The cold in Alaska is something that never quite leaves you, even if you flee to warmer
climes in the south. Once you have experienced it, your life is never the same. It's a cold that reminds you of your frailty and vulnerability to the forces of nature, for without
the layers of warm clothing, a parka, wool cap, mittens and the all important cold weather boots, you would die in a few minutes if exposed to the elements at even mild
temperatures like 10 below zero. The environment pressed in on you from every side in Alaska. The immense scale of the land was simply too big to be cowed by man and his
sprawling concrete cities. It was humbling, and strangely invigorating to live in a place where the boundaries between life and death were a little thinner, and the comfortable padding of
civilization was replaced by a down vest and a good wolverine ruff on the hood of your parka.
Daniel remembered how he seemed to turn inward against the cold, just as he would tuck his chin in and
bow his head against the streaking wind out on the river. The wind was his worst enemy. It used the cold like
a lash, flailing at him in the vast open places of the wildland, and giving him no rest. No matter how many
layers of wool and down he wrapped himself in, or how snug the fit of his scarf and boots, the wind would
find a way under his clothing, and chill his soft warm flesh with fingers of ice. Daniel hated the cold, but he
had to face it every day. Once, in a fit of defiance, he deliberately gave himself to it, as if to taunt the frigid wind with the fire of his body.
He was walking in one of the sloughs which wound their way through the rolling tundra country, not far
from the mission. You didn't have to go far to be completely alone in Alaska. A ten minute walk would take
you to a place where it was absolutely dark, and quiet, save for the moaning of the wind if it was prowling
that night, or the brilliant display of stars in the night sky overhead. If you were lucky, you might catch a
glimpse of the Northern lights--a green milky phosphorescence that illuminated the sky and confirmed for the unschooled visitor that this was an otherworldly place indeed.
One night Daniel was out on the river, back in Steamboat Slough. He was trudging along the crusty snow,
watching the play of faint moonlight in the wind carved drifts near the embankment. Off to one side, a dark
rake of willow bush thickened toward the ice. For some reason Daniel climbed up the embankment and
crept into the midst of the thicket, until he was deep under the scraggly bare plants in the dark of the night.
It was as far away from human eyes as he could get that night. There was no sign of the mission, or the
village, not even the faint glow of the lamp posts which lit up the crusty gray ice of the mission walkways.
Daniel huddled in the cold, lying on his back and looking up at the night sky through the thin fingers of the
willow bush. It was cold, yet he could feel the warmth of his body held in by the thick parka. He slipped off
his mittens and the chill air bit at his hands. Working as fast as he could, he opened his parka and unzipped
the down vest beneath. The cold rushed at him, stealing away the heat of his body like a starved animal
finding food in the desolation of the Alaskan winter. Daniel opened himself to the cold, teasing it. His fingers
were starting to hurt now, but he forced them to unbutton his wool shirt and threw it open. His smooth chest was laid bare now, and the cold fell on him with an evil lust.
There was a certain thrill which came over him. He wanted to go further, to strip away all of his clothing and
submit his body to the searching touch of the wind and cold. He was minutes away from death, he knew. Already his frame was shaken with an involuntary shiver; his bare hands were getting numb. Here I am, his
body seemed to say. Take me if you can.
Then he closed up his shirt, numbed fingers struggling with the buttons, and sealed his body away from the
cold with layer upon layer of protective clothing. A minute later he crawled out from under the bush on his hands and knees, and slid down the embankment to the flat open area of the slough.
A sheet of wind struck at him, angry at his escape. Not tonight, he thought to himself. I'm alive, and warm,
and free to go back to the shelter of the cottage and sleep behind thick insulated walls, safe from the wind
and cold. He was exhilarated by the experience, and tramped his feet as he walked to get his heart rate up
again. The shivers left him as warm blood forced its way out into his extremities again. His fingers hurt for a
while, but that was a good sign. The blood was pushing its way back into the fleshy fingertips through tiny
capillaries, and it hurt. But the pain was life--not the numb empty void of a frozen death.
Daniel went out to the edge of the river and bared his chest to the void. It made him feel the fragility of his
life, and the wonder of it all at the same time. He was alive. The wind and the snow, and the cold were all
elements in the world around him, but they were dead and bare, like the withered branched of the willow
bush next to his naked body. They envied him for the life his body held, and they coveted it. Whenever he
walked outside from that moment on, he could feel the wind tugging at his parka, wanting to strip it away
from him again, and get at the soft white flesh beneath--like a wounded lover, clawing after him as he walked away.
The wind wanted him. The cold wanted him, and something else wanted him that night on Steamboat slough,
though he was not aware of it then.
He made his way to the mouth of the slough where it emptied into the wider bed of the Andreafski river. The
wind harangued at him, scratching at him from behind. Daniel looked up to see the sky was now streaked
with cold white clouds, pale ghostly shapes in the dark as they fled in the van of a weather front. Up ahead
he could dimly see the sharp edges of broken wood jutting up through the ice. He was very near the wreck of
the Steamboat now, and the old native stories clamored in the back of his mind. Watch your step. Be careful. Its dark. The night is angry. The wind is jealous, and you're alone.
Daniel came up the edge of the wreck, his footfalls a little tentative as he neared it. The river froze three
months ago, he thought. It was twenty below zero! The ice was probably three feet thick by now, wreck or
no wreck. He continued on, until he was standing on top of a bare sheet of exposed river ice in the heart of
the sunken steamboat. Cold seemed to reach up and tangle his feet, and he looked for patches of snow to offer better footing and insulation. The wreck was very near now.
Bleak boards jutted up through the ice from the flat riverbed below. A part of the foredeck was still exposed,
and the structure of the pilot's cabin remained intact. A few meters away, the weathered remains of the
paddle wheel protruded through the ice, shrouded in a blue-white frost. He took a step toward the cabin,
peering through the tunnel of his ruff as he made for the open doorway there. Then he heard a sound that nearly froze his blood, a long raking wail that seemed to come from under the ice.
He stood still, paralyzed by the sound. He wanted to turn this way and that to find the source, but an
unnatural fear shivered up his spine, dulling his nerves and freezing him in place. What was it? Something
hissed at him from under the ice. He wanted to run, but his boots seemed fixed in place on the rock hard
slab of the river. He looked down at his feet and saw tiny drifts of snow driven about them by the wind. Run!
Daniel could not move, and the cold reached up from the bottom of the river and took him by the feet and
ankles, tugging at him; holding him fast. He could feel the bite of pain in his toes, and knew he had to move to keep the frost away. But he could not move, in spite of the rising alarm in his chest and the pulsing of
blood at his temples.
A trap, he thought. I must have stepped into a trap. He stooped down onto his haunches, feeling with his
gloved fingers for the thing that held his feet in place. There was nothing but the blue-gray ice and crusty
snow--and the terrible cold which grappled with him in the night. He started to lose his balance and pushed
one arm against the ice to keep from falling. The cold took hold of his wrist, holding tight.
This is crazy, Daniel thought. I have to move, have to get up and back to the mission. Can't stay out here in
the dark...Front moving in...Let me go!
He heard his own voice screaming at the night, and the horrible sound which surrounded him wailed in
response. The cold had his legs, and his hand, and his arm. His heart pounded with fear, and with one last
effort of his will he pushed for all he was worth and stood up. He was moving, staggering away on shaky legs.
The ice was exposed in many placed by the gusting wind, and Daniel found the footing treacherous on its glassy surface.
Something was after him!
He started to run, but his footing gave way and he fell hard on the ice near one of the jagged beams from the
wreck of the Steamboat. His knee was seared with pain. A sharp splinter of wood penetrated his leggings and
jabbed at the flesh on the inside of his right knee. It was painful to move, but Daniel forced himself to his feet
and limped away from the wreck of the boat. The wind wailed at him from behind, but he was out on the
river now, and the lights of the mission glowed up ahead, beckoning to him from across the wide expanse of open ice.
He did not dare look back, though he felt as though something was dogging his footsteps, a hairs breath from
his back as he hobbled toward the mission hotel. He was more frightened than he had ever been in his life. Keep moving...Don't look back...Watch your step...Don't fall again!
He was half way across when another fear rose in his mind to prey upon him. He couldn't swim! Yes, the
river was three feet thick with ice, but there was water down there somewhere--black icy water just under
the surface, and he was right in the middle of it now, dead in the middle of the river. Whenever he walked
over bridges, Daniel could never bring himself to look at the water below. He couldn't see the water now, but
he knew it was there. He could barely see anything as he stumbled along in the murky black. What if he ran
into a crack or a hole in the ice where Jakes had been fishing--a wound that hadn't the time to heal and freeze up again. What if he fell through?
He imagined himself on a bridge, a narrow causeway leading to the far bank of the river with "Watch Your
Step" on his left, "Keep Moving" on his right and "Don't Look Back" behind him. The brittle crack of crusty
snow punctuated his footsteps, and his breath came fast and hard. He imagined himself falling through a thin spotin the ice and vanishing into the turbid depths below.
But he didn't fall, and the river was frozen thick and solid as rock. Daniel clutched at his wounded leg and
somehow made it to the far bank where a few boats lay like beached whales, belly up to the moon until the
winter gave way. He pushed between them, and struggled up onto the snow-draped embankment, safe at last.
The lights of the mission enfolded him in a soft yellow glow. He could hear the sound of the generator
purring and churning in the distance. The dogs were howling in the village nearby, first one, then another,
as if they were braying at the passing of an unwelcome stranger in the night. Daniel was safe. He took in a
deep breath and caught the smell of wood smoke in the frigid air. For the first time since he started back, he looked over his shoulder.
Nothing was there.
The moonlight gleamed on sheets of bare river ice, then fled into the gathering rift of clouds. Whatever it
was that had clutched at his boots and pulled him onto his knees, it was gone. But a voice was calling his name.
Daniel spun around, eyes wide with fright.
"Not a good time, Daniel." A stocky figure was standing in front of him, an Eskimo wearing a thick black wool
cap and gray sweats. It was Jakes, a hired hand from the village in charge of the maintenance for the mission
and hotel. A 410 shotgun was cradled against his hip, and he didn't look happy, as if Jakes was part and
parcel with the storm in the night, and Daniel was an intrusion. He was squinting at Daniel from under the
brow of his cap, oblivious to the cold in spite of the fact that he had no parka. It was clear that he was upset
about something. Jakes wasn't the sort to say much of anything without a very pressing reason. The fact that he spoke at all was enough to convince Daniel something was wrong--if he needed any convincing after
what he had just been through on the river.
"Slipped on the ice and cut my knee." Daniel gestured feebly behind him and saw Jake's eyes follow his arm
with a sallow, unfriendly regard.
"Bad time. Storm coming," said Jakes. "Better inside." He spoke in short choppy statements, as if the words
were foreign to him, and difficult to express. Jakes breathed the silence of his own simple world, and kept the rest of the life at the mission hotel at a distance.
Good advice, thought Daniel. Should have taken it hours ago, but it was a little late now for weather reports.
He nodded to Jakes, grateful to see a familiar face and feeling a little silly now that he was back under the
dull glow of a lamp post. The mission was a tiny island of man-made safety clinging to the edge of the river
bank. Nine buildings, most sided with dull gray aluminum to prevent the wood underneath from weathering
too badly. They stood in stark contrast to the lay of the land around them, bare rolling hills swelling away
from the flat river bed and building tree sewn glens and vales where they folded into one another in the
distance. The squat regular shape of the mission buildings seemed tedious and out of place in the sweep of
the landscape, but it was home to Daniel for three years when he taught at the school here, and safe haven to him now on his return visit.
"Cold." It was all Daniel could think of to say. "Think I'll clean up and get some coffee."
Jakes nodded to him and Daniel shuffled away toward the cottage, the southernmost of the mission
buildings where his room was waiting for him. He made his way along the icy path, eyes following the
regular cuts Jakes made on the path to help footing. As he reached the outer door of the building he looked
back and saw Jakes standing stone still under the glow of the lamp post, and staring out onto the river bed.
He was looking back along the trail of footprints where Daniel had come, like a hunter taking up the scent of
something in the distance, measuring it, and waiting it out with his rifle. Then Jakes started away, back along Daniel's trail until he slipped into the darkness and was gone.
Better inside, thought Daniel. What was Jakes doling out advice for if he wasn't prepared to follow it himself?
He dismissed the thought, glad to be within arms reach of a doorway. His knee still throbbed with a dull pain
, and he wanted to get inside and see how bad the wound was before he headed back over to the main lobby
for that coffee. But he couldn't help wondering where Jakes was going with that rifle in the night. He couldn't
be hunting at this hour. Jakes had the room next to Daniel's in the Cottage, and he was usually fast asleep by eight 'o clock. It was almost midnight!
Something woke Jakes up...Woke up the dogs in the village too. Jakes was out with a rifle instead of a parka,
and damn near every dog in the village was braying like a pack of timber wolves on a moon-drenched night.
Daniel shuddered, and stomped up the three short stairs to the doorway. He pushed it open and tramped his
boots in the enclosed porch to shake off the snow before he opened the inner door to the hallway. A bare
yellow light bulb dangled from the ceiling and illuminated a thermometer nailed to the inner wall of the
porch. It was thirty-five below, and with a front blowing up the wind-chill factor would be much worse. He hoped Jakes wouldn't stay out too long...
Jakes wasn't the only man out with a gun that night. A half mile from the mission Andy
Paukan was pulling on his boots in the main room of his cabin on the outskirts of the village. He stopped for a moment, listening to the dogs, and looked over his shoulder
where his wife and two children were sleeping in their beds. Better inside, he thought. Bad out tonight.