Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted September 10, 2022 at 10:33 am by

Freez­er Burned is an ongo­ing series for the San Juan Update, writ­ten by Steve Ulvi. Read the pre­vi­ous sto­ry in this series.

Trou­ble at the Ramparts

The full moon loomed high in the sky; the fad­ing cre­pus­cu­lar light of mid-after­noon gave in eas­i­ly to the rush­ing tide of night. The radi­ant moon­glow cre­at­ed spec­tac­u­lar soft light­ing; grey-blue shad­ows from tall wil­lows and trees along the riv­er bank lat­ticed on reflec­tive snow. Son­ny was glad to save on pre­cious head­lamp bat­ter­ies. He filled up on snow­shoe hare stew using the last of some pre-cooked rice from Ada; stand­ing on a cush­ion of spruce boughs, rotat­ing front to back near a sub­stan­tial “white man’s blaze” to stave off the pen­e­trat­ing cold. He mar­veled think­ing about his Atha­paskan ances­tors liv­ing suc­cess­ful­ly for thou­sands of years through the long win­ter nights with­out arti­fi­cial light.

The Ram­parts Cliffs shone bone-col­ored in the reflect­ed lunar light; the maw of the canyon, the gates to the upper Kuuk Riv­er. Son­ny sought the respite of heat­ed space again. Ram­parts Cab­in, only two or three miles away as the raven flies, was still twice that dis­tance trudg­ing on the sin­u­ous riv­er. Repet­i­tive hoots from Great Horned Owls, asked and answered, punc­tu­at­ed the night.

After he drift­ed to sleep in his tarped sleep­ing bags, he was dream­ing of snow­ma­chines speed­ing around his vil­lage of Tonas­ket with­out rhyme or rea­son. The dis­rup­tion was the plague of boot­leg­ging in a dry com­mu­ni­ty after the arrival of sum­mer fire-fight­ing pay­checks in the mail. Elsa Hen­der­son was roman­ti­cal­ly present and a con­fus­ing ele­ment in the nether­world of emo­tions. Son­ny wak­ened; star­tled to hear actu­al snow­ma­chines loud­ly announc­ing human trav­el in the motion­less dense air. At first, he thought that they were com­ing right into camp and sat up con­fused, grop­ing for his head­lamp. He soon real­ized that they were near­ly a quar­ter mile away, across the riv­er from his siwash camp; bounc­ing head lights sweep­ing the frozen shore. A dog-hair stand of young spruce around him hid his dying fire, smoke spi­ral­ing heavenward.

No longer alone in the vast land­scape, Son­ny was imme­di­ate­ly jolt­ed from tired slum­ber to stress­ful spec­u­la­tion. He knew that it had to be that damned Pok­er Creek crew. They were run­ning hard. It was cold, maybe ‑40F. Vil­lagers had no rea­son to be trav­el­ling way up here. Most of them would be hun­kered by the stove and blan­ket­ing doors or has­sling with haul­ing in more wood. Those vil­lagers often paid out­ra­geous prices for green wood as skimpy piles dis­ap­peared rapid­ly in try­ing to main­tain heat in their old drafty cab­ins. Some homes had two or even three wood­stoves requir­ing reg­u­lar stok­ing like the boil­ers on the small stern­wheel­ers that once served Tonas­ket. Besides, he thought, bad things often hap­pened with snow­ma­chines oper­at­ing in rub­ber and plas­tic break­ing tem­per­a­tures. Must be a damn good rea­son for run­ning in this cold; at night.

He turned on his side to care­ful­ly relieve him­self into the insu­lat­ed plas­tic bot­tle kept under the cov­er­ing tarp. He need­ed to con­cen­trate; miss­ing a bit or over­fill­ing with­in the zip­pered edges of the warm bag was not a good thing. He smiled while remain­ing in the warmth of his feath­ered cocoon, find­ing small sat­is­fac­tion in not hav­ing the more dif­fi­cult chal­lenges of a woman or an old man. Sub­merg­ing below the sur­face and turn­ing off his mind took quite a while, peek­ing through the draw stringed open­ing into the moon­glow and shim­mer­ing of the aurora.

Son­ny hit the trail late the next morn­ing after enjoy­ing flick­ing small food scraps to a fam­i­ly of chick­adees; flit­ting, enter­tain­ing bun­dles of ener­gy, tsee-tsee-tsee­ing around him, seem­ing­ly inured to the death­ly cold. For a while he for­got his human wor­ries and rev­eled in the moment. But he depart­ed the camp with con­cern wrack­ing his mind, cross­ing the Kuuk to the low cliffs of the west­ern bank to find the braid­ed machine trails. He was hap­py to have a packed trail but would have great­ly pre­ferred not cross­ing paths with the min­ers. He couldn’t imag­ine just what they were up to in this cold snap. How many cari­bou could they eat? Son­ny knew that for them it was more about the killing. Maybe they had already found sol­id ice along the edge to get above the boul­der gar­den at the mouth of the canyon. His mind spun. Noth­ing made sense.

Skeins of aim­less cari­bou trails crossed his path­way as he leaned into the har­ness mak­ing good time but plagued by con­flict­ing feel­ings as to what he would dis­cov­er ahead. He saw ani­mals and cir­cling ravens sev­er­al times. The famil­iar Ram­parts cliffs grew more impos­ing by the minute. Dur­ing his many youth­ful vis­its he had scram­bled to the top of Old Man rock to enjoy an eyrie view of the land­scape with cousins. He smiled inward­ly remem­ber­ing his Uncle Jim­my show­ing him the “secret” route. At dawn he had heard the flat but insis­tent sound of dis­tant gun­fire. After an hour more on the trail he could see the cab­in, parked machines and sleds, smoke boil­ing from the stove pipe; his heart sank, his worst fears realized.

Odd­ly, a tri­pod of stout poles was vis­i­ble on the near mar­gin of the riv­er below the jum­ble of rock­fall below the cliffs. Old Man Rock tow­ered over the oper­a­tion while Old Woman Rock stood across the riv­er, sep­a­rat­ed by geo­log­ic time and the inex­orable pow­er of a riv­er. Or maybe as Old Peter and Eliza explained; the sep­a­ra­tion was a cau­tion­ary tale of unrec­on­ciled lovers. Three bun­dled men were busy in the whisps of fog ris­ing from open water; a bon­fire burned bright­ly, launch­ing sparks. Son­ny slowed in dis­ap­point­ment and grow­ing agi­ta­tion. He had no options as he craved the com­fort of the small cab­in, Old Chief Peter’s fish camp cab­in, for a night or two.

As he ‘shoed up the slop­ing bank fronting the cab­in, wend­ing his way between frost­ed snow­ma­chines, he noticed that many of the fish racks his fam­i­ly had used for decades had been sawn into fire­wood and piled near the porch. Frost­ed cari­bou hindquar­ters hung from the porch rafters. A cou­ple of “camp rob­ber” jays lay beneath, fresh­ly blown apart. Like­ly pun­ished with­out com­pas­sion for peck­ing small bits of fat from the hang­ing meat. Like­ly the hand­gun shots he heard a cou­ple hours back.

A tall, full-beard­ed guy emerged from the low cab­in door, smok­ing a butt, a revolver hol­stered at his waist; unbend­ing to his full height he noticed Son­ny. He stood, head shak­ing in dis­be­lief, as if he was see­ing an appari­tion mate­ri­al­iz­ing from the end­less white world. “I’ll be damned if it ain’t The Apache Kid his­self! We fig­ured you got cross­wise with Lars snif­fin’ around them Hen­der­son gals or maybe turned tail back to the easy wel­fare life in Tonasket.”

“Nope. Slow going and unex­pect­ed stuff, but here I am. What are you guys doin’ here any­way, Dell?” Son­ny had rehearsed the next state­ment and tone while approach­ing the cab­in. “This is my Great Grandpa’s fish camp and his legal native allot­ment land.”

“It’s not real­ly pri­vate prop­er­ty; just a sleazy guvmint give away to Indi­ans. In Alas­ka trav­el­ers can stop in at a cab­in if they need shel­ter. You ough­ta know that, kid! A few days back one of my part­ners dropped his machine in the riv­er try­ing to find a way around all that open rush­ing water at that damned boul­der drop. But we’re gonna yank it out pret­ty quick here. We made the shack nice and homey so keep an eye on that old stove for me. I got­ta go super­vise those goat-ropers.”

Son­ny sur­veyed the entire­ty of the dis­heart­en­ing scene then dropped his pack frame and left the pulke, steel­ing him­self as he stepped up the rick­ety stair onto the sag­ging porch. He eas­i­ly locat­ed his name, along­side those of many cousins and par­ents, carved in the sun-dark­ened plank door he remem­bered so well. His mom’s name, Sarah, gave him pause. Also carved deep block let­ters; BUILT 1937. He knew that his Uncle Jim­my had carved that as a teen in the 1950s, with pride in his hum­ble grand­par­ents. Son­ny knew well that the old­er gen­er­a­tions of native peo­ple have a dif­fer­ent, less lin­ear, sense of time.

With trep­i­da­tion Son­ny pushed the heavy door inward and was met with swel­ter­ing air laden with a heady mix of foul odors; stale cig­a­rette butts, filthy sox, burned cof­fee and an over-flow­ing slop buck­et. Assort­ed cloth­ing and bed­ding were strewn every­where. A windrow of bro­ken glass was brushed to the wall on the small kitchen counter. Blood and tufts of cari­bou hair were frozen on the plank floor under a heavy wire sus­pend­ed from a rafter. Every enam­el plate, bowl and cup seemed to be crust­ed with dried beans and ketchup, piled at the angle of repose in the steel sink.

Step­ping back out­side to catch a breath he tamped down his irri­ta­tion that was build­ing toward fury. Dur­ing a pause in the swirling mist he saw that a snow­ma­chine hung drip­ping from the tri­pod. He took his par­ka and sleep­ing bags inside to dry them some, know­ing that he could not tol­er­ate spend­ing the night on the floor in the small cab­in with four sour, raunchy men. He noticed in the wan­ing light that there was a beat­en trail to the lad­der lean­ing against the pole cache that stood on stout met­al-wrapped legs where fuel and basic sup­plies were stored by his fam­i­ly. He shook his head in dis­may. Caches were impor­tant in the coun­try, a main­stay in the bush; sel­dom vio­lat­ed by peo­ple, but once in a while by a clever and per­sis­tent bear or wolverine.

Son­ny poured the gal­lon or two of water he found into anoth­er semi-clean buck­et- one that he sniffed first — and donned his gloves and hat to walk out to dip some more at the tri­pod. Dell and his pals were drag­ging the sod­den snow­ma­chine behind two scream­ing machines spin­ning track and smok­ing dri­ve belts. He stepped aside, they rev­eled in pass­ing; Dell, fol­lowed by anoth­er guy was shak­ing his head strid­ing behind. Son­ny stood by the remains of the warm­ing fire in a melt­ed crater of ice and snow, then stead­ied him­self at one leg of the tri­pod, man­ag­ing to dip most of a full buck­et of gin clear water. The imme­di­ate area was tramped down and strewn with fil­tered butts, snooze and bean cans and toi­let paper clumps bare­ly cov­ered; he was care­ful about where he stepped car­ry­ing the slosh­ing bucket.

He could hear the crew argu­ing loud­ly and sat down at the edge of the porch to wait. The door was cracked and the guy who had lost the machine was loud­ly assert­ing that “I hit the kill switch before I bailed! It was not run­ning! Only two foot of water. I know we can fire it up if we dry it out, clean the plugs, fil­ter the fuel. I can make it run. I sure as hell don’t want to snug­gle with one of these apes rid­ing dou­ble all the way to the mine!”

“You tell me how the hell we do that at 35 below zero with no tent and stove, Ein­stein?” Son­ny fig­ured it was as good a time as any to make his awk­ward entry. He pushed the door open with the buck­et and stepped in with a rush­ing fog of cold air. His bags and par­ka had been tossed on the floor in the cor­ner to make room for their sweat­ed gear, hang­ing on wall nails. A cou­ple of the men were swig­ging brown liquor from plas­tic bot­tles and turned toward him in uni­son. “Hey, maybe the kid has some slick Indi­an tricks up his sleeve, Dell!” They all laughed and enter­tained them­selves with deri­sive com­ments that he tried hard not to hear.

“I need to heat some water for my din­ner”, he asked try­ing to make it sound like a firm state­ment. Dell shrugged, almost smil­ing. The air was thick with the sour stench of unwashed bod­ies and cig­a­rette smoke. Son­ny stepped back out­side, qui­et­ly seething; he was going to be forced to sleep out­side again at his own fam­i­ly cabin.

Lat­er, Son­ny was stripped down to his t‑shirt heat­ing his small pot with the last of the cooked rice and some fat-crust­ed cari­bou heart that Dell had point­ed out in a hard-frozen gut pile on the end of the porch. Hack­ing it out was quick work with his trail axe. The gal­lon fuel cans and old sput­ter­ing Cole­man 2‑burner, requir­ing reg­u­lar pump­ing up, were famil­iar. The crew was becom­ing increas­ing­ly bois­ter­ous and crass as they bathed their few sur­viv­ing brain­cells in rotgut whiskey. The one they called Shifty was sug­gest­ing using their small chain­saw to cut a wider door, wider by 16 inch­es, to allow them to drag the frozen machine inside.

Son­ny could hard­ly believe the arro­gance of such destruc­tive plans. Pri­vate prop­er­ty! Cog­nizant that he had to tread light­ly he sug­gest­ed “bet­ter, you could make a komatik wood sled using those thick tri­pod poles shaped with the chain­saw. Lash it up with rope and drag that machine home on good trail to your shop. You should clean up our cab­in so that come spring bears don’t tear things up”. They all looked at him with con­tempt except for Dell, who was con­sid­er­ing the options. The griz­zly claw Son­ny had been gift­ed — that he had earned — was tied with some fish line and hang­ing around his neck. Itch­ing some he uncon­scious­ly pulled it out to the out­side of his shirt while he sat on a wood­en box eat­ing in silence.

Son­ny soon noticed that the snag­gle-toothed, fire hydrant of a guy, dark body hair emerg­ing at every edge of his tight, stained tee-shirt, the one they called Black­ie, was still snig­ger­ing at his sug­ges­tion while star­ing at the claw tal­is­man with glazed eyes and a focus that indi­cat­ed that all of his synaps­es were spark­ing with dark ideas. Lat­er, after he fin­ished lay­ing out his tarp over spruce boughs, Son­ny orga­nized his pulke and gear close by his bed under the dome of stars in order to qui­et­ly leave ear­ly, before any of them would be awake. The door opened wide and Black­ie shuf­fled out unsteadi­ly, fum­bling a few moments before arc­ing a stream of piss off the porch in a nar­row slant of yel­low lantern light.

Son­ny said noth­ing and mount­ed the step to edge by him to retrieve his sleep­ing bags. Black­ie snarled “hey kid, I want that claw you got round yer neck. Wad­dya want for it?” Son­ny paused for a moment form­ing his response care­ful­ly, “it’s a spe­cial keep­sake for me and not for sale, Black­ie. Not for any amount”. With a belch the sway­ing man growled some­thing incom­pre­hen­si­ble. Son­ny pushed through the door to fill his water bot­tle and gath­er up his sleep­ing gear as the oth­ers were fin­ish­ing hun­gri­ly spoon­ing steam­ing beans out of cans and set­tling in. The air was being fresh­ly fouled, proud of their flat­u­lence, snig­ger­ing at best­ing one anoth­er like teens at a cam­pout. As if the con­fined air qual­i­ty didn’t mat­ter. Dell, always in charge, was care­ful­ly bank­ing the stove, com­press­ing alu­minum foil around the leaky door and draft.

Son­ny qui­et­ly stepped out after a nod to Dell. He closed the door and was momen­tar­i­ly unable to see. Black­ie was wait­ing to the side of the light. As the door closed he cuffed Son­ny hard on the ear and grabbed the fish­line around his neck. He broke the line and laughed at Sonny’s flail­ing fists and efforts to get the claw back. “You thiev­ing bas­tard! Give that back now!”

One of Sonny’s wild punch­es land­ed flush split­ting the beefy man’s lip and enrag­ing him. He knocked Son­ny down and kneeled on his chest while quick­ly scratch­ing his cheek with the claw while spit­ting blood and racial slurs. Stand­ing, Black­ie loomed over Son­ny who had his hands cov­er­ing his face, dul­ly con­sid­er­ing stomp­ing him good, but the door opened as Dell ducked out with a lantern. “What the hell‘s goin’ on out here, Black­ie?” He could see the bear claw in Blackie’s hand and blood on both faces as Son­ny quick­ly stood “this stu­pid ass­hole stole my claw and cut me with it, Dell! I want it back now!”

Black­ie man­aged a smug smile as he pock­et­ed his ill-gained prize. Unex­pect­ed­ly, Dell moved between the pant­i­ng men and with vehe­mence demand­ed that Black­ie “return the kid’s claw and get yer ass back in the cab­in afore I thump ya good”! Wip­ing his mouth with a hairy wrist Black­ie smirked, hes­i­tat­ed a moment, tossed the claw at Son­ny and retreat­ed from Dell’s ire and oak­en fists.

As his anger sub­sided Son­ny tried to clean his face with pow­dery snow and a dirty shirt. Winc­ing he jogged in place to warm up and calm his shot nerves. As he slid into his dou­ble bag he lev­ered a round into his rifle and laid it on its soft case at his side next to his piss bot­tle. He pulled the tarp up and zipped in. A light breeze was ruf­fling the bare wil­low limbs. The moon appear­ing even larg­er, just above the forest­ed hori­zon, was ringed by a spec­tac­u­lar “moon dog”. A wel­come weath­er change. His warm bal­a­cla­va allowed him to loose­ly draw­string his bag hood, enabling him to be able to sit up quick­ly, unimpeded.

Son­ny was angered, sick­ened by the abuse of his fam­i­ly cab­in, the utter dis­re­spect for his fam­i­ly his­to­ry, the codes of the bush; yet per­plexed by Dell’s pro­tec­tive reac­tion to Blackie’s bel­liger­ence. It took an hour for him to wind down. In the mean-time the cab­in set­tled dark and qui­et. He knew that it could have turned out much worse; his face hurt, the scab­bing scratch, eye to chin, burned, but he felt strength­ened by these expe­ri­ences. His mind was keen­ly focused on an ear­ly depar­ture to get above the canyon and leave these trou­bling Tex­ans far behind. For now. Son­ny knew beyond any shad­ow of doubt that Black­ie, dri­ven by his rep­til­ian brain­stem, would hold a grudge and seek revenge in the future.

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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