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.



It is the winter solstice of another trip around the sun.  Our 26 years here have seen many changes.  On the momentous day of Winter Solstice, I can’t help but reflect on some of them.

From Chapter One of my book North of Reliance, published 1994:

Half-light.  It is nine in the morning and I’m out in the dogyard scooping frozen dog droppings into a big metal pail.  It is thirty-seven degrees below zero, and the droppings are like brown stones.  The dogs are noisy and excited.  I have just doled out their morning ration of fish broth and a few of them are still working the dents and corners of their battered pans, looking for a fleck of whitefish they might have missed.  “Easy there, Blondie, it’s cold out.  You’ll stick your tongue right to that bowl.”  My words are futile, of course – a couple of seconds later I see that her pan is spotted with a few frozen droplets of blood.  Grayling, her grizzled old neighbor, looks at me with what could pass for a knowing smile. 

            It is still dark enough that I can clearly see the bright circle of light at the cabin window.  The sky is a deep blue, almost indigo, and there is ice fog in the air, a thick haze formed by frozen water vapor.  I am dressed heavily in bulky army-surplus flight pants, a thick sweater under a pullover parka, a suit of wool underwear beneath it all, a big fur hat, enormous insulated boots, and thin cotton chore gloves now stiff with frozen fish broth.  This is miserable:  although I am warm otherwise, my fingers are numb.  I set the bucket down, kick the blade of the shovel into the hard-packed snow, and walk to the cabin. 

            “It’s like winter out there,” I say to Kristen as I dig out a thick pair of mittens.  I wrap my bare hands right around the pipe of the woodstove, flirting with the hot metal and heating my aching fingers.  My face flushes and tingles in the warmth of the house.  In a few minutes I turn back out to finish the chores. 

            It is winter as of this morning, the twenty-second of December.  This is it – this is as dark as it’s going to get.  There is comfort in that thought. 

            Darkness has become a habit now.  After the two woodstoves, the lights are the most vital fixtures in the cabin.  A battery-powered headlamp seems to have permanently sprouted from each of our foreheads, to light our work outdoors.  Lately we have been luxuriating in the use of small electric lights indoors as well, running the gasoline-powered electrical generator for a few hours at a time to keep a big storage battery charged.  Every evening we have been using a drill or a circular saw or the sewing machine, repairing sleds and making new harnesses for the dogs.  Those tools require the generator and there is current to spare.  When the projects are finished we will be more thrifty and revert to gas lanterns filled with abandoned jet fuel from an old fuel cache nearby. 

            With the holidays of Christmas and New Year’s just ahead, we will pass this Solstice day without much change in our winter routine.  There are the chores first, then breakfast, and today a careful recording of the time of sunrise.  By some astronomical phenomenon which I have never quite grasped, this is the shortest day of the year, but this Solstice morning is not the year’s latest sunrise.  The dawn continues to come later, by a minute or two, until almost the last day of December, while the earliest sunset of the year was almost a week ago.  On Solstice, the total duration of the daylight slowly begins to grow, by mere parts of a minute at first.

            At 10:05 the first ray of direct sunlight is visible on the southeast horizon, a brilliant sliver just edging the skyline above Pike’s Portage. Creeping along the line of the hills, imperceptibly climbing, the sun slowly appears.  Red through the icy haze, it looks this morning like the distant star that it is – millions of miles away, throwing a wan light toward the earth.  Somehow, in the eight minutes or so since that light started toward us, it seems to have lost all vestiges of warmth.  The sun is up, but the air seems even colder now.

            At 1:30 in the afternoon, the little zipper-pull thermometer on the handlebar of my sled reads minus thirty-five.  Our four hours and twenty minutes of sunlight are nearly gone – the mirror image of those four hours that we spent staring out the window, flying home, and reading our mail last June.  Low in the south-southwest, pale sundogs flank the sun on either side, apparitions created by crystals of ice high in the atmosphere.

            Ahead of me beneath the line of sundogs, eight sled dogs are in a burst of speed, heading for home, rounding the point southeast of the cabin.  My cheeks and nose are suddenly stung by the thick cold air that flows down the river valley, and I raise the back of my beaver-fur mitt to my face.  The team’s enthusiasm has crested too soon, and they cannot hold their gallop.  They drop back into a trot and I can lower my mitten.  The breath of the lead dogs flows like smoke back over the team and rimes the sled cover with frost.  The sun slips to the brink of the horizon. 

            We start across the inlet at the river’s mouth.  About a half-mile to the west I see Kristen pass the rocky point there, with her team also in the final turn for home.  I smile.  It will be a race.  I pull out the jingler and rattle it with a growling “Get up!”  My dogs reluctantly break into a lope again.  I see Kristen pedalling behind her team, and I start pedalling too. 

            Then I remember, and we are taxiing in, the door of the plane open, water gurgling along the float chines, crossing this same piece of lake by the homestead at 2:30 in the morning on June 22nd.  For just a moment the sun stands still.  My mukluk squeaks on the packed snow as I nudge the planet forward toward the welcome light of another year. 

So that was then.  This is now.  23 years on from the morning described above, and here is how it went:

As the sun set in mid-afternoon yesterday, the 19th, I fueled the Bush Hawk with a wobble pump stuck in a drum of avgas.  Topped it right up, since at dawn on the 20th, about 9:15 a.m., I was to be airborne and southwest bound, for a 10 a.m. pickup of a biologist and a wildlife officer in Lutsel K’e 55 miles to the southwest.  The sun will rise there about 10:15, and we will make a long low-level tour of the country north of McLeod Bay.  The biologist and the game warden want to assess the movements of the caribou herds north of Great Slave, especially the beleaguered Bathurst herd which is still under a controversial no-harvest restriction.  At the end of the day we will land in Yellowknife, legal twilight for landing there being 16:06.

Caribou from the Beverly – Ahiak herd have moved into our area in recent weeks, and yesterday we saw long files of them strung out on the ice, drifting north from the Fairchild Point area.  Our neighbors at Reliance alerted us with a message (an e-mail; how I miss the old HF radio these days) – “Thousands of caribou heading your way.  Heck of a sight.”  On our twilight dog run with three teams, we passed the fresh sign of a kill in Gyrfalcon Cove just east of the river.  A mound of caribou skin, some drag marks, lots of wolf tracks.

I stow everything in the workshop ready for a very early morning heating of the plane.  I am not looking forward to that.  Having things ready may help my mood at 5 a.m.  Generators, “little buddy” 900-watt electric heaters, the propane-and-12V  “tundra toaster”  — God’s gift to bush pilots, I’m convinced.

But as we go out to put twelve of the older dogs into the barn just before bedtime, and bank a slow fire there for them, I already have my doubts about the morning.  It is -39 on the shed thermometer at 9:30 p.m. I pass a restless night of sleep, wondering and tossing and turning.  At 3 a.m. I get up to piss, bank the fire, and check the temperature.  The house thermometer shows -39 now, so it is -41 for real, because the house thermometer picks up heat from the building.  I lie back down, can’t sleep, and read for an hour.  A biography of Roald Amundsen, and the chapter about the flight of the airship Norge from Spitsbergen to Alaska, across the North Pole, in the 1920’s.   An amazing story, which I have heard about but never really read.

At 5 a.m. I get up.  The internet has been on all night, since when I went to sleep some helpful tech gurus somewhere in the U.S. (sounded like New Joisey from the accents) have been literally inside my machine, cleaning up and throwing out and generally making it run smoother – or so I am assured.  I go downstairs and see that they are done – they have left and I never heard them go out!  A sign on the screen says “Work Completed.”  This is so much like science fiction that I cannot even fathom it.

The Environment Canada website reads out the numbers:  at 11 UTC it is -40 in Lutsel K’e, -42 at the automated weather station at Reliance, and -43 at the Hanbury River.  It is -43 here, too, or damned close.  I don’t mull too long over my decision.  I had really already decided before I came down the stairs.  I compose a polite but succinct e-mail to Bruno and the others at the wildlife department, noting the time so they will have some idea what heating a plane up entails for us off-the-grid pilots (it is 4:20 a.m. by their time, since here at the Hoarfrost we adamantly refuse to change our clocks twice a year – just Big Brother stealing our precious afternoon daylight if you ask us), cite the commonly recognized cut-off temperature for low-level piston-engine  flying work, which is -35 C. or about -30 F.  Apologize, send the mail, turn off the confuser, and go back to bed.  Finally sleep.

And it comes again, the morning of the Winter Solstice.  Some changes around here since that long-ago North of Reliance morning, but some things have remained the same.  The dogs, an entire three generations on, still slurping the same fishy fatty broth, their droppings still clattering like stones into the bucket, my cold mittened hands around the shovel, the shallow ice fog out over the river mouth.  Now the two girls, 17 and 14, are with me out in the yard, watering dogs, chattering gaily to the puppies who waddle around their pen like furry lumps of butter.

Back at the house we send a note to Kristen who is in town for a couple of days of errands and appointments –“won’t be flying today.”  Bruno writes back from Lutsel K’e and I am happy to hear that he seems to understand my decision.  He is a private pilot himself, and I think he can fairly easily conjure up the unpleasant scenario of, say, a blown prop seal and a forced landing on the edge of the Barrens at -40, on the shortest day of the year.  It would be a very long night waiting for someone to come.  Not like the three weeks on the pack ice that Amundsen and Ellsworth and crew spent after their airplanes both went down, but long enough.

Things change.  Things stay the same.  It’s winter, and flying.  The weather has to call the shots and after a certain point stubbornness is not a useful trait.  Being stubborn, this has not been an easy lesson for me to learn.

Happy Winter Solstice to all,and  Merry Christmas, and I will post again in the New Year.  Sooner,  if I think of something interesting to say.


Thanksgiving comes in late November in the U.S.  In Canada Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October.   Here on the shore of McLeod Bay we are thankful today, for it is the first of December.

We are thankful that November has passed safely and without any close calls.  

November is a month with a bad reputation around here.  We consider it the most dangerous month of the year.  It is a month filled with poor flying weather, unpredictable ice and water conditions, and a constant day-by-day watchfulness as we come and go.  As years go by we try to come and go a lot less often than we once did.  Maybe we are just getting wearier and less bullheaded.  Maybe we are even getting, dare I say it, smarter?  

November is a month of overflow on the river ice, of roaring southwesterly and northeasterly gales, of waves bashing and churning fresh pans of ice to smithereens, grinding the floes against the silt of the lake bottom until there is no clear drinking water for a week at a time. The wind generators pay for themselves in spades, day after day, as the batteries hum to capacity and electric lights can come on at a whim, morning after morning.  At this season the solar panels lie virtually dormant, stymied by cloud and the low arc the sun makes on the days when it does show. 

In 2007 November was marked at both its start and its end by some very close calls with our neighbours the barren land grizzlies.   It was a dreadfully poor year for berries and the bears were feeling the pinch.  I have only wrecked a plane once in my life, and that was in November, 2005, a mile north of home.  We were lucky.  We walked away, and the plane has logged 2,000 hours since.  On an awful November day 20 years ago, we came much too close to drowning after falling through thin ice.   Our mistake cost us heavily, and I cannot dwell on that one here.    I have sweated a cold sweat flying along in the dark with a load of ice on wings, prop, and engine air intake, northbound for Yellowknife up the west shore of Great Slave Lake, forced low by weather, on wheel skis a hundred feet over churning whitecaps.  Cold comfort.  That too was in November.

So you can see why we are thankful to have November behind us, and why we are counting ourselves lucky.  As December begins and we slide toward the solstice we are home safe and sound.   The woodpile is still big enough, stacked and waiting for the days ahead.  The inland lakes are all solid and the snow is easing the bumps and bashes of the dog trails, inch by fluffy inch.  

November is not all doom and gloom.  It has its moments, and the less ambitious one is, the more one can enjoy those.  McLeod Bay has been keeping us guessing and has faltered a bit, but it is gradually freezing.  We have our ice bets in, but now all of our guesses look to have been optimistic, and we will put new dates into the hat today, just to keep things interesting.  Nothing late about freeze-up here so far, for the big lake.  If we see Christmas with open water to the south, that will indeed be remarkable.  I don’t think we will. One more round of deep cold, with a night of no wind, should see the deed done.   That will be another mile marker in the year.  We all look forward to that first smooth dogsled ride down the bay. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  

I have added a brief footnote to the recent post, now titled A Study in Contrasts.

I have also softened the imagery of my moose hunt, as my slang reference to the moose’s possible demise was troubling me.

The physical reality of killing another creature — which of course is the intended end result of good hunting — is troubling me lately, and I was trying not to mince words, and perhaps also trying a little too hard to shake people up.   I will try to be a little less off-the-cuff.

This blog world is a strange one and if I offended anyone I apologize.  Not my intent.

“And rightly comprehended, the theme of the writing would be constant: a sustained effort to demolish the cliché; to understand, and then to say, as well as we can, what we feel to be true.”
– John Haines

Amazing contrasts  Sad thing is, they stop being striking as a person gets along in their life.  Used to be, coming out of the woods, even into the relative calm of Ely Minnesota, even from a relatively short outing like a Lynx Track 7-day trip, I would feel as if I had been transported into a different dimension. Everything was moving too fast, everyone was talking too fast, it all made very little sense for a day or two.

Now — scary as it is for me to admit, sitting in the Edmonton International (YEG) departure lounge, soon to board a Delta smoker for a three- hour flight to MSP, 600 miles an hour at 36 thousand feet, with a hundred and fifty strangers — this all seems quite normal.

Even though a week ago today, I was sitting alone on a taiga rock hilltop, trying my best to sound like a cow moose, so that I could lure a 700-pound bull moose in close and — very reluctantly, these days, but you gotta eat what grows around you and I have not a single doubt on that point — shoot him dead..

Which I did not, because Bullwinkle never appeared, but which I certainly would have, given a chance.

Never is the transition from off-the-grid to on-the-grid more apparent than in these days of late autumn, when the winter cold and dark are closing in on the Hoarfrost homestead, and our 6 80-watt solar panels are all but useless for about the next three months. (Those pie-in-the-skyers who would power the average upper-middle class North American home on solar and wind power alone, never mind manufacture any of our tools or toys without burning fossil fuels, just ought to try it in November, at, say, the latitude of Chicago or Toronto.)

Here, ensconced among the 1% or at least the 10%*  (which, lest we forget, includes everybody reading this blog, or so I would wager) light bulbs burn sixty or a hundred watts each and the Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Camrose Alberta is selling winter jackets with electric heating wires embedded in the fabric.  Electric clothing.  As if we didn’t have enough gizmos sucking up enough electricity every day already, now they would like us to plug our coats in at the end of the day.  Sheesh.

Scary thing, though, is that none of it really fizzes on me any more, as they say in Canada.  Meaning these contrasts, where clothes tumble dry in electric heat, where phones charge and thermostats do their thing and rubber-tired monsters hurtle in all directions — all as contrasted to that 30-year-old burn on the edge of McLeod Bay, that utter silence, that ancient outcrop,  that 600 or more miles northeast of me on that sunny cold day a week ago, surely the most remote remaining portion of the North American mainland.

I step in and out of two worlds.  Depend on the one to get by in the other.

And — I hope — still recognize, deep down, the vice versa.

Depend on the other to get by at all.

*December 7, 2006 A new study on The World Distribution of Household Wealth by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University was launched earlier this week. The study shows the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth. The most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken also reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth. The research finds that assets of US$2,200 per adult placed a household in the top half of the world wealth distribution in the year 2000. To be among the richest 10% of adults in the world required US $61,000 in total assets, and US $500,000 in total assets was needed to belong to the richest 1%, a group which — with 37 million members worldwide — is far from an exclusive club.

6 October, Hoarfrost River.  Gray and mild, more drizzle.  + 4 degrees C.  

Long time, no write.  If there is truth in the saying that a busy pilot is a happy pilot, I must be just about ready to burst into a fit of wild ecstasy now.  The month of September passed in a blur of flying work.  Luckily, for that work, it was one of the mildest Septembers in recent memory, because floatplane flying is not much fun at temperatures when water does not want to remain in a liquid state.  I had a solid reminder of that the other morning, when I slipped on the frozen float deck and smacked my cheekbone so hard into the wing strut that when I came to, I inspected the strut for damage.  Luckily it was the Husky, because the Bush Hawk does not have wing struts and I would likely have added a frigid swim to the morning’s festivities.  So now I am sporting a shiner which says “float season is almost over.”

At last that long round of work is winding down and I can break out of the routine of gazing at the weather charts over morning coffee, and plotting what might be possible, and tying down the plane in the last light of day.   Moose hunting has been sporadic, and so far unproductive, but there is a young muskox bull hung in the cache and we have laid eyes on two moose so far, east of home.  No shots fired.     

Almost all of my autumn flying has been to the tundra north and east of home these past weeks, and much of it has focussed on caribou.  Native hunters looking for caribou, biologists trying to develop new techniques of photographing and counting them, and far-flung solo forays in the Husky to retrieve radio-tracking collars which have “gone stationary,” in the parlance of the researchers.  This translates to “the caribou wearing that collar is now deceased” about 99% of the time, and “collar prematurely popped off”  every once in a great while.  (The collars have a clasp which is somehow programmed to take a burst of energy from the battery and pop open at a certain date.)  These dropped collars are still sending a VHF signal, which can be picked up from the plane a few miles back, and their last location is still known, so it is usually easy to land and walk and find them, and bring them back to town for overhaul and refurbishment.  Evidently sending a small plane 200 miles out from base to collect a few dropped collars is well worth the cost, because the requests to do so keep coming in.  Good work if you can get it.  A small nimble plane, no passengers, no big loads, nobody on a tight schedule or in a rush for the work to get done.  For a bush pilot, life does not get much better than that combination.  

Surprised yesterday to see four snowy owls in the space of about an hour of flying northeast of Artillery Lake.  That area is familiar enough to me, and I have flown over it, low and slow, frequently enough in the past 26 years, to say that this is either a bizarre coincidence or a real boom in owl numbers.   I suspect the latter.  

Yesterday I came up on one of those owls from behind, with the Husky configured in full-flap slow-flight mode.  He (or she) was striding through the cold air with powerful wing beats, distinctive from the flight of an eagle or a falcon.  I have no doubt he was getting skittish as the plane approached from his 4 o’clock high.  As only an owl can, he turned his head completely around in flight, to fix that amazing owl stare right at the plane.   Magical birds.  An unforgettable sight.  A moment worth trying to share, at least within the paltry boundaries of words.

Daring Lake Research camp, 163 NM north of Yellowknife.  About 65 N X 112 W.

 These are the halcyon days of high summer.   Early August, not every year but some years, holds this for the far north:  day after day, hot pale blue sky with a tinge and a whiff of smoke (more smoke the farther west and south you go, at the latitude of 63 North or so.)  Lakes glassy enough to put a pucker factor into nearly every floatplane touchdown, especially toward dusk, especially in the smoke.  The mosquitoes long past their peak, the tundra now starting to flash a tiny hint of yellow, even in the heat.  Amazing days, and they just keep on coming.  Going on 13 straight now. 

And starvation days, if you happen to be an arctic wolf, and your luck has been running poor.  When the old-timers called the tundra “barren lands” and “country that could starve a wolf” they did know very well what they were saying.   I am forever amazed, chagrined, perplexed, and bamboozled by those who keep claiming that the tundra expanses of northern Canada are some sort of un-identified Serengeti of the north.  You’ve heard it, haven’t you?  “The ‘barren-lands’ is a misnomer – in truth, this is a land teeming with life.”  Perhaps David Attenborough or some similarly sophisticated narrator voiced-over that old line again in a recent documentary on the Discovery Channel, while the screen overflowed with a throng of caribou or geese. 

What I would like to do is get one of those folks airborne over the tundra for oh, say, 60 or 80 straight hours of transect-type surveys.  We don’t have to go in January to make the point; we can go in mid-summer – hell, they can name the date, and they can select the 1500 miles of lines to fly.   We will cruise low and slow, three or four hundred feet above the rocks and moss and lichen and looking-glass lakes.  Maybe David Attenborough would like to come along for the ride and narrate over the intercom.

Or for those who prefer to do their observing from ground level, we could stake out a wolf den site from a hilltop, on the warmest day of the year.  Hour after hour, with a view of 360 degrees and several miles in every direction, sun glaring down, and not a breath of wind.  Not a bird stirring, not a caribou or a muskox or a bear or a lemming to be seen.  Black flies of course, but even those little bastards are feeling the heat.  Everything alive is hunkered down in mid-day, just getting through the heat, and getting through the summer. 

The immensity and emptiness of this landscape is its single most compelling and dramatic attribute.  Silence and utter vastness are at the heart of its magic and its allure.  It is a reservoir of silence.  And as I have written elsewhere, it is more a land of physics than biology.  The life that is here is amazing, mostly because, like life in all deserts hot and cold, it is here and alive at all.

Pity wolf 421.  The female wolf, a lactating mother of pups, was fitted with a radio collar in late June, as part of a study of barren-ground wolves and the survival of their puppies from year to year.  I have mixed feelings on collaring and radio telemetry studies with wild animals – and on the hubris of science as it affects the day-to-day lives of its chosen victims.  As a friend of mine says, “I think those biologists should try wearing one of those things for a year or two.”  But that is beside the point here.  Wolf 421 was alive in early July, when we spent two 3-hour sessions watching from a hilltop 600 meters across a little swale, spotting scopes and binoculars trained on the den site.  Alive, but oddly placid.  Weak, it seemed to us.  I remember Mike’s comment to me – “I wonder if they are starving?” 

Now 421 is dead.  The GPS unit on the collar has not moved in many days, and the VHF radio signal is chirping from deep in the den, and there is the odor of death and decay wafting out on the cool underground air at the den opening.  I recall another wolf, which showed up at the Hoarfrost in mid-summer about 15 years ago.  So weak it could barely stand, so skinny that when I finally shot it (Annika was two years old at the time and the wolf was staggering within a few feet of us all, day after day) I was stunned by its body weight.  It was literally a bundle of bones encased in a sack of skin.  It weighed almost nothing.  It would not have had enough strength to pounce on a mouse, never mind to drag down a moose or a caribou.

I should add that some of the other wolves, and pups, and packs, in this study seem to be having a high time this summer.  They are the lucky ones, for whom sheer luck combined with the shifting movement of prey animals has brought a positive energy balance to early August, just as the pups are pushing twenty pounds and growing like Iowa corn.  It seems to me – a layman, mind you – that the whole summer,and life itself, can hang on one lucky kill just when it is needed the most.  One caribou cornered in a thicket of dwarf birch in mid-July, and you and your pack are home free.  It seems like it could come down to that.   

This is hard country, and even halcyon high summer can be tough times, when your grocery bin is the barren lands, and your shopping method is chase and fang.  Once you fall onto the back side of the power curve, it’s a slippery slope – weakening, restricting, losing muscle mass and gumption day by day.   And sometimes it ends back where it started, in a dark tunnel  of cool sand deep beneath an esker ridge, on one of the brightest and warmest days of the entire year.  

On that cheery note, good night from Daring Lake.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 101 other followers