The quaking aspen and birch in the vicinity of Fairbanks, Alaska, were goblets of yellow on white stems by September 1965, and the clear nights were painted with an almost imperceptibly undulating curtain of northern lights.
As winter approached, and the sun migrated southward, the great vault of the night sky stared with myriad planets and winked with the burning points of stars, while the moon’s soft light blended Earth and Heaven. And, the warmth, which migrated south with the sun, left in its place a dry cold that squeezed every drop of moisture from the air. During the brief period of winter daylight, each droplet squeezed from the air came drifting as tiny, silvery flakes out of a windless sky to settle unnoticed, to be lost amidst the billions upon billions of snowflakes that already covered the ground.
As winter’s grip tightened and the nights grew longer and colder, I heard strange, hard-to-believe tales about even stranger happenings in the Arctic nights of this northern land. And then it happened. The demon invaded my outhouse!
I lived in a small, two-room cabin in the forest, two miles from the University of Alaska, where I spent most of the winter conducting physiological experiments with small, Arctic mammals. The cabin had an all-purpose “living” room and a kitchen, but no bathroom. I did, however, have an A-frame outhouse about a hundred feet from the only door in the cabin. Although the outhouse wasn’t what I’d call plush, it did have accommodations for company—two holes that is.
September became October. The sun rose later and stayed lower in the sky, and the nights grew longer and colder. As the temperature dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit, I began understanding just how crude my outhouse was. By late October, I had already used the hide of a caribou to cover some major leaks of Arctic air in the wall near the door. By mid-November, snow lay two feet deep, and the temperature hovered near ten degrees below zero. It was so cold that I left a small patch of my own hide frozen to the toilet seat, and, believe me, I tarried no longer than absolutely necessary!
Although I knew I couldn’t go through the winter leaving bits and pieces of my skin frozen to the outhouse seat, I couldn’t figure out how to remedy the situation. One day, just before Thanksgiving, I happened to walk past a hardware store in Fairbanks, and there, hanging on the wall, was the answer to my problem—a beautiful, black toilet seat.
Without hesitation, I entered the store. “I want that toilet seat.”
The man took it down; I give him the money—price being no object—and walk out with my arm through the hole so the seat rested over my right shoulder. I didn’t even mind the strange looks I got as I hitchhiked back to my cabin with my oval treasure.
Once home, I pounded a nail in the wall of my cabin directly over the oil stove and hung the toilet seat from it. Then, when the urge became sufficient, I would grab the seat and dash for the outhouse in an attempt to get situated before the stove’s warmth left the seat.
This arrangement worked fine during the day, but at night I turned off the stove because heating oil was more expensive than I could readily afford. Thus, by early December the inside of my cabin was somewhere between 5° and 10° below zero in the morning, and by January it was at least 20° below zero when I awoke. Therefore, anything I wanted to keep from freezing, such as my camera and the butter, had to be put in the refrigerator before I went to bed. This was critical, because the temperature of my refrigerator was the only thing in my cabin, besides the inner-sanctum of my sleeping bag, that remained above freezing.
Thus, each morning, I had a dilemma. It was so cold that I’d freeze to my toilet seat because it didn’t warm up until the stove did, which was sometimes too long of a wait.
By the end of December, however, a final solution presented itself. A student at the university was trapping mink. He checked his traps once a week, which meant he sometimes had several frozen mink in his traps at one time. It just so happened that I was at the university one day when he returned from checking his traps. He’d caught 21 mink during the week, but 7 were no good for the fur market. They were “singed,” which means the ends of their stiff, outer guard hairs had “hooks” in them as though they had in fact been singed in a flame.
“Dave, what are you going to do with those singed mink?” I asked.
“I’m going to throw them out. Why? Do you want them? You can have them. They’re of no value to me.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, I appropriated the mink whose skins I had been coveting, and when I was finished with the them, I had the only mink-lined toilet seat in Alaska, perhaps in the world. Now, using my outhouse took on another dimension—one of rear-end comfort at last.
Basking in the glory of both my amazing genius and my new-found, albeit seemingly decadent, comfort, I was certain my dilemma had been solved. But nothing was further from the truth!
In early January, the temperature suddenly plummeted to 50° below zero, where it stayed for just over a month. It was during the first few days of this cold snap, that I had my initial encounter with the demon.
Daylight hours at Fairbanks were short this time of year. So one morning at six o’clock, I confidently strode to my outhouse under the twinkling of watchful stars. I felt good, with my toilet seat secure in one hand and my flashlight in the other. Arriving at the outhouse, I tucked the seat under my left arm so I could open the door, which was not always easy because it sometimes stuck. And if I was not careful while tugging at it, I would drop my toilet seat in the snow—an unmitigated disaster.
Reaching my outhouse, I grasped the door’s knob and pull. It was stuck. I pull and jiggle and pull some more. As the door suddenly gave way and flew open, a small bundle of chattering, sputtering fury landed on my shoulder and clawed its way up my head only to leap into an aspen tree next to me.
“What in the hell’s that?” I sputtered as I drop both my toilet seat and flashlight in the snow. The episode lasted only seconds and my morning visit not much longer.
From then on, every time I used my outhouse, no matter how quietly I endeavored to enter, the small demon let me know its displeasure at my untimely, inconvenient intrusion by gnashing its teeth as it flung itself at my head on its way into the all-concealing darkness.
The saga began on a Monday as I was getting ready to go to work, and it wasn’t until Saturday a fortnight, in the brief winter daylight, that I discovered the demon’s true nature—a red squirrel that had taken up living quarters in the warmth of a large fold in the hair-side of the caribou hide with which I had attempted to cover the holes in my outhouse’s wall. But no matter how hard I tried to accommodate its sensibilities at being disturbed by the necessities of my presence, it gave no quarter. So, I had to accept being leapt at and resoundingly chastised in “squirrelese” every time I had the audacity to use my outhouse. Such are these small squirrels.
With the return of warmer weather in early February, the squirrel disappeared just as suddenly as it had appeared, and I have no idea where it went.
Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.