Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted November 16, 2022 at 8:06 pm by

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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One comment...

  1. Thank you, Mr. Ulvi, for your exquis­ite prose. It’s been sheer joy to read each install­ment of your “Freez­er Burned” series.

    Comment by Terry on November 18, 2022 at 10:54 am

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