Freezer-burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted July 5, 2021 at 5:00 am by

The Allure of Gold, Part 2

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

When Pap­py Scog­gins parked his mod­i­fied school bus at the old boat land­ing in Eagle, Alas­ka he nev­er imag­ined the grous­ing by locals accus­tomed to using that area to load boats, or camp overnight if need be.  He soon learned that riv­er-trip­pers com­ing down the Yukon Riv­er gen­er­al­ly pulled in there as the last chance to stop in the lit­tle his­toric town before being swept around the tow­er­ing Eagle Bluff.  The next riv­er town and road ter­mi­nus were 150 miles down­riv­er at Cir­cle City. 

The unim­proved vehi­cle turn­around and boat eddy was con­sid­ered a pub­lic-com­mons with more con­ve­nient foot access to town than the big land­ing a half mile upriv­er.  The town sawmill, leav­ing few hints as to its exis­tence, had been right there on the high­er ground by 1900.  Some­body now owned the land down to the mean high-water mark of the riv­er (the State of Alas­ka owned below that) but who­ev­er it was, they didn’t care about local use.   But few folks found it accept­able to have it tak­en over like a “Hill­bil­ly Holler”. Def­i­nite­ly not a good place to tear a school bus apart in a half-assed, Rube Gold­berg attempt to build a barge.

Dis­tant cousins, Erline and Sturgill Scog­gins, knew noth­ing of their Ida­ho hitch-hik­ers being want­ed by the law.  Their unin­tend­ed big splash in town was fur­ther taint­ed when the nefar­i­ous broth­ers man­aged to par­ty with the town drunk­ard only to steal his truck while he was passed out and get while the get­tin’ was good.  “Want­ed bank rob­bers, no less!” made for heady grist in the rumor mill.  But it is fair to say that most folks were glad that the town’s friend­ly ine­bri­ate now had to fall back to rid­ing his bicy­cle; every bit as unsteady, hat pulled down like Gab­by Hayes, weav­ing slow­ly along the dusty roads, but far less of a dan­ger to others.

The final straw for Pap­py, after receiv­ing local guff, was when Dirty Frank lined his canoe from 80 miles down­riv­er, camped close to the bus and stu­pe­fied him­self by smok­ing dirt weed and dip­ping green home­brew from a 5‑gallon buck­et.  All hours of the day.  The fam­i­ly prayed for Frank’s redemp­tion.  Pap­py con­sid­ered offer­ing to bap­tize him if he would accept the Lord.  As oth­ers could attest, the fam­i­ly had real­ly only seen the tip of the ice­berg of Frank’s debauch­ery and their con­cern for his mor­tal soul would not make a whit of dif­fer­ence.  A nose-plugged dunk in the silty riv­er was how he occa­sion­al­ly bathed every sum­mer anyway.

Sturgill trudged back from the post office one after­noon, frus­trat­ed that unem­ploy­ment checks had not arrived, to find that Dirty Frank had res­cued some folks on a log raft.  It had sweeps and wall tents like a gold rush repli­ca.  The worst pos­si­ble mode of riv­er trav­el.  The raft had been inex­orably slid­ing by, just off shore, sweeps thrash­ing.  The rafters were in a fren­zied dance to land before spin­ning around the bluff, miss­ing town alto­geth­er.   Worse yet, if they couldn’t stop, they would be pow­er­less to avoid bash­ing the raft into the sol­id but­tress of the loom­ing Eagle Bluff that was shed­ding 200,000 cubic feet per sec­ond of boil­ing cur­rent, like­ly tear­ing the raft apart. 

A tanned, shirt­less guy hollered at a rest­ing, bleary-eyed Frank and flung some loops of heavy rope, implor­ing him “hur­ry up, tie it off.  Some­where! Any­where”!  Despite his fog­gy state, Frank real­ized that the immutable laws of physics, more specif­i­cal­ly mass (4 or 5 tons of sod­den logs) and veloc­i­ty (8 mph cur­rent) were mount­ing expo­nen­tial­ly, moment by moment.  No big trees or boul­ders close by the shore.  All he could think of in want­i­ng to be a hero for the wor­ried, scant­i­ly clad gals on the raft, was to tie off on the near­by bus bumper and stand back.  (The bus bumper had been solid­ly weld­ed to the frame of the bus by the Cana­di­an road crew that inad­ver­tent­ly yanked it off on the Al-Can High­way back in British Columbia).

Stopped in his tracks, Sturgill could hard­ly believe his eyes as he took in the scene.  The raft was at the shore, a heavy rope taut to his bus bumper at the very edge of the water with 25 feet of brake-locked tire fur­rows lead­ing back to where it used to sit.  It didn’t help any that Dirty Frank was par­ty­ing with the rafters, loud­ly enter­tain­ing them with tales of his escapades.  Sure­ly, he wasn’t describ­ing the time he was caught steal­ing booze from the fall camp of some burly Anchor­age moose hunters and rough­ly tied to a tree for a few days, while they angri­ly dis­cussed his fate.  Frank did have a pass­ing resem­blance to Tolkien’s Gollum.

Frank’s lack of basic per­son­al hygiene was detectable even by a blind per­son with a head cold.  His old Levi’s were more dirt and fish slime than cot­ton. Like any­one, Frank rel­ished some treats dur­ing his rare vis­its.  He was eat­ing may­on­naise from a pint jar leav­ing tell­tale white globs in his wispy mus­tache.  He offered to share his treat but was prob­a­bly not win­ning any points in his thin­ly-veiled attempt to attract a woman (maybe both!) into join­ing him for a long cold win­ter in a tiny cab­in, many miles from anyone.

Soon after the near dis­as­ter, one of the church-going fam­i­lies took pity on Erline and the kids liv­ing in the cramped bus with­out plumb­ing or water by proud­ly step­ping up to offer to rent them a rot­ting old cab­in with­out plumb­ing or water.   They praised them­selves for demon­strat­ing broth­er­ly love toward the fun­ny talk­ing, black­er sheep among the high­ly diverse Chris­t­ian flock.  “The Lord works in mys­te­ri­ous ways, yes he does”.  But giv­en the many unre­pen­tant sin­ners on the riv­er and around town, the fun­da­men­tal­ists were keen to invite the Scog­gins’ into their fold.  They had a sim­i­lar­ly help­ful, but clear­ly patri­ar­chal, atti­tude toward the native Han peo­ple out the road in Eagle Vil­lage who had Epis­co­palian traditions.

After some pes­ter­ing by Erline, Sturgill signed up as an emer­gency fire­fight­er with the Eagle #2 fire crew.  He some­how passed the step test despite his coal pow­dered lungs and pink­ish spit­tle in his han­kie.  But that was not sur­pris­ing, for each year locals so bad­ly hung-over after a week-long ‘toot’ they could hard­ly form a thought, also passed the test admin­is­tered by accom­mo­dat­ing per­son­nel from the Alas­ka Fire Service. 

By mid-July, the long hot days of sum­mer often had a set-your-watch-by-it pre­dictabil­i­ty:  fine clear cool morn­ings, ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and puffy clouds build­ing cumu­lonim­bus ener­gy that coa­lesced into a dark wall that spat bolts of light­ning to spawn dozens of wild­fires.  The 2 O’clock Express.  Being on the riv­er in a met­al boat was nervy on these after­noons:  strong down­draft winds, pelt­ing hail, heavy rain and forked light­ning.  Any­one on the water had to run for shore, pole the boat out to lessen a drub­bing onshore, and duck under a tarp to let the dark mon­ster pass.  Uncar­e­ful kayak­ers or canoeists had their boats tum­ble down the shore like dry leaves.  Once in a while, a per­son would see strikes on a ridge, then ten­drils of smoke that could be nour­ished by wind and grow to alter huge swaths of the bore­al forest.

Eagle #1 had been called out west on a com­plex fire threat­en­ing a vil­lage, so an enter­pris­ing local guy on the sec­ond crew motored upriv­er a few miles late one evening to ignite a blaze on a steep veg­e­tat­ed slope.   Sur­pris­ing­ly, the blaze made the top of the ridge to flame up in the black spruce the next day and Alas­ka Fire Ser­vice went against their own clear pol­i­cy against reward­ing sus­pect­ed arson to call up the local Eagle #2 crew to snuff it out.

Sturgill had nev­er imag­ined fly­ing in a heli­copter.  He had nev­er been on a fire crew, even in the mines.  He had nev­er cooked much over fires or eat­en with a crew of 15 oth­ers, most of whom were Native Alaskans who were a mys­tery to him.  For tired, dirty peo­ple most of the crew were friend­ly as every­one was stoked to be mak­ing good wages with lots of work hours.  Some tal­lied esti­mat­ed wages every night with sharp­ened pen­cils and dreams of a new snow­ma­chine, out­board motor or win­ter food for the family. 

Sleep­ing “hootch­es” were con­struct­ed by indi­vid­ual fire­fight­ers from black plas­tic sheet­ing and white cord.  The only real pri­va­cy one could find.  A young woman kind­ly showed him how to improve his slump­ing shel­ter.  A plague of skeets and gnats, dawn and dusk.  12 to 14 hours a day hik­ing, cut­ting line and hot spot­ting with back­pack “piss bags” refilled from a large portable pool that was filled by the chop­per dip­ping from the riv­er below.  Squawk­ing radios. Latrines. Oth­er crews arriving.

One evening, enjoy­ing a din­ner of old canned mil­i­tary field rations, some­one men­tioned a place called ‘John­nys Vil­lage’ along the riv­er bank, near town, that the Uni­ver­si­ty said was sev­er­al thou­sand years old.  Sturgill wasn’t sure he had heard right.  Some of these folks talked fun­ny.  He couldn’t get his mind around their rel­a­tives liv­ing right here so long ago.  He knew that Indi­ans lived in the Appalachi­an Moun­tains way back too, but they were run off by his own north­ern Euro­pean rel­a­tives will­ing to dig coal under­ground and pop­u­late every hol­low, to live in mate­r­i­al pover­ty, to bring forth civilization.

In camp Sturgill was strug­gling, mind and body, but hid it well for the first cou­ple of days.  End­less days.  The exer­tion, heat and smoke kin­dled a rack­ing cough and hawk­ing spit all night long.  Soon his hootch had no imme­di­ate neigh­bors. After a gru­el­ing day five, his squad boss, Son­ny Woods from Eagle, took him aside and asked about his res­pi­ra­to­ry issues.  Sturgill hemmed and hawed because he planned to tough it out to make mon­ey. But this wasn’t Sonny’s first rodeo, so he per­sist­ed, close­ly adher­ing to his respon­si­bil­i­ties.  He had already con­ferred with the crew boss about a few squad con­cerns.  The rack­ing cough of Sturgill Scog­gins was at the top of that list along with a cou­ple that nois­i­ly made whoopy about every night.

Then he noticed Sturgill’s crim­son spit rag, shook his head and sighed.  “Damn it all.  Pack your gear, Sturgill.  Be ready to board the sup­ply chop­per in a cou­ple of hours”.  He would be required to see the Vil­lage Health Aides who would talk about a diag­no­sis with physi­cians in Fair­banks before he could pos­si­bly be cleared to rejoin them.  They both knew that wasn’t going to hap­pen.  “You’ll be off the clock after you check out with Jer­ry at the Fire Sta­tion in Eagle.   You’ll get a check in a cou­ple weeks.  Good luck.”

As the long sum­mer days flowed into the wet­ter weeks of August, dreams of gold min­ing and bet­ter­ing their lives slipped away for the Scog­gins clan.  Even Sturgill, the orig­i­na­tor and pros­e­ly­tiz­er of that dream, knew that it was evap­o­rat­ing like a snow­bank in sum­mer.  He had grad­u­al­ly been forced to sell or trade most of their camp­ing and min­ing equip­ment for expen­sive store-bought food and cab­in rent.  Rec­og­niz­ing their plight, help­ful locals reg­u­lar­ly dropped by the cab­in to make absurd low ball offers on var­i­ous pieces of equip­ment and tools for lat­er resale. 

The old­est Scog­gins kids, Eartha and Jacob, were employed by the store/restau­ran­t/laun­dro­mat/s­peak-easy/heavy equipment/gas station/septic tank pumping/motel rooms/repair shop/school bus con­tract mag­nate.   They were paid less than min­i­mum wage along with oth­ers slav­ing to keep his ram­shackle empire func­tion­ing.  If any­one start­ed a small busi­ness or even talked about it, he stole the idea and crushed them to pre­serve his par­a­sitic monopoly.

Soon after her arrival, Erline began earn­ing mon­ey by clean­ing cab­ins.  She became known for her work eth­ic and easy-going man­ner.  Old­er women, espe­cial­ly those who were sin­gle, soon gos­siped about Erline spend­ing so much time at George Buck­les’ lit­tle house that “she could have scrubbed off all the wall paint and linoleum by now, you know”.  George was a kind­ly, retired min­er who had been born around Eagle and nev­er mar­ried. When asked about the lat­ter he often replied “yep, just lucky I guess”. 

The truth was that Erline and George enjoyed one another’s com­pa­ny but their pla­ton­ic rela­tion­ship was based upon mutu­al respect and a trade; she would patient­ly teach him to play a cou­ple of fid­dle tunes and he would regale her with sto­ries from his six decades of life in Eagle.  For a cou­ple of hours every few days, she could for­get about the inces­sant demands of an ail­ing Sturgill and the foot­loose kids.  Erline fret­ted most about Eartha in the large­ly dys­func­tion­al social scene in a com­mu­ni­ty of 120 at the end of the road.  She was their only daugh­ter; mid-teens, eyes open, high­ly per­cep­tive with a chance to be the first from either branch of her Appalachi­an fam­i­ly to get past high school. 

In Eagle, smoke was com­ing up the riv­er and it was swel­ter­ing; a sub­arc­tic heat wave any­way with tem­per­a­tures about 90F but with days near­ly 20 hours long.  Fine riv­er silt hung in the air long after vehi­cle pas­sage in town; most out­siders respect­ed the 15 mph signs but a few ‘mouth-breathers’ and kids on 4‑wheelers crop-dust­ed the place.  The two younger Scog­gins boys scuffed around town bored after unsuc­cess­ful fish­ing at Mis­sion Creek and wad­ing in the Yukon to cool down.  The Hen­kle­hof­fer broth­ers told them about a place they could watch a naked woman and see EVERYTHING!  Off they went.

There were two gar­den­ers in Eagle who shed their clothes to hoe and water in hot weath­er.  Old Char­lie Grun­der­strom, alabaster white and thin as a rake could be eas­i­ly seen from the busy boat land­ing area if you got the right angle.  He was old enough to be beyond car­ing.  Odd­ly, many but­toned-up old­er women who didn’t use boats man­aged to see him and shared the revolt­ing expe­ri­ence in some detail. 

Up the hill where the Tay­lor High­way dropped into town, a woman in her 40s, tanned as only a seri­ous nud­ist can be, tend­ed a huge gar­den par­tial­ly screened by road­side wil­lows.  Young fel­lows hid and watched feel­ing an odd thrill.   Most local men drove by slow­ly, just in case.  One appre­cia­tive guy whis­tled and got the fin­ger.  I sus­pect that from the ele­vat­ed seat of an RV rolling slow­ly into town, aged hus­bands and wives, tired of the dri­ve and dust, were thrilled to final­ly see the leafy town and the big riv­er.  More than one male dri­ver prob­a­bly glanced left to spy the healthy young woman bent over weed­ing car­rots, but wise­ly kept it to himself.

Life goes on while dreams fade and expe­ri­ence unleash­es new pos­si­bil­i­ties. Erline knew that Eagle was no place to set­tle in after the road closed for a daunt­ing, frigid win­ter.  Her fam­i­ly, and every­one in it, was chang­ing as fast as the sub­arc­tic sea­sons. And not for the bet­ter.  After weeks of dis­con­tent, she tear­ful­ly told Sturgill that she and the kids would be pack­ing up and head­ing to Fair­banks in the back of a return­ing sup­ply truck.  Jacob, near­ly 15, want­ed to stay with his Pap­py who had hap­pi­ly agreed to spend the approach­ing win­ter care­tak­ing a hunt­ing guide’s cab­in way up in the Brooks Range.

Erline made friends and adapt­ed beau­ti­ful­ly to the many options in poly­glot Fair­banks with the help of social ser­vices and the large Bap­tist church.  Her heart soared to hear peo­ple talk in tongues again. Eartha and her two broth­ers enrolled in school.  Fair­banks is a col­lege town and Eartha was thrilled.

Win­ter breaks hard in the Brooks Range, the north­ern­most major moun­tain range on earth.  The learn­ing curve there is an 11 out of 10.  Sturgill was weak and Jacob took on most tasks with vig­or as leaves fell.  He gut-shot two cari­bou one morn­ing, even­tu­al­ly found ‘em.  The cab­in was sim­ply stocked and hab­it­able enough.

How­ev­er, they failed to fol­low instruc­tions about clean­ing the stovepipe and cre­at­ed a chuff­ing stack fire that burned most of the roof struc­ture before they could quench the night­mare.  The radio anten­na was gone so there was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the out­side world at all.  While oth­ers scat­tered in the hin­ter­lands of north­ern Alas­ka heard Erline’s night­ly mes­sages of love and prayers, sent out on the Trapline Chat­ter pro­gram to “Sturgill and Jacob Scog­gins on Last Chance Creek”, no one could know of the des­per­ate strug­gles of the father and son.

In Decem­ber when con­di­tions final­ly allowed, the guide flew in to land on the frozen lake to check on them.  He had seen the cab­in,  dis­as­sem­bled and cov­ered with snow on his final land­ing pass. Walk­ing in knee-deep snow he soon saw the wisp of smoke of the dugout. They had dug into the hill­side just as the soil was freez­ing and built a wood­en sup­port from cab­in wood, like that of coal tun­nels Sturgill knew so well.  It was cov­ered with dirt with one small win­dow in the door fac­ing north. 

The guide was scared stiff as to what he would find.  As he approached the door, he fal­tered by a frozen body wrapped in a tarp next to a small wood­pile, then forc­ing the door open, roused a per­son fit­ful­ly doz­ing in a pile of clothes and blan­kets on a musty mat­tress in the cor­ner. As the guide’s eyes adjust­ed to the dim earth­en cave, Sturgill coughed a jag and rose on his elbow with vacant eyes.  Sob­bing, he hoarse­ly whis­pered, “my son kilt his self a while back”.

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