Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted September 10, 2022 at 10:33 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.
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