It was two in the morning on Front Street in Nome, mid-March of 1992. I had just crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, my fourth time.  A parka-bundled figure appeared out of the bustle, from the edge of the cold darkness, clearly a tourist or something, but confident and plain-spoken, and walked up close to me.  A strong voice penetrated the sleep-starved fog and finish-line elation that together form the weird mental state of the Iditarod musher finally standing, after 12 days and nights, beneath the burled arch.

“These are the best-looking dogs I’ve seen here so far.” Gratifying words, guaranteed to grab the attention of any musher. I smiled back at the stranger.  “Well, yeah, these guys are fantastic, just great, but hey, aren’t we in 26th place or something?”

Of course at that moment I could not know that I had crossed paths with a larger-than-life character, a fellow who would become a friend and confidante and a denizen of the Hoarfrost off and on over the next twenty-five years. Together we would share many small miseries and many large adventures — not to mention countless moments of head-shaking, hand-wringing exasperation — from  Dubawnt Lake to the upper Nahanni, from Nome to Duluth to the trails above the Hoarfrost, finally winding down to some final poignant moments in the strange world of upper-class Palm Springs, California, in April of 2017.

Harry B. Turner died peacefully in his sleep a week ago, almost certainly in Southern California. I learned of his death just today. And today, had he made it, would have been birthday number 96. I have been thinking about Harry most of the day, and as I do I chuckle to realize that I could effortlessly start posting a blog entitled “Travels With Harry,” once a month for at least two years straight, without ever once needing to scratch my head for more material.  And you would love it — most of it, anyway.  Granted, some of it would not be rated “G,” but so it goes. Harry was Harry.

Harry could be exasperating, to say the least, and 30 seconds later he could be inspiring.  Sometimes, when he was well into his cups, late at night, in Whitehorse, or Grand Portage, or Yellowknife, I had learned all too slowly that it was best to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Harry, probably best if we head back and call it a day, don’t you think?”  Particularly if there was a stray set of XX chromosomes anywhere within hailing distance…

One of Harry’s favorite after-dinner aphorismic rhetorical questions (he had a million of these) was “If you could know, precisely and infallibly, the time and date of your own impending death — would you want to know?” Of course this sparked a debate. Harry, though, was always emphatic.  Of course, he claimed, he would want to know, “because that way I could plan.”

I don’t think Harry knew, the other day.  And I do wonder, deep down, even after all his bluster, if he would have wanted to.

One Harry story. In 1994, three friends and I made a canoe trip on the upper Hoarfrost, and Harry came with us, to make five.  Around the fire one night the talk turned to money, of which Harry had plenty. My friend Mike Murphy’s ears perked up beneath his ball cap. Mike and I were both flying for Air Tindi at that time, and we had flown together as Captain and co-pilot (Mike the captain, me the co-joe) for two crazy diamond-rush summers in 1992 and 1993. In those crazy boom years Mike had often taken great delight in exasperating me by racing off to Weavers’ grocery on our quick turnarounds in Yellowknife, at the height of the biggest mineral rush since the Klondike, to grab the day’s edition of The Globe and Mail while the Twin Otter was being refuelled and reloaded for another trip north. We would cut loose from the dock, taxi out, and within seconds of liftoff he would pull out the paper and say, “Take over, will ya?”

I would continue climbing out, as Mike yanked down his side cockpit window and proceeded to stuff entire sections of the paper into the 140-knot slipstream. “Man, no! Hold on! I’ll read that!” To no avail. Crumple. Stuff. Crumple and stuff. Having thus happily reduced the entire fat newspaper, the New York Times of Canada, to a set of stock-market tables, the TSX and the Vancouver exchanges, where the values of the myriad penny-stock junior mining and staking consortiums, syndicates, scheisters, and con-men were all tallied every day in fine type — in those long-ago days before the World Wide Web — he would settle in to read and ponder the numbers. “This is all that matters, right here,” he’d chide me.  I often wonder if a canoeist or a moose about 30 miles north of Yellowknife in those summers ever wondered why, every few afternoons, some crumpled sheets of newsprint came floating down out of the sky.

1994, late summer, diamond rush just barely beginning to wind down, and the five of us  on the trail, by the fire, and the talk having turned to money… Mike all ears, Harry ready to hold forth on the nitty gritty of his decades in hedge funds, foreign currency exchange futures, and the mysteries of the Baltic Dry Index, and I finally got rewarded for my anguish. It was no secret that the only real reason Mike had joined us on the canoe trip, which was not really his cup of tea in those days, had been for just this moment.

“So Harry, tell us about your day, your working day,” said Mike.

Harry said, “Well, I get up early. I have coffee and I go for a walk. I come back to my little shack (A rental, in those days, and not palatial.  Think Warren Buffet.), and I look over six or eight papers that I subscribe to.  London, Hong Kong, New York, Brisbane, Moscow, Johannesburg, you know, around… Then I pace around out back for a while, and I think.

“And then maybe I make a few phone calls, and maybe I don’t. Then I go play tennis, or go for another walk.”

A pause. Then Mike again, puzzled. “But in all the papers, you just look at the business sections, right? The stocks? The markets and the currencies?

“Oh no, not those parts. Those are the done deals. If it’s in there, then I already missed it. What I read, what I think about, is the rest of it. All of it. The politics, the fashion section, the Arts, the Sports.  Hell, even the funny pages.”

And the look on Mike’s face at that moment, and probably the look on mine, as we both recalled those sections of paper stuffed out of the  cockpit window, just to spite me. The editorials and politics and sports sections falling slowly to earth over Gordon Lake.  Well, it still makes me smile.

Harry stories. They go on and on. Rest In Peace, old man. They broke the mold after you, I swear.

Next month maybe I’ll post the piece I had written, before this morning. It has to do with living the dream, day by day, at a homestead in the outback, as compared to living the dream on trips into the outback, out away from home, in a tent and on the trail.  Harry would have liked it, and we would have had a good back-and-forth about it. Now I will turn off the light and sit back and look out at the quiet dark, and maybe have a little sip of something smooth. Cheers. Good night.

 

 

“Seems like you do a lot of navel-gazing.” That was one reader’s remark after he finished my book Kinds of Winter, an account of four solo trips by dogteam. That stung a little, but I just nodded and chuckled. I have a slightly thicker skin to criticism as I get older, and it is serving me well. As for navel-gazing, I guess I do mull things over in quirky ways, and my musings do run along some odd pathways, (don’t yours?) especially when I am working quietly and alone. 

On a recent hot July day I was making my way around the narrow upstairs balcony of our octagonal log house, installing an array of small solar panels at offsets of 45 degrees, one at each of five railing corners: east, southeast, south, southwest, and west. Something clicked in my cranium as I looked out at the green leaves of summer birches and the green needles of the stately white spruce we call Lucy. Suddenly I was trying to call up a passage from a woodworking text I had read years ago. I paraphrase from memory: “Wood is the fundamental material of all trees, evolved for two purposes: first, to raise the foliage of the tree up from the ground toward sunlight for improved photosynthesis; and second, to transport water and nutrients between the various parts of the tree.”

When I first read that definition I was enrolled in a seven-month course in boatbuilding on Gabriola Island, just off the Pacific coast near Vancouver. A memorable winter, 2000-2001, when Kristen and I and our two young daughters boarded up our place here, leased out our huskies for the winter, and stepped completely aside from our life and work in the Northwest Territories. The course was a long session in learning about wood, boats, and tools. Wood, most of all. Its grain and its quirks and the myriad ways to fasten and bend and shape it; what it liked to do and what it did not like to do; why it floated and why it rotted, and how a boat fashioned from it can become something magical.

Immersed though my classmates and I were in all things wood and wooden, coming across that matter-of-fact definition of “wood” still brought me up short, and I have thought about it now and then ever since. The essence of wood, it says, the reason for its existence, has nothing to do with usefulness to humankind. Wood’s usefulness to people is only a happy coincidence. Wood is about lifting green leaves up toward sunshine, with enough strength and support to brace them there in wind and storms, and about getting water up to those leaves, and sugars down from them. Period.

Another thing I took away from that course on Gabriola Island was the trick of looking upside down or sideways at something, to change and improve perspective. Our instructor told us that when we were lofting the curves of a boat onto the shop floor, it was helpful to back up, turn around, bend over, and view the arc of the pencil line upside-down, between our legs. This makes for some comical moments in a workshop, but it does help. Any unfairness in the desired “fair curve” becomes instantly more obvious when the line is looked at upside-down. Mountaineers do a version of this, too, tilting their head to one side to ease the eye’s natural foreshortening of a steep pitch viewed from a distance. Look at anything sideways, or upside down, and the change can be refreshing and instructive.

Wood, for instance. Even in this age of smooth black plastic, shiny aluminum, weird epoxies, rusted steel and gray concrete, we are still surrounded by wood and immersed in the demands of its properties. Because wood is for most of us a material, it is easy to look at a stack of lumber and slip into the habit of thinking of wood as we think of all the other materials – concrete, steel, glass, plastic, et cetera – that humanity has learned to fabricate for specific purposes.  But wood is different, because it is not for us or by us. It is for trees. We cut down the trees and use the wood. And in doing so we are obliged to acknowledge its unique rules and properties, some of which are inconvenient at timesUse quarter-sawn boards when strength and stability are crucial. Lay a deck with the heart side of the planking downward. Steam a sled runner or a boat rib fifteen minutes for every quarter inch of thickness before bending it in a jig, and leave it in there for two weeks to cure and set. Lay a sheet of plywood across joists or rafters, with the grain in the outer veneers perpendicular to the supports.

Historian Yuval Harari, in his excellent book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, writes: Artifacts made of more perishable materials – such as wood, bamboo, or leather – survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.”

Ancient hunter-gatherers, yes, but modern brain surgeons, taxi drivers, air-traffic controllers and bureaucrats all use and enjoy and depend on wood every day too. Just lift your head up from the almighty screen, tilt it to one side, and look all around, and notice how much wood is in your life at this moment. Or how little. The woodiness of this moment might even be a gauge of the quality of your life right now. The woodiness index as a gauge of human happiness? Just throwing it out there.

I was happy the other day, walking the wooden balcony of our log house, setting screws through the narrow fir frames of the blue-and-silver siliconandaluminum solar panels (man-made leaves?), bracing them with short lengths of spruce back to the birch stanchions of the railing, crimping the number-ten copper wire and running it along the underside of thick spruce girders, drilling a hole with the ships-auger bit, through the 200-year-old fire-killed wall log, pushing the wire through, routing it to the regulator and from there to the groovy blue Lithium-Iron-Phosphorus storage battery, mounted high on the timber wall in Kristen’s studio, there surrounded by dozens of books, pads of notepaper, smooth pencils lying in a wooden cup on a slab supported by two matched tamarack kneesas out in front all along the lake the birch and spruce reached for the sky and the sun, lifting their own solar energizers up to quiver in the warm July breeze. Making sugar and growing more wood, day after day, year after year.

Oh there I go, navel-gazing again.

Two by fours, plywood sheet, pencil shaft, glue-lam beam, bridge timber, main wing spar of a nimble aerobatic biplane, split and stacked cordwood, stair-treads, pages of a novel, fancy varnished tabletop. Grain, knot, texture, heat, and strength, and all made out of thin air, sunlight, water, and the stuff of soil.

We just use wood, we do not make it.

Fact is, clever as we are, we cannot make wood. The forests of the world, apart from us and independent of us, offer it to us. What a gift! Tilt your head and think about that.

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Pen and paper at hand, to try to write something and post it here before the end of the month, I draw a blank.

Oh, there is plenty I could take up with. Look out the window or go for a walk, pick a topic, run with it for a few paragraphs, try to say something insightful or witty or profound, or aim to combine all three, and why not? A big bull muskox with a horn on only one side, the other one busted right off to a bloody stump, was four feet from the front deck of our guest cabin last evening. The lake trout are up in the shallows again, like tarpon down in the Florida Keys. I thought about writing a riff about mosquitoes as the salvation of solitude and wilderness in the far north.  The landscape and our life here offer and offer, but sometimes there is the voice of Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, whispering over my shoulder, “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”

Don’t worry, friends, there won’t be any shooting here.

The water is high here. Record-setting high. Out in front of the homestead, “Windmill Island” is a small knob of smooth granite bulging up from our otherwise sandy shoreline. On it stands the yellow steel mast of our wind generator, guyed off by cables and rock-bolts. But Windmill Island is kind of a joke, too, because it has not truly been an island for over twenty years now. A broad isthmus of sand, festooned with tall beach grass, has allowed easy access to the “island” on foot, dry except during easterly gales when the swells pound in. Now, within the past two weeks, Windmill Island has regained its title. From my solitary perch here on the deck of our guest cabin (where I am currently sequestered each night at a slight remove from my wife and house – more on that in a moment), it looks like we could paddle a canoe or row the skiff right through that barricade of beach grass and on over to the water west of the island.

The ice is still lying close to shore and it stretches away for miles in a vast white plain. The air above it shimmers in the warmth of the morning sun, and the ice surface is mottled more and more each day with dark leads and open holes, but that ice will be a part of our lives for some days yet, maybe a week or more. Our two planes are now on floats and ready for the brief summer season, and they are heeled up side-by-side down at the river mouth. The current there will keep them clear of shifting floes on the lake. Some past Junes we have been locked in here by floating ice for long strings of calm sunny days, waiting for a north wind to puff up and open the front gate.

The high water here in Great Slave Lake, they say (that convenient catch-all pronoun and vague but unspecified authority, “they”), is the result of a springtime surge of snowmelt water rushing down all of the biggest rivers that flow into the lake. Biggest by far being the Slave, which accounts for something like 70 percent of the water feeding the lake basin. The Slave is a big but a very short river, because its waters keep changing their name. It is the merger of the Peace and the Athabasca, rivers both big and better-known, that spring from sources high up along the backbone of the northern Rockies. Confounding the river-naming confusion is the fact that the Slave flows into Great Slave Lake but does not flow out under the same name. The Mackenzie River leaves the lake from the southwest side and flows from there 600-some miles “down north” to the Arctic Ocean. (And, by the way, these names have nothing to do with slavery, but with the Slavey indigenous peoples at home all along the watershed.)

Set my ramblings aside (right now, go ahead), even if you live up here and think you have a good sense of this stuff, and find yourself a depiction of the entire watershed of the Mackenzie River, all the way upstream to the Peace, the Athabasca, and the Liard – not to mention dozens of smaller but still very big rivers like the Taltson, the Lockhart, the Nahanni, the Prophet, the Hay, the Clearwater, and on and on. It is Canada’s largest watershed, and second on the continent only to the Mississippi – Missouri.

Welcome back. The high water is real, but it is a handy metaphor too. As summer starts and the lake laps up onto stretches of beach and rock that it has not wetted in a quarter of a century, swelled by invisible forces far beyond the horizon, so too the far north, or at least its busy two-legged populace, is staggering and shifting under the high and still rising effects of a tiny germ from half a world away. A not very subtle reminder that nowadays there is no “away.”

The ripple effect is grim, and strange, and downright daunting. In the far North the virus itself is still just talk on the news, with not a single active case of this bug in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, or Yukon, but its effects are busy wreaking a different form of havoc on lives and livelihoods. Like the water rising right here, fed by snow melting almost a thousand miles away, this unseen force is right on my desk, staring me in the face. The booking-sheet calendar of our little flying business is usually, at this season, a hodge-podge of notes and names and dates and times: geologists, film crews, sampling jobs, canoe-trippers, visitors, fishing lodges, and survey flights. Today its sheets are almost completely blank and white, right through July, August, September, and beyond. Scary white, to be honest.

Dismal prospects, for a mom-and-pop flying business, because this scenario is not survivable over any sort of long haul. No amount of government largesse or no-interest loans can sustain an aviation industry for which people have decided there is no longer a need, or a desire, or the accustomed combination of both. As a pilot friend of mine said, “Pilots just got real cheap.” Our insurance man in Vancouver made another observation, and I paid attention to it because he is in the business of brokering coverage for airlines of every size and scope. He knows the aviation business from the inside. His prediction was that when, sometime, maybe, the airlines rise up and dust themselves off from this disaster and take a look at their books, we will see airline ticket prices about two to two-and-a-half times what they were way back when – long ago, like in January of this year. And he predicts that the low-cost flyers will be gone completely. The party, strange and misguided as it was, may be over.

It is a re-set, any way you cut it. And, they say (there “they” are again), what comes after all of this will be different from what went before. Kristen and I are in our early sixties, born 1957 and ’58. You can dial back through all those decades, as we did the other night over dinner, and there is nothing we have seen in our lives that comes close to these past three months. You have to go back farther, to our parents’ and grandparents’ time, to find analogues, in a world completely at war, or the sudden onset of the “great” depression. Taking that long view and perspective, I am not looking for pity, trust me on that. I find that I am mostly just fascinated, a little morbidly maybe, by the whole thing.  The lessons and fallout and — yes — the far and wide benefits that might be ahead for humanity, and for the rest of the planet and the critters we share it with. A friend from Wisconsin wrote to me and said “I just hope I live through this, because I am so completely intrigued by how it will all play out.” Yep.

Today I am sitting alone, in sunshine, ruminating over this spiky fleck of germ and genetic code that has tapped humanity on the shoulder and whispered, “Oh, you think so? Well, stand back and watch this.”

As usual, as winter becomes summer, I have been down to our maintenance base at Fort Nelson B.C. in two back-to-back trips of a thousand miles each, starting on June fifteenth with a final takeoff from the lake ice here with one plane, and again on the twenty-first from the little patch of sand up the hill. It was an eye-opener for me to be Outside, as northerners sometimes call the world beyond their borders, because even by the time I got to Hay River and overnighted there on the first trip, waiting on weather, I could tell that something “out there” was very, very different. Up until then, and even on treks into Yellowknife over the spring, this had all been just news on the radio, really. We in the north were in a bubble, and we at the Hoarfrost River were in a bubble inside of a bubble.

In fact I had at first considered trying to come and go on those necessary trips out of the Territories without telling a soul in officialdom. The territorial borders remain closed, but I figured a couple of single-engine planes could come and go from the middle of nowhere, and that no one needed to be the wiser. The notion kind of appealed to me, to be honest. Luckily I had a little wake-up call back in late May, thanks to a friend who is an air traffic controller in the tower at Yellowknife. As I was taxiing in for fuel in the midst of a work flight, he asked – right on the radio – “So Dave, how are you gonna work those trips to Fort Nelson this spring for inspections and changeover?” I mumbled something about flight-crew exemptions, but a light bulb came on in my brain: there are never any secrets in the close-knit, far-flung community of northern aviation. As the saying goes: telephone, telegraph, tell-a-pilot. Sneaking down and back, 500 miles from Hoarfrost River to Ft. Nelson, twice in two weeks, was not an option.

Long story short, I went to the public health people, stated my case, got a file number and am now at home with both planes inspected and changed over to floats. I am sleeping separately from my dear wife and sorta kinda trying to go through some semblance of “self-isolation.” It’s weird, to tell the truth, and my effort is a little lame.

Because why? Because the northern territories of Canada are all doing their best to dodge this thing physically, although we will not dodge it economically, and I understand that. This virus, landing and spreading in a remote fly-in community with a half-dozen beds in the nursing station and no hospital, repeated three or four dozen times across the Arctic and sub-arctic, could be tragic. And I have been down to Fort Nelson, right on the Alaska Highway, which is still surprisingly busy as a corridor for overland travel by people from all over the U.S. People with permission to move themselves across Canada in a certain number of days, to reach their work or home in Alaska or the lower 48. And who knows where they have been, or who they have been with, or what their habits and health are.

Strange times. High water and hand sanitizer. A person cannot make such a story up.  Maybe the lake will keep rising, maybe it will begin to ebb in mid-July.  On several levels we are all waiting for whatever is next. Wondering whether in a few years we could possibly be back to “business as usual.” I have my doubts.

Only one thing is certain to me here this morning, and that is this: anyone who cannot relish some uncertainty in life, at least for a while, at least just a little, is not going to have a pleasant summer.

 

 

There are a lot of layers to running a little business and the bush flying business has plenty of its own. The flying is the good part. Some days the layers just pile on, even out here at the halcyon home base of Hoarfrost River Huskies Ltd. The phone rings. I am still surprised by that, every single time.  “What, a phone?” “Ringing? Here?” The inbox on the confuser screen lights up, or the goofy thing dings or chimes. (They should add some blood-curdling moans or some heartfelt wailing in there as options to choose from.) Kristen can tell I am about to snap. My old clay pipe and pouch of tobacco come out, and I puff and chomp and pound on the keypad.

I wish that I could read and understand a financial statement, an avionics schematic, comprehend the meaning of “subrogation” in an insurance document, and nimbly edit and “format” a document in Microsoft Word. Someone, somewhere, can do all those things handily, smoothly, and make it all look as easy as a simple takeoff in a trusty aeroplane on a blue sky day, from a little grass strip with the breeze right down the pipe. I tip my hat to them, wherever they are.

Oh and then there are the “regulatory” layers, lumped under capital-G Government for the sake of brevity, roiling and churning away in all the provinces of their burgeoning empire. I shall desist from delving further, lest I offend, and offer this:

To My Orwellian Pen-Pals

This evening I sit and look north.
Down-sloping curve of igneous rock,
and above it,
sky.

Sitting here alone
I think of all those rank and filers in their rabbit warren cubicles,
all my distant pen-pals at the CRA, the CTA, TC, PC, and GNWT,
their alphabet soup of acronym noodles
gone all soggy and cold.
That diligent legion that has again,
all unbeknownst to each other,
banded together in a ragtag assault,
and made off with far too much of this precious day.

I can only hope,
after our long silly march around the matters at hand,
this niggling parade of requests, revisions, remittances, and reply-alls,
this petty parody of a working day well spent,

I can only hope that they, too,
have all found a quiet place to sit

and look
at curve of rock
and dome of sky.

Good night. Sleep tight.

(“stay safe!” “best regards!” “talk soon!”)

 

Bush pilots get tasked with some unusual add-on jobs, as a part of everyday working life. In a vast and roadless country like the far north, it often makes the most sense for the pilot to do one or two other errands after landing at a remote camp or stop-off. ”Oh and while you’re there, can you go up to the generator shack and turn off the blue valve on the back side of the diesel, right below the yellow cover? We forgot about it.” Or grab the mayonnaise and pickles, or re-set the bear fence. I have single-handedly dismantled and crated up entire seismic sensing stations, bagged a prospector’s dirty laundry and personal effects (don’t ask; in fact, don’t even start to imagine) and I have humped many a sack of garbage, thousands of rock and sand samples, and many ten-foot lengths of rusted steel drill-rod over hlll and dale, sometimes while moaning in self-pity and swatting at bugs. And, of course, every bush pilot has searched for, dug up from a snowdrift, and inventoried countless drums of fuel, for ourselves and for those helicopter types who depend on the stuff and need to know exactly how much is out there, and exactly where it is.

On one job in the two-seat Husky on floats, my passenger and I were tasked with visiting a dozen or so old tent-camp sites that had been abandoned as the frantic diamond rush of the early 1990’s began to wane. Our instructions were to gather up everything combustible at each site, douse it all with jet fuel, torch it off, and babysit each fire until it was out. That was the same year that we were assembling the materials to build our first house here, the 1997-2014 house. That August my friend from the mining company and I flew all over the west-central Barrens, armed with chainsaw and sledge and matches, and burned enormous stacks of perfectly good plywood. I got paid for doing this, and I used the money to buy… plywood.

The other day, mid-April, I was chuckling with myself – there being no one within 50 miles to chuckle with – as I shuffled along on snowshoes, back to the Husky. The plane was on skis, on the ice alongside open water at Taltheilei Narrows. There is a big sport-fishing lodge there. I was towing two plastic sleds. I had brought this odd job on myself, going to fetch some of the dog kibble and rice that arrive each summer by barge and are stored year-round in a sea container. Aboard the sleds were two cardboard cases of whole-wheat tortilla wraps, a case of pitted dates, and two gallon-size bags of “store-bought” blueberries. All leftovers, kindly stored in our sea can by the lodge manager after they had finished feeding a television crew in late December.

I made several more back and forth trips, toting a few more unlikely treasures from the kitchen shutdown, plus a few hundred pounds of rice and dog feed. I flew back home, forty minutes at 3000 feet, and when I circled overhead the homestead Kristen piped up on the radio. I answered, “Good day madam. I have the 480 tortilla wraps you ordered, plus the case of dates and the fresh-frozen B.C. blueberries.”

Next morning, blueberry pancakes. That night after supper, blueberries in our snow ice-cream. And the next morning, it was a showdown of sorts at the breakfast table. One jar of our tiny wild local blueberries, from the 35 pounds of them that the passionate berry-pickers in our family put away last August. Right alongside, a bowl of those enormous and obviously un-wild blues from a farm in Delta, B.C. And the conclusion, unanimous, that there is simply no comparison between the two. The big cultivated berries are bland. Not because of any “best-before” date being long past. They are simply big, and bland, and yes they are blue and yes they are berries. But the little wild berries, a quarter the size, are so much more tasty that they are a different food. The wild has it, hands down. Necessity weeds and cultivates the patch, chance brings rain and sunshine at the right times, or doesn’t. And this truth, and this uncertainty, do not waver. And somehow the wild has it, hands down, every time. Wild salmon from the north Pacific, farm salmon from a rectangular pond. Elk raised on a ranch, packaged and sold as free-range organic; elk from a mountain meadow at dusk, butchered in the twilight, and packed out on horseback. And, just maybe, while I’m wondering, anyway — a Neanderthal hunter (now extinct), his skills and knowledge and awareness and strength and senses, alongside the slightly overstuffed manager on the air-conditioned seventeenth floor, manning a brightly lit work station in the Department of Some Such or Another.

A few days later I was trying to “convince” a distressed husky of ours to swallow the front end of a three-foot soft plastic tube, in a last-ditch effort to save him from a gastric-torsion crisis. Needless to say, getting a big sled dog who is already hurting to start willingly taking a tube down his gullet is not easy. Surprisingly, once started, it is also not that difficult, if you know the dog and the dog knows you. At one point in the process, though, that dog bit down very hard on my finger and I saw some bright red blood ooze from beneath the nail of my left thumb. Ouch. But I can’t blame you a bit there, bud.

Later I got to thinking about that brief chomp of teeth, and about those big bland berries again, and about a wolf I raised from a pup here thirty-two years ago. Big mistake, dumb move, and ill-fated tragedy. Do not ever ever think about doing this. The sad saga is all laid out in a chapter of North of Reliance, called “Esker.” Esker was the name of the wolf. The only meagerly positive paltry result of that sad experience was, I suppose, that it taught me some big lessons. Lessons I still ponder. Esker forced me to think about what is “wild” in this world and what is not, and I have been thinking about that a long time now. The other day, nursing my slightly sore dog-bitten thumb, I thought of Esker. With just a modest clamping of her wild jaw muscles and teeth, she would have severed half my hand, and that is no exaggeration.

A dog, even a ten-year-old veteran husky, is a dog, and not wild. A wolf – even a juvenile, confused, partly tame wolf raised on the wrong menu – is something else entirely. It is wild. Wildness is honed – by reality, by truth, by necessity. When I try for a moment to sweep my mind clear of all the constructs, constraints, props, helps, and artifices of “civilization,” I am left mostly aghast at what has gone away, and at my prospects. I look out on a snow-covered clearing two hours after sun-up. Tracks of a fox, tracks of a ptarmigan, old blown-in tracks of a wolf. Up the hill farther, I know, are a few wolverine tracks (so big that at first we mistook them for sign of a spring bear), and some moose tracks.

The snow lies deep as April now ends, and it has stayed on. I love the uncertainty now mounting, day by day, the not knowing when and how spring will finally come. It will come – it is already here astronomically. The sun is exactly as high in its arc and as powerful now, on 30 April, as it will be on 13 August. Think about that, here where the day’s high was still well below freezing. It is as if Old Man Winter has said to himself, as he did back in 2004, “Hmm, I bet May is nice in this country. Maybe I’ll stick around a while and take that in again this year.” In 2004 there was ice in McLeod Bay until the fifteenth of July. Not little shards of ice, but thick solid ice in miles-long sheets, and the barge that used to come here from Hay River spent an entire night bashing through it to get here with a small load of freight. (Small for them, big for us.) That barge has not been back here since, and thus the sea can down at the narrows 70 miles away, and thus our bags of bland but voluminous tame blueberries.

I look at the tracks of those critters and I step out and listen for birdsong. Only silence. None of the spring arrivals are back yet.  The Wild is here, though, waiting, and out there somewhere at this very moment the fox is somehow finding or not finding the hare, the wolf is somehow finding or not finding the moose. Maybe the intensity of each of their desires is the gist of it all. The hare desires to live to hop another day, just as much as the fox desires to kill another hare, see another dawn, welcome another spring. Likewise, all up and down what we so glibly label “the food chain.”

On one side the bland cultivation, the garden plot, the domesticated agreement.  On the other the wanting, the trying, and the relentless uncertainty.

Do we have to choose? I don’t know. It’s a question.

 

 

It is an evening in late March. We have been flying all afternoon and into the evening, on a job to locate and photograph herds of muskox for a study being done by the territorial wildlife people. It is good work for the little Husky ski-plane, with me folded into the front seat and Kristen right behind me with her cameras. It is cold work, though, since she slides the side window open for the photos as we make a low pass over herds we find, and the air whistling past that open window is downright frigid. It will be 35 below here again tonight. We call the second three months of winter “Winter Light” (February, March, and April), and that season is well underway, but Winter is still the first word in the season’s designation.

Five hours of low-level circling and spotting and note-taking, ending with a climb to 7500 feet for the 100-mile flight back to home, have left me a little brain-fogged. The plane is tied down with its winter covers all on, and as Robert Service would say, “The dogs are fed / and the stars o’erhead / are dancing heel and toe…” A quarter moon and Venus sliding down in the west.

It’s a picture, isn’t it? Almost a cartoon. I stand at the big steel sink and wash the day’s dishes, and we tune in the news on the BBC. Coleman lamps hissing, one hung on a nail in a ceiling timber, the other set up on a makeshift plywood shelf. The big electric worklight messes up the radio reception, so we leave it off while the news airs, and use up some of the stale naptha gas bequeathed to us by various expeditions over the decades. It doesn’t keep forever.

The news is all lockdowns, confirmed cases, stimulus plans and the flattening of curves. A couple of months ago, when we first moved into our new cabin, the reports were already touching, but just touching, on the bat virus from the wild-food markets of Wuhan, then getting back to Iran, Bernie, Biden, and the aftermath of Brexit. Little did we know. May you live in interesting times. Check.

I scrub, I listen, I finish and pour a shot of bourbon (moderation in all things, lads) and lie alongside the woodstove on a rug of muskox hide. Kristen has finished putting some dinner together, moose-meat and potatoes and cabbage salad, and is sitting with a glass of wine from a box. (Card-bordeaux.) We sip, still listening, and then switch from the BBC to the CBC. News closer to home, all things being relative, but still. It is news from a far distant land. Montreal and Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Sometimes a passing mention of one of the three northern territories.

We are, I know, almost a caricature in this, our rustic remoteness. And okay, I can let go of the “almost.” We are. And I guess I may as well make my peace with having become a caricature. If I have over the years become a caricature of myself, and if this place and our life out here are, for some, just a tired cliché of such places and lives, well… so be it. Log buildings, plaid wool shirts, red suspenders, moose meat and chainsaws and sled dogs and ski planes.

Coleman lamps, for God’s sake – who the hell pumps a Coleman lamp any more? LED’s, man, and double A batteries that will light up a room for weeks, all on sale today at Cambodian Tire. Walk the aisles, if you dare.

Yes, I am a caricature. A cliché. Isolation and “social distancing” writ large. Six feet? Try sixty thousand, or 600,000.

But not so fast, folks — take a look, and a glance in the mirror, and note what a clever cartoonist might make of you and your own life. And then — just have a good chuckle and get on with it. It’s okay. If you can chuckle you can trust it. And that will be my entire chestnut of self-help advice for 2020, I promise.

Like I said, we moved up into the new house in January. It is a delight to be here. It is an odd-looking place, from the outside, being a spruce-log octagon ten feet on a facet and two very tall stories high, capped by a low-slope roof with a three-foot overhang. One friend likened it to a mushroom. Another visitor, last summer, an architect by trade, went so far as to glance up from his notebook (where I like to think he was making notes on the brilliance of my design, but probably not) to say to me, simply and point-blank “You know you’re crazy, don’t you?.” Yep. Like I said, caricatures need to know when to chuckle.

The lantern, though, is a great feature of the new place. “Lantern” being, we are told (again by an architect friend), the proper designation for a jutting protrusion upwards from a roofline, festooned with windows. Imagine a bay window going up out of a roof. Ours has four windows, a small ladder leading up to a perch platform above the second floor, and views all around. Now that it is starting to be daylight at waking time (sun cresting the horizon at 06:55 today, gaining three and a half minutes a day on each end) I go up to the lantern every morning with my first cup of coffee. I have always liked that saying attributed to Saskatchewan farmers: “Going out for a coyote’s breakfast. That being a whiz and a good look around.” Up in the lantern I skip the first part but I do have a really good look around, almost every day. Until the season moderates enough to sip coffee out on the balcony or “widow’s walk” (another architectural term, but not popular with some in the household), the lantern’s four views are fine.

First I look north, to the crest of the big rock bluff and the folds and skylines beyond it. Burnt spruce and white snow. Not a green wisp to be seen.

East there is a small window, mostly blocked by the black steel stove-pipe that juts up through the lantern’s ceiling, and the view there is toward the river mouth. Mostly just sun glare lately, in the mornings. That will change by the week as the sunrise  slides northeast.

South, the vast white frozen lake and the escarpment of the Kahochella in the distance, the notch of the narrows at Reliance, and mile after mile of sculpted white drifts atop four feet of ice.

In the foreground out that south lantern window is our homestead in all its snow-covered chaos and clutter. I like watching the dogs from my high vantage point, unseen by them, but I cannot let my gaze linger too long on the rest of the homestead before my mind begins to conjure a long list of what must be done, should have been done, might be nice to do, or was done and didn’t really work out very well. When that list kicks in it is time to turn west.

West is the long ridge sloping south to the lake from the high bluff north. A copse of thick timber high up caught my eye one morning, and at first I thought it was green spruce. But no, the binoculars showed it to be just another clump of trees a little thicker and less burned than the rest, but burned and dead all the same.

I have come full circle and my mug is empty. I go down the ladder. The day starts. That’s about all there is to say, from here, right now.

Oh, that and to pass along to those readers and friends who should know, that singer and songwriter extraordinaire John Prine is on a ventilator down in Tennessee, stricken with this damned bat-virus. An Illinois boy tried and true, and a credit to us. Check out Tree of Forgiveness, on his most recent album of the same name, and you are in for a treat. I was humming it all day. Spare a prayer for old John.

Take care of each other, people. So long, from the caricature, up in his lantern.

When I was a boy growing up in Illinois, there were only a few days every winter when it got “so cold you could see your breath.” Seeing breath was something to remark upon in that time and place of my life. Now, half a century and a few thousand miles northwest, it seems remarkable that just seeing one’s breath could be cause for any comment at all, unless maybe it happened in mid-July, or unless I was watching the puffs of my breath while still tucked in a warm bed inside four walls and under a roof, as Kristen and I often have on winter mornings here in our succession of huts, cabins, and less-than-ultramodern houses.

But if you can hear your breath, well, then it is Cold. The first time I heard my breath was in the winter of 1990, here at the Hoarfrost, when the thermometer dipped to a new low – a record that still stands, over all the 80 years that official records have been kept for this part of the world, since the early 1940’s. Minus 54 at the Environment Canada station in Reliance, or 65 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Kristen and I were here at home, young and newly married, and definitely still seeing our breath on every winter morning when waking up in the drafty cabin we called home. The slender glass thermometer we checked that day was difficult to read but extremely accurate, being a spare given to us by the weather station meteorologists. When it said minus 54, it was minus 54, give or take a tenth of a degree at most.

To hear your breath, the air around you has to be truly and deeply cold. -49 Celsius seems to be the start of it. You need to stand perfectly still, out away from any other source of noise, and just exhale. It is a strange tsssh, not quite a shhh, because there is an odd crackling or shattering undertone to the sound, like the distant breaking of a thousand tiny crystal goblets. Again, breathe out. Tsssh. Tssh. When I first heard it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I walked a little way up the trail north of home, to look around, and I was somewhere near the place where our house now stands. I slowed my walk, and I heard it again. My footfalls, causing snow to settle in the drifts around me? Something up in the trees? An animal? What was that new and persistent soft tssh, tssh that I’d never heard before? Then I got it.

It was not the snow around me, not the trees, not something in the distance, but the water vapor of my every exhalation, crystallizing instantly in the puffs of my out-breaths.

I haven’t heard my breath for a couple of winters now. I did in 2017, up on the trail with a group of university students on a dogteam expedition. Anyway, it’s a good marker. If you can hear that sound, you know for a fact that it is fifty below C. or fifty-eight below F., or lower, and no thermometer is needed.

It was another cold morning, a few weeks back, so cold that I was listening for my breath. I was walking up to our new house after checking on the woodstove fire in the workshop, in the dim blue light that begins long before sunrise. It was almost hearing-your-breath cold, I was guessing, but in recent years we have not been able to find a thermometer that is worth a nickel when it gets truly cold. The fancy wireless weather station out near the fuel cache stops for good at a whimpy -41.4, Celsius, and the “Accu-Temp” made-in-China unit out on the front railing gives up long before that, at about minus thirty – even though the dial is marked down to minus sixty. I paused to listen for my breath, and confirmed that it couldn’t be heard, so I knew we were not to minus fifty yet.

Standing there listening, I saw our two familiar ravens gliding in from the north, from wherever they roost and wait out their long feather-puffed winter nights. (I had been appreciating feather-puffed fluff for myself, earlier that same morning, as I lay beneath a thick quilt stuffed with down plucked from some hapless geese.)

Their jet-black wings set and steady, twin gentle dihedrals, the raven pair made a soundless slow descent. The air was so cold and dense it was as if an invisible syrup had been poured over the landscape. In unison they banked in an arc over the barn and dog yard, checking it all out, then broke formation, one slipping to a touchdown on the top of a wooden fence slat and the other to a branch on a spruce just west of the dog yard.

Every morning this winter, at the first hint of daylight, they’ve been coming in. This tiny puff of woodsmoke here, our dogyard and our daily activity, make this their best bet for fifty miles in any direction, maybe more. They arrive, settle, puff up their feathers, wait and watch. And every day it pays off for them, somehow, sometime in the first hours of the morning. Some days there is a gift waiting right away, in the form of some food from the dogs’ evening meal, spilled or uneaten and by morning frozen on the snow. Even one white flake of frozen tallow, say no bigger than a pinky finger, flipped off to one side and lying forgotten in the snow as we chop up a block of lard for the cooker in the barn, is worth an entire morning’s vigil. That little flake is pure fat, pure energy, which makes pure warmth at the astonishing rate of 4,000 kilocalories per pound.

There is no guarantee, no agreement between us. The ravens only know that every day we bundled-up two-legs will appear, faithful servants to our sled dogs. No matter what the temperature we will do our morning chores, and every day there will be some reward for patience, maybe not a bonanza like 200 grams of pure lard, but something. Maybe a pail will tip or a few nuggets of kibble will spill from a bag, or a husky will purposely spill her bowl of soup, and after picking out all the appealing morsels retreat back into her straw-filled house. Game on.

This is the good part. The raven lands, side-hops cautiously into the edge of the dog’s circle, pauses, side-steps forward, looks both ways, minces back, then forward, then relaxes ever so slightly. Pecks at a little fleck of fat or rice or kibble, and another. Backs away, checks again, like a pitcher with a known base-stealer poised on first. So far so good. The dog is watching intently, three feet away. But it’s okay. At least today it is. I am not sure how this agreement ever goes awry, but every once in a very long time it must, and then we find a raven feather in the dog yard, or some other sign that there has been some trouble, maybe deadly trouble, for one of the big black birds.

Lately I’ve been thinking of these two ravens as Hugin and Munin, the ravens of Viking lore. In Norse mythology, these two were perched on the shoulders of the god Odin, helping, advising, flying away on recon missions and reporting back. Huginn (pronounced Hoo-gen) was thought or mind, and Muninn (Moo-nen) was memory. (The names seem to be spelled nowadays both with and without the double “n.”)

Bernd Heinrich, the scientist author who has written several fascinating books about ravens during his lifetime of study, describes Hugin and Munin in an interesting context:

In a biological symbiosis one organism typically shores up some weakness or deficiency of the other(s). As in such a symbiosis, Odin was the father of all humans and gods, though in human form he was imperfect by himself. As a separate entity he lacked depth perception (being one-eyed) and he was apparently also uninformed and forgetful. But his weaknesses were compensated by his ravens, Hugin (mind) and Munin (memory) who were part of him. They perched on his shoulders and reconnoitered to the ends of the earth each day to return in the evening and tell him the news. He also had two wolves at his side, and the man/god-raven-wolf association was like one single organism in which the ravens were the eyes, mind, and memory, and the wolves the providers of meat and nourishment. As god, Odin was the ethereal part—he only drank wine and spoke only in poetry. I wondered if the Odin myth was a metaphor that playfully and poetically encapsulates ancient knowledge of our prehistoric past as hunters in association with two allies to produce a powerful hunting alliance. It would reflect a past that we have long forgotten and whose meaning has been obscured and badly frayed as we abandoned our hunting cultures to become herders and agriculturists, to whom ravens act as competitors.

I just love thinking about this mythic team of man/god, ravens, and wolves. Maybe it is just that great aside about how Odin spoke only poetry and drank nothing but wine. Now there’s a gig.

It seems to me, though, that there should be a third raven perched on one of Odin’s shoulders, alongside either Hugin and Munin. Or maybe perched right on top of Odin’s head (sounds as though he might not notice.) There is certainly a third layer, a third raven, in my mental life. Yes, there is thought, as in thinking and pondering and figuring. And of course there is always memory, and memories. Recalling, remembering, revering, regretting, and all those other great “re” words. Remorse, retribution, revenge; reconsideration, retaliation, and reconciliation.

So yes, thought and memory. Present and past.

My third raven would be called Wunderin. From wonder, both as verb, as in “I’m wonderin’ how this whole deal is going to sort itself out,” and as noun, as in “that is just an absolute wonder.”

Should I ever happen across a lost and confused Viking, a wild-haired scraggle-toothed descendant of Leif the Lucky, somewhere far out on the northeast barrens after lo these thousand years, I will suggest this revision to him or her as we share a swig of mead. Hugin, Munin, and Wunderin. Thought, Memory, and Wonder.

Smart birds, those ravens. They know the deal. In they come, every morning at first light. They check and wait and watch, and they most definitely think and remember. I’m betting that they wonder, too. Wonder about it all, and wonder at it all. Who’s to say they don’t?

It’s working out for them, this quiet deep winter, as it has for so many winters, and I have no doubt that they’ll still be around whenever this chapter of the north’s story closes. I wonder who will be here with them.

Maybe just that one-eyed forgetful god and his magical wolves. Odin, sipping wine and spouting poetry.

Now there’s an image to make a person pause for a moment on the snowy path, to listen for the telltale sound of warm breath becoming ice.

When I first learned to fly airplanes I lived along the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. One night in 1983 I got my first taste of night-time flying on a full moon night, and after that I would mark on my calendar the two or three nights either side of the winter full moons. If on one of those nights the weather happened to be clear and not desperately cold, I would go over to the little airport where I worked and take one of the little planes up for a flight over the Quetico-Superior canoe country.

A full winter moon shining over a snow-covered landscape mottled with broad lakes bathes a landscape in light so bright that a person can stand and read a newspaper by moonlight, at least down to the second-smallest font. I felt confident that with that sort of light, even I as a fledgling pilot could probably set the plane down on a snowy lake if the urgent need arose. Awash in confidence, whether justified or not, I would taxi out and take off.  Once airborne I would head north past the lights of Ely and Winton and cross over the border at Basswood Lake, into Canadian airspace.

As far as I knew, this international aerial incursion was legal back then as long as I did not land and as long as I stayed more than 2,000 feet above the wilderness preserve. Not sure I would recommend trying it nowadays – there might be a fighter-interceptor off your wingtip in short order, although it would be somewhat comical to see him trying to slow that jet down to a hundred miles an hour so as to flash you the red lights.

On some of those nights I would fly north until I was over the very heart of the Quetico, then bank in a broad arc above the shining white swaths of Agnes Lake, Kawnipi, and Kahshahpiwi, and in the distance I could see the twinkling lights of Atikokan, Ontario. With a full moon over it all, the sensation of pure flight at some moments of those flights utterly transcended the putt-putt of the little motor and the spinning propeller, the gauges and the radio and the clumsy metal bird. When that happened it was about as much fun as a young fellow could have with his clothes on.

It is a little-known fact that the full moon’s path through the winter sky is almost precisely the same path that the sun will follow from dawn to dusk in mid-summer. And vice versa. In high summer here in the far north I seem to scarcely notice the moon, what with the sky so light and the days so long and the sun so high on its arc. But the moon is there if I look for it, pale and low, even in June and July, as a reminder to anyone paying attention, showing how the winter sun will rise in the southeast and slink along the southern horizon for a few hours until it sets again in the southwest.

These patterns of seasonal symmetry baffle me, as does almost every aspect of astronomy, but on a cold winter night I look up at the full moon so impossibly high in the sky, and it is just a gift of wonderful brightness. The difference between a cloudy, dark, snowless, new-moon night in autumn and a clear, bright, snowy, full moon night in January, is the difference between night and almost-day. It is inspiring to remember that the mid-winter moonrise, set so impossibly far north of due east, and the moon’s high bright trajectory overhead through the fifteen-hour night, is exactly the same path the sun will be on in six months, at the height of summer. It is inspiring, and in late January I need to take my inspiration wherever I can find it.

When I began to compose this post on January 25th, the moon was new. “New moon,” as in “no moon,” – that is, the one completely moonless night of the four-week cycle. By the time this writing is finished tonight the sliver of waxing crescent moon will just be sinking off to the west. The moon is forever chasing the sun and always losing the race, growing fatter and falling behind about 50 minutes every night, until the next full moon night, this one coming on the ninth of February.

Over the long (to us) and brief (to the moon) arc of humanity’s conscious journey, the vast majority of our collective nights have been very dimly lit – by lanterns and lamps, candles and torches, firelight, and for long eons before any of those, by moonlight and starlight. The moon is thus our most natural calendar. The sun can be the day’s clock, rising and setting and giving us a “local noon” wherever we are, while the moon is the month’s calendar hung on the wall of the sky, there whenever the clouds are not too thick. Two centuries ago, or less, before streetlights and indoor plumbing, almost anyone you met would have known, pretty much as soon as you asked, what phase the moon was in.

When I took a class in the Ojibwe Anishinabe language back in 1977, our teacher was an old woman from the Bad River Reservation on Lake Superior. One day she ticked off by memory a list of a year’s moons, and I am now inspired to go dig that list out again. I’m sure it’s in a file folder around here somewhere. There was the Moon When Trees Crack In the Cold (that was around now), the Maple Sugar Moon in early spring, the Moon of Crust on the Snow in late winter, and Manomin Gisiss, the Wild Rice Moon, in late summer when the rice got ripe. Every moon had a distinct name or two, and hearing them you would know, if you lived there, what time of year that moon would come.

Uber-urban moderns could still do the same, of course, and it might open a few people’s minds. Say you needed to call your next big meeting with your co-workers, and you announced that it was set for “two hours after sunrise on the first day after the full Moon of the Fiscal Year End.” I think most people who wanted to be there would probably figure it out and show up on time, give or take a few minutes. Of course when they heard your announcement they would not first look up at the big night sky, but straight down at their little screens, thumbs busy, brows furrowed, as urban people do whenever… well, whenever, full stop. But maybe on some of the nights leading up to the confab some of them would actually look up at the sky, and notice the shape and aspect of the moon. For some people it might be the first time in years. It would at least tweak their interest. Maybe.

So around we go again. As February looms, here in the very heart of winter, Buzz and Neil’s shape-shifting chunk of rock will be waxing from new to crescent to quarter (which looks like half) to gibbous, to full, and then, night by night, it will wane back through its repertoire to new and dark and young again, on the twenty-third of the month.

Musing about moon names and old Delores Bainbridge from Bad River, rest her soul, I think if I was pressed to give a name to this second moon of deep winter I would call it the Moon of Cold Hard Facts. Or maybe The Moon of Consequences. Such as:

  • If you didn’t put up all your firewood back in the fall, guess what – you get to do it now, in the cold, wearing snowshoes and cursing the balky cold chainsaw.
  • It is very hard to tiptoe on snowshoes. And even if you succeed the moose still hears you.
  • Snow is a wonderful insulator unless it has just cascaded right down your bare neck from a heavily laden spruce branch overhead, bumped while you were concentrating on trying to tiptoe on your snowshoes.
  • Boot liners and water holes in the ice that are ignored one day, by not drying the liners or not chopping the ice hole open wide enough, will come back around to collect their due the following day. You get to have cold feet while you chop twice as much ice today as you should have chopped yesterday.

And so on. One unassailable and welcome fact is that the bright winter moon is getting bigger each night, riding its high arc through the sky. And that is something to appreciate.

“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.”  

Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mother Blues

“The sun is but a morning star.”

— Henry David Thoreau (the last sentence of Walden)

 

Drum roll please, for the final solstice of this second decade of these still-infant two-thousands, tonight at 0419 UTC. As we head round the far turn of our annual orbit, this past six months the darkening half-lap in this hemisphere, I am taking my solstice solace in the coming light, and in mystery.

Our touted “brave new world” does on some good days still strike me as truly brave. It always has, and I hope it always will. Living where I do I seem able to find bravery, or some decent allegory for it, without too much effort, almost anytime I need to. There is abundant courage out here in the outback — not in me personally, I hasten to add – but among the finned and feathered and furry and leafy ones. In that realm perhaps it should be called something else, but bravery is such a great word. And there is no shortage of it, or something akin to it, out amongst the critters.

When it comes to humanity, though, the bravery I can discern these days is mostly on the personal level. I take inspiration from brave people doing brave things as they live their lives, get through their days, and play the cards they’ve been dealt as best they can. On a level of society and empire and civilization, though, it is cowardice that has carried the decade. We dither and forestall, postpone and deny, prevaricate and hedge. We spend too much time and energy and verbosity splitting ourselves up and building walls and looking backward, obsequious and apologetic, nasty and arrogant, when we could be picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, shaking hands and peeling off our insignia and labels, and looking forward. Has it always been thus? Not sure, can’t say, wasn’t there.

It’s been a long decade, these twenty-tens. Longer even, in many ways, than the ominous opening stanza of the millenium that got underway almost as soon as the celebratory fireworks had stopped sparkling across the sky. And now it’s farewell to the teens, and bring on the twenty-twenties. (Would it be too corny to ask whether our collective human vision might improve to 20-20 in the twenty-twenties? Yep. It would be corny, and naïve to boot.)

Enough of this. I am not a very good pundit, and this monthly post from McLeod Bay is not written as some sort of half-baked opinion piece, so I will now push the tiller hard over and steer away from that tack.

 

As I move through my days, up and down, weary and energized, inspired and not, living this odd life out here on this burned-over shoreline in a remarkably uncrowded corner of this seriously overcrowded planet, it is not only the examples of courage that I look to for my inspiration, but examples of utter mystery. Awash in so much confident information, booming cocksure and certain from every quarter, over the radio and across the screen and the page, it is the unknowns, the utterly un-know-ables, that fire my imagination.

There is still plenty of downright mystery in the world. Ask any honest (preferably an older and lifelong) scientist. Ask anyone who has pulled their head out of their tiny little world of easy answers and explanations, and stood for a quiet moment looking up, or out, or in. There are still plenty of things happening around us for which we have absolutely no explanation. Mysteries.

On this Solstice I am taking solace in my personal list of mysteries from this past decade. Including these, listed below – the “short list” in the final draw.

 

  • Who cut that straight line of blazes back through the woods west of the river, forty or fifty years ago? And who left that birchbark canoe in Yearling Bay, and who abandoned the ancient double-barrel percussion cap rifle we once found on the north Twin Island, its one hammer still pulled back, the other down?
  • What was the enormous force or pressure or wave that lifted from below and shattered a solid half-acre of shorefast ice, over in Gyrfalcon Cove on the tenth of December 2016? Whatever it was, that force peeled a couple of dozen two-ton blocks of twenty-inch-thick ice right up off the clay bottom and scattered and flipped them like huge cold dice, and it did this in five or six other places up and down the shore of a completely frozen McLeod Bay, all at once.
  • When will the caribou commence their natural resurgence, swing through this downturn like the earth swings through its solstices, and start increasing again as the Porcupine herd has done, and as caribou have done again and again over these past tens of thousands of years? Or will they? (They will. I saw some things this autumn, flying alone up north, and that is all I am going to say about that.)
  • Where did a rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) come from, in August of 2017, to hover and buzz in front of a bright yellow life-vest that was hung to dry in the morning sun on the south wall of the workshop? Where did it go when it departed from here, a solid 450 miles from the nearest limit of even its “rare” range, a tiny beautiful whirring vision of color and delicacy three feet from my face. And while we’re at it, where will the twenty-year southward march of these ever-increasing muskox herds, now happily at home clear down into the jackpine and aspen forest a hundred miles south of treeline, come to its limit?
  • How do fish know what the weather is like up above the water, in the sky and the air, and beyond a layer of solid ice, and how does the lichen reclaim a burned cliff-face of clean white and pink rock and how do wood frogs freeze solid in a layer of fifty-below-zero mud and emerge to hop and feed and breed on a hot July afternoon the very next year, and how do minnows get into a completely landlocked high lake… and, and, and?

As a real show-stopper, anytime and anywhere, and covering all the categories of when and how and what and why and where and who, there is always my old fallback. Just a dark sky chockfull of bright stars on a clear night. I can stand and look up for a few moments and ponder, and I always manage to come up with something eloquent to say, such as “Hmm.”  (Long pause.)  “Huh.” 

And here’s the kicker, for the decade now done, in my own Mysterious Anecdote category. The envelope please.

Why? 

Our old lead dog Sophie, littermate to Ernie, was in her sixteenth year and failing fast on a bitterly cold night in the final days of December 2015. She was a very shy and wolfish dog who only once in her life, in our collective memory, had ever asked to come into the house. She had been with us in the workshop overnight though, because our daughters had carried her in from the barn at dusk. She was unable to walk. She spent a restless night in a makeshift bed on the floor by the woodstove, and the next day at dawn twilight, at forty-something below zero, she stood up and walked to the door and clearly asked to be let out. I opened the door, and out she went into the morning. In her condition, at that temperature, we did not think she would or could go far, and after a few minutes I went to let her in. She was gone, and at first we could not find her. Her tracks led east, up from the beach and along the summer trail toward the river. The snow there was soft and deep and she was plowing through it breaking trail.

Kristen found her, lying dead and facing east, just as the 1980’s-era Iditarod musher, author Gary Paulsen, claimed that dying dogs and wolves will always do, if allowed to choose their final lie-down unfettered and unrestrained. Face the east, face the rising sun, face the new day.

Well, well. As one of my grandfathers used to say, “put that one in your pipe and smoke it.”

Happy Solstice all.

 

 

 

 

High noon in November, gray and dim. Raw northeast wind in my face as I trudge along. Coming back from the fuel-barrel cache, through the burnt spruce west of the sawmill, towing two red five-gallon jugs of gas on a yellow plastic sled. Those faded red jugs and that patched yellow sled are the only vestiges of color in the entire scene. Pale gray sky; dark gray water out beyond new white ice; the horizon across the bay just a black line dividing pale gray from darker gray.

The sled lurches and tips on a drifted boulder. One jerry can flops out and starts leaking from a cracked vent bung. I stop, curse gently, tip it up, and pull the load forward across the snowy beach.

The same beach where on bright summer evenings we all come down to wash and swim. Green shoreline grass, purple fire-flowers, cool water and warm air, soap and sunlight on bare brown skin.

I tug my gas. That stuff we need to run the tools, run our lives, build and cut and heat and switch on our brave little lights. I smell the spilled gas on my mitten, sniff the cold wind, and push aside those soft and utterly inconsequential memories of summer. Early August may as well be flippin’ Tahiti today. Buck up, bush man.

Suddenly I’m thinking about the refineries at Fort Saskatchewan, the steel mills of Gary Indiana. I smile and tip my wool cap to the workers down south. I mean the workers, not the suits or the hats or the flip-flops and groovy T’s. The ones who make and load. The ones I might not agree with on certain things, if we got right into it. But then again, some days I’m not so sure.

Right now, at high noon, someone is punching in or punching out. Eight-hour shift at the plant, where out back the loading docks are cluttered with pallets and the forklifts scurry back and forth to the trucks. Black steel stove-pipe, 3031 gunpowder, triple pane window glass, thirteen-sixty-fourths inch carbide chainsaw files, 205-liter drums of pure cold gasoline.

Much obliged, people. Keep up the good work. These real and solid things you make and pump and smelt and ship are nothing less than wonders of my world. Yes, I know, I know, there may be other ways forward. I cannot quite see those ways yet, from here, and I cannot imagine facing this winter day without stove-pipe, window glass, gunpowder, chainsaw files, and gasoline. To name just a handful. And I have not the foggiest idea how to make any of that stuff myself.