Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted August 10, 2022 at 10:04 am by

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

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