HulaF’nHula

For all those of you who have asked about the disappearance of my grittygal blog, I apologize. It has been a long haul this year. I promise, however, to return to the blog with renewed vigor. Thanks for sticking with me.  


          100_0927The Hulahula was littered with rocks and boulders and long sections of big, ice-cold rapids. As the bowman, my job was to read the river and pick the best route. Occasionally, I had time to study it, to calmly choose our line through the rapids. But most of the time, I was forced to make split-second decisions, paddle hard, and pray to the river gods that our canoe would make it through without spilling.

Between rapid runs, my dad liked to lay his paddle across the gunwales, sit back, and admire the scenery.

“Aidan,” he’d say, “Just enjoy this. You may never see anything like it again.” He’d pause and then he’d add for emphasis, “No really, Aidan. This is it. This is one of the last great wildernesses left. Just relax and soak it up.”

Relax and soak it up, I’d mutter to myself.  My dad had learned to trust me and my ability to read the river, but from my perspective, he had forgotten what was like to be in the driver’s seat.

On our fourth day, my dad was dreamily watching the mountains when I yelled out, “Boulder garden!”

His reverie came to a screeching halt. “Eddy out!” he yelled.

Downriver was a section of water teeming with rapids and angry looking rocks.

“No way,” I said. “We can’t make it.”

“What do you suggest then,” he said tensely, without a sliver of bliss left in his voice.

Lining our canoe wasn’t an option. The rock walls were too steep and the current too strong.

I bit my lip. The river was divided into three channels. On the right, the water surged toward a cliff in a long wave train and then dropped off a ledge into a bowl of roiling water. In the middle, three large boulders rose up. The spaces between them were too small to squeeze a canoe through. On the left, the water was fast and as rocky as a scree field.

“What do you think, Aidan?” my dad asked.

“The right,” I said, hesitantly.

“Yup,” he answered. “Looks like our only option. Let the current take us up to the wall and kick us out. Then draw the canoe hard left and miss that bowl. There’s a smaller drop to the left, but I think we can survive that one.”

I bit my lip again. I didn’t like his choice of words.

“You got this, Aidan,” he said, patting me on the back. “If we take this right, we’ll be okay.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked.

“Be confident,” he said. “Bold and confident.”

I studied our line along the right wall.

“Take your time,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Now,” I answered. I knew the more I thought about it, the more frightened I’d get.

We peeled out and entered the wave train, the water heaping over the bow and flooding into my spray skirt. I could hardly see, but knew we were just inches from the wall. When the wave kicked us out, I yelled, “Left! Left!” but the boat wasn’t turning. I was certain we were going to dump. Then, suddenly, the boat moved. We’d missed the drop-off. When we pitched into the second one, I felt the bow of the canoe porpoise. It dove, came back up, and I emerged from a wall of water. Then I saw it, a boulder dead-ahead. I drew the canoe left, but could tell by the way the boat moved that my dad hadn’t seen it yet.

“Boulder!” I yelled. I felt the back end of the boat bump the rock. But that was it. A bump and not a collision. Ahead I saw an eddy just downstream.

“Eddy out,” I shouted.

When we turned the canoe into the eddy’s calm water, I felt my muscles slacken. We’d made it. After inspecting the canoe, we realized that we’d cracked a crossrib, but that could be fixed.

“Holy shit,” my dad said, relieved.

We had eight to ten days ahead of us. The Hulahula has a pretty sounding name, but by the end of our trip, by the time we reached the Arctic Ocean, tired, battered and shaken, we’d chosen a cruder phrase to describe the river.  Pronounced not as three words, but one, an expression of reverence and deference: HulaF’nHula.

 

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Blood and Guts at 35 Below

Downriver hunting for caribou. We were two weeks into our winter trip, and the Korths were low on meat. Only one caribou foreleg hung from the meat rack. And Edna, in particular, was worried. Not only was she cooking for Heimo, who like a caribou seems to have four stomachs, but for my dad and me, too. She announced that unless we wanted to eat beaver tail and porcupine for the next week, we were gonna have to kill a caribou.

At first light, Heimo, Edna, and I headed downriver to hunt. Dad had hurt his back when the snowmachine rolled on him and he was still in pain, so his job was to stay at the cabin and tend the bannock bread and the goose roasting in the slow cooker. Besides, Heimo could only take along two people, one behind him in the snowmachine and one in the sled.

Dad was worried about me. A freak warm-up, which had sent the mercury climbing to minus 5 just days before, had opened large leads in the river ice. If the sled tipped and I fell in the river, the current would suck me under the ice, and I’d be a goner.

But today it was 35 below, so he bundled me up like a child. By the time he was finished, I was buried fiver layers deep. All that was left were eye slits.

“You take good care of her,” Dad said to Heimo.

Edna caught the edge in his voice. “Oh gosh,” she laughed. “Jim’s like a mama grizzly. Don’t wanna mess with his cub.”

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in the sled, skidding through the black spruce trees and nimble willow branches that slapped at me like whips. Heimo stopped the snowmachine, after one long section.

“You alright?” he yelled back.

I gritted my teeth and gave him the thumbs up.

After weaving between gravel bars, we headed straight south along the river. It was so cold and the wind was so strong that my eyelids froze shut. I couldn’t see, but I could still hear, and when I heard the sound of open water, I clung to the sled and listened for cracking ice, praying that I wouldn’t fall out.

Finally, after two hours, Heimo and Edna spotted a caribou crossing, the tracks still fresh. Heimo slowed and studied them. My eyelids thawed, and I noticed wolf tracks weaving back and forth across the trail, predators following their prey.

“You guys post here,” he said, stopping the snowmachine. “And I’ll go down river.”

Edna and I sat with our backs to a willow thicket that helped to cut the wind and in the gray light we scanned the woods and the river for caribou.

Thirty minutes later, we heard a gunshot. We waited and then we saw the snowmachine. Heimo had a dead caribou in the sled. He pulled it out of the sled, yelled something to us, turned around, and hit the accelerator. Then he headed downriver, hoping to get another, leaving this one for Edna and me to butcher.    

I’d help field dress and butcher deer before, but butchering a caribou at 35 below is cold, hard work. My job was to hold the caribou, moving it into different positions so Edna could make her cuts. She began with the hind legs and made her way up to the forelegs. Then she moved to the intestinal cavity.

I watched her make a shallow, cautious cut, taking care not to puncture the intestine or one of the four stomachs and taint the meat. After opening up the gut, from the caribou’s anus to its diaphragm, she handed me the knife and plunged her hands into the steaming carcass and held them there for half a minute.

When she pulled them out, they were wet with blood, and the snow around us was stained red.

“Now you try,” she instructed.

I drew a deep breath and stuck my numb hands into the opening and kept them there until I could feel my fingers again.

“Okay,” she said, as I pulled my bloody hands from the caribou, “Now for the organs. Just wait till you eat the heart and the liver. They’re so good.” 

Once we finished with the butchering, we piled the meat and the heart and liver on the caribou skin. Then Edna pulled a needle and thread from her pocket and sewed it up. She made her last stitch just as Heimo arrived.

Edna and I lugged the 40-pound legs into the sled and Heimo slung the skin, bulging with meat, over his shoulder. When we were done, he looked at me. I was spattered with caribou blood and shivering.

“You gotta be tough up here, don’t yah,” Heimo said.

Edna put her arm around me. “Don’t tease her. This girl did good today.”

Later, back in the cabin, we sat back after a supper of bannock bread and speckle belly goose. Edna sipped the last of her tea.

“If there’s ever a caribou butchering competition,” she announced, “I want Aidan as my partner.”

I smiled. “It’s a deal!”

grittygal at 35 below

 

 

 

The Bathroom Ritual

 

Keeping my sense of humor.
Keeping my sense of humor.

Before I left the bush, and returned to the world of niceties, I had a little discussion with my father. I made him promise, regarding the bathroom ritual, that what happened in the Arctic, stayed in the Arctic. I would much rather have left the memory buried away in the tundra, but, somehow, my mother convinced me that this is the kind of thing people wonder about, but are too polite to ask. So I’ve decided to put aside my dignity and bare all.

First – peeing. If were a guy, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But, as a girl, peeing involved exposing my backside to hoards of hungry mosquitoes that, by the final tinkle, left it red and spotted. There was also my secret terror. I lived in fear that a bear would come charging out of the bushes when both my guard and my pants were down.

Now (let’s be blunt here) – pooping.  At Camp Coleen River there was a special screen tent with a 5-gallon honey bucket inside that my uncle set up for Job #2. The tent was just twenty feet from the campsite, where my dad and Heimo discussed dinner plans – baked, broiled or fried grayling — and even closer to my uncle’s tent, so that when he got the urge, which he often did, he didn’t have to walk far. I would’ve preferred to have slipped discreetly into the woods, but Heimo explained that the woods was his backyard. So, when it was my turn, I’d have to surrender my pride, and announce to my dad and uncle that I had to “go” and that they would have to politely turn their heads.

Sitting on a 5-gallon pale, within spitting distance of the fire pit, was anything but comfortable. No bathroom door, no cushioned seat, and hardly an ounce of privacy. Just a mosquito screen, a roll of toilet paper, and an all-purpose bucket. My goal was to get in and get out as fast as I could.

Once I was finished, I’d pull up my pants and haul my business through the buggy brush to a hole, 50 yards away. After delicately dumping it, so as to avoid the splash, I’d make my way back to camp, the empty bucket swinging from my hand. Then, I’d buckle on my hip waders, trudge to the river and wash out the pale, downriver of Heimo’s drinking hole, for the next honey bucket sitter.

I came to dread the call of nature, but on a diet of berries and fish, I realized that there was no refusing it.  As Heimo often said, “When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.”

The Cold Here Can Kill Yah

Hauling supplies up the Coleen River
Bundled up in my many layers.
During the downpour
During the downpour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I talked about my upcoming trip to Arctic Alaska, most people assumed I would be spending my summer suffering from, not the mosquitoes or sun-stroke, but from the infamous Arctic cold. At the time, I had laughed it off, telling them that was another Lower 48 myth: there were no penguins or igloos where I was headed, and in fact, in July, it could get up into the mid-80s. I would be experiencing Alaska at its best and brightest, in summertime, when the whole world would flower under a never-ceasing sun.

That was before we went downriver.

The truth of it is that on the day we canoed to Heimo’s lower cabin to get supplies, it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, cold but, I thought, tolerable. But then, we began paddling into a driving rain and into the teeth of a biting wind. Though I was wearing nearly every piece of clothing I’d brought, I was still shivering. My joints ached like an old woman’s. “It is the middle of summer,” I muttered to myself, “and I am freezing cold. What happened to the sun?”

I’m from Wisconsin, I’m a Nordic skier, and I’m accustomed to cold and crappy weather. But not in the middle of July. My sisters were tubing and water-skiing. My friends were sun-bathing in their bikinis and playing volleyball on the beach with the sun on their backs and the sand beneath their feet. But not me. I was bundled up in 4 layers of clothing: a Smartwool shirt, a fleece pull-over, a rainjacket, and a lifejacket. Kate Upton may have been able to strip down to a swimsuit in Antarctica, but even a fat-modeling contract could not have convinced me to shed a stitch. I was cold, miserable, my fingers were already numb, and we’d yet to catch and clean fish for dinner.

When Heimo saw me shivering, he gave me a serious look and told me that if I didn’t put on some fat before winter, I would be one unhappy girl. “It is only gonna get colder,” he said. “When you come back in October you will be lucky if it’s 10 below. That will be `a nice day.’  In winter, it’ll be 50 below. The cold here can kill yah. You gotta know that.”

Two hours later we were on a gravel bar, and I was stripping the guts out of our 3rd grayling, my hands colder than ever. As we fished, Heimo entertained us with a story about a friend in Fort Yukon who invited him to play cards one night in his garage. The man was Fort Yukon’s casket maker, which meant that he fashioned wooden boxes for the deceased. They were having a good time, when Heimo’s friend gestured to a blanket next to Heimo and said, “Hey, Heimo, there’s Roy.” Heimo was confused.  The man repeated himself, “Heimo, there’s Roy.” This time, Heimo looked closer. Still confused, he lifted the blanket and jumped back. Under it, hand outstretched, eyes open, frozen still as a statue, was Roy.  The casket maker explained that a week before, poor Roy had suffered a heart attack and lay unconscious on the floor of his cabin. The fire in his stove had gone out, and Roy had frozen to death. Days later they found him. Chuckling, Heimo’s friend informed him that they were still trying to thaw him out.

The moral of the story? Heimo never said. He was laughing too hard.

Conditions in Fort Yukon
The closest town, 100 miles away

Bathing in the Cold Coleen

Ready for a river bath?
Ready for an ice cold river bath?

After spending my first week in Alaska in the same sweat-soaked, sap-stained, and sawdust-coated clothes (little did I know, this would be my every-day outfit for the next month) I finally took a bath in the river. For days, I’d been smelling dead animal. But it wasn’t until Day 7 that I finally realized that, lo and behold, the dead animal was me. I smelled worse than the monkey cage at the zoo. So while my dad and Heimo fished for supper, I stripped down to nothing and took an ice-cold bath in the Coleen River.

Bathing in an Arctic river is not easy. It’s a painful experience and has to be done in increments. First, the feet, then the legs, and finally the rest.

I began by wading ankle-deep into the river. When I could no longer bear it, I dashed back to the gravel bar. I gathered my courage and returned to the water. Gritting my teeth, I watched as the water rose up my legs, to my belly button, to my chest. Again, I ran back to the bar, my body numb. This time, I lathered up, did a few pre-plunge jumping jacks, sprinted to the river, and dove in like Olympic Gold Medalist Missy Franklin springing from the blocks. Every part of me was screaming. My head throbbed with the most painful brain-freeze I’ve ever experienced.  After only 20 seconds, I leapt out of the river and made a run for the beach, clutching my head like a mad woman.

Upon reaching the gravel bar, I grabbed my handkerchief-sized towel (I was not allowed to pack my big soft, fluffy one) and attempted to cover myself. I failed miserably. The towel served better as a loincloth. I dried myself off as best I could and then sat butt-naked in the sun, not caring who could see me. I was a 130 miles from the closest village. Who might be watching? A bear, a moose in the willows, an osprey flying overhead, a grayling rising in the river?

As my body thawed, I picked up my clothes and slipped a chocolate from my pants pocket. Sitting there under the Arctic sun, free of dirt and mosquitoes and stink, fresh and clean and sugar-happy, I read the inside of the wrapper. It said, “Life is good.”

My Hot New Ride

Gritty Gal with the Helio Courier Bush Plane Heading Out to the CabinGood-bye Fairbanks and ice lattes! Today I leave for the wilderness.

This morning we are flying out to the cabin in this (pic attached), a 5-seater helio courier plane. The skies are clear so the views should be amazing, and I hope the trip will be a smooth one. On our route out, we will follow the Yukon River to the town of Fort Yukon and then fly north across the Porcupine to the Coleen River, and then north again to the cabin. There we will land on a gravel bar and use a canoe to transport our gear across the river to the cabin site. It’s a 3 -hour flight and, during that time, we will fly over a great chunk of the Alaskan Interior. I will not be blogging again, but rest assured that I will be making plentiful notes and will write again as soon as I am back in Fairbanks in early August.