Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted December 24, 2022 at 8:15 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.
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