Blood of moose, quarters hung.
Fire-killed birch, split and stacked.
Any day now, ready or not.
Blood of moose, quarters hung.
Fire-killed birch, split and stacked.
Any day now, ready or not.
Amidst the aftermath of the recent fire, and as we look ahead at the effects that our losses will have on the future of our life at the Hoarfrost, there are a few bright spots. This announcement is one of them.
In February 2002 I began an annual series of four solo trips by dogteam, heading out once each winter from our home at the Hoarfrost for a journey to one of the four cardinal directions: South in 2002, East in 2003, North in 2004, and West in 2005. I was at that point in my life just winding up a long and rewarding run as an Iditarod, Beargrease, and Yukon Quest competitor. The non-competitive “compass point trips” were a long-held dream of my life as a musher. It was time for me to make that dream come true, and for four years, with the generous support of my family, I did.
Another part of that dream was to write a book about the trips — a book I envisioned as a rambling mix of travel journal, musings, observation and reflection. Over the years 2002-2008, the book gradually took shape as a manuscript. In about 2009 I began “shopping it around” with agents and publishers. As is common experience with such efforts, there were many dead ends, long waits, some days of sheer frustration, and many rejections varying in tone from kind to terse.
Finally in October of 2012 there came a break. A chance Yellowknife reunion with Mike English, a professor of Geography at Wilfrid Laurier University, sparked a conversation about my writing. I had known Mike for years from our time together up at the Daring Lake research camp, and he has always spoken kindly of my 1994 book North of Reliance. When I told him of the new manuscript and the four trips, he offered to make a connection on my behalf with WLU Press. That led to a query, a conversation, and at last a signed contract.
And now, after years and much effort, it is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, as such projects do, and it is about to see the light of day. Many people have worked to move it ahead, and I am happy to announce that it will be published this autumn.
The publicity people at the press encouraged me to send out a note and to post a link to the book’s online announcement here at the blog. Not being too tech-savvy, I have followed the instructions to create the link. I hope I have succeeded.
Here it is:
Thank you to everyone who has helped this project come to this announcement. Also — not to turn too mercenary on you, but just to point this out — if I read the fine print on the press release correctly, you can save some money by ordering the book ahead of its official release. (Or you can hold out, in hopes that you are close enough to my inner circle that I will send you one. However I do not think I get very many free copies, under my agreement with the press, so you take your chances on that one, people!)
Now it is mid-August. I guess it is time to say something here. Cool weather has already come back, and some darkness in the middle of the night. The nightmarish heat and thick smoke of July is mostly past. Night before last a downpour came, with thunder and sheets of rain – the first real rain we have had since sometime in the autumn of 2013.
Last night the ENR crew of 3 came by in their boat, to coil up hoses and pack sprinklers, stow the broken fire pump and shake hands again, inquire about the renovations at the big log workshop where we will winter. Then off down the lake to stay ahead of a forecast overnight wind storm.
“Nature bats last.”
Easy to say, glibly and nonchalantly, with the right tone and the right stance. Wise words. Wisdom a little more difficult to acknowledge when she does step up to the plate and knock one’s entire life off kilter.
On the morning of the 4th of July I was up at the Daring Lake camp about 150 miles northwest of our home. It was just another day of Husky flying, with a wolf study and a grad student, checking out wolf den sites and looking to come up with a pup count at each of them. It was a summer morning, with a fresh breeze piping up from the east and a bit of tundra coolness in the air after the heat and flies of the day before. I sat in the office tent and tossed a back-and-forth Skype communication with Kristen, who was alone at the Hoarfrost River.
04/07/2014 7:28:21 AM
Dave: good morning, how is it there. cooler today up here with an east wind and no smoke.
Kristen: In a word. Smokey. a bit of wind here too but I can only see a couple miles out on the lake. have a good day.
Dave: love you. flight plan on file here.
Kristen: OK xo love U 2~ me
And by that night, everything had changed. Our beloved house was gone, with everything in it. 17 years, 20-some since the first logs of its walls were cut and hauled and peeled and stacked. Gone too, the beautiful log guest cabin, apple of my log-builder’s eye and home to so many people doing so many different things over the 10 years of its life — for these buildings do seem to have had lives — gone, two sheds stuffed with the coming winter’s firewood — gone. The rest of it given up for lost, saved by sprinklers and hoses and lake water pumped at the eleventh hour.
By mid-morning on the fourth of July, two hours into the day, there was a full gale blowing here. Winds gusting over 30, peak gusts above 40 knots. The smoldering taiga-edge fire I so casually described in my blog posting of July 1, poised about 6 nautical miles northeast of us, began to run. Really move, as fires rarely do here. The swath of blackened ground lying northeast of us now has to be seen to be believed. That fire ran down those long sloping valleys stuffed with a hundred years or more of dry fuel. Ran and blew and must have also tossed some burning embers well ahead of itself to leap and speed its movement.
Kristen knew early on in that day that all bets were off. Despite her calls for help no one came or responded. “We have you on our radar” “We’ll send a plane out this afternoon to have a look” “The remote sensing image still shows the fire 9 kilometers from you.”
By mid afternoon she had fought her battle with every bit of strength and savvy she had, our little pump and hose “like a weasel pissing” by the time the long run of hose had reached north of the house. The flames were in sight, a few meters back from the house, with the guest cabin already beginning to burn. She was driving the skid-steer, dumping sand in a last-ditch line south of the house, when she saw a hare bolting from the forest edge, and it struck her that this was it. She did what any sensible person – all alone after many hours of exhausting struggle and mounting fear and unheeded calls for assistance – would have done in her situation. She switched from fight to flight, turned the entire kennel of 44 dogs free to fend for themselves, took her camera and a laptop and her little carbine .44, a handheld phone receiver, left the communication systems turned on up at the doomed house, somehow wrestled the boat into the crashing waves and around the tip of the island to the lee side, and from the boat began sending messages and trying to make still more phone calls. The subject line alone still gives me a gulp whenever I see it, still sitting down there below a long line of condolence and assistance messages in the Inbox.
Re: FIRE IS HERE SEND HELP
THE FIRE IS HERE. I AM OUT IN THE BOAT, DOGS ARE LOOSE BUT IT IS STARTING IN ON THE HOMESTEAD. HELP.
Nature had stepped up to the plate.
Times like these, the remoteness of this place comes into sharp focus. Water bomber planes were inbound from Yellowknife, flying an hour or more with the 35-knot headwind right on their nose, following the “bird dog” lead plane that would show them where to drop, but by the time they arrived there was nothing to be seen but a solid wall of smoke. Hot brown thick smoke, the smoke of a raging inferno. There would be no drop. It was all going. There was nothing more to be done as Kristen sat helplessly in the boat, still trying to send communications, talking to the bird dog pilot on 126.7, trying to keep the dogs from fighting as they crowded around the boat out on the tip of the rock island. Our nearest neighbors Roger and Libby and their two teenagers Gus and Winnie arrived, after a harrowing 20-mile journey hugging the coastline in their two small boats, the waves of McLeod Bay huge and wild and white-topped. Roger went ashore with Gus and Winnie, and a 100-pound bottle of propane exploded almost at the same time they disappeared into the smoke. Thankfully, they all emerged. That was that. No one with an ounce of sense was going back in there now. Then, a while later, a lone helicopter with 3 already exhausted fire fighters called in from another fire a hundred miles west, one pump, a length of hose, a few sprinklers. The pilot just at the brink of turning back in the smoke, his visibility down to a matter of a few yards. Then through the smoke he caught a glimpse of an empty fuel drum at the cache, and he kept coming. Had he not made it in, I doubt we would have any buildings at all left now. By the time I taxiied in from the east, having landed several miles down the coast where I could still safely do so, there were sprinklers raining cold lake water down on the perimeter. The wind had died. It was nearly midnight.
At about 1 in the morning, a final image of that night which I will never forget: one of the young firefighters went up to the smoldering house and heated his hot-dog dinner up on a stick. I chided him about it, and he looked sheepish. “It’s o.k., really, you go ahead and heat your hot dog up. May as well get one last bit of use out of the old place…” We both laughed softly.
We have our shop, our sauna, our barn and sheds, our tools and boats and the planes and the office of our little flying and guiding business. But the heart and soul of the place is gone. The house is just a pile of charred and twisted rubble. I can scarcely bring myself to walk up there these days, so mostly I don’t. It will be a while. That lovely, quirky, cozy log and timber castle we had built – a thousand or so square feet in three stories, and all the special “stuff” of each of us four – books, carvings, photos, gifts… All the warts and foibles of my amateur carpentry, which even my most talented friends could not completely cover over as we built the place. The kitchen and its nooks and crannies and treasures, the clothes in long drawers beneath our beds upstairs.
Time to pick up the pieces. Hell, it’s not like we are the first people to ever lose a house in this world. A long-ago friend of mine sent what words he could offer. He called up an image I had forgotten, of the fellow staffer who would stand up at the close of the Sunday meetings at the Boy Scout camp where I worked for four summers in my teens. Delivered tongue in cheek, I suppose, in those days, with a suitably ponderous tone and a furrowed brow: “Endeavor to Persevere.” Roger, wilco.
Last night, the final night of June, Kristen and I flew the north shore of McLeod Bay, homeward bound from Yellowknife. Glassy calm water and the very last floes of ice were scattered on the mirror like shards of a giant broken vase. On the perfect calm they float for a few final days in delicate arcs south of Thompson Landing and northeast of Kluziai Island. Ice out is official, for there will be no one stopped by those few chunks of ice. A few happy boaters on this Canada Day might poke their cabin cruisers up into the western reaches of the bay and find a little ice for their Scotch. Hopefully this will make their day, as it should.
There is a taiga fire burning to the northeast of us. The edge of the fire will today likely reach the shore of Long Lake (our name — how many Long Lakes are there in the world?) As of yesterday evening, when we circled flaps-down through the smoke for a good look, it was only a quarter mile from the shoreline of that lake, which lies directly across its path, and is wide and, as you might have guessed, pretty long — or at least it feels long when coming up or down it on a dogsled in the dark. To call the burn a “forest fire” would be misleading. Even a “wildfire” sounds a little over-dramatic for this creeping band of smoldering lichen, brush and deadfall with its thick plumes of white smoke. Still, it is a fire, burning wild and completely unchecked, and it is moving at the whim of the breezes, charring the countryside as it passes. It is fascinating to peer down from the plane into the country already burnt, and see all the green still there — big pockets of birch and alder, low wet ground, tall trees. Even on the hottest blackest sections I am left with the feeling of witnessing a perfectly natural drama, not some cataclysmic event. Glib of me, for it is cataclysmic enough to an unfledged white-crowned sparrow as the flames lick upward to consume the nest. Always amazing too, to watch the hot edge reach a stand of tall white spruce. Broad orange plumes of flame rush up through the smoke and entire trees burst into flame at every twig and needle.
Whether Long, Windy and Pistol Lakes will stop the advance of the fire in our direction depends mostly on the wind and the weather, but they might and I cannot help but hope that they do. If over the coming weeks the fire reaches the outskirts of our little homestead we are confident that with the right help from the local fire crews we could protect our buildings, our fuel cache out on the rocky point, and our livestock of the canine and feline varieties. As of today that one hot edge of the fire coming close to our dog-trail route is about 7 nautical miles from here, which is, in the vernacular of the old mountain men and my dear mother, “a fur piece.”
This morning the smoke lies thick and visibility is less than 3 miles. The sky above is a beautiful pale blue smattered with puffy cumulus. In the entire month of June we recorded just 5 millimeters of rain, in two brief showers. Still, somehow, as they always do, the woods have greened up. Canada Day is sometimes summery, sometimes not, but this year July begins in verdant green, a smoky haze, and down the bay some ice tinkling in some lucky boater’s orange juice.
June begins. Skim ice on the shore lead early this morning. The Bush Hawk on wheel skis now a good distance offshore, tied down to deadman logs beneath about 30 inches of thoroughly candled white ice. 30 inches and decreasing by the hour. It won’t be long now before I am forced out of here for changeover to floats. Hopes for a protracted and delayed ice-out have pretty much fallen away. Yesterday evening I mounted the mightly little Bravo skidoo and gunned it for the Evil Kneival jump from the rotting ice edge, across the shore lead with a smacking splash and onto land. It is now stowed safely under the eave of the shed for the summer. It had a hard and lonely winter, what with being abandoned in foot-deep overflow for well over two months up on Long Lake. The dogsleds and harnesses have been stowed for the season after the final run on May 24th. No June sledding this year. Now the dogs are taking turns joining us for strolls on the ice, four at a time, booties on every paw. We can still step right onto firm ice at the south tip of the windmill island, and over at the fuel cache, but a long plank will be needed by the end of today.
A nasty tight low pressure system moved in from the southeast two days ago — not at all a common track for a weather system hereabouts — bringing a long day of lashing northeasterly wind and sideways rain. By the morning yesterday, the final morning of May, all was sunshine and blue skies and calming winds. The wind and rain sharpened the spears of the ice-candle tips, putting an end to the pleasant bicycling out on the bay. A few big mosquitoes are lumbering around, but thankfully there has been no sign of the new crop yet. Buds swelling on the birches and a few sprigs of grass starting to green. Fireweed shoots come up so fast that I think if you had the patience you could sit there for six hours and discern the rise in their height.
Yesterday as we paddled a canoe through the narrow shore lead we spotted a good-sized grayling lying in the shallows, finning gently in place, in about 10 or 15 inches of brightly lit water. Water that had just turned perfectly clear, so must now be directly connected to the main lake. There can’t be more than a foot of water between the bottom of that shoreline ice and the shallow bottom of the lake, for a long way out, but the fish had threaded the narrows and emerged into the sunlight along shore. Never seen one in there before, with the shore lead so narrow.
We were laying plans to walk down the ice to the west and check on the old boat frozen into its winter harbor, when Kristen said “there’s something big out on the ice.” Binoculars were quickly fetched, and a bear identified. Better binoculars were fetched, and the bear became a grizzly, not a black. Ambling slowly in from the headland to the west, pausing, walking slowly, pausing again. He or she turned up into Blue Fox Bay and disappeared from our sight behind the rocky point of Tern and Seagull Islands. No bear in sight for a while then, but plenty of noise from the gulls. (No terns here yet, I don’t think.) After an hour or so the bear was out on the ice again, angling south and east, drifting closer to the parked plane. Bear bangers and firearms were being readied, in case it decided to get too close to all that flimsy but expensive plexiglass, but it angled off again and slowly dwindled to a wavery speck in the far distance. Must have been one sore-footed bear that hit the Kahochella Peninsula, after miles and miles on that pointy knobbly ice.
I remember being out on the May ice many years ago, running a big string of 14 dogs, double-sledding with a friend, when out from shore came a black bear at a dead run, gaining on us from our 8 o’clock. We stopped the dogs and they all spotted it. A few barked, and the bear stopped, stood still, thought better of taking us all on, and drifted back to shore. Six hours later we saw him round the point much as the bear did yesterday. I wonder what they find out there on the ice, besides sore feet. Often they do stroll right along shore line beaches at this time of year, maybe on the lookout for sunbathing grayling fast asleep.
The wind has died and the sky has cleared. The sun is well up over the horizon by 6 a.m. Cold again, down to -18 overnight. (Celsius, Yankees, Celsius… why don’t you get with the rest of the world?) I step out on the upper deck of the cabin, wearing a down sweater and a wool hat, wool slippers on my bare feet, a cup of hot coffee in my hand. As I stand there looking out over the long white ice, across to the distant snowy ramparts of the Kahochella, the silence is the first thing that strikes me. A couple of dogs look up at me from the yard, but most of them are curled up in their houses. Our resident ravens are up and doing, but they are not talking this morning. Nothing to say, I suppose. I get that.
We truly are a minority in this summer-infatuated culture — we who love winter and hate to see it go. Well, no, that is not precisely it. I do love winter, but what tugs at my heart on these frosty May mornings is how much I cherish this final round of it, right on the cusp of spring. All this wonderful warm light streaming in while the ice is still hard and white and the dogs are still happy and running. The deep tan on everyone’s faces and the delicious trickle of meltwater in the afternoons, frozen hard again by dawn. The undertone of being on the verge of something unstoppable, a mighty force advancing from the south but not quite here yet. Let this last, I think to myself every year, oh please can we just have a late spring this year, and an extra three weeks of days like this? Think of the work we could get done out in the woods with this combination of long days and snow cover, says my practical side. Think of the ear;ly mornings just like this one, quiet and just warm enough to be out, with this light streaming in from the northeast, this crispness in the air, this crunch underfoot, this silence.
After a few minutes, from the woods to the north of the house, a bird voice. I am not throwing this in for effect or making it up. Again, and no mistaking it — it is a robin. A cold robin this morning, but a robin nonetheless. Saying to her husband, “I told you we were going to be early, dear. But oh no, you were all go go go… Now look at us. You see any worms for Pete’s sake?”
And down in Louisville, it’s Derby Day. Pick your horses; sounds like it’s going to be a mudfest this year. We’ll be tuned in, via the mixed blessing of satellite radio. Go Calvin!
Now it is Winter Light. (Light as in illumination, not as in intensity or calories, like those dreaded Lite yogurts or Lite beers….)
Here on the edge of the taiga I think of the year as divided into five seasons. November through January are “Winter Dark” and February through April are “Winter Light.” The months of May and June are Spring, July and August are Summer, and September and October are Fall.
Winter Dark and Winter Light are as different as night and day. On February 1st we now have usable daylight (including our long twilights) from before 9 a.m. to past 6 p.m., and we are gaining nearly 6 minutes a day. Bring it on! And it has been milder here these past few weeks. Instead of 40 below and lower, the temperatures have been in the 20 to 30 below range through much of January (all of this in degrees C. for those south of the border.) Easier on the woodpile, easier on the dogs and just easier on everything. -20 C. is the perfect winter temperature, to my way of thinking. Just below zero degrees F. The snow is still dry and squeaky, but it has some glide in it for sleds and skis, and the dogs find it perfect for flat-out effort without overheating. Plus there is nothing like a blast of 40-some below to make minus twenty feel like swimsuit weather.
This winter I have been musing about the Uses of Cold, for lack of a better title. Several things prompted this. In the much ballyhooed onslaught of deep cold back in December, I was in town for a few nights doing a flying job with a grad student studying wolves. As usual, on those working days far from home, I was eating my high-octane urban bachelor diet, one of the main components of which is pizza. Pizza being one of Nature’s perfect foods (dairy, grain, meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit — the only major food groups missing are beer, coffee and ice cream which must be taken as additional supplements) and perfect for leftover use as lunch food in the plane, I was stocking up at the downtown grocery store in Yellowknife. There was a special discount price on one brand of frozen “grease wheels” as another pilot friend aptly names pizza. As I checked out with my pizzas and other essentials (alas, the draconian liquor laws of the NWT still prevent the sale of beer in grocery stores, as contrasted to more civilized places like Denmark and Wisconsin), the lady at the till remarked — “oh isn’t that a great price on those pizzas? I just wish I had more room in my freezer at home so I could stock up.”
I looked back at her, perplexed, and then started to chuckle. I said “Well, do you have a car with a trunk? It’s 42 flippin’ degrees below zero out there!” At first she didn’t get my drift, but then she realized what I was suggesting. When the entire outdoor world has become a deep freeze, surely there are at least a few positive ways to put that to use. This got me thinking again a week or two later, when the power outages down in the Maritimes and Ontario began making national news. The electricity demands of people trying to keep warm, with everything from block heaters on vehicles to electric blankets to baseboard and space heaters in rooms, had put the grid past overload, into blackout. Yet meanwhile, in almost every one of those houses, an energy-sucking chest freezer or upright fridge-freezer was merrily humming away. As anyone who has lived off the grid with home-made power like solar, wind, and generators can attest, the two things that really zap a power supply are making something warm (heaters) and keeping something cool (fridges and freezers.) Lights, fans, computers, stereos, and even most small power tools pale by comparison.
In November, usually about the 10th or 15th, there comes a much-anticipated day when we decide it is safe to turn our freezer into a fridge. Out everything comes, and into wooden boxes and steel chests and plastic coolers on the porch and behind the house. The “big freezer” is on for the winter, and we will count on it until sometime in late April, in this climate. The small 12-volt chest freezer then becomes our fridge for the winter, but it is happily disconnected from the battery bank all winter. There is just a daily or every-second-day rotation of plastic water jugs filled with lake water, back and forth from the front porch to the fridge. Takes a few seconds a day, but the fridge is now an ice-box, in the old-fashioned use of the word, and using not a single watt. This is one of those great trade-offs that work in our favor, because the freezer takes the output of several 75-watt solar panels, whose output has dropped to essentially zero with the onset of Winter Dark, by the time we can turn the freezer off.
Now I know as I type that no one in this busy urban age can be bothered to keep their frozen and perishable foods outdoors in winter, and make some practical, money-saving, environmentally friendly use of all that wonderful free cold-ness which the season delivers to our doorsteps free of charge. Or to unplug the fridge and turn it into an ice-box, rotating a couple frozen jugs of water in and out to the back porch. And I know too that one of the wonderful things about our deep cold here is its consistency, which is not so predictable farther south. That consistency makes an approach like ours workable. We simply do not see temperatures above freezing or even anywhere near the freezing mark for 4 months straight.
When electricity rates rise to reflect the real planetary cost of those amps and watts,, this practice won’t seem so much like something from the lunatic fringe. And when that day comes they will not be marketing refrigerators like the one I heard about recently, which feature a little butter warming compartment inside — so you can put the butter in the fridge where it belongs, and still keep it warm. Huh?
All I am saying is hey, think of some way to put the cold to use — it is there for the taking. With the money you save you can go to the local indoor pool for a February dip, or go hear Al Gore speak on global warming.
And Happy “Winter Light” to all.