Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted August 22, 2022 at 8:01 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.
Death at Cutoff Slough on the Kuuk River
The column of mercury in a rusty Northern Commercial thermometer nailed to a porch post was in freefall as the barometer rose. The occluded front that dumped new snow while Sonny was resting at the homestead was being pushed out by a strong high-pressure system. The months of winter are dominated by powerful high-pressure domes that bring clear skies. That’s the harsh reality at the edge of Arctic North America in December. The sun is nothing but a cold tease skirting the southern horizon; if you are lucky. Outposts with higher ridges or ranges lying to the south, may have no glimpse of the sun at all for many weeks until mid-February. The reticent orb emanates about as much warmth as a 10-watt lightbulb in a chest freezer.
Sonny rubbed the frost from the outdoor thermometer with a gloved finger as he prepared to leave the renewed friendships and warmth of the rustic homestead. Minus 37 F; just about what he guessed. He was exuberant following his visit with the Henderson family. The wind was dying down after redistributing much of the exposed snow and shaping small drifts. Picture postcard winter scenery; during the scant 4 hours of daylight anyway. The hardened snow and sastrugi forms on the river would be better footing; maybe even allow for walking without the webs sometimes.
He reveled in the peaceful scene as he followed Elsa’s sled tracks upriver. He saw many frozen and slightly raised cushion tracks on the ice made when the snow was fresh. Wolves and red fox. Elsa had decided to get out with the whole team to run the dogs and reestablish their upriver trapline trail. After Natalie helped to hook up the lunging, barking dogs, Elsa pulled the hook and tore out of the yard at o‑dark thirty, a couple of hours before Sonny. Their effort would speed Sonny’s progress for a few miles; especially where trail coursed through snow-collecting sloughs.
Sonny was thrilled with the old bamboo ski poles and birchwood pulke that Lars had pulled down from the cob-webbed shop rafters. He had never been good on skis and lacked proper footgear for it so he turned down Lars’ offer of wooden skis. The upturned toboggan had runners, was very light and tracked behind him connected by lines to the padded waist belt of his empty pack frame. Lars sent along some dried caribou skin babiche and a refiled spade bit with a small wood handle to drill holes for trail repairs. He had also talked Sonny into borrowing one of their light rifles now that he could haul more weight efficiently. The caribou would be around for a while as would the wolf packs that preyed upon them. The rifle was a well-used compact lever action, a 300 Savage with a peep site that Ada had used for years while guiding Dall Sheep hunters when the girls were young.
He was exhilarated to be headed to Alapah Creek, some 25 miles upriver, well beyond Ramparts Canyon. He planned to stayover at the fish camp cabin. He doubted that the snowmachine tracks of the Texans were through the slow to freeze up canyon rapids as yet. He could spend two nights and help himself by snowshoeing a trail upriver without the pulke one day. He now believed that by staying there he could exorcise the terrible memories of his last stay; the most heart-rending night of his life. He knew that soon enough he would be breaking trail. Progress would slow above the end of the river trail that Elsa and her dogs were busting out ahead of him. He expected to see her soon; the dogs trotting at a brisk pace while Elsa, bundled in her riding parka with a dark wolverine ruff, kicked from the runners. Maybe the next bend.
Fatigued, Sonny pulled in to a convenient driftwood pile along the bank. After brushing snow from a silvered drift log and stretching his back, he sat to kindle a fire to melt some snow to make water and tea. The narrowing Kuuk River was immensely quiet. The front ranges of the Brooks Range loomed. He no longer felt the pangs of being alone in a vast frozen landscape. As he carefully repacked the pulke he noticed several black undulating dots; ravens approaching from upriver. A minute later, large wings beating the thick air, they half-circled him to kite down on the nearby expanse of river; hopping, coarsely kraa-kraaing in some kind of raucous discussion.
Shaking his head in wonder at the evolutionary incongruity of Inky-black scavengers in a world of white; sometimes clowning, sometimes opportunistically killing and often attracting predators for shared bloody reward. Sonny leaned into starting the pulke moving upriver again. The noisy birds took off one by one, flew directly overhead vocalizing, then pumped a few hundred yards to circle back before continuing over the forested bend in loose formation. Curious birds; who could know the intention of ravens? Sonny had heard that they were smarter than dogs and knew them as tricksters. They were deeply respected by his native elders. They seemed to invite him to follow.
With only a couple of hours of low light remaining in the day, Sonny made his way far enough around the willowed arc of Steamboat Bend to see the unexpected; a solitary person quickly walking toward him half a mile distant. He stared, immediately alarmed, paused for a few moments, then picked up his pace now driven by concern. It had to be Elsa but where the heck were her dogs? They were too well trained to leave her if she had somehow fallen off the runners. Maybe a close encounter with a band of caribou had suddenly excited them enough to pull the hook while she was off the sled? Something bad; his mind spun but he couldn’t imagine what! Surely not plunging into open water! As the distance between them shrank he could see that she had no parka, was hustling along toting her small rifle, anxiously looking back over her shoulder.
As they neared one another Elsa hurried clumsily toward him shouting. She was sobbing and shaking her head, long dark braids flapping, as she got close enough to cry out, “Sonny! A winter bear is killing my dogs! It will kill them all!” She knelt trying to catch her breath. “Came charging out of the brush at Cutoff Slough. Right into the team. Scared the hell out of me! Sonny, I froze up and screamed! Odin barked and lunged at him as the bear turned toward me. I ran away as he was fighting and being torn to pieces!” She staggered to him gibbering and sobbing uncontrollably; hugging him to ground her distress.
Sonny struggled to think. He quickly realized that if they retreated together, it would soon be dark and all the dogs would be dead. And the bear would still be there protecting the kills that would preserve its miserable life for another week. The necessary confrontation had to happen while the odds were against the beast. In moments he found his center and knew there was only one possible tactic. “OK, it’s OK! Elsa you couldn’t have done anything else! You could have been mauled but you are safe! Elsa, tell me, how far is it?” She could hardly form a sentence, shivering. He held her at arm’s length and gently shook her. “Help me here Elsa!” She turned and pointed upriver all but shouting that it was where her trail entered the slough.
Elsa put her hands on her knees and bent down to catch her breath. She was licking her lips and cotton-mouthed from the adrenaline dump, fear and exertion in the dry cold. She straightened, reaching for Sonny’s water bottle to drink deeply. Sonny handed her a handful of cookies and suggested that she leave the gun to make haste back to the homestead to get Lars and more firepower. “Can you do that, Elsa? There is no time to lose. Here, take my light over-parka and this water! Go now; get Lars! I’m going to try to save some dogs”.
She pleaded with him to go with her, again embracing him. He shook his head in determination, pushed back from her and turned to double-time on his snowshoes dragging his pulke behind. He stole a look or two over his shoulder to see Elsa jogging away on the firm trail. He knew that there was only an hour and a half of shooting light and he had no illusions as to what he was going to find. He was strengthened by knowing that he had fired the rifle several times in siting in and liked the smooth rotary feed action, the quick levering of shots. He tried to tamp down the fear that rose like bile in his throat.
He rapidly approached then fumbled in fear and excitement to un-belt and drop his pack frame, unlace his snowshoes for quiet mobility and pocket a few more cartridges. He slid the rifle from the soft case, levered a round into the chamber and quickly moved toward the bear in his moosehide boots. Triple checking that the safety was off, bending lower he veered to the left to keep the brushy toe of the island between his approach on the open river and the beast.
Cotton gloved, his finger on the trigger guard he slowed at 60 yards, Sonny rose up and stealthily edged right until the dark hump of the bear was clearly visible. He closed a few more yards then stood aiming. He knew that his best chance was to put a bullet into the left front shoulder of the hunkered down bear and duck down in hopes of not being seen. His great-grandfather Peter had often cautioned him that a grizzly bear was most dangerous with their left paw.
After waiting longer than he could bear, his mind racing and breaths quickening, he whistled shrilly. The grizzly sat upright, rounded ears, brown pig eyes and nostrils searching, exposing the front shoulder. Sonny breathed out and squeezed off a shot knowing that there would be no bullet drop. He heard the bullet slap but hardly noticed the sharp report. The brute was instantly up, biting at its shoulder, bellowing in rage. Some ravens flushed from a tall spruce snag. Sonny knew that he would only have seconds if the bear charged him and slowly rose to shoot again. The crippled beast turned its baleful glare and made for him hobbled by a useless front leg, his dark muzzle covered with gore.
Sonny aimed center chest and rapidly levered 3 more shots. The beast piled up a few yards away but crawled toward him even in the throes of death. Sonny moved to the side and tried to hold steady on the broad head but was shaking badly with the adrenaline dump. He breathed deeply to steady himself while moving forward pointing toward the still quivering beast. The impact of the last bullet from ten feet sent waves of shock down the frosty fur of the shaggy neck and trembling body. A death rattle; then the immense quiet. Sonny sank to his knees in relief. He stared at the bear, breath slowing, then stood to move unsteadily, approaching the sled to see what was left of the unfortunate dog team.
By an inexplicable quirk of fate, most of the dogs seemed unharmed; 4 whimpered, curled on the snow, immobilized by primordial fear. The leader Molly stood up shivering. The deadly enmity and competition between wolves and bears that had played out for millions of years, was palpable. The wheel dog nearest the sled was half eaten, entrails ripped out and the snow spattered in blood and hair. He knew of Odin, the oldest male who probably invited a death of skull-crushing bites by attempting to fight back in suicidal desperation. Sonny stood still, shuddering, feeling the violence of the scene reverberate in his soul.
He touched each quivering dog and reassured them in turn, then moved to retrieve his pulke and gear, hardly believing the sequence of events. The peaceful mood of the river was shattered but he realized his providence in remaining unscathed and preventing an even greater tragedy. He couldn’t help but wonder whether this brute could be one of the yearling cubs of the big sow that had killed his mother just a few miles from this place 3 years back. He was repulsed yet unable to stand still. He began removing the savaged remains of Odin from his harness then heard the high whine of snowmachines approaching. He stood to wave while flicking on his headlamp and tried to compose himself, suddenly feeling spent.
Lars pulled up after briefly pausing at the dead grizzly to nudge its open eye with the end of the barrel of his rifle testing for the surety of death. Stepping off his machine he greeted Sonny in obvious relief. The sweeping bright beam of his headlamp revealed the story of the drama. Natalie and Elsa, riding double bypassed the bear and immediately stopped to rush to comfort their remaining dogs, amazed that any at all had survived the ordeal. As the team dogs slowly stood, Elsa, beside herself with an unexpected flush of joy despite great fatigue, stepped up to Sonny and hugged him crying and rocking side to side in relief. “Thank you, Sonny, thank you! I was worried sick about you! You saved our team.” Sonny relaxed in the warm embrace and didn’t try to hide his own tears freezing to his cheeks.
Lars knew just how much work had to be done as the temperature dropped under red-tinged northern lights. He consoled his daughters and began to drag Odin’s ravaged body toward the brush but both girls objected, saying that they wanted to bury the dog at home where his sacrifice could be memorialized. He nodded in understanding but added “you know that by State law ve have to skin this bear and save the skull for dat damned Fish and Game. Since ‘tis skin and bones, meat is no good at all. I don’t vant to fool around vith all that stuff”.
Surveying the remaining dogs he asked “You girls tink those poor dogs can make it home? We can pull dat beast onto the snowmachine sled to get rid of out back of our place. Vee vill keep its skull. I don’t vant to leave the carcass here for anybody, maybe that damned Park Service even but especially those Texans to find. Maybe make troubles for us”. Elsa piped up “OK, but Dad we have no food for these dogs. We can let one or two ride in the basket, so let’s give it a try. Maybe you or Sonny can trail behind with that bear so that the dogs don’t have to smell him and the blood to be frightened all the way back?” Lars nodded in agreement and appreciatively tapped his temple with a calloused finger as he often did with his bright daughters.
Sonny helped Lars easily drag and roll the emaciated bear onto the sled. Sighing, Lars spoke from his heart as a life-long woodsman “Ya know I don’t hate this creature. He could not den vitout fat and has been out in da terrible cold for many veeks steadily vasting and suffering. Impossible to live out of da den. I doubt that he make it that long vithout the caribou carcasses up here those Poker Creek Texans shoot”. Sonny nodded in agreement and asked “Lars, you think this bear weighed 350 pounds or more in prime, but now less than half that?” “Ya, I tink that’s right, Sonny”.
Natalie and Elsa had all their dogs up and moving, checking them over more closely, leaving an empty trace in Odin’s place just in front of the sled. Sonny dug into the food that Ada had sent along for him and gave each dog a chunk of cooked beaver and tail fat in the cone of light from his headlamp. Tails wagged at half-staff. Natalie suggested that Sonny put his pulke in the sled or tow it behind the other machine. He hesitated a few moments, gazing upriver, then shook his head in determination and replied “No, I’m relieved but exhausted. I would like to move for a while then make camp. I need to collect myself, sleep and refocus on getting to the Alapah. Who knows, maybe this bear was around there and Nate.”
Their headlamps shone brightly and exhalations fogged as they hugged in turn, fully absorbed in the moment. Lars stepped into the group palming a large curved claw sliced from the front paw of the bear. “Sonny, we vill never forget this day. Your Mother vould be too proud of you! In my 50 years here I only seen sign of maybe half dozen other vinter bears. Always very dangerous! This vill be your keepsake, a talisman of the power of that creature”.
Sonny could only breathe deeply trying to slow the moment, holding the 4‑inch yellowed claw and nodding in appreciation. Elsa gave him a stoic glance and met his gaze for a few moments. Shivering he watched them depart; at first slowly then picking up the pace as the dogs began trotting homeward. By the time he had repacked his pulke the juddering lights of the entourage had disappeared around the long curvature of Steamboat Bend.
In silence Sonny took one last look at the maze of tracks and blood that somehow seemed mirrored in a reddish smear in an auroral curtain swishing overhead. He gulped the last of his water knowing that he was no longer the same person he had been when the day began. He imagined his Mom’s kind smile and began moving up the trail to warm up. He welcomed pangs of hunger knowing that he would soon feast on Ada’s gifts of choice trail food by a blazing fire.
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Categories: Freezer Burned