“The Way We Live”

  • By John Haines

Having been whipped through Paradise

and seen humanity

strolling like an overfed beast

set loose from its cage,

a man may long for nothing so much

as a house of snow,

a blue stone for a lamp,

and a skin to cover his head.


If I was required to pick one month in the year when I would be willing, even happy, to hibernate, it would be November. The first to the thirtieth, full stop. Oh yes, I would miss some things. All the drama of freeze-up on the big lake, ice making and un-making and making again, cold clear nights with a moon coming on, roaring southwesterly gales and the crash of waves in the night; then more nights of deep cold, then another southerly gale. The ice edge advancing and receding; the days steadily shortening as we slide toward Solstice.

The big lake is still open but inland it is Winter, and there are dogs to run and trails to break. Mushing, in this first month of the six or seven we get here, is a sled and bone pounder. A daily or twice-daily or every-other-day ritual: suit up, fire out of the yard behind a team of pent-up berserkers, up the slope, banging and careening, a wild dodge-em course of boulders and burnt stumps. On twilight runs – especially if I have hooked up one or two more dogs than would have been prudent – I find myself reminiscing about 2 a.m. trips through the “buffalo tunnels” of the Farewell Burn behind a big team just coming fresh off their 24-hour layover on the Iditarod. Meeting Robin Jacobson and laughing as he flashed his trademark smile and pointed to his wild fast team and muttered – “these crazy (*&%#*) sonsabitches tried to kill me last night!” and knowing exactly what he was saying.

Gradually, day by day, the dogs settle in, the snow gets deeper after each small layering and the stumps and rocks gradually subside beneath it, not to be seen again until spring. Luckily, so far, no sprains or cuts, nothing but a few aches and twists. Sleds holding up with only the usual minor damage – brush bows, brake claws, stanchion attachments, runner shoes. Early season mushing – yes, it can be done, but really, some days, the question is – must we?

And flying? November takes the cake. This past month there has been almost no flying to be done, and mostly (when I don’t look at the bank account) I have just said “thank goodness for that.” Ice fog rolling off open water, rime on wings and propeller blades, thickening fast (but how fast, and should we turn back or will it get better ahead?), ice beginning to build up on the windshield and – most invisible but most unnerving –the air intake for the engine. Low cloud, gale winds, thin ice or no ice on the lakes below, dusk coming on… Can we land on wheels or should we switch to skis (and thus no brakes)?  Jockeying and side-slipping into narrow strips of ice bounded by freezing water. November aviation in the North, and yes, it can be done, but really, again, on some days the question is – must we?

Mushing and flying and my other November vocation these days — cold-weather carpentry — would challenge even the most stalwart jackpine savage at this season. But then there is the sleep. Oh, oh, November sleep. On these long November nights my sleep wraps around me like some delicious drug. Up in our half-loft on the high wall of the big cool room, deep in soft piles of quilts, my sweetie warm and smooth at my side, hour after hour I sleep, night after night. Weary after the day spent mostly outdoors in the cold, hours full of chores and the incessant re-building — fumbling with sharp metal, bare fingers, hammer and saw and straightedge. Twilight mushing, as noted above. And finally sleep — delicious, healing, dark, warm.

The world news lately has not helped my eagerness to embrace daytime November realities. We tune it in nearly every evening, and the voices of the BBC or the CBC bring it to us, beamed down from the satellite, which twelve years ago vanquished the long AM antenna wire strung out between two trees. We listen during the hour of making dinner and washing dishes, then gladly we agree to turn it off and instead eat our dinner to some favorite music.

Slaughter, mayhem, chaos, slander, shouting; hatred and reprisal, and re-reprisal, and the inevitable revenge for the re-reprisal. Fanaticism of every stripe. I stand stunned and speechless there some nights, elbow deep in warm dishwater, hearing it all, knowing my children, and all children, are hearing it all. I have nothing to say, and I have nothing to write about it here that will say anything or mean anything. All I know is that every now and then lately, on these November nights, as I hear the “news” I find myself glancing at the clock above the stove.

Nearly eight, I think to myself. In an hour and a half, maybe an hour forty-five, I can be up in bed. Day done, stove fire set till the 3 a.m. stoke and stroll outside, up there with a book, which Kristen will gently close and set to one side when she climbs up a little later, and finds me already far gone with my pal Morpheus, diving deep, off and away, happy to follow my dreams wherever they lead.

Yes, it would be in November that I would be keen to take a lesson from brother bear. He lowers himself gently into his hole sometime around Halloween, his fat rolled around him like a thick white duvet, his belly stuffed with the last of the lingonberries, crowberries, maybe a final snack of caribou or juicy ground squirrel. He makes his careful mattress of heather and willow twigs (Bears do make a mattress. I’ve seen these dens, and I crawled inside a couple one August when their occupants were long gone.  I was with a biologist who knew where they were because he had been tracking grizzlies with radio collars, and he knew where a dozen of them had made their dens.)

He drifts off, his long summer of roaming done. No book even, no dishes to do, no world “news” to try to comprehend. He dives deep, dreaming hard, happy to follow wherever those dreams lead. Months go by. He wakes to spring.

That must be an amazing feeling, to sleep for five months. I don’t want to wake to spring, because I truly would not want to miss the winter. But I would be happy to say “good night” on Halloween some year, and wake to, oh, about the 10th of December. 70 miles of bay all smoothly frozen out front, the snow pillowed deep atop the boulders and stumps on the inland trails, both planes on skis with a wide smooth landing strip marked for them on the ice, clear cold skies and no ice fog. Some year I’d like to try it – just to see how good it could be.


For years I kept a little book of quotations, jotted from here and there. Words I found compelling or inspiring, copied by hand or typed out and folded into the binder. They run a wide gamut, from Thomas Merton to Dag Hammarskjöld to Edward Abbey. Looking through it this morning to find an obscure quote, I was surprised to see a long-forgotten passage by Pierre Trudeau, on the topic of canoeing and canoe trips, translated from the French. For those of you south and west or even east of our long border, I point out that this one strikes a timely note since Trudeau’s son Justin and his cadre of “Liberals” (one of the three or four or five major political parties in Canada today – depends on what we want to call “major — there have arguably been only two major federal  parties in Canada over the years) swept back into power on October 19 in an election that ousted the ruling “Conservatives.”

I use quotation marks because “Liberal” and “Conservative” can excite some notions that upon closer examination quickly become untenable, and murky, and well, let’s not go too far down that road right now. Suffice it to say that in my humble opinion it’s still Mr. Big – as in Corporations, Guvmints, Insurance, and Banks – calling the shots and the dance steps.  Red, blue, even orange — slight swings of the big pendulum, all, and certainly a change is welcome from time to time (every political persuasion has a shelf life, like every lump of cheddar) but if you follow the money and blood trails up and down the political food chain, you always come back to various suits and stripes of Mr. Big and his armies and his boardrooms and his markets.  

But hey, my topic today is toilets, not politics. Thankfully, through the serendipity of sloppiness and of having had more than one working desk and overloaded bookshelf in odd corners of our various buildings over the years, my old wire-bound notebook of inspirations survived the wildfire of 2014. In it I found the quote I was looking for. Memory tells me I copied it from a collection of Morning Readings at the Outward Bound School where I worked from 1979 until 1984:

“I like to think that I am sufficiently in tune with the natural world around me that I hear every owl that calls within hearing distance of my house, day or night. Pissing outdoors is essential to this awareness; the invention of indoor plumbing was a monstrous step in the reduction of human awareness of natural phenomena, in the ability to recognize ourselves as earth animals.” — Daniel Kozlovsky

Now I have no idea who Daniel Kozlovsky is, or where he was writing, and a brief search this morning did not turn up any useful clues, but in my notebook that passage is noted as his. Whoever he is, I heartily agree with his line of thinking there. At the annual birthday milestone just marked, 58 years and counting, I count myself lucky that I have never lived for long with “indoor plumbing,” that is, an indoor flush toilet (and don’t get me going on indoor composting toilets either.)  In fact I have now lived far longer without this sacrosanct modern “convenience” than I lived, in those first 21 years of my life, with it. And I am thankful for that, because I know that not everyone is so lucky.   If you live in a city you must of course make other arrangements for this most fundamental animal necessity. Clearly the urban life, zippy and hopping and inspiring as it is (or at least as it can appear from this remove, on a quiet early-winter night – it’s quarter to nine already? Geez, I’m heading up to bed…) does not lend itself to a scenario of citizens casually strolling out to the deck and standing for a few moments there to “water the petunias,” or strolling up the hill to a quiet timber-frame outhouse to sit for a while and read poetry with the door open.

Last night, as every night, I did just that, the watering the petunias part.  As I stood out there at the edge of the creek bottom and beyond the pool of light from the workshop window, stars bright above on the coldest night of the autumn so far, I watched a big bird fly a straight course east, in absolute silence, at treetop level. By that time of night (ravens all gone to roost I would think), and since its wing strokes were so silent and powerful, I think it had to be one of the big owls – a Great Gray or a Great Horned. So I thought of Kozlovsky’s passage and this morning went searching for the old binder. His words ring true, and that traipsing out and back, out and back, out and back, in all weathers and all seasons and in every temperature from warm to mild to deeply cold, in mosquito season and wind and rain and sun, does help us to recognize ourselves as earth animals. It also contributes to a steadily refreshed awareness, renewed every 4 or 5 hours around the clock (male aging being what it is), of wind direction, sky cover, precipitation, ice noises, and on and on, year in year out. And that, I am saying, is important, and welcome. At least to me.

This line of reflection calls to mind a long-ago exchange with a friend in town, a city woman not much taken with bush life. We were chatting 20 years ago about the new log house Kristen and I were building out at the Hoarfrost. She worked the conversation around to plumbing and then asked whether we might at last be taking some step forward from the little brown shack out back, when it came to, well, toilets.

No, I said, we would be sticking with the outhouse, and with our eminently successful Precambrian Shield variation on that age-old edifice. To wit, the outhouse with no pit.   A 5-gallon pail, handily and frequently changed, with moist sawdust (in summer) and dry wood ash (in winter) close at hand, to cover, cat-like, one’s contribution. Alongside the seat, and alongside the pail of ash or sawdust with its handy scoop, a metal pail for toilet paper, to be burnt on a weekly basis. (This detail is important.)  

We have used this system for years and it continues to elicit rave reviews from city folk whose notion of an outhouse is the typical yawning hole and rickety wooden bench, perched atop a reeking cesspool of unpleasantness.

And what, you may ask, becomes of that pail of wood-ash and “night soil,” or sawdust and same, when it is swapped out? Here again the main thing is to avoid the pit. A simple mound out in the open air, atop solid granite maybe 60 yards up the hill, supporting a thick patch of raspberry and fireweed. Nearly odorless even in thawing springtime, frozen and snow-covered all winter, innocuous and blooming through the summers. Sunlight, you see, and the marvelous antiseptic qualities of dry moving air and ultraviolet radiation. Those are the secrets. And again, of course, this won’t work in the city, and I realize it wouldn’t even pass muster under the modern government “land-use” permit. (And maybe I am foolish to detail this here, lest the land-use boys show up and mandate some alternative to this eminently clean, time-tested, practical, raspberry-and-fireweed-festooned “system.”)

Visitors have even come back indoors and brought this up directly — “you know, that is the nicest outhouse I have ever used.” I suspect they might want to go so far as to say, “the nicest toilet I have ever used,” but I suppose that would take a few years. A few spring days with the door wide open, a good book at hand, the view out into the wide sun-washed world, where birds sing and a cool breeze wafts past… the Earth Animal at his or her ease. Which brings me to my twist on my friend’s query, and one I still trot out whenever I can.

“Oh, I don’t think I could ever do that – I mean, live with an outhouse,” she said.

“Oh,” said I, “I see. Yes. I understand. You really have no choice, living where you do, but to have one of those ghastly little rooms right inside your house, even right alongside your dining room or kitchen or bedroom, with one of those flimsy thin doors and a loud fan and a bright light, where you have to lock yourself in and go about your earthly animal rituals, fervently hoping that the gutless flush mechanism doesn’t clog up this time, sitting there alone yet almost still in the same room as your house-guests and family just a few feet away…

Yeah, I don’t think I could do that.”

So, no sympathy please. In fact, quite the opposite, thank you. And now excuse me, I need to step outside and check the weather and wind for a moment, and take a look off to the northwest to see whether the setting moon is visible. I’ll be right back.

And digging through the quotes book some more, there was this one. Comes across as a bit too feisty and Outlaw Country for my tastes these days, but Abbey had that streak, didn’t he?  And sometimes I do too.  Maybe we need a little more of it now and then, just to keep that pendulum swinging.

“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
Edward Abbey


10 September, McLeod Bay

Half-light before dawn. Scent of coffee and birch smoke. Growl of diesel in the distance – the final freight barge of the season rounds the headland west and slips out of sight. 210 miles to town. Safe voyage, boys, and a good winter.

Summer slipping away now. The lake nearly calm. Some yellow leaves.  Out in the dog yard the dogs are up and frisking – they know their time is coming.  

It strikes me yet again: the central season here is not summer. It is winter. Here it is almost always winter, or late winter, or leaning toward winter… Two months summer, two months what some would call autumn, two months, maybe, of spring. The other six? Winter, any way you cut it. If you don’t like winter, you’d best be on your way.

Work to do, yes of course. But gone is the old frantic autumn tyrant of the days narrowing down, with not all the summer work accomplished. Now there is a calm voice saying “If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. No sense letting it drive you nuts.”

And whispering even softer — “And hey, if you do get it done, who’s to say how long it will last? Or you, for that matter…”

I guess this is called aging. Maybe it is called wisdom. Whatever you call it, it is a voice telling me to quit every night and have time for a sit, or a sail, or a stroll.  If the woodshed is not full, we’ll cut wood all winter. If the guest house we’re building where the first one burned has no windows, or no doors, or no bunks, or, really, for that matter, not even a damned roof come the first flakes of snow, well? It won’t be for lack of trying. And so be it.

And so be it.  

  Postscript, September 24.

Same time of the morning, but two weeks have passed and it is dark at this time of day now.  The summer grate has been pulled from the firebox of the kitchen stove and the fire is crackling at full bore.  The Equinox has come round again.

The new guest cabin has a roof deck. It has been a long steady round, day by day in sun and wind and blowing rain and flurries of snow, and we pulled it off.  Eventually it did become a blitz, and for some days there was nothing but the work, and chores, and meals, and sleep.  Wonderful friends and family, talented all. No roofing, but a roof deck and taped seams and now I am away to Ontario for some book readings and presentations. Home again in 9 days to have at it all again.

— Oh, and anyone out there considering building a log octagon instead of the usual square or rectangular box: please take a moment and drop me a note for a word of advice and a reality check, and perhaps even some gentle dissuasion… Wow, talk about angles! More like boatbuilding than cabin building.

Far from finished, but it’s a beauty, rising above the ashes of the old cabin, some of the wall logs charred as testament to their recent demise, perched on bedrock and overlooking the still-shallowing waters of McLeod Bay.

And so be it.

“Maudlin” is the first cautionary word that springs to mind as I settle in to write something about Ernie.   Dog eulogies and paeans to dog loyalty are fraught with the hazard of slipping into that syrupy goo that coats drugstore greeting cards. But I will try. Ernie always did.  (oops, that was close.)

Here’s some of what I wrote about Ernie in Kinds of Winter, from the chapter West:

…“I was starting to realize that Ernie was, for me, the once-in-a-lifetime sled dog that Lady Luck bequeaths on a lifelong musher. Ernie was with me on all four solo trips, beginning as a two-year-old. On this trip west, at age five and a half, he was at or near the peak of his physical prowess. I do know this: I have never had a dog quite like him.

…I must savor every mile with Ernest Heming-dog, because I’m not sure I’ll ever see the likes of him again. He has it all – speed, honesty, toughness, and a nearly insane desire. Often I think, as I watch him run, ‘Man, where were you those years when I was racing?’

…Ernie is simply a gift.”

…Ernie with his ears laid flat, like a running back threading a broken field of players, ducking and weaving, looking for the best line through, over, and around the steep hard drifts.  A quietly spoken ‘gee’ or ‘haw’ from me every few seconds… Watching them run I thought, ‘They do not do this for me.  They do it because, to them, running in harness in a team is the bedrock core of everything they love about life itself.'”

That was 2005. There was a lot more to come from Ernie after those four solo trips.   In the autumn of 2010 our daughter Annika, then 14, started training dogs for the Junior Iditarod. We talked about Ernie, who was 11 years old and would be nearly 12 when the race was run in February. “Well, he’s too old” we all agreed, “But let’s just keep him in training for now. As the mileages go up he’ll let us know at some point that he’s struggling and we’ll take him off the main string. Up until then he’ll be a help teaching the younger leaders…”

Annika trained, and the mileages went up. 25, 35, 45… In hindsight, it might be that the mileages never went quite high enough that year, because the dogs were not veterans of racing, only of traveling and expeditions, and there is quite a difference. Ernie hung in there; not only stayed in the team but continued to lead and pull and make decisions and show himself to be every bit as good as the rest. When the day came to load the plane and fly to Yellowknife, and there to rent a truck and head for Anchorage, 11-year-old Ernie was still on the 10-dog “A Team”;  in fact he was among the three or four dominant dogs on it.

The Junior Iditarod is a short race, really, and its resemblance to the Iditarod mostly stops with the fact that it shares some of the same historic trail. It is a 75-mile nonstop run, then a ten-hour mandatory layover at a campsite near Yentna Roadhouse, and another 75-mile run back to Willow. It is all over in less than 30 hours. Annika and our dogs have run in it twice, and each time they have struggled. That 2012 race was a success for Annika in the sense that she accomplished what she set out to do, but it was a grueling slog to the finish line that February Sunday, with one young dog riding the final miles perched in the sled, a team that had lost its spark, and a young musher venturing onto new ground mentally and physically.  Old Ernest was the lead dog that dragged that weary team to the finish line, mile after slow, sunny, mid-afternoon mile. At the finish line Annika just went up to him and lay there with him, tears dropping down her cheeks onto his head and her race-number bib. (Okay that was maudlin, sorry.)

And on he went. He led expedition teams with students and tourists into the winter of 2012, then slowly and gradually began to fade. We turned him loose and he began another memorable phase of his long life. With his sister Sophie and his cousin Wishbone, the Geriatric Squad was a fixture around here for two winters straight – sleeping every night in the warmth of the house (except Sophie, who chose to share doghouses with a few selected boyfriends out in the yard.) 30 or 40 below, but outside all day every winter day, with a spring to their steps as they made laps around the homestead. It was both comical and poignant to watch Ernie rally his buddies, lead them out for a couple of rounds onto the ice, and come into the stretch below the sauna where he had led teams into the yard hundreds or thousands of times over the years. There he would instinctively break from a trot into a slow lope, up the hill and into the yard.

By the spring of this year, coming past the 16-year mark, it was just Sophie and Ernie. The other day, I found him sleeping out on the edge of the yard and it was not clear at first if he was sleeping or dead. His limbs akimbo, his head kinked at an odd angle, his fur speckled with soot and sap (as we all are around here these summer days.) As I walked up to him I said his name, loudly, but he did not stir. As my foot bumped the ground right alongside him he woke. Lurched to his feet and gave me that look I had seen so many times – “Oh hey boss, yeah so what are we doing now?”

Early on Saturday the freight barge from Yellowknife showed up here with a load of fuel drums and lumber, and the morning was a 5-hour flurry of unloading and shuttling and piling something like 30,000 pounds onto shore. Morning chores were skipped completely and thus Ernie was not missed until dinnertime, when he didn’t show up at the barn for his supper.

We all knew this was not good. Gradually we widened the scope of our search, but could not find him. Sophie his sister looked a little disoriented, drifting around in loops as if she wasn’t sure what had happened. We all hoped we would simply find Ernie curled up under one of his favorite spruces, having drifted painlessly from sleep to whatever lies beyond this life.

Sunday night, as I was taxiing out on floats for a round of charter work, Kristen called me on the VHF: “Found some fur and blood down here under a spruce west of the sauna, where Ernie liked to sleep. Drag marks up the ridge. Wolf, I think.”

I hope it was quick. It probably was. Miss you, old chum. You showed us. How to love work, how to rise to the occasion, how to discern even the faintest of trails, and eventually, when the time comes, how to grow old.

I think that one function of a shared journal like this blog, and in fact a corollary but still constructive benefit of recording the daily life at any remote outpost, is to note and pass along the observations and the musings that come our way – way out there.   There being here, for us, and here being the northeast coast of this enormous lake, fifth largest on the continent.  Perhaps a cop-out for a writer, to simply post a rambling morning dispatch and oblige others to peruse it, if only by default, and expect that some of them will find it interesting, but given such a unique geographical perspective I will do so, for that is the gist of what I am inspired to do today.   Take it or leave it, friends. There’s no real theme coming in the paragraphs below.   You might want to go for a walk instead…  But here’s how it is here, a week past Summer Solstice, on McLeod Bay at 62° 51’ North, 109° 16’ West:

Front deck of workshop.   Birdsong. Cool air with just a hint of an easterly breeze. Today there are nearly enough mosquitoes, but not quite enough, to force me and my morning coffee off the deck and back into the workshop. (We as a family still stubbornly insist on calling it “the workshop,” although in reality it has been “the house” for almost precisely a year now, and I do hear that usage creeping in.)

This morning the smoke is thick here, and visibility is down to a mile or two, but the smoke’s precise origin is not threatening or obvious. There are dozens of wildfires burning many miles to the south and southwest of here, between Hay River and Fort Smith, west into the Fort Simpson and Mackenzie region. I just traversed some of that area two days ago, flying northeast out of Fort Nelson (all these “Forts” in Canada and the West — what are we still so stockaded against?) after bolting floats onto the Husky for the open-water season, and enduring what we hope is the finale of a long and frustrating and expensive saga with its exhaust system (don’t get him started…)   In cruise I sat up there for over three hours in that favorite perch of mine, happy and cool and alone at 9500 feet, OAT about -1° Celsius, while below me lumbering tankers, bumblebee helicopters, and nimble “bird dog” turbines buzzed around the smokes and scurried back and forth to Hay River and High Level for top-ups on fuel and retardant. I listened through my headset to their busy radio chatter.

South from there hundreds more fires are burning across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Yukon and Alaska, and on down into the Excited States, from what I gather. ‘Tis the season, again this year. I do not have a clear grasp of the scope of the boreal and montane fire belt this season, for I have completely stopped looking at the public-information fire maps on the internet.   In fact I have not looked at an online fire map since sometime early last July, and I am not sure I will ever seek out and flash up that particular web page again. Even the thought of doing so raises my blood pressure, and pumps to the surface an unpleasant bile of anger and frustration. A relic left over from staring at them — and talking to officials who last year (and I suspect still this morning) placed far, far too much faith in their moment-to-moment accuracy.   As ensuing events and a winter of tense de-briefs have now made plain. As with everything in print or on a screen, lest we ever forget, it has to be taken with an ample scoop of reader and viewer beware. It’s a portrayal of the world, not a world of real time — whatever the hell that means — and it is spun by so many vagaries and layers of technicality, timing, and blatant prejudice, intentional or no, that what emerges is always and forever suspect… to put it mildly.

(Eyes back to the almighty screen now, everyone. We’ll brook no more of that pontificating bullshit or blowhard subjectivity here, I assure you…)

The first anniversary of “our fire” – the fire that took out our home – is approaching, and these days our thoughts and conversations circle back to the clear progression of events which led up to it last year. Hindsight is always so darned clear, isn’t it?  We do not intend to have the rest of our lives here defined by that fire, but as the calendar swings round a year we do quite naturally hark back to it all.   My father was always a great one for the dinnertime conversational gambit of “Last year at this time we were…” or “Next week at this time we’ll be…“ so I do come by this habit honestly. But that recognition of anniversary will be, on this calm morning, my final nod to that topic, and to our changed blackened home valley. Onward through the smoke.

The smoke, its presence or absence or thickness day to day, is just an interesting fact here now, like rainfall or wind direction. We have joined a handful of boreal bush dwellers with virtually no concern at all about the threat of wildfire, now that we are encircled by a 10-mile “blackline” in three directions and a 2000-foot-deep liquid blue line to the south.  Last night just before midnight the thunder crashed and the lightning was so bright that Annika claimed she saw the flash through closed eyes. The house (sorry, the workshop) shook. A strike to the north, but as the rain pelted down I did no more than climb out of bed and have a sleepy casual glance out the north door. Good luck starting a fire out there, I thought…

Or maybe that blue-line to the south is only 1,999 feet deep.   Out on the calm lake, whose horizon melds seamlessly into the gray-tan smoke, two rocks jut up from the glassy water just east of our Windmill Island. That island has not truly been an island for at least 10 years now, although I can remember when the channel between it and the shore was deep enough to float a passing canoe or even to row the skiff across with the motor tipped up. That was the early nineties, give or take. Those two rocks, along with a couple of others and a big field of stones and sand down near the river mouth, are benchmarks of the lake level. They still catch my eye whenever I see them, because for 28 years they were not visible and today they jut nearly a foot out of the water. Those rocks plainly say “in your brief decades here the lake has never been so low.” The volume of water represented by a one foot drop in the level of a lake this large is nothing shy of staggering. It reiterates the fact that something close to 70 percent of Great Slave’s inflow comes from the Peace and Athabasca, which join at Fort Chipewyan and are re-named the Slave (not for any slaves,  but after the Slavey bands and language-speakers of that region), and which are fed by the snows of the Rockies and the watersheds of northern Alberta and B.C.

Low water, smoke, the sun a copper disk through what look to be clear skies high above. I will climb up there later today. An elderly woman, a lifelong adventurer from Germany and Calgary, is on our flying schedule today, to be met in Lutsel K’e and dropped off with her gear about 200 miles northeast on the tundra, for a two-week solo sojourn on the lower Hanbury.

Two nights ago a pair of women, canoeing, both from Smithers British Columbia and both of them mothers of adult children grown and fledged, marked our first drop-ins of drop-in season. They intend to be out for no less than 10 more weeks, final destination the Arctic Ocean via the Hood River or the Coppermine. (Still deciding which, and no rush to do so just yet.) Starting point Yellowknife. Inspiring, pleasant people, as almost all self-propelled passers-by here have been over the years. Last night Kristen came with me and we flew in the Husky to drop off a re-supply cache of their food and supplies up on the far side of Pike’s Portage.    

Family stirring, work to do. Even more mosquitoes now. Ferocious bloodthirsty youngsters, just hatched, and it’ll be “Sally-bar-the-door” (I have always loved that expression – Kentucky? Daniel Boone?) for a month or so now.

A rambling missive from the quiet shoreline of McLeod Bay. Best I can do this June morning.   Happy Solstice all.

Henry David Thoreau, from Visitors, Chapter 6 of Walden:

                “I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not… young men who had ceased to be young and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions, — all these generally said that it was not possible to do so much good in my position. Ay! There was the rub. The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger, — what danger is there if you don’t think of any? – and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment’s warning. To them the village was literally a com-munity, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.”




On a warm afternoon in May

I shut down the saw, took off the hardhat, and just stood a while with you.


“I‘ve thought about this all winter.  We’re in this together.  I’m staying.”


“A year ago today, on that long Sunday walk

North high along the ridge, then down to the falls and back along the river —

You were so full and soft and fresh and alive.

I will remember that day for the rest of my life.”


And in my mind’s voice I went on:

“And I see you now,

Black and scarred and twisted,

Roots and limbs all skewed akimbo,

Heaps of dust and ash,

You know – you really look like Hell!”


And I heard a whisper back, or thought I did, as I stood alone and quiet:


Yup and believe me, I feel kinda like Hell too. 

It’s gonna take a long time to heal from this.

You’ll be dead and gone a hundred years

              before I’m ever green and full and lovely like that day.


“I know,” I said. “But hey — there’s no place else I’d rather be.

I’m going to stay and watch the start of this

              for as long as I’m up and around.”

So count me in.”  



Call me odd but I do love Winter.  

I love it and, truth be told, every spring I am a little sad to see it end.


Here in the high north I love its breadth: those dark mornings now five months past,

Sitting by the crackling stove sipping coffee – ah, no rush,

                 quarter to seven and still three hours ‘til sunrise.

And its depth: those coldest days, the days we just stayed close to home,

Cancelling work, splitting wood, gathering spruce tips for the dogs’ houses,

                their barks an icy fog at forty-five below.


And now at last I love its sloppy sunlit finish:

Working all day in shirtsleeves, bare-handed for the first time since September,

Swinging a big hammer

In time

                to the music of the rushing creek and the robin’s song.


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