On Sunday the 22nd of September I made a long flight in the Husky, first heading due north to Nose Lake and the headwaters of the Mara River, then east to the upper Ellice watershed, then southwest to cross the Back River, and finally southwest two hours back to home. About 650 miles altogether. It has become almost an annual ritual, this final flight on floats over the far reaches of the central Arctic mainland, and it is chartered by the wildlife department. The goal has to do with retrieving dropped (and still valuable when refurbished) radio-tracking collars that are hung nowadays by the hundreds on the necks of a random selection of hapless individual animals. The collars automatically drop off when the pre-programmed time and date are reached, and of course are left if and when one of the collared animals is killed by predators. There is an entire long saga to be written someday, detailing some of my comical and not-so-comical adventures retrieving these gadgets. Mud pits, boulder fields, snow slopes, malfunctioning receivers, stuck airplanes, and on and on.

Collar-retrieval misadventures and my own satellite-wildlife-tracking misgivings aside, it feels like a privilege to someone as enamored of The Big Empty as I am, to be sent out there on these flights and to be paid to make them, to choose the days for them and to come and go right from home. No passengers, no cargo, paid work… every pilot’s dream.

Autumn Equinox is pushing the season’s limits for this kind of work, up past treeline, on floats. It is late in the year, for decent flying weather and even for walking around and getting in and out of shorelines that will soon be coated with ice and snow. We have had a mild September this year, and the first dusting of snow is lying on the ground here as I prepare to send this out.

On a day in late September a flight up into that part of the world feels like a stealthy raid, sneaking past a row of signs marked “Closed For Season.” It was a Sunday when I flew that route, and Sundays are always a little quieter in terms of flying activity, but the other day every clue was reminding me that I was the only human moving around out there for hundreds of miles. This is exhilarating, in a way, to certain oddballs like myself, but nerve-wracking to a pilot because we always have in the back of our minds the real possibility that something mechanical could go wrong, or we could botch the job and wreck something, and then we might need assistance or rescue. The air-to-air radio on 126.7 was dead silent, and the only mineral exploration camp I flew over, at Goose Lake, was obviously mothballed and shut down. The canoers are long gone down those northern rivers. Snow was already hugging some of the slopes. As I got up toward Nose Lake a layer of low cloud forced me to fly at a hundred and fifty feet above the tundra, but by mid-afternoon near Beechey Lake I was hiking in shirtsleeves and bright sun, and the Arctic winter felt a long ways off.

Scooting along low to the ground, with the little engine chugging and the propeller augering its miniscule whirlwind in that enormous air, cruising at a hundred knots with a tailwind push, I look down, look out, sip coffee, munch Corn Nuts, study the GPS, and make random notes to myself. But mostly, minute after minute, hour after hour, I look down. Brown, black, gray, pale blue. The bright reds and yellows of autumn are gone. Dull brown and gray dominate, with patches of green lichen interspersed. Mile after mile of boulder fields, trickling water in tiny creeks, winding sand eskers. l do not know if I can come close to describing it all. Its austerity, its silence and emptiness. I love this country most, maybe, at this time of year, maybe because I love the feel of all that emptiness and silence, with a hard dark winter coming on. It is a thrill to see it. That is, I suppose, an odd statement. The thrill I feel as I fly over and walk across this bleak late-autumn tundra might explain why I spent so much of my summer in West Texas.

I have never actually been to West Texas, nor to any part of Texas. Over the past ten years I have probably read more pages of fiction and non-fiction set in and around Texas than about any other specific non-northern, non-Arctic part of the world. Along with the open ocean, the high Himalaya, and the Far North, frontier and rural Texas have been a top-choice destination for my armchair travels. Been musing lately about why this might be, and I have come up with a few motives.

Maybe we all like to have a fantasy-land, a part of the world where we have never been, where we know no one. Unencumbered by any grounding in real experiences, we can blithely imbue that far-off place or far-off life with characters and scenes and constructed realities that suit our imagination and our desires. The stuff of myth and legend. The places and peoples of the Far North exist only in this way for a great many people, and the Arctic has been layered and peopled with fantasy and romantic fallacy for centuries. Still is, and often to its detriment. West Texas for me, this past summer, was that place.

And maybe for some of us a place of extremes is always more appealing than a place of moderation. I am not a man much given to extremes, in my habits or my hobbies, or my tempers (usually), but I do have a predilection for places, weathers, terrain, and lifestyle that edge toward extremity, on the scale of these variables.

West Texas sounds extreme, in the prose of Cormac McCarthy (as does almost everything) and Elmer Keaton, and Larry McMurtry. McMurtry is the father of musician James McMurtry, and he set a long (and long-winded) novel there, Comanche Moon. I picked it up on a whim in a used-book shop just before a long train ride back in late June, and after nearly giving up on it a hundred pages in, I worked my way through it all summer. Sitting on float struts and on patches of rock and sand tundra, waiting, as bush pilots do, for the return of biologists and camera people and geologists. (Pilots are glorified taxi and bus drivers, after all. Same line of work, different machinery.)

I can’t say I will plough through the 700-some pages of Comanche Moon again, since life is short and books are many, but I did find some real nuggets in there, sentences and sentiments that made me appreciate McMurtry’s efforts. At times I would think “why am I reading this stuff?” and then I would think back to a letter from my friend and English prof, the poet Lee Merrill, years ago when he told me he was working his way through the westerns of Louis L’Amour. Lee said, “I’m enjoying reading at the seventh-grade level, some days.” One blurb on the cover of McMurtry’s magnum opus was from none other than the New York Times Book Review (so there!): “A sprawling, picaresque novel.” (Picaresque sent me to the dictionary, and now it may send you there too. A big heavy paper one, I hope, since it leads to so many other side-trails on the same page.) I often underscore things in books, as I read, and if after I finish a book I have underscored some passages in it, I know that my reading was time well spent.

I learned a lot about the Comanches this summer. Always up til now my fascination, when it comes to particular races and tribes, had centered on the Sioux, the Ojibwe, and the Inuit, at least in my reading. The Comanches were much too far south to interest me as I shaped my path in life. S.C. Gwynne’s history of the Comanches Empire of the Summer Moon details their origins (up in the Wind River range), their migration, their rise to fearsome power as mounted warriors, and their eventual demise. I thank the passing July boater (from Austin Texas) who took the time to mail me the book after he got home.

And I continue to return to Cormac McCarthy, although only in doses. One can only bear so much Cormac at a time. (I have often wondered whether he might have managed to write light-heartedly about, oh, say, his child’s 8th birthday party, for Pete’s sake…) The Sherriff’s italicized soliloquies in No Country for Old Men – only a few of these made it into the movie – are the soul of that book. His ponderings on his life and on the future of his dry, hardscrabble homeland are timely today, and timeless.

I don’t like hot weather. Don’t know much about horses. Can’t speak or read Spanish. I like water, rock, snow, sled dogs, old sailboats, caribou, and wild empty unpopulated scrawny Arctic and sub-arctic landscapes. Maybe what I find way down in Texas, through all the pages, just feeds layers of craving for an other-ness, a place far away and unfamiliar, where my imagination can just roam and roam, unfettered by personal experience or nuanced facts.

I think there might be one other important aspect to my infatuation. West Texas is harsh, vast, unforgiving, yes, but still it is actively and even vibrantly populated. It has had a human presence since long before the Comanches swept into it three hundred years ago on their newly-acquired horses, and it still has a human presence, and a human culture adapted to it. There are people moving around in its vastness, twelve months a year, year after year. I crave that year-round indigenous presence here – and please note that I use the small-i, non-racial original meaning of the word indigenous. Every year this country gets emptier. The country I flew over the other day is nearly as empty of humankind nowadays as Mars. I do not think this bodes well. It is a confounding mystery to me. But that is a topic for another time.

Here are a few snippets from my summer in Texas:

Larry McMurtry. Comanche Moon (Simon and Schuster)

“Thinking about the buffalo – how many there had once been; not a one remaining on the comancheria – Kicking Wolf grew so heavy with sadness that he could not speak. He had never thought that such abundance could pass, yet it had. He thought that it would have been better to have fallen in battle than to have lived to see such greatness pass and go.”

“Famous Shoes {Kickapoo tracker, a main character of the novel} had been wondering about the same thing. The journeys that people took had always interested him; his own life was a constant journeying, though not quite so constant as it had been before he had his wives and children. Usually he only agreed to scout for the Texans if they were going in a direction he wanted to go himself, in order to see a particular hill or stream, to visit a relative or a friend, or just to search for a bird or animal he wanted to observe… When he felt disturbances in his life, as all men would, Famous Shoes tried to go back to one of the simple places, the places of rock and sky, to steady himself and grow calm again.”

 

From Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men (Vintage International)

Bell watched him. The old man stubbed out his cigarette in the lid. Bell tried to think about his life. Then he tried not to. You aint turned infidel have you Uncle Ellis? No. No. Nothin like that. Do you think God knows what’s happenin? I expect he does. You think he can stop it? No. I dont. They sat quietly at the table. After a while the old man said: She mentioned there was a lot of old pictures and family stuff. What to do about that. Well. There aint nothin to do about it I dont reckon. Is there? No. I dont reckon there is. I told her to send Uncle Mac’s old cinco peso badge and his thumb-buster to the Rangers. I believe they got a museum. But I didnt know what to tell her. There’s all that stuff here. In the chifforobe in yonder. That rolltop desk is full of papers. He tilted the cup and looked into the bottom of it. He never rode with Coffee Jack. Uncle Mac. That’s all bull. I dont know who started that. He was shot down on his own porch in Hudspeth County. That’s what I always heard. They was seven or eight of em come to the house. Wantin this and wantin that. He went back in the house and come out with a shotgun but they was way ahead of him and they shot him down in his own doorway. She run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Tried to get him back in the house. Said he kept tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses. Finally left. I dont know why. Somethin scared em, I reckon. One of em said somethin in injun and they all turned and left out. They never come in the house or nothin. She got him inside but he was a big man and they was no way she could of got him up in the bed. She fixed a pallet on the floor. Wasnt nothin to be done. She always said she should of just left him there and rode for help but I dont know where it was she would of rode to. He wouldnt of let her go noway. Wouldnt hardly let her go in the kitchen. He knew what the score was if she didnt. He was shot through the right lung. And that was that. As they say. When did he die? Eighteen and seventy-nine. No, I mean was it right away or in the night or when was it. I believe it was that night. Or early of the mornin. She buried him herself. Diggin in that hard caliche. Then she just packed the wagon and hitched the horses and pulled out of there and she never did go back. That house burned down sometime back in the twenties. What hadnt fell down. I could take you to it today. The rock chimney used to be standin and it may be yet. There was a good bit of land proved up on. Eight or ten sections if I remember. She couldnt pay the taxes on it, little as they was. Couldnt sell it. Did you remember her? No. I seen a photograph of me and her when I was about four. She’s settin in a rocker on the porch of this house and I’m standin alongside of her. I wish I could say I remember her but I dont. She never did remarry. Later years she was a school-teacher. San Angelo. This country was hard on people. But they never seemed to hold it to account. In a way that seems peculiar. That they didnt. You think about what all has happened to just this one family. I dont know what I’m doin here still knockin around. All them young people. We dont know where half of em is even buried at. You got to ask what was the good in all that. So I go back to that. How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothin, but that dont mean much. I seen a man shoot his pickup truck with a shotgun one time. He must of thought it done somethin. This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?

From S.C. Gwynne. Empire of the Summer Moon (Scribner)

“On grassy plains and timbered river bottoms from Kansas to Texas, Nautdah had drifted in the mystical cycles of the seasons, living in that random, terrifying, bloody, and intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one. And then, suddenly, all of it disappeared. Instead of Stone Age camps aswirl in magic and taboo and scented smoke from mesquite lodge fires, she found herself sitting on taffeta chairs in drawing rooms on the outer margins of the Industrial Revolution, being interrogated by polite uncomprehending white men who believed in a single God and in a supremely rational universe where everything could be explained.”

“No other tribe, except possibly the Kiowas, so completely lived on horseback. Children were given their own horses at four or five. Soon the boys were expected to learn tricks, which included picking up objects on the ground at a gallop. The young rider would start with light objects and move to progressively heavier objects until finally, without assistance and at a full gallop, he could pick up a man. Rescuing a fallen comrade was seen as one of the most basic obligations of a Comanche warrior… Women could often ride as well as men. One observer watched two Comanche women set out at full speed with lassoes and each rope a bounding antelope on the first throw.”

 

I am told there is another shorthand out there in the world of text messages, an abbreviation to join OMG, LOL, BTW, WTF, and etc.  It’s “TLDR,” for “Too long, didn’t read.”  I gather that almost no one really reads anything, at least on a screen, that is much over a hundred words long, whether it is a news clip, an obituary, or a love letter, er, love e-mail? This cannot be good news for writers. We have become the Readers’ Digest Condensed culture, with the collective attention span of a herd of gerbils.  Last spring I was down in Fort Nelson on airplane maintenance, watching TV and eating dinner at the local pizza joint, when I realized that The Sports Network now condenses entire baseball games into less than 20 minutes.  Nothing but the action. Because, really, who has time nowadays for the pitcher to scowl at the catcher, shaking off the sign, shaking off another sign, then to slowly glance over his shoulder to hold the runner on second, then winding up, delivering a slider, fouled off into the right field stands… yawn.   And this slowness is, I think, the very essence of baseball.  I digress. So anyhows… Thinking about my monthly posts here, I have resolved to knuckle down and try to keep them to some reasonable length, say under a couple thousand words, in the thin and fading hope that a few cherished fans will still plough through them completely.  The other day I hit on a notion of appending a bonus-prize tidbit to the tail end of each rambling missive, an offering of arcane or obtuse bush-homestead practical wisdom (I have plenty, believe me) – a kind of trophy for reading all the way to the end.

For example – what is the best way to move a porcupine safely and harmlessly off the premises?  The other morning, just before breakfast, Kristen came in and announced that there was a big porcupine stuck in the barn. The dogs had been making a bit of noise off and on in the pre-dawn hours, but nobody had gone out to check on them. Over the years, mushers get good at deciphering all kinds of subtle nuances of dog-yard uproar, even when we are half-asleep. Some 3 a.m. kennel sounds send us up and out the door in a rush, whatever the weather, armed with jacklight and firearm and horn. Dogfight, unplanned breeding, loose dog, grizzly or black bear, wolf, wolverine, or some awful combination of several of these. The noises the other night were not in that category.  A porcupine had wandered into the barn.  

So here’s the tip (I’m already well into TLDR territory, here, I know.)  Should you need to capture and relocate a porcupine that has gotten itself cornered in an outbuilding, a large and long-handled fishing net is the tool of choice. A second smaller landing net works well, clapped on top of the opening of the first one, once the porcupine is in the big one. Then just lift and carry. Panicked porcupine, yes, but soon a very happy porcupine, who is probably still reminiscing about his morning motor-boat ride across to the beach on the east side of the river-mouth.  There to be hoisted ashore, to make a comical waddling 100-yard dash off toward the wilds of…  Canada’s newest National Park.

Last winter, with tongue firmly in cheek, I started to write an announcement for the newspaper in Yellowknife. Along the lines of “Mark the date and start the preparations for this Golden Anniversary, everyone. Two years to go, and counting down.”  

In 1971, 48 years ago, a rugged swath of land and water lying to the south, southeast, and northeast of here was set aside by Parliament, to someday, maybe, possibly, become a National Park.  The consultations, negotiations, projections, meetings, studies, case scenarios, consultations, negotiations, projections, meetings, studies, case scenarios, consultations, negotiations, projections… well, you get the idea… dragged on, stopped, started, paused, resumed, dragged on, stopped, re-started… okay.

 As we approached the 50-year anniversary of this process, and after yet another postponement of a community referendum on the park over in Lutsel K’e last winter, I just wanted to poke some fun at this half-century of discussion.  The celebration, I thought, would most fittingly take the form of a colossal Meeting to End All Meetings. Picture it: tables groaning with stale doughnuts, rubber chicken, styrofoam cups and paper plates, gallons of weak coffee; microphones, briefing notes, laptops; maps the size of bedsheets all festooned with lines and arrows and captions.  Entire days and nights of meetings, an ultra-marathon of politically correct droning  – the speakers rambling on, all haltingly translated into six or eight official languages; listeners napping, snoring, and drooling…   We would need an acronym, of course, and Kristen came up with a good one – S.T.A.L.D., for “Still Talking, After Lengthy Discussion.”

I never got around to writing that piece, and now I will not need to.  Because – lo and behold, will wonders never cease – on Wednesday August 21st, in the tiny hamlet of Lutsel K’e, 55 miles southeast of here, starting at dawn with an airborne armada of dignitaries and bureaucrats and journalists all touching down in chartered planes on the gravel airstrip a hundred miles from the nearest highway, papers were signed and speeches were made and drums were pounded and hands were shaken and applause rang out.  And after 48 years of on-again off-again discussion and deliberation, Canada has a new National Park, named Thaidene Nene – and no, I am not going to dip a toe into the perilous waters of trying to phonetically sound that out for you here.

Right in synch with the decades of lead-up to this agreement, the signing ceremony itself was hastily cancelled and postponed back in July, to accommodate more eleventh-hour discussions. But, by all accounts – stay tuned – it is now really and truly a done deal.

What will this mean for us here, living right on the edge of this new National Park? Honest answer – I’m not sure.  Gut feeling – not all that much.  But I could be wrong. For years I have said that I was of two minds on the topic – I supported the creation of the park, while fervently hoping that our place here would not wind up within its boundaries. I had (still have) visions of platoons of green-suited starry-eyed Ottawa types, clipboards in hand, all asking pointed questions:  about dipping drinking water from the lake, or about estimates of quarts of lingonberries and blueberries picked each year, or about the cutting of dead trees for firewood or – gasp – the felling of a living spruce or birch or tamarack, to become a stack of boards, or – gasp again – specific queries as to the precise destination of our elegant and odor-free outhouse buckets (See my post about Outdoor Plumbing from October 2015.) 

And as another layer of personal response to that large question about how I would view the capital-letter National Park… well, it would be the ultimate irony for a lifelong disciple of John Muir, Robert Marshall, Sig Olson, Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, and Henry Thoreau, to name just a few among many, if the creation of a new wilderness park spelled the end of our halcyon life in the outback, now wouldn’t it?

For now, just ten days in, our life here on the outskirts — but not, and thankfully not, within the boundaries — of Thaidene Nene goes on.  Frantic and frenetic July is past; our visitors for the next eleven months will be very few and very far between.  Fewer and farther between every year, park or no park  – and this I do not take as a good sign, believe me.  A little uptick in park-related flying and activity, maybe, and maybe a new neighbor or two, in some Parks Canada role, for some portion of the coming winter.  Hard to say.  Some more meetings and consultations.  (A friend who worked in the NWT government for years told me that one meeting agenda item that never failed to come up toward the end of every meeting was… scheduling the next meeting.)

 There is no doubt that the Park will bring along some new jobs in Lutsel K’e, good and interesting jobs for a few people, jobs out in the back-country, doing work that will have far more appeal for most locals than those capital-J Jobs up at the mines, loudly touted, most loudly by those who would never dream of working at one of them.  Changing bedsheets or preparing cafeteria steam-table shrimp dinners, or driving enormous dump-trucks of crushed rock up and down, and up and down, the growing tailings pile.  12 hours a day, two weeks in and two weeks out, year by year.  Thanks, but no thanks. A truly impressive pile of crushed rock now rises 44 miles north of us, and has quickly become a new aviation landmark for any confused pilot, visible as it is from 50 miles away in all quadrants. “Diamonds are Forever” takes on a whole new meaning.  I digress, again.

The porcupine headed off toward the boundary of what is now a park, and he or she (we didn’t try to ascertain the critter’s gender, it being scared, and a porcupine) will likely find safe and abundant living there, for as long as this entity we call “Canada” lasts.  Which of course will not be forever, any more than a diamond ring, or a pile of crushed rock, for that matter, can be.

When I set the politics and polemics, the nattering, and the rose-colored projections of highly-paid consultants aside, there is solace for me in the sight of that odd, and oddly beautiful creature, hurrying as only a porcupine can hurry, across the beach and up into the woods on the edge of this new preserve, on a sunny late-summer morning.

  

In case you are still with me,  here below are some facts I found as I tried to put some size, in my mind’s eye, to this new preserve, by referencing some of my old stomping grounds and well-known chunks of park and wilderness elsewhere on the continent:

 

Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve: 14,000 square kilometres of wilderness protected through partnerships between Parks Canada, Government of Northwest Territories, the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation, and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, and with the Deninu K’ue First Nation, and with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation

Together, the new areas, including the two Territorial Protected Areas allocated immediately adjacent to the national park reserve (an additional 12,222 square kilometres), total approximately 26,222 square kilometres (almost the size of Vancouver Island).

 14,000 square km. = 3.459 million acres

12,000 square km = 2.965 million acres

Total size of Thaidene Nene = Six and a half million acres

Banff National Park 6,640 square km = 1.6 million acres

Jasper National Park 10,900 square km = 2.7 million acres

Nahanni National Park = 7.4 million acres 

Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres.

The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is 1.3 million acres.  

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness = 814,441 acres

Quetico Provincial Park  = 1.18 million acres 

 

 

27 July 2019, near the north end of Aylmer Lake:

Barely one degree above freezing here this morning, a few miles northwest of the headwaters of the Back River, with squalls of snow and a brisk north wind.  A hundred and ten miles north of the Hoarfrost, yes, and well up on the tundra, yes, but even here in the almost-Arctic, snow in July is something to remark upon.  The month’s weather has been all over the map, with a cold start that prompted us to mark Canada Day morning by lighting a fire in the woodstove. Then in mid-month came a string of warm calm days (I at first wrote “hot” but then realized that describing temperatures of 80 degrees F.  / 27 degrees C. — with virtually zero humidity — as “hot” would be scoffed at by readers who have been having truly hot summer weather.) Today as the month winds down we have this parting shot of cold wind and snow.  So long July, bring on August.  Never a dull moment.

A few days ago, it was warmer and we were southeast of here, near the lower Hanbury River… “Can you land in that lake?” (A bush pilot’s favorite question.) “We’d like to get one sample there.”  

Three geologists studying eskers, and following the path of the grand-trunk highway of all eskers,  known as the Exeter Esker.  For these guys, and even to my un-scientific eye, this esker stretches unbroken from the tundra near Dubawnt Lake to the area of Exmouth Lake, a distance of 500 miles.  Eskers are the bas-relief gravel piles of under-ice riverbeds, laid down seven to thirteen thousand years ago as the most recent continental ice sheets melted.  Flying with a plane-load of geologists who are fascinated, in fact almost giddy, to have this aerial view of this notable esker and its corollary landforms, is pretty entertaining.

“Yeah, we can land there. We can get to shore up in that narrows.”

Once we are down and they’ve gone off for their sand and gravel sampling, I wade ashore too, to walk for a while barefoot on the warm sand.  But for the black flies and a cooler-than-Caribbean breeze, I could be in Barbados or the Bahamas. Spotless white beach, deep blue sky, verdant green midsummer bushes. 

I am so struck by that spot, that day, as I loiter and wait for my passengers, that I wade back out to the plane to pinpoint it on my map.  When I do so I realize, with a startle, that the widening we have come to is a stretch of the Radford River.  Which means I have been here before, twice, in April of 1981, on skis and alongside a dogsled, 38 years ago.

I stand there on the float and try to conjure up those days, one day as my two friends and I were eastbound, and one when just two of us were westbound.  In the meantime our little group had dwindled by one, when a skiplane had whisked away John, whose mother had fallen ill.  It was on that day that I had for the first time met up with my future neighbor Roger, who flew a Super Cub from his cabin on the upper Thelon, and who had somehow managed to find our tiny party in all that white blank expanse.

I can’t honestly say I recall anything specific about those days here, then. As I try, I find again that it is always a little painful to envision my younger self, brash as I was back then.  So green and yet so confident. My opinions outweighed my experience by a staggering ratio, as is so common when we are “sophomores” i.e. “wise fools.”  I think back to our gear, our dogs, our methods, and I can only wonder that we made it as far as we did — and came to no harm.  

Oh well, no need to be sheepish.  We all begin somewhere.  We made the trip and we made it back.  Nowadays a trip like that would be perceived as borderline lunacy.  Yeegads, no satellite telephone, no Garmin InReach tracker and texter and weather forecaster and for all I know coffee-maker.  Not even a two-way radio.  We set off for Baker Lake, from Yellowknife, about 600 miles by trail, the three of us and ten dogs. There is a long saga here but the gist of it is that, at Hornby Point on the Thelon, about 4 weeks and 400 miles out, Kurt and I realized we would be at least 10 days overdue, if we made Baker Lake at all, so we turned back.  It was the right thing to do.  Safe and sound and wiser, we pulled into the Reliance weather station on Day 42, the 25th of April, 1981.

And here I am, back again, much to my surprise, on this widening of the little Radford River, a dozen miles west of the Thelon and south of the Hanbury.  My life has circled me back to here, and I can’t help but wonder whether, in four decades, any other humans have passed on foot through this little notch of the esker.  It is not impossible that someone has, of course, but I cannot imagine what they might have been up to.  There is some chance — a good chance,  I’d say — that my friends and I, in April of 1981, were the last of our far-flung and oh-so-pervasive species to set foot in this north-south notch of this long east-west esker.  These days, there is comfort and some reassurance in knowing of places like this.  And I wonder if this is it, for this spot, for my life, or if I will someday, for some reason, circle back to stand here again.  

And now as I re-write this post, it is the 29th, and warm (I almost wrote “hot” again) and calm.  The snow of two days ago is hard to fathom this afternoon.  The horseflies are out, and they love this weather.  Working from the Husky now, with just one of the geologists.  This is to be our final day of this, and we’ll be glad to be done. We have reached the area where this grand-champion of the planet’s eskers finally peters out and spreads into a confusion of moraines and curving sand-piles.  A few more hours and we will turn and climb southeast toward home; by then we will be almost 275 miles northwest of home base at the Hoarfrost.

Circling out, and circling back, returning and revisiting places, again and again, sometimes on purpose, often only by accident and serendipity, is a gift of this life and work.  How many times I have looked down on and walked on various parts and pieces of this long wavery esker, as I’ve flown along it with all the various stripes of  “-ologists “ over the years.  Studying wolves, studying bears, studying rocks, looking for canoers, looking for diamonds, looking for caribou…

Decades pile on, and my life keeps circling low and slow in these funny little flying machines, as the landscape overflows with layer upon layer of memories.

I like these lines by Wendell Berry, a poet and writer eloquent in his passionate attachment to place:

 

Memory,

native to this valley, will spread over it

like a grove, and memory will grow

into legend, legend into song, song

into sacrament.

 

from The Vision,  a poem quoted in an interview / article, Going Home with Wendell Berry, by Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker, July 14, 2019

 

 

Mornings are slow here.  When city people come to visit, they are surprised by the pace of the start of our days. I gather that one myth of homestead life goes something like this: Bounce out of bed at 5 a.m. and hit the cold hard floor at a half-trot; axes to sharpen and rifles to clean, sleds to varnish and dogs to feed… chop chop the wood, fetch fetch the water, grab a chunk of cold bannock on the fly, wash it down with a swig of lake water. Busy busy busy. 

Not so.  Another cliché bites the dust. Over the years our morning rhythm has not changed much.  Wake up, light or stoke the woodstove fire (a given, for eight or nine months of the year – it’s May 28th as I begin to draft this post, and the first thing I did upon waking was light the woodstove.) Put on the kettle, wash and brush and comb, and take the clipboard from its nail to carefully jot down the specifics of the morning’s weather:  temperature, dewpoint, altimeter, windspeed and direction, sky cover, high and low of the past 24 hours, and some random notes (this morning,  “Still easily walking onto ice.  Ran dogs to west on bay yesterday.”) Then it’s coffee and a book and maybe some scratching of pen on paper; a few words, or not, of quiet conversation with my people, and before we all know it, a solid hour and a half has passed in blissful sloth, with nary a moose milked nor a chainsaw sharpened.

At the far end of the day, I sense from the same worldly and urbane visitors that our workaday evenings catch them just as much by surprise as our mornings do. For one thing, there are never any night-time social engagements on the docket.  No one is going to stop in, and there is no event to go out and attend. We tend to work late at whatever we’re working on, then feed dogs and wash up, and eat supper even later. After dinner, most nights, we shuffle off to bed. Dinner around nine and people saying “good night” by ten is not at all uncommon.

Our friend Hakun from Norway told me that when he was a teenager on the farm, every year on just the right April evening his father would look outside and announce: “Guter, nå er det tiden for ute pilse.” “Boys, it’s time for outside beer.” Then to adjourn to where the evening sun was hitting the west side of the house, and there sit, bundled warmly, and pour the first “outside beer” of a new spring. A truly civilized ritual.

The season of ute pilse is slow to start here, and not helped by the facts that home-made lager has not been made here in five years, and store-bought beer is ludicrously expensive once bought and flown out here from town. But the season of ute kaffe is already upon us. Outside coffee. Mornings are still cold, but with a puffy down coat and a wool hat on, I can go out to the front deck of the workshop and sit and sip and stare across the ice at the snow-flecked hills of the Kahochella Peninsula.

It is interesting, going outside here on a spring morning to sit and try to read and write.  A few mornings ago, for instance, it was nine below zero, with the chill amplified by what I described in my journal as a “lively” east wind. Still, in my coat and hat I was happy enough to be out at the table for a while. (Lying on a long wooden table, belly down, is a great posture for a stack of worn-out vertebrae. Try it, you whose shock absorbers are starting to give out.) On cold mornings it is utterly quiet. At this season, sound is linked directly to warmth. A few mornings earlier this month, with no wind and bright sun, ute kaffe was downright noisy. The stream was babbling just east of the workshop, draining the land’s paltry runoff after the driest winter we have ever seen in all our years here. Sea gulls were wheeling and shrieking and raising heck over at their ice-bound rookery on the reef to the west. The first Harris’ and white-crowned sparrows, and some warblers, announced their arrival on May nineteenth.  Two robins had already piped up on the fourteenth of May.

Slowly things are coming alive, but very slowly, and only in fits and starts. If we drop the temperature ten degrees from one morning to the next, all the noise and action come to a complete stop. This amazes me.  What does everyone do, and more to my point today, what does everyone eat, in this landscape of brown vegetation still weeks from turning green, the lake ice still a month from melting, the land mostly bare rock and the sky a cold blue-gray bowl of northeast wind for days at a stretch?

I spotted a couple of seagulls standing forlornly on the ice by the tiny outflow of the creek, staring down into the puddle as if just maybe there would be something to eat there, as I ripped past on what we thought would be our final dogteam run out onto the bay. That was on a warm evening a while back, and then it turned cold again, and we were still running teams on the ice as of three days ago. The seagulls have been here in steadily growing numbers since the first one appeared on May seventh, took a look around, and disappeared for five days before showing up again.

A famous sentence from Thoreau: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” I will place the expanded quote below this post for those would like to see that sentence in context.  It is from the chapter “Spring” of his masterpiece Walden.  A book which should, in my not-so-humble opinion, be required reading for every literate citizen of the world, maybe once every five years.  But no.  The economy would go to hell in a handbasket.  Air Miles and Apple and Amazon Prime, Walmart and Costco would buckle and fold.  Oh, the horror.

Pasturing. And what oh what was that bear pasturing on?  The one I flew over just the other day, as I was homeward bound in the Husky after a day spent drilling through the ice for lake-sediment samples (at the behest of geologists on the trail of a rich cobalt deposit — cobalt being a darling of the exploration business just now, as it is a key ingredient of those electric-car and smart-phone lithium-ion batteries.) The bear was sitting at ease on its haunches, in a patch of sand, three miles up a narrow valley from the frozen expanse of McLeod Bay. I was not sure at first whether or not it was a bear or a muskox I was seeing, and I was intrigued enough to turn around even though I was eager to get home for dinner. I slowed and doubled back and lost three hundred feet of altitude. Came back upwind with the wing flaps down.  Creeping below the lee of the ridge, groundspeed less than 45 knots, I turned off the strobelights on the wingtips. As I got closer I thought, no, not a bear, just a big black rock. But no again, as up the boulder jumped and sprinted out of the sandflat into the sparse cover of the scraggly burnt taiga. The scraggly burnt taiga that now forms the entirety of our late-May backyard, and stretches in an arc thirty miles long and seven wide, a vast sweep of country that looks to me to be capable of starving a small squirrel, never mind a four-hundred-pound bear.

It was not a grizzly, but a big black bear, not long awake after a solid six months of sleep. Although people who claim to know about such things have assured me that bears do not awaken in spring under any real “food stress,” I wonder if the same smug experts have ever confirmed this with the bears themselves. Seems to me that after a six-month fast, at least a few of the bears might be on the lookout for a little break-fast.  And all around that bear as I left him alone and climbed away southeast toward my own dinner, not a swelling bud or an open pond or a blade of green grass in sight – just ice and rock and brown burned forest. Our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing, Henry? Pasturing on what?

Maybe I am too easily amazed. This is becoming a theme with me, but I am intrigued and I keep circling back to it. This morning it is the pilot in me, wondering at the fuel-flow aspect of all that running and bounding and flapping and squawking. And the dog musher in me, tallying the total kilocalories burned in a day by a warm body in cold weather. And also just the weak, pink, mostly hairless human that, like billions of others, has held to the habit of tucking into three square meals a day, nonstop now for over six decades. Every wing beat of those seagulls and warblers, every loping stride of that bear, every waggle of a fin and lift of a paw, is energy being expended, and somehow, all around us, the critters roam and soar and swim around to find and procure that energy. They don’t split atoms or dam rivers; they never pump and pipe and burn fossilized jungles. Yet they go on and on. And if that is not amazing, and is not a plain instance of our own limits transgressed, then I don’t know what amazement or transgression are.

So long for now. Just barely squeaked this one in by the close of May. Tempus has been fugiting again. HDT’s lines are expanded below.

 

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

—  Thoreau, Walden

 

We are living even now among punishments and ruins. — Wendell Berry  

I must admit that I think of Berry’s pronouncement fairly frequently. As a more upbeat counterpoint to it, I think he might agree, on a good day, that we do live also in an age of startling confluences and juxtapositions. Layers upon layers of sometimes comical, sometimes thought-provoking non sequiturs that can pile up thick and fast enough to take your breath away.

For example, try to imagine fitting all of these together in one place, at one moment:

Grizzly bear, Islamic call to prayer, and a constellation of satellites circling the earth.  Ski-plane, seismometer, and six solar panels. Glacial esker, Haiti, and a stone spearpoint thousands of years old. Ottawa, Calgary, and Gardenia Lake. 

All of these converged for three of us on an afternoon in April 2010, about a hundred miles east of here on the edge of the tundra.  Looking back through my journals from that time, I cannot find any reference to that startling day. That lack of reference surprises me, because I still think about that day, and over the years I have regaled many friends with this story.

It was late winter, early spring – April in the far north.  I was flying our Bush Hawk on skis for the Geological Survey of Canada.  My passengers were Issam, a Syrian-born seismologist living in Vancouver and working for the GSC, and Alex, a native from the Lutsel K’e band of Dene.  We were based at the Hoarfrost River, and flying out each day from there to service a string of seismic sensing stations positioned about 25 miles apart.  The sensors were positioned to straddle a rift deep down in the earth’s crust.  Each station had a small buried box – the seismometer, which was sensitive to nearly imperceptible tremors in the earth – along with an electrical system and a storage computer and an array of solar panels.  The major stations also had a satellite dish, through which the data was transmitted in what computer gurus are fond of calling “real time.”  (Chew on that phrase next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in a line… “Hmm, I wonder if I am in real time right now?”)

Issam is not a happy aviator.  He has had some unpleasant experiences, I gather, so I was on my best pilot’s behavior that day – no steep turns, no sudden power changes – with airsickness bags handy in the side pocket next to his seat. He seemed to be doing okay and as we droned along I tried to get him to expound on what we were doing, partly to keep him from reaching for the sick sacks.  Over the intercom he happily told Alex and I about the P-waves and S-waves that are  generated by earthquakes, and he said that during a recent magnitude-four tremor down in the Andes of Peru, the little buried boxes quivered, way up here beneath the frozen tundra, “a tiny fraction of a millimeter.”  Each box registered the waves at a very precise moment, and the differential between each station’s onset of trembling could tell some of Issam’s colleagues about the earth’s crust, 50 kilometers (30 miles) below the surface, (read that again) and whether that structure might have potential to form a diamond-bearing kimberlite.

As we arrive overhead the site at Gardenia Lake, I circle to look at the ice and set up for landing.  We touch down and I taxi across lumpy snowdrifts toward shore, and shut down the engine.  We get the gear from the plane and walk a short distance up the steep side of the esker to the station.  The sidehill up to the esker top is drifted deep with snow.  We carry Issam’s toolboxes and gear, and Alex – our official “bear monitor,” without which not much institutional field work seems to take place in the outback of the North nowadays – totes a rifle in a scabbard.

“Oh Gotch” is one of Issam’s favorite exclamations, along with – at times – “I hate my job.” This latter is sometimes, but only sometimes, delivered with a smile. He is in high gear with the “Oh Gotch” line now, because it is clear that the Gardenia Lake seismic station is a real wreck.  Within the past few days, a grizzly bear has leaned hard enough on the back side of the big six-panel solar array to topple it forward and lever its aluminum footings out from beneath their ballast of hefty boulders. There is twisted metal and broken wire, and the faces of the big blue solar panels are all opaque with shattered glass. (But the panels remain functional; in fact several are still hard at work here at the Hoarfrost this morning nine years later, turning April sunshine into flowing electrons a few feet from where I sit writing.)

Issam gets out his laptop computer along with a satellite phone, and starts to troubleshoot. First he checks the contents of the station’s main box and all of its components, and tells us that the transmitter dish must be re-aimed.  He climbs up on the big support structure with a couple of wrenches in hand.  Comes back down, kneels on the gravel and pale green lichen and pulls out a satellite phone. Places a call and pokes his index finger at the computer keyboard while he waits for someone to answer.

Alex has gone for a walk down the esker, following the gentle curve of the upside-down meltwater river laid down by the Keewatin ice sheet ten thousand years ago. I can see him standing and smoking and looking south over the frozen white expanse of Gardenia Lake and its multitude of odd little circular islands.

Issam says, “OK, I’ll get him on the line too.”  He takes out a second phone and makes another call. “Jim?… Right… Yes.” He hands both phones to me.  “O.K., Dave, I’ll go up on the dish. Jim is in Calgary and he’s on this phone; Robin is in Ottawa on that one.  Just tell me what they say.” I kneel there with a phone in each ear, thinking to myself “Some days I just want to fly the plane.”  But hey, I tell myself, this is fun.  Stick with it.

Issam with his trusty wrenches goes back up on the dish.  Jim, in my right ear, says, “Tell him ‘up a little.’” I tell Issam.  “Okay, I see it.  Tiny nudge to one side.”  I relay.  “Okay, I see it. What does Robin say?” Robin, in my left ear, says “It’s getting better.”

“He says it’s getting better,” I tell Jim.

This goes on and on for many minutes, like a space-age version of the old “Who’s on first?” routine. Tweak tweak, nudge nudge, up and down, stronger and weaker, back and forth.  Finally, Robin is getting cheerier. Jim too.  “Okay, that’s it!” they both say.  “Tell him to lock it down!”

“Issam, they say to lock it down!” He does.  Calgary and Ottawa both still happy.  The dish is aimed at the right point in outer space.  Issam comes down and speaks briefly into each phone, and sets them both down. He is just about to go back toward the power supply box when from his laptop computer come the unmistakable strains of a Muslim call to prayer – at a pretty high volume.  Issam stops and turns to his computer, as if it is a person: “What?  What?” He looks at his watch.  I look at mine – it is three o’clock. The wailing continues. He turns down the volume.  Then he shuts the lid and the song stops.

“Oh, I know what it is,” he says. “That computer is still on Haiti time for prayers.  I was working down there in January with that computer, right after the big earthquake.”  He pauses. He seems perplexed. “Okay, I know. I’ll just pray now.  Then prayers are done. It’s okay if I do that.” He walks to his knapsack, pulls out a little rug, goes down the esker a few yards, spreads out the rug and kneels on it.

I feel a little awkward and turn away.  I see Alex, kneeling down on the esker too, looking closely at something.  I stand there in the silence.  This is really pretty wild, I’m thinking. But is it?

Issam comes back.  We set to work on tipping the panel back up and bracing it, twisting the bent aluminum frame into position.  We connect some wires and he checks to see that power is flowing. It is not full power, but it is April and there is plenty of light hitting the damaged panels. He thinks the seismometer and the transmitter will work.

And with the clincher here comes Alex, back from his walk.  He is silent, but smiling, as he holds out a perfect four-inch-long stone spearpoint in one gloved hand.

Of course, this would have been a perfect vantage point, to sit and look out and chip points and watch for caribou.  I wonder how long that spear point has been lying here. To my untrained eye, it looks identical to one a friend of ours found on the upper Hoarfrost, and we were told that one was four or five thousand years old.

We gather up our gear and walk to the plane.  Fire up and fly a hundred miles home.  Spring slush along the shore ice, but the ice on the main bay still 45 inches thick.

And that was it.  Maybe you are wondering what the point of all this is. Not sure there is one, but I remember that day often, and the memory mostly makes me smile. Maybe it should not.  After all, Issam’s homeland has been torn apart by internecine strife.  A lot of Haiti is still a wreck after the earthquake of 2010. Alex and his culture are adrift and beleaguered, in a world almost completely out of touch with the world of the hunter who shaped that stone spear point. Still, my wonder, at all those layers of humanity, earth, and space (not to mention a strong brown bear) coalescing on that sunny April afternoon, mostly just makes me smile.

Day after day we weave together so many disparate threads, meanwhile trembling ever so slightly to the “S” waves and “P” waves of distant events. The fabric of our lives becomes – becomes what?  More intricate?  More perplexing? More sophisticated? More unhinged?

Not sure.  No grandiose conclusions here tonight, from this cowboy. Just bemused astonishment.

 

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