Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted February 27, 2022 at 8:34 am by

Freez­er Burned is an ongo­ing series for the San Juan Update, writ­ten by Steve Ulvi. Read the pre­vi­ous sto­ry in this series.

A Walk­a­bout Begins

Son­ny Johns was spent. Leg-weary, ready to call it a day. A damned impor­tant day, the first of many unpre­dictable expe­ri­ences.  A sto­ry as old as human time; an ener­getic young man leav­ing the embrace of fam­i­ly and vil­lage to find him­self in the beyond.  Son­ny had lit­tle inter­est in going on to col­lege and even less for liv­ing day to day in an Alaskan city. Yet he was painful­ly aware of his need to be away from the vil­lage. A win­ter jour­ney and months of trap­ping furbear­ers could ensue if Nate Cut­ler want­ed com­pa­ny at his remote cab­in on Ala­pah Creek.

Jim­my, his favorite uncle on his native side, left him stand­ing chilled, won­der­ing if he had every­thing he need­ed, but elat­ed to be so far along on the low­er Kuuk Riv­er. Ready to be alone, he still tast­ed the warm soup that Jim­my poured out of a wide mouth ther­mos as they stood talk­ing. “Good luck then Son­ny, take care of your­self.  You know that the spir­it of your mom walks with you”. Kneel­ing, adjust­ing the straps on his birch snow­shoes, breath cloud­ing in the beam of his head­lamp, the red tail lamp of the depart­ing snow­ma­chine blinked and then dis­ap­peared in the frozen vast­ness. The only the sounds were of the wild.

He man­aged a few miles on clack­ing snow­shoes. The straps of his heavy back­pack cut into his shoul­ders but he had warmed to his toes. The open, white land­scape reflect­ed just enough dim light from the sky that he could make his way with­out burn­ing his pre­cious head­lamp bat­ter­ies. Tir­ing, he even­tu­al­ly chose a camp spot on a low forest­ed bank when his prob­ing head­lamp beam revealed a stand­ing dead spruce behind a scat­ter of aged driftwood.

Snow­shoe­ing or walk­ing on glare ice with a heavy back­pack, siwash camp­ing at night with a camp­fire, was cer­tain­ly old school. He felt a stir­ring pride think­ing of the deter­mined wan­der­ing lives of his ances­tors, know­ing of noth­ing beyond these rivers, fur-clad, sur­viv­ing, hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions lead­ing to his com­ing into being. He was glad to be alone where there was no life-line. He knew that the mar­gin for error in win­ter thins con­sid­er­ably. He under­stood that the only tan­gi­ble relief from dif­fi­cul­ties in frigid weath­er was the respite of a dry log cab­in or a tent and stove with a good pile of dry wood.

Son­ny had been think­ing a lot about the con­se­quences of fail­ure.  Get­ting wet, suf­fer­ing injury, get­ting low on food, bro­ken equip­ment or even accu­mu­lat­ing damp­ness in his bag or clothes over time could have com­pound­ing con­se­quences.  It’s almost always the way “adven­ture sto­ries” began; a mis­take or unfore­seen exhi­bi­tion of nature’s pow­er. An inabil­i­ty to stay warm or rest can eas­i­ly result in fuzzy deci­sions and acci­dents or a hel­lu­va lot worse.

He thought of the scowl­ing Ger­man hunt­ing guide, Adolph Bergmann, who retired, then ran the Tonas­ket Cross­ing Trad­ing Post for years, proud­ly spin­ning tales over the stained ply­wood counter describ­ing hero­ic mis­ad­ven­tures result­ing in miss­ing sev­er­al toes and obvi­ous­ly most of an ear. He described slic­ing off the black­ened parts with the help of whiskey and a razor blade. As a kid Son­ny had stood wide-eyed around the frozen body and wax­en skin of an old sick­ened woman who had curled up and died of expo­sure at the edge of the vil­lage. But his most trou­bling mem­o­ry was of two boys he knew that drowned in a lake, their cries for help fad­ing, after their snow­ma­chine plunged through thin ice. One was half out of the ragged hole, sheath knife in a des­per­ate dou­ble-fist­ed grip, frozen to the ice. It had tak­en hours to care­ful­ly chip them out.  That had been his first offi­cial Search and Res­cue mis­sion, but not the last.

Son­ny awoke ear­ly, hours before light, stir­ring and ready to give up after a long, fit­ful night. He had been too tired to enter the thick for­est edge to cut arm­loads of spruce boughs. The ground felt as hard as a buck­led wood floor under his thin pad and cari­bou hide. But the first night out was like that. One of the times he sur­faced to con­scious­ness, turn­ing over yet again, he heard a cho­rus of wolves back on the flats, pups com­i­cal­ly imi­tat­ing, learn­ing. Then a low howl in response from some­where across the riv­er. There were many wolves and larg­er packs this winter.

After doz­ing, sev­er­al times, he heard the tick­ing of snowflakes on the tarp, checked his watch, then man­aged to twist around to find the zip­per to slow­ly sit up push­ing back the cov­er­ing of his thick mum­my bag.  He leaned out with his care­ful set aside of dry fire-start­ing mate­ri­als, fist-warm­ing his lighter to rekin­dle his smol­der­ing camp­fire. He bur­rowed back into warmth, slid into com­fort of remem­ber­ing the warm smells of Annie’s lus­trous dark hair, flash­ing eyes and easy laugh. She had abrupt­ly left him and the vil­lage for the anonymi­ty of town.

He was more than ready to get up, stretch­ing his legs and back, stand­ing to care­ful­ly lean fore­arm-thick wood to feed the snap­ping blaze. It was reas­sur­ing that the air felt warmed to about zero. Turn­ing back to front warm­ing his insu­lat­ed cov­er­alls he packed more snow into his cook pot, mak­ing water. He stared into the lick­ing flames, grin­ning remem­ber­ing his uncle’s juve­nile teas­ing about “avoid­ing scoop­ing up yel­low snow or moose nuggets!”  But he took to heart the hard-earned advice about drink­ing plen­ty of water all day and using a pee bot­tle in the long night to avoid rolling out to stand in the cold. Dehy­dra­tion in the cold was an insid­i­ous trig­ger for com­pound­ing problems.

The ath­let­i­cal­ly built twen­ty-year old sport­ed a smudge of lip hair that he called a mus­tache, soft­ened jerky in cups of scald­ing black tea, chew­ing hun­gri­ly while tend­ing gear draped on brush in the small dome of light and warmth.  The cur­tain of a very short Decem­ber day rose reluc­tant­ly, imper­cep­ti­bly.  A fam­i­ly group of grey jays approached, perched, then flit­ted in close. The bone-col­ored moon was out­sized, craters blue-shad­owed, but slow­ly veiled as clouds low­ered soon blur­ring the forest­ed ridges.  Son­ny knew the course of the Kuuk fair­ly well up to the Ram­parts Camp. Anx­ious to get going, he checked his fold­ed map, fig­ured he had to be close to Sul­phur Creek. That was now the south­ern bound­ary of the unwel­come new nation­al park and pre­serve every­one was wor­ried about. He would still be short of Henderson’s Mine, maybe 18 trail miles.

He expect­ed to find trap­ping trails set by the Hen­der­son teens in the pro­tect­ed, snaking sloughs and oxbows along the low east­ern shore­line. Ptarmi­gan flocks and plen­ti­ful snow­shoe hares would be hun­gri­ly feed­ing on wil­low bark and buds. His light rifle, a sin­gle shot .22 cal­iber over/.410 shot­gun under, would give him a good chance at pot meat. Any­thing to boost watery noo­dles, orange Tang, jerky and margarine.

By mid­day he was mak­ing his way in about a foot of snow, packed or blown off depend­ing upon the reach and eddy­ing of the search­ing wind. It was snow­ing icy, dime-size flakes, swirling vis­i­bil­i­ty in a dim grey same­ness. He stayed along the east bank for ref­er­ence, look­ing around intent­ly, think­ing he had made 8 or 9 miles, shift­ing the rifle one hand to the oth­er, shoul­ders aching. Stop­ping, drop­ping the pack felt like ele­vat­ing off the ground, he unbuck­led the ‘shoes, swept back snow down­wind side of a sit­ting log and short­ly set to kin­dling a tea fire. He turned on a swiv­el to cluck­ing nasal calls as a flock of impos­si­bly white wil­low ptarmi­gan streaked by; low, tilt­ing, fol­low­ing, then merged with the blend­ed land­scape. Son­ny quar­tered his remain­ing jerked meat, made water care­ful­ly, avoid­ing wet­ting his moose­hide foot­gear around the melt edge of the cook­fire.  The gen­tlest of scroungers, ‘camp rob­ber’ jays dropped in quick­ly to flap and glide off with his tossed scraps.

He stared upriv­er into the grey expanse, imag­in­ing what he knew would be there. He wasn’t at all sure that he want­ed to join into the bright elec­tric light and busy inter­ac­tion of fam­i­ly ener­gy at Henderson’s. Being the cen­ter of atten­tion and bear­er of vil­lage news. Not many miles fur­ther on, if he bypassed them, was the com­fort­able soli­tude at Old Peter’s cab­in at the Kuuk Ram­parts. He had not been able to bring him­self to join in fall salmon har­vest there any­more but knew the cab­in to be in usable shape.

The rawest mem­o­ries were the moments of giv­ing in to the erup­tive night­mare: his mom’s beast­ly maul­ing, car­ried off to face a gris­ly death alone, in dark­ness. It would always be the longest night of his life, all of them hud­dled togeth­er in anx­ious fear in that cab­in. Kerosene lamps flick­er­ing, Old Peter’s rheumy eyes unclosed, star­ing at the floor in the free-fall of know­ing.  Then at first light grim­ly deter­mined, Son­ny led a nerve-jan­gled search into the drip­ping for­est with Edward; drag marks here then there, bro­ken branch­es, a famil­iar shoe and blood­ied sock. Angry and scared, stop­ping often, rounds cham­bered, their eyes search­ing every shape ahead, track­ing with the bar­rels of their rifles.

The flow of these trou­bled mem­o­ries switched off the moment his eyes alert­ed his brain to a num­ber of wolves at dis­tance; opaque grey ghosts, tails low, trot­ting up the riv­er, unaware of him. No sounds at all, like watch­ing the scene under­wa­ter. Back in the moment, he was reas­sured that the future would unfold, choic­es would become appar­ent not be con­jured or pre­dict­ed. Not long after, a trio of ravens veered, wings pump­ing to check him out. They croaked and swooped to con­tin­ue into the white gauze upriv­er. Son­ny returned a gut­tur­al call.

He found a bare­ly vis­i­ble tobog­gan trail, just as he thought he might, once he entered the sloughs behind the Cay­ou Islands. Stop­ping, cock­ing his bare head, hat in hand, he thought that he heard a faint snow­ma­chine whine far across the Kuuk.  Then noth­ing. He fol­lowed the faint sled track and soon rec­og­nized a cub­by set just off the trail, sure­ly for lynx or wolver­ine with bird wings twist­ing in the light breeze as visu­al attrac­tants, the entry undis­turbed under the new­ly fall­en snow a few steps off the trail.

He wor­ried that there were blind wolf sets hid­den on the trail itself. He knew that if he trod over one it would snap the trap, but if he noticed guide sticks or some oth­er indi­ca­tion of a trap and went around it, wolves might leave the main trail to fol­low his new trail. He knew that the teens depend­ed on dog teams, so traps set on the main trail along the riv­er mar­gin where the wind could drift them in were unlike­ly, and prob­a­bly signed with card­board warn­ings. He hoped so any­way. Trap­ping fur was hard enough with­out unex­pect­ed trav­el­ers botch­ing care­ful­ly laid sets. He eyes picked out the skeins of ptarmi­gan tracks and plunge holes, shot­gun at the ready, but he jumped the large flock before he made out the near­est birds per­fect­ly hid­den in plain sight.

The clouds lift­ed reluc­tant­ly and flur­ries thinned just as the dim light of day waned. Tir­ing, Son­ny was invig­o­rat­ed by the beau­ty and abun­dant ani­mal signs in the cur­va­ture of the sloughs; dark stands of spruce on larg­er islands front­ed by poplar and low­er wil­lows, bare limbs traced with snow. Fresh riv­er otter slides con­nect­ed some patch­es of open water. Zig-zag moose sign wan­dered from dense wil­low feed patch­es and across again, bed­ding depres­sions and piles of dark brown drop­pings told of undis­turbed use. Fresh lynx pug marks, round and close set, traced along edges and red fox tracks stitched togeth­er places of inter­est­ing odors, dig­gings.  Snow­shoe hare trails tun­neled under thick wil­lows and bound­ed across the open snow of the slough. A blood spat­ter and tufts of silky grey-white hair was framed by wing marks where a great horned owl had silent­ly struck.

Dump­ing his pack, Son­ny moved cau­tious­ly, scan­ning for hints of move­ment, see­ing a round brown eye, ears erect, care­ful­ly aimed, the sharp crack echo­ing off the bluffs while the hare was kick­ing reflex­ive­ly on its side. And then anoth­er that paused a moment too long, after reload­ing the .22 and miss­ing twice. Sev­er­al wood­peck­ers silenced by the unnat­ur­al sounds, resumed an insis­tent stac­ca­to drum­ming on grey poles at the edge of an old burn. Kli-kli-kli, flap-glide-flap to anoth­er limb­less pole. Son­ny men­tal­ly thanked the hares for giv­ing them­selves, pick­ing them up to tie togeth­er by the hind legs, sur­pris­ing­ly long bod­ied in death.

Now ener­gized, Son­ny shuf­fled for­ward the best part of a mile, even­tu­al­ly don­ning his head­lamp. He scanned along expanse of a larg­er, tim­bered island for a place to find deep moss beneath the edge of the spruce. The dark shapes of a cow moose and calf clam­bered up a far bank. A few stars blinked from long dead pin­pricks over­head. He guessed that it was some­thing like 10 below zero and drop­ping as it cleared.

The bare­ly dis­cern­able curv­ing track veered toward the oppo­site wil­lowed bank where move­ment caught his eye, then green eye­shine. A sil­ver fox tugged then cow­ered on pound­ed snow at his approach, a front paw in a steel trap. Paus­ing momen­tar­i­ly, he low­ered his pack and approached to do the right thing; swift death for the fox to pre­vent his pos­si­ble escape as a crip­ple.  He knew that the bul­let must be unerr­ing­ly placed, the cross­ing point between the ears and eyes, to do no dam­age to the prime fur. The dis­tressed fox made it easy. He silent­ly watched the life leave in ever small­er spasms then hung the fox by the trap chain in a large wil­low to keep it off the snow where mice might gnaw the fur. Respect. His mom smiled with him.

Son­ny had removed his snow­shoes to deal with the fox and was ready to find a good camp. After tying his rifle and the hares to the top of his pack he car­ried the light trail webs under his arm and set off, head­lamp beam swing­ing up to the for­est edges back across the trail. With­out warn­ing, oth­er than he was at the low sec­tion of the nar­row slough cross­ing, he plunged into 2 feet of icy over­flow water beneath the snow. After the moment of sur­prise, he pitched for­ward onto his chest and floun­dered under the bulk and weight of the pack, crawl­ing for­ward to his knees. Shuck­ing the pack, Son­ny stood breath­ing hard, cussing him­self, quick­ly stomp­ing and kick­ing into deep­er dry snow up the bank in order to wick some of the water away. Pick­ing up the webs and reshoul­der­ing the pack, Son­ny zipped up his out­er par­ka to push up the trail, flex­ing his toes to warmth inside his frozen stove pipe pant legs and wood­en footgear.

Chop­ping and hand-snap­ping sil­vered branch­es from a lean­ing spruce, need­ing to build a large fire for hours of dry­ing gear, Son­ny paused at the recog­ni­tion of the dis­tant take-off whine of a plane car­ry­ing in the cold air, then slight­ly loud­er as the plane turned and climbed in the dark­ness. Had to be Lars Hen­der­son tak­ing advan­tage of clear­ing skies for some rea­son. The well-known Cess­na 185 set­tled into a less­er growl at cruise and after a few min­utes passed high over­head, light blink­ing, bear­ing south beneath a scat­ter of stars. Intent with thaw­ing his pants, Son­ny won­dered if Lars had seen the orange flames far beneath in the vast dark expanse of coun­try. He fig­ured that Lars didn’t miss much.

Loop­ing a cord noose around each hare’s hind leg to a staub on the lean­er, in turn he made prac­ticed cuts, pulling the hides down like a sock, cut­ting loose the meaty hind quar­ters and pulling the guts for the hearts and liv­ers. He left the rest to freeze, scrubbed blood­ied fin­gers in snow and vig­or­ous­ly warmed them by the spark­ing blaze, now near­ly as tall as he was. He drank some water then used some to more quick­ly start melt­ing snow. His child­hood inter­est in learn­ing to be a pilot rose with his thoughts of Lars fly­ing above it all. He kicked him­self over the soak­ing, should have sus­pect­ed, but was thank­ful that the hid­den over­flow wasn’t deep­er or a real shit show, like if he had gone through deep­er while strapped into snowshoes.

His hunger sharp­ened at the smell of meat cook­ing. He boost­ed the lean soup with a hard glob of mar­garine, spooned out the steam­ing innards to cool for a moment, then chew­ing slow­ly felt a surge of well-being. Plen­ty of boughs near at hand, but even bet­ter after scrap­ing a few inch­es of snow off with a snow­shoe, was thick sphag­num moss. Son­ny spent a half an hour or more tying togeth­er a lim­by dry­ing frame, his small tarp over the top to trap heat just a bit longer, to slow dry his over-pants, woolen lin­ers, cot­ton gloves and heavy socks. His smoke tanned moose­hide foot­gear was set back even more to avoid any pos­si­bil­i­ty of scorching.

After care­ful­ly plac­ing the larg­er wood for hours of heat and low flame Son­ny sipped water, piled snow on his pot of unfin­ished soup and refilled water jug, swept camp with his head­lamp, placed nec­es­sary things just so and set­tled into his sleep­ing bag, bone tired. Pulling his rifle and piss bot­tle clos­er he lay on his back work­ing his toes in thick wool socks that his mom had knit­ted for his father before he left abrupt­ly back in that hurt­ful sum­mer.  The blue-black sky was strewn with a mil­lion stars beyond snaking green lights tinged with red. He heard the bare­ly per­cep­ti­ble swish­ing sound that vil­lage elders said came from the auro­ra as he pulled the mum­my bag hood tight, zip­pered to his chin, giv­ing into the wel­come obliv­ion of sleep.

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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