Karen in the Bush

Julie Collin

After isolating from Covid at home in Fairbanks over spring and summer 2020, Karen flourished in the Bush, gaining color and considerable strength with her hard outdoor work.

Freeze-up in the Bush has always been such a magical time, with its lovely scenes and rapid changes, that I often yearned to share it. But the dangerous travel conditions means we’re completely isolated for several weeks. No mail, no internet, no visiting or flights to town for someone growing bushy, and even a medevac would be logistically problematic.

Last year was different. Our 15-year-old niece Karen arrived in August ahead of the fall 2020 Covid surge and when the epidemic worsened she simply stayed to wait it out. That meant sharing with her our special time of year.

Karen arrived when the leaves were turning. She watched them blow down as we walked local trails to condition loose sled dogs and told her how much we appreciated the increased visibility in the forest. I pointed out the fading sunlight on the Alaska Range as the sun’s zenith sank lower each day until only the west-facing mountain tips caught any sunlight.

Karen enjoyed helping with the chores, especially caring for the animals. She learned to break the morning ice in the horses’ trough when she put them away after their nights spent foraging. She helped lug water and food for the dogs, a chore that would last until spring when water no longer froze outside. She helped build new dog houses, move dogs to their winter yard, and give them straw.

We were especially impressed when she buckled down to help pluck the three butchered turkeys that she’d spent the last month caring for and playing with. (She worked on the mean one, Sir Pecksalot.) She also watched Miki clean grouse and saw how to soak late-season spruce grouse in salt water to temper the resinous flavor of spruce-tips in the meat. She enjoyed even the more rank ones baked in Miki’s Mozzarella Grouse recipe.

October is the best time to preserve the last of the vegetables, and Karen helped us peel beets for pickling, and slice carrots and cook tomatoes for freezing. She helped make zucchini bread and pumpkin pudding and vegetable soup. Some of the many gallons of cranberries we all picked in September went into jam and coffeecake and muffins.

When Karen’s home-school materials arrived, her own work put a dent in our activities. Between her schoolwork and the dog yard chores, she had enough responsibilities so we didn’t ask her to haul the ever-increasing amounts of firewood inside as the temperature cooled. One school project included documenting the scenery in front of the house each morning. She captured the leaves coming down, the river dropping from hip deep to hardly knee deep, the mountains shifting to their gray winter cloaks and the snow line creeping down the foothills.

At last came a time when we greeted her sweet little “Good morning!” with a daily question of “Did you see the river yet?”

And Karen would rush to the window to cry “Oh!” or “Wow!” as she noted the changes that came overnight. On one frosty day, the little backwaters and sloughs had frozen. On another, slush slipped downstream in a long white train, and eventually shelf ice formed along the edges, growing ever more dominant. Finally the channel closed over, leaving only a few ominous black holes remaining.

Freeze-up on the lake took longer. Each time Karen helped pick fish from the net at Holek Spit, we checked the thermometer dangling in the water and when it reached 33 degrees we pulled the net so it wouldn’t freeze in. “Now we wait!” we told her, explaining how climate change had elongated the shoulder seasons and the lingering warmth often made the lake hang at the freezing point for weeks.

We walked out toward the lake almost every day hoping to find signs of freeze-up. Along the trek, I pointed out bird tracks in the snow and ice crystals and thin sheets of ice congealing on the water’s surface. “The lake is primed to freeze, we just need a cold calm night or two,” I assured her. We found an especially delightful gnarly ice-covered driftwood log and Karen’s imagination and artistic bent took flight as she conjured up an Ice Dragon complete with its own life history and Latin name, “Glacio bratus.”

One night the lake finally did freeze, clean and flat and frosty. I eagerly wanted to share how to spot small fish darting between rocks while walking over clear ice just offshore, but fresh snow covered the tender ice before it held our weight. Instead, we started mushing dogs out across the snowy flats to condition them for winter work. After the ice thickened a bit, we set two fish nets under the ice, feeling gratified to see how seriously our protégé took the hazardous ice. She carefully followed our instructions to stay behind us and take the creaking seriously even though Miki and I, with decades of experience, had a better feel for discerning dangerous creaks from the healthy twangs of stronger ice.

Karen’s caution did not scare her off of our Halloween trek in the darkness to light swamp gas bubbles captured under the thin ice. The expedition was a little tricky because nearly an inch of snow camouflaged the pale bubbles, so I led the way, shuffling carefully and feeling for the soft bulge of fragile ice over each bubble. One misstep and I’d crash through the shell, so I only ranged over shallow knee- to hip-deep water, locating bubbles and using a lighter to spark off soft blue flares and bright yellow explosions in the dark of the night.

With the setting of fish nets under the ice, our winter work had begun. As the ice thickened, we’d soon end our isolation with sled trips to the Post Office and Library. Our afternoon walks to check lake ice became moonlight walks on the frozen river. Another freeze-up was over, but seeing it through Karen’s bright eager eyes made the season as fresh and new as ever before.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.

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