Mid-June, McLeod Bay.  Two degrees overnight, four degrees now.  Clear and calm, and a thin layer of fog blankets the near horizon of ice.  The sun is well up in the sky and it is not yet seven in the morning.   It is June mornings like this, just before Summer begins, when I most love the season that  has not even officially started yet. July gets all the rave reviews from most of our non-native northern friends, but here at our place not one of us lists July as a favorite month.  In fact it is not even very high on the list. 

A friend from southern Minnesota called last night and told about a daily heat advisory there, steamy air, and temperatures already into the high thirties (the high nineties F.) by late morning.  Yikes.  I grew up in Illinois, so I remember those days, my summers spent mowing grass and laying sod, soaked with sweat and daydreaming about the mountains and the far north. 

June, especially the first half of it, is an especially good season here.  Miles of white and gray ice still quilt the bay, but the inflow of the Hoarfrost River opens an area of water bordered by shorelines of beach, forest, rock and the crumbling edge of the “pack ice.” With the frozen bay as a breakwater, this swath of open water out front is more like a lake in cottage country than a seventy-mile arm of Great Slave Lake.  It is never wracked by whitecaps or the big swells that pound the coast after many miles of fetch.  Those pounding swells can see us out on the shore at all hours of the day and night, wrestling to secure planes and boats and gear.  On our little June lake we paddle or row out to fish, or to fill a bucket with candled ice for lunchtime lemonade or evening whisky.  By June 10 or so, the area of open water becomes roomy enough to take off and land in a good floatplane. The mosquitoes are now barely getting started, the onslaught of little blackflies is still a few weeks off, and the first pale-green leaves on the birches just appeared a few days ago.  

The two periods of the year surrounding each solstice are usually times of stable weather here, because the wide daily swings of solar energy, night to day and back again, have almost disappeared.  In the weeks on either side of winter solstice the darkness dominates, and in June it is never dark at all.  It can get truly hot here, even before the solstice and with ice still covering the bay, but the hottest days come in late July, just as the cold of winter is deepest in late January.  As for humidity, for someone who knows Illinois in August, there are no humid days in the far north.

We have had a nine-ton wooden spidsgatter sloop here for many years, called Ørn. She’s Danish, built just north of Copenhagen in 1924.  Hauled out for repair late in 2016, she will not be launched again until we have finished and moved into our new post-fire house.  The boat’s long journey from Denmark to the Hoarfrost, via a long stay in San Francisco and a massive restoration in Port Townsend Washington, would make a good modern Norse saga.

As a family we sailed steadily here in the summers between 2005 and 2015, and it was Ørn that helped us all learn to love July and the hottest, buggiest days of summer. A broad reach in Ørn out on the wide cool bay, sails set and a load aboard, or, in my work, a flying job when there was time to climb to 10,000 feet and slide open a window for a whiff of cold air, have been among my best mid-summer moments.

The sailboat taught us a lot about sailing, as boats will do, and we all practiced one helpful technique early on.  Flummoxed as we sometimes were by all the halyards and sheets and stays and spars of a gaff rig, it was good to know that there was a way to stop all the action and re-assess, or reef the sails, or just eat lunch. “Heaving To” is the mariner’s term for purposely putting a vessel’s sails and rudder into a stalled and counterbalanced setup. On a thirty-footer like Ørn, with just two sails, you round up into the wind as if coming about, but then leave the jib backed and the mainsail sheeted in, with the tiller hard over.  The boat’s rig is counterbalanced, and the sails alternately draw and stall, calmly arguing with each other.

Like all pilots who know a little about sailing, I have sometimes wished there was an aeronautical version of “heaving to.”  How wonderful it would be, in bad weather or when faced with some other stress and confusion aloft, if the plane could somehow be set momentarily at ease while a new strategy was made or some problem was assessed, or a hot cup of coffee was poured, hands-free. Alas, if an airplane ceases its rush forward through the sky and loses the steady flow of air over its wings, it becomes not an airplane, but a falling chunk of machinery.  There is no “heaving to” allowed to the fixed-wing pilot, and even for our cousins in the rotor-wing crowd, a hovering helicopter cannot be nearly as restful as a sailboat that is hove to.  (Hovering, and making a quick about-face to have a look around, are the maneuvers I most envy when I watch good pilots flying helicopters.)

We all need some “heaving to” from time to time, and June here gives us some of it. 24-hour daylight, this placid pond out front, and all the rush and whirl of real summer still looming ahead. We have for a time a little fiefdom, almost unreachable from the outside world.  For days at a time we don’t even bother to catch the “news” on the radio.  Steady work with logs and lumber and good friends; the days passing, good sleeps.

Luff, draw, back-fill, luff.  Tiller hard over.        

“The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” 

        — Snyder (Back on the Fire, 2007)

In late March down in Fort Smith I crossed paths with Roger Beck.  Roger is a hunter and dog musher from the large Beck clan of Yellowknife, Fort Resolution, and Hay River.  We met in 1985 when we were both racing dogteams on the northern circuit – Roger pretty successfully, as I recall; me trailing in at the rear of the pack, just learning and having fun. In March we were both working on a moose survey. He was an observer in the Cessna 185, and I was flying our Aviat Husky, with a biologist in the rear seat.  The day we talked, he had spent eight hours or so around a campfire at 30 below zero, after the pilot of the Cessna had made a precautionary ski landing 40 miles east of Fort Res. When word of that came to my observer and I, we returned to the airport and I ferried a mechanic up there to have a look at the engine.  It needed a part replaced, and the moose-survey crew would have the next day off, so Roger was headed back home that night. He and his wife were pulling out of the motel parking lot and he stopped and rolled his window down. “You remember Dave?” he asked her, “He stays at Hoarfrost River.”  I don’t think she did remember me, but we nodded and smiled at each other. As they drove away, it was Roger’s phrasing that got me thinking.

Over the years we have wondered from time to time how to succinctly refer to our place and our life out here. “Where we stay” has been a difficult place to sum up in a single word, especially as our lives and the spread of cabins, buildings, and efforts have evolved and expanded. In lighter moments I coined “Hoarfrost River Home for the Chronically Bewildered,” along with a few other off-beat labels.

The first word we began to use, upon landing here and wintering over, was “homestead.”  Being a freshly immigrated cocky American back then, (and likely still, to some, I suppose) I was a little self-satisfied to learn that this was not a common term in these parts. Kristen having grown up in North Dakota, I in small-town Illinois, we were both steeped in the vernacular of the upper Midwest.  (The mantle of formal Canadian citizenship for us has done little to dispel the notion that we both are stamped “Made in America” – a fact that, among a small but tiresome caste of Canadians, carries some prickly baggage whenever our origin comes to light. That is an interesting digression, postponed until another time…)

As a one-word label for this plot of deeded land, the center of our life and home and efforts hereabouts, “homestead” stuck pretty tenaciously over the early years.  Surprisingly to us, the word seemed to baffle and even rankle some people. I realized much later that our early use of “homestead” for our place even raised the hackles of a few local sages (never a bad thing to do from time to time), evoking as it does a bygone era of Manifest Destiny, free land for settlement, forty-acres-and-a-mule, and crusty Old Jules pounding survey stakes into the Nebraska sandhills.

What shall we call the place where we stay?  Local parlance, especially when we first arrived here, favored “camp.”  Any cabin or tent or stopover in the North is a camp. I never did find that one creeping into my own jargon as a reference to our home.  I flew to camps, mostly mining camps of tents and drillers and stakers and geologists, and of course we did plenty of camping, but it has never felt as though we are camped here.  Our clutter and sprawl, from sawmill to sauna to fuel dock to boat harbor to workshop to kennel, dog barn, greenhouse and garden, would not strike anyone as a “campsite.”

“Lodge” is the next one that came along, and still comes along constantly, from other people, especially if they have not been out here. It is a fact that millions of modern Canadians are a culture of dichotomy, the two facets being urban-home-and-job-doing-real-work-in-the-serious-world and lake-country-cottage-lodge-holiday-escape.  While I’m tossing broad generalizations around, I may as well say that of the two cultures, Canadian and American, the latter has always been more strongly instilled with the libertarian and Thoreauvian notions of “lighting out for the Territories” (as Huck Finn put it) and rural independence that so strongly influenced my early thinking and thus the path of my life.  The Canadian view of bush life and cottage holiday, and the myriad commercial lodges of the north, along with the fact that we do some guiding and flying, make it a short step to the assumption that we must be running a Lodge for fishermen, hunters, or tourists.  Another common set of tacit assumptions is that no one would choose to live beyond the realm of cell-phone service, Tim Horton’s double-doubles, and that most sacrosanct of amenities, indoor plumbing, unless they were somehow being well paid for their very obvious sacrifices and discomfort. But a Lodge we are not.

A couple of other labels come into use occasionally. I always liked the word “outpost,” as I have written elsewhere, but my attraction to the word and its connotations is, like many aspects of my life, mostly boyish and outmoded.  And these days, with our mom-and-pop flying business firmly entrenched as the key to our livelihood (another great word) out here, we could legitimately refer to this place as our “base.”

Camp. Base. Outpost. Basecamp. Lodge. All useful words in the right context, but they all sound either odd or ridiculous when referring to this place, our home. A whiff of the short-term and temporary in those first ones, and Lodge is just not accurate at all.  There is something a little pretentious, macho, and military in them all, though not so blatant as in the myriad “Forts” that are spread across the continent’s North and West. From Fort Snelling on the Mississippi, on across thousands of Fort-dotted miles to Fort Nelson, Fort Saint John, Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, Fort McPherson, clear over to Fort Yukon in Alaska, and south to Fort Macleod, Fort Peck, Fort Collins and Fort Worth, the gazetteer of the frontier supplied an abundance of Forts, replete with their implication of threat, invasion, security and control.  Fort Hoarfrost?  Fort Olesen?  Funny, yes, but only as satire.  (I am reminded of my friend, the author and biologist Chris Norment, who in the winter of 1977-78 christened the log outhouse behind the Warden’s Grove cabin on the Thelon River “Fort ROIF” — the acronym standing for “Royal Order of Impacted Feces.” But again I digress…)

I wind up back at “homestead.”  A wonderful old word; I have come across none better.  Not capital-H, government-grant Homestead, but a lower-case blend of two ancient and evocative words in the realm of people and their relationships to landscape:

— home, with everything that old word implies, from the Norse hjem.

— stead, derived from the same solid root as steady, stand, and stay.

Staying home.  Home stay.  Home-Stead.  homestead.  It’s home.  It’s where we stay.

 

I will be standing in the woods

where the old trees

move only with the wind

and then with gravity. 

In the stillness of the trees

I am at home. Don’t come with me.

You stay home too.

from “Stay Home,”  a poem by Wendell Berry in his 1980 collection A Part 

       

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

We go to the shed and count and figure;

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

A look at the calendar and some quick calculations.

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

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

 

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

I fly to Taltheilei and touch down on the ice,

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

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

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

The ice along shore is still thick and sound,

but the water is wide and wave-flecked,

what with the narrows and the current,

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

 

On snowshoes I tow a pair of plastic sleds,

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

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

to the Sea Can where the barge crew dropped it.

 

Wrestle with padlock and rusty hinges,

swing the big door open through the heavy wet drifts.

Inside it is clean and dim, dry and cool.

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

80 bags of kibbled dog food on two skids,

milled in Perham Minnesota,

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

I am perhaps too easily astounded.

Today it was just this chickadee,

Fluttering and feeding in the low branches of a white birch

Ten feet outside the window,

AT MINUS FORTY FOUR!

(Is anyone going to try to convince me

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

Is not a fact almost beyond comprehension?

If so, good luck.)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Winter Solstice, 2017

Dim gray dusk of December.

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

Ready to be done for the day,

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

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

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

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

A tiny flame,

slowly spreading. 

 

Three wall logs are stacked beside the trail,

and a big post log fifteen inches on the butt.

Skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw, hard hat,

and the coveralls I shucked when I finally warmed up.

All illumined in the circle of firelight now,

and I leap back from a sudden lash of flame.

Sparks and embers shoot skyward.

The pile begins to roar and crackle.

 

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

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

now seasoned, felled and limbed,

the logs to build with and the slash to burn,

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Signal fires,” I say to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— That we’ve arrived?

— That we’re still here? 

— That we’re staying?

 

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

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