Winter Solstice Hoarfrost River, then and now

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.

 

7 comments
  1. Always good to hear news from the homestead. It seems a lifetime ago that I stayed with yourself, Kristen and the girls for a few days as part of a magazine article. Then it was mid summer and the dogs were settled, the girls chatty (no change there, then!), the weather unsettled, a brisk wind chopping up Great Slave Lake. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Mike

  2. alec said:

    Wonderful as usual. Thanks. All the best to you and family for Christmas and the New Year. AlecM.

  3. Big Ed said:

    Here is wishing you and the family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! As always a mighty fine bit of writing but it is to short for me and always wish for more. Enjoy the light as it slowly returns to the homestead. Big Ed

  4. Kyle Kelly said:

    -41 here in Yellowknife this morning. I enjoyed reading your blog today and wonder at the coincidences. Prior to reading this latest blog entry I was thinking this morning on a long walk about the cold and remembering the image you had painted of holding the stovepipe gently to warm your hands. The other image from North of Reliance that has always resonated is one of the pendulum swinging between the solstices. Since then I have always thought of the solstices and the changes between them as points on the pendulum path.

  5. Richard Barnes said:

    I really enjoy reading your blog. I tried to find you in Fairbanks, when you ran the Yukon Quest dog race a few years ago so that I could maybe get you to autograph my copy of your book.
    Are you the person that read Sig Olson on some books on tape? I’ve loaned mine out and was wondering if they are still available or better yet on a CD? Thank you for giving us a insight into your world.
    ………Richard

  6. Nancy said:

    Wonderful entry, beautifully written. Thank you and best wishes for a peaceful holiday.

  7. ErikS said:

    I enjoy reading your Blog. My Dad showed me your sight, he’s an old CC’er, and knew I would enjoy
    Your insights. It’s -20’s today along the St Croix near where we live. Never been in -40. Hope to meet you someday

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