Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted July 20, 2022 at 7:28 pm 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.
Sonny’s Journey Unfolds
(Authors note: Previously in this novella — beginning with No Matter What and The Confines of Heaven parts I‑III — young Sonny Johns rode a sled pulled behind a snowmachine from his remote village of Tonasket Crossing, up the recently frozen Yukon River to turn up the winding Kuuk River. There his uncle Jimmy turned back leaving him on his own to make his way on foot into the front range jumble of wild peaks and drainages of the central Brooks Range.)
Sonny’s eyes flickered open to take in the new day but instead took in a dim, musty sleeping bag liner. In moments his fingers fumbled with the drawstring at the hood of his thick mummy bag; he cussed some when he found it cinched behind his head. Turning side to side, feeling for the twisted zipper he felt a claustrophobic panic before he unzipped enough to birth his head, then shoulders to sit up and breathe deeply. It was a sharp, invigorating cold; the insulated comfort of the bag was easily about 120 degrees warmer than the ambient air.
The sky was deep blue above, a cold sun skittering above the trees far to the south; he would only have four and a half hours of low daylight to move without a headlamp. Then another long night beneath of the blur of the Milky Way. A whisp of smoke coiled from the punky overnight fire, rising up through the feathered canopy of snow-frosted spruce boughs. Somewhere far upriver; ravens loudly argued with their own echoing cries.
Sonny had seen these Cayou Islands for years; from a boat at distance anyway. Now he understood the magic of the many miles of intertwined sloughs and islands. From an early age he had peered over the gunwales of a long wooden riverboat packed with gear, tents and food; his extended family smiling and talking; his mother and aunties pointing out places of memories, cousins playing or sleeping while his revered elders sat shoulder to shoulder, wrapped in a heavy blanket facing back, aged eyes remembering and seeing what the others could not.
In those years, his dad and uncle Jimmy usually piloted another boat to provide support, but mainly to have access to hunt white sheep and early migrating caribou as the morning air sharpened and leaves took on the brilliant colors of fall. A short but glorious season in the far north. Catching animals along the banks or swimming the river was the best of all hunting scenarios.
Long hours of resetting gillnets, picking wriggling fish and cutting always culminated in shared food around a campfire or crowded in the old cabin in wet weather. A small radio, a copper wire antenna strung between erected poles, sometimes allowed them to hear the weather forecast and listen to notes read for bush folks on Trapline Chatter transmitted on King Jesus North Pole from faraway Fairbanks. Men and teenagers talked of boats, promising game sign and village sports. The women managed everything else with patience and grace.
Old Peter told of finding broken arrowheads in his youth, made from rock called chert near a game trail pounded for centuries by caribou coming down to cross the river. He and his wife of over 65 years, Eliza, were inspired to relate important cultural stories; especially of the high cliffs facing one another across the canyon choking down the Kuuk; abutments said to have been connected long ago and cut through were referred to as “Old Man and Old Woman Rocks”; separated by misdeeds since time immemorial. The soft-spoken old man had rheumy eyes and ill-fitting dentures that he involuntarily clicked, spoke of having been shown locations of many unmarked graves of descendants who lived long before the coming of explorers, the Hudson Bay Company and the invasion of gold-seekers.
The Ramparts and boulder-strained narrow canyon above them were a place of exceptional natural beauty. But seasonal wildlife abundance and traditional occupation and use painted it more profoundly as a place of immense spiritual power and mystery; not all beneficent. The uppermost Kuuk drainage cleaved far into the arc of the central Brooks Range. In the past this area had been violently contested as an ancient territorial border; invisible, elastic, but boldly defended. Deadly skirmishes had been fought for a thousand years with inland Eskimo people pushing southward and Athapaskans expanding north again and again. Descendants of the nomadic Nunamiut still lived high in a broad mountain pass, at the gaunt unforested source waters of the Kuuk.
Back in the reality of the moment, everything seemingly in perfect synchrony; Sonny’s snowshoes shushed through a few inches of powder snow on the trapping trail that showed subtle tinges of blue-gray in the slanting low light. Powder splashed silently forward with each stride. The last of the thickly wooded islands continued for perhaps a mile before opening back out on the main river, a vastly increased scale of landscape, where wind had blown some areas of ice free of early dry snow. The ecological richness and diversity of the complex sloughs, oxbows and connected beaver dammed lakes excited the hunter within him. Sonny’s motion scared up a large grey hawk from a stripped rabbit carcass. He watched it perch reluctantly in the shadowed limbs of a large poplar snag, head bobbing, red accipiter eyes keen to return to the kill.
The Henderson homestead was on a federally patented mining claim; owned by Lars and Ada, a few miles further on at the confluence of Fourth of July Creek where it coursed lazily from the low hills. Sonny would have to decide whether to stop in or continue upriver along the far bank where occasional cliffs jutted and the adjacent land rose steadily into the palisades that towered over his family fall fish camp at the Ramparts Canyon.
He was conflicted and unsettled; he resenting having to make a choice, to give up the simplicity of being alone. Solitude and warm rest could be had at that fish camp cabin, if a bear hadn’t torn it up in the fall, but he balked at reimagining the horrific hours of the night three years back when his mother had been fatally mauled by a wounded and desperate sow grizzly providing for her gaunt cubs.
If he walked into the Henderson homestead there would be the surprise, breaking of routines, busy family energy; direct conversation and probing questions from the no-nonsense Lars Henderson, his diminutive, effusive Nunamiut Eskimo wife, Ada, and their teenagers. Sonny was most anxious about close interaction with the Henderson daughters who had blossomed into strong young women raised out on the Kuuk. He knew they had a confidence manner born of an intact family; good home schooling melded with equal doses of native traditional knowledge, mechanical equipment skills and gardening along with a full range of bush survival skills all honed to a bright edge. They were daunting girls who shared his bi-cultural status and would challenge his views.
Sonny remembered speaking briefly with Lars in a chance meeting while they bought a few things at the village store last spring. His oldest daughter, Natalie was at his elbow nibbling a large candy bar in a way to make the special “town treat” last as long as possible, smiling while listening. She seemed to see into his soul when she asked what he was up to. What would he talk to them about?
He imagined bypassing both destinations to continue walking directly on up to his Uncle Nate’s cabin at Alapah Creek. That would be several more days with a hint of storm clouds growing in the southern sky now. He knew that walking by would be seen as unfriendly; if the family saw his snowshoe trail skirting their homestead they would wonder just who it was and why they hadn’t stopped in? Sonny hoped for strong winds to blow the trails in; to erase his mysterious passage.
Sonny then saw four snowmachines, two with sleds, snaking downriver along the far bank well before he heard the low, ululating chorus. As he watched them with his binoculars, the group slowed to a stop and gestured in his direction. Soon they turned toward him and quickly approached, headlights jouncing, metal skis clacking on patchy, rippled bare ice. Sonny imagined that they were surprised to see a lone figure without dogs or a machine. He wished that he had heard them sooner, to have knelt down. By the look of their large machines, metal sleds packed high and men bundled in dark stained overalls they had to be the winter mining camp guys from Poker Creek. He had never heard anyone speak well of them. There were stories of things missing from fish camps over the winter on the Kuuk. In the village at least, they were viewed as offensive Texans.
They approached too quickly, pulled up right next to him, cutting their engines in sequence. He had set his pack down and pulled back his hood. He settled his hair braids on his chest as his hand rose in a half-hearted greeting. Even at nearly 5’11”, Sonny felt small as two large men dismounted and stood tall, stamping their military surplus bunny boots, digging out smokes, hot engines pinging. The other two swung their legs to the side to sit. Each had a rifle scabbard on their extended track machines and belted revolver. “Thought maybe you was a woman with all that long hair! What ‘er you up to Geronimo? Kinda in the middle of nowhere! Tracks we saw looked like yer ride turned back and left ya on the river?”
“Nah. My uncle dropped me a few days back and I plan to walk on up river. See some country, maybe trap some.” replied Sonny trying to avoid details and sound unconcerned with the unwelcome encounter. He had already said too much.
The other standing man, also heavily bearded and gap-toothed, stood to rummage ungloved through his layered zippers; grunting to eventually release a strong yellow stream, splashing directly on his bulbous rubber boots. “Ah, now that’s a‑warmin’ my toes some. Old Indian trick eh, Dell, that what you said ain’t it?”
“What you lack in brains you make up for in fun, Shifty”. Shaking his head and talking with a smoke bobbing from the corner of his lips the tallest man shifted focus back to Sonny. “So I figger yur from Tonasket village, maybe kicked out, huh? Runnin’ from sumpthin’, might be”. Sonny shrugged passively. “Anyways, it’s been a long cold day huntin’ upriver and we have meat…you want a cut afore we git goin’?” Shifty and the others who had remained silent passed a bottle and talked loudly over their ear plugs. “We’re the Fugawi Indians” hollered Shifty, “Where the F**K Are We?” Fist-bumping and pleased with themselves, they seamlessly slid into making lewd comments about native women and Tonasket, laughing coarsely.
“Chief, if yer gonna stop in at Lars Henderson’s place you need to know that he can’t be trusted to mind his own business out here. Acts like he owns the whole place. One of these days his good-lookin’ daughters will get out on their own, maybe work with us at a real gold mine. Wouldn’t mind that a bit eh, Shifty? Anyways, if you git all the way up to the Alapah, you tell Nate that he’s a a damned turncoat working for the blood-sucking Nazi Park Service in this damned new park. He’s agoin’ to have problems one of these days for sure!” The others had raised their eyebrows at the mention of the plucky Henderson women and seasonal Park Ranger Nate, laughed knowingly.
Sonny gave no indication of his feelings and sure as hell wasn’t going to let on that Nate had been his uncle until his auntie Angela left him and the Alapah distraught by the accidental suffocation death of their infant child while travelling down to Henderson’s for Thanksgiving festivities. Sonny didn’t let on who he knew, saying obliquely “don’t really know them” but more immediately his stomach, sharpened by hunger, reminded him he could use fresh meat and hoped they would then leave him. So, he replied enthusiastically that he “sure could” and moved to the closest sled while the man called Dell pulled back the tarp to expose legs and poorly skinned caribou quarters in a jumble. He noticed a tattered front half a bloody fox probably shot with a high-powered rifle and expanding bullet.
As Sonny bent in with his sheath knife, Shifty piped up “if your kind eats guts and raw liver like we hear we got some there for our camp dog in the sack there…take all you want!” laughing loudly at his own wit and tossing a crumpled cigarette pack to the ice. Sonny nodded and deftly sliced a fist-size piece of haunch thinly covered in hard fat, sniffed it quickly and pulled a bloody heart from the bag, dropping them by his pack, saying “thanks, man” while wiping his hands and belt knife in snow.
Shaking his head in disgust, Dell pulled up his hood, careful not to snag his shaggy beard in zipping up his stained overalls. “Might see ya up the way if you survive this walkabout”. He fired up his machine, stared through Sonny for a moment, seemed to change his mind about something, then turned his lurching machine hard downriver followed by his partners, leaving the young man happily standing alone again. Within minutes the quiet and simplicity of solitude lifted Sonny. He would make sure to do everything possible to avoid these guys in the future. But Dell’s aggressive stare and the unabashed racist comments of his drawling Texas pals left an unsettling fear of inevitable trouble brewing.
A couple hours later, slogging upriver after the renewal of a short rest where he had hungrily wolfed down skewered meat and fat scorched over a small fire, washed down with strong tea, Sonny heard a plane in the distance, far south. He turned and turned again, scanning the dusky skies as the sound grew louder indicating that there might be a convergence.
He saw a plane approaching a few hundred feet above the Cayou Island sloughs, miles back; some flaps down, wings tipping and accelerating into a growling circle about where the fox was hanging. Quickly reaching him, the familiar plane slowed some to pass loudly by. Sonny waved as the small plane rocketed by him. He could see Lars at the controls, the silver wings waggled and then he began a long decent into the rapidly increasing dusk to disappear in the few forested miles to his homestead airstrip. It had been another long day, the pack straps were again cutting into his shoulders, he knew now that his decision as to whether to stop in at Fourth of July Creek tomorrow was no longer in question.
Sonny worried about being disrespectful. That was not how he had been raised. The Hendersons had known his family for a long time. They were highly respected in the village. His pop had taken him to Henderson’s to drop mail when out hunting the river. He and the girls had played. A couple of times, years back. He figured that he could always beg off staying overnight, probably would, then be on his way. But he had no good reason to avoid the hospitality.
As he flicked on his headlamp and began earnestly looking for a good camp site, he heard the whine of a snowmachine, then saw the jouncing headlight rapidly approaching from upriver. The bundled driver stopped near him and hit the kill switch. They both pulled back their hoods to make themselves known and to hear clearly. Natalie Henderson smiled wryly. “Hey, that you Sonny Johns? Dad said a fox was hanging down in Cayou and someone with a big pack was ‘shoeing upriver”.
“Yep, I found that silver fox and brain shot him with my .22 rifle. A beauty. It was only toe-caught.” He smiled despite himself and stuttered out “Hi there Natalie”.
Natalie looked quizzical, more of a smirk than a smile, saying “Dad said whoever you were I was to welcome you to dinner. To stay the night. I’m gonna run down to the Cayous to check some sets probably blown in with snow and collect a lynx and the hanging fox Dad saw. Then you can ride on the toboggan. Or keep trudging along shouldering all that weight, whatever you like, Sonny. Mom would really like some company and village news, you know. I see by your torn parka that you don’t seem to know how to sew and we can easily fix that pretty quick!”
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Categories: Freezer Burned