Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted February 27, 2022 at 8:34 am by San Juan Update
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