Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted January 5, 2023 at 7:33 pm by

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

A Mys­tery Unfolds

At Ala­pah Creek the first days of 1984 began with the entire region locked down in extreme cold. The kind of harsh cold you can taste in the air and eas­i­ly hear with each exha­la­tion. The incom­pre­hen­si­ble black expanse above — stud­ded with stars and the smear of the Milky Way, long mete­or streaks and slow pass­ing satel­lites — is undi­min­ished by arti­fi­cial light. The auro­ral spec­ta­cle was live­ly and tinged with an uncom­mon crim­son blur.

As a result of ground water seeps, shrink­ing stretch­es of open water purled along an over­hang­ing bank on Ala­pah Creek a few hun­dred yards upstream from the cab­in. Drab Amer­i­can Dip­pers bobbed and wad­ed into the shal­low rif­fles beneath hoar-frost­ed wil­lows while a ground fog crept down drainage. At the cab­in, chick­adees, red­polls and grey jays swooped in to peck busi­ly at leg bones hung for them. At night these small birds perched with fluffed feath­ers among the pro­tec­tive limbs of spruce trees, sav­ing pre­cious ener­gy by slow­ing their tiny heart beats. Sure­ly a few would not make it to the sun­less dawn.

Nate remind­ed Son­ny about the old prac­tice of bank­ing snow high along the out­er walls of the cab­in and then splash­ing water against the exposed upper logs to encase them in ice. They nailed a large blan­ket to the head­er of the door frame to hang as a cur­tain and a small one com­plete­ly over the sin­gle frost­ed win­dow. Nate cut up an old shirt to plug obvi­ous air leaks, now well-frost­ed and vis­i­ble, as 65F cab­in air met minus 50F out­side air. Steel nail and spike heads in the wall logs con­duct­ed the intense cold and built out in frost but­tons along the log walls. Son­ny enter­tained Nate with vil­lage tales of a few poor­ly pre­pared peo­ple, some­times hand­i­capped by addic­tions, who had resort­ed to burn­ing out­door fish racks and even fur­ni­ture as fuel oil ran out or stopped flowing.

They employed all the tricks they knew to sus­tain warmth and slow the burn­ing of their dimin­ish­ing pile of dry wood. The door was opened as lit­tle as pos­si­ble and closed quick­ly with a low wave of fog spilling along the cab­in floor. The strips of coarse black bear hide tacked at the edges of the thick door helped. The men wore felt boot lin­ers or down booties as every­thing on the floor lev­el was freez­ing hard. They made time to fell dead stand­ing spruce from the edge of the burn across the Kuuk to man-haul short lengths back to the cab­in with a small wood sledge. Dur­ing the long win­ter bush dwellers could nev­er have too much firewood.

Near­ly a week had passed since they had tak­en advan­tage of Lars’ offer to fly them back up to the Ala­pah. They had spent six or sev­en hours reheat­ing the cab­in as every log and object was hold­ing the cold that had crept in to stay dur­ing their absence. The next day they got back to a full focus on extend­ing trails and lines to trap fur. Nate head­ed down­riv­er to check the traps they had tuned up and rebait­ed on their way to the heart-warm­ing Christ­mas festivities.

Nate always had a lot on his mind, as was his way, his bur­den. In most impor­tant mat­ters he was often con­flict­ed, as though he were of two minds. His Mom had always remind­ed him he was a clas­sic Gem­i­ni. Some­times over-think­ing events, often wor­ry­ing unnec­es­sar­i­ly. Now he was think­ing most­ly of the sil­ver fox and two lynx they had dis­patched and pulled from traps to care­ful­ly hang them sev­er­al feet off the snow five days ago. He was anx­ious and hoped to find them unvi­o­lat­ed by hun­gry crea­tures. With a lit­tle luck they would have some new catch­es, too.

He was reflect­ing on their famil­ial hol­i­day. Some of the point­ed com­ments about the new park and doubts about his sum­mer employ­ment with the NPS, dur­ing the rol­lick­ing con­ver­sa­tions at the Henderson’s, roiled in his sub-con­science. He felt defen­sive; he sup­port­ed the big idea of a nation­al park but was not enam­ored with the bureau­cra­cy of the Nation­al Park Ser­vice. He also envied the live­ly spark of emo­tion­al attrac­tion between Elsa and Son­ny. He was hap­py for them but had long strug­gled with a cor­ro­sive lone­li­ness exac­er­bat­ed by time out in the woods. Per­haps he too would meet a new love and feel that emo­tion­al reju­ve­na­tion. Maybe in the spring while wan­der­ing around the Uni­ver­si­ty in Fair­banks, fresh keg nights at the Sil­ver Fox Brew­ery or recon­ven­ing with the new sum­mer park staff. He remind­ed him­self that he had to try being more social­ly out­go­ing and share his humor­ous side.

While Nate head­ed off down the Kuuk Riv­er trail drag­ging the light pulke, Son­ny had the more foot­loose task of mak­ing his way upriv­er. He was exhil­a­rat­ed to be on his own for the day, not­ing furbear­er sign, going as far as he could get toward the Otter Creek cab­in. Pass­ing through new wilder­ness envi­rons was always reju­ve­nat­ing. Along the mar­gin of the flats, perched some­where in a large spruce, a Great Horned Owl star­tled feed­ing hares with its repet­i­tive, muf­fled hoo hoodoo hoooo hoo. Son­ny was awak­en­ing to the joys of learn­ing so much more about win­ter birds.

There was no way to know how far the Tex­ans had ven­tured or what they had been up to. Son­ny knew from expe­ri­ence that a machin­ist could eas­i­ly aver­age 15 miles in an hour in such con­di­tions. The min­ers had come buzzing by the cab­in a cou­ple of hours after Lars had pow­ered his plane into the sky, loud­ly cir­cling to wag­gle his wings. Some­one fired a hand­gun as the Tex­ans cruised by slow­ly, loud­ly talk­ing and laugh­ing. In the cab­in Nate shook his head telling Son­ny that “most of those guys were dropped on their heads as infants, or baked what brains they had in the mias­ma of diesel fumes while run­ning min­ing equip­ment.” Nate knew that the shots were a clear state­ment of their dis­re­spect for him and an unteth­ered ani­mos­i­ty toward gov­ern­ment employ­ees; espe­cial­ly the NPS. A bumper stick­er in town pro­claimed the NPS to be “blood-suck­ing Nazis.”

Fol­low­ing the braid­ed snow­ma­chine tracks upriv­er was eas­i­er than break­ing trail and Son­ny made good progress. Promi­nent cliffs punc­tu­at­ed steep slopes of grey green for­est along the north­ern shore. Where the trail neared the edge of the oppo­site flats along a wil­lowed bend, he scared up a North­ern Goshawk that was man­tled over a blood­ied, half-eat­en hare. He noticed the char­ac­ter­is­tic round, shal­low tracks of large-pawed lynx wan­dered the edge of the wil­lows. A large pack of wolves, over a dozen, prints still sharp edged where they joined the bro­ken trail from the south after radi­at­ing out of an unnamed Creek like a skir­mish line. They were prob­a­bly trot­ting upriv­er twice as fast as he was mov­ing; he scanned the dis­tance but knew that he would have to get with­in 200 yards for any hope of a shot with a scope­less rifle. At least the slight down­stream breeze would be in his favor.

Shuf­fling steadi­ly, a qui­et clack­ing of his wood­en snow­shoe frames, he was maybe half way there; per­haps as much as sev­en miles of invig­o­rat­ing progress. The steady pace and silence qui­et­ed his mind but invari­ably his exu­ber­ant emo­tions turned his thoughts to Elsa. He tried to imag­ine her this morn­ing. Some­times he felt sure that they were think­ing of one anoth­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. It calmed him know­ing that she was not so far away; as the raven flies any­way. Their spon­ta­neous­ly planned March tryst at the Ram­parts seemed ter­ri­bly dis­tant. He knew he had to com­part­men­tal­ize such dreamy thoughts to con­cen­trate on the many tasks of his day-to-day exis­tence and let the future unfold.

After anoth­er hour he stopped for a bit, stretch­ing his back and legs, devour­ing a few of Ada’s cook­ies and gulp­ing cold tea. Glanc­ing at his watch and Nate’s anno­tat­ed map, look­ing ahead at the unfa­mil­iar ter­rain, he fig­ured he could go anoth­er hour or so, before need­ing to turn back. For his own con­fi­dence he aimed to reach Otter Creek. No mat­ter how far he got, the last few miles home­ward would be by the light of his head­lamp as need­ed. It was just a mat­ter of ener­gy and some grit. He shoul­dered his light day­pack and slung his rifle, will­ing him­self to pick up the pace a bit.

A long, low forest­ed bend ahead showed sev­er­al notch­es in the dark peaty soil, over­hung by a green wave of sphag­num moss and lean­ing spruce. Nate’s anno­tat­ed map showed a wet­land behind the bend with Otter Creek just anoth­er quar­ter mile. The map had a pen­cil note “always extend­ed open water” in Nate’s neat script, where ground­wa­ter from the muskeg kept the mar­gin unfrozen. The machine trail was trend­ing to the north bank, the cliff side of the riv­er, so Son­ny left it to angle across to replen­ish his water. Riv­er otter slides and tracks told the sto­ry of a fam­i­ly of the hardy, long-bod­ied, fish-eat­ing mam­mals spend­ing the core of the win­ter months there in order to find their way under the ice edge to hunt over-win­ter­ing fish. Or escape prowl­ing wolves.

Son­ny made a men­tal note to ask Nate what he knew about the ways of these incred­i­ble crea­tures. He knew that they were smart and dif­fi­cult to trap, but lit­tle else. Nate’s hand­some and durable fur hat with earflaps was sewn from otter fur and smoke-tanned moose­hide. His own was a rat­ty old hand-me-down beaver hat from his Uncle Jim­my. He knew from his Mom, who had been an accom­plished sew­er of tra­di­tion­al cloth­ing, that the water-dwelling mam­mals had the most durable fur for hard-used win­ter clothing.

As Son­ny con­tin­ued to ‘shoe along the edge of the nar­row stretch­es of open water clos­ing on the short trail into Otter Creek Cab­in described by Nate, he halt­ed abrupt­ly look­ing ahead and sniff­ing the motion­less air. He was sure he had picked up a faint whiff of wood smoke. He exclaimed out loud “how can that be?” and con­tin­ued for­ward, look­ing around, think­ing that he was imag­in­ing smoke since none was vis­i­ble. No one was around so what could be the source? His mind reeled a bit. Maybe a near­by warm­ing fire still smol­dered since the Tex­ans came through?

Curi­ous and alert, Son­ny marched toward the most promi­nent cleft ahead that promised to be the mouth of Otter Creek. It was front­ed by a large grav­el bar strewn with root balls and drift logs that had been strand­ed by spring high water. He found enough sol­id ice to cross and climb the rise of a few feet above the riv­er sur­face. He stopped abrupt­ly; once again smelling woodsmoke, this time slip­ping his rifle from its case. From the van­tage of the ele­vat­ed grav­el bar he could see that a trail of some kind came out of the trees lean­ing out from the low bank and con­nect­ed with loop­ing snow­ma­chine tracks and a stamped down area mid-riv­er. Ravens he had seen ear­li­er flew across the riv­er, rau­cous­ly cavort­ing with ease as if taunt­ing him for his inabil­i­ty to fly.

He inter­sect­ed the trail, not a moose trail, then paused before qui­et­ly entered the cut through a belt of young spruce. Under taller spruce thick­ly limbed to the ground, he noticed the shape of a canoe cov­ered with boughs and a par­tial blan­ket of snow. Son­ny knew that Nate had a canoe but it was at the Ala­pah. Then he remem­bered the sto­ry that Lars had over­flown a furtive man lin­ing a canoe up the Kuuk last sum­mer. He could just see the small cab­in and noticed a saw buck and orange swede saw; some cut rounds lying about. He moved slow­ly, unsure what to do. The cab­in had been banked with snow, some rab­bit car­cass­es hung near the low door, and a bare­ly vis­i­ble wisp of smoke curled out of the rust­ed pipe jut­ting from the roof. He gazed at the small pole cache that Nate told him about build­ing in order to replace the old one built by Smoky the Swede that over the decades had rot­ted and col­lapsed. A stur­dy lad­der was lean­ing up to the plat­form and the door left wide open.

Son­ny unbuck­led his snow­shoes and stepped out of them to creep over, rifle in hand, to a cur­tain of brush with a masked view of the door and tiny win­dow. Breath­ing hard he crouched low and wait­ed. Camp rob­bers flew in glide-pump dips from perch­es to land under the over­hang in the front of the cab­in, then back to perch­es. The local ravens grawk-grawwwwked and bur­bled from out on the riv­er. Oth­er­wise, no move­ment, no sounds.

Grow­ing impa­tient, Son­ny ducked low­er and hollered out “Hey the cab­in” paus­ing a moment then “Hey any­body home”? This set off a chit­ter­ing scold­ing from a ner­vous red squir­rel. Ears cocked, lis­ten­ing intent­ly there was noth­ing else. Again, adding more steel to his shout “Hey the cab­in! Any­body around?” No human sounds oth­er than his own breath­ing. Becom­ing stiff from kneel­ing, he stood and angled back to the trail, paused again, then quick­ly walked up to the side of the door and leaned against the log wall. Try­ing to con­trol his breath­ing and focus his mind he sur­veyed the unex­pect­ed scene; a cou­ple of canoe pad­dles, han­ks of rope and sev­er­al plas­tic buck­ets with lids. A pair of bat­tered met­al snow­shoes leaned against the wall next to a rifle. Silence.

Son­ny took a deep breath and rapped his gloved knuck­les on the door. And again, hard­er. Noth­ing. He had a sense of time sus­pend­ed. He leaned his own rifle then pushed firm­ly on the door, duck­ing head and shoul­ders in, he could bare­ly see in the dim light. The air was as near­ly as cold as out­side. There was a slight metal­lic odor that he couldn’t place. He stepped in leav­ing the wide open, eyes adjust­ing slow­ly, unshoul­der­ing his day­pack, ner­vous­ly unzip­ping a side pouch and feel­ing for his head­lamp with­out tak­ing his eyes off the elon­gat­ed mound on the bunk.

His gloved fin­gers fum­bling with the switch, the filthy, strewn floor of the cab­in was blast­ed in sear­ing light that star­tled him. Instant­ly he lift­ed the beam to reveal a man’s beard­ed face; tan­gled brown hair, taut waxy skin, twist­ed mouth agape with a trick­le of dried blood at the cor­ner. Blood­ied wood­en grips of a hand­gun pro­trud­ed from under the bag next to a box of car­tridges. Voles nois­i­ly scur­ried beneath the bed as he stepped close, his own breath fog­ging in the light as he reluc­tant­ly lift­ed the edge of the bag hood. Pok­ing at the dead man’s frigid cheek with a gloved fin­ger, he stared in dis­be­lief, then noticed small craters of flesh and an ear par­tial­ly nib­bled away. He was unable to gen­tly pull the bag back fur­ther as he could see pooled blood froze it down. A lot of blood.

Recoil­ing, Son­ny snatched up his pack and ducked out of the cab­in, bang­ing his head on the low frame, to cuss and suck in his first free breath in sev­er­al min­utes. He firm­ly pulled the door shut and hasti­ly got back on the open riv­er. Son­ny moved with urgency; his mind now com­plete­ly jan­gled with what he had just expe­ri­enced. He reflex­ive­ly looked back over his shoul­der more than once.

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