Kristen, my saintly wife and the homestead matriarch, is a wizard and a whirlwind in our woodstove kitchen. My own culinary skills and interests are mostly limited to boiling coffee water, making Saturday sourdough pancakes, roasting slabs of fish on the outdoor fire, and almost-always-cheerfully washing big piles of dishes. As early-winter daylight dwindles, our cold-weather appetites kick in. So it is a happy fact that here at the Hoarfrost River we have always enjoyed not just one, but two full-on Thanksgiving dinners.  Clever as can be, we label the one in early October “Canadian Thanksgiving,” and 45 days later we sit down to “American Thanksgiving.” There are usually no turkeys involved, but there is always good food and plenty of it.

This doubled-down Thanksgiving is wonderful from the pumpkin-pie, gravy, and fresh rolls standpoint, believe me. The second one also says a lot about the strength of traditions and the durability of origins, and about our memory and our innermost allegiances. Thanksgiving in October seems all well and good, but when that final Thursday in November rolls around, we both know, deep down, that it’s just gotta be a holiday around here.

When our ancestors, on all sides and branches of the extended families, left Scandinavia for North America in the mass exodus of the late 1800’s, they brought their own holiday calendars with them, too, including Santa Lucia Day on December 13 th. A crown of candles on a white-robed daughter and pre-dawn gatherings for coffee and pastries in houses with no electric lights allowed. My sister still keeps that tradition alive in Minneapolis, every year, to the great delight of her mostly non-Scandinavian friends and neighbors.

These are small things, you say, just nostalgic gestures.  But are they? We can all leave a country behind and become citizens of another. But can we? How are we coded, deep down, by our countries of origin and the ambience of those “formative” years?  Kristen and I are immigrants. Maple leaves on our passports, yes, and taxes all paid to CRA, not IRS, but we are “American ex-pats” always and forever. (Some Canadians consider that a derogatory label, trust me.) This past month we have done a lot of mulling and musing over that strange brew of allegiances, upbringing, attitudes, and roots that gets lumped under the heading of “patriotism.”

A little story, my story, to start with:

In 1957 a boy was born in Moline, Illinois, a small city on the Mississippi River.  His mother was twenty; his father was twenty-six. Eisenhower was President. In Canada John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, although, as usual, maybe two out of ten thousand Americans would have known that. Sputnik had just been launched. On the streets of Moline and Rock Island, Vietnam was as unfamiliar a name as Diefenbaker.  

Dad worked at the local television and radio station, where his appearance as Mr. Peterson the Swedish Postman on the afternoon kid’s show was a popular gig. Television was small and local, new and exciting, and it was all in black-and-white. A lot of things were all in black and white, in Illinois and in America, in 1957.  

Within the year the family moved north and east to Crystal Lake, a town along the Wisconsin line, northwest of Chicago. Dad began a long career as a high-school teacher. A sister soon graced the scene, and later another. The boy’s years blur together, just the good moments remembered. Fishing at the gravel pits, bicycles on dirt paths, baseball on back lots, a cold basketball bouncing on a concrete driveway in autumn dusk, to the smell of burning leaves. Trombone practice and tornado-warning sirens. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and camp-outs in Stearn’s Woods.

Politics? Well, there’s November 1963, walking home from first grade to find Mom standing in front of the television in mid-afternoon, watching awful news come in from Dallas. And there’s August 1968, at the ripe old age of ten, with the television on downstairs late one night, still in black-and-white, the screen and commentary a frantic melee from Chicago’s Grant Park — just over an hour’s drive away. The Democratic convention, Hoffman and Hayden, Humphrey and Daly. Confusion, mayhem, billy-clubs, gas masks. Uncle George and Aunt Jean, Mom and Dad, all leaning forward toward the screen. Up to bed you go, young man.

Every morning at school, announcements over the loudspeaker from Mr. Husman the Principal, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at the front of the classroom, the Stars and Stripes. Fifty years on, and the words are still right there in my mind, without the slightest pause or effort to recall them:

I pledge allegiance

To the flag

Of the United States of America

And to the Republic for which it stands

One nation

Under God

Indivisible

With liberty and justice for all.

End of little story.  Moral:  No salmon has ever been more thoroughly imprinted with the chemistry of its home stream than that boy was infused with the scenes, sounds, scents, and repetitive recitations of his youth. (How about you?)

Fast forward to a July morning in 1990, here at the Hoarfrost River. Kristen and I were out in front of the old log cabin, the original “Jimmie Colburn shack,” enjoying an alfresco breakfast when a power boat rounded the headland and turned in toward us.  I laughed when through the binoculars I saw the woman on the boat looking right back at me through her own binoculars.  She laughed too, and we waved. They came ashore. Clint and Jan, out cruising and camping, from Yellowknife. Two little children. Introductions all around. He worked at the Con Mine, as an engineer or a geologist, and they had lived all around the world.

We gave them our own story in a nutshell.  They both laughed out loud. “The minute we saw this place,” said Jan, “I told Clint and the kids I’d bet my bottom dollar you were Americans.”

She then gave us her succinct and witty rundown on the national character of Canadians, Aussies, New Zealanders (like her husband), Brits, South Africans, and Americans (like herself.) It was a fascinating set of insights, mostly to do with the relation of each country to its great outdoors, its back-country and wilderness, its vision of the perfect mix of urban and rural living, and its ideals of cottage and cabin life. I wish I had it all on tape.

Jan’s instant assessment was still fresh in my mind when later that summer I stood before Thomas Eagle in Yellowknife. He was a Citizenship Judge, with a small office on Franklin Avenue. (Sir John Franklin, not Ben.)  Judge Eagle was Ojibwe Anishinabe. He was a veteran of the Canadian military, and he was a lifelong advocate for the welfare of Metis and First Nations people.  He was a handsome old man with a soldier’s posture. He had black-and-grey hair, bronze skin, and high cheekbones. I still remember standing there looking at him, taking in his appearance and knowing a little about his background, and then looking down at the words of the Citizenship Pledge I was about to recite. I remember thinking, ”He really wants me to say this? With a straight face? Yep. Evidently he does.” And so I did, looking Tom Eagle right in the eye to see if I could spot any twinkle there, any small acknowledgement of the many layers of irony rife in that moment. I could not. The oath goes like this, for those of you who have never actually taken it:

I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”

Weird, huh? The Queen?  And the pronoun Her capitalized? Elizabeth, descendant of King George, whose redcoats the Yankees rose up to oust in 1776, so that they could start their new experiment, their Republic “with liberty and justice for all.”  Americans are a rebellious bunch, and I remember feeling a little too “American” in my attitude and outlook as I recited that antiquated oath and thus became a Canadian citizen. 

We take a lot with us when we leave a country and go to live in another. I well remember how much material “stuff” I had with me when my Dad and I pulled into the border crossing between Minnesota and Ontario on a muggy July night in 1987, for my official entry into Canada. Two worn-out pickup trucks each towing a trailer, one with two dogsleds lashed down on top, and on each truck roof a lashed-down canoe.  A dozen huskies; crates of tools and books; chainsaws, skis, snowshoes; bundles of clothes; a ton of dog kibble. Jed Clampett would have been proud of us. 

What I could not see, though, was how much “stuff” I had between my ears, stuff that was American through and through and was most definitely coming north with me, and that – unlike the dogs and gear and clothes – was never going to die or wear out.

Fast forward again, to November 2020.  It has been a strange month, Kristen and I both constantly “checking in” by radio and phone and satellite inter-tube from our snow-globe bubble of germ-free taiga, as a tumultuous election and rampant disease have threatened a descent into total chaos south of the border. Today, as the month ends and the year winds down, maybe there is some calm on the horizon, but I am edgy. This ain’t over yet, I think.

From here, though, it is hard to know what to think, hard to hold an opinion that will not the very next day go up for grabs again. Will he? Will they? Won’t he?  How could they? What if? What if not?

“It’s just a shitshow.”  That same exact phrase, within 24 hours, came from two different people. My brother-in-law, who lives just blocks from the spot where George Floyd was killed and where burned-out and boarded-up buildings mark the aftermath of the riots that followed; and another good friend, writing from his timber-frame farmhouse off to the west.

The discord and upheaval haven’t quite brought me to tears yet. There have been times when things “down there” have done just that. Three different occasions come to mind. One, sitting alone on the houseboat in Yellowknife Bay on the morning of September 11, 2001, tears of anguish welled up as I listened to radio reports from New York. Seven years later, tears of wonder, as I sat alone in a motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., glued to the television while a hopeful and eloquent former Senator from Illinois took the oath of office as America’s 44 th President. And most recently, almost four years ago in January, sitting alone in the workshop on a bitterly cold morning, in front of the woodstove, hearing the first few paragraphs of number 45’s Inaugural Address immediately plunge into vitriol and finger-pointing. Tears again, just sad and bewildered.

The only thing I know for certain these days is that when it comes to these “ex-pat” compartments of my mental life, I am indeed in a snow-globe bubble, locked to a false and filtered notion of current events and everyday life in the old country.  Because, of course, another aspect of moving away from anywhere, or anything, is that we lock it into our memory as it was, and it stays there unchanged.  For example, distant friends or relatives have children.  We see them, we meet the kids, and then ten or twenty years go by, and somehow we are surprised when – voila – we hear that little Betsy is now lecturing in anthropology or Rob is off fighting fires in the Yukon. How could this be? Aren’t they still giggling and trying to tie their shoes, like they are in our trustworthy mind’s eye? It’s the same with countries, and with ex-pats. Kristen and I cannot claim, after more than three decades of living in Canada, to know or understand what it is to be American in 2020. Face it, we tell each other. We don’t understand because we have been gone too long. Visits are just visits. (On the flip side, the far north and its legacy of opinionated non-resident visitors comes to mind.)  

November is usually a tough month here, but for other reasons.  It’s a bad month for flying weather, but with the current state of the pandemic shutdown there has been virtually no flying to do. Both planes are just tied down on the ice like a couple of expensive lawn ornaments. It’s the month of freeze-up, and for this year that is already finished, the second earliest ever in our time here, and in Kristen’s words it was “just not all that dramatic.”  One day the lake was open, and the next day it was frozen. 

We had our American Thanksgiving the other night, with an entrée of Dall sheep from the Nahanni Range, courtesy of a friend who was up there in September. Kristen moved gracefully around the kitchen, tending pots and doughs, and she was so absolutely enthused about it all that I wondered whether cooking and feasting on the final Thursday of November is some sort of genetic gender imprint or a North Dakota soil-chemistry side-effect.

And this November I have concluded that there is no such thing as an “ex-pat.”  There is always and forever patriotism , which of course should just as well, and much more accurately, be called matriotism.  And we might as well pre-emptively coin “theytriotism,” in advance of someone claiming that they somehow came to life without ever having a mater or a pater.

And for now, the usual cluck-clucking from north of the border will go on, watching the “shitshow” and the “meth lab” to the south. Schadenfreude is as common among neighbors as borrowing a cup of sugar – or as borrowing a cup of sugar used to be, in my locked-in memory of 1960’s small-town Illinois.  You see, there I go again. When did somebody last go borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors?

As I said the other day to Kristen over our lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers, “Man, I’d give my eye teeth to have a few neighbors drop by.”  And right now there are more people than ever who know what we mean by that.


Montana literary legend A. B. Guthrie, Jr. liked to say that if he could rewrite Genesis, it would open: “In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was change.“ — David Petersen, in his book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America 

Winter roared in with a five-day gale in mid-October, bringing snow that has not melted, so I guess this is it. Last Sunday afternoon I filled a thermos with cocoa, coffee, and a splash of cream, and walked down to the beach to chip the ice from the hull of an overturned canoe. Lumpy rollers were pushing in on a south wind, so I carried the canoe to a little eddy of calm water behind the island and slipped it into the lake. I put my rifle and knapsack into the tip of the stern, set a couple of paddles aboard, and eased down between the bow seat and the center thwart. I knelt on my life jacket and pushed off. (Apologies to the safety police, but I could not possibly wear a Personal Flotation Device over all my warm clothes and still swing a paddle.) The breeze was below freezing, but barely, and once I was out and away from the beach it was pure pleasure to feel the lift and surges of those big waves. I hugged the shoreline and paddled east. I was so close to land, and over such shallow water, that if my little vessel had swamped or capsized I would have just stood up and waded ashore. 

The water was deeper, though, and dark and fast and ominous, as I crossed over the main channel of the river. The Hoarfrost is still running so high in late October that we are constantly remarking to each other about it. I bumped the canoe’s bow stem into the rim of ice on the east bank. One lens of my glasses dropped right out of its frame as I stood up to get out, and I had a brief glimpse of that thin wisp of clear glass, just as the surge of the next wave pulled it away forever. For the rest of the day I wore the glasses with just the right lens in place, and I got a few laughs back home when I showed up cock-eyed. Luckily, I only need glasses for hunting, and legally nowadays for flying, and surprisingly one lens seems almost as good as two.  

I flipped the canoe over in the snow at the river’s edge, put on my knapsack and slipped a round into the rifle, safety on. I walked a few yards southeast along the shoreline and turned up a steep rise on the path we call The Mail Trail. We cut this trail in 1989, when I desperately needed to sign a document that we knew would be in the mail bag going into the weather station at Reliance. There was a ski-plane booked to deliver that mail bag and some groceries to the station, and the pilot, Peter Arychuk, kindly landed to meet me up at a frozen inland lake. Kristen and I cut a trail to the lake, met Peter, and we had coffee around a fire while I signed my paper. There were caribou up there that day, drifting past, but back then caribou in autumn were so common that we hardly mentioned it.

As I walked away from the canoe I was thinking back to the origin of the Mail Trail and trying to discern its uphill route through the new snow. Our familiar trails are all burned over now, and it has been surprisingly hard for us to find them at the start of every winter. The dogs find them more easily than we do.  

I was moose hunting, but I hesitate to call it that. By southern standards, it hardly looked like hunting – no blaze-orange vest, no camouflage hat, no scope on the rifle, no paraphenalia. I was just walking, very slowly, and pausing often, and listening and constantly looking around. Yes, I had my .30-06 carbine, and it was loaded. My sheath knife was on my belt, and in my pockets I had cord, some fire-starters, and a sharpening stone. But all those tools and backups are on my person almost every day of the year, unless I am in town, when I really do need to remember to take the sheath knife off my belt. I was just looking, and being quiet and slow about it. To me, “looking” only becomes “hunting” if I happen to cross a fresh track, or catch a glimpse of dark movement up on a ridge or down in a swale. Or, as has happened many times, I just turn my head to one side and suddenly see, staring right back at me, not so many yards off, a moose. Where, oh where, did you come from, oh so silently? 

It was not always this way.  In the years from 1989 until about 2005, I hunted moose like a man possessed, starting like clockwork on the autumn equinox and carrying on, sometimes frustrating everyone involved, until the enormous front and hind quarters of a moose were hung in the meat cache. Those long-ago mornings off down the shore in my boat fed my soul, and I treasure them, but something has changed now. I still want to eat what is around me, and I still hunt moose to do so, but the obsession has eased. I am pondering this change, among many others.

In 1989 Kristen and I went for a walk and reconnoitered the route that would need to be cut to meet that mail plane with a dog sled team. That, too, was a late-October Sunday; we were in the first year of our marriage. Her hair was dark, mine was thick and curly, and I suppose my gait and posture, seen from a little distance,were a lot more fluid and limber than they are nowadays. (Lifting heavy things, our joke used to be, “Remember to lift with your back, boys, your knees won’t last forever.”  Oh, the flippancy of youth. I floated that quip a couple of summers ago, hoisting logs for the new house, and all I got from my comrades was a soft groan and a couple of raised eyebrows.) 

I wrote about that long-ago Sunday with Kristen, and how it swiftly changed, in North of Reliance:

Suddenly from up ahead we heard the clatter of antlers… The woods were filled with caribou…sweeping in from the northeast, deflected by the open water of McLeod Bay… Some of the caribou, not to be deterred by a mere ten miles of frigid water, actually waded out past the shorefast ice and started swimming south … A steady stream of caribou. La Foule, the voyageurs had called them – “the throng.”

In those years, the late eighties and early nineties, the Bathurst caribou herd was nudging the half-million mark.  Maybe more, maybe less – the counting of caribou is always a guessing game. In the parlance of the locals, there were “really really lots” of caribou around in those years.

Same patch of snow-covered sandy bench above the east riverbank. Thirty years on, just a blip, a sliver of time. Kristen had come on a walk with two friends this past September, looking for berries, and she told me that evening that she had thought about this bench of tall timber and how it used to be, and remembered that long-ago Sunday and those throngs of caribou. She told me she was surprised at how utterly “bleak” and scorched the bench was now, what a scene of chaos and devastation, even on a bright blue late-summer day six years after the fire. And she told me she was surprised that this still surprised her.

In early winter, with a gray sky and a cold south wind, six inches of new snow on the stumps and snags, “bleak” is completely inadequate. Quick, call Cormac for another new adjective. Blackened trunks of charred trees, tipped and fallen and lying all akimbo in every direction, some hollowed by the flames into weird charcoal gargoyles partway up thick trunks, massive webs of tipped root clusters, hung with clumps of sand and small boulders still snared in their tangle when they were yanked sideways up out of the ground.  Not a track on the snow anywhere, not so much as a mouse or a squirrel, and not a bird in sight. And most certainly not a caribou within fifty or a hundred miles of here, today. Not one.  

It was sobering, but I did not find it sad. I feel like we have been given a rare, true, glimpse of “the real deal” here, by this long lesson we are living in now. All my early life was steeped in the grandeur and glory of the woods and the wilderness, my reading and thinking always tending to paeans of color and light and the balance of nature. The words of Muir and Thoreau, the colorful images and upbeat narrations of Disney and Cousteau. I took that bait, and I am glad to have done so, because I have lived out so many of my boyhood dreams, way back of beyond out here in pristine and wondrous country. 

And now, farther along the road, I am being shown the flip side of all this, the facets of the jewel that I could not have comprehended earlier on. I will not live long enough to see this bench festooned with century-old spruce again, the ground beneath them carpeted with fifty or seventy-five years of soft green lichen. And until that lichen is there, the caribou will never linger long in this part of the country.  They may pass through, as they did in long-ago Octobers, coming down off the barrens and finding the lake still open here to deflect them either east or west. There are limits to this massive burn, of course, and out beyond the charred country the growth must have been good over this past summer of extraordinary moisture and sunshine. The feeding will be getting better, and I will go out on a limb and predict that the Bathurst caribou will cycle upward again soon. Maybe someday they will swing down through here again, the bulls sparring, the cows skittering with their half-grown calves at their sides, the ravens overhead and the wolves and wolverines and foxes all in trail. 

Or not. See how easily I still slide into that seductive Disney vision, that “Nature is always going to make things perfect if we only let her” litany? It’s like the mantra of a cult buried in my head, so deeply and at such a young age, that I circle back to it whether I try to or not. But does it hold water? Maybe the caribou will go extinct, you know. Every species does, after all.  What gets them? Change.   

Mulling and musing, looking, I had walked by then up beyond the level bench, past a furrowed trough in the snow with pawprints that I took to be porcupine, over some low ridges and onto a high smooth slab of pink rock, burned clean of all lichen and blown clean of snow.  These patches of clean granite and gneiss have been one true gift of the fire, and I love walking on them.  There, way up on top with a view south out over the dark gray lake to the far hills, I paused alongside a giant boulder.  It sits just perched up there, half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.  Jagged and sharp-edged, not tumbled or rounded at all, as if it had just cleaved from a cliffside. But there is no cliff within two miles of it. What? Hello? How did you get here? It looks like it was flung from outer space.  Out east they say “God took six days to make Labrador, and on the seventh day He rested and threw rocks at it.” 

I walked on. Eye out for a moose, rifle in hand. Not hunting, but ready to hunt if the opportunity came. Thinking about that boulder, and about changes.

English is a rich language with an amazing variety of vocabulary. Drawn as it is from Norse, French, Latin, Celtic and Gaelic roots, to name some, then all spiced and infused with the words and phrases gleaned from a vast empire of master sailors and seafarers who still called an offshore island Home (Viking “heim“), English gives and gives, when it comes to finding just the right word. Still, it leaves us needing a word now and then. Sends us searching and not finding anything adequate.  I am thinking of “lake.”

Especially in Autumn, the word “lake” falls short for me. At this season we spend a lot of time and conversation here trying our best to gauge and react to the moods and power of the vast waters stretching away to the south and west of us. I yearn for a word more than “lake”; I want something that is bigger, deeper, and more majestic. If I could find something vaguely ominous, that would be even better. So far as I can see, that word is not out there. I am open to suggestions.

Two decades ago, freshly back north from a winterlong hiatus down in the Gulf Islands off Vancouver, where Kristen and I and our two little daughters had been steeped and surrounded by boats and ships and maritime life, I found myself talking about going down the coast of McLeod Bay.  An affectation, maybe (Lord knows I’ve been guilty of those), but I liked the connotation of “coast” over “shore” because I noticed that it changed my perception in a subtle way. It made some people, upon hearing me use it, pause and consider that choice of word. (“A sea or an ocean has a ‘coast,’ but a lake has a ‘shore.’ Doesn’t he know that?”) Now it has become a habit. If I am referring to a voyage or a landmark more than a few miles distant by water or ice, I tend to say “along the coast” or “on the coast.” Coast of what, though?

Two weeks ago in mid-September, a week before the equinox, we got the autumn warning shot across the bow. Equinoctial winds are a recognized phenomenon, in March and September, because the energy balance of equal nights and days makes for bigger swings in a twenty-four-hour period, and energy swings drive pressure differentials and thus make for windier weather. This year, with record high water levels that so far show no sign of abating, we knew we would be sitting ducks for just such a storm surge, and still we had a struggle. A west wind in the morning built up and backed to southwest, and soon big blue-green rollers were playing havoc with both our our hauled-up floatplanes, the big crib dock was being lifted and heaved, an overturned skiff was being buried in wave-washed sand, the narrow strip of remaining beach between here and the river mouth was flooding, and we were scurrying around all day, fretting and trying to hold things together, our moods a mix of awe, acceptance, and resignation. We were hoping that the wind would not defy the forecasters and shift even farther into the south, and luckily it did not. 

By first light the next morning, the air temperature was below freezing and steadily dropping, and Kristen and I talked in bed and made a plan.  We were soon down at each of the planes in turn, digging and pumping and heating water in a cutoff barrel over a big fire.  The smaller plane that we operate here, the two-seat Husky, was in more dire straits, but luckily it is of a size and weight that make it more manageable.  After some memorable heaving and levering and coaxing, and with a little help from the rhythmic surging of the subsiding swells, by late morning we had both planes levelled and heeled up and tied off. The sun began to poke through and the smooth swells continued to subside. If the wind had not changed, or if it had been mid-October with truly frigid air sweeping in behind the storm, things would have gotten ugly.

“Lake?”  Of course this is a lake. Any and all inland bodies of fresh water too big to be “ponds” or “tarns” are, in English, going to be lakes.  From gigantic Lake Superior to tiny Oak Lake, Wisconsin, where my parents lived for years and my Grandfather and I used to fish for sunnies. The doomed ore-carrier Edmund Fitzgerald would have spanned Oak Lake cross-wise, like a bridge, and if lowered into it vertically until its bow touched bottom, the stern would have towered high above the surrounding forests and farms, easily the tallest structure in Washburn County.

In trying to differentiate lakes from Lakes, Longfellow might have been on to something, purple and flowery though it is, with his Gitchee Gumee, from the Ojibwe kitche-agaming, giving it to us as “the shining big sea water.” Now that’s more like it. Or Tu Nedhe. Local Dene Soline word for Great Slave. Big Water, near as I can gather, as I tiptoe cautiously into the ever-more-treacherous pool of cultural appropriation. What more can you say? Big Water.

“Sea” will not serve, I gather, because the dictionary has decreed that a Sea must properly be salty. I did learn, though, that the Sea of Galilee is not saline, but fresh, and surprisingly small, being about 13 miles by 8 miles all told. Strictly speaking, it is Lake Galilee. It is called a Sea only by some quirk of tradition and translation.

I was flying some local weather-station technicians over the big water earlier this month, and we saw a sizeable research ship slowly circling the spot in the western part of Christie Bay, sixty miles southwest of here, where the water is at its deepest, just over 2,000 feet.  614 meters.  Deepest fresh water in North America. They were circling because of course they could not anchor in such depths, and they had a smaller boat out doing some work. They have had a sensor of some sort sunk clear to the bottom there, on a cable, taking readings and measurements since a year or so ago. 

That big ship, unable to drop anchor, made me think that maybe there could be some clear parameters for a lake becoming more than a lake. Is there a spot offshore, for instance, where from a boat on a clear day there is no sight of land on any horizon? Is there water more than 500 feet deep? Can a gale-force wind raise waves of two meters, or seven feet, or can a storm surge bring water levels along the shore – oops, the coast – up by more than two feet in a matter of hours? If so, then it is Big Water. 

And so I am now doubly frustrated. As Kristen and I head out to look for a pail of cranberries or a sign of moose, coasting the shore of Great Slave Lake, not only does the antiquated and misleading moniker “Great Slave” irk me, now I yearn for something other than “Lake.” I will continue to seek some possibilities, and as I said I am open to suggestions. The changing of a geographic name in the North is certainly not my battle to fight. I will continue my smaller quixotic quest to get “fire flower” to catch on in place of “fireweed.” And in my head I will just think “shining big sea water” or “Tu Nedhe.”  It’s still a free country, last time I checked, and language, our choice of words, is a bastion of that freedom, as it should be.

Addendum one. As I write this, another low-pressure center is sliding past us and the winds are forecast to pipe up out of the southeast, then south, then west, then northwest.  Yesterday I cancelled a day of flying and just spent my time flying planes up away from the big lake, and they are both now tied up in the first wide stretch of the river, inland and safe from swells and surges.  Having done this, I now of course hope that the winds do pipe up and prove the effort out. 

Addendum two. But they did not. Nothing even close. It takes me a few sessions to write this, and I have to admit now that my cautionary effort to move the planes up the river was all for nothing. Several trusted weather prediction sources, and the Marine Forecast’s “strong wind warning” of 25-knot winds to play havoc with our usual safe havens… nope, nothing. So far. Computer models and  forecasts are still just that. Forecasts and models.  Guesses. It’s comforting, in a way, when Nature thumbs her nose at them.

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.