The river froze up two nights ago. Keeping in mind that the river is the primary highway in these remote parts, try to imagine what freeze up means.
During the summer and fall transportation needs are met either by aircraft or boats, as I've pointed out. But that is weird. You use a BOAT as your primary vehicle (since air travel is limited and very costly). We're not talking about going fishin' on the weekend with the boys or spending a day at the lake skiing. This is basic stuff; obtaining food, heating your home, etc.
When winter rolls around and the temps drop to something below, we simply exchange "snow machine" for "boat" and it's more of the same. (Actually, there are some differences, but I think you get the idea) So winter or summer, the river is the highway. Whether it's boats or snow machines, warm or cold, green or white, it's all about the river. If access to your neighborhood was provided by a river instead of a paved thoroughfare, you'd get it.
River...river...RIVER. To live here is to be completely dependant upon the river. Now it may come into focus. It follows, then, that when the river is in transition, morphing from a liquid into a solid, you have problems. And "problems" translates into "you are stuck". Using your neighborhood again for comparison, imagine you have only one road that connects it to the "outside world". What would it be like if the pavement turned into jelly for a few weeks every spring and fall?
It can be very hazardous to your health if you attempt to rush things while waiting for the river to freeze. People can die that way, so you must be patient. And that reminds me of a story one of my "lush fishing friends" (see earlier post) told me. He's an old guy (the oldest in town as a matter of fact) and he's a walking achive of stories about village life and culture.
As we were checking his lush hooks, standing there near the edge, watching the ice go by, he told me about a guy who needed to travel hundreds miles down river. It was many years ago, but at this same time of year; late fall ("late fall" to us is winter and a half to most people). He made it this far by boat and stopped here to visit with friends; something people along the river do all the time. (Friends would likely be offended if they knew you passed by without stopping.)
As he liesurely enjoyed his respite here, the ice started running, which, to my way of thinking, is a real problem, but not for this intrepid (insert "insane" here) adventurer. He wasn't ready to leave and didn't want to be zig-zagging around ice with his boat, so he stayed a while.
As the temperatures continued to drop and the passing sheets of ice grew larger, people just assumed he would be spending the winter here. He was still a hundred miles short of his destination, and his boat, like the rest, was pulled up out of the water, safe from the tons of ice rumbling by. But he had made no such plans. He was merely waiting...until conditions were right.
When the moving ice was deemed acceptable, our some-what loco traveller assembled his friends down at the river bank, telling them he was going to continue his journey. They thought he was joking, but he appeared in earnest. Then they thought he was crazy.
At his request, they helped him slide his boat out onto the shore ice, right up to the edge, then loaded it with all his gear. It was about then that one of them said what they all had been thinking; the moving sheets of ice would certainly crush his boat shortly after they pushed into the water.
He laughed and said, "Of course it would, which is why I'm not putting my boat in the water". And he waited, watching the floes grind against each other, like gigantic northern lily pads, drifting by.
"Alright; get ready" he told the group, as a large sheet came crunching along, pinwheeling in slow motion along the shore. When the floe was directly in front of his boat, inches away, he yelled "Now, PUSH!", and they shoved his boat forward, easily sliding it onto the passing floe.
The southbound traveler then stepped across to the moving ice (in the same way you would step onto an escalator), turned and waved good bye. "See you in the spring" said the grinning man to the dumbfounded crowd, who limply returned his wave with their mouths hanging open. And they stood, frozen with that expression, as he drifted away, not really sure they had seen what they thought they saw.
I just shook my head and muttered "Crazy". My elder lush-fishing friend nodded in agreement.
"Did he make it?" I asked.
"Yep. When he got down to his camp, he just pushed the boat off into the water and drove to the bank. He was true to his word and came back the next spring."
But the rest of us mortals must wait for the river to freeze adequately. Now that the ice has stopped it should go quickly, as long as the weather stays cold. Then, in a couple of weeks perhaps, we can try to cross the river. The "Caveman" will be returning then too. So that's what we need; some more cold weather, then add about a foot of snow to smooth things out, and it's all green lights for travelling.
p.s. today sunrise was at 10:07 and sunset at 6:15; we are losing more than six minutes every day.
"Lush" is not a label for some one who drinks too much; at least not around here. A "Lush" is a fish; one which the Department of Fish and Game refers to as "Burbot" (aka "fresh water ling cod").
A lush is a strange looking creature. Largest at the head and tapering down to the tail, it looks a bit like a catfish and a bit like something you'd see on an old Star Trek episode; trying to swallow up the starship "Enterprise". It is greenish-olive in color with a white underbelly. Lush are favored eating around these parts, but not so much for their flesh; people like them for their livers, which are very large.
Now, if the idea of eating fish liver doesn't sit well with you, you're not alone. I don't care for beef liver, I don't eat moose liver and I've never been interested in chicken livers, so I'm sure not tempted by fish liver, lush or otherwise.
Perhaps my "liver aversion" stems from the fact that a liver is a filter. Filters, when they do their job, filter out bad stuff, so who wants to eat that? (If you ate car parts, would a used oil filter be first on your menu?)
Or maybe it's because of a story a co-worker told me years ago. He was Viet Namese and had fought during the latter part of the war. Among the many acts committed during that war and later regretted was cannibalism. There were reports of soldiers eating the livers of the enemy; after a battle. As he told it, a meal of human liver would make you a fearless warrior. (Yeah, I'll go with that. If you're not afraid to eat another human being, what is left to fear; in this world atleast).
OK, my digression was not intended to be some kind of Halloween thing; I just don't like liver.
But people here do, especially from a lush, and a good time to catch lush is now, before the ice gets thick. You can make holes in the ice and drop in weighted hooks, one at a time, or you can run a line under the ice with a series of hooks on it. Either way, the technique is to use baited hooks, sitting on the bottom. If you selected a good spot (and that, as in all fishing, is the critical factor) a lush will find the bait, swallow up your free meal, and get caught. When you come by the next time, he should be there, patiently waiting for you to haul him out and dine upon his liver (if you are so inclined).
When I have caught lush in the past, I always give them to an elder who appreciates them much more than I do. But they're fun to catch, even if they are kind of creepy looking.
The photos were taken a few days ago when I stopped by to help a couple of guys check their hooks. No lush that day.
This is the time of confinement. Once the ice starts running on the river, boat travel is impossible. In a village like this one, with no roads linking our community to any others, we are dependant upon air travel. Planes are the means of getting in and out. And planes are very expensive.
Aside from air travel, we use boats in the summer and snow machines in the winter. These are actually used much more than planes, since they afford the freedom to go where you want; the local "airlines" can only take you to the next village, Fairbanks, etc. With a boat you can stop where ever you want along the river. Snowmachines afford even greater freedom. The whole country is open and available by sno-go.
Imagine for a moment living in a remote community, in a wilderness area with no roads. You are on a waterway which serves as both a means of transportation AND a source of food (it's now pretty obvious why you need a boat and how important one is). To you, the water is part asphalt and part grocery store. You can even add in some recreation and a source of energy, as the river is the means of getting out of town for a break and provides driftwood to fuel the woodstove, heating your home. So that makes it part campground, park, B&B, etc. (whatever fits here for you), part utility company, and actually, it is a whole lot more. It's hard to understand the importance of the river until you live here. It's enough that you just imagine the river as an ESSENTIAL element of life here. The river is why this village is located here.
With the coming of winter (and this far north, winter comes early and stays a long time) the essential waterway begins to freeze. Your boat, faithful friend and helper these past 4-5 months, is now put away. As you watch the ice drifting by, you can only wait patiently for the river to freeze up. You know the time will come when the ice stops and enough snowfall will allow the use of your snowmachine, but that time is not now.
For now you wait. You are basically trapped in the village; "landlocked", as it were. If you need firewood, it will be very hard to get, so you better have enough. If you want to visit another village, you will have to fly, which is very expensive (over $100), so you better wait. If you feel like you need a break...too bad; you can't get one. So, for now, you wait.
He's out there, lying alone in the dark. The cold air pressing in around him is held at bay by a thin layer of canvas; a wall tent, the staple of Alaskan camp life. A fire is crackling in the small wood stove, throwing a flickering orange glow that escapes the confines of the stove through cracks around the leaky door, vent and stovepipe, giving only the hint of illumination.
Outside, in the cold, the moonlight reflects off the new snow. It is actually quite bright. The woods remain in shadow but the river is lit up. Earlier, when he went outside to look around, he was surprised and pleased with the view.
The ice started running today on the river. The passing sheets grind against each other and along the shore, hissing as they go. He will hear this sound for days, continually, until the ice stops and the river surface freezes. After a couple of weeks of constant friction, all will go strangely quiet when the ice stops. But that is yet to come. Tonight he lays in the tent, zipped in his bag, listening to the passing ice.
It is the sound of a great battle; the force of a mighty river resisting the onset of the northern winter. As the arctic cold attempts to halt the flow, the water struggles to keep its freedom. Lakes and sloughs yielded quickly and are now covered in ice, but the moving water fights on. It will take days, even weeks, before the river submits. But submit it must, eventually, and he will stay in his camp until it does.
The frozen waterway will be his road back to the village. He left that home a couple weeks ago to "fall out" here at Nine-mile. He came down by boat, set up camp, laid in a supply of firewood and made himself comfortable in the wilderness. Sufficient groceries have been stored and more food is nearby. He can hunt spruce-chickens, cook the now frozen whitefish he caught in the net, even go after a moose if one comes near his camp. And water is just down the bank; an entire river at his disposal.
He brought his sled dogs with him, now chained to trees nearby. They will provide him some company and alert him if a grizzly stalks the camp. He knows quite well, he's in bear country. The blacks may have entered their dens for the winter but the grizzlies are still in search of a late meal before turning in. That's why he keeps the 30-06 loaded.
Tommorrow he'll put in some more work on the trapline. Marten fur will be improving with the snow on the ground so he'll try a few sets in another week or so. He'll need to cut some more wood too; the woodpile is getting low. It's amazing how much work there is to do in camp. But all that can wait. For now he'll just lay in bed and listen to the passing ice, to the owl calling over on the island, and the crackling in the woodstove. His brother calls him a "caveman" because he enjoys the simple life in camp, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
All is dark outside. It's early morning; no hint of sunrise; no moon. I raised the blinds while making a cup of coffee, to look out. If there were any one else in the room they would have laughed and asked "What is it you thought you'd see out there; in all that darkness?"
But I see what I was looking for. The window may be a black rectangle, devoid of color, an apparent portal to nowhere, but I can see it. It's there! And there! And there is another!
I look into the black and can tell things are not as they appear. It may look black, but really, all is white. The forecasted snow has indeed come during the night. A snowflake blows into the window pane, then falls away into the darkness. Then another. Look closely and you'll see them; tiny specs that appear, like children, pressing their faces briefly against the glass, then vanishing, back into the void. But they are there.
Winter has now officially arrived. The temps are low twenties, so this snow's not going anywhere; it's here for the duration. Like a detatchment of Marines, it has come first; laying the foundation for all that will follow. And it will be here 'till the last; remaining until next spring, after all the other snow has vanished. First in, last out.
This snow will be covered soon enough, but I'll see it again. Makes me think of my friend and mentor who recently went to be with the Lord. I was saddened when I heard he was gone. Even now my heart feels heavy knowing I will never see him again. He was such an encouragement to me. His passing leaves a hole in this world. But I will see him again. Soon, whether it be days or decades, we will meet again, in a far better place. We will embrace and talk (perhaps we'll even share a meal; better than IHOP were we used to meet). Oh yes, we will meet again!
It's funny how this snowfall made me think of that. Now it's getting light outside (I write slow) and the little flakes at the window didn't lie. All is white, and winter is here.
Fall is an interesting time in the far north. I've already written about moose hunting; the annual harvest of meat. Moose is far and away the largest source of protein. "Getting" a moose is very important, especially considering the lack of alternatives and limited financial resources. A Moose is BIG, in more ways than one.
But fall is harvest time in other ways. Fall is when people here hunt "chickens", which are not really chickens at all. They are spruce grouse (no, they don't "taste like chicken"). In the fall, spruce grouse (aka "spruce hens") move out of the forest to the roads, river banks and other open areas to search for small pebbles. These pebbles are ingested; bound for the gizzard and used to grind up the berries, spruce needles and other foods the grouse live on. At least that's how I think it all works; what I do know is fall is when the birds are found along the roads, and that's when people hunt them. Fall and chicken hunting go together.
Fall is also when people "go fishing". Now I know I've talked about fishing in the summer; King salmon, "Dog" salmon and Silvers. And fall is the time for Whitefish too. But that's different; that is fishing with nets. What I'm talking about now is real fishing (or "reel" fishing); using a rod and reel, line and lures. You know, the kind of fishing you're familiar with.
Fall, from now through freeze-up, is when locals grab their poles and head for our local river. The Grayling and "Trout", which technically are Dolly Varden/char, are moving down from the headwaters to the Yukon River, where they will spend the winter under the ice. The Yukon water is clear in winter, since the silt producing glaciers which feed the river stop melting during the cold season. This makes it suitable for the grayling and trout. As the fish make the journey, locals turn out in numbers to catch them. So fall means grayling fishing too.
But wait; there's more (sounds like a cheesy TV commercial, doesn't it). Fall also means cutting grass. "Say what?!" I said cutting grass. The tall sedges growing in local marsh areas die and dry out, leaving the straw-like stems, which we call "grass". This grass is cut and put away every fall before the snows come. It is then used, as it has been for decades, as bedding for dogs. Winters are known to be cold up here and dogs need some form of insulating bedding in order to survive. It takes a very, very hardy dog to survive out in the open at fifty below. Local pets and modern sled dogs require a dog house with bedding to make it through the six months of cold. And grass is the bedding. So fall means cutting grass.
So that's our fall harvest. Get a moose, shoot some chickens, catch some grayling and cut some grass. It's now or never, 'cause in a few weeks the snow will come. Then the chickens will return to the forest. The grass will collapse under the weight of winter's white blanket. The grayling will disperse under the Yukon River ice. And moose season will be a distant memory.
And that will make it officially winter. Snow machines will be the vehicle of choice. Fur hats and parkas will be in style. And white will be the dominant color, for about six months. But right now...it's harvest time!