Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted November 16, 2022 at 8:06 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.
The Alapah Creek Partnership
Nate Cutler felt reinvigorated after the echo-chamber of introspection during so many weeks alone. Sonny’s positive nature and easy adaptation to the challenges of each new day lifted his heart. Unfortunately, at times, especially in the soft light of the kerosene lamp, Sonny’s dark eyes reminded Nate of the love of his life, Angela, who was also Sonny’s aunt. She fled the Kuuk, shattered by the accidental death of their infant son, Jacob, for the embrace of extended kin in Tonasket Crossing. After a few months she abruptly moved on to Anchorage and anonymity. She was still unable to forgive herself and relived the nightmare every day. She had recently suggested a divorce.
Sonny noticed that Nate still had a small memorial in front of the cabin, a simple altar of remembrance for little Jacob. Nate’s frequent visits created an ongoing epitaph of personal tragedy as well as the sweet memories of the energizing love that grew at the wild Alapah.
The swelling had quickly diminished in Nate’s jaw. They teamed up to relocate and improve the trail Sonny had broken out on the Kuuk River walking up from the Ramparts Canyon. Sonny could not have known where Nate’s woodland trails left the river to cut across bends. Nate had been careful to choose access points with downed trees or rough terrain features that blocked spring snowmachine access. For several years, the unwelcome Poker Creek crew had been motoring into the upper Kuuk for a week of nefarious activities during the long sunny days of late winter. Like an alcohol fueled spring break before the placer mining season began. There was ample evidence and rumors of wildlife poaching by plane. Nate had generally avoided them but especially so now that he was a seasonal park ranger. He lived within the boundaries of the new National Park: he would soon know heightened social criticism, even hatred, losing friends, living on the razor’s edge.
A solid partnership was rapidly forming, despite nearly a decade of age difference between the young men. With Sonny present, each short day had so many promising new dimensions. Nate enthusiastically shared his hard-earned knowledge of the region, carefully sketching a map on cardboard to go with the one inch to the mile topographic maps he counted on. His accurate depictions showed trails and revealed the local place names he had learned from Angie and Lars Hendersen, or conjured in his own mind. Sonny was spellbound by the gaunt mountains, so spectacular compared to the wide Yukon River environs. He was eager to get around.
Some of the winding historic trails passed cabin ruins; silent, moldering reminders of lonely men scraping out a living in a bygone era. Nate pointed out the normal wind patterns, areas of drifting snow and likely areas of treacherous overflow – a condition caused when thickening ice forced flowing water to the surface to form glare ice, or worse hiding beneath insulating snow during spells of extremely cold weather. Nate emphasized the subtle, tell-tale signs that overflow could be present; a slight grey tinge to the snow pack in low places downstream from springs.
They were jazzed by signs of lynx movement into good pockets of snowshoe hare on the willow bars and in the stunted birch groves along the braided river course. The eruptive snowshoe hare cycle in their region was in about year seven of a 10-year cycle. The ecological ramifications of such exploding biomass in the harsh and often hungry environs of the southern Brooks Range were astonishing. More young cats from bigger litters were facing their first winter. It was easier to catch them, and they were tender meat, like a cross between chicken and pork; but smaller pelts, worth much less than adult lynx. Sonny pronounced lynx as “link” in the Indian manner. Nate avoided the silly appropriation of the term that many whites adopted. They saw a few moose feeding but had no need for time-consuming hunting. The quarters from five nice caribou were hung high under the cache, and spritzed with water once in a while to encase them in ice in order to retard freeze-drying over months.
After a week the wire snares set in trails converging on the remains of the inedible rutted “stink bull” that Sonny had foolishly shot resulted in catching three wolves (one partially eaten by pack mates) and several fox. Even a rare coyote; with so many wolves around that uncommon, undersized dog-cousin had been living on the edge of existence anyway. The lingering odors of hormonal stress and death at that site would keep other wolves skirting the bar for a while. Nate pulled the snares out but had not yet ventured on past the cliffs that bordered the north shore of the Kuuk to reach his Otter Creek line cabin. Old Smoky Sven’s place.
Nate sipped morning tea and wiped a circle on the frosty window to record the morning temperature of 26F below zero. “Not bad at all” he murmured. Dark for several more hours, it was a special day – Winter Solstice – a milestone for northerners, the promise of a creeping return of day light. “Ya know, Sonny, the sun won’t rise high enough to light up the spruce around here until the 12th of February” as he nodded in the direction of the high Ramparts ridges to the south. “Hope that you are still here to see it!”
Nate told Sonny, “I want to hold off on setting out more steel upriver so that we can visit the Hendersen’s for a few days at Christmas. If the weather cooperates.” Nate continued brightly “maybe Lars will agree to fly us back up here for a good marten pelt or two. If conditions are right.” Sonny couldn’t contain his excited smile, less about the ease of flying back up, more about the nervous flutter in his chest whenever thoughts of the Hendersen family came up.
While Nate turned some pelts fur-side out on stretching boards in order to finish drying them, Sonny hand-sawed firewood for the heavy barrel stove. Hours later, as the light faded and Sonny returned with a pulke load of clear river ice to melt for water, Nate was voicing his emotions, perhaps reassuring himself tearfully at Jacob’s altar. Nearby, the pile of limbs and downed rotted wood that had been accumulating for weeks was beginning to burn with licking flames. An annual solstice bonfire. Giving space, Sonny quietly entered the cabin to hang his damp gear, sip tea and study maps of the Alapah drainage by candle light.
Nate slowly entered the cabin. He stood looking at Sonny, while refilling his cup with homebrew. In a hollow voice he shared his heart. “It’s Solstice but also four years to the day when we arrived at Hendersen’s to find that our little Jacob had suffocated while bundled in the sled with Angie. We could not revive him.”
“I still think of that terrible time, Unc. A nightmare. When Lars flew Angie and Jacob into the village our family gathered and grieved for days. I knew how badly you wanted to be there, too. Returning to the Alapah alone must have been very hard, man.” Sonny paused in obvious internal conflict then offered, “Mom and Old Peter spoke of god’s ways around the tiny coffin that Uncle Jimmy built, but I could not understand or accept that. Then after Mom was viciously killed at the Ramparts by those grizzlies, Old Peter said much the same thing at her funeral. That broke my heart. I think it crushed what small God faith I had.”
Nate knocked back his cup of brew and poured another. Sonny declined his gesture to join him. “Nah, I don’t want to drink.” Nate swayed a bit as they absorbed the heat and stared into the licking flames. The dome of stars shimmered in the rising heat. “You know my dad became an alcoholic? I was 13 when he died of a heart attack on his fish boat tied at the dock. We lived in a cabin built from scrounged materials on an island called San Juan down in Washington state. He must have been mentally ill because he promised he loved us while sober and apologetic, in the aftermath of another senseless rampage, but scared my sisters and me and threatened Mom for several years.”
“So, the Sherrif turned into the muddy drive and knocked on our door once again, not in response to frantic calls for help while my crazed father tried to break the door down, but to inform us of his sudden death. He was 41 years old. I cried too. But I was relieved that he could no longer terrorize us when he was drunk. He couldn’t escape his demons. Worse, for us kids, the on-going stress and fear poisoned our emergent personalities.”
Shaking his head knowingly and muttering “the devastation of booze” Sonny asked, “How the heck did you end up living in the bush near Mission City, then?”
“A couple of years passed, Mom was working two jobs, sometimes on the slime line at the fish cannery. My dad had purchased a good life insurance policy while gainfully employed that kept us afloat.” Nate paused to smile and refill his cup. “I worried about my younger sisters every day. Still do.”
“I think Mom met Rick … Rick Boone, at a beach bonfire. Old island family. His grandpa was an infamous rum runner in prohibition. He was a diesel mechanic, three years younger than Mom, and pretty much obsessed by dreams of living in the wilds of Alaska. I was a freshman in high school when they got hitched.”
“We were all pretty happy and started stocking up on northern woods gear and how to books. In summer of 1975 they sold the fish boat and property, we took off in Rick’s crew cab packed to the gills and camped out along the way. Each day was a grand adventure with an unknowable ending.” Nate brightened some saying, “I sure remember the map on the dusty dashboard with a small town circled on the upper Yukon River called Mission City. He still had an old Alaska Magazine with a dogeared pages written by a family homesteading at the Seventy Mile River near there.”
Two days later, making good time, taking turns leading on snowshoes and following while dragging the pulke, Nate and Sonny were nearly across the drifted Kuuk below the Ramparts. Old Peter’s cabin was a mess but they warmed it, cleaned and organized things some and got a comfortable night’s sleep. They were entertained by an energetic ermine, now white, feeding on meat and blood scraps around the porch. The Texans had not cut out the doorway in a stupid plan to repair their dunked snowmachine. Both men were relieved but Sonny once again traced the light scar down his cheek and tensed up knowing that he would inevitably cross paths again with the unruly Texans. Maybe even today.
Later, taking a blow, they heard ravens, saw the noisy flock, then noticed two dog teams — just tiny extended dots really — in the distance just above Steamboat Bend. Realizing that the teams were pulling away headed south, Nate fired three spaced shots in the cold calm air. The men waved their arms as the teams halted for a few moments and turned back on their trail to close the distance. Natalie and Elsa pulled back their ruffed hoods after setting sled hooks and strode happily to Sonny and Nate while a couple younger dogs barked. The hugs and greetings were warm all around. Sonny and Elsa embraced longer, rocking side to side and whispering to one another. She pulled her inner gloves to softly touch Sonny’s cheek and the new scar, wondering about the source of the injury. One of many stories she longed to hear.
To tweak his young partner, buoyed by the moment, Nate started to swing his leg into Elsa’s sled after they donned outer layers to prepare for the cold run at 10–12 miles per hour on packed trail. A brisk trotting pace would push the windchill to about minus 40F. Nate and Natalie laughed knowingly as he shifted to her larger sled and they pulled the hook without much warning to “haw around” the team of lunging, barking huskies in order to head downriver. Elsa smiled but stood more firmly on the sled hook, mitted hand on the driving bow, thus holding her three veteran dogs that tugged in excitement to follow their mates. But her focus she didn’t stray from Sonny. He sheepishly broke the spell and swung into the rear of the sled bag. She leaned in some so they could talk most of the way home.
The excitement of the dogs heading for the barn was infectious. A banner day, the day before Christmas Eve faded quickly; the last subtle blush of blue left the reflective snow as the night sky began to blacken, revealing pin-pricks of stars. The countless stars and smears of faraway galaxies brightened. The only sounds were of plastic-clad sled runners and swishing, dogs trotting, their exhalations fogging, neck-lines and small holiday bells tinkling. There was no need for commands or encouragement. They travelled effortlessly in the perfect synchrony of trust and companionship between working dogs and their people in an immense wild landscape. Soon they would be relaxing, feasting and telling stories around the Hendersen cabin at 4th of July Creek.
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Categories: Freezer Burned
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Thank you, Mr. Ulvi, for your exquisite prose. It’s been sheer joy to read each installment of your “Freezer Burned” series.
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