Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted December 18, 2021 at 5:22 am by

Freez­er Burned is an ongo­ing series on the San Juan Update, writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

(Authors note: this fic­tion­al tale of Alas­ka bush life adven­ture, grief and redemp­tion, cir­ca the 1980s, will be con­tin­ued found­ed upon two pre­vi­ous sto­ries.  See Freez­er Burned: “No Mat­ter What” and “The Con­fines of Heav­en” for char­ac­ter background.)

The Con­fines of Heav­en (part II)

An unusu­al­ly sharp deep­freeze gripped a broad swath of the Yukon Riv­er basin after a lengthy autumn of gold­en light.  Bore­al con­ti­nen­tal cold is uncom­pro­mis­ing. The first win­ter months high in Alaska’s sub­arc­tic, are dic­tat­ed by the inter­play of unpre­dictable atmos­pher­ic forces, nev­er in the same mix. The syn­er­gy of moist, low- pres­sure troughs invad­ing far from the North Pacif­ic to clash with con­ti­nen­tal high-pres­sure ridges, stirred by the snaking jet stream, is a mete­o­ro­log­i­cal crap shoot for any inland region around 67 degrees north.

The wan­ing days of a sub­arc­tic Novem­ber are an accel­er­a­tor for seri­ous cold.  A so-called “Omega High” had stag­nant­ly domed the Yukon basin for weeks.   Again, this morn­ing the air was dense beneath clear skies, forc­ing the smoke that qui­et­ly chuffed from every stovepipe in the vil­lage of Tonas­ket Cross­ing to hug the ground.  Large pans of float­ing ice spun with a soft crys­talline grind along the shore ice that extend­ed from the stair-step mud shelves of the shore­line.  Con­di­tions promised an ear­ly Yukon Riv­er freeze-up. 

Contributed photo

Wreathed in the mist ris­ing from the mov­ing water in front of the his­toric Epis­co­pal church, a dozen riv­er boats sat askew; well dust­ed with wind-blown beach silt, high and dry where they had been teth­ered to strand­ed drift­wood since the late fall.  A stocky man in stained, insu­lat­ed over­alls and untied shoepacs clenched a smoke in his teeth to toss off his jack­et to more effec­tive­ly wres­tle a met­al skiff onto a long wood­en pal­let. The pal­let was roped to his red ATV hitch on the slope of the exposed beach. 

He sweat­ed pro­fuse­ly despite the minus 15F air tem­per­a­ture and breeze.  His smoke lipped and eyes squint­ed, he cussed and half-heart­ed­ly kicked at a loose husky dog for lift­ing a leg on his machine.  The yel­low splat­ter froze quick­ly on the plas­tic fend­er and bal­loon tire as the guy sad­dled the ATV and lurched for­ward, tires spin­ning, to slow­ly pull the drag back to his cab­in.  The wan­der­ing dog fol­lowed, trail­ing its chain to parade with tail curled high past a teth­ered mutt lung­ing and bark­ing psychotically.

More often than not, by mid-Novem­ber, an infill­ing of snow would have been slow­ly blan­ket­ing the low coun­try, but the tiny, icy flakes from weeks of cold, dry air had bare­ly whitened the brick sol­id ground.  Edged by wil­lows fes­tooned with trash, a shal­low slough curved along the wash-board­ed back road, capped by sev­er­al inch­es of translu­cent ice that entrapped odd pat­terns of hub­cap-size grey bub­bles, clumps of yel­lowed leaves.  Branch­es of sur­round­ing alder and cot­ton­wood rubbed and clacked like a thou­sand chop sticks in the brit­tle wind.

Contributed photo

As the days short­ened and social­ly coher­ing fes­tiv­i­ties around Thanks­giv­ing passed, fre­net­ic huskies danced and barked on short chains among frozen turds and large ani­mal bones.   Vil­lage Ravens tail-chased and graakked over­head to kite down and strut just out of reach of some of the chained dogs.  They clear­ly enjoyed the ancient dance of scav­enger and predator. 

Son­ny Johns turned and stood for a moment after pad­lock­ing his entry door, let­ting his eyes adjust to the dim morn­ing light.  The “shot­gun style cab­in” had been his mother’s place and his rus­tic fam­i­ly home, before her hor­rif­ic maul­ing death up at The Ram­parts fish camp, two falls back.  It deeply pained Son­ny to think of her anguish and fear and his own fran­tic, futile efforts to pre­vent her from being vicious­ly borne into the drip­ping for­est gloam.  Then she was gone for­ev­er.  A well-armed search par­ty found her bones piled with for­est duff a few days later.

Son­ny, now 19, cursed his recent, high­ly out of char­ac­ter fall from grace in a few days of drunk­en­ness fol­low­ing his live-in girlfriend’s abrupt depar­ture for the bright lights of Fair­banks.  As he walked in the som­no­lent vil­lage, he felt the break­down and dis­tor­tion of alco­hol and could eas­i­ly dis­cern which fam­i­lies suf­fered most from the malaise of addic­tion.   Two yam­mer­ing kids wob­bled passed him, bun­dled on their squeak­ing bikes.  His gen­er­a­tion, and the one before, were most­ly con­fused young men angered by their neb­u­lous roles in third world con­di­tions with few viable eco­nom­ic prospects.  In con­trast, women had always been cul­tur­al lead­ers and a coher­ing force in the tribe.

The piles of wood and pal­lets (and chain­saw-dulling, silty drift wood that had been towed to the boat land­ing weeks back by whin­ing, churn­ing out­boards) were shrink­ing alarm­ing­ly at some cab­ins.  Despite the frigid overnight tem­per­a­tures, some cab­ins emit­ted no smoke at all.  A hand­ful of fam­i­lies were already saw­ing and burn­ing their fish rack poles that were essen­tial in sum­mer fish har­vest.  A Witte gen­er­a­tor thumped rhyth­mi­cal­ly in a sooty, pad-locked build­ing pro­vid­ing elec­tric­i­ty for light and appli­ances as long as the barged-in fuel lasted.

Son­ny hat­ed the boot­leg­gers for their soul­less, par­a­sitic busi­ness while loathing his own weak­ness.  He knew he had so much to be thank­ful for.   Dur­ing these trou­bling ‘drink­ing times’, morn­ing was usu­al­ly a time of slum­ber, sick­ness and guilt after a night of wild behav­ior and fam­i­ly vio­lence.   Some­times the State Troop­ers flew in to inves­ti­gate com­plaints, make an arrest.  Hol­ler­ing, gun­fire and snow machine races on bar­ren grav­el roads, sparks fly­ing into the dark wee hours, was impos­si­ble to ignore in a tight­ly clus­tered vil­lage of over 300 most­ly relat­ed peo­ple.  Cold, dense air car­ries sound all too well.

Hav­ing gained a grip on him­self, after tough love from respect­ed uncles and aun­ties, Son­ny avoid­ed most of the chaos by cut­ting fire­wood or hunt­ing back on the flats by day.  At night he locked his arc­tic entry door, ignor­ing the bang­ing and hol­ler­ing by row­dies look­ing for a warm place.  And more intox­i­cants of any kind.  His bruised face and wrist still hurt from tus­sling and being cut in a bro­ken win­dow a week earlier.

As it was a Sun­day, old Chief Peter and his wife Eliza, both in their 80s and up ear­ly as always, stoked the church bar­rel stove and rem­i­nisced in their gut­tur­al tongue about the old sub­sis­tence pat­terns so many decades ear­li­er. Many fam­i­lies would have been itch­ing to trav­el to dis­tant tent camps to trap fur ani­mals and live off the coun­try until the New Year.  It had been much cold­er, like this, back then.  Peter ran his gnarled hand through his thin hair and adjust­ed his cap at the frost­ed glass win­dow to watch Son­ny walk with pur­pose in the ground mist.  He was one of the favored young men of the extend­ed fam­i­ly for his work eth­ic and skills in the tra­di­tion­al ways.  He was still young, but had been tem­pered by tragedy and the inner strength that must follow.

Peter recalled the ser­vice in which a youth­ful, long-haired Fair­banks min­is­ter had spo­ken of “god’s lov­ing plan” for tak­ing Sarah away, Sonny’s mom who was one of Peter and Eliza’s lov­ing grand-daugh­ters. Those flow­ery phras­es had trou­bled Son­ny.  Soon after that somber day, Son­ny had testi­ly chal­lenged old Peter. “Why would God, who cre­at­ed every­thing, includ­ing those griz­zly bears, call for a ter­ri­ble death for a spe­cial woman, a leader?  Why would such a God stand by while boot­leg­gers, with­out shame, prey on the sick­ness of good peo­ple?” Peter sat silent­ly, nod­ding, know­ing that his adopt­ed Chris­t­ian response would not salve Sonny’s pain. 

Contributed photo

The old man nat­u­ral­ly thought about his tra­di­tion­al cul­tur­al beliefs based upon 10,000 years of co-exis­tence with Griz­zly Bear; left pawed, an extreme­ly pow­er­ful spir­it to be respect­ed, women were nev­er to speak its name or look direct­ly at them.  The drink­ing hunters from his vil­lage whom he had turned away from the fish camp just days before Sarah was killed, had bragged about shoot­ing at two bears plung­ing into the brush down­riv­er, maybe wound­ing one.

Son­ny made his way between bat­tered snow machines, ATVs, wood pal­lets, and fuel drums cloaked in brown grass. Jimmy’s dusty pick­up truck was half full of funky smelling trash bags pecked open by ravens.  Son­ny mount­ed rot­ting steps into an arc­tic entry stuffed with card­board box­es and dry wood.  He rapped smart­ly and wait­ed.  Announc­ing him­self and hear­ing no signs of life he knocked loud­er, hear­ing shuf­fling and mut­ter­ing through the bat­tered wood­en door.

One of Jimmy’s teenaged sons cracked the door, unsteadi­ly push­ing long black hair out of his face, a hand shad­ing squint­ing eyes with bare­ly a hint of greet­ing.  He sleep­i­ly turned back and motioned toward the kitchen, walk­ing bare­foot past two girls breath­ing deeply, wrapped in blan­kets on a couch.  Jim­my and his wife fre­quent­ly offered a place to sleep and eat for teens avoid­ing trou­ble at home. Son­ny care­ful­ly stepped around a thaw­ing beaver car­cass, as big as he had ever seen, lying on card­board in the entry to the kitchen.

Jim­my, a hard-lived gen­er­a­tion old­er than Son­ny wore a frayed Yan­kees t‑shirt, dingy sweat pants and unlaced bas­ket­ball shoes.  He still owned the local high school record for points scored in a bas­ket­ball sea­son.  Son­ny had also starred decades lat­er on the same hard­wood gym floor.  Lean and affa­ble with pierc­ing dark eyes he turned slight­ly from lean­ing straight-armed at the formi­ca counter edge, where nailed blan­kets part­ed to the morn­ing light com­ing through frost­ed win­dow panes. He smiled in say­ing “Mornin’ dere nephew, some coffee?”

“Sure, alright then”.  Son­ny unzipped his leather coat, moved a water jug, and slid onto a met­al chair with SCHOOL PROPERTY uneven­ly sten­ciled on it.  Scoop­ing two table­spoons of crust­ed sug­ar from an open bowl, he pushed away the reek­ing, plas­tic jar lid in front of him, piled with fil­tered butts.  A baby’s thin cry was lov­ing­ly shushed behind a closed door.  Jimmy’s first grand­child was named for the moral strength of his depart­ed sis­ter, Sarah.

Jim­my raised his chin toward a fry­pan of cold white­fish in con­gealed Crisco.  Blow­ing and sip­ping, Son­ny shook his head, “Already ate soup, Unc.  I want to char­ter you up the Kuuk.  Get on up past Pok­er Creek mine soon as soon as it snows.  I got­ta dog sled.  You can tow me and my pack and gear. I will snow­shoe and siwash camp from there on up to Ala­pah.   Maybe stop at Hendersons”.

“Guess you’re thinkin’ to get up there to trap with park ranger Nate, I bet?  A long­ways up there, what 80 some riv­er miles, nobody else close?   If that allot­ment of Old Peter’s was clos­er to the vil­lage, we would get Nate boot­ed out so we could use the place”.  He smiled ruefully.

“Nate came through last fall after a gov­ern­ment float on the upper Kuuk, way up in the Park.  He invit­ed me this win­ter.  Good marten and wolf coun­try, cari­bou too, ya know.  I like him OK and can’t be hap­py here.  I have some cord wood on the flats ready to sell, then I can pay you”.  

“That poor baby girl suf­fo­cat­ed in the sled bag.   After Angela flew back here with Hen­der­son, I heard talk after that that Nate’s old man, a preach­er, fooled with his own daugh­ter up the Yukon there by Mis­sion City.  Maybe Nates not right too, ya know?  I saw Ange in Anchor­age this fall.  You know she hard­ly smiles any­more.  She might nev­er get over that loss of a first child, then see­ing our sis­ter Sarah’s death.  She don’t even talk about that time up there at Ala­pah, mar­ried and all.  She told me she wrote Nate tellin’ him she wants a divorce to start over in the city”.

Son­ny shrugged, not hav­ing words, fin­ished his mug and promised to be ready in a week.  He stepped out, qui­et­ly clos­ing the door and zip­ping his jack­et, just as the sin­gle-engine mail plane arriv­ing from Fair­banks banked loud­ly over the wide riv­er, plex­i­glass glint­ing in the sun on final approach to the airstrip in the thick morn­ing air. 


He knew that Stan, the lone Vil­lage Pub­lic Safe­ty Offi­cer, would be wait­ing to search sus­pi­cious bag­gage for ille­gal impor­ta­tion of alco­hol or drugs, some­times by his own rel­a­tives.  And maybe sub­tly warn come-to-a-meet­ing peo­ple like the Park Ser­vice staff or region­al school dis­trict offi­cials that it was not a good time to hold a meet­ing in the vil­lage.  As Son­ny stepped past a short-chained, skin­ny hound dog with no future lying shiv­er­ing on a filthy blan­ket, one dark eye fol­lowed him unblinking.

Ten days lat­er, Son­ny tight­ly gripped the sled han­dle bow, turn­ing slight­ly side­ways to the snow­ma­chine fumes and sear­ing air at 25 mph as Jim­my scout­ed a route to the Kuuk Riv­er con­flu­ence.   The icon­ic but­tress of forest­ed bluff was vis­i­ble in the ground fog com­ing from the black water where to two strong cur­rents met.  Com­plete­ly bun­dled; insu­lat­ed cov­er­alls, fur-rimmed hood up, face mask, bead­ed moose­hide mitts over gloves, Son­ny bal­anced on the sled run­ners skit­ter­ing over the glare ice and hard sas­tru­gi along the Yukon shore.  Exposed and going too fast to run behind, it was the cold­est way to travel.

Ear­ly freez­ing shelves had grown from the shore, then col­lapsed as the water lev­el dropped.   The weight of sag­ging, float­ing mid-chan­nel ice pushed water out in all those cracks near shore to refreeze as a smoother mar­gin between land and the jum­bled riv­er ice.  The head­light searched and swung wild­ly, met­al skis of the Polaris clack­ing.  Son­ny, despite his fit­ness had been jolt­ed off the run­ners, to drag momen­tar­i­ly then let go to avoid injury.  The first time Jim­my was so focused on pick­ing a course, that he didn’t notice for a bit, had to loop back, laugh­ing at Son­ny jog­ging to catch up.

The low­er Kuuk Riv­er was hard against a series of steep bluffs cut by plung­ing creeks in forest­ed notch­es along the west­ern bank.   Exten­sive oxbow flats and mixed for­est lay beyond the east­ern shore.  Both men had hoped for bet­ter snow con­di­tions and were reward­ed by local topo­graph­ic effects, allow­ing them to pick up some speed head­ing away from the broad Yukon Riv­er.  They passed sev­er­al vil­lage fish camps vis­i­ble at the edge of the spruce across the foot­ball field width of riv­er, where good eddies for salmon set nets were cre­at­ed by the rock­fall of unsta­ble bluffs along the deep waters of the west­ern shoreline.

They whined past the barge land­ing, log cab­in ruins and an old cater­pil­lar trac­tor clothed by wil­lows at Pok­er Creek Mine where sin­u­ous snow­ma­chine tracks dropped onto the riv­er and some­times loop­ing up the bank to fish camps.  After a cou­ple dozen miles, a large clot of ravens reluc­tant­ly lift­ed with rau­cous fan­fare from the thin snow drifts at the mar­gin of a low, drift wood laced island.   Three wolves, one very dark, tails straight behind, swift­ly trot­ted away into a back slough.

Curi­ous, Jim­my fol­lowed the days-old machine trails up to the island, ready to stretch, share a ther­mos of tea and cook­ies and add gas from a jug tied into the sled.  As the dying engine sounds echoed from the bluffs both men stepped toward sev­er­al cari­bou car­cass­es; frozen and ripped opened by scav­engers.  The dead ani­mals lay in a tram­pled area of bloody snow, raven white­wash and tufts of grey hair.  There was a scat­ter of spent hand­gun brass near one.  Only the hindquar­ters and antlers of three white-maned herd bulls had been hacked away, leav­ing the rest and three young cows to lay.

Always both­ered by the uneth­i­cal waste of healthy ani­mals, Son­ny cussed while kick­ing around, sip­ping his tea.  Jim­my stood silent­ly, cradling his scoped rifle in case the wolves came into the open.  “Damn min­ers!  Same out­law bull­shit!  What now, two years since the price of gold is up and those fat-cat Tex­ans ramped up oper­a­tions.  Son­ny, you heard about that moose hunt­ing group from Fair­banks last year that only land­ed by the mine ramp and were held at gun­point for hours?”

“Nope.  But Lars Hen­der­son had some hol­ler­ing and gun point­ing trou­bles near his place last win­ter.  Some­thing bad about one of his daugh­ters run­ning dogs and being both­ered on the riv­er.  And Nate despis­es the min­ing crew’s spring trips to poach sheep and run wolves near the cliffs above Ala­pah Creek.  He hates them but hasn’t decid­ed to risk turnin’ ‘em in”.

Dusk set­tled in the ear­ly after­noon.  Soon it would be dark and Son­ny want­ed to get a few more miles up before Jim­my decid­ed it was time to turn back.  Then he would be on his own.  He was more than ready to embrace the solitude.

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One comment...

  1. Like this Arti­cle, thank you

    Comment by Rex on December 21, 2021 at 6:12 am

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