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

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

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

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

…Ernie is simply a gift.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

On a warm afternoon in May

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

 

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

 

“A year ago today, on that long Sunday walk

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

You were so full and soft and fresh and alive.

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

 

And in my mind’s voice I went on:

“And I see you now,

Black and scarred and twisted,

Roots and limbs all skewed akimbo,

Heaps of dust and ash,

You know – you really look like Hell!”

 

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

 

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

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

You’ll be dead and gone a hundred years

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

 

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

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

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

So count me in.”  

 

 

Call me odd but I do love Winter.  

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

 

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

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

                 quarter to seven and still three hours ‘til sunrise.

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

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

                their barks an icy fog at forty-five below.

 

And now at last I love its sloppy sunlit finish:

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

Swinging a big hammer

In time

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

The what?

Ovibos, aka “Musk Ox.” (As with “Great Slave Lake,” a name change would be welcome, but not likely.)

The Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, hunting these animals high in the Arctic archipelago in 1914 and 1915 to feed his dogs and his men, called them Ovibos, short for their full Latin name, Ovibos moschatus. The Inuit call them Oomingmuk. The local Chipewyan Dene here have a name for them too, of course, and I have been told several times what it is but today I can’t recall it. (I’ll get back to you on that in Part II.)  In Scandinavia, where animals from Canada’s Banks Island were brought to live in the mountains, they are moskuss.

When I first came to live at the Hoarfrost River in 1987 I flew a little 1946 Piper J-3 Cub. That was a bare-bones airplane – no electric system, no flaps, and a 90-horse Continental engine that burned a little less than 5 gallons of car gas per hour. I didn’t do a lot of “recreational flying” in those days, but to be honest I did more than I do now. Meaning that maybe once a month I would just “throw off the traces” and go for a joy ride on a nice day. One of my favorite local flights was to head 40 nautical miles northeast from McLeod Bay to the east shore of Artillery Lake (yet another odd name when you think about it.)

There was a small herd of about 8 or 10 muskox living there, on the hills abeam Crystal Island, and if I looked carefully, flying low and slow in the Cub on a day with good spotting light, I could often find them. It thrilled me to see them, for they were such a vivid symbol of the Arctic. I suppose they were also, especially to me in those days, a clear re-assurance that even though the rocky shore and deep water of Great Slave could on most days easily pass for Lake Superior’s Pukaskwa coastline, and the inland lakes hereabouts look a lot like parts of the Quetico-Superior where I had come from, I was now living right on the edge of something else – the high, far north. Hard by the country of these prehistoric-looking denizens of the very limits of Ellesmere Island and the perimeter of Greenland. For me the muskox herd on Artillery was as potent a stamp of “Arctic-ness” as a polar bear – and there they were, a mere 40-minute flight from my new home.

And that was how things remained for about 18 years. If we were lucky or looked hard we would see muskox on tundra flights, or on canoe trips way out on the Thelon and up in the headwaters of the Hoarfrost near Walmsley Lake. I remember hearing, on the HF radio one winter night about 1990, that Richard and Lance out at Lynx Lake had seen a herd come past, and it was noteworthy enough that they talked about it. In July 1992 a visitor in summer hiked 3 miles north of the homestead and came back to tell Kristen that she had found qiviut – the fine downy under-hair of muskox – clinging to bushes up there. Kristen noted the news in our weather and observations log, which I just dug out to check the date (thankfully that thick binder of records and notes was down here in the workshop and escaped the fire last summer). That find in 1992 was never considered more than a complete fluke by any of us. Roger, both then and now our nearest neighbor, ten miles across the bay, sometime back in those early-90’s years told me that he had had “this weird dream – we were on the shore of McLeod Bay, and there were muskox there!” We laughed together at the absurdity of his vision.

On June 5th, 2005 that premonition changed abruptly to reality. It was a warm sunny afternoon and I was out on the candled ice in front of our home, checking on the Husky bush plane which had in 1994 taken over for the old J-3 Cub. It was on its big tires, anchored to log deadmen under the melting ice, a few hundred yards out beyond the band of open water which had already formed near shore. I made daily walks out to it even if there was no flying work, to measure the ice and assess just how long the plane could remain parked there before float season needed to start.

As I strolled back toward shore after a look at the plane, happy that the ice was still 35 inches thick and quite solid for most of that thickness, I spotted a big black-and-tan animal on the east beach along the outlet of the Hoarfrost. A bear, I thought. But only for a split second, because unless bears had suddenly started to bunch up in herds of a dozen or more, this was something else. I stared, as dumbstruck by the sight as if I had just seen a pink elephant on a city street. Muskox. Ovibos. Oomingmuk. On the bank of the river, on the shore of McLeod Bay. This was unbelievable.

I ran as fast as I could to the edge of the shore lead, slid the aluminum canoe off the ice edge and into the water, paddled to shore, and rounded up Kristen and the girls. We set off, paddling hard for the river mouth. The herd was still calmly loitering through the alders and spruce and out onto the narrow scrim of cobble at the water’s edge. We counted 21 animals altogether, including 7 calves. We paddled slowly as we approached, and then stopped paddling and just drifted. The only sounds were the clicking of Kristen’s camera shutter and the occasional deep chuff or “ugh” from one of the animals. After at least five deliciously slow minutes they ambled up and away from us, into the trees. We paddled home.

One of many turning points in the time we have lived in this place, that day. That was ten years ago. In every year since, we have seen more and more muskox around here. One memorable morning a few years ago a herd walked up within spitting distance of the guest cabin. Ovibos have now become the most common large mammal (or “charismatic mega-fauna” as some would phrase it) that we see here – more common than moose, more common than bears, wolves, or wolverine. More common even than caribou – at least these years, in the wake of the huge burns and the recent drastic dip in local caribou numbers. This is fascinating to me. Even more fascinating is the fact that we are now north of many large herds, and that there are countless muskox – literally hundreds upon hundreds of animals – happily residing year-round down in the jackpine and poplars along Nonacho Lake, and far southeast from there.

The resurgence raises many baffling questions, and no one I have talked to so far has any solid answers. For starters, with the Arctic climate steadily warming, why are these marvelously cold-adapted mammals spreading their range so dramatically south? For another, why in all these years have I flown over only one spot where I can say for certain that a muskox had been killed by wolves? And is it true, as I hear, that even while these muskox march steadily farther into the boreal forest, the populations on Banks Island and other areas of the high north are collapsing?  Why, and how, and where will this resurgence, or colonization, or whatever it is, lead Ovibos over the coming years and decades?

I delight in these questions. It is re-assuring to me, in this age of such confident forecasts and solemn sure-fire pronouncements, to find Science more or less stumped by the sheer serendipity of wild Nature.  The other day, flying alone on a caribou survey for the territorial government, I counted 107 muskox, all well to the south of here, all far from the tundra.  Clearly, the resurgence is still on the advance. And having these shaggy beasts with their flowing thick coats join the local menagerie is still a thrill to me.   Oh and then there is  the welcome variety that two of them have in recent years added (legally, I hurry to add) to the Hoarfrost menu, and those luxurious – non-shedding! – sleeping hides spread on the floor of a winter tent at 40 below zero.

To Be Continued   

A note on comments – I am happy to hear from interested readers, but the posted “comment” feature of the blog set-up has for various reasons left me a little uncomfortable.   daveolesen@gmail.com reaches me directly. Standing by. D.O.

Good day from the Hoarfrost at a solid 40 below.  Sun streaming in — each day a little higher and stronger.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from Gary Youngblood, whom I met in Fairbanks in 2004.  That day — our only meeting — he flew down from his new post at Bettles Alaska and became the new owner / pilot of our first Aviat Husky, C-FMCN.  Those who know me from back then will remember MCN as an Air Tindi workhorse during the halcyon years 1994-2004, when it flew far and wide around the high north, even making junkets on float-flying contracts up to Gjoa Haven, Igloolik, and Bellot Strait at the north tip of the Boothia Peninsula — the farthest north mainland point in North America (please correct me if I am wrong.)  MCN was in fact named for dear old McDougal, my Iditarod leader those years and in 1993 a nominee for the Golden Harness Award.  McNoodle was his nickname, thus MCN.

I do not know Gary well but I gather that he has had a wide-ranging and influential career with the U.S. National Park Service.  Thus he has lived out one of my Illinois boyhood dreams as to “what I am going to be when I grow up.”  (The others included FBI agent and astronaut… wow, how did I wind up shoveling dogshit at the Hoarfrost River?)

Gary’s roots are in Georgia, so please read his words slowly, with a soothing drawl.   Like my other friends from the Deep South, he strikes me as a true gentleman in the finest sense of the word.

Here below is a part of his note.  I emphasize the phrase that struck a deep chord for me as I read it.  It is that sense of not being singled out that I think is most important as we roam the burnt landscape that surrounds us here now.  Sadly, for Kristen and I, Gary’s phrase “it was just the system operating as it always had” takes on a sad double meaning vis a vis our ongoing discussions with the territorial wildfire suppression people.  After all is said and done, the fact remains that there was a well-equipped fire crew camped just a few miles away, for two solid weeks before the fire took out our house and guest cabin and the rest. Complacency carried the day — both their complacency and our own.

Well, read on — that aside of mine is not the topic here.

Dave,

…Your last blog struck a cord and I feel I may have something to share. In 1988 the fires of Yellowstone National Park changed the place I loved for the rest of my lifetime. I had lived and worked there since 1978. I had some of the exact feelings expressed in almost the same words you have used.

There were many small changes noticed in the ecosystem over the next 25 years. Burned areas that never before had been drifted were noted for the wind rows of snow. It was apparent that temperatures were colder in places where the trees had provided cover in the past. New species of raptors and greater numbers were observed due to the rodent population explosion after the fires. As you would imagine, some species suffered and some prospered. It was amazing to watch the ecosystem heal. Many more surprises were noticed, as you mentioned you expected.

My job assignments took me away from Yellowstone in 1990 and I returned in 1994. The healing that had continued in that time amazed me. There was joy over the following 10 years in watching a system heal itself. It was not the same as before the fires, neither was I, but it was beautiful in a different way. It came back gangbusters!

Those who were there in 1988 still talk about the fires and what we lost but also about the process of an ecosystem coming back that we were privileged to watch. I suspect the wildfires will be a touchstone for the rest of your life, as the Yellowstone fires of 1988 have been for me. I can now look back and appreciate that it was not done to me, it was just the system operating as it always had.  [emphasis mine — D.O.]

Finally, I hope you and your family find happiness and peace in whatever path you decide to take.

Gary Youngblood

Chief Ranger (retired)Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve; Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve

 

Birch leaves rustle in a light northeasterly breeze. A crisp -35° morning, but I am working (cleaning the dog yard if you must know) and my hat is off.  I pause and listen, struck by such a familiar sound so completely out of season.  A sound of July, the rustle of those leaves – yet no mistake, there it is again. The leaves are all a pale brown, clinging to their branches, toasted and killed by that blast of heat as the fire swept through. They did not drop in autumn, and when they will fall I do not know. They hang suspended, taken aback by the onslaught, as if uncertain what to do next.  Just like us.

January now. We remind each other we said we would take the winter and into spring. No big decisions for a year. Think on it, sleep many nights on it, walk and talk on it. Halifax? Red Lodge? Saskatchewan? Iceland? Stay? Go?

Questions. One is: is it more courageous to stay and re-build, or to find a new chapter in life somewhere else, and leave this place and these years as the treasure they have been, a saga lived and now complete? Hard to say which choice would demand more gumption, but I suspect that all things considered it would be the leaving. Which of course leads to another question: must we always choose the most courageous path in life, the path least traveled? What about that other path – the one of least resistance? The path that is simply more appealing, and never mind all the rah-rah about courage and gumption?

And what about love, and marriage? Our deep love for this place and our long marriage within it and with it bind us to it, scarred and disfigured though it now is. Hills and hollows, trails and shorelines, all so intimately familiar, are now all littered with black and ruin.  But it is still the same place, all the same places, known for years and with their stories dear to us.  Just as the visage of a beautiful loved one, wrecked and mangled in some awful accident, would still be the face and essence of the person we love.

Birches rustling in a January breeze. That’s a new one. I wonder what other surprises are coming. Surely there will be many.  Another one the other day was similarly subtle — the timbre of sounds up in the woods now is different.  “The woods” being now just acre upon acre of spindly charred spruce stems.   I shouted something to the dogs and was struck by the brittle ring of my voice, what with all those echo-dampening spruce needles gone.  A million trees burnt, moss and lichen gone, for miles nothing but clay and ash and rock beneath the snow. Oh yes, there will continue to be surprises, oddities, things never imagined, like the rustle of leaves at 35 below.

On January 6, 1873, John Muir wrote: “Instead of narrowing my attention to bookmaking out of material I have already eaten and drunken, I would rather stand in what all the world would call an idle manner, literally gaping with all the mouths of soul and body, demanding nothing, fearing nothing, but hoping and enjoying enormously. So-called sentimental, transcendental dreaming seems the only sensible and substantial business that one can engage in.”

This morning, a hundred and forty two years on, I concur. I  gape with John Muir for a while, then pick up the pail and shovel and keep scooping the dog yard. (When in doubt, stick with what you know!)    

 

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