Freezer-burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted July 24, 2021 at 8:42 am by

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].

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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