Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted August 10, 2022 at 10:04 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.
The Hendersen Homestead
Sonny had been unexpectedly energized by meeting Natalie Henderson on the river. It dawned on him that he could be rejuvenated by staying over with this dynamic family. Besides, there were simple amenities that he had not even considered. The delights of a hot shower, soaking the stink out of his clothes, a comfortable bed and sit-down meals for starters. Repairing his clothes and equipment. He could give of himself freely without regard to a social balance sheet as tended to be the case in a small village.
Something else stirred within him; a slight flutter of emotional attraction. He felt a subtle thrill; that warm sensation, endorphins, magnetic attraction or whatever it was, in encountering Natalie in her element, out on the Kuuk. For the first time he saw her as an intriguing young woman. His perception of her had been based upon infrequent youthful encounters over the years and had been unremarkable. In the moment, the setting stripped away preconceived notions and for the first time saw her as a grown woman completely at home in the woods; confident, strong and brim-full of life, with a captivating light emanating from her pale blue eyes.
As the sound and exhaust odors of the machine died away he picked up his pace on the fresh machine trail that lined along the east bank. No need for a headlamp as yet. The sky had dimmed to murky grey to the south and now bright stars overhead began to blur. The green curtains of northern lights over the distant Brooks Range would soon be obscured by cloud layers silently invading. The timing of taking a needed break, embraced in the warmth of family and comfortable lodging during a storm, was a welcome coincidence.
His shoulders felt less furrowed by his pack straps as he found a second wind while picking up his pace, determined to make a mile or two before Natalie returned. Some pride on the line. He realized the clarity and elation resulting when a person’s world view is cleansed; social filters and patterns of close relationships in village life, family dynamics, cultural expectations all reordered by aloneness and the clarity of wilderness immersion.
He was winded, a bit too warm, despite pausing to remove his hat and parka. Even with his increased exertion he knew that the temperature had risen to around zero; the fog of his exhalations had been dissipating all afternoon. A short time later the rapidly approaching machine bathed him in jouncing bright light, his shadow grew and stretched ahead to lead the way as Natalie quickly caught up. He stepped aside, breathing hard. Sonny flicked on his headlamp to see that the small trapping toboggan had a frozen fox and freshly dispatched lynx in the bed. Natalie motioned that he put his pack, snowshoes and rifle in with them. She scootched up on the seat and Sonny snugged his hat and zipped up his parka to climb on behind her.
They covered the remaining couple of miles in good time as the river trail avoided jumbled ice and dark riffling water that was still freezing in. The effortless speed was thrilling. Over Natalie’s shoulder he saw many trails converge to climb a snow-packed ramp up the bank and into the trees. A large roofed fish rack that he remembered appeared to be a pile of charred poles. Then yellow lights from the cabin bathed the yard. He noticed the familiar tang of wood smoke and the boisterous greeting of a half dozen sled dogs bouncing on their chains. They rattled to a stop in front of the large cabin, Natalie stood, hitting the kill switch. The thump of their diesel generator, just as in the village, was like the heartbeat of the homestead.
Sonny stepped off the machine and took a deep breath; taking in the welcome scene. Lars’ airplane was clad in red engine and wing covers and tied down near an old tracked vehicle mounted with a snow plow blade. There were several other log outbuildings; more than he remembered. Most were dark but one small cabin was dimly lit with smoke drifting from the stovepipe. Natalie worked at hanging the trapped animals from nails in the porch posts under a row of weathered moose and caribou antlers. She moved to pull a tarp over the machine, hot engine pinging, as he hoisted his pack and rifle and stepped furtively toward the light and warmth of the large cabin. The dogs stopped barking as Lars emerged from the arctic entry to clap his hands as a last warning for quiet.
“Vell, look what our Natalie managed to bring home! Not a stranger atall, Ada! Hey dere Sonny Johns, vut a surprise: drop yer pack and rifle out here for now and come on in. That old double rifle is safe, eh?”
Sonny reached to firmly shake hands with Lars; a tall, rawboned Norwegian, always clean-shaven, behind intense pale blue eyes who could crush a weak hand but did not play those games or feel the need to display his strength. “Hey, Lars. Just wanted to say hello and not just pass on by.” As he leaned his heavy pack against the wall and broke the rifle to eject the shells, Ada emerged, wiping her hands on a towel, smiling in a way that could only be taken as genuine affection. Hugging him, her brown eyes shone in delight, “We are so glad you’re here Sonny! I hope that you will stay a while young man. We’ll be havin’ some dinner after a bit; plenty of baked beaver to go around. Come in! Come in and warm up!”
A couple of hours later Sonny could hardly keep his eyes open. A hot shower, filling food and lively conversation after a long day walking in the cold had exhausted him. In the way of thoughtful people, comfortable in their own skins and curious, they had touched on many mundane and laughable stories that came from questions about the village doings and Sonny’s experiences during his 6 days of walking up the Kuuk. When Sonny mentioned finding the partially harvested caribou carcasses on the ice and the chance meeting with the Poker Creek crew, Ada and Lars darkened a bit glancing at one another, but said nothing.
The greatest controversy was unavoidable; reverberations across Alaska stemming from the passage of national legislation after years of fact-finding visits to the region, countless hearings in Congress and increasingly divisive conversations everywhere locals met. A vast, new National Park now surrounded them. The jerrymandered lines and draft policies had been drawn and adjusted in back rooms for over 9 years but were now inked for good. The Henderson homestead and mine, the Ramparts fish camp and other native allotments on the Kuuk, like Nate’s Alapah cabin, were now well within the park boundaries. So too was Ada’s home village of Iniaktuuq Pass nestled like a Tibetan enclave in a wide pass at the crest of the Brooks Range.
It was a new park several times larger than the world-famous Yellowstone or Yosemite. They had listened to angry concerns and speculation on AM radio programs for the past 2 years. The National Park Service was widely castigated and hated as much as the IRS and EPA in Alaska. Much of the spell of living beyond the end of the road, beyond the immediate reach of big government in bush Alaska had been torn open, and now festered like an open wound. Unpopular native land claims and Lower-48 support for large protected areas made for strange political bedfellows; the “unholy alliance” as the interests of environmentalists and native groups had converged to allow the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline to be constructed. Long established hunting guides, gold miners, sport hunters-mostly urban residents who hunted in the hinterlands- Native Alaskans and non-native bush dwellers were set against one another in redefining who would be allowed to do what depending on lines on a map affecting huge tracts of wilderness.
Natalie’s younger sister, Elsa, now 17, saved the evening by joking that she had heard that they might be paid by the National Park Service to play themselves in something called “living history” programs to entertain hordes of guided visitors on rivers like the Kuuk. “Like those corny sternwheeler tours to the fake native village scene just outside of Fairbanks on the Tanana River” she exclaimed. Her mirth was contagious and they all spun off silly imaginary tangents.
Sonny laid awake on a cot lightly wrapped in a blanket in the warm store room for a few minutes before the the exertion of days in the cold and a full belly overcame him. His body was spent but his mind alight with the replay of the twists and turns during the evening’s conversations. Natalie mentioned living in the outbuilding. Somehow their fish racks had burned down while they were away. Everyone avoided the sensitive personal topics and especially the well-understood tragedies during young life; his Dad leaving them high and dry, his Mom’s ghastly mauling death by a grizzly bear at the Ramparts Camp (Lars had joined in the search when the buried body was found) and the death of Angie and Nate’s infant girl.
The Hendersons had all shared the shock and knee-buckling anguish that day before Thanksgiving, three years back, when Nate and his family arrived after a long day of trail-breaking with a big load. Most of the team immediately laid down, Nate pushed back his heavily frosted parka hood while shaking Lars’ hand in a hearty greeting. Ada was helping Angie pull back the layers of sleeping bags in the toboggan. Both shrieked at discovering the baby blue-lipped and not breathing. Their beautiful daughter, the joy of their young lives, had suffocated in the sleeping bag while bundled warmly with Angie. They frantically tried everything but little Dawn could not be revived.
Sonny only used the indoor plumbing to relieve himself to avoid exciting the dogs or waking light sleepers by opening the front door to pee off the far end of the covered porch. After arrival he had quietly asked Lars about toiletry after he had noticed a yellow patch of snow that showed that Lars had a favorite spot. There was an old but functional outhouse to boot.
The first time he woke in the pitch-dark room he was completely disoriented and lost until he flicked the ready headlamp on. He had actively dreamed several times during the night; the one nearest morning was similar to other dreams since his mom was killed; he was a kid and they were camped in the woods as a wolf pack circled, eyes shining, just outside of the fire light until she drove them away with a torch and rifle shot. In his sub-conscience as well as his every waking moment she had been his unconditional and loving guardian. His heart ached for a few moments as he was reminded that she was gone.
Sonny heard the dogs stirring and stretching on their chains and could see that someone was watering them by headlamp. The swinging, searching beam of the light illuminated millions of small snowflakes falling and adding several inches of new snow. Some of the leggy dogs perched on the roofs of their doghouses awaiting attention, tails brushing snow aside. Looked like Natalie; Sonny knew that the girls had pleaded and promised to take care of them if they could have a small dog team. Lars and Ada relented and helped some with netting of fish but rested easier knowing that the girls would always have a way home from trapline forays. No matter what circumstances they encountered. Dogs don’t break down or run outta gas! A fit and well-trained team was far superior to a fast but unreliable snowmachine that could become an unmovable clot of mashed potato snow and ice if deep overflow water bogged them down.
He dressed in his cleanest dirty clothes and opened the door to a heady mix of breakfast smells wafting from the wood cook stove. Odors were the first thing he really noticed coming in from the big hard- frozen world. In the short hallway he paused before many family pictures, a gallery of happiness really, lining the walls. He was the last to enter the kitchen and was gently razzed for “doggin’ it”. Smiling he took an offered cup of coffee nodding thanks and stepped out on the porch to survey the quieting blanket of fresh snow. More falling too. Everyone was smiling and bantering and he could see that Elsa had schoolwork spread in front of her on the big slab table. “Ya know Sonny, after da freeze-up I fired up da plane to make an air drop for Nate up dere at Alapah. He was out vaving happily. Caribou trails everywhere. The Kuuk froze up pretty darned good up dere and getting’ better now.”
As the family settled at the table, Elsa repeated the family joke “call me anything but not late for breakfast!”, happily anticipating steaming moose stew and pancakes. Lars queried Sonny about his gear. “Dat’s one heavy pack, Sonny. So, you hear ever of a pulke sled? When I vas younger up here vurkin’ in the mines, I ran traplines in the hills bein’ busy and make some money in da vinter. Martens mostly, good prices den. A Trapper Nelson pack vas the best packer board but I learnt from my papa that Nordic voodsmen used small vooden toboggans towed behind dem on skis or snowshoes”. Finishing a quick sketch of a pulke and harness, Lars pushed the image across to Sonny saying “Vay more room and easier on da upper body!”
Quick as a grin, Elsa piped up rhyming “Sonny pullin’ a pulke up the crusty Kuuk!” They all laughed; none more so than Sonny. “I tell you, Sonny, you stay around. Maybe lend a hand hauling drywood from back on da flats. I have an old pulke. Vee can fix it good if you like.” Ada smiled with her whole face and added “we have caribou heads cleaned up and ready to bake with fresh bread today. How’s that sound wood crew?”
Sonny felt the warmth and ease of family cohesion he had sorely missed since his own father’s unexpected departure when he was a child. He felt an emptiness and social awkwardness emanating from the psychological place of where security and confidence builds from close family ties and trust. But he knew he could be nurtured by others if he only opened himself. He again silently promised that he would never be an absentee father if he ever had dependent children of his own.
After pouring warmed engine oil into the track rig and a few minutes of a space heater, they got it started with a belch of black diesel smoke. A wide trail leading back into an old forest burn had been carefully constructed to make it possible for Lars to use tandem bobsleds behind the cranky military tracked vehicle. The bobs had been used by contract woodcutters on the Yukon back in the 1930s; just over 4 feet wide for use behind a horse or a small cat tractor. Many years back Lars had disassembled both the tracked vehicle and bobs to fly all the parts in piecemeal for reassembly.
Natalie stayed behind to help Lars unload the sleds at a pole woodshed and get ahead on some splitting. Sonny rode a metal sled behind a snowmachine driven by Elsa to prepare for Lars to arrive with both empty bobsleds. In between loading sleds Sonny and Elsa would work to drag in more downed trees. Each bobsled could carry just over a cord of wood and with hard work they managed to freight 4 loads before darkness settled with only one mishap.
On breaks he and Elsa sat upon the pile to sip thermos tea and eat oatmeal cookies. Elsa spoke of trapping trails, especially for marten, that the sisters used along the low ridges visible to the north, adjacent to the burned lands. The millions of jack-strawed spruce felled by the winds of time, made cutting trail through the burn way too much work. She said that they had just opened up most trails and that fur sign was promising.
“You know that wolf packs have grown larger with the increase in the numbers of Porcupine Caribou herd and pretty much the end of aerial gunning of wolves up in the new parkland.” Dad saw a pack of 16 from the air below Alapah Creek. Sonny nodded his head and offered “I saw a small pack trotting across the river above Poker Creek and tracks everywhere. How many do you hope to catch anyway?” Sonny knew that trapping wolves was difficult and only a few people were good at it. “We took 6 last winter and shot 2 more on the river. We talked with the Hobsen brothers, you probably heard of them, while visiting with Mom up in Iniaktuuq Pass last summer. They are incredible wolfers, catching 25 or 30 a year, and seemed happy to share some hard-earned knowledge. They laughed saying not many girls trap wolves! We went right out and bought 6 dozen more snares. In those wide tundra valleys they also chase down and shoot wolves from their snowmachines.”
Sonny was impressed with Elsa’s work ethic. She seemed to have knowledge and a bearing well beyond her years. She was taller than Natalie, also had their dad’s blue eyes, but was more outgoing, quick to laugh and explore humor. She seemed completely enthralled with living in the wild. Simply living. She mentioned that Natalie had been talking about moving Outside to a small college town in western Oregon to work and attend classes in a progressive social setting. Sonny felt his heart free fall just a bit.
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Categories: Freezer Burned