turds and tufted hair. He prodded with his axe to count five devoured dog carcasses, all chained to stakes, and a recognizable sled pillowed with snow.
Eddie stood still, collecting himself, wishing he was not alone in this moment at this place. He fumbled striking matches to light a smoke, sucking deeply, shaking his head in disbelief. He smoked it to his fingers. Without hurry he unstrapped and then used one snowshoe to scoop nearly 3 feet of drifted snow away from what he knew was an outward opening cabin door. A well-oiled rifle, a .22 revolver in a holster hung to the side just above a pair of beavertail snowshoes. He knew Chris’s old lever action Savage 300.
After several lifting pulls, he squeezed his shoulders into the dank, dimly lit silence. His eyes adjusted, then he found his light. The beam shone painfully bright on his friend Chris Nelson sprawled on the floor: mouth open, skin tallow white, fingers of his right hand still clenching his plaid shirt at the chest, the other gripping a table leg, legs splayed. Some of the darkened toes and a chalky ear lobe had been chewed by some small creature. No blood, no obvious signs of injury. Solidly frozen. As his hunger pangs sharpened to nausea Eddie urgently backed out to breathe deeply of the wintry world.
He lit another smoke. A red squirrel scolded him from the roof, ducked into a hole, on his way to nibbling flesh. Eddie knew that he could not endure staying inside, thawing Chris in a sweltering space over a couple of days, all the while trying to eat and sleep. He also clearly understood the other version of hell that awaited him.
He would have to fight the sled with the 190 pound, long-limbed corpse shifting, catching brush and digging into the snowbanks, as if reluctant to be taken away. It would be many hours of darkness back to the open trail of the Yukon River. He thought of his bow saw as a desperate last resort. His mom’s voice and traditional Athapaskan beliefs, told him never desecrate! He could not stomach the thought of sawing into his friend’s frozen limbs, the reactions of others. The sky was clearing, the sun a heatless, but promising smear. He began to move with purpose to do what must be done.