March is the month of the Iditarod race across Alaska, and for any musher who has ever run a team of huskies to Nome, it is a month when flashbacks from races on that thousand-mile trail flit across the imagination at odd moments, day and night.  I suppose it is the same for aging jockeys who have ridden a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby:  a spring day in May, with a glimpse of sunshine on green grass, a mint julep and a fancy hat, or a whiff of horse manure, and on comes a breakneck parade of vividly remembered instants, galloping across the track in the mind’s eye. One race takes a few minutes, the other takes weeks. Both are pageants, with histories, and on the nitty-gritty level they both boil down to quests. Quests for the magical connection that dedicated humans can (sometimes, maybe) make with gifted animals, and the reciprocation of that connection (sometimes, maybe) by those animals.

This year the Iditarod start fell on the same Saturday that here at the Hoarfrost I began some dogteam trips with nine university students.  I spent the first two weeks of March on the trail north of here, driving dogs every day and making camp every night. By Iditarod racing standards this was a paid holiday.  One night, as I tucked myself into my private berth, a 1975-vintage North Face mountain tent, pitched a short distance away from the wall tent full of chattering students, my thoughts drifted to the Iditarod, and specifically to the night we nearly lost Joe Senior, up in the Topkok Hills.  Maybe we didn’t nearly lose him, but that is how I always think of it.

In 1991, a captivating Alaskan drama played out across the final 77 miles of the Iditarod Trail.  A tight pack of front-runners marched, and retreated, in the face of a classic coastal blizzard.  Rick Swenson somehow swept forward through the storm to his fifth victory, cementing forever his reputation as one of dog mushing’s great champions. It was a race of trail-breaking, bivouacs, snow, and wind, and as a grand finale the coast of Norton Sound on the Bering Sea dished out its deadly mix of blasting wind and bitter cold. There is a stretch just out of White Mountain, the final checkpoint rest stop before the finish line, where the trail leaves the coast and heads up into the hills.  Those hills can generate fierce katabatic winds, and the “Topkok wind tunnel” is a stretch of trail feared by mushers and local residents in such conditions.

My dogs and I were in a pack of five teams travelling together, through the night on that final stretch of trail. Race-wise, we were back in the standings a ways, but we were not tail-enders, and we were not on a camp-out.  We were racing to Nome. Dan MacEachen, Dave Allen, Raymie Redington, Joe Redington Senior, and yours truly. I was running at the head of the caravan at one point, about two in the morning, and the five teams had melded to become one long string of dogs with multiple sleds in it. The wind was howling, snow was blowing, and it was not a fit night for man nor beast. Suddenly something bumped my leg, and I looked down to see a slim brown husky right up between the tails of my sled runners, trotting along in the gap between my mukluks.  I turned around and flashed my headlamp beam at the musher behind me, as if to say, “What the heck, man? Back off a bit.”  No change.  I slowed my team and shouted back through the wind, “You wanna go by?”

I recognized the sled, and the gnome standing on its runners in an enormous parka. It was Joe Senior. He shouted up to me, “She won’t go by, Dave; she wants to just tuck in up there and follow you.” Referring to his lead dog, Luna.  Under other circumstances, and with anyone other than Joe, I would not have put up with this.  Either go by, I would have said, or drop back – I have enough going on here without having your lead dog running between my legs all night. But this was Joe Senior, age 74, and if he felt like he needed to draft my team through this wild night in the Topkok Hills, or piggyback us all the way to Nome, for that matter, who was I to turn him down? Read More

A wintry Sunday evening in Fort Nelson B.C., just over 500 miles southwest of the Hoarfrost River.  My day began there, at home at the Hoarfrost, in the dark at 6 a.m., with a grumpy glance at the clock and another grumpy glance at a thermometer reading 40 below zero.  I stoked the fire, made a cup of coffee, attained semi-consciousness, and donned enough layers of clothing for a moonwalk.  Headlamp strapped to forehead, and out the door to tug the generator and cords and heaters into position alongside the five-seat Bush Hawk parked on the lake ice.  Yanked the generator to life, plugged in three electric heaters, and set them in place to begin their task of warming the engine and cockpit for a flight.  This is a four-hour process at that temperature.  A ritual familiar to hundreds of northern bush-plane and helicopter pilots, who fly out from bases not connected to that big juicy “grid” of abundantly flowing electrons by which all of modern society seems to live, breathe, work, play, and die.

Daylight is coming earlier and earlier, and by the time I next walked to the plane about 8 o’clock, it was light out.  What a cheerful change that is from January!  At just before 11, Kristen and I took off, flew south ten miles to the dot on the map called Reliance, where we picked up our nearest neighbor and his dog.  Richard is off to town for some dental work – he has been in pain and was trying to tough it out, but he’s had enough of that.  Kristen has some town chores and visiting to do now, too, having not been into town since just after Christmas.

I carried on southwest from Yellowknife, alone, at about 1 p.m.  A fast and smooth flight at 8,500 feet, 330 nautical miles straight to the airport here at Fort Nelson, in just over two and a half hours. Put the plane to bed in front of the hangar, its engine heaters tapped into the aforementioned big juicy power grid, called a sleepy taxi driver, and came into town. I write tonight from a familiar room at the Blue Bell Inn, motel plus gas station plus convenience store on the Alaska Highway which forms the main street of Fort Nelson. I have become a regular here in the past year, having now sampled every low-end motel in town over the past 33 years of driving up to Alaska for sled dog races, and since 2006 coming to Fort Nelson for airplane maintenance. The Blue Bell is clean, cheap, and a little old and tired. The managers are friendly enough, and – how to say it? – this place will never be even remotely in the running for five stars.

My flight southwest from Yellowknife, on a Sunday, is all about due diligence. The plane has a minor oil leak, and I have been monitoring it over the course of about fifty hours of wildlife survey flying that I just completed.  Nothing to panic about, and I am not in a panic, but after every three or four hour flight I lie on my back under the plane and wipe up a little dribble of oil, drooling back from somewhere high and forward in the engine compartment and splattering the clean white metal of the lower cowling’s inner surface.  I have spoken with my maintenance people, and they are not alarmed.  A seal, maybe affected by the cold.  We could have a look, they say.  What’s the worst case scenario, I ask.  Long pause on the phone.  Well, it’s probably just a seal, and nothing major. There are other things it could be.  Not likely. We could have a look.

This is the edge of one of those grey areas in the flying business.  It is a place common to a lot of professional pursuits, where you have to find your own level of comfort and follow your instincts, and consider extra expenses, your responsibility to customers, and do the due diligence.  There are no hard and fast rules in this grey realm. Vague mechanical nuisances with airplanes — along with vague nuisances like strong crosswinds, unimproved airstrips, and all manner of marginal weather — go past the textbooks and rule books and bring a pilot into the realm of gut feelings and instinct.  You have to decide what you are comfortable with, just as I’m sure a doctor does, a teacher does, mountain guides and mechanics do, ship’s captains, accountants, police officers, and on and on. But – and here’s the big but again – these are flying machines. Gravity is calling them home, as in right now, should something happen forward of the firewall, while out counting moose at 400 feet above the ground, or just slipping the surly bonds of earth enroute to somewhere.

In a bigger aviation company, like one I used to fly for in Yellowknife, dealing with an aircraft maintenance concern is a more cut and dried process.  The pilot writes up the snag in the airplane’s log book, the maintenance manager notices the write-up at the start of the next shift, someone qualified is tasked with looking into it, and after the assessment the plane is either returned to service or taken out of service for repair.  If the machine is taken off line, another plane is substituted for it, usually no trips are cancelled, and life goes on. Hardly ever does anyone wake at night mulling over the prospect of an unpaid roundtrip flight to a warm hangar and a familiar engineer five hundred miles from home base… tossing and turning about if and whether and how and why, and so on, to finally decide and wake in the morning and go heat up the plane and file a plan for the flight.

In 1975, when I was a freshman at the University of Montana — back when “blog” sounded like something Jacques Cousteau had just dredged up from the depths of the South Pacific — a friend of mine had a poster in his dorm room.  I remember it still: a black and white photo showed a 1920’s era biplane twisted and awkwardly perched in the upper branches of a leafless tree, somewhere out on the prairies.  The quotation beneath the photo read:

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” — Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. 1930’s.

I am sure Captain Lamplugh is long gone, but he would be happy to know how many people have read and pondered those grammatically awkward words of his.  The kicker for me is “To an even greater degree than the sea…” For anyone who has ever been scared in a vessel out on big water far from shore, that is a pretty dramatic statement, yet it holds up, when one is strapped into a little chair behind a spinning propeller thousands of feet above terra firma.

We go along, in the small-time-operator world of bushplane charter companies, trying to make the right decisions.  Maintenance and precaution are expensive.  And there is the lore and the long shadow of the old-time bush pilots and their trials and triumphs, the oil leaks spattering their goggles, their engines coughing and snorting, their machines plowing ahead through all imaginable weather, guided only by a jittery compass…

The “Aviation Industry” gets personal when you scale it down. People walk up to your flying machines, these odd little planes on skis or floats or tundra tires. People with young families, people in the midst of busy careers that include many hours of flying time: prospectors, biologists, game wardens, tourists. You greet them and they climb in and you take them somewhere or help them do their aerial work, and when it is all done you send them an invoice.  An exorbitant invoice, some (who have never run a flying business) would say…

Then when you have an unexplained minor oil leak in the engine compartment, and you cannot tell quite where the oil is coming from, and the heated hangar run by the people that are familiar with that engine and that airplane and your own standards for maintenance are 500 miles from your home base… you go there.  You wait for Monday morning, when they will bring it in from the deep cold, wash the engine down, run it up, find and assess the problem, talk to you about it, and do something to fix it.

I suppose that if I had known, all those years ago in Missoula, how my life path would lead me, I would have dropped out and gone to aviation mechanic’s training.  Then again, looking around our homestead at the contraptions that I do maintain, and keep running, and keep not replacing because if you twitch this and wire that and so on, the outboard or generator or chainsaw still — sorta, kinda, — runs… well, it is better for everyone that the rules require me to have all my aircraft maintenance done and signed off by licensed professionals who are not overly concerned about our company’s bank account.

To cover my bets I have bought myself an airline ticket out of Fort Nelson for day after tomorrow.  It is one of the more expensive tickets around, because it allows me to cancel right up to two hours before flight time, or to change the date at no extra charge. That is in case I have to leave the plane here and return home without it. I am hoping not to use that ticket this time around, and instead just go back to Yellowknife, pick up Kristen and Richard sometime on Tuesday, and fly home to continue the work that awaits me there.  I hope I can just tuck that unused ticket away for another time. There will surely be another time, if we stay in the business, and keep doing the diligence.

Over breakfast one morning last week I asked Kristen what she would like as a gift to mark our wedding anniversary.  It had been thirty years to the day since we had tied the knot on a mild January day in Minneapolis. Ever practical, and with a twinkle in her eye, she didn’t miss a beat: “A moose would be nice.”  

Moose, and more precisely moose meat, were much on our mind that morning. Kristen, Liv, and I had spent most of the daylight hours of the previous day roaming on snowshoes, toting rifles, up and down some small drainages east of the Hoarfrost valley, looking for fresh moose tracks. But alas, by the close of the day, we had not looked at any moose. The moose-hunting season in the Northwest Territories ends on the 31st of January.  Time was getting a little tight.   But we had been here before and there was still a glimmer of hope. 

It has been very cold here this January, and in between cold snaps the snow has deepened with small incremental snowfalls. Moose do not truly migrate, yet over our many winters here I have noticed that around Christmas or New Years we always start to see more moose sign down in the lower ends of the drainages that fall into McLeod Bay from the north. My pet theory is that as winter’s snow starts to build up and drift into the hollows of the landscape, especially up near the taiga edge and the tree-line, the scattered moose that make their summer homes up there do shift south a few miles to easier movement and better browsing. Every year around Christmas we start to see moose sign again, even if we haven’t seen any at all since mid-autumn. In recent years, when most of the milder part of the hunting season has been spent pounding nails and sawing lumber up at the new house site, or in years when some other work or distraction has disrupted the prime autumn hunting time, the Hail Mary move is to make one last effort for moose meat during January. Sometimes it works.

Like all who dwell in the remote outbacks of the world, we wind up speculating a lot about the movements of wild animals, their tracks and sign, the patterns of local weather, changes in the water level of rivers and lakes, and the constant interplay between and amongst all these things. I suppose this ongoing theme of our home conversations strikes urbane and worldly types as quaint, or downright odd, as would Kristen’s wish for a Moosemeat Anniversary (a la silver anniversary, or emerald, and so on, as listed on the chart in the jewelry store. It’s a pearl for 30, if you must know.)

This year we have had a new source for long conversations about our chances of re-filling the meat cache, starting on the day I last posted some writing here, December 30th.  That morning Kristen and our two daughters had three dogteams all harnessed for a run up into the hills.  I was inside, worshipping the woodstove, and planning to go out with a small dogteam later on. Liv burst through the door, breathless, and said, “there’s a big pack of wolves out on the ice,” and bolted outside again.  I grabbed a coat, hat, mitts and binoculars, and hurried out the door. Kristen was pointing toward the lake. Just beyond the rocky island where our windmill stands was the biggest assembly of wolves I have ever seen in one place. There were 22 of them. Most were standing still, some were pacing back and forth; a couple were half-sitting, and several were howling – I could clearly see heads tilted back and even the steam of breath, but their voices were drowned out by the clamor of two dozen huskies all yelping to get going. It was an awesome sight, and I choose that drastically over-used word only when nothing else will serve.  Twenty-two wolves, none small, several of them hundred-pounders. I have never seen such a group – the other big packs I have seen have been eighteen, once, thirty years ago, and a few groups of fourteen.  

I thought about what we should do.  Here was a cadre of strong and savvy carnivores, right on our doorstep at forty below zero, in a place where food for them was not abundant.  The sheer size of the pack and its individuals put a new perspective on our situation.  I went back inside and grabbed a 30-30 carbine, and when I got back down to the shore, the wolves had grouped together on the ski trail leading off across the ice, where the girls had been out skiing, in the dark just after dusk the night before.  (Grudgingly toting pepper spray and a firearm, after some family discussions about a much smaller pack of wolves we had seen on the ice earlier in winter.) I lifted the gun and fired into the air above that herd of wolves, three shots in rapid succession, and they scattered instantly, sprinting off to the east-southeast whence they had come. Clearly they got the one plain message I wanted to convey, which was simply this:  “Not welcome here. Come no closer.” 

The dogteams and mushers all departed on their outing, with a change of route to remain on this side of the river that day.  We have seen no sign of that big wolf-pack since that morning. A few days ago there were tracks of a few wolves and a file of musk ox together, on the trail uphill from home. 

Wolves have long elicited wild swings of unreasonable attitudes from us humans, ranging from steely-eyed hatred to misty-eyed adulation. A new book sheds some needed clear light on these amazing animals, and on their situation today.  I am reading it, and I recommend it. (Wild, Paula. Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence. Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.)

Seeing that enormous group of wolves led us to some long discussions and rudimentary calculations on calories, body size, and predation. It is deep  winter and we know, better than most people, what a volume of feed and fat it takes to keep our 34 sled dogs warm and healthy day after day, week after week. If a pack that size stays together for long, they must bring down a sizeable animal – a moose would do nicely, for instance, or better yet a cow-calf pair of moose – every few days, just to sustain themselves. This line of thinking had convinced us that the already long odds of our finding and killing a late-season moose had just dwindled even further. Having seen the competition face to face, it was clearly their game to lose. We could only hope that they had moved out of the area, up toward treeline east or north where there are some caribou herds.

Liv and I went out hunting on that wedding-anniversary morning, and Kristen stayed back to await word.  We had our open-sight rifles and a limited amount of 30.06 bullets we had re-loaded.  First we split up; Liv snowshoed north and I circled around by a different trail to cut for fresh tracks, and then we joined up and drove by skidoo up the Gyrfalcon trail east of the river. I will skip the Field and Stream hunting saga and only say that on that day we were lucky.  I make no great claims as a hunter, or as a marksman. In fact my biggest attribute in the field, over the years, has been just dogged perseverance. By mid-day we had a beautiful moose lying dead on the snow, about two miles from home and about a quarter mile off the trail. And as with many aspects of the hunting and gathering life, once the primeval thrill of the chase ended, the work began.

The dinner that night, here in the log workshop that has been home since the fire of 2014, was one I will never forget.  The table was spread with a fancy tablecloth, the good tableware was out, and the entrees included garden potatoes, boletus mushroom sauce, sourdough garlic bread, and – trumpet fanfare – medallions of moose tenderloin. What put our Hoarfrost River stamp on the night, though, was the ambience of the room out beyond the edges of the elegantly set table.  There, five feet from the candles, still dusted with slowly thawing snow from the forty-below night outside, was a big sled piled high with the glistening quarters, ribs, neck, back, and choice inner bits of a butchered moose. A thick brown hide draped over it all.  A couple of feet past that sat a big construction-grade generator, two chainsaws, various tools and axes and stained coveralls, and beyond that the makeshift cage where our ancient barn cat Razor – now incontinent – is living out his final days in the warmth of the house. Past that sat another big tub of parts and pieces saved for the dogs, and on top of that a severed moose head, one opaque eye staring upward. And on and on: stacked firewood, buckets of lake water, shelves of canned goods, layers of outer clothing and winter boot parts drying on racks and pegs. A laundry-drying line slung high above it all, festooned with clean undies, socks, long johns, and tea towels. Way up along the north wall, our bed with its sidebars of books and pillows and flashlights… Are you still with me? A decidedly gruesome scene to some, and completely beyond the comprehension of many. And maybe not an elegant dinner setting for the squeamish or the prim and proper, I admit.

This is local eating, in this land beyond agriculture. Those mounds of muscle, fat and sinew — those are the miracle, and they are a gift not to be purchased on the shelves of the stores of the world. That frosty pile of meat that will grace our table for many months ahead, a hide that in summer will become smoke-tanned leather, those enormous marrow-bones and racks of fat ribs — all given to us by a fellow denizen of this cold white January world.  A moose that spent countless mornings of life standing knee-deep in snow, in dim twilight and wan sunrise, at forty below zero, munching on twigs!  The onus is now upon us to stand and be worthy of such a gift.  

Out there beyond our tiny cluster of warmth and light and buildings, those big packs of real hunters are endlessly on the hunt. I would not want to be on their to-do list. Strong and stealthy, they excel where we blunder. Hunting for meat is their entire life, not just a fleeting facet of it bound by distractions, alternative sources of food, and closed and open seasons. This time we lucked out and snatched the prize they would like to have had for their own.  Happy anniversary, sweetie!     

 

 

    

  

In bold letters the wrapper on the heavy-duty extension cord proclaimed “Flexible to Minus 50!” The ghost of P.T. Barnum (there’s a sucker born every minute) was smiling as I paused, considered, and tossed that 50-foot cord into my hardware-store shopping cart. Winter flying has begun here, with all its attendant joys of early-morning pitch-dark pre-heats, and — at airports – the need for overnight plug-ins.  P.T. would have busted out in a belly laugh a week later when I picked up that same new and utterly stiff cord, and waved a ten-foot length of it around like a physics professor’s lecture pointer. I had to laugh out loud myself, at my gullible stupidity, as I gingerly set it back on the ice beside the plane – at a mere minus 37.

The first blast of deep cold always comes like a rude wake-up call, and the call is especially blaring if it arrives after a long, dreamy onset of mild early-winter weather. McLeod Bay somehow managed to freeze on the fairly normal date of December 6, but except for a couple of brief dips down to thirty below, November and December passed in halcyon weeks of above-normal temperatures. On the weather map weak low-pressure systems were gliding slowly past us like enormous holiday cruise ships. Not much snow, not much wind, long walks, twice-a-week hot saunas, pleasant dog mushing despite thin snow on the trails, and easy heating of our motley collection of drafty log buildings.  It was the outback early-winter version of the life of Riley.

In a place like this, which on dozens of days a year ranks among the coldest places in the northern hemisphere, a round of mild winter weather is a gift to be savored. After all, truly deep cold is nobody’s idea of pleasant weather, is it? Yes, Arctic cold snaps can be beautiful, even exhilarating, but George Gershwin did not write a tune called “Wintertime, and the Livin’ is Easy,” did he?  Living and working in minus 35, minus 40, minus 45, and all points between and beyond is tough sledding for our species of mostly hairless, jungle-bred humanoids.

The other day one of those luxury-cruise-ship low-pressure systems hauled down its mild-weather flag of convenience, hoisted its true high-pressure colors, dropped anchor just north of here, and lobbed a warning shot of frigid polar air across our bows. Yesterday’s high was 33 below, reached for a few minutes just before the sun slid down.  Today the barometer is in a rapid climb yet again, and it is minus 38 out there this morning.  Flying the little two-seat Husky to Yellowknife and back yesterday, it was crystal clear, and at 6500 feet above sea level, about a mile above ground, it was a pleasant minus 24: good oil temperature, good cylinder head temperatures, reasonable cabin heat. Gloves off, smooth air, all well.

We knew this Capital C Cold was coming, of course.  We will adapt, as everyone does, and after this first blast we will just get on with things.  I often think of a remark that one of my Iditarod comrades and heroes, Joe Runyan, made years ago, referring to his dogteam at the start line.  He said he had “campaigned them heavily” already that season.  He had pushed them hard, raced often, and they were tough.  Joe was an avid student of military history, and he often let such analogies slip into his discussions of race strategy.  That day he was referring to a purposeful but subtle process, something most north-country people can relate to once they have weathered winter’s first blast of deep cold.  The first minus-thirty marks the start of an annual long march, and everyone’s feet are a little tender.

Within a few days we will bear up and get on with things, cold or no cold. Airplanes will be heated, runways will be plowed, firewood will be carried, and hundreds of miles of ice roads on frozen lakes, winding out to remote communities and mines, will be re-opened. Ease and comfort are going to carry a higher price for some months now.  Allowances must be made, and a hundred tiny tricks will be put into play.  It is our North, and our Cold, after all, and any living creature immersed in it will either adapt, hibernate, flee, or perish.  Within a month or so, when I go out to heat up the plane or run dogs or haul water, at a mere minus 30, that will be kid stuff.  By then the first few rounds of 40’s, or even a notable minus 50, will be behind us.  Long-abused fingertips will be peeling yet again from frostnip.. An afternoon February high of minus 25 will feel like tee-shirt weather.

I was thinking the other day that our common, and perfectly rational, aversion to cold makes for a big PR problem in the effort to inspire action on greenhouse gases. If the dire consequences of our personal and industrial carbon output could only be re-named “Global Deep-Freeze,” instead of the innocuous, even cozy-sounding “warming,” we might collectively shiver — and resolve to act. The jargon is important. Climate Change is a little misleading, as is Global Warming — misleading because if the Gulf Stream’s massive heat pump was disabled by an influx of cold Greenland ice-cap meltwater, northern Europe could wind up with winters more like Reliance and Siberia.  Faced with steady news about an impending Mother of all Cold Snaps, I think at least a few of the head-in-the-sand nay-sayers might come around and take a hard look at what is happening. “Cold – just the word itself — has the power to scare people, but “Warming” needs a lot of explanation before it frightens us.

As a society we have become obsessed with warmth and personal comfort, to an extent that would shock our grandparents and great-grandparents.  We worship 22 and 72 (to put the temperatures in nice round numbers and in both flavors), as if the attainment of that temperature, year-round, outdoors and indoors, was nothing short of Salvation, Nirvana and Enlightenment all rolled into a single bland, predictable, package. Turn on any media weather forecast, radio or TV, and wait for the announcer to start cooing and ahh-ing about whatever location is enjoying such idyllic temperatures, before wrapping up with a mantra of nanny-state pablum warnings covering Wind Chill, Frostbite, UV exposure, or the Heat Index, whenever the weather veers even slightly from the likes of Santa Barbara or Victoria.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a bewildered bundle of contradictions, and I am human, and I have no fur.  I adore mild Arctic winter weather, in the range of -15 to -20.  My huskies, my ski-planes, and my woodpile like it too.  It is just so downright pleasant.  Like every northern winter creature since time began, I am a slave to my constant quest for warmth.  This morning I sit here and write this, facing the woodstove’s orange glow, in long johns and sweater, wool cap on my head.  Outside, the second-to-last morning of the year eases into another full day of deep cold.  I need to remember that this is just a first round of Normal, for this place, at this season – nothing more, nothing less.

The new extension cord is back in town now, but I seem to have mis-placed the receipt I will need in order to return it for a refund, so I may be stuck with it. I am sure it will find a use around here, either indoors, or in summer.  It did provide us with a good laugh on a bitterly cold morning, and a laugh on such mornings is always a welcome thing.

Happy New Year to all.  Two thousand nineteen!  Whodathunkit?

Postscript, to my U.S. readers:  All temperatures here are in Celsius.  And no, I am not going to convert them for you , but I will point out a few reference points:  0⁰ C =  32⁰ F.  -40⁰ is -40⁰, and 22⁰ C. is 72⁰ F.    30 below, C. is about 20 below, F.

This month’s dispatch from the Hoarfrost River Home for the Chronically Bewildered is more nuts-and-bolts than usual.  My goal is to dismantle a persistent myth about life in the far north. The myth is this: Just north of Winnipeg, (or is it Edmonton?) there lies a vast region of endless winter darkness, where legions of forlorn Canadians grope around like cave bats for months on end, fumbling with headlamps and flashlights, yearning for the return of the sun – which comes back in, oh, April or so?

If you will read all the way through this post, I think you will be surprised.  I was surprised myself, several times, as I delved into the details of daylight, twilight, and latitude.

About a week ago I went to fetch water from the margin of the shore-fast ice.  This can be a pleasant chore at this season, on the good days, because the ice is thin and the edge of it is so well-defined that a few swipes of the axe open a bucket-sized hole for dipping.   Plus, there is a thin skiff of snow on the beach, making the job even simpler, because the full pails of water can be tugged up to the barn or the house aboard a rugged plastic toboggan of the type sold in Alberta ranch-supply stores as a “calving sled.” Of course there are some days in early winter here when water hauling is all but impossible, with big waves battering the edges of shoreline ice, and miniature icebergs growling against the shallow lake-bottom.  This turns the water to a tannish gray soup worthy of the Missouri or the Mackenzie at flood stage.  But those days are the exception. We try to stockpile some clear drinking water in reserve for those storms.

As I strolled down to the shoreline with my empty pails, the sun had not yet risen but it was already full daylight by any measure. At this latitude, very close to 63 degrees North, the morning and evening twilight make up a huge and significant part of each day’s total light, all year long. And by a happy gift of solar angles, the period of twilight lasts longest in winter, when the days are shortest.  As I stood there with my sled and pails, I admired the alpenglow dawn that was already shining on the topmost rocks of the big bluff north of our place, as the first rays of sunrise struck the peak.

It was quarter to ten or so in the morning, which may seem very late for a sunrise in late November, although as I have mentioned here before, our home clocks at the Hoarfrost are skewed out of sync with astronomical reality, because we have for 15 years or so opted not to change our time settings all year long.  (Mark my words, in a decade or two changing clocks twice a year will be a thing of the past. It is just plain silly.) We are north of Saskatchewan here, at longitude 109, and we prefer to stick with our sensible neighbors down in that prairie province, who remain yearlong on Mountain Daylight or Central Standard Time (same thing, 6 hours off UTC). This does make morning light come “later” and evening light last “longer,” at least on the clock. It’s all smoke and mirrors, really, but it works for us.

The sun that was beaming on the top of the bluff, while I was still working in a pre-dawn twilight (at least officially), started my delving into the details of light and latitude.

I have often been taken aback by the glib assumptions people make about light and dark in the far north, and I often find myself trying to set people straight. A classic example was a brief interchange in Ottawa in September 2015. I was down there to do some talks and readings from my book Kinds of Winter. The cab driver and I were talking as he delivered me to a hotel for the night.  When I told him I lived east of Yellowknife, he immediately replied, in a thick Slavic accent, “Oh, way far north – so there it is dark six months, then light for six months?”  “Well, no,” I said, “I live near Yellowknife, not at the North Pole. We get a lot of light in a year, and in winter.”

And a month or so ago, down in Minnesota, a friend of my mother asked about our winter darkness: “Are you and your family into that part of the year now when it’s always dark up there?”  Her tone was all gentle pity and perplexity, as if she was politely interviewing someone from an obscure religious order, whose adherents were bound to a dreary regimen of annual winter fasting and flagellation.

“No,” I replied, “it’s never always dark where we live. For that you have to go way north of the Arctic Circle, and even up there you get a lot more daylight than most people think.  More than Minneapolis, for sure, over the course of a year.”

The key to all of this is twilight. Morning Civil Twilight begins when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon, on its way up. If you are up early and outdoors, civil or  “useful” twilight starts when you realize you can turn your flashlight or headlamp off, and still get your chores done or see where you are walking.  At the other end of the day, evening twilight officially lasts until the sun slides more than six degrees beneath the horizon, on its way down, and you realize that it’s become too dark to be running a chainsaw, or shooting at a ptarmigan, or that you better turn the back porch light on if the kids are still out there playing catch (do kids still play catch in the backyard? I gather I’m showing some ignorance here.)

The principle is somewhat (but not precisely) akin to that first dawn sunlight hitting the high spots and peaks, while the valleys are still in shade.  One of my favorite phrases, coined by an author writing about a long-ago canoe trip down the Mackenzie River, is “the North is an immense mountain laid out flat.”   The result of this, with the shallower angles of the sun’s path through the skies at higher latitudes, is that in the North the day’s two periods of twilight become a significant portion of each day’s usable light.

Take it to the extremes and this concept becomes more clear. At the equator the sun rises straight up and sets straight down, plus or minus some variation. This makes twilight at tropical latitudes a very short part of each day, because the sun “moves” up or down through that 6 degrees just below the horizon in a few minutes, rising or setting. I have never been to the equator, or even close to it, but someday I would like to visit there, if only to experience that amazingly abrupt change from day to night, and night to day.

At the other extreme, the two Poles, the sun never gets very far above the horizon, but, simplified a little for the sake of this discussion, it rises on the spring equinox, stays up for about six months, circling endlessly around the horizon in various arcs, and then, at the autumn equinox, sets for six months – just as my friend the Ottawa cab driver thought it did in Yellowknife.

But. (There’s always a “but.”) The poles do get more daily light than the equator, but there is no tidy straight-line increase. In fact, the maximum annual allotment of daylight (sunlight plus useful twilight) turns out to be at 69 degrees latitude.  That is the latitude of the northernmost points of the North American and European continents, i.e. around Barrow, Alaska and Tromsø, Norway. The middle high latitudes, from, say, the high fifties to the mid-seventies, maximize the total illumination, the sum of daylight and usable twilight. At the latitude of the northernmost mainland in Europe, Asia, and North America, the sweet spot is reached, and the yield, at 69 degrees North, is the highest average daily total illumination over the course of an entire year – a whopping 15.1 hours of illumination per day.  This is direct sunlight, i.e. sunrise to sunset, plus civil twilight added onto each end of that.

At this most illuminated latitude, 69 degrees, there is one pesky detail, and it is one that I think I would find extremely hard to endure, year after year.  At 69 degrees North the sun does not rise at all between the first of December and the tenth of January.  Still, on Winter Solstice at that latitude, there are just under five hours of useful (Civil) twilight.  But no sunshine for almost 7 weeks, only twilight.  That’s a stretch.

Moving south from there in search of the really sweet spot, where the sun will always rise and set and stay up for some hours of every day of the year, while still trying to  maximize the total hours of sunlight per year, we get to – well, we get to the low 60’s of latitude, or about the latitude of Yellowknife, Anchorage, Reykjavik and Oslo. And on the flip side of winter, thanks to our friend Civil Twilight, even though the sun sets here on every night of the year, there are still six straight weeks of 24-hour daylight in late spring and the first month of summer.

If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet – as my dear family’s eyes did about three days ago when I got truly fired up with writing (and talking) about all of this – I commend you.  Just read on a few more minutes, because there is one more crowning detail, a gift for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.

It is this: the northern and southern hemispheres are not mirror images of each other when it comes to illumination, even at precisely the same latitudes north and south.   The northern hemisphere gets more light per year. The explanation of this discrepancy did at first sort of lose me, just as parts of my Astronomy course at college once did, but this daylight difference between the hemispheres has to do with the speed and shape of the earth’s orbit around our dear old star.

All of this, from twilight to latitude to hemisphere to annual averages, is very clearly explained and well illustrated by Brian Brettschneider, an Alaskan climatologist, here:

https://us-climate.blogspot.com/2015/06/daylight-and-twilight.html

Alas, the persistent folklore of a purgatory of winter darkness, lying just north of a 50-something mid-latitude, will be hard to dispel. It appeals to people’s perverse and well-entrenched fascination with Misery and the Far North. Authors and poets milk the drama of this, even those who really should know better.  Here is a character from Rudy Wiebe’s widely acclaimed historical novel A Discovery of Strangers, describing the onset of winter for Franklin’s overland expedition in 1820-21, near the present-day location of the village of Wekweeti:

“And the sun did lie lower and lower on the horizon until it disappeared altogether and we lived in an endless darkness for over a month, relieved only by stars and moon and the aurora, or firelight.”

Hold on here. The location of Fort Enterprise, as Franklin called the site, at 64⁰ 28’  North (X 113⁰  06’ West), would have had, and still does have, on the very shortest day of the year, no less than three hours and 55 minutes of direct sunlight, plus two hours and 50 minutes of useful morning and evening twilight, boosting total daylight time to 6 hours and 40 minutes on the winter solstice“An endless darkness for over a month” simply does not happen there. Never has, at least since the Earth adopted its present orientation in space. The myth persists. As in so much writing about the far north, it seems to be too hard to resist a little exaggeration. Hyperbole makes for dramatic images, and it may help everybody down in Ottawa, Toronto, Minneapolis, and Chicago feel better about their long dark winter nights.

Six p.m. as I proofread this. Twilight has faded away.  Today, the last of November, we’ve had our 5.63 hours of sunlight, and our 2.12 hours of twilight, and Ottawa has had its 9.03 and 1.11; Chicago its 9.37 and 1.03. Over the course of the year, the average total daily illumination in the three places is: Hoarfrost River: 14 hours, 45 minutes;  Ottawa: 13 hours, 20 minutes;  Chicago: 13 hours, 12 minutes.

It will be dark tonight for many hours, up here and down there.  There are many weeks of this ahead.  We will all be glad when once again the swing of solstice passes and we start to gain a few minutes of daylight again.

Perhaps I have written all of this just to cheer myself up. And if so, it seems to be working.  Have a nice night, wherever this finds you.

Footnote: If you want to generate a printable year-long table giving times of every day’s sunrise, sunset, twilight, local noon, plus total and average daylight, for your precise location, all courtesy of the National Research Council of Canada, go to:

https://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/services/sunrise/advanced.html

If you run into problems with that, drop me a line.  This is one of the few things I know how to do on the confuser and the inter-web. I enjoy it, and I can help if you need it.  daveolesen@gmail.com  

 

 

 

 

“The old Imperial sun has set, 

and I must write a poem to the Emperor.

I shall speak it like the man

I should be, an inhabitant of the frontier,

clad in sweat-darkened wool,

my face stained by wind and smoke.

   — John Haines, from “The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky”

 

“I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”

   — Steve McQueen

 

I’ve been “out,” that is, away from home, for the past sixteen days, most of those days at various places in western and northern Canada, and six nights down in what I used to jokingly call The Excited States of America. That old joke is now wearing a little thin, I’m afraid. As are tempers and discretion and polity and a whole lot of other things, both above and below the forty-ninth parallel.  And, nope, I haven’t got an intelligent or enlightening word to offer on that topic here, so I will not try.

Now I’m home. Got home on Monday, touching down in the Bush Hawk on its fat autumn tires, up on the bench of snow-covered sand a mile uphill from our place.  I was as tense as usual flying out from Yellowknife, having traded the floats in for tires, yet still aloft over miles of open water, and I was as tense as usual to get the plane down and stopped in the sloping 500-some feet offered by our “airstrip.”  As usual, this was not a problem – but if ever I cease getting nervous on short final to a landing up there, that will not be a change for the better.  Butterflies and sweat are such wonderful aids to concentration.

Once the plane was tied down and blanketed with fabric covers on its wings and cockpit and cowling, and once the chores were done and the dogs were fed (alas, no stars o’er head that night; sorry, Robert Service) I walked to the lakeshore in the deep dusk.  There is a humped granite island that juts right out into the bay a hundred yards south of our waterfront.  We still call it “the island,” because back in our early years here it truly was an island, but it has been only a rock peninsula (Latin, almost-island) since about 1993, when the lake level started to drop off.  A narrow spit of sand connects it to the shoreline, where decades ago we could paddle through with a canoe between shore and island.  Across that spit a wire cable is slung on tripods, carrying current from our thousand-watt windmill. The windmill is mounted on a thirty-foot steel pole on the crest of the “island,” and it is highly praised here in these dark windy days of autumn, long after the solar panels have called it quits for about the next four months.

Sometimes I walk out there to have a look at the guy wires on the windmill, but the other night I walked out there only to lie down.  I’d been looking forward to doing so for over a week.  Just to stretch out prone on the cold smooth slab of granite there, a few feet from the edge of the lake, and let all that time down south in the frenetic world “outside” begin to wash away.  I just needed that place that night; I needed to feel that rock of home right there beneath my spine.  It had been quite a time away from everything I love here, and most of the past week of it had not been at all pleasant (think low-end motels, unexpected delays, days at the mercy of schedules not my own, the weather giving some tense moments as I finally flew north, and all of this endured essentially in solitude, which does get old after a while even for a solitary soul like mine.)

I am always happy to come home, but the other night happy to be home does not even come close to what I was feeling.

I lay there for a long while. Quiet sloshing of waves on ice-coated bedrock. Cloud cover thick and the night truly dark. My mind running back over the weeks away, and to the wide world out there, stretching away beyond the horizon to the south…

 

From a Baffled Admirer

 

Okay, I’ll come right out and say it.

You have my grudging admiration.

Grudging, I suppose, only because it has never come easy

for me to admire you.

 

Tonight you have my admiration,

because after two weeks immersed in your world,

I honestly can’t see how you do it.

I wonder whether I could ever live as you do,

and handle it all with such aplomb,

such unruffled patience and resilience.

Lately, more and more, I think not.

 

So tell me, friends, how do you do it?

How do you cope and juggle and keep it all between the lines?

The lines both real and metaphorical: 

those scary white and yellow ones blurring on either side of the car at eighty per,

our three-ton nine-foot ride nipping past a forty-ton ninety-foot semi in the dark on I-94;  

and all those other lines, laid out straight as if to define the edges

of all that rush and whirr and whiz bang?

 

Day after night after morning after evening

you nonchalantly poke at keypads,

step to one side and fire off a text message from the grocery aisle,

like a battle-hardened infantryman calling in air support,

scroll down screens and ask omniscient Siri for answers,

and all to the tune of those incessant

beeps and chimes and dingalings.

 

And it never seems to faze you!

Likewise the hundred and some channels of blood, gore, and trash

on the motel tee vees,

the grim-faced pat-downs at Security,

Inter-web, hyper-text, Twitter feed,

and Orwell’s dire vision borne out before our very eyes,

34 years past 1984.

You all just carry on, make small talk, and smile. 

You’re pleasant. You’re cool, calm, and collected. It’s amazing. 

You’re amazing.

 

Come right down to it, the answer is: I honestly don’t know how you do it.  

And I don’t know if I could ever learn to do it.

This old sled dog just can’t learn all these new tricks.

 

I am happy to have made it home,

to be lying here looking out

over dark cold water.

Still, happy as I am

on this third-to-last day of October, twenty-eighteen,

I cannot help but wonder

where the rest of you are tonight.

And how it is

that the human race has become so utterly entranced,

so clearly infatuated,

so savvy and adept and calm,

while immersed in that rush and whirr and whiz-bang?

 

It beats me.

It truly does.        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When a pilot files a Flight Plan with Air Traffic Control, there is a rapid-fire exchange of numbers and codes, times and altitudes. In among those numbers is, of course, “total number of persons on board.”  Old-school Flight Service briefers often use a vernacular for this and ask for “souls on board,” as if to say, just give me the total number of human beings inside the machine at liftoff, regardless of whether they are pilots, passengers, flight attendants, mechanics or skydivers. It is a concise way of pegging the number. And at times thought-provoking.

A week ago today, on one of the only sunny days that this entire September 2018 has offered up, my daughters and I organized a fly-in surprise party to mark Kristen’s passage to an age where she can swim for half-price at some community swimming pools.  Her birthday is in October, but by October there is little chance of a pleasant floatplane fly-in here on the taiga.

The day depended completely on the weather for the flight, and the wind and water for landing here. As Sunday approached I was watching the forecasts.  There was some optimism in the public weather forecast, some pessimism in the marine forecast issued for boaters, and not much definitive to be gleaned from the aviation weather maps. My fingers were crossed. The incoming plane was a Twin Otter from Air Tindi, and the Twin Otter on floats can handle some big waves and swells, but I knew there was a good chance that even if the day was warm and sunny, a southerly wind here could make us cancel the flight and the party.

It is a little-known fact of wind and wave physics that in autumn, when both the air and the water are colder than in summer, a given strength of wind, say 10 knots, will generate a bigger and more powerful set of waves and swells. The reason is that both the air and the water become denser as they cool. The cold wind pushes with more force and the cold waves formed by the dense water have more mass and momentum – the water weighs more and so does the air.  I am a little out of my depth here, but that is how I understand it. It is a concept I believe, because I see it borne out every fall when colder air pushes on cold water and creates bigger, more powerful waves than at any other time of the year.

The mild sunny weather that made last Sunday so nice came at the price of a breeze from the south. A south wind, and especially a southwest wind, is the most troublesome wind direction here at our place, because of our exposure and the “fetch” that the waves have as they march down more than 60 miles of open water. Big waves and swells are the bane of floatplane pilots. As I have written before, a floatplane is a marvelous and useful contraption, but in truth it makes a very poor boat.  If a boatbuilder set out to break most of the rules of boat design, the result might be something like a floatplane:  huge wind-catching area above the water, with absolutely no ballast down deep under the surface to stabilize all that sail area. It is only a small exaggeration to liken a Twin Otter on floats to a small schooner, complete with topsails, perched on a pair of oversized canoes.

On the morning of the big day I snuck out from the house with the portable satellite phone, to pass the weather along to my old friend Mike Murphy, who was to fly the plane in from Yellowknife.  He was concerned by the southerly breeze and the waves it would generate here.  “Do you think we can do this?” he asked in the blunt style which is his trademark.  “Yes,” I said, “but Mike, just know that if you get out here, and you don’t like the look of it and you head back to town without landing, I understand and I’m good for the cost of the flight, no questions asked.”

When the plane appeared overhead Kristen was out picking berries, taking advantage of the only warm sunny morning we had seen for weeks.  The Twin circled several times, as Mike and Joe looked over the options.  Between the two of them, and with another life-long pilot, Kim Zenko, sitting back among the passengers, there were something like 60,000 hours of bush-flying experience looking down and assessing the wind and water situation at that moment. Mike set up for an approach into the sheltered bay east of the river, and after touching down he rounded the point and began taxiing toward the river.  I was out in our skiff, to show Mike the channel into the river mouth, and I could see the plane’s wings rocking wildly as the jumbled swells rolled beneath the floats.  I could well imagine the scowl on Murphy’s face, having sat beside it in the cockpit many times in my co-pilot days 25 years ago.  After a few tense moments he turned back north into Gyrfalcon Bay, where he had landed, and nosed the tips of the floats onto a rock slab there. With the plane secured to shore, I shuttled the 18 “souls on board” across by boat to the homestead in three trips back and forth. Once we were all assembled at our place the day turned sunny, mellow, and happy.

Golden September warmth, laughter, good food, sober strong coffee for the pilots and the boat driver, beer and wine and some other concoctions for the rest, music and birthday cake for everyone. Kristen was astounded and surprised. A rare and unforgettable event, to have such a big group of long-familiar faces assembled at once, here in the far reaches of the hinterland.

In early afternoon Mike asked if we could go across by boat again and check on the plane, before the music got started inside the workshop. We motored over and saw that the plane was sitting fine and steady, lines all taut to shore. But as we came back across in the boat, Mike and Joe and I could tell that the pesky southerly wind was shifting ever so slightly, probably imperceptibly to almost everyone else at the party.  The breeze, which that day never got above 10 or 11 knots, had veered 30 degrees or so, from south-southeast to south-southwest.  This new direction, if it sustained itself, would expose the calm refuge of Gyrfalcon Bay to mounting swells.  Not good.  Some frowning and murmuring and squinting amongst the pilots.  We stood together out on the sand and looked at the big pennant up on its tall pole, and out onto the water.  We struck a deal.  Instead of starting to shuttle everyone back to the plane at 5, we would start at 4.  The planned music would have to be cut pretty short.

We went inside the warm workshop and Ryan and Claire started into their repertoire. Angel from Montgomery, a Hoarfrost River favorite by John Prine, had been among my few specific requests for this day, and Ryan started us off with a fine rendition of it. I was sitting on a bench next to Joe Reid, the second pilot that day, and I could tell he was watching the wind and the waves intently.  At one point he leaned over and whispered to me, “Look at the wind — I think it’s calming down.” Captain Mike was inscrutable, eyes closed, either listening to the music or just trying not to rush out the door and insist that we all get going.

At 3:53, between songs, Mike asked what time it was.  I smiled and said, “Let’s get going.  We’ll take one boat load and all the gear from here, and everyone else can walk to the river and we’ll shuttle two trips from there.”

We had everyone to the plane within 45 minutes or so, and when the door was closed I backed away in the boat.  I motored over to the north island and climbed onto its rocky top.  The wind had settled by then; the protected bay was smooth, and I listened to the roar of the Twin’s turbines as the plane taxied up to the head of the shallows and turned south for the takeoff run. I thought of the day, of the connections and friendships of all those people, and of the wind and the waves and the decision to cut the music short and get going while the going was good.  No regrets. The sound of the engines rolled off the cliffs and the spray flew up.  Airborne. Climbing and banking, water streaming and sparkling off the tails of the floats.

Two hours later the wind had dropped almost to calm, and we chuckled as we looked out on the lake. Decisions are made on what is happening — not on what might happen. Souls on board, safe and sound.