Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted May 25, 2022 at 6:01 pm by

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

A Yukon Riv­er Maverick

(This sto­ry is cre­ative non-fic­tion; respect­ful­ly embell­ished where fact and anec­dote blur, an informed yet spec­u­la­tive tale. No one knows just what hap­pened dur­ing the last days and hours of the active, inten­tion­al life of Richard O. Cook. He was a mav­er­ick, seam­less­ly at home on the low­er Taton­duk Riv­er, and a friend. He was mas­ter­ful­ly depict­ed as an Alas­ka bush-dwelling char­ac­ter in the 1977 clas­sic, Com­ing into the Coun­try by John McPhee).

Stooped some, slight of frame with cord­ed mus­cles, Dick Cook hard­ly appeared to be 70 years along the path of life. His thin­ning dark curly hair bloomed at the edge of his sweat­shirt hood; eyes steady, wheels turn­ing in his head as always. Cook sipped black tea from a tan­nin-shel­lacked cup near the river’s ris­ing edge. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, his teeth also showed his love of strong tea. Brush­ing away hov­er­ing mos­qui­tos, star­ing upriv­er, he pushed his hood back to bet­ter assess the clear­ing sky; his untamed beard and hair looked to be trimmed by a sharp knife, his worn clothes and a hood­ed sweat­shirt always the same.

Cook’s unre­mark­able log shack tucked on a small forest­ed island at Pass Creek, piled with decades of stuff, had burned and col­lapsed a cou­ple of years back.  A stone’s throw behind where Cook stood, close to the charred pile was his mold-freck­led wall tent, ele­vat­ed cache and strewn camp. A year before, he had loaded his old 4x4 truck with build­ing mate­ri­als, put it on a raft in Eagle, guid­ed it 27 miles with his canoe, land­ed at his cab­in and motored up the Taton­duk Riv­er grav­el bars (in vio­la­tion of many laws, con­ser­va­tion ethics and com­mon sense) for a cou­ple of miles. It still sat on a high bar 4 miles down; unmov­ing. Cab­in rebuild­ing stalled out. One of his cher­ished sled dogs, inbred for decades in a pride­ful Cookian selec­tion process, roamed and barked at red squir­rels who chat­tered teas­ing­ly in the grey-green spruce canopy.

The weeks around sum­mer sol­stice are often a marathon of labor and re-cre­ation for bush-dwellers. It is an intense peri­od of riotous light when clocks lose mean­ing. This day, the front peaks up the Taton­duk Riv­er (thought to mean “Riv­er of Bro­ken Rocks” in Han Atha­paskan) were obscured in cloy­ing clouds. Upper drainage rain had swelled the riv­er; flood­ing braid­ed bars of larg­er cob­ble that nor­mal­ly shoul­dered the flow with­in the main chan­nels in a read­able way. At a pace that a capa­ble river­man could handle. 

Cook knew this stretch of mod­est riv­er flow­ing from an impas­si­ble slot canyon up in Cana­da; like­ly bet­ter than any­one with white skin ever had, after hun­dreds of canoe trips up and down. But at high­wa­ter, widen­ing chutes gain veloc­i­ty and build hydraulic ener­gy that tum­bles mel­on cob­ble beneath the sur­face cre­at­ing a muf­fled knock­ing. Inun­dat­ed wil­low bars were being scoured while leafy flex­i­ble stems bent down­stream. Log­jams deposit­ed in pre­vi­ous floods strained the rac­ing current.

At that moment, nego­ti­at­ing the half-dozen snaking miles to the Yukon and his sum­mer cab­in was chancy.  His lay­ing hens, feed grain as well as bags of dried fish, chains, water bowls, assort­ed gear and mail to go to Eagle, would be lashed low in his dent­ed 19-foot Grum­man square stern canoe. His few dogs would eager­ly run along the forest­ed bank trail; they often did. It may have seemed absurd, even defeatist, to con­sid­er labor­ing in repeat­ed for­est trail trips, haul­ing every­thing plus drag­ging the canoe, rather than make the run.

By June Cook was usu­al­ly at his low­er cab­in. Sure­ly it was an invig­o­rat­ing change to be encamped in the heart of the big river­ine land­scape; revolv­ing slant­ed light, advanc­ing and reced­ing shad­ows cre­at­ing a chang­ing panora­ma across the green hills. The Big Riv­er; the region­al thor­ough­fare, had gone qui­et. Count­less vil­lage sites estab­lished over the many thou­sands of years of occu­pa­tion and use by Han Atha­paskan peo­ple had been flood­ed, over­grown and ren­dered near­ly invis­i­ble. Molder­ing, gol­drush-spawned his­toric sites were ghost­ing every­where. In ear­ly sum­mer the watery cor­ri­dor promised the arrival of large fat-laden king salmon, res­i­dent fish, ducks, beavers and black bears for dog and man food.

Parts of his slump­ing his­toric cab­in roof were rot­ting, slough­ing and leak­ing more with each pass­ing year. Cook saw no good rea­son for doing the hard work that would just make it more attrac­tive for folks to stop in and use the place. He gen­er­al­ly shunned work. In fact, dur­ing the win­ter he some­times removed the stove pipe in vio­la­tion of the respect­ed north coun­try rule of leav­ing a cab­in ready for needy trav­el­ers; that is down­right cranky and unneigh­bor­ly. Beside this cab­in was his pre­cious gar­den, nour­ished by years of buried fish offal.  A cou­ple gan­g­ly fruit trees that he claimed was a “hor­ti­cul­tur­al exper­i­ment” nev­er matured edi­ble fruit.  Tools, fish­ing nets and col­lect­ed usable riv­er flot­sam stood ready in disarray.

Watch­ing a cir­cling bald eagle, spit­ting shreds of tea leaves, his mind would wan­der ahead; he need­ed to check his young gar­den, gath­er stuff, pick up some fresh­er gaso­line and head up the tawny Yukon. He would motor slack­ened water along the shore­lines and inside sloughs to make 3 or 4 miles per hour, dogs run­ning free. He would have to cross the half-mile wide Yukon twice; load­ing the dogs, los­ing some progress each time. A famil­iar enough jour­ney but not so in the busy time of late June. He had arranged to leave his ani­mals, his com­pan­ions, with friends who lived a cou­ple of miles below Eagle while he was off in Fairbanks.

The pre­vi­ous July of 2000, unaware of a last-minute “spe­cial action” that strict­ly lim­it­ed har­vest­ing king salmon to pro­tect the run, he had set a short gill­net in a mar­gin­al, debris swirled eddy he used. It was tout­ed to be one of the worst runs in recent his­to­ry, yet State of Alas­ka fish­ery man­agers had opened sev­er­al com­mer­cial peri­ods on the low­er riv­er while await­ing more test catch data; mean­while severe­ly lim­it­ing sub­sis­tence fish­ing on the entire upper Yukon to a few hours each week. Law enforce­ment offi­cers fly­ing that sec­tion of the riv­er dur­ing a clo­sure had spot­ted his arc of corks, land­ed the float plane, pulled his net onto the bank and left him a note about the clo­sure. Incensed, Cook had reset the piled net (that might snag one or two salmon a day) and a few days lat­er the net was con­fis­cat­ed and he was cited.

He seethed with right­eous indig­na­tion and soon made an unusu­al trip to Eagle to call the fed­er­al office list­ed. Informed that it was a $400 fine Cook decid­ed to make a stand to force the fed­er­al side of the fish­eries co-man­age­ment struc­ture to over­ride the State of Alas­ka and meet its own oblig­a­tions to pro­vide for a “sub­sis­tence pri­or­i­ty” based upon tra­di­tion­al and cus­tom­ary use on fed­er­al pub­lic lands when fish­eries had to be restrict­ed. He called Alas­ka Legal Ser­vices for pro bono help.  Attor­neys sought imme­di­ate rem­e­dy by con­tact­ing fed­er­al offi­cials to explain Cook’s lifestyle and utter depen­dence on king salmon. Unsuc­cess­ful, and learn­ing that the impend­ing fall chum salmon run would also be severe­ly restrict­ed, cre­at­ing seri­ous prob­lems for peo­ple who need­ed to feed work­ing sled dogs, he and his lawyers drew up a law­suit and filed it in Dis­trict Court. That piv­otal court date was just days away in late June of 2001.

Cook had no means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion oth­er than to trek to Eagle. His mind was roil­ing like the riv­er at his feet.  After occu­py­ing this place for 30 some years, it might seem that excep­tion­al skills, keen sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness and count­less predica­ments resolved could cre­ate a form of immu­ni­ty; like a slick shuf­fle of “your card” back deep into the deck of poten­tial tragedy.  In order to live in the woods, far beyond the end of the road with­out coun­cil of a com­pan­ion, an indi­vid­ual must make com­mit­ted deci­sions. For some hardy souls who pre­ferred soli­tude, hav­ing no safe­ty net at all must be invigorating.

Emerg­ing from boy­hood in Ohio, Cook had joined the Marine Corps and was osten­si­bly bust­ed to pri­vate – not once, but twice — after punch­ing supe­ri­or offi­cers. But he was hon­or­ably dis­charged and col­lect­ed a small month­ly dis­abil­i­ty check for being wound­ed in Korea. He was said to have wed a mod­el, had two daugh­ters, under­gone a dis­agree­able divorce, mar­ried again, stud­ied at the Col­orado School of Mines (where on week­ends he employed dyna­mite to expose geo-crys­tals to sell), tried real estate sales, a stint in a huge Ari­zona cop­per mine and who knows what else.  Some­where along the way, prob­a­bly in late youth, he became a dis­ci­ple of “Ness­muk”, George Wash­ing­ton Sears, the canoe trip­per author of the icon­ic Wood­craft and Camp­ing first pub­lished in 1884.

Cook found his way to the Eagle area in 1964 with his sec­ond wife, Ann. He was said to do some wan­der­ing, a bit of remote min­er­al prospect­ing, and lat­er may have killed wild game for black mar­ket sale in Eagle and Eagle Vil­lage. Both spous­es may have served stints as may­or in the qui­et river­bank town. He accom­pa­nied Ann (who attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka – Fair­banks in 1967), lived in a tiny trail­er on the out­skirts of old Fair­banks for a cou­ple of ensu­ing win­ters endur­ing reg­u­lar cold snaps in the minus 50s F.  Cook may have worked con­struc­tion to pay bills.  For rea­sons unknown he and Ann split ami­ca­bly. He was said to pre­fer aim­ing to “become a bum”; not a lay around soci­etal dropout, but an accom­plished Alas­ka woods­man with few mon­e­tary needs.

Liv­ing out on the Taton­duk Riv­er by 1970, Cook could not have fore­seen that the unbound­ed fron­tier of Old Alas­ka was begin­ning a stun­ning meta­mor­pho­sis. Loom­ing Con­gres­sion­al leg­is­la­tion would final­ly set­tle Alas­ka Native land claims but also open a Pandora’s Box by call­ing for estab­lish­ing huge parks and wildlife refuges in the “nation­al inter­est”; all in order to estab­lish a nar­row, con­tigu­ous cor­ri­dor of land upon which to build an 800-mile oil pipeline from the North Slope to a huge spig­ot at the ice-free Port of Valdez. State of Alas­ka land selec­tions of 103 mil­lion acres, unhur­ried since state­hood in 1959 (politi­cians were wise­ly await­ing more detailed min­er­al­iza­tion map­ping), were rushed into the explo­sive socio-polit­i­cal par­ti­tion­ing that was to lit­er­al­ly divide Alas­ka and con­strain rur­al and urban hunters dif­fer­ent­ly, caus­ing last­ing rancor.

In the late 1960s the polit­i­cal spec­u­la­tion must have seemed far away and insignif­i­cant along the riv­er that had gone lone­some once again; first after the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush surged into Alas­ka (Eagle swelled to near­ly 3,000) and flowed on west­ward near­ly as rapid­ly; fol­low­ing the abrupt decline of mil­i­tary spend­ing after WWII; then the end of the wood-hun­gry stern­wheel­er era in the mid-1950s. Air­planes and a rough sum­mer road into the shriv­eled-up out­post of 50 souls was the future.

Nature was rewil­d­ing the aban­doned sites of super­fi­cial human devel­op­ment and increas­ing wildlife pop­u­la­tions again. Cook would enjoy the poi­son fruits born of decades of fed­er­al wildlife con­trol agents fly­ing around set­ting out dead­ly strych­nine to col­lect a boun­ty on wolves. In addi­tion, there were fur trap­pers, aer­i­al wolf hunters, and locals thump­ing wolf pups at their dens. Black and brown bears were often shot on sight. The moose pop­u­la­tion (and like­ly the Dall Sheep vis­i­ble on the cliffs and high mead­ows of his alpine “back­yard”) had grown to pro­vide ready meat. Furbear­er pop­u­la­tions rebound­ed. The salmon runs had been heav­i­ly com­mer­cial­ly har­vest­ed for many decades but that effort had shrunk.

Of course, there remained fron­tier con­flicts and dis­putes on gold claims and else­where out on the immense riv­er. Cook was an icon­o­clast, high­ly opin­ion­at­ed but seem­ing­ly not affil­i­at­ed or antag­o­nis­tic social­ly, low key and liked by most folks in the vil­lage and town. He may have been of a lib­er­tar­i­an lean­ing. He obvi­ous­ly savored a good deal of soli­tude. A cou­ple of women; one dur­ing the mid-1970s who want­ed to learn tra­di­tion­al ways of tan­ning hides and sewing gar­ments, the oth­er the moth­er of a young man who was briefly men­tored by Cook; lived with him but soon left cer­tain that he “pre­ferred to live alone”. He owned a lit­tle wedge of prop­er­ty up the hill where the high­way dropped into Eagle, where he kept his sham­bles of a trail­er and tarped col­lect­ed stuff that could be of poten­tial use. He spent lit­tle time there.

Among a trick­ling stream of immi­grants to the end of the road at Eagle in the late 1970s was an easy-going farmer, hunter and gun­smith who moved his fam­i­ly into Eagle from the out­skirts of Fair­banks. He flew a scrap­py Piper Super Cub and looked to catch some fur to make ends meet. Being of a Bap­tist strain the fam­i­ly didn’t mix on Sun­days with the influ­en­tial Bible Chapel crowd but seemed to get on with just about every­one. Trap­ping areas near town were always staunch­ly claimed, but a short take­off and land­ing air­craft skill­ful­ly pilot­ed on skis could get into a lot of places in order to set short traplines in the vast land­scape well away from town and the native village.

Some of Cook’s fur trap­ping area, not worked every win­ter so that it could rest, was now with­in the Nation­al Pre­serve on the flats across the Yukon and to the west. After see­ing the low fly­ing, iden­ti­fi­able plane and hear­ing take-offs that raised his hack­les and ire, Cook would have run the dogs the few miles, may have fired a few off­hand rifle shots, then found the plane’s ski tracks. New snow­shoe trails led to sets and steel traps to con­fis­cate.  It was rumored that Cook may have strung light steel cable a few inch­es off the snow at the land­ing spot but if he did, he nev­er had the venge­ful sat­is­fac­tion of find­ing a flipped air­plane and strand­ed pilot. Tak­ing a more pos­i­tive tact, he and a Alas­ka Legal Ser­vices lawyer start­ed to pre­pare a law­suit claim­ing that his sub­sis­tence trap­ping, ongo­ing for decades, was not being pro­tect­ed by the Park Service.

Cook, like most local res­i­dents, was not a sup­port­er of the con­tro­ver­sial new Yukon-Charley Rivers Nation­al Pre­serve, set in Con­gres­sion­al con­crete in 1980. He dis­trust­ed the Nation­al Park Ser­vice itself; but was not a reac­tionary, con­spir­a­to­r­i­al, unin­formed zealot like many locals. He was well set­tled. He was bet­ter informed than most; he rec­og­nized dis­tinct per­son­al advan­tages. His cab­ins were not on pub­lic land so he had no wor­ries with restric­tive cab­in reg­u­la­tions loom­ing. He read and reread the enabling leg­is­la­tion, new reg­u­la­tions and poli­cies as they evolved, and was well aware of the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of oth­ers who were in “tres­pass cab­ins” and unsure of the future under the bale­ful glare of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Cook shared his strong opin­ions with any­one who would listen.

After a day or two of waver­ing Cook may have come to his fate­ful deci­sion in the wee hours, after a rest­less dusky night as the upriv­er clouds dis­si­pat­ed and skies cleared on the Taton­duk.  His mark­ers of the water lev­el, larg­er rocks on the grav­el bar upon which he stood, were once again exposed. The noisy waters and his con­flict­ed mind were eas­ing. It was time to load the canoe and have a go.

By the time he dragged his canoe to the reced­ing water’s edge and mount­ed the 6- horse out­board he sure­ly felt ener­vat­ed again. The uncer­tain­ty was evap­o­rat­ing and he knew that he could make the mail plane in Eagle next day.  Loaded, he pushed out, bow upstream as usu­al to let the faster cur­rent swing it down­riv­er. The over­head sun bathed every­thing in an ethe­re­al light. His dogs ran to swim the nar­row back chan­nel below the cab­in to take the trail on high­er ground as he hollered encour­age­ment and set­tled into the rear seat, throt­tling up for maneu­ver­abil­i­ty. The load looked good and his lay­ing hens clucked wide-eyed in 5‑gallon plas­tic buck­ets with breath­ing holes. Cook must have been intense­ly focused, but prob­a­bly smil­ing for the first time in days.

He steered well away from trou­ble through the first bends and relaxed a bit. He glimpsed his excit­ed huskies at the top of the conifer clad bank once or twice. A few sec­onds lat­er the aged motor may have mis­fired and sput­tered. He would have revved the throt­tle, quick­ly feath­ered the choke, but the motor fell silent. There was no time to squeeze the gas bulb or turn around to pull the starter cord. Grab­bing his pad­dle he urgent­ly pow­er-stroked fight­ing against his own weight in the stern and the dead prop act­ing like an immov­able rud­der want­i­ng to swing downriver.

Quick­ly, the long canoe wal­lowed broad­side, then plowed stern-first into a spruce sweep­er, over­turn­ing in slow motion. He dove out on the cur­rent side and swam grip­ping the floun­dered canoe until the back eddy below sucked him in. Curs­ing in sheer relief and frus­tra­tion, suck­ing bleed­ing bro­ken fin­ger­nails, drip­ping and ener­gized by the adren­a­line dump, he worked quick­ly to unstrap the hens. To his relief they were wet but very alive. He found the bail can and fever­ish­ly scooped water after pulling out his rifle and bagged gear.

He would have strug­gled to pull the canoe from the riv­er, then wad­ed to detach the motor, work­ing to dump the remain­ing water to drag it high­er. Hard­ly paus­ing, Cook strode clum­si­ly, breath­ing hard, putting one foot in front of the oth­er to shoul­der through the alders, rifle in hand. He gath­ered his dogs and wits to gain the trail lead­ing a half mile back to the warm embrace of his tent.

Adren­a­lin-shot and weary, Cook must have stoked the embers in the wood­stove, draped his clothes, dried off and like­ly set­tled into his mum­my bag to sleep hard. The dogs could range out­side. Before noon he woke abrupt­ly in a swel­ter­ing wall tent.  Sit­ting up stiffly, he con­sid­ered the near deba­cle. He pushed open the can­vas flaps to see the dogs lolling near­by in the shade. Final­ly, the damned riv­er was drop­ping noticeably.

Snack­ing on his favored pinole he rein­hab­it­ed his dry clothes and slurped anoth­er cup of tea. This wasn’t his first canoe swamp­ing on his riv­er; there were many over the years, espe­cial­ly in ascend­ing fast, shal­low rif­fles. Cook was keen­ly aware that he real­ly had to be on it to pad­dle the wide, keeled canoe in rush­ing water.  As he picked up a few last things he unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly dat­ed and pen­ciled a note “dumped the canoe in high water” or some such, and left it on his table.

Cook knew that the tools, extra parts and bet­ter gas at the low­er cab­in were his best hope to revive the out­board. Lin­ing the canoe all the way to Eagle with dogs would be a pro­tract­ed affair. Frus­trat­ed, but reju­ve­nat­ed, he laid the old motor in the bot­tom near the front thwart, again loaded the fed hens and tied every­thing in. He had lost a pad­dle but still had his favorite big blade. With mut­tered rev­er­ence to “Mom­ma”, he would push out kneel­ing mid-ships to have the most lever­age and sta­bil­i­ty. With skilled feath­ered strokes, deft­ly switch­ing sides with tim­ing and strength, he man­aged to keep the bow straight down the rolling tongues of the main chan­nel drops.

A day lat­er, after Cook failed to arrive, his wor­ried friends motored the few miles up to Eagle to report him over­due and con­vince the Park Ser­vice to ini­ti­ate a search by air. The trou­bling news spread quick­ly in town and fool­ish con­spir­a­cy talk sprout­ed like mush­rooms after a rain. The neigh­bors soon head­ed back down­riv­er accom­pa­nied by a cou­ple boat­loads of would-be res­cuers. Among them were some ne’er-do-wells who rarely ven­tured out of town, but strode the dusty streets pack­ing hog-leg revolvers and bowie knives to pick up mail. Some talked up the notion that the State of Alas­ka “must have done him”. As the small flotil­la land­ed below the Tatonduk’s mouth, Cook’s dogs greet­ed them at the low­er cab­in. They were whiny, agi­tat­ed and hun­gry. There was no recent sign of Cook, nor a note.

The mot­ley searchers sure­ly hollered in vain hope as some made their way up the unfa­mil­iar bank while oth­ers in hip waders ven­tured up dry­ing, mud­dy grav­el bars. A cou­ple of buck­ets and a pad­dle were seen, then the sub­merged canoe at a log jam as the NPS con­tract heli­copter flew low and slow up to Pass Creek island to land. A ranger found only the curi­ous note in the tent. Even­tu­al­ly the water cleared and dropped and a life­less body was seen and retrieved from beneath the jam. Cook was imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fied by his skull and dag­ger Marine Corps tattoo.

Lat­er, fol­low­ing the well-attend­ed memo­r­i­al ser­vice in Eagle, his two adult daugh­ters (whom he had not seen or con­tact­ed for decades) want­ed to see the Taton­duk and Pass Creek where they planned to spread their father’s ash­es. The upriv­er neigh­bors, lack­ing the right water craft and white­wa­ter skills but embold­ened to please the sis­ters, agreed to try to take them up to Pass Creek. In a fit­ting finale in the col­or­ful saga of a Yukon Riv­er mav­er­ick, they cap­sized part way up, occu­pants splut­ter­ing and grab­bing loose gear, wad­ing to gain oppo­site banks. They were soaked and hol­ler­ing to one anoth­er, but unhurt. The small box con­tain­ing the cre­mat­ed remains of Dick Cook; a man with a clear, uncon­flict­ed sense of self, who pre­ferred paths less-trod­den and being alone on his riv­er, had float­ed away.

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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