The inspection done and the crew gone home,

I slept on a rough plank dock beneath the wing.

Bedroll laid out on a mattress of red life jackets,

A hasty tarp pulled on top at one a.m. when rain spit down for half an hour.


By three in the morning the sky was clear again.

It was still dark, and the wind had calmed.

I rolled over, faced east and — There you were!

For the first time since late March your three-star belt, your scabbard and shield.


“Hello old friend Orion,” I said aloud to the night.

I’ve missed you through these long bright months of spring and summer.

And now it is September, and you are back.

No frost yet, but at dusk the high peaks to the southwest were all white.


Orion, I greet you gladly, but I know what you bring.

Soon you and I will be out in the dark morning, my thick fur hat scrunched down tight,

Nose-hairs frosted, cheeks stinging, fumbling with headlamp and numb fingers,

To warm an icy lump of engine and wrestle with stiff wing-covers.


Orion!  A familiar sharpness surges in.  The season tilts.

Brother, Old Hunter, climbing into the sky.

May I say, my friend, on this mild night – that you’re looking pretty good?

Somehow softer, less stern?  Have you mellowed since I saw you last?


We all do, I guess.  And this is nice here, isn’t it?

This gentle warm night, this quiet brown-water pond,

This trusty red plane on its fat white floats,

All tucked up easy against the smooth flank of the mountains.


I smile, close my eyes and drift off again.

Deep growl of a truck, shifting and accelerating, heading for the Yukon.

At sunrise I will fly north to Yellowknife,

And from there northeast to home, and the start of autumn.


Orion is back.  Old friend, brother hunter, arm raised, belt cinched,

Good Sirius panting happy at his heels.

But hey – who would want Summer to last all year?

Not you, Winter Star Man, and not me either.


  • Parker Lake, outside Fort Nelson B.C. 7 September 2016



On Tuesday grasshoppers,

clicking yellow brown in hot sun.

Longest swim of the season that evening,

this shallow sandy rim of the continent’s deepest lake

cool silk on my skin.

Wednesday a 25 knot northerly with cold rain,

pounding take-offs and touchdowns,

long V’s of geese riding the cold front south,

that rare thin layer of warm water pushed offshore and gone.

Thursday a scouting flight northeast

to the upper Baillie River.

Caribou there, drifting down from the coast,

crossing the border from Nunavut.

As if a border, or a map,

means anything to them.


All that matters to them,

to the grasshoppers and the geese,

and to me, just now,

is that summer is ending.

On the night of 19 July each year we mark a change here, a subtle one not noticed by many, but significant to back country flyers who do not come and go from established airports. No runway lights and centreline markers here, just water and snow and tundra.  On the night of July 19th, for the first time since May 26th,  there starts to be some “legal darkness” in the middle of the night.  Flying in daylight has been a 24-hour option for nearly two months now.  Today summer has crested and that season is done.

We do not see the Midnight Sun here, being still a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle.  We do, however, have midnight sunlight for these halcyon nine weeks.  Centered on either side of local midnight, skewed an hour by the adjustment of Daylight Saving Time, this first hint of coming change delineates the period when the sun’s orb drops more than six degrees below the horizon.  When it does, not enough light spills up over the rim of the earth to let a pilot safely bring an airplane down to “land” (be it water, snow, or gravel) without the aid of some sort of artificial lighting. 

This little wedge of darkness in the middle of night grows rapidly longer over the next few weeks, widening to nearly four hours here, latitude 62° 51’ North, by the first of August.  We keep a chart of the times here on a clipboard, handy for reference. It is a binding rule of aviation, and unlike some other edicts passed down from on high (Ottawa, Washington, etc.) this one makes us all sit up and take notice.  Turning short final for landing in the final minute or two before “Civil Twilight” or “Legal Darkness,” on an overcast night over dark water can be – as any bush pilot’s curled toes and puckered sphincter muscles will attest – quite exciting. Reduce the visibility to a (legal) mile or two in forest-fire smoke, or coat the windshield with some light mist, make the water glassy smooth, and it becomes one of the operations professional pilots get paid for.  So we take heed of those numbers.

For a few weeks now some long-ago memorized lines from a poem by John Haines have been running through my mind.  I have been thinking about Haines, and his place in my life as literary hero and bush-life icon.  I was lucky enough to meet John Haines a few times, and I saw him last  in 2004 when I arrived un-announced at the office he kept that spring at the University of Alaska. I had flown a Husky from Hoarfrost River to Fairbanks, to deliver it to a new owner, and I was waiting for the buyer to fly down from Bettles. John had gone flying with me once, about 30 years earlier, over the south shore of Lake Superior in a little Cessna 140 I owned with a buddy.  He still remembered that flight, and told me he had always thought he might get his pilot’s license.  Not a surprising aspiration for an Alaskan woodsman, where pilots of small bush planes fill the skies from Skagway to Kotzebue.   

In 1979 or 1980, late in autumn, William Stafford came to read at Northland College.  My longtime friend Lee Merrill, himself a poet and in those years a professor of English at Northland, had asked Stafford to dinner.  Lee had asked me, former pupil and avid Stafford reader, to join them.  We had gone out to Lee and Melinda’s home deep in the woods and far from town, on a tiny lake south of Ashland.  Dumbstruck as I was in the presence of Stafford and Merrill, I rode along silently in the back seat as Lee steered his old sedan north through the dark, to the college on the coast of the big lake. Stafford in person was just as any reader of his poems would have expected: polite, soft-spoken, gracious and generous.  As the dark November miles ticked past, the conversation turned to poets.  Stafford told of a mountain picnic with Gary Snyder, and chuckled at how charmed his wife had been by the man, hinting that perhaps she had been a bit surprised by that.

“Haines? I remember this about my first meeting with John Haines. We were together in Oregon, and we had an apple we were going to share.  He passed me his knife so I could cut it in half.  ‘Careful,’ he said, ‘it’s very sharp.’ And it was! I think it was one of the sharpest knives I’ve ever handled.  And that seemed so right, you know?  That John would always have with him a sharp knife.”

Stafford and Haines.  Poet’s poets. What fine brief meetings those were, sprinkled across those years, and what steady inspiration the lines and the lives of those men have been, thrumming along in my mind day by day.  Thanks, Lee, for those introductions. 

Now maybe I’ll set this aside and touch up my belt knife.  It is not as sharp as it should be, and certainly not as sharp as John’s knife in Stafford’s anecdote.  Day after day, it is there in its leather scabbard, and out doing something: cutting a rope, trimming a frayed hose, tweaking the tiny screw on a headset… and slipped back into its sheath.  I reach for it without even thinking, which is as it should  be with some tools, and I literally feel only half-dressed if I do not have it.  No pre-flight security checks here!

Sitting here on this rainy cool morning, I can’t discern any connection between the lines from a Haines poem and my ramblings from sharp knives to the annual onset of summer twilight.  So be it — this blog is subtitled Musings from the Hoarfrost River, and this month you get “musings.”   I’ll paste the lines from Haines here below.  John would be pleased. 

Thanks for reading, have a good month, and watch those twilight times, comrades.

And there I too wanted to stay…

speak quietly to the trees,

tell in a notebook sewn from

their leaves my brief of passage:

long life without answering speech,

grief enforced in that absence;

much joy in the weather,

spilled blood on the snow.


With a few split boards,

a handful of straightened nails,

a rake and a broom;

my chair by the handmade window,

the stilled heart come home

through smoke and falling leaves.


  • Final two stanzas from a poem “There Are No Such Trees in Alpine, California” from the collection Cicada by John Meade Haines (1924 – 2011)

I have been reading Old Jules, by Mari Sandoz.   I have been swept up in it for weeks.  (My reading these days being mainly a brief late-evening interlude, tuckered out and often ending sound asleep with the book lost somewhere alongside the bed, or with Kristen setting it gently aside as I snore.) Published in 1935, the book is considered a classic of American literature, and rightly so.  A broad biography of the author’s father, Jules Sandoz: Swiss immigrant settler, curmudgeon, visionary, sharpshooter, horticulturalist and, in most regards, to be honest (which Mari Sandoz – his daughter, the author – certainly is) a damned poor excuse for a father and husband.  A saga set on the western Nebraska plains, spanning from the 1880’s to the late 1920’s, clear through from the waning days of the bison and the free Lakota, to the coming of telephone, automobile, and radio.  A tough book, not a light book, and especially difficult for its frank portrayal of a father who was so incorrigibly hard on those closest to him.  Starting my Sunday with Sandoz, and it being Father’s Day today, has been a time to think about fathers and the legacy of fathers, good ones and not so good ones.  (I was lucky.  I had a good one.  A great one, and never forgotten.)  Sandoz’ masterpiece is thought-provoking and timely, too, for its litany of hard times on the high plains:  prairie fire, blizzard, hail and flood, near-starvation, insanity, feuds, local and national politics, the ending of one era and the start of another.  Much food for thought.

For those who relish such concrete tidbits more than my various ramblings, some near-Solstice Hoarfrost stats:  3 degrees above zero here this morning, about 37 degrees American.  Made a fire in the big kitchen wood stove for the first time in nearly a month, and the heat feels good. Out the door it is all cold rain and gusty north wind, and a gray bay ice-free as of one week ago, June 12. As always the final floes of ice in the entire lake were those in the mid-section of McLeod Bay, just north of Shelter Bay, forty miles west of us.  This ranks as our second earliest ice-out in 29 years.  1998 still takes the cake, by about eight days. 

Two years ago today here, it was bone dry and “our” fire was already burning, and just beginning its stealthy advance toward us from the east.  Little did we know. Today one would be hard pressed to light a campfire out in those soggy burned-over acres. The lake is rising visibly by the day, still “low” by our paltry three-decade perspective on “normal,” but higher than it has been for some years. The Hoarfrost River is surging down off the barrens, brim-full and boisterous for the first time in many springs.

Kristen is away from home, down on the prairies of North Dakota, helping her own father.  Our two daughters and I walked north up the trail last evening, with six loose dogs happy to join us. Startled a lone muskox, a big one, on the slope above the river, and had a few tense moments as several of the dogs gave chase.  Wisdom (or what passes for wisdom in the mind of a rambunctious summer sled dog) prevailed, and they saw the better part of valor as coming back to our calls.  Mr. Ovibos, for his part, decided it was best to lumber off through the charred spruce and pockets of ash now festooned with tiny sprouts of green, lurching along under his enormous shaggy coat, looking for all the world like a mastodon or mammoth back from the dawn of time.

After my past three monthly jottings here, my dear sister asked if I was “down.”  That was alarming, because no one who takes the time to read this does so for updates on my personal hard times or down times, and certainly no one needs a monthly rant-and-whine missive. Her question did get me thinking about the state of my own mental ship:  was it floating on a solid mooring, sailing in high seas, or foundering, or worse?  Bear with me, and read forward, because what I have come to is this: No, I am not down. I am just trying my best to continue to become disillusioned.

Hold on, wait, stay and don’t hit that instant-departure key.  Viva Disillusionment!  Is dis-illusion-ment not a good thing, something to strive for as we live?  Should we not, all of us, be eager to be dis – illusioned as we make our way and learn our (sometimes very hard) lessons? 

I’ve had many illusions. Still have plenty.  About people, about the Far North, about heroes and causes. About how much a man can do in a day, for how long, and how well. Some of these illusions are the stuff of dreams, of romance, of boldness and assurance and inspiration.  Long may they inspire, and motivate.  But the fire of 2014 and its aftermath burned up a lot of illusions around here, “permanence” right up at the head of the list:  The Illusion of Permanence.  Think about that, as my hero Dick Dorworth likes to write. Permanence?  Out here?  (Or anywhere for that matter, but here right now is always a good start.)  I know I am not alone, as I come close to 60, in having seen some of my own dearest illusions marched out into the bright light of morning, grabbed by the shoulders and turned to face the sun. We clever modern idiot-savants are nowadays much too cocksure of ourselves, in my view.  We have such deep belief in our own illusions of competence and grandeur, to name just two varieties, that we have soiled our planetary nest and put at peril far too many of our fellow voyageurs.

So this morning I am glad to make it my day’s work to try and step clear and see past the illusions around here.  And to do so with a light heart, if I can.  Mari Sandoz had no illusions about her father or about immigrant life on the Nebraska plains, and from her steadfast dis-illusionment came her book, a timeless masterpiece of a book.

Thoreau weighs in on this topic with one whopper of a sentence,  and still comes through like a champ, summing up perfectly what I am trying to say:

”Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui,  below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

  • Walden


Ah, the romance of the bush pilot life.  Floats rippling the smooth water of a pristine lake at dawn, the view of an Arctic watershed from a mile high, alone in a trusty fabric-and-tube wonder, propeller and pistons purring, and not another human soul for a hundred miles in any direction.  The chance to do for a living what most people dream of doing for adventure and recreation.  It is a good gig.  It is!

And its flip side. Because everything has a flip side, doesn’t it?  Motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., Mile 300 of the Alaska Highway. Day Three just beginning. The rain that has poured down all night is now forecast to change to snow. Low cloud and lively north winds. I am not scheduled to be in Yellowknife until Monday afternoon, for a charter to the ice strip at a tundra camp 200 miles north of there, and it is only Saturday. So I am long on time, and I am doing my best to be long on patience.

Patience is a virtue in this business.  Waiting on weather is a mental game, familiar to all who hang it out there at the whim and power and unpredictability of sky, water, and wide expanses of wild country. Over the ten years we have been having our airplanes maintained at Fort Nelson I have developed a healthy respect for the 360 miles of low ridges and blank terrain that lie in the northeastern-most corner of B.C. and the southern district of the Territories, a straight lonely line between Fort Nelson and Yellowknife.  I have spent some nerve-wracking moments aloft over that stretch, and I remember them on days like this.

One of the planes we operate is just emerging from a long saga of scheduled engine and prop overhaul, routine airframe inspections, all capped off by a very minor airframe repair that morphed into a 30-day delay. The common-sense-annihilating paper chase that is a bane of modern life is never so obvious and onerous as it is in aviation. No certified aircraft repair facility is going to weld a small patch on a minor tube of the secondary brace of the landing gear (appropriately enough the “drag brace”) without a document, a technical drawing, and a green light from every sub-clause of the Air Regs. At one point it seemed we were going to need a direct intervention from the Minister of Transportation in Ottawa to get the damned part fixed. ‘Nuff said on that.  The plane is ready, a month later than we and several frustrated customers had all planned for, and now the phone calls, e-mails, questions, and near-outbursts (by me, the patient one…) can cease.

Yesterday we rolled her out, the crew at the hangar happy to see her go, and the ground test was done by one of the AME’s.  Then I climbed in and strapped in and taxied out, a wary eye on gauges and dials.  It is pretty simple stuff, really – it’s just a bush plane, not the Space Shuttle.  Still, after any major overhaul or inspection it is always time for a careful test flight.  I lifted off and stayed close to the airport, watching the temperatures and pressures of oil and manifold and cylinder heads and exhaust gas, little orange bars all magically displayed on the Graphic Engine Monitor.  Orville and Wilbur would have been impressed.  Thirty minutes of circling, changing power settings and rpm’s, noting that number five cylinder was running consistently warmer than its five partners, but not at any temperature close to worrisome.  Circling just beneath the ceiling north of the airport in spitting rain and wisps of ragged cloud, the plane tossing around in gusty winds.

Back to the airport, land and taxi in, more paperwork to sign off, and a check of the weather map with an eye toward the Territories and Great Slave Lake.  Rain, low cloud, gusty winds, fog and snow over higher terrain on the east flank of the northern Rockies.  A truly massive low pressure centre squatting motionless over north-central Alberta.  The weather briefer I spoke with at Flight Service (a.k.a. “Fright Service”) was not optimistic, and by the time I hung up the phone, neither was I.

I finished my chores, swapped gear out of the other plane, the one I will leave here with the crew, and which they will now inspect and put onto floats.  When it is done and all the ice work up north on the tundra is done, I will come back to Fort Nelson again.  Then, with the ice beginning to melt away from the mouth of the Hoarfrost River, I can go home on floats.  Summer will begin.

Caught a ride back in to town and the Hideaway Motel, where I had checked out early in the morning in a fit of optimism.  The cheapest place in town, but it is clean and tidy and as I joke with the lady at the front desk I assure her that I will be back.  Patience, patience.  Library?  Swimming Pool?  Some paperwork? A blog post?  Here you go.


In a dream I met an older version of myself. A figure in the distance, alone on a small rise.  At first I thought it was my father, or my Alabama friend Augustus. But as I walked up  I realized it was me. Tall but a little bent, bald on top and all gray at the sides; glasses. He smiled when he saw me. “Ready to stop trying so hard?”  Yes, I nodded, I am. Good, he said.  He led me down a path through young birches, to a clearing and a chair.  “Come sit.”

Overcast with some snow in the air this morning, minus eight with the trademark northeast breeze flowing down off the barrens. April has been cold and windy here with only one day of real melting, on the 18th.  The inland trails are still in decent shape for sledding and hauling.  Spring is biding its time this year.

I have been thinking about frogs and hot water lately, and the hinterlands of Canada. One of those wonderful old words, hinterland – “From German, hinter, back + land, land; an area far from big cities or towns; back country.” The other day at lunch the three of us – Kristen, Liv and I – were speculating and scheming about the summer ahead, and about supplies and barges.  Avgas in drums, lumber and groceries, bags of cement for new house footings, heavy pails of acrylic chinking slurry, four tons of kibble and rice for the dogs, six cylinders of propane and so on. And vessels to move it — barges and push-boats: waterline length, displacement, hull speed, horsepower. Freight men and barge companies:  Captain Happy, Sean Buckley, Snow King, Mike Whittaker, the Rowe brothers, NTCL. All with an eye to moving some freight while the lake is open, and to another winter, and to re-building, and to more changes afoot and more changes ahead.

As we sat and talked I grew weary.  I remembered my recent dream.  There was no clear path ahead, at least that I could see. Certainly no pleasant path through autumn birches, leading to a sunny clearing and a chair.

It is a hazard of growing older, and of sticking to one place on the planet for decades, that one begins to spend as much time looking back as forward – or so it seems some days.  Such mental strolling back through time is hazardous, because the mood of the journey can change from reflective and inspiring to whiny and resentful, and the trail is bordered by the crevasses of self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement. No joy and no enlightenment in any of those wallow pits.

My 1994 book North of Reliance, a collection of essays and narratives set in our first years here at the Hoarfrost River, is to come back into print later this year. This second edition is thanks to Raven Productions down in the Minnesota / Ontario border country, where I lived for most of my twenties.  In preparation for a new edition I have been re-reading the book, correcting some of my grammar and fixing small passages that never read very smoothly, while at the same time resisting a strong impulse to edit its tone and alter some of its conclusions. Looking at those chapters again has brought me back in time, and has led me to this metaphor of warming frogs.

I first stood in the narrows at Reliance, first set foot on the ice of McLeod Bay proper, 35 years ago on this date.  April 26, 1981. I was 23. Two of us, Kurt Mitchell and I, along with ten dogs, had just finished a six-week journey, starting from Yellowknife, east four hundred miles or so to Hornby Point on the Thelon River, and back to Reliance.  But that is another story.

Now I am thinking back to that April day. I walked a half mile across the ice from the weather station to the locked-up summer cabin of Roger and Theresa (who in those years, with their two young children, still wintered out at their cabin on the upper Thelon), and continued west from there to stand alongside the narrow strait at the south tip of the Fairchild Peninsula. I remember the wind. It was a westerly that day, and cold.  l remember thinking, “ Wow, it’s still winter up here in late April.” Sentinel Point rose blue-black out in the far distance, and ten miles to the north of where I stood a small river called the Hoarfrost flowed into the bay.  Little did I know…

What strikes me today on this date is how “the country” felt to me that day, a third of a century ago.  “The country” being a vast place, but a somewhat defined place at least to its inhabitants, a smattering of personal fiefdoms and interwoven lives all centered on that little outpost called Reliance.  Call it the Greater Reliance Area.  I’m trying to recall how the place was and how it felt to me then, and how, subtly and steadily over the years, both the place and the feeling of being immersed and at home in it have changed.  This is where the frog comes in.  I have often heard that if you put a frog in a bath of pleasantly tepid water, and then gradually heat the water, the frog will not sense the rising temperature in time to hop out to safety.  Hot frog, hotter frog, boiled frog.

Those who have read my writing elsewhere have run across this quoted phrase before, but I will trot it out again:  “The land lives in its people.”  That was the late John Haines – Alaska woodsman and trapper, acclaimed poet and essayist.  I met John a few times and enjoyed a fleeting correspondence with him. In 1994, coming home from racing, Kristen and I stopped in at his homestead southeast of Fairbanks for a morning visit.  Haines was a serious and deep thinker, who did not think much of sled-dog racing and who would not think much of my flippant title today, but who just might crack an understanding smile at what I am trying to say, having lived a parallel experience along the upper Tanana.

What I realize is that by Haines’ measure the land hereabouts, our hinterland, was much more alive back then than it is now.  In fact by that measure, all of Canada’s back country was more alive 35 years ago than it is today – maybe, but be careful, because that broader statement is not entirely clear of confusion.  I gather from some queries to Mr. Google that in 1981 Canada had a population of about 24.3 million people. 24% of those lived in rural areas, defined as “outside centres with a population of 1,000 AND outside areas with 400 persons per square kilometer.”  (Note here that by this definition, if you live in a village of, say,  350 people, but you rarely if ever go out on the land or turn off the televsion, you are still a “rural person” in the view of Statistics Canada.  So one must tread carefully, as always, in the realm of statistics.)

5.8 million country people in 1981, 24% of 24.3 million.  (The planet in 1981 had about four and a half billion human souls on board.)  We have another accurate five-year National Census coming up in May, but a good estimate puts the total Canadian populace today at just under 36 million. That population is now less rural by percentage, down to 18% by the same definition given above, but in total “rural people” that is nearly six and a half million. And in those 35 years the world’s human population has grown by another three billion.  I didn’t ace my university Statistics class back at Missoula, but these numbers do tell a story that is worth pondering. Any way you cut it, the rural people as a species in Canada are steadily being outnumbered by the city people.  Canada, like the world at large, is becoming predominantly urban.

Here around the far east end of Great Slave Lake, and roaming out onto the barrens nearby, a reasonable population estimate of “the neighborhood,” circa 1981, would seem to be about 20-25.  There were trappers both native and non-native, active hunters on the move, and at least four or five distinct households spread thinly across those miles. Central to this human presence, albeit in an odd way, at Reliance proper there was the Weather Station, with three full-time meteorologists employed 24 /7, year-round, to collect and transmit hourly weather reports.  The reports went out by single-sideband radio, and were re-broadcast on the territorial CBC radio.  The visibility and wind conditions at Reliance were eagerly checked by the pilots who flew east from Yellowknife supplying and servicing various camps, projects, and outposts.  They flew bushplanes on floats and skis, year-round — Cessnas, Otters, Beavers, Twin Otters — and also helicopters.  The weather station and its staff, like the crew at a seasonal mining camp or fishing lodge, do not embody the kind of people that give the land its life in the way Haines meant. But those meteorologists, and all those planes and pilots dropping in on residents to re-fuel or bring mail or have coffee, and the station itself with its tall red-lighted NDB tower (now obsolete in the era of GPS), were certainly a part of the ambience I recall as I think back to standing on the ice in the narrows.

The weather station staff was a fluid entity, with individuals rarely posted to Reliance for more than a few years.  Some are still elsewhere in the North doing other work.  Most are not. The most well-known of them, Claire Martin Morehen, became for years the television “weather personality” on the evening CBC National news, and she would sometimes sneak a passing reference to Reliance into her monologue.  Claire thus ranks as the most nationally famous former denizen of Greater Reliance, with John Hornby a hungry but distant second. Helge Ingstad (Pelsjegerliv Blandt Nord-Kanadas Indianere, 1931, and its English version The Land of Feast and Famine, 1933) would undoubtedly take the honors if the vote was taken today in Norway.  Ingstad trapped and travelled hereabouts in the late 1920’s, and is now nothing short of a national icon over there.

Because “The Station” was there at Reliance, the barge came every summer from Hay River — the massive 5,000 horsepower NTCL barge with its trucks, loaders, bulk fuel and SeaCans stacked on board, its captain and first mate, cook and deckhands. Up top were the office people in lawn chairs and suntan oil who would sign on to the East Arm freight run as the most enticing plum voyage of all the various routes served by the company.  Every summer the barge came.  Groceries, fuel, skidoos, dog kibble, lumber, you name it.  If one managed to get something of any shape, size, or description delivered to the NTCL Terminal before the cut-off date, it would be on the barge.

Every autumn and every winter, with many variations on the theme, the caribou came, and along with them the wolves, the wolverines, the hunters and the trappers.  There was life, there was movement, there was give and take.  People stopped by other people’s camps and cabins, unannounced, for tea or repair parts, or a warm place to throw down a bedroll. There were even feuds — surely, that is some dubious measure of how populated a country is – “are there enough people out there that some of them have decided not to get along?”  Maybe Statistics Canada could probe that line of questioning on their next long form.

And now, these past two winters, there are six of us. Roger, Libby, and Gus at Reliance; Dave and Kristen and Liv at the Hoarfrost.  Six, down from twenty or twenty five (and yes, we are all getting along just fine.)  In those 35 years twelve million more people in Canada, and an additional three billion people in the world.

These years there are no trappers out at distant cabins, no prospecting or drill camps off to the east or northeast, and this year no one is coming out hunting from Lutsel K’e because no caribou have come.  The big NTCL barge ceased service east of Taltheilei Narrows after 2004, when they pushed and broke ice down McLeod Bay for 50 miles on the night of July 15, in the latest spring breakup on record. The weather station was shut down completely by 1994, replaced by an automated box that sends out coded weather information (hard to access and of dubious accuracy) via satellite. The Reliance weather doesn’t come up on the morning CBC, except on weekends when there is less rush for air time — and honestly, why should it? The dilapidated buildings of the station itself are falling down and being carted away as a Federal cleanup project, and the landing of a plane or helicopter is an event to be remarked upon.

Bush planes, you ask?  (This being, after all, the bushedpilot blog.) Two based here, one of those out for overhaul right now, still filling our oddball niche in the mom-and-pop charter business, yes, but these days in Yellowknife (a city of 20,000, up from 9,400 in 1981) there are no single-engine ski planes licensed for charter.  Say that again: There is not one single-engine bush plane for hire in a city of 20,000 people, for eight months of the year.

I sometimes smile.   It’s the water, I chuckle to myself, and it’s heating up.  I am imagining The Big Fella, or a quirky boreal version of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, with a labcoat and a vat and a frog:  “Let’s see what happens if we take away the weather station. OK now stop the barge; now stop the other barge.  Now the caribou.  All right let’s just torch the forest for 30 miles right down to the shoreline.  Hell, burn down the house while we’re at it.  Now build up those dams in B.C. and siphon off more water at the tarsands in Fort Mac, and drop the lake level by three feet. What? They’re still there?  Was that a kick I just saw from those froggy legs?”

Yup.  That was a kick. “Hot frogs in the hinterlands.”  (I’m working out the chords, don’t worry.) Stubborn, and still in love with this place.  Some mornings I find myself half-assed enthused at the prospect of building yet another log house, milling some big burnt timbers, and putting in all those days of honest sweat as I finish out my fifties. But believe me, sometimes we really do wonder.  I imagine there are plenty of other rural frogs, spread right across this second largest country in the world (Russia being the largest), all in that dwindling hinterland percentage of a city-fied and city-fying world, all sitting around the lunch table asking their own variations of the same questions. The gist of which is:  “Where did everybody go? And is it just me, or does it get harder every year to put the pieces of this logistical puzzle together?”

Thank you, if you have stuck with me this far.  I know these blog posts should ideally be shorter.  Let me close this ramble with a passage from the opening chapter of one of my all-time favorite books, Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, by Paul St. Pierre,a deceptively simple story set in the Chilcotin country of central British Columbia:

“Smith had come into the Namko Country to build a ranch on the four-thousand-foot contour of the fifty-third parallel of north latitude.  One might say that he and men like him should have more sense. One might be right.  Indeed, in the current view of government and industry, such country is better left unsettled until such time as a large corporation is prepared to establish instant towns therein, complete with pre-sliced bread and dripless candles. Nevertheless Smith went there and tried to build up a ranch.”


Morning, calm and cold and clear. The equinox a few days ago was the earliest Spring Equinox in 120 years. Curious about this, I learned that this odd timing was the result of a long-ago Papal edict as to which years could be Leap Years. All somewhat arcane, but the result this year was passage directly abeam our star at 04:30 Zulu March 20, or 10:30 p.m. here, on the evening of March nineteenth. (Looked it up on the Inter-tube, as my friend Loren calls it. More on that to follow.)

And no March equinoctial winds! Right from the start back in November, this has been the most windless winter anyone here can recall. Out on the seventy-mile ice sheet of McLeod Bay the surface is just smooth white fluff, mile after mile.

Cold and clear, but nothing unusual about that. In 2004 it was 44 below on this morning in March. It’s 37 below zero here this morning, and the weather soothsayers predict more cold weather here for the coming weeks into April.

Spring Equinox is not a warm day here, but it is a solar event everywhere on the planet, and the sun is streaming through the window already this morning. When I stepped out to the porch earlier, the last white top arc of the full moon was sliding below the burnt spruce tops on the skyline of the Bluefox ridge. Over breakfast yesterday we smugly reminded each other that we are now getting more daylight than anyone at any latitude to the south, and that we will be raking in those golden payback chips for the next six months. We are happily soaking it in as our faces lose that December plate-of cold-pasta pallor and turn browner by the day.

Again and again in recent weeks this end of the big lake and the automatic weather station at Fort Reliance have been pegged as the cold spot in the Northwest Territories, and on some of those mornings Reliance (and by proximity the Hoarfrost valley) have been “the cold spot in Canada.” Which is saying something, and makes me wonder about where the cold spot in the entire world, at a given moment, would be. (But then there are, say, the summits of tall mountains to contend with, and the fact that these various claims all come from just a handful of weather stations, sprinkled here and there around the planet. Still it is amusing, at least to me, to wonder – right now, at this instant, might this be the coldest place on the surface of the planet? – and to think that sometimes maybe it could. I can hear a couple of my more adventurous friends snorting already – “clearly this guy has never been to the South Pole or the summit of Makalu.”)

I digress, as usual. Friends of the young John Muir in Madison Wisconsin used to say that he would start out talking about the weather and carry on to bend their ear for an hour. What a treat that must have been. That rich brogue, rambling on.

“I am of two minds on that.” Sounds like the statement of a powdered-wig Parliamentarian. But a scary thing has happened to me, a dream. It has come more than once, and most recently just a few days ago. I first experienced this maybe eight years ago. Just a guess when that was, but I know we were in the old house, the one we have now lost, because I remember waking up from the dream in that bed. I know we must have had Internet access, which came here via satellite signal in the autumn of 2006. That advent, in this place, given the fact that when we came here our communication with “the outside world” – interesting phrase – was sporadic and unreliable to say the least, was no less than a revolution.

I woke and realized with a jolt that in my dream I had been on the computer. Not just looking at it, or reading something from a screen, but dreaming and at the same time moving the cursor, clicking, opening and closing things, sending and receiving notes and information. And as I said, this same dream-experience has recurred now several times over the years. The other night, or early in the pre-dawn morning of vivid dreaming, it happened again, and got me thinking. I woke up and asked Kristen whether this had ever happened to her. She said it had not. Hmm.

I am a little scared about this. Not so much because of the dreaming, but because as I considered this turn of my mental events a little further I began to notice some daydreaming of the same kind. I can be running a dogteam, or flying a plane or working on the woodpile, and on some level a part of my mind is doing something on the damned computer. Whoa.

Earlier this winter I spent a long stretch, far too long for my liking, in Yellowknife. Work was of course the reason. The limited daylight and some charter flying had me based there for nearly a week. One afternoon I was piloting my little rental car down the main drag, and I watched with amazement as a fellow on the curb stepped out into the street and crossed – because the light had changed to green for him – four lanes of traffic without ever once looking up from the screen of his phone. It made me wonder when Darwinian reality in the form of a Ford pickup was going to smack into him. Then, telling a pilot buddy about this over coffee or beer, he told me that he had seen a young ramp-hand marshalling in a big plane (I won’t mention the type lest some local airline’s SMS go into spasms over this anecdote) – a turboprop, 50 passengers or so – with his orange light-stick wand in one hand and his beloved phone in the other, his head down and his busy thumb scrolling the screen while the wingtip arced above his head. I don`t know whether the young lad knows how close his phone came to being broken over my friend`s knee that morning, but it was very, very close.

So is this my fate? Our collective fate? Little by little to have these other somewhat mind-like hunks of chips and circuits become a parallel universe to accompany us through our days (and nights)? Will I live with two minds? Can I? Do I want to?

Saw a note on the chalkboard at Boston Pizza in Fort Nelson one night a year or so ago. “NO WI-FI!” it proclaimed in bright blue chalk, “RELAX! TALK TO PEOPLE! DRINK! PRETEND IT’S 1994 – LIVE!”

I’ve tried that “Live!” both ways as I’ve mulled over that message. Both as an imperative and as an adjective. I like it either way.

I was in the electronics store in Yellowknife the other day, to buy a nifty little padded case for my nifty little digital camera. Filling one entire wall were six or seven flat-screen teevees, all state-of-the-art, all filled with absolutely stunning aerial images of the Grand Canyon, shot from a helicopter – swooping, zooming, panning. With that on the wall of the living room, and hey – snacks and a thermostat and a remote control – how oh how could real life, with heat and dust and sunburn, ever possibly match up? Ah hah, I thought – so this is “Eco-Porn!” And of course it is – the parallel is plain. And where will it lead people’s perceptions of the real wilderness, real outdoor life with bugs and headwinds and at any given moment (as in 99.999% of given moments!) no chorus of wolves howling in the distance? The high-definition image on the living room wall will always be so vivid, the soundtrack just right and the colors so rich, and then of course we could always just flip over to check messages, right on the same screen… And reality would be, well, kind of a let-down.

I could go on. Parks Canada is now putting wi-fi into some of our National Parks. Reason stated? People want it, they want to be connected, and this will be welcomed. Without it, people will decide to stay home.

I know, I know. I’m not sure what I am getting at, either. Only that I am concerned about this duality. And by the realization that I am not immune to it, rail against it as I might. I don’t have any answers here, only questions. Maybe most people can handle all this, and it is only I that cannot. If so maybe I should just relax. In North of Reliance oh so many years ago, I wrote: “Where is that fine line I came to tread, deftly balanced at the interface of two worlds?” At that time, immersed here and more or less cut off, I was more concerned about going over the other edge. Now I wonder if I can even see that edge from here anymore.

Wendell Berry admonishes us in his wonderful poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it.

Will I lose one of my minds? Will we all? Which one will we lose, or lose our direct, undivided full-on attention to? Afraid of what I think the answer might be, here I sit, typing. A soft “ping” tells me some message or another has just come in. Might need to check that. Oh and maybe I should scroll over and click and check the Graphic Area Forecast and the winds aloft. Be right back.  

Post script: Another question that troubles and baffles me, along these same lines, is this: given the amount of time each day that is spent on these new ways of being, living for hours in the realm of this parallel mind so to speak, and given that there are still just 24 hours in every day, 365 and a quarter days in each trip around the sun, what has this enormous new time-allotment displaced from our lives? If the answer is “We watch less re-runs of Three’s Company” then maybe we are on to something good here. But if the answer is “I talk to my family less and I don’t walk in the evenings anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I just stood and watched the moon go down,” then, well, Houston We Have a Problem, Over.  

So long. And Happy Spring, wherever this finds you. “Comments” still “closed” – Sorry, I can’t seem to handle that online medium with any measure of aplomb, but I am still at  (At least for a time. The time being.)