Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted July 20, 2022 at 7:28 pm by

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

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