Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted December 24, 2022 at 8:15 pm by

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

Kuuk Riv­er Holidays

The cel­e­bra­tions dur­ing the short­est days of the year are cher­ished by most high lat­i­tude res­i­dents. Proud rur­al north­ern­ers tend to embrace frosty chal­lenges. Well ahead of the cal­en­dar day that sig­ni­fies the first offi­cial day of win­ter, on Decem­ber 21, they live sur­round­ed by thou­sands of miles of snow and ice. The spe­cial days clus­ter togeth­er in the dark­est, but not yet the most bone-chill­ing weeks of the con­ti­nen­tal win­ter in north­ern Alas­ka. The two months of “boom­ing ice and crack­ing trees” are yet to come to this vast upper Yukon Riv­er basin, far from ocean­ic influences.

The nota­tion of the Win­ter Sol­stice on cal­en­dars is a small font in our time; the exact moment of the annu­al solar tran­si­tion, the max­i­mum tilt that shrugs off the sun’s warmth, is now under­stood via pre­cise com­pu­ta­tions and can be pre­dict­ed to the sec­ond far into the future. For most of the era of mod­ern humankind, recog­ni­tion of the day depend­ed upon the care­ful align­ment of stone struc­tures by high priests in long-gone, advanced soci­eties. It was rec­og­nized as a pre­dictable cyclic pat­tern in the heav­ens while the imme­di­ate nat­ur­al world was fraught with dan­ger and flux.

This annu­al demar­ca­tion is espe­cial­ly impor­tant at high­er lat­i­tudes, where the sun burns as bright­ly as any­where on earth, but with­out a scin­til­la of warmth while bare­ly skim­ming the south­ern hori­zon or dis­ap­pear­ing alto­geth­er. We can only imag­ine that the return of the mys­te­ri­ous, life-giv­ing orb was any­thing but cer­tain; espe­cial­ly so for our skin-clad ances­tors endur­ing the bru­tal mil­len­nia of glacia­tion. Even mod­erns embrace pagan roots; light­ing large burn piles to watch sparks join the dome of stars, to invite the return of the sun.

A few days lat­er, the 1983 Christ­mas on the Kuuk Riv­er, just south of the fore­bod­ing arc of the Brooks Range, would pass as so many have in the Alas­ka bush and remote out­posts; in small gath­er­ings of good­will and shar­ing home-made goods and saved treats. But bush life requires labors and flex­i­bil­i­ty in a win­ter-dom­i­nant cli­mate with only a tem­po­rary break for cel­e­bra­tions. Son­ny jumped at the chance to help with every Hen­der­sen fam­i­ly chore; wash­ing dish­es, car­ry­ing fire­wood and even tend­ing to the least pleas­ant dog yard duties. Nate helped Lars make some repairs to the old tracked snow plow.

Elsa point­ed out the sim­ple memo­r­i­al to Odin, their trusty wheel dog, who had hope­less­ly fought fang to fang against the starv­ing “win­ter bear” at Cut­off Slough, like­ly sav­ing Elsa’s life. “We decid­ed to skin and boil that griz­zly skull to mount it on this post above Odin’s remains. We used the same blaze to thaw the ground…” she trailed off soft­ly, hold­ing Sonny’s gloved hand. “We cooked up some of the meat but only one of the dogs would touch it.”

Her eyes lock­ing with his, she mur­mured “I remem­ber every moment of that after­noon in detail, always will, Son­ny,” squeez­ing his hand firm­ly and pulling him to her to nuz­zle and kiss. Feel­ing self-con­scious and con­cerned that Ada or Lars might see them, he reluc­tant­ly pulled back say­ing, “me too, there was no oth­er way, Elsa, I was ner­vous as hell. But I had time to pre­pare myself to con­front the bear. Unlike you. From the moment we sep­a­rat­ed that night I have admired your inner strength.” Elsa cocked her head and smiled. Natal­ie banged a cou­ple of dog pans togeth­er, a bit loud­er than nec­es­sary, and teased “come on love­birds, let’s fin­ish up here!”

Nate, too, felt at home. He had only come to know Lars and Ada in the few years since meet­ing Angela Johns of Tonas­ket Cross­ing while in a study group at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka in Fair­banks. The steady effer­ves­cence of their love became obvi­ous to all who were around them over that book­ish win­ter on cam­pus. Nate penned reg­u­lar let­ters to his moth­er and step-father who lived on the upper Yukon Riv­er, a few miles out­side of Mis­sion City, often men­tion­ing that he may have met the love of his life.

He was thrilled to be invit­ed to help at the Johns’ fish camp nes­tled at the Ram­parts on the Kuuk that fall. He made a good impres­sion with his bushcraft, work eth­ic and respect­ful behav­ior. Nate felt that the impos­ing arc of cliffs and rapids at The Ram­parts was one of the most beau­ti­ful places he had ever seen in Alas­ka. He soaked it all in and sought accep­tance warmed by Angie’s love. He had spent his teen years hunt­ing, mush­ing dogs, boat­ing, net­ting salmon and trap­ping with his step-dad, Rick. But immer­sion in old Atha­paskan tra­di­tions and cul­tur­al prac­tices added so many fas­ci­nat­ing dimen­sions to labors and rela­tion­ship renew­al in fish camp.

Now in the warmth of the large Hen­der­sen cab­in, Nate gazed at a spindly white spruce adorned with pop­corn strings and favorite orna­ments, while the gifts – most­ly clev­er­ly home­made or pur­chased in Fair­banks months before and hid­den away – spoke of the gen­eros­i­ty of sim­ple lives. The beaver fur over-mitts that Elsa sewn for Son­ny bowled him over. The best of bush meat and fish, pre­served gar­den prod­ucts and fresh baked good­ies fueled the laugh­ter, sto­ries and debates of the small group of hardy peo­ple hap­pi­ly unfet­tered by moder­ni­ty. Lars and his air­plane, kin­da like a pick­up truck on a farm, made pos­si­ble occa­sion­al flights to Fair­banks that ensured that some unusu­al treats and liba­tions were on the table this day; fresh fruit, cider, turkey and brandy.

It was a very spe­cial occa­sion to be enjoyed, often antic­i­pat­ed and savored for weeks. Ada did not imbibe as she had sworn off decades back; endur­ing many tragedies and untime­ly deaths in her Inland Eski­mo vil­lage even though the com­mu­ni­ty had long vot­ed itself a “dry vil­lage.” Big wages earned on plen­ti­ful pipeline con­struc­tion jobs and north slope region oil rev­enue-shar­ing grew the vil­lage econ­o­my with town upgrades and new jobs. Some chose not to work, but to make big mon­ey in the vil­lage doing the “devil’s work” of destroy­ing lives by import­ing and sell­ing hard drugs and booze. It takes a hard heart to sell poi­son to your own fam­i­ly members.

Relax­ing after clean­ing up the kitchen, Elsa moved clos­er to Son­ny and laughed say­ing “mom want­ed a brand-new dish­wash­er so they had me!” The sis­ters had been singing hol­i­day songs and rocked some Tina Turn­er and Duran Duran com­ing in on AM radio waves from Fair­banks while doing dish­es. Son­ny was fur­ther smit­ten by their love­ly har­monies. They espe­cial­ly enjoyed their accom­pa­ni­ment with McGuire Sis­ters oldies. Ada smiled and clapped proudly.

Savor­ing a sump­tu­ous din­ner, Lars cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly cracked the brandy and poured two fin­gers for those nod­ding yes, while Ada made fresh cof­fee, set out cups and set­tled between Son­ny and Nate. Lars stood to say “our fine hol­i­day table tis bless-ed. Skol to all our kin!” His strik­ing blue eyes, coun­te­nance and full beard spoke to his Viking ances­try. Nate toast­ed a blush­ing Ada for her hos­pi­tal­i­ty. Natal­ie raised her glass to Son­ny for sav­ing her sis­ter and their dogs.

Tongues loos­ened but Ada and Son­ny didn’t hold back and wad­ed right in to the mix­ing cur­rents of the ani­mat­ed dis­cus­sion. Ada asked Son­ny to tell the whole sto­ry of his cheek scar. Eyes hard­ened and mouths set, they lis­tened with great inter­est as he described the strug­gle with Black­ie on the Ram­parts cab­in porch and Dell’s sur­pris­ing behav­ior forc­ing the return of the bear claw. He grinned and pulled the twist­ed string at his neck to expose the claw. Elsa didn’t miss a beat and drew out her claw with a nod.

Ear­li­er in the busy day Nate had been haul­ing in some split wood and paused to hear a faint whine of snow­ma­chines pass­ing quick­ly on the broad Kuuk Riv­er. He decid­ed not to spoil the atmos­phere of the par­ty by men­tion­ing the damned Tex­ans. It was unusu­al­ly ear­ly for them to push on through the Ram­parts and beyond the Ala­pah. If that was the case, they would degrade his care­ful­ly placed trails with mul­ti­ple cross­ing tracks of pow­er­ful machines dri­ven by guys who didn’t give a damn. But he also knew their trail that would ease his efforts to get up to his upper riv­er trap­ping areas and the old tiny cab­in at Otter Creek.

How­ev­er, while hol­i­day cheer and friend­ship pre­vailed in this fam­i­ly cab­in sur­round­ed by immense wild coun­try, rumors of dras­tic change were ram­pant. Angry spec­u­la­tion and anti-gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ments crack­led over the air­waves with­out pause. Every­one at the table was aware of the leg­isla­tive bomb­shell, known as The Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act of 1980, now three years old, and the mul­ti­ply­ing fed­er­al preser­va­tion poli­cies for huge new refuge and park units in the region. This very home­stead and mine on 4th of July Creek, born of Old Alas­ka Home­stead Act con­veyance on a State plac­er min­ing claim, was now sur­round­ed by a Nation­al Preserve.

Natal­ie said that “a guy on the radio in Fair­banks said that in gov­ern­ment-speak it sounds like our prop­er­ty is now a ‘pri­vate inhold­ing’”, liv­ing from the land termed “cus­tom­ary and tra­di­tion­al sub­sis­tence use” and their small plac­er gold oper­a­tion a “per­mit­ted activ­i­ty”. Nate nod­ded in unhap­py agree­ment remind­ed again of his choice to pro­tect these places for the future; to live with con­flict­ed per­son­al val­ues and social rejec­tion. To live on the razor’s edge. To be an out­sider in the hide­bound NPS and a “turn­coat” to many angry locals.

“So, Nate, vat do you t’ink now work­ing last sum­mer for dat Park Ser­vice? You real­ly t’ink you can make any good dif­fer­ence in der big Yosemite Park ideas?

Clear­ing his throat, Nate had a pat response. “Well, Lars, as you know I stud­ied nat­ur­al resource man­age­ment at UAF with Ang­ie. I can think of noth­ing bet­ter than being paid to do field work with sci­en­tists and explore new wild coun­try and rivers up there. I am a local hire back­coun­try ranger. I glad­ly don’t do any law enforce­ment”. Lars looked skep­ti­cal but held his tongue. “Lars, don’t you wor­ry about the State plans to build a road through here to Ini­ak­tu­uq Pass and west to those huge coal reserves? The park des­ig­na­tion will block that.” “Yep, I do vor­ry over that, hate that notion Nate, but I don’t vant per­mits for every damned t’ing. Strangers pry­ing into our busi­ness. Ya know dey vill stop the last air­plane wolfers and ve vill have no moose atall.”

Elsa snort­ed and mocked the notion that “peo­ple like us could be forced to leave and tourists over-run the place in sum­mer. Dad, maybe Nate can get us some jobs where we can be paid to dress and act like bush peo­ple, the parkies call it ‘liv­ing his­to­ry’ I think!” They all laughed at the absur­di­ty of that sce­nario. Not quite as hearti­ly amused, Nate already sensed after one sea­son that such out­comes were not entire­ly out of the realm of bureau­crat­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty. He felt increas­ing­ly that as a sea­son­al ranger he was between a rock and a hard place, swim­ming upstream. He was sure that the divi­sive­ness would only get worse, taint­ing every social cir­cum­stance. Many old friends derid­ed or threat­ened him now. He knew that his step-dad Rick was orga­niz­ing protest sign-mak­ing and peti­tions in Mis­sion City against the new­ly mint­ed Pre­serve just down­riv­er from the his­toric town.

Ada grew up in Ini­ak­tu­uq Pass, among the first gen­er­a­tions set­tling where an airstrip could be dozed, fuel oil could be flown in and a school start­ed in the ear­ly 1960s. One of her uncles and a broth­er had tes­ti­fied before Con­gress that the com­mu­ni­ty want­ed to be inside the new park bound­ary rather than out­side of it. “We can’t have hunt­ing guides and sports hunters around. Used to be OK. Guides fly in lot­ta meat for us. Hunters only want big antlers. Now too many. We wor­ry about cari­bous and sheep. But now the park boss says we don’t dri­ve our Argos into the park just out­side the com­mu­ni­ty. Got­ta have per­mit. So big fight is com­ing.” Lars shook his head know­ing­ly and added “remem­ber dat bumper stick­er up der, “No Park, No Prob­lem! I vouldn’t trust the damned Park Ser­vice to make things right for good peo­ple up der. They vill shut down min­ers — good and bad — cause it’s not pretty.”

Son­ny spoke of his vil­lage, Tonas­ket Cross­ing, being includ­ed in the ten bush com­mu­ni­ties that would be allowed to con­tin­ue to hunt and fish in the park, like Ini­ak­tu­uq Pass. “Our chiefs and coun­cil spoke against the park. My uncle Jim­my hates the idea. We don’t want to see thou­sands of tourists on the Kuuk like you see in the pic­tures. We saw a crazy park ser­vice draft plan that peo­ple call the Fun­ny Book. One map shows an airstrip, ranger sta­tion and boat launch at the Ram­parts! Oth­er rivers too.” Nate qui­et­ly cringed at the men­tion of that stu­pid plan.

Flushed by the brandy and talk Elsa sug­gest­ed that Son­ny join her for some fresh air. It was time to stop the small, thump­ing diesel gen­er­a­tor for the night. As they walked arm in arm on packed squeaky snow enjoy­ing the crisp air, Elsa asked “you going to stay to trap with Nate until April, then what for the sum­mer?” “That’s about right. I talked to a guy about try­ing to get into the Alas­ka Fire Ser­vice smoke jump­ing pro­gram next spring. He said native guys hard­ly ever apply. It is an elite group and requires a very high lev­el of fit­ness. I have that. And I was active on the Tonas­ket #1 fire crew two sum­mers. I think jump­ing out of a plane onto a wilder­ness ridge to put out fire starts before they spread, sounds awesome.”

They opened the insu­lat­ed door to the gen­er­a­tor shack; to be greet­ed by the loud thump­ing, a bare light bulb and heat. Elsa threw the lever to silence the pow­er-pro­duc­ing iron beast. There was a small stor­age room, a sep­a­rate stor­age shack a few feet away that used the warmed air. Elsa led Son­ny in to show him. In the dark she imme­di­ate­ly began to kiss him pas­sion­ate­ly. She shrugged off her light par­ka and unzipped Son­nys. As they kissed she guid­ed his hands under her light t‑shirt. Their tongues explored and breath­ing raced. She caressed him and breath­less­ly told him “Son­ny, I am mad­ly in love with you. I want to be with you. Know that I have nev­er had sex and will nev­er take a chance on get­ting preg­nant. We have to be patient. I want you to be the first”.

The spell was bro­ken as they heard the heavy door to the gen­er­a­tor shed open, then close. Elsa whis­pered “Oh jeez, my Dad!” They pulled on their coats and quick­ly pulled the door open just as Natal­ie was about to knock. “Hey, Sis. Dad was won­der­ing what was going on. Go walk some more, by the looks of it you could both use some cold air! I’ll just say that the gen­er­a­tor is good and I saw you guys head­ed out the wood trail.”

Lars had already picked up on the affec­tion radi­at­ing between his youngest daugh­ter and Son­ny that was well beyond friend­ly. He peered out the win­dow and saw all three young­sters emerge from the shed. He nod­ded and said noth­ing when Natal­ie came in and told her tale. He was a good father and provider. He had always dot­ed over his daugh­ters and fer­vent­ly want­ed a son but that was not to be as their third child, a boy, had been still­born. He felt uneasy that he had been slow to real­ize that Natal­ie decid­ed to attend a small col­lege in west­ern Ore­gon not just for the pro­gres­sive stud­ies but also a greater social accep­tance of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. She had come out and would be leav­ing next sum­mer to find a part time job on cam­pus. Elsa would then become dou­bly cher­ished as the last to leave the cozy nest of their remote lives.

Lars was old-school. On the few occa­sions that he par­tied and drank he got up ear­ly and took care of busi­ness. “Any­body can drink but a stur­dy man still goes ta verk in da mornin’.” A fin­ger of brandy in his third cup of joe helped on this day; con­cerns with the well-being of both daugh­ters talk­ing of fledg­ing the nest was a new con­cern to bear. Com­ing back in to warm up, Lars asked Nate if he was inter­est­ed in trad­ing a few nice marten pelts for a plane ride up to Ala­pah. Both the barom­e­ter and tem­per­a­ture were ris­ing with a storm push­ing up the Yukon from the north Pacif­ic rather than the usu­al, timid south-west­er­ly. Two days of tire­some trail break­ing or 20 min­utes in a plane get­ting an eagle’s view was nev­er a hard deci­sion. Nate nod­ded “you bet; that sounds good” and looked to Son­ny who smiled pen­sive­ly but quick­ly agreed. “Today? Sure that would be great, Lars”. Ada and Elsa bus­tled to bake trays of cookies.

The girls were prepar­ing to check traps down­riv­er as more than four to five days between checks was not good. With the guys leav­ing they would have the after­noon and evening to get it done before the storm arrived with new snow. Occa­sion­al­ly a large trap set for wolves or wolver­ine did not have a suf­fi­cient­ly heavy wood drag wired to the trap chain, or strained wire broke, enabling a des­per­ate ani­mal to get away on three legs until tan­gling in brush. If the track­ing was entire­ly snowed in it was pos­si­ble to lose both the prized ani­mal pelt and an expen­sive trap.

Lars and Ada had offered the guys some fresh head­lamp bat­ter­ies, cof­fee and canned milk, some decent birch boards for sled and snow­shoe repairs and a five-gal­lon jug of diesel for lamp light at the Ala­pah cab­in. Christ­mas indeed! As always, the work­horse Cess­na 185 was tied down with nylon wing and insu­lat­ed cowl­ing cov­ers in place with the engine oil drained and kept warm. With the gen­er­a­tor run­ning Lars used a space heater to blow hot air through a stovepipe into the engine com­part­ment. He con­trolled load­ing and firm­ly tying down gear and sup­plies after tak­ing out a seat. Con­di­tions looked good and Lars coughed and spit, telling them “the strip is plowed good, fuel aplen­ty, let’s go pret­ty quick, eh guys?”

Son­ny and Elsa lin­gered savor­ing their last min­utes togeth­er. They talked qui­et­ly at the table after a ‘hep your­self’ lunch. Two large bags of fresh­ly baked cook­ies sat before them, still warm. In a silky whis­per while grip­ping his hands, Elsa said “maybe by ear­ly March with longer days and packed trails we can meet at Ram­parts cab­in for a cou­ple of hours, Son­ny.” His emo­tions lift­ed marked­ly as their eyes met. Look­ing at the cal­en­dar on the wall he offered “OK, let’s plan on maybe the 8th with any luck”. Elsa nod­ded flushed by the thought of a pri­vate tryst even though it would prob­a­bly be brief and stand­ing by a campfire.

Nate and Son­ny enjoyed every moment of the short flight at 1,000 feet fol­low­ing the wind­ing Kuuk up to Ala­pah. Lars had invit­ed Son­ny to sit right front know­ing his keen inter­est in bush fly­ing. Like his school teacher father in the past. He had dual con­trols so both girls could learn basics. Nate point­ed to the fresh snow­ma­chine track through the Ram­parts canyon say­ing loud­ly “I thought that I heard ‘em. Looks like those damned Tex­ans are upriv­er.” Son­ny had tak­en the yoke once they had set­tled the growl­ing con­ti­nen­tal engine to cruise. Lars sat back pre­tend­ing to sleep. Nate was focused on the ter­rain pass­ing below, look­ing for his side trails and poten­tial ridge con­nec­tions and notic­ing small bands of cari­bou feed­ing and bed­ding on lichen-rich balds. A few moose, bed­ded or feed­ing in the wil­lows, looked up to watch them pass loud­ly overhead.

Lars brought the plane down to a cou­ple of hun­dred feet to inspect the most attrac­tive land­ing area on the Kuuk close to the mouth of the Ala­pah. It doesn’t take much. The light down­riv­er breeze dic­tat­ed an approach from the south. Nate could see that his cab­in had not been vis­it­ed by the pass­ing men on snow­ma­chines as the plane banked with pow­er and flaps down over the flats behind the cab­in to come back around on final approach. Nate leaned for­ward and hollered that the “stretch ahead had frozen real smooth in ear­ly November”.

Lars nod­ded while descend­ing smooth­ly to skill­ful­ly touch the sur­face while still under full pow­er, lik­ing what his com­bined sens­es, built upon thou­sands of bush land­ings con­veyed. He felt the machine in the seat of his pants, his hands instant­ly respond­ed to the con­trols, he heard and felt the tex­ture of the snow, assess­ing count­less details in the dim but con­trast­ing light. He cut the pow­er, set­tled, then increased pow­er into a turn look­ing out his side win­dow while watch­ing behind the skis for signs of over­flow as they jud­dered to a stop, wings rock­ing, to cut the engine right out in front of the cab­in. They unbuck­led, opened the light doors; step­ping down into the white world smil­ing while the hot engine pinged. The Big Qui­et flood­ed their hearts alike.

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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