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A summer full of shocks in Lake Minchumina

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Posted: Friday, August 7, 2009 11:10 am | Updated: 12:50 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA -- “Explosive, Blasting, Dangerous.”

I paused, blinked, read it again.

“Explosive, Blasting, Dangerous.”

So there WERE explosives in the old cache where we kept gardening supplies, skis, Christmas ornaments, tents, and boxes of old junk. I’d been wondering …

The week had started when my sister, Miki, jumped up and flew off to Eagle to help with the flood recovery there. Left alone during the hottest days of summer to care for the dogs, horses, chickens, garden, fish net and firewood yet to be stacked, I found it hard to make time for capital projects like cleaning out the cache.

For the moment I stood quite still, pondering what to do next. Certainly I would not have picked up the tiny clear plastic case had I known the little cylinders inside were labeled so provocatively. After all, it lay on a gas-box shelf under the ski rack and beside some old typewriter ribbons. Now with the thing already in my hand, why put it back?

I stepped softly out of the old shed and picked up the nearest container I saw, an old aluminum cake tin. Moving on to another storage building, I set down the cake tin, delicately laid my creepy cargo in it and tiptoed away. Back inside the cache, I peered tentatively around the gas-box shelf and spotted an old paper bag, the folded top obscuring its ink-marker label. The letters loudly spelled “APS.”

With one finger I gently nudged the lip of the bag to expose the writing.

“CAPS.”

Blasting caps? Probably.

I didn’t know what kind of blasting materials that first little container held, but if this bag held blasting caps, it suggested that dynamite might also be in this cache. If I remembered correctly, caps were not terribly dangerous; they served to trigger the dynamite’s more massive explosion. Would my father have left the caps here all those years ago if he’d no longer had any dynamite?

And what happened to dynamite after 40 years of storage in weather that ranged from cold and damp to hot and dry, from minus 70˚ to the current 80˚ above? Should I search for the explosives, possibly detonating them if they got jarred, or educate myself first?

I went inside the house, welcoming the more temperate air. Open windows had been cooling the cabin all might and now were closed with the curtains drawn. Getting out of the heat made it easier to think. Who could give me the best advice? I decided to start with the Haz-Mat people at the Fairbanks North-Star Borough Landfill.

“You’d better not touch it,” the specialist told me by phone. “The military usually takes care of that stuff. You have to go through the troopers to get it done.”

Now I was getting bogged down. Without knowing whether there was even any dynamite in the cache, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go that far. And what if the dynamite had been stored separately from the caps? Perhaps it lay hidden in one of the other ancient cabins. Living on an old fur farm dating to the 1920s did have its drawbacks. The dynamite was certainly my father’s, but back when he used it those now-decrepit sheds offered safe storage for it.

I reluctantly called the troopers, explaining again about how the dynamite, if there was any, probably dated to the 1960s when my father and his expert friend Al Weber had spent one summer blasting and digging through hard shale for the basement of our home. He may have used it occasionally in the 1970s for smaller projects, but not since then.

Trooper Yanci discussed this with the explosives experts at Eielson and then called me back. “Old dynamite can crystallize and get extremely unstable,” he told me. “We’ll send someone out to take care of it, but if they don’t like what they see, they might have to detonate it in place. Don’t go in that shed again.

I tried to suppress a horrified giggle. “You mean … they might blow up my cache?”

“Well, yes,” he said. “Where can we land?”

“The runway is across the lake, but it’s pretty smoky here right now. The visibility’s only about two miles and not likely to improve,” I reported. I wasn’t in a big hurry, I assured him. With the shed mostly cleaned out I had no pressing reason to go back inside. If it happened in the next month we should still have time to finish the job of emptying the cache and jacking it up to replace the rotted foundation. As long as the thing didn’t collapse in the next few weeks, we would be OK.

Yanci prudently decided to wait for better conditions and that was that. My project was on hold. It was too hot to mill lumber or brush trail. I could start my fencing project, after I had watered the garden and mowed the grass. By the time I caught up with those chores a row of thunderstorms had passed by, dropping lightning without much rain. Concerned about fires, I once again delayed my capital projects to cut back grass behind the house and pull off the dry brush I’d whacked down earlier in June.

I rotated two or three loose sled dogs on hot afternoons so they could cool off in the river. They were too hot to run away or harass the chickens, so this worked fine for several days. Then I heard TooKay barking angrily at the horses. The old dog had dragged a sack of chicken feed out to the front of the shop, spilling half of it to gorge on. Then the three horses came along to interrupt his picnic. One of them, probably Dropi (an old hand at this game) had seized the sack away from TooKay and dragged it halfway across the lawn, trailing feed like gunpowder to nitro.

They were all having a heyday when I broke up the party. Shooing the horses off toward the corral, I spotted Diesel’s rear end projecting from the open door of the nearby feed shed, the black dog’s head deep in a bucket of dog food. He scurried guiltily to his house, but I suspected Merlin was the real culprit. That clever old lead dog was the one who could jimmy the lock on the shed. I sent all three dogs to bed without much supper, and gave the horses a big wad of hay to soak up the concentrates in the chicken feed they had devoured.

After that pandemonium I should have started fencing, but a shifting wind brought more smoke that smelled brisker, closer, not like the smoke from distant fires. I raked leaves behind the woodshed and cut back more grass instead. Then our old boss called. Erica Goff used to edit Sundays so I was happy to hear from her and learn she was now at UAF. Erica asked if we could appear on a radio show being broadcast from there in August, Michael Feldman’s “Whad’ya Know?”

Finding the explosives was a small shock. The thought of being on a national radio program was a big shock. I returned the shock by quoting our transportation costs to Erica. She said she’d get back to me. I nervously rushed out and started fencing but got only one post hole dug before getting sidetracked by ripening strawberries and currants.

Do you get where I’m going with all this? I don’t either. The summer had been like that. We’ll keep you posted on these peculiar developments, if we don’t go ka-blooie first.

Julie Collins is a trapper who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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