Late April and it has been, so far, a late spring.

We go to the shed and count and figure;

we are running low on kibble and rice for the dogs.

A look at the calendar and some quick calculations.

Better try for a load, by plane, from the stockpile

that came last summer, on the barge to the narrows.

 

On maybe the second-to-last day I would even consider it,

I fly to Taltheilei and touch down on the ice,

forty feet from the broad blue swath of open water there.

Taxi the plane north on a narrow band of shoreline white,

up into the narrows as far as I dare, and shut down.

The ice along shore is still thick and sound,

but the water is wide and wave-flecked,

what with the narrows and the current,

a south wind and the welcome warmth of the springtime sun.

 

On snowshoes I tow a pair of plastic sleds,

pick my way along the sharp border of blue water and white ice,

on up through deep snow, past the summertime boats and docks of the lodge,

to the Sea Can where the barge crew dropped it.

 

Wrestle with padlock and rusty hinges,

swing the big door open through the heavy wet drifts.

Inside it is clean and dim, dry and cool.

Three pallets and a wheelbarrow, two jugs of avgas cached last autumn.

80 bags of kibbled dog food on two skids,

milled in Perham Minnesota,

and half a skid, or thirty 20-kilo bags, of plain white rice.

(From where? From Thailand! Welcome to the brave new world.)

 

Here is food for the sled dogs at home. Shipped north from the factories of the south, from the floors of North America’s slaughterhouses and canneries and chicken farms and corn and beet and wheat mills, the offal and waste and leftover detritus of this weird and utterly unholy world food system that we all inhabit and that we all, almost without thought or contemplation, every day embrace, and ingest.

“Broken rice” bagged in Thailand – the broken stuff sells cheaper and cooks faster, but might not be so favored by the market, so we buy it for the dogs, and it’s good stuff and we eat it ourselves.  Here is a half-ton of it, half a world away from where it grew, sitting on a pallet and soon to be airlifted to the Hoarfrost River, 140 miles past the end of the road. On this sunny day in late winter in northern Canada,  I think about this.

These pallets are still shrink-wrapped, so I reach for the knife on my belt, to slit the thick taut half-inch layer of plastic. Gently now, gently, I think to myself as I start to cut, and suddenly I laugh out loud.  Because this is so exactly like skinning a moose – or a musk ox, or a caribou, or a bear, or even a fish – all those good, wild, real, and truly holy things that dogs and people up here can eat. I’m thinking of all of them that my various knives and these hands of mine have skinned in their career. Chuckling at this irony, easing the sharp tip of the blade along, just beneath the layers of clear shrink-wrap, trying not to puncture the bulging kibble-bags stacked inside.

And this is how we feed our sled dogs now. Our draft animals.  Our winter freedom and summer servitude.  Yes.  I think about this.  I have thought about this. I must not stop thinking about this.

No more these days the shot, the blood, the frozen pile of carcasses. Lance and Richard’s and Gus’s and Ingstad’s and Louison’s dogs, like countless generations of huskies before them, used to go nuts at the crack of the rifle, the merest hint of un-sheathing a weapon, with a herd in sight, because they knew what almost always came next – raw liver, hot blood, crack of bone and thick marrow jelly.  Our dogs, by contrast, are panicked by the crack of gunfire.  As most dogs are, for there is no connection there to food, for them – no Pavlov’s bell.

Yes, of course there is our fish net in summer and autumn, and slabs of good fat fish are hung to dry, and to be boiled up each morning in the barn with the rice. But let’s be forthright and clear-eyed here:  when all is said and done, feeding our big teams of dogs comes right down to this: placing the order, wiring the payment, loading the semi-trucks in Vancouver and Winnipeg, then at Hay River or Yellowknife loading the barge, then at Taltheilei the boat or the plane… stowing and stacking these forty-pound bags of kibble and rice.  My huskies and I are thus complicit with the whole damned mess, the entire untenable system of supply and consumption. Them’s the facts, ma’am, despite anyone’s furry romantic notions about what’s going on here in the far north.

Living where we do, and wanting to make miles in winter, it’s a choice narrowed to two options: snowmobiles and barrels of gas, or sled dogs and bags of rice and kibble. If you want to travel miles out from home on snow and ice, in a seven-month stretch from mid-October to the end of May, and to do it with any kind of speed or hauling any real load, those are your two choices. Given the options, my choice so far has always been to feed sled dogs and to keep simple bare-bones skidoos.  I’m sixty now and I don’t see that choice changing.

Four decades of dog-food runs, first by truck down to Duluth and back, when I lived in northern Minnesota, and by boat or barge or plane, for the past 30 years up here beyond all the roads. I do a little math – maybe 10,000 sacks of kibble and rice, along with 30 tons of lard from pigs and cattle, and 4,000 gallons of oil squeezed from yellow prairie canola crops… Thought-provoking numbers. Dogs are the winter transportation choice we have made, and these have been their fuels.

City people arrive at our place and see the dog-yard and ask – “Wow, what does it cost you to feed and look after all these dogs?”  I get a little tired of this, to tell the truth.  As if I would walk out to their attached garage or back alley and have the gall to intone, “Wow, what does it cost you to feed and look after all these vehicles?” or to stand at a ranch or a reservation in Alberta or Wyoming and say, “Wow, what does it cost you to feed and look after all these horses?” But people are funny, and our back-country household economics somehow seem to be fair game to a lot of them. Like I said, we choose to run sled dogs, and we have no regrets.

I have skinned the pallet of kibble and laid bare the smooth shiny bags. I slip my knife back to my belt. Four snowshoe treks with the little plastic sleds, back and forth to and from the plane. Hard work in the deep snow, and on the third trip I search out a cup in the pilot shed by the dock, scrape and rinse some sort of old brown grunge out of it, and gingerly walk to the edge of the ice for a sip of cold Taltheilei water.

Lock up the sea can, load the plane, kick the skis loose, strap myself in, fire up. The Husky (a happy coincidence, I assure you, for a lifelong musher to make his living flying a plane with that moniker) lifts off in trademark style, just in the nick of distance, banks in a slow climbing turn with the heavy load onboard, and rolls out bearing northeast.  I level at 3500’ ASL, 3,000 feet above the lake, for the 40-minute flight, 65 nautical miles to home.

There our four new pups, and all the veterans of the main team, are hungry and eager. They will set up a long howl at the distant sound of the little plane, long before Kristen can hear me coming.  The sound of the engine must be their version of the crack of a rifle in a herd of caribou, or the boat coming ashore from the gill net — the distant sound of some machine on water or sky, bearing a load of kibble and rice, boxes of lard and pails of vegetable oil.

I’ll land and we’ll unload, put the plane to bed for the night, and it will be feeding time again in the dog-yard. As it has been for years, and as it will be for years, I suppose, if these dubious lines of supply continue to hold, and we continue to make our uneasy peace with it all.

 

(This is after all the bushed pilot blog, so now and then the bushed pilot writes something about flying!)

Pilots quickly learn that some people dislike flying, and that, among those, a sizeable population does not enjoy flying in small airplanes. “Small” being anything less than the size of, say, a Dash Eight or an Avro RJ or a Boeing 737.  Those are all small airliners by today’s standards, but they are large enough that somehow going aboard and finding a seat can almost convey the impression – the illusion — that no rising from the surface of the earth and hurtling through thin air is about to happen.

The other day I flew with a young Norwegian adventurer over to the village of Lutsel K’e, 55 miles southwest of our place, in the Husky.  The Aviat Husky, for those unfamiliar with it, takes “small aircraft” to the smallest end of the spectrum.  Two seats, front and back, for a pilot and passenger; a fuselage welded and bolted to an ample pair of wings; an engine and propeller; instruments, control stick and rudder pedals, and some sort of landing gear – fat tires, wheel-skis, or floats. Total takeoff weight about 2000 pounds.  It is a marvelously capable, modern, and robust little flying machine, but the emphasis is emphatically on “little.” (There is a photo of the Husky on the “About This Blog” page — but please read on.)

My passenger had just completed an eight-month sojourn in one of the most remote parts of the North American mainland, and he had come through his long adventure in good spirits, and mostly healthy. The tip of one toe was giving him some worry and pain, thanks to a scary encounter with thin ice, cold water, and frozen ski boots, but he was hale and hearty. He was eager to go home to his farm in Norway, and at the same time sad to leave this beautiful part of the circumpolar world.  I glanced back at one point in our 35-minute flight, expecting to see him glued to one of his side windows, ogling the cliffs and coves along the south shore of Christie Bay. I was surprised to see him instead looking down, sidelong.  “What?” I thought, “Is he staring at his frickin’ phone?”  Maybe he was; I didn’t ask.  We landed on the runway at Lutsel K’e and taxied up to the tiny terminal building. “Looks just like Gatwick,” he quipped.  He gracefully extricated himself from the back seat of the plane (no easy feat) and I started pulling his gear out of the cargo pod on the airplane’s belly.  Standing there on terra firma again, he said matter-of-factly, “I don’t like flying.  I never have.”

We talked and laughed a little about flying, and parachuting, and I told him that when I was in high school I had had ambitions of becoming a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service. The training center was in Missoula Montana, which is where I started university back in 1975.  I even knew a few smokejumpers who lived in the dormitories at the U of Montana, and every one of them was a confident, happy-go-lucky guy.  My path in life soon took me out of the mountains for a long time, and my interest in smoke-jumping morphed into a passion for dogsledding and the Far North.  Over the years I became a pilot, and as such I have joked now and then about my long-lost smoke-jumping aspirations: “Excuse me, but what inspires a person to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, into a forest fire!?” (Now, a little older yet, I have circled back around in my thinking. I think on some level I understand smokejumpers again. Too late now, alas.  But what a life!  What a livelihood!)

As I flew northeast toward the Hoarfrost after saying good-bye to my passenger, I thought about people who just don’t like flying.  Maybe, I mused, it’s a sign of intelligence.  At the very least, I think, it is a sign of clear and independent thinking. It seems like unhappy flyers – some of them, anyway – are the kind of people who have a habit of thinking on two levels.  One that discerns and appreciates the basic principles of the physical world, and the other that is keenly aware of the foibles of human nature. Gravity and weather, to name two examples of the former; distraction and hubris, as examples of the latter.  This frame of mind and level of intelligence is a direct contrast to lolling along in a shallow warm bubble-bath of glib assumptions, not to say naivety.

My good friend Mitch is another wise, savvy, adventurous soul who I think would be perfectly content if he was told he would never again need to step aboard what he refers to as “those heavier-than-air machines.”  But he does like visiting us at the Hoarfrost River, and so he flies along whenever he comes north.  (He and I first arrived at the Hoarfrost together by boat back in 1983, and he made that 210-mile voyage up the lake from Yellowknife again on a freighter just a few years ago.  I am willing to bet he has enjoyed those boat trips a lot more than any flight.)

There is a long list of other people I can think of, some of them daring climbers and skiers and sailors and so on, who become noticeably silent and pensive when aloft. I can tell they are not enjoying the ride or the view very much. I think it might be partly about trust and the control of one’s destiny, and the feeling of giving one’s fate over to someone else.  Because let’s face it, when you get into a plane as a passenger you are not doing anything less than saying:  Okay, I trust you, all of you.  I trust the flight crew, and the people who built and maintain this aluminum crate, and I trust all the layers of the Air Traffic Control system, and on and on.  For some people that’s a tall order of trust, what with Gravity being so steady and strong and eager to hurry us all home.

I have often wondered whether John Muir would have been a bush pilot, given the chance.  I think he would have loved flying. (Thoreau, on the other hand, would have shunned aviation entirely, I think, in his patent curmudgeonly manner.)  Muir was an inventor, a tinkerer, and had already become a brilliant machinist and millwright in his early years, when a workshop accident nearly blinded him for life.  I think he would have found the perspective from aloft exhilarating, even spiritually intoxicating, and that he also would have embraced with fascination all the bits and pieces and principles that go into every aspect of mechanized flight from liftoff to touchdown.  I wonder if he ever wrote about airplanes, because his lifetime did overlap the birth and first decade of aviation.  I will have to check on that.

For pilots, on a lot of days, of course, flying is a job, plain and simple.  (Today, Easter long weekend, I am grounded, writing from a hotel room 200 miles from home, working for a moose survey, and waiting on the weather. Yep, today it’s a job.)  A pilot mentor of mine, from whom I learned more about bush flying than I have from anyone else, once remarked to me, “It has to get to the point where it’s just like jumping into your VW to drive to the Seven-Eleven.”  What my friend meant, of course, was that all the various layers of preparing to fly and making a flight must become absolutely ingrained, at a level both below and beyond step-by-step thinking, and essentially instinctive.  At times I do feel that there is more instinct than anything else in the process, and every good pilot soon learns to trust his or her instincts.  As years go by, though, I do take exception to the most casual interpretation of Bruce’s little saying, and I think he would understand.  Because it’s not a VW, it’s an airplane, and we’re not driving to the Seven Eleven, we’re going flying!  

 

It is quiet here these days. Deep cold and unseasonal winds have crested and subsided in several waves. One of the main work events of this winter – a week-long course with students and professors from a university in Ontario and a high school in Yellowknife – is now behind us.  Lately a round of minor back pain, exacerbated by some long days of solo caribou-survey flying in the Husky’s cozy (not to say cramped) cockpit, have limited my logging and wood-hauling. It is interesting to enter these periods of life when not much seems to be going on, because when you do slow down you realize there is always plenty going on.

A few days ago it was just a chickadee, fluttering in the branches of a birch tree. I was standing inside the warm workshop, looking out, and then I was staring, and then I was astounded. I picked up a note-pad and jotted:

 

I am perhaps too easily astounded.

Today it was just this chickadee,

Fluttering and feeding in the low branches of a white birch

Ten feet outside the window,

AT MINUS FORTY FOUR!

(Is anyone going to try to convince me

That this tiny warm bird, alive and aloft in that dense cold air,

Is not a fact almost beyond comprehension?

If so, good luck.)

 

I then learned, with a little checking, that the body temperature inside a chickadee is somewhere around 42 degrees Celsius.  (A note for the benefit of readers residing in one of the three or four remaining countries – the U.S., the Cayman lslands, Belize – still clinging to Dr. Fahrenheit’s temperature scale: 42 degrees C. is equal to 108 degrees F.  And minus 44⁰ C. is -47⁰ F. Got it?  Now re-read that.)

I also read that a chickadee can, on a cold winter night, enter a state of “torpor” and drop its body temperature down to around 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees F.  About the temperature of an April afternoon in Palm Springs, or of an overheated living room.

Later that day, when the afternoon temperature had risen to a balmy -36 or so, we hooked up a pair of sleds to a string of fourteen dogs, launched in a long arc out of the dog yard onto the ice of the bay, and headed west. My companion Mike had never yet seen a muskox (“they’re my unicorn,” he chuckled), and I thought we might get lucky.  We did. High in a rocky saddle seven miles down the coast, a loose phalanx of black beasts stood and circled for defense. We stopped the team and pointed. Then I let the dogs carry us on to the west, out of sight of them, before turning in toward shore.  We found a deep cove where the snow along the brushy shoreline was trampled with recent tracks of the herd.

I have learned in the years since muskox drifted into our neighborhood that they eat pretty much everything. (Although I have not yet seen them eat spruce or tamarack.) Anything that has leaves or blades or tendrils or foliose flakes seems to be fair game for them, from rock tripe to birch branches to ridgetop grass to pondside muck and sedges. No wonder they survive and thrive here – long live the not-fussy eater!  The twig-browsing moose and the lichen-loving caribou are downright finicky by comparison.

As soon as we were stopped, Mike headed off up the hill on foot.  Gimped up as I was, I was happy to stay and wait with the dogs.  I curled up right on the snow alongside Rugen, who has a bad habit of chewing his harness at rest stops. With my enormous parka on, and mukluks and mitts and bomber hat, I was warm and happy and even dozed off for a few minutes. The dogs took my cue and quietly settled in. It reminded me of a trailside rest on the Iditarod, minus the pressure and exhaustion of racing.

Sprawled there on the snow in my layers upon layers of insulation, my 200 pounds of flesh and bone all comfortably warm, my thoughts ran to that chickadee, and, by comparison, to those muskox. Musk-ox at these temperatures, I get.  A muskox is built like a chest freezer draped in the thickest coat of fur anywhere on the planet; even the tops of its hooves are covered in thick brown fur. At 40 or 50 or 60 below, at home clear up to the north tip of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, they are set up for survival. A person can understand how they might make it.  Likewise caribou, and arctic wolves.  Even moose, okay.  On down to arctic fox or a puffy ptarmigan — small as they are, with such a layer of fur or feathers, they are still believable.  And of course, again and again I have seen my huskies leap up in pre-dawn twilight from their beds in the snow, at fully 50 below zero, and wag their tails and bark as if to say – hey, what’s up man?  When are we heading out?  They too astound me, but if they are devouring plenty of rich food once or twice a day, they seem to have almost no limit to staying warm and happy.

But a chickadee?  I held one in my hand once – I think the cat had killed it, or it had hit a window, or both. What did it weigh?  Absolutely nothing.  If I closed my eyes, I’d have been hard pressed to say which of my hands held the bird. To realize that a few millimeters down inside such a mere puff of feather and hollow bone a tiny heart was beating, and rivulets of hot red blood were flowing, all at a temperature 86 degrees Celsius, or 155 degrees F.,  warmer than the outside air…  well, yet again, I give up.

In North of Reliance, touching on a theme I have returned to often, I wrote that the Far North is “more a place of physics than biology.” I still hold to that view, and on any given day I am at least as enchanted, if not more enchanted, by the physics here as by the biology. Wind, ice, rock, sky, distance, speed, acceleration.  As a pilot, even one whose main meal ticket lately has been flying for biologists, a keen interest in simple physics comes in handy. In winter, a fascination with thermodynamics and ice and sky serve a person well for obvious reasons, but also because the biology can be so scarce.

Physics and biology intersect, in a +42 chickadee flitting around at -44. The result is amazement.

I try to think of an analogy to this hot little bird in this cold enormous space, and I wind up back in physics, or astrophysics.  I imagine the plummet of a meteorite into the first few air molecules of the upper stratosphere, where the friction at such speed turns it instantly white-hot. An amazing contrast of incredible heat and incredible cold easily outdone, I think, by this tiny bundle of chickadee. Outdone, because the meteorite just burns up and vaporizes within a second or three, while that little bird out the window may very well see spring, lay eggs, and fly past to amaze me all over again, some warm afternoon three months from now.

Mike came back down the hill from his walk; today the muskox were still mostly unicorns, as they had ambled out of sight before he could get a closer look, but at least he had now seen them.  We hooked up harness toggles and the dogs swung back out onto the lake, loping east into a light breeze, toward snug doghouses and bowls of warm dinner.

“This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.”   ― Thoreau

The final ten days of January and the first few days of February contain the essence of deepest winter.  By that I mean the days are still short enough that the sun cannot raise the temperature much, before it sets and evening cooling comes on again.  As a general weather statement (yes, I know, those are always risky), if there is to be any truly deep cold – cold that sets records and disrupts day-to-day life, even in the bush – it will usually come at this time of the winter, about a month past Solstice, just as in summertime any record-breaking heat – if there is to be some – will generally be at the tail end of July or the first days of August.  The earth is an enormous lump to warm or cool, and it lags slightly behind the seasonal arcs of the sun.

This year we had some “normal” cold for a while, not record-setting, down to -41 or -43, depending upon which of our several thermometers we choose to believe.  Then a break, with overnight lows of -25, -19, -30… Now maybe we will see some more cold; hard to say. Nowadays, our work and activities vary more than they used to with these waves of colder and milder winter temperatures.  (Maybe we are getting – gasp – wiser? I dunno. Pretty far-fetched claim.) In the entire year’s round of seasons and weathers, it is only the periods of deepest cold and most extreme heat that can alter a day’s round of outdoor activities here. 

And thankfully, to force us outside no matter what the air and sky are up to (or down to), there are the chores.  Most prominently the dogs – all 32 of them – along with woodpile and water pails and slop buckets and so on, to guarantee that each and every day, at morning and evening, someone here will be out doing chores. That will happen no matter what the weather is.  Like a dairy farmer with a barn full of cows to milk every morning at five a.m.,  we have had our “dog chores” to mark the start and end of every one of our days (though not with the urgency of a distended udder) for so long now that I sometimes seriously wonder what we might have done differently with all those thousands of hours of living.  And then I go out to the dog yard to water or feed, or to light up the cooker, or scoop dog poop, and decide, ever and again, “Nope. This is fine. All good.” Sled dogs, always and forever.  (Bumper sticker seen in Fairbanks, years ago: “When sled dogs are outlawed, only outlaws will have sled dogs.”)

But this is, for me, the winter of logs, not dogs. Cabin logs, for the house that will rise on the site of the old one that burned. The winter of logs began in November, on the afternoon of the sixth to be precise, when I towed the red wooden cross-chain bobsled down the shoreline trail to the east and turned up into the woods.  Chainsaw and hardhat in the rack behind the seat of the skidoo.  Circled a burned standing spruce, to break a trail, then started the saw, stepped to the tree, cut and felled and limbed it, and began to dice it up.  Measuring tape, stub of red lumber crayon.  A nine-two, an eight-one, a twelve-foot stringer, and a thinner length of tip leftover for firewood.  That is:  two wall logs, each 112 inches long (as all 185 wall logs will be), one of them nine and a half inches in diameter at the small end, the other eight and a quarter.  Beautiful wood, now three and half years since the fire killed it. The black bark peels off in foot-wide slabs with just a flick of a mittened hand, revealing pale golden smoothness beneath, dotted with charred knots. This is going to be one strikingly beautiful building.

I realize again on these rhythmic winter days, cutting and hauling logs, running teams of dogs, doing chores, watching the weather, that I am always most happy when there is a clear task and goal at hand. I love the focus that a task brings, and I cherish the way intense concentration cancels mental clutter and chatter.  

It can be elusive, but it does come, that focus…

… when the tip of the chainsaw begins the back cut, with the felling notch already made, and now, at any split second, the entire tree will begin to tilt and tip, and I will yank the saw-bar free and step quickly back.  My old chainsaw guru (and lifelong friend) Mitch told me 40 years ago: “Ole, just keep your eye on the saw and the notch.  Everything you need to know in the world at that moment is happening right there.” Good advice, advice I have harked back to – so far safely – for who knows how many tens of thousands of cuts and leans and crashing falls.

… in the first few seconds of a takeoff, as the prop winds up and the skis or floats or wheels begin to accelerate over snow or water or runway. Stick or yoke coming alive to one hand, throttle pushed to the stop with the other.  And the far end of the same flight, the final seconds of final approach, dancing a nimble two-step on the rudder pedals, throttle eased back, upwind wing tilted down, the artificial bird about to alight. No daydreaming now, please – just this and only this.

And the finest of these intensely focused moments, because this one comes with no direct connection to howling engine or high-tech chunks of steel:

… at that moment of deafening barking and yelping, when the lead dogs of an eager twelve-dog string are toggled to their tuglines.  Sheer bedlam, some days, cacophony defined. A glance down the team at everyone’s harness, as I yank my anorak down over my head and glance at the snowhook in its holster, the sled bucking like a rodeo bull and the handlebar in a vise grip, snubline pulled free to the slipknot, ready to release, decibel level sky-high, leaders looking back – “which way today, boss – out onto the ice or up the hill into the woods?”  “Haw! Haw!” The leaders swing left.  Rope released, and it whips free in a flash from the hitching-post – sled-builder Keith Poppert in Alaska once showed me his hand, minus the finger he’d lost to a stuck snub-knot on a big team.  Instantly the barking stops and now the only sound is the whoosh of moving runners. Cacophony and chaos are behind, and forward is poetry in motion and miles of trail, as 48 paws and 192 toe-nails dig into hard-packed snow. Gonzo.

 

A friend of mine recently reminded me, as I looked over some new aircraft headsets, that it is now almost impossible to purchase one not pre-wired to receive cell-phone calls in flight, and that it’s now pretty straightforward to wire a satellite phone right into the instrument panel.  End result being, of course,  phone calls in flight, piped right into the plane’s intercom.  “You could make calls while you fly,” he said, somewhat breathlessly. 

Yep, I could, I thought.  Probably, according to most people, I really “should.”

But I won’t.  At least not until I’m forced to, as I was more or less forced years ago to start carrying a satellite phone when guiding dogteam trips.  While I can, I’ll keep those moments, those hours in the cockpit, to myself and my passengers, and my colleagues on the VHF radio. (“New bumper sticker — When solitude is outlawed…?”

In 1927, Greenlander Knud Rasmussen wrote a line that I have always loved. Last summer I asked Liv to paint it on a polished wooden plaque that now hangs on the back wall of the cooker shack out in the dogyard:

 

“Giv mig vinter, giv mig hunde — så kan du beholde resten!”

“Give me winter, give me dogs — you can have the rest.”

 

Amen to that, Knud.  Dogs, logs, prop, saw-chain.  That focus.

Winter Solstice, 2017

Dim gray dusk of December.

I’ve been logging, a hundred yards northwest of the old house site.

Ready to be done for the day,

I pile slash, squirt diesel from a dish-soap bottle.

Fumble with a frozen lighter, then give up and turn to matches. 

One flares and dies, drops from my fingers into the snow.

The next one catches and I cradle it, touch it to a tendril.

A tiny flame,

slowly spreading. 

 

Three wall logs are stacked beside the trail,

and a big post log fifteen inches on the butt.

Skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw, hard hat,

and the coveralls I shucked when I finally warmed up.

All illumined in the circle of firelight now,

and I leap back from a sudden lash of flame.

Sparks and embers shoot skyward.

The pile begins to roar and crackle.

 

Firewood twice, I chuckle to myself — not many trees get that distinction!

Burned and left standing on the Fourth of July, three years back,

now seasoned, felled and limbed,

the logs to build with and the slash to burn,

on what does feel like the darkest night of the year.

 

I squint and step back farther as the fire builds, sends arcs and waves of flame nearly twenty feet up, gathers strength and goes completely out of control, so intense that now the very center of it is a pulsing black-orange orb of hot gas, like a miniature sun, a sphere of heat beyond any number I could try to put on it.  It is heat and flame unbridled, wild and way past taming.  It bears about as much resemblance to a campfire now as Virginia Falls does to a lawn sprinkler.

Peering into the heart of it, mesmerized by heat and roar and light, my thoughts swing suddenly to cremation, although I have never really fancied that as aftermath to my own demise. My preference runs more toward the “sky burial” of the Tibetans or the Plains tribes, high on a scaffold, gradually losing all my parts and pieces to raven, maggot, and wolverine. Tonight, though, gazing straight into the molten heart of this blaze, weary after a day in the dimly lit cold of this season, I am seduced by the allure of this hot purity, the appeal of such an utter and rapid transformation to nothing but hot gases, sharp crackle, bright light, and – at cool dawn the morning after – a few scoops of fine pale grit.  Maybe a Viking burial, true to my ancestry, cast off aboard a kindling-stacked wooden boat long past its useful life (I wouldn’t approve of burning a usable boat just for a send-off. You got that, family?) —  torched just as an offshore wind pushed it out onto the wide expanse of McLeod Bay – fire and water, air and steam and smoke – and, hey, no grit to fuss with the day after! 

My brief and somewhat morbid reverie ends as quickly as it came on. The final throes of dusk have given way to full dark, and out here “full dark” on a cloudy December night is dark with a capital D. But this was the second big slash fire I have torched off tonight, and the snow-scape just north of our cluster of buildings is now widely bright.  Such a surreal expanse of firelight is a thrill, especially in this season, and I gaze around at outcrop, hillock, and the stark surrounding forest of still more fire-killed standing timber. To the south the light reaches all the way to the white-drift sculpted roofs of our buildings.  All thirty huskies in the dog yard have started to howl, as they do when anything is out of the ordinary in their perceptions of this little outpost. With that sound as background, it all feels ancient and pagan, as if we were starting into a ritual far beyond the burning of slash and piling of cabin logs.

Kristen has walked up the path from the workshop, to find me and stand by the fire.

“Signal fires,” I say to her.

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure which one you were tending.” 

“Neither. There’s no tending these bad boys.”  

“Ed Dallas would be happy.  Remember how he was always wanting to light big signal fires up on the cliffs of the Kahochella – that, and shouting for echoes?”  We smile, thinking of a canoe trip 25 years ago, and of Ed. “And what are we signaling tonight, my dear?”

“Not sure. That we, the two-leggeds, can make fire? That we’re alive?  That it’s December?”

After she walks away, I stand and bask in the heat a while longer, then start the skidoo and haul the logs and tools down to the work-yard by the sawmill. 

Thinking still about her question – What are we signaling tonight? 

— That in this dark and cold, it’s a deep pleasure to set loose such an abundance of heat and light? 

— That we’ve arrived?

— That we’re still here? 

— That we’re staying?

 

“If, in North America, the Native Americans will grant white people, Asian people, black people, the right to be in love with the land, then – as much as the newcomers must grant the indigenous people the dignity and the respect coming to them – we have a start.”

– Gary Snyder, in a 1994 letter to Julia Martin — from his book Nobody Home  

 

  

 

“Comin’ down the mountain, boys,

What’d I see,

Bear tracks, bear tracks,

Comin’ after me… “

—- “Slew Foot” – traditional., recently recorded by James McMurtry

 

A grizzly up on his two hind legs, big round head raised. A team of huskies, in an arc curving forward from a sled, heads down, working. Two iconic northern images — separate images, though. Were we to see them juxtaposed, say for instance in a mural on the side of a tourist lodge, with the bear and the dogteam painted together in one view, it would immediately look wrong, and bush-savvy people would scoff – after all, when sled dogs run, grizzly bears are asleep. Right?

This cliché northern life of mine, replete with log cabins, bush planes, and huskies, has offered up some sobering surprises, some moments when tidy know-it-all assumptions and predictions have been blown away, or gone through the ice, or up in smoke. Moments and days when the wildness that is, thankfully, still afoot in the world, has asserted its absolute freedom to be and do as it pleases.  Times that continue to assist the “sustained effort to demolish the cliché…” that John Haines admonished northern writers to make.

The grizzly bears of November 2007, for instance…

Ten years ago on a mild November afternoon, I was riding the sled runners behind a small team of six veteran dogs. We were ploughing through soft wet snow, downhill and heading for home.  The sled was crammed with a load of gear I had just taken out of our plane, which was tied down at a sandy bench a few miles up the trail.

I had been out with the dogs for hours, checking the thickness of ice on a couple of small lakes and stopping to visit the plane at the little landing strip. The snow was getting deep there, and the plane was on big tires, not on skis. The airstrip there is very short, and thus my big sled-load: I had pulled almost everything except the pilot seat out of the plane, to lighten it up for takeoff in another day or two. 

With a Saturday-night sauna and the evening at home ahead, I was daydreaming happily as the trail dropped down to Dietz Lake. The dogs were quiet and eager to be home, too, and working steadily… and then something stopped or slowed them, maybe a dog barked (I can’t remember) and I glanced ahead. On all fours, facing the lead dogs and about five yards ahead of them, smack dab dead center on the narrow trail, was a grizzly bear.

And then this all happened, in far less time than it takes to write or read the next couple of paragraphs: The bear stood on its hind legs, head lolling side to side, tongue out. Dropped to all fours again and charged forward. I was waving my arms, shouting in a voice as booming and confident as I could make it, “Hey bear, hey bear, off the trail, it’s us, comin’ through,” or some such jibber-jabber. 

The bear came on, and my next thought was “There are going to be dogs killed here.”  But no – as the six dogs in three pairs heaved themselves in unison off to one side of the trail, the bear galloped right past them, reached the brush bow at the prow of the sled, still coming on, past the heaped-up sled-load, and rounded the back runners. 

I was still shouting – (was I?) – and waving – (was I?) – and the bear was there.

Right there, his big furry round face maybe sixteen inches from mine. A glimpse of a dark eye and yellowed old teeth, and I remember that my mind flashed two pragmatic thoughts:  1) “this is really gonna hurt;” and 2) “now I should hit the ground, tuck, and cover the back of my neck with my hands.”  And on top of or mixed in with those thoughts, a third odd voice flashed, corny as could be, lifted straight out of the final scene of the movie version of Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall, where the Cree narrator One Stab murmurs quietly, “Every warrior hopes that a good death will find him.”

That face-to-face instant, inches apart, my mind (and his?) blurred and racing, certain that nothing good was going to happen next.  And then he (I say “he,” because three days later I confirmed that he was a “he”) dropped to his fours again and body-checked me with a thick shoulder, bumping my hip and nearly sending me down. Then he was past and up a slope to a knoll on the north side of the trail, huffing, chuffing, and clattering his jaws – I do remember those sounds.

I stood to the runners, steadied myself on the handlebar, picked up the snowhook and called to the dogs: “You guys ready?” The team agreed that moving out of the woods and across Dietz Lake toward home seemed like a very fine idea.

The drawn-out denouement of that brief clumsy dance on the snow took several days and nights.  The team brought me home, and within 24 hours that same bear had followed the trail down out of the hills and was in the woods nearby.  We had met on a Saturday, the fifth of November, and by Monday at dusk he was moving along the edges of the dog yard, trying to take frozen dried fish from a metal barrel.  I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, since he had done the same for me, so I yelled and fired some shots over and around him, trying to scare him off. I walked toward him and he slowly retreated.  Half an hour later he was back, it was almost fully night, and I began looking for a killing shot.  I took one shot, not a good one, and he disappeared again.  A few minutes later as I took off my parka, up in the house, I caught a glimpse of that big round head again, right at the northwest window, peering in. This was getting very strange. 

That was a long night. Confusion and uncertainty as to the bear’s motives and condition (was he wounded now?), real fear for the dogs’ safety, intermittent noise from the dog yard, a couple of glimpses of the bear on the path just below the house.  I slept in my clothes, down on the couch, and at 2 a.m. Kristen called me from upstairs, the third floor of our house.  “He’s on the path coming this way again; I can see him.” Together we stepped onto the second-floor deck, and she lit the bear up with the spotlight.  I pulled the trigger and he fell.  Disappeared, actually, out of sight.  It was quiet then, but we were not sure what had happened.  At dawn, many hours later, I walked very slowly down the path from the house.  Kristen watched from above, on the balcony. The bear was there where he had fallen, hidden behind a low hump of rock and snow, silent and completely still.  Dead.

Some of the strangeness and confusion of the past few days dissipated as I stood over the bear and realized that it was very likely the second time the two of us had been so close.  I ran my hand over his torso. Ribs! Ribs right there to feel, just under the skin, on a bear in late autumn!  I folded his lips back and the teeth told the story of a very long life.  Broken and worn, some horribly rotted and some missing altogether, his mouth a dentist’s nightmare of yellow and green.  This was an ancient animal. Denning up for winter had not been an option for him.  He was starving, and possibly half-blind, maybe deaf, who knows? An old soul at the ragged edge of life.

Andy McMullen, who has made a career of delivering solid advice on safety in bear country, told me a few weeks later in Yellowknife that “when you run into a bear anytime after Halloween, that bear is a bear in trouble.”  This seemed to explain that first encounter.

And yet – there is more.  Nineteen days later, exactly ten years ago today, another grizzly was here, apparently healthy and fat – on the 27th of November!  That is a story for another time, but the gist of it is this – a bear ran full tilt into the dog yard in the light of early morning, and then ran away again, with some urging from Kristen and her rifle, back out onto the ice of McLeod Bay. 

And there are more – a grizzly bear, first the tracks and then the animal itself, lit up by the headlights of a snowmobile, as our distant neighbors Rick and Lance came down the final miles of Pike’s Portage, just a day or two before Christmas back in 1988. The bear my friend Roger told me about, up on the ice of Artillery Lake at 30 below zero in early winter, feasting on the carcasses of caribou that had drowned after breaking through thin ice. And the cold night in November 1990 when we had two big strings of dogs, resting alongside the trail, and all twenty dogs suddenly peered off into the woods, restless and barking. In the snow on the next lake, fresh tracks of a grizzly.

I was regaling a young biologist with a sampler of these Ursus Novemberis and Decemberis stories one day as we were flying around, on some sort of grizzly-bear research project.  He looked baffled, and then, I could tell, he more or less discounted the entire conversation. (“Pilots are so full of bullshit sometimes,” I could almost hear him thinking.) I think he will learn, as he moves through the coming decades of his chosen field of study, that there are mysteries afoot out in the world, and that not all bears or wolves or caribou or birds have read the textbooks, so to speak. Scientists, especially young scientists, sometimes forget to allow for variety, vastness, and quirks, while older scientists, in my experience, allow more room for mystery, more room for a shrug of the shoulders and a quizzical, pondering, “Hmmm.” 

Just a few days ago Kristen was running a dogteam up in the hills north of home, and suddenly, just a foot or two above her head, coming silently in from behind, wings level and steady in a five-foot span, was a Great Gray Owl.  The next day the bird was there again, watching her pass with the dogs. Such are the lucky encounters that are out there waiting one day out of a hundred, maybe, as we come and go.

With such odds I can hope that someday I might be so lucky as to have another encounter with a grizzly, from the unusual vantage point of a dogsled, in winter.  Maybe he could be about a half-mile off to one side of the trail this time, clear across an open stretch of tundra or lake. Maybe he could rise to his hinders and throw his massive head around again, then drop down and hit the ground running – away!  I’d like that.  

When I came north to Canada for good in the summer of 1987, I stowed two big metal trunks of books and papers into the cargo hold beneath the dogsled-and-sled dog-and-lumber-and-fuel-barrel-cluttered deck of Dave Smith’s trusty freighting boat, the Hearne Channel.  Tucked into one trunk was a sheaf of torn-out pages from a mid-1970’s edition of Mountain Gazette.

Night Driving, by Dick Dorworth, was the long piece (as long as any night drive) that I had torn out a dozen years earlier and somehow, strangely, kept with me for years — years that led me from high school in Illinois to university in Montana, back to college in Wisconsin, and on to cabin life in the border lakes of north Minnesota.

It still strikes me as somewhat odd that I kept this particular piece of writing with me over all those moves and miles. Odder still, if a person who knows me picks it up and reads it, for Night Driving is a hip, rambling 1970’s discourse about long nights of driving, including side opinions on the merits of amphetamines, heavy drinking, dope and ginseng, and more digression down the runs of ski racing, broken love affairs, and on and on.  And on. My own night driving seems to be mostly past now, but my long nights behind the wheel always had more to do with cold northern highways and the steering of trucks loaded with teams of sled dogs. Coffee and chocolate were the strongest stimulants on board. (Dick is nowadays a vegetarian and he writes that “I haven’t had a recreational drug stronger than caffeine in more than 20 years, not even a beer, though a morning without good coffee is unimaginable…”) When I pick up Night Driving again (happily it is out there between hard covers in several editions)  I ponder just what special spark it was that I first found so noteworthy, in its wild and crazy rides along desert and mountain highways.

What I found, and still find, is Dorworth’s trademark blunt wild word-rich prose, and it must have been just that style and flavor that inspired me to tear his writing out and keep it with me for a dozen years and more, until it found a place on the shelf of the cabin we built here at the Hoarfrost River.  I meandered through Night Driving again the other night, and discovered,  in the preamble to a passage describing one very long night drive from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe, that the 16th of October is Dick Dorworth’s birthday, and that today he will turn 79.  Thus this post.

I had a chance to meet up with Dick one year ago, in Montana.  We have been in contact over the past few years, ever since I had contacted him about a quotation I wanted to use in Kinds of Winter. We share some things in common, it’s clear, but in most day-to-day spheres of our lives we do not.  I am not a downhill skier or an accomplished climber or a denizen of the Mountain West, and he is not a bush pilot or a dog musher or a denizen of the taiga Canadian Shield.  (Dick held the world record for speed on a pair of skis, in 1963, set at 103 miles per hour on a track in Chile, and he still skis almost every day of every winter, at Sun Valley in Idaho.  He is in the Skiing Hall of Fame.) Dick is a practicing Buddhist, while I am some sort of undisciplined amalgamation distilled out of a Lutheran upbringing and faith and heritage, seasoned with a hefty dose of Buddhist inspiration from writers and poets including Matthiessen, Snyder, Storlie, and Dorworth — all stirred together with some unsorted pantheistic tendencies.

When I met Dick in person we talked and walked, and he fed me a good Tofu and bean sprout sandwich, which was the first tasty edible thing containing Tofu that I had ever ingested.  Made an old moose and caribou connoisseur pause.  Today I wish Dick a happy birthday, and I encourage readers to seek out his writing, which is published in at least five of his books now, the latest just out.  Night Driving, The Straight Course, The Perfect Turn, Climbing to Freedom.  The most recent, which I have not read but will soon, is a memoir, The Only Path.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dorworth, and thanks for so much good writing, so many hard fast runs down steep mountains, so much inspired living…  and here’s to many happy returns.

Below, some snippets I’ve underlined or page-marked in Dorworth’s books:

“The edge has its hardships but at least one can be sure that it is life out there (here?) and not the Barbie-Doll, TV-dinner mentality that plasticland has ramrodded down the gullets of those hordes of iron bellies who can stomach Styrofoam horseshit for dinner, breakfast, lunch, brunch, snacks, feasts, celebrations and sacrifice.” — from Night Driving

“Uninspired is the state of life of the coward who would rather live with an unacceptable comfortable situation, than throw it all over for a chance at joy.” — from Coyote Song 

“Words are incomplete mediums of communication, much as we love them. There is no way to know how it was except to have been there, and the experience lasts in its fullness only as long as the experience. Afterwards, something remains besides the memory, but it is something other than the experience. It is like food for the spirit — it nourishes, giving strength for another day.” — from Climbing to Freedom

“Now I know that strange things happen to your body when it meets the snow at 100 mph, no matter what the position. In the twinkling of hitting the snow I regained a proper respect for speed.  If you are inattentive, as well as somewhat stupid, you may breed a contempt for big speeds, forgetting respect through the grace of being atop your skis each run.  No one on his back at 100 mph will ever after have contempt for speed.” — from The Perfect Turn

“Life is really a thesaurus and everyone wants it to stop at being a dictionary.” — from The Straight Course