Freezer-burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
The Heart of Darkness on the River
“Freezer-Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska” is a regular column on the San Juan Update written by Steve Ulvi.
Sammy Jenks gently shut the backdoor of his rustic home. He turned to pick up a stone then slung it at an alley cat in the garbage can. Striking the ugly cat in the ribcage, he felt a twinge of regret. Pulling back his shoulder-length hair to tie it with a piece of cord, he opened the back gate and strode the few blocks toward downtown Dawson City. As he pulled on a sweatshirt to ward off the dawn chill, his freshened hatred of his mom’s boyfriend rose in his throat like bile. Most nights lately, she sobbed while the younger man drank and belittled her into the wee hours.
Not yet forced to be back in high school, Jenks started each day walking to the bank of the Yukon River for distraction, bumming smokes from early-rising tourists while he hid his disdain for them. The puffy old ‘Yanks’ were the worst. Wheeling gulls and ravens joined him scavenging the downtown and waterfront after another busy night of fleecing tourists who happily joined in with the old-timey Klondike Gold Rush fakery. He scoffed at the can-can girls, faro games and infamous “Sour Toe Cocktail” at the aptly named Eldorado.
Jenks smelled reefer in an alley but couldn’t find the source. Likely a pasty dishwasher stepping out to lighten the drudgery of endless cleaning. A large slice of pizza in one overflowing garbage can had been spatter-fouled by a gull so Jenks passed it by after considering cutting out that section. A Budweiser bottle stood half full next to a wall, but he knew better than to fall for that nasty trick ever again.
Once at the top of the armored river bank, he lingered taking in the damp odor of the moving water and the huge stretch of river. The George Black, a diesel-powered vehicle ferry that plied the river from the terminus of the Top of the World Highway across to historic downtown Dawson City, was just returning pushing white water. Back and forth again, every ninety minutes or so, all summer long. He hoped to work on her steel deck one day. August clouds hung low obscuring much of the famous Big Slide above town, but the sun was breaking through as the ferry approached jammed with RVs and over-dressed tourists at the rails.
Jenks quietly passed several seedy regulars sleeping wrapped in blankets beneath the historic sternwheeler Keno, hoping to steal an unguarded bottle, or maybe spilled smokes while wandering toward the boat landing area. His discerning eyes missed little. He wished that his mom would give her asshole boyfriend the boot but he knew the guy was paying most of the bills. Once again, he thought that if only he had a job, he could take care of her and his sisters.
Several long wooden boats with outboard motors rocked casually at their bowlines at the edge of the milky water. A couple of aluminum skiffs were fully beached, tilted, and half full of dirty rainwater. Jenks saw his chum, Moses John, squatting on his heels, looking over the line of boats from up by the base of the protective riprap barrier. Jenks split his cigarette and handed the lit end to ‘Mose’, then put a flame to his half, spitting shards of tobacco. “Jenks, them two rigs musta come in last night, eh”? Jenks nodded realizing that there was still some disorganized gear in the boats. Unusual. Looking around and seeing no one of concern, they edged closer and pretended to be talking and animatedly pointing across the river, casing the promising situation.
A threesome of silent ravens circled low, landed on the gunwale of the longer boat and hopped in without fanfare. The scheming boys saw a chance. “Mose, you make like yer checking the boat lines. I’ll move in and grab what I can while playin’ at chasin’ off them birds”. Casually, but with purpose, Jenks walked down and reached into the adjacent boats to snag a daypack, a hatchet and a half bottle of wine. Pulling aside several blankets and sleeping bags he realized that there was a great spattering of some kind of blood on everything. What looked like long black hairs were glued in brown smears on the center wooden seat. He noticed a watch and then a small silver ring resting in coagulated blood midships. He grimaced while plucking them out, swiping his fingers on his pants. Walking back up the beach to Mose, he shook his head and muttered “Something bad about them boats. It’s creeping me out, Mose, let’s git outta here!”
Late in the previous afternoon, light rain dampening everything but their spirits, Richard and Faye smiled easily as they pushed out and motored away from the Dawson boat landing. He was lean and affable and she was strong yet attractive in a common way. They had enjoyed their time spent with Canadian friends but were ready to leave the commotion of Dawson City. Breaking the suction of the town, back on the timeless river, they thrilled to think of the scenery and memories that would greet them along the 200 river miles home to their cabin at Forty Mile above Circle City, Alaska.
The familiar thrum of the outboard and shush of the hull cleaving smooth water relaxed them. As they passed the old native village of Moosehide, kids playing near the white-washed Episcopal church stood and waved. In less than twenty miles, at the mouth of the Chandindu River, they planned to spend a festive evening around a warming campfire with close friends, their in-laws and young children at fish camp. Come tomorrow they would pack up and make the long run down to Eagle, and beyond on the Alaska side of the border.
As they sped west on the ancient river, the rain subsided while clouds parted to reveal patches of cerulean sky. A spectacular rainbow bridged the wide river behind them. A good omen for sure. The warmth of the emerging sun was a delight even scooting along at over 20 mph. Faye pointed to several moving animals on a steep cut bank, river right. As they swerved to close the distance the large sow grizzly and her three big cubs born the previous year, stood staring as the boat slowed and passed by a stone’s throw away. As the yearlings scrambled upslope toward the trees the sow froze and glared with fierce brown eyes. Richard, very familiar with bears, shivered slightly, feeling that the dark beast was looking directly into his soul.
Twenty minutes later they landed between two boats as four kids converged on the gravel beach in front of canvas wall tents and a tarped cooking area. Faye stepped out of their boat to “Bienvenue friends!” and hugs. As Richard tilted the outboard, he mentioned seeing the dark sow and triplet cubs, nodding upriver. Etienne, tying their bowline, replied “Oui, Richard, we have seen them also, eh? Far away and respecting. One ours noir swimmed la riviere to us yesterday, too, then run into bushes. We must help you settle in now, eh?” His slender wife, Marie, also Quebecois, laughed heartily saying “Merci, Merci Boucoup!” as Faye handed her a cardboard box containing two bottles of red wine, fresh garlic, some oranges and butter from town.
The end of the day was sublime with a blush rose sunset and clearing skies. Soon the North Star blinked brightly above them. Steaming smoked salmon soup and garlic pan bread spawned relaxed chatter, while the gaiety of wine revealed the harmony of river life around a campfire under a dome of stars. Etienne regaled them with stories of high-jinks at University in Montreal. They heard rather than saw a boat churning toward Dawson, center channel, the wake effervescing behind.
Faye and Richard had unrolled their zip-together sleeping bag on a canvas tarp near the heavy table, between the two tents. The sisters, Chantal and Marie, read to the tired children, their melodic French soothing everyone who heard it through the tent canvas yellowed by internal lamplight, until the little ones could no longer stay awake. The six adults then gathered closely, shoulder to shoulder, sipping wine and talking of the huge, recently established National Preserve that now surrounded Richard’s family homestead downriver. There were questions that Richard and Faye could not begin to answer but they expressed concerns about new regulations and the uncertainty of their future there.
In time the men drifted away to the edge of the firelight, smoked and checked the boats, admiring Richard’s new outboard. They poled the boats off to keep them afloat as the river was dropping and the beach gently sloped into the river. Punk wood was put on the fire to smudge most of the night. Zeke freshened a bowl of water for his mixed-breed dog and lovingly chained her near his tent for the night. Voices trailed off as everyone tucked in for the night and gave in to slumber in the immense quiet.
Sometime after midnight, a murmuring breeze was ruffling leaves and tarps when the dog began barking insanely. Faye abruptly sat up while Richard snored heavily next to her. Hearing nothing except the dog and seeing little in the dark, she instinctively turned to see the big sow very near, staring. The bear was on her before she could make a sound, viciously biting her face and yanking her mostly out of the sleeping bag. She turned away in a primordial protective reaction while the sow sunk its fangs into her exposed back. Zeke hollered from his tent stumbling half asleep, yanking the tent flaps back to startle the bear. In a moment the sow leapt toward him in a low rush. He instantly shut the canvas flap but with a couple of swipes she collapsed the front of the tent and savagely bit Zeke’s bare leg to pull him out into the open.
A self-described deep sleeper, Richard woke to find himself standing with a ravaged Faye curled at his feet and a large bear chasing Zeke. Zeke managed to gimp around the picnic table with the sow close behind and dove under it. By now human screams and the frantic dog were a cacophony of primordial human anguish. The enraged sow saw Richard standing and in less than a moment stood chest to chest over him. With no weapon, Faye bleeding badly at his feet, unable to flee, Richard repeatedly punched the huge bear in the snout in an adrenaline rush. He found himself sailing through the air when she swiped him off the ground with a broad paw.
As Richard tumbled into the low brush, fully aware of his plight, the sow sprang and chewed on his head shredding most of his scalp and bit into his back as he curled to protect himself. She clamped her jaws onto his torso lifting him off the ground and spun to scoop up Faye with a curled front paw while lunging into the deeper brush. Richard remembers the absolute clarity of the moment and “a feeling of doom” sure that she was taking them out to the cubs “to become dinner”. The beast had to jump a dead spruce several feet off the ground and in doing so dropped Faye and then Richard as she cleared the branchy trunk to bash into the dark brush and return to her cubs in the darkness. (In retrospect, Richard felt that the horrific thrashing of three people lasted no more than one or two minutes).
The camp was in chaos: kids hollering and sobbing, screaming women, the dog barking full throat, the unwounded man emerging with his rifle, headlamp sweeping camp while the severely wounded struggled upright trying to make sense of just what had happened. The wide-eyed dog was set loose and voices soon settled into forming a plan of immediate escape. Everyone was talking while recognizing their plight with several hours of darkness remaining. As the physically able dressed and all tried to comfort one another, they applied what few medical supplies they had to the three who had been mauled. Faye’s face was crushed and her head misshapen, her jaws were broken and an eye was lolling loose, but she complained little. As one of the women built the fire up, staring fearfully at the brush behind camp, others wrapped blankets and sleeping bags around Faye and Richard in the boats. They piled in, almost forgetting the dog and raggedly pushed out to run to Dawson. Everyone was greatly relieved to depart the camp. The adrenaline dump faded leaving discomfort, searing pain and concern that the wounded would succumb to shock building in the silence of the hour-long evacuation to the beach fronting a sleeping Dawson City.
[Authors note: This vicious mauling, circa 1981 on the Yukon River, is portrayed as Richard described it in an archived interview. The setup in Dawson and the camper’s interactions are fictional. Inexplicably, the severely wounded lay in a small Dawson clinic for many hours, with minimal medical care and were then flown to Whitehorse. Faye required several facial reconstruction procedures. When well-armed authorities and river friends arrived at the camp the tents were collapsed, the table turned over and everything torn apart. The bears were never seen. Richard opined that when Faye sat up she was between the sow and her cubs back in the brush that triggered an explosive defensive attack. However, the taste of blood and frailty of the continued human reactions may have then triggered a predatory response in the sow. True to their understanding of wild nature, Faye and Richard (eventually going separate ways) refused to hate bears for what they experienced and continued to live in bear country].