Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted August 22, 2022 at 8:01 pm by

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

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