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An Alaskan Sundae

—David Vonderheide

An Alaskan Sundae

          September 1st, 2019 – Day 0

          Well, G, we actually made it to the Butte. I’ve spent so many hours staring at this little dot on the map, so many hours on the phone with the Inn, Jaq the floatplane pilot, the gear outfitters – it’s a little dizzying to actually be here.

          The Butte is this small mining town across a muddy section of river from its namesake hill. Nat thinks there are more bison than people here. Kai bought an eight off some zinc miners headed out for a weekend moose hunt. Carson and I went to the community center to fill up water and make fun of Jaq’s wool-lined leather jacket.

          You would love it here, G. You would’ve joined the kickball game at the community center and asked the kids about growing up in such a remote town. You would’ve made Jaq give you a tour of the plane and maybe charm him into taking you for a short test flight to show you the controls. You would’ve begged me to canoe across the river and bushwhack up the Butte with you. I would’ve obliged.

          We ate dinner at the Panda Buffet – the Butte’s only restaurant besides the one frycook working at the Inn who charges $4 for an egg – and enjoyed soggy spring rolls. No, they don’t serve ice cream sundaes, I checked. I know it wouldn’t count, but we’re pretty close to Alaska. That’s the last state we need, right?

          We spread out the maps over the table and went over the logistics one more time. Tomorrow is the big day. I’ll tell you all about it on the other side.

          September 2nd, 2019 – Day 1

          The floatplane dropped us off at Rabbitkettle Lake an hour ago. The weather was shit at the Butte and Jaq thought we might pick up too much ice on takeoff, but it’s sunny and beautiful up in the mountains. He gave me a weird look when I was loading Da’s canoe. I guess most people bring actual whitewater tripping boats, not ugly wooden shells they fixed up themselves. He missed the point of why I was getting on that plane.

          September 4th, 2019  - Day 3

          Kai left an internship early to join me. I think she could hear in my voice how much I needed this. Carson, admittedly I kind of have a crush on him, and I’m hoping to get him out of his shell on this trip. Nat is an acquaintance that adds some more whitewater expedition experience to the group. It’s an unlikely crew, but we’re getting along so far.

          Kai puffs a joint from the stern of her sleek Old Town Penobscot and makes fun of my stumpy boat. It’s become the focus of her film photography – she places it in the foreground of scarlet tundra and glacier-stuffed mountains, on gravel-bars with the aquamarine river winding behind, flaws on full display. An extra thwart to keep it from folding on itself. Uneven rockers. The bow noseplate ill-fitting and buzzing against headwinds. It did look out of place up here, I’ll give her that.

          I still think Da would be proud.

          Da hadn’t finished it, though you know he never really finished anything. His garage was cluttered with the ghosts of abandoned projects. The rusted shell of the ’65 Pontiac Catalina he bought with his first paycheck, hood yawned open. A screenplay Nana had vacuum-sealed shut in ‘03 to protect it from moths. It was a genre-blend, apocalyptic fantasy – Mad Max meets Game of Thrones if you’ll tolerate such lofty comparisons – and it really wasn’t half bad but ended mid-line on page 119 on the description of a mechanic-witch, as if her hair color was a burden heavy enough to shatter the work. A canvas painted with the night sky and blue tinted mountains, a central wolf sketched in front of them; a photo album documenting our family up until ‘08. I remember pausing on a picture of me as an eight-year-old, cradled in your arms. How it echoed.

          And of course, the canoe, sitting center stage, on a bed of wooden shavings. Da had been quite a paddler in his day and I liked to let him spin his wheels telling inflated war stories – I have them written down somewhere, as if I don’t have half of them memorized anyway. He had taught me how to canoe as a kid and when I was older had taken me through the Canadian woodlands on remote rivers. You were always invited, though you sometimes seem to forget that. I think you couldn’t stand to sit in the bow while your younger sister steered from the stern.

          Da had always wanted to carve his own canoe, and he began the project after his first heart attack in ’09. After miniscule progress and another heart attack, I had taken the summer after my first year at Notre Dame to go down  to Kentucky. I wanted to help him finish the boat, but knew little about woodworking and was reliant on his instruction, which he doled out in meager doses between naps, bourbons, and triumphant tales from his La-Z-Boy by the window. It seemed he didn’t care if the boat was ever completed, and I couldn’t understand that, not after all those afternoons he had spent musing the prospect of paddling a self-built craft. By the end of August, when I returned to school, it still wasn’t ready to take my grandfather for a final paddle.

          When he died in February, I called Nana to ask if the canoe was finished. She answered, and I wept.

          September 8th, 2019 – Day 7

          Screw Kai, because Da’s boat took cleaner lines than hers on every rapid. After the South Nahanni River descends a staggering waterfall, the canyon walls pinch the water into violent rapids that doesn’t let up for days. Nat found our competition amusing and took hits from Kai’s joints in the eddies, while Carson flattened springy curls with a bandana and silently white-knuckled his paddle.

          You know I don’t believe in afterlife, but Da was a ‘hopeful Christian agnostic’ which I guess is good enough to get into heaven if you subscribe to that particular brand of spirituality. I hoped Da hoped right and that he could see me in those rapids.

          September 9th, 2019 – Day 8

          I got your message through the inReach. “did you leave too.” I know you’ve got a character limit but you could’ve given me more than that, G. You’re freaking me out. We’re in the canyons now and I can’t get a sat connection to get a message back. I’ll have to try in a few days once we’re through it. I hope everything’s ok.

          September 13th, 2019 – Day 12

          Nat and Carson had left their tent up, sleeping bags zipped open and pooled on half deflated pads inside. Kai had left her things abandoned in my tent, her copy of Norwegian Wood bookmarked with eyeglasses and stuffed in the mesh pocket by the open flap. I didn’t hear her wake up. When I’m mummified in my bag, I sleep like a log.

          There were fresh footprints in the wet sand, a rut where they had slid out onto the river. They had left my canoe and the supplies inside – a food barrel, a paddle and the wooden wannigan. I unfolded my camp chair and waited by the fire pit, poking the soot with a half-charred stick.

          We had left the canyons behind a day ago and set up camp in their shadow on a gravel-bar at the confluence of the South Nahanni and Liard River. From here, it’s a grueling paddle out to the Butte – throw in as many miles in the morning as possible before the afternoon headwinds pick up. The Liard was a murky brown and grew darker as the turquoise mountain water draining through the canyon mixed with silt from swollen tributaries. Golden birch trees spilled across retreating hills as the river cut its way out to the ocean.

          The sun rose over the canyon walls and brought feeling back to my fingers. I wondered if it was a prank. I wondered if we had made a plan the night before and I had forgotten. I wondered if one of them got hurt looking for blueberries in the Canadian brush, or if the boat had flipped and the three had been swept off through some nasty rapid.

          I settled on noon, and when they still hadn’t returned, I pressed the SOS button on the inReach. When I received no response from the rangers, I remembered your message.

          I expected to see them every time I swung around each meander. At first, I imagined them sitting on a sunbaked piece of driftwood washed up on shore, passing the jar of pretzels / M&M mix, laughing and waving. Nat might be topless and laying face up in the sand. Carson might be stealing the world’s least discrete glances.

          I paddled until the sun set. I was angry, a little. I was terrified, sometimes. Mostly I just felt that familiar echo. Alone at night, I remembered how on our trips Da would sleep between me and the tent flap and missed the hazy outline of his shoulders shielding me from whatever lay hiding in the trees. I tossed and turned in that empty tent, and I started thinking about how you’d sometimes lay in my bed when Mom was working late, when I was too scared of the dark to sleep.

          September 15th, 2019 – Day 14

          This was supposed to be the last day of the trip. I’m a day outside the Butte – slower going with only one paddler, and the winds have been brutal. I lost the bow noseplate yesterday, torn clean off. They’d left me the breakfast barrel, so I’ve been stuffing down oats day in and day out. I ran out of raisins and brown sugar, but I found a patch of blueberry bushes and picked them clean so at least there’s a little flavor. A black bear visited during oats dinner today – an adolescent all chunky for the winter. I almost wanted to offer him some of me food as a reward for not Leaving like they did.

          I’m hoping my messages just aren’t delivering. I don’t think I can accept that you’re ignoring them. Did you Leave too?

          September 16th, 2019 – Day 15

          I thought a lot about the sundaes we used to get on our road trips on my last day of paddling. I don’t know if you remember the one from Iowa, but I do – they served it on half a grilled donut with teeth-cementing caramel and fresh raspberries. If you can’t tell, I’m really sick of the oats.

          You were clever, G, you almost made me like moving. I’m n ot sure how Mom felt about an hour detour to clip the Friendly’s at the northeastern tip of Wyoming, but I think you were as excited as I was. I’m pretty close to Alaska now. Maybe you can meet me there for an Alaskan sundae, finish off the 50?

          There are now definitely more bison than people in the Butte. A herd of them grazed the bunchberry from the pots outside the Nahanni Inn but didn’t seem to notice me as I dragged my canoe up onto the grass by the parking lot. It looks sad out of the water, varnish chipped and hull warped, worse off than when it had lived in Da’s garage.

          The Inn was unlocked, but no one was behind the desk or frying eggs in the kitchen. I smelled something terrible and was thankful it was just spoiled food in an open fridge. I wondered if the frycook had left the door open when he had Left, and if so, what had possessed him so completely that the duty of closing the door was too much to bear. Was it as hard as deciding that the mechanic witch’s hair should be grey at the end of a screenplay?

          From the shredded plastic cheese wrappings and dried little turds, it looked like the squirrels had a field day. There was a cabinet they hadn’t gotten to stocked with oyster crackers, which wasn’t great, but at least they weren’t oats. There was a small reading nook on the other side of the building, near a window that peered out over the river. One boat remained on the water, bobbing against a slimy pier, but its rusted motor didn’t look like it would start.

          Had the whole town Left?

          The messages are going through – I even dug out the reference manual to make sure the little green check means what I thought it meant. Did Mom and Nana Leave with you, G? Did you all get in the same car? Can I meet you?

          After Da died, I didn’t finish the semester. I was pretty sure Mom was going to kill me until you talked her down – I knew we lost the scholarship money and I knew I was going to need to take out loans to go back.

          But I did finish the boat and I know it’s ugly but all I had was Google and some intuition for how canoes should look. I wish you had loved this stuff as much as I did so you could have helped me with it. I wish you would’ve come down to put in a few screws and take me out for a sundae, even a blasphemous, redundant Kentucky one. Nana quickly learned not to interrupt me when I was crying and frustrated. Once, after I realized I had cut the yoke too short, I had beaten it against the concrete floor until it splintered in my hands.

          Nana had packed up every last trace of Da so quickly it almost made me wonder if before his death she had been moving quietly around the house before the sun came up, squaring away the things he had forgotten he owned. After the yoke incident, she left a box of Da’s old journals outside my door, and I spent the next day poring over each word. My favorite one was a composition notebook detailing expedition logistics followed by trip reports scrawled in his slanted and smeared hand. I recognized most of the stories, though I guess Da censored some of his “tasteful cussin’” when he wrote them down.

          At the back of the book:

          South Nahanni River

          13 Days – 250km. Class II-III rapids. 1 mandatory portage (strenuous).

          Antecedent river winds through staggering canyon walls. Bountiful wildlife, northern lights (end of season), storied history, floatplane required.

          Day 0: Arrive in the Butte, NWT, CA. Makes sense to meet up in Yellowknife to gear up before a long drive to Fort Simpson. From there (…)

          It went on. Below the logistics, Da had left plenty of pages for the trip report.

          I never asked Nana for money, but after one of my staining days, she slid a sizeable check in the back of Da’s journal with the subject line, “For Nahanni.” I think she just wanted me and the boat out of the house.

          September 17th, 2019 – Day 0

          I don’t think I want to go to Alaska, G, not with you, not even if we don’t get a sundae.

          The bison broke Da’s boat. One of them put a hoof through the hull and another cracked the gunwale. I don’t think it was malicious, no more malicious than Kai and Carson and Nat and you Leaving, but it still hurts.

          It won’t float anymore. I pushed it out into the river and let it sink. It almost feels good knowing that it’s not finished again – maybe Da had never wanted it to be. Maybe he had intentionally stopped short with the sketch of a wolf, with a half-filled family album, on page 119 of his screenplay. Maybe if each of his projects had been neatly finished and curated in a garage gallery that we weren’t allowed to enter because we might get smudgy fingerprints on the waxed hood of his Catalina, maybe he would have Left us both long ago.

          If we traveled to Alaska for our last sundae, maybe the bison would stomp on our stomachs until we puked it all back up. Maybe that would be good for us.

          I remember the last time I saw you, G, at Da’s funeral, if a hug and a few comforting words on your way up to the casket counts as seeing you. Later when I asked you to come back to Da’s house with me to see the canoe, you apologized and said you had a flight to catch later that afternoon. I’ve had layovers longer than you were in Louisville. You can’t imagine how much that stung, G.

          That was the first time we’d been together without a fervent mission to find the nearest diner serving dessert since before you left for college. I remember our long weekend in Four Corners after you graduated fondly, but why? You were desperate to get away, reading emails between spoonfuls, so much to get back to. Couldn’t we have taken a month – a week even – climbed in my van and watched the sunrise over the desert? Sat out by a firepit dug into the sunbaked soil and strolled through fuzzy memories? Couldn’t you have come with me on this trip, watched the northern lights dance a spectral ballet, eating oats – eating anything! – but a damn sundae?

          I don’t think Kai, Nat or Carson stopped here. I think they paddled right past and will keep paddling until their arms give out. And that probably means you’re driving until the car breaks down and then you’ll start walking until your knees snap.

          I wonder how different that is than before you Left.

          I realize now that I missed what Da wanted to teach me, why he left that garage full of unfinished work. But I think I get it now.

          I resented you for being so consumed, G, yet as our grandfather faded away, I was no different. I let some misshaped hunk of wood own my mind and time, desperate to stick Da on that boat and to check the box on our relationship. He must have died thinking he had taught me nothing. I Left him, like you Left me.

          I gathered the food I could find in town – a few packs of Slim Jims, a handful of Snickers, a saran-wrapped rotisserie chicken I scrounged from a fridge in a slanted house down by the river – and loaded up my pack. I was even lucky enough to find a vehicle, a Tundra with almost a half tank of gas and a road map folded up in the glove compartment. Eastbound, Route 3 to 7 and I’ll wind up in Yellowknife, maybe figure out what the hell is going on. The truck won’t make it if I can’t find any gas, but I’ll take what I can get and I’m lucky enough to have a sturdy pair of legs to get me the rest of the way there if I need to. I tossed my tent and pack into the truck bed, then reluctantly loaded up the oats barrel with its remaining rations and hoped it wouldn’t come down to that.

          The roads were chewed up and frost-heaved out here, not to mention fraught with the occasional bison crossing, so as dusk faded, I pulled the truck onto the shoulder and pitched camp for the night, rather than push for more miles. I’m not exactly on a tight schedule. I pitched my tent in the truck bed and as I dug out my sleeping bag, I stumbled across Da’s journal, sealed in a Ziploc.

          I leaned back in the tent, resting against the metal of the cab, and flipped through the journal to the end. There were ten or twenty so blank pages left, enough for this trip report and a few more after, maybe a half-entry for a trip I’ll plan but never take, and maybe it doesn’t matter if I do.

          I unzipped one of the tent doors, just enough so I could watch the stars bloom on an inky sky. Silhouettes of slouched mountains in the distance melted to night, like the blurred outline of Da’s shoulders, sleeping beside me in our cramped little tent.


DAVID VONDERHEIDE is a medical student in Philadelphia. He spends his summer outdoors, working as a whitewater raft guide. His work lives on

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