“The common purity of Nature is something wonderful – how she does so vast a number of things cleanly without waste or dirt.  I have often wondered by what means bears, wild sheep, and other large animals were so hidden at death as seldom to be visible.  One may walk these woods from year to year without even snuffing a single tainted smell… How beautiful is all Death!”

  • John Muir, an undated journal entry, “south side of Joaquin River”, late 1870’s.

“This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren.  Its very nature is stone.”

  • Cormac McCarthy, in Blood Meridian, Chapter 23.

In my work as a wildlife survey pilot, work which has for three decades been the most persistent facet of my flying life, one of the rewards is to have flown over, by sheer luck, and witnessed from a bird’s eye perspective, some unforgettable moments in wild nature. In fact nowadays it is that slim hope of coming upon yet another of these fleeting and rare perspectives – widely spaced as they are by miles and hours of uneventful (lest I say tedious) flights, over broad swaths of pristine but relatively scrawny northern taiga and tundra – that keeps me keenly interested.  The realization that another of these moments and vignettes might be out there waiting, the hope that today might be a lucky day, surges briefly every morning as the skis or floats or wheels kiss niva or aqua or terra firma farewell with one final peck, and the snarling little machine lifts itself into the sky. 

There is always a fatalistic certainty in that moment just after liftoff – because hey, one thing is for certain in this unpredictable world, and that is gravity.  What goes up will sure as hell come down, Mr. Bernoulli’s principle notwithstanding. Alongside that certainty, though, there is a thrilling uncertainty as to what, precisely, each day’s flight-path will bring, or hold, or show…

The other day, on a long transect about 50 miles west-southwest of Yellowknife, we arrived over a frozen tableau.  It stands out as another reminder for me of the realpolitik of wild nature, its web of food and energy. A still-life seen from above:  a bison, a raven, and five wolves; white snow, blue sky, and red blood.

We were droning along at four hundred feet above the taiga plain west of the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, slowed from cruise speed, with some flap down and the power pulled back.  The point of that day’s flight was to spot groups of boreal, or woodland, caribou.  Pancake-flat country, interspersed with old and recent patches of spruce and tamarack, some jack pine and alder and aspen, part of the landscape recently burned and part not.  Dappled across it are pan lakes which in summer are just shallow pools of clear water, and in winter are likely frozen right to the bottom.  It was an exceptionally cold clear day; at take-off from Yellowknife the temperature on the ground had been close to forty below zero.  Miles and miles of empty snow-scape were already behind us by 11 a.m., with no caribou spotted, a moose many miles back, and precious little else.  The usual bursts of sporadic conversation over the intercom, amongst the four of us aboard.

Off to the right, a half mile or so from the survey line we were on, I saw a lone bison in the center of a snow-covered frozen pond.  Likely a lone bull, but he was worth a closer look, to see if there were more around, so we turned off the transect line and headed toward the pond.  As we came closer I saw something that caught my attention. A raven flapped up and flew, seeming to take wing right from the bison itself.  “What’s going on here?” I said to the others, “That raven just flew up from the buffalo!  And it’s not a kill site – the buffalo is standing up!”

Yes, the buffalo, or bison (the words are used interchangeably hereabouts) was standing, but yes, too – it was a kill site.  It was a kill-site-in-progress.  As we arrived overhead the story became clearer.  The enormous bison was standing, and now lurching slowly forward, surrounded by a blood-red area of trampled snow.  East of that spot a few dozen yards, another wide swath of lake was trampled in a wide circular pattern. At the center of that trampled circle was another vivid red stain of blood on snow. 

“Wolves — there on the shore, five of them, lying down!” came a voice on the intercom.  Sure enough, there on the far edge of the little lake, five big dark wolves, furry discs to our overhead view, noses tucked under tails, lay together in a group, and so far they seemed to be oblivious to the plane.  I cranked us around in a tight turn, lowered some more flap and increased the rpm with the prop control.  The plane was now making even more noise, and we had the attention of the wolves as well as the staggering bison out on the ice.

The story was clear enough.  The bison was mortally wounded, and doomed.  Before we arrived overhead, the huge beast had likely been still, and the raven had been right alongside it, maybe even atop it, perhaps already sampling a few tidbits from dangling entrails or pecking at the fresh blood spilled on the snow. The wolves, with the demanding and dangerous part of their hunt now finished, were napping and waiting for their dinner to die. No sense, for them, in continuing the life-and-death struggle to complete the kill.  Perhaps, for all we know, a wolf or two had already been injured or even killed in the battle. 

A cold clear morning in the far north.  A glimpse of wildness and the hunt.  A vivid reminder that Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” can be at times exactly that.  

I handed my camera back to the observer behind me, and she snapped one photo of the scene, through the plexiglass window.  (It did not turn out very well, lest you wonder about seeing it.) Then I climbed higher and we circled one more time.  Two of the wolves were moving out onto the lake, and the bison was still lurching slowly toward the far shore.  The wolves looked a little unsure as to what to do about the noisy circling ski-plane, but clearly they did not intend to let their hard-earned meal just stand up and walk off.

We headed back toward our survey line.  There was work to do.  As we flew along, Jan told us about times when he had seen similar scenarios involving wolves and moose, during his years in the Yukon.  A huge, seriously wounded moose standing motionless, bleeding, with a group of tired wolves resting nearby, just waiting and watching for the chance to start eating — safely.

I have seen other kill-sites from the air, the most memorable the take-down of a caribou on the tundra, by two wolves.  That had been dramatic and unforgettable, and the kill was amazingly quick and clean: an ambush in a brushy ravine, a quick parry and thrust, a leap to the back of the neck, and – wham! – down she had gone, from life to death all in a space of a few seconds.  

For years I have held in my mind’s eye that quick clean image of the wild hunt. Now I will hold onto this other image — not so quick, not so clean.  Mr. Muir, meet Mr. McCarthy.  

“We decompressed into wilderness and silence, spewing residual tension and noise in all directions until we approached the emptiness of our surroundings and could feel again.  Absorb again.”     

— Doug Robinson, from A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open (Mountain N’ Air Books, LaCrescenta California, 1996)

Over the past forty years I have lived and worked and made long expeditions in Canada’s North, and I have seen many changes in the core elements of wilderness travel.  The gear has changed, yes, and in some ways it has improved.  Canoes, dogsleds, tents, stoves, clothing… the quest for improvement and innovation never ends.  The cleverness of our tool-making is a wonder, and a caution.

Most of these refinements and innovations are not harbingers of a sea change in the realm of back-country travel.  What does constitute a sea change — an upheaval, a revolution — (for no word seems too strong) is the steady infiltration, by an insidious category of innovations and tools, into the daily rhythms (and blues) of expedition life and wilderness travel.   I refer of course to the tools of communication.

I work as a bush pilot and guide, based in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  Nowadays when I drop off a small canoe party out in the vast barrenlands, at the jumping-off place for a long journey down a remote Arctic river, we chat as we unload the packsacks and the canoes and the food barrels.  As we finish, and I prepare to fly away, I take a moment to ask:  “And what are you carrying, for communication?”  It is no longer the older question from years past:  “Do you have any means of communication?”  Rather, these days, two-way communication is assumed, and it is only a matter of inquiring politely as to which of the tools the party is carrying.  And — this is the subtle clue I am seeking as I hear their answers — what is their attitude toward these devices on their journey?

Too often (to my way of thinking) these days, my question is answered with a breathless laundry list of devices and technologies:  SPOT, DeLorme InReach, Iridium, InfoSat, GlobalStar, VHF, ELT, PLB, WeatherLink, and every year or two a new one I have not heard of.  These whiz-bang communication tools have made the HF radio (not to mention Morse code, semaphore, and smoke signals) obsolete, and they allow constant two-way satellite-linked tracking, message-sending, and weather forecasting, all in places where only a short time ago a weekly check-in on a static-buzzing radio channel was considered downright extravagant.  Hearing the list, gauging the tone and inflection of the description, I glean some notion of the party’s motives and philosophy, and their perception of the nature of their journey.  I make a silent guess as to how often I, and others, will hear from them, and under what circumstances, in the weeks ahead.

I listen, and I only speak up strongly, in response, if I gather that everything might wind up depending upon these tools of communication.  For despite all these ways and means, the itinerary for a trip in a landscape as vast as the tundra (think ocean, large empty ocean) should never be summed up by  “Well, we are just going to see how it goes, and call for a pickup wherever we are when we get close to our end date.”  “Not good enough!” I blurt out.  There must be a place the party will try to reach, or where they will remain, a date when they are to be considered overdue, and this must all be written down and handed to someone so that when the — SPOT Iridium InReach Global Talkie Walkie Digital Doo Dad — is crushed beneath a boulder or lost to the river or chewed by a wolverine, we who will be starting to wonder will know where to begin looking, and when.

There is that workaday aspect of all this, and then there is another aspect.  I will not try here to answer for others, but will only pose this question:  How does this new realm and reality of “constant connectedness” change the spirit, the mystery, the intangible essence, of our journeys out into the wild silent spaces of the world?”

As you pack your gear, take a moment to heft all those parts and pieces of this wondrous technology, one at a time, in the palm of your hand.  Consider how you will use these tools, and how you may in fact be used by them.  Think about what you will allow – or not allow – this new option of “connectedness” to become, for you, on your journey.  Your journey!

 

— The article above first appeared in the journal Tvergastein in December 2016, in the issue devoted to the topic of Travel.  Tvergastein takes its name from the mountain cabin of Norwegian philosopher and activist Arne Naess, the thinker credited with coining the term “deep ecology.”  Tvergastein is online at http://www.tvergastein.com. This month here at the Hoarfrost River we are busy preparing for, hosting, and guiding 13 students and a professor from the University of Alberta, Augustana campus. I will return in March.

“I had learned years ago, though, at the little cabin on Stump, that at least one popular notion of rustic log-cabin life is mistaken. The daily chores which dilettantes and visitors imagine to be so all-consuming – splitting wood, hauling water, feeding dogs – are not the sole substance of one’s days and years. In fact, as seasons pass one’s days are less filled with mundane, repetitive tasks.”

  • from North of Reliance, “Lighting Out”

Reading that passage of mine, it seems a little breezy nowadays, a little too eager to dismiss the day-to-day chores here in the outback as not being of any real consequence. The chores are the chores, was my point, no matter where you live, and my take on this has always been that the basic 3-W’s — wood and water and waste — are not drudgery, nor should they dominate log-cabin life. (And there is this, too, as Will Steger offhandedly remarked to me forty years ago, as we sat in his cabin after a round of water-hauling up the steep cliff shoreline at Picketts Lake – “Hauling water will keep you young, David.”)  Or, as we joke with visitors, “Yep, we have running water.  Just go down to the lake and carry a pail back up to the house.  If you feel like running with it, go ahead.”

Some days, though, light-hearted breeziness blows past, no matter where one chooses to live, or has been chosen to live, and the chores become, well, chores. 

The other night I landed at dusk after a flight in and out from Yellowknife.  I had dropped Kristen off there, and she spent most of last week in town, doing errands, making appointments, and catching up with some friends after three months at home without a trip “in.” Having put the airplane to bed for the night, with all the attendant fussiness of engine and wing and pitot covers, ice stake tie-downs, and so on, I came up to the house.

I was alone – and that prospect was both pleasant and daunting.  Solitude, some simple meals and focused reading, dog runs and wood cutting, some repairs, some tedium with logbooks and flying-business paperwork.  We would have a good week, her there and me here, and at the end of it a reunion and a marking of our 28th wedding anniversary.

That first night, though, what greeted me as I stepped inside our workshop-become-house and flicked on the light was a pile of dishes in the sink, a stove-side firewood bin that was scraping bottom, and a scant few gallons of drinking water left in the pails.  Out in the yard there were three dozen hungry huskies still to feed, and barely enough water on hand for their morning soup.  And as for the final W of the three, the pails under the sink needed emptying, as did the burnable-trash bin, and it had been three full days since the dogyard had been cleaned, to put it politely, or since the dog shit had been scooped, to put it in Saturday-morning English. There was work to do.

Water, I decided, could wait until morning.  Wood was not a big deal.  The main shed was still half-full of spruce and tamarack and I just needed to carry some indoors.  Dishes I could tackle in the evening.   Closing my flight plan by satellite phone was the first thing, and then the feeding of the dogs.  I put a big chunk of frozen lake trout on to simmer for supper, and as I scrubbed dishes I listened to the BBC and its poignant news pieces about the outgoing administration down in the Excited States.  (These are sad, confused, even scary days in this ex-pat household.  And no, I am not going to go there in this dispatch.)

Morning. Windy. Time to haul some water.  The routine is this:  trudge out to the hole (or, to be more efficient, motor out there with the smelly one-lung Bravo skidoo), towing a sled full of pails, clear away the insulating pile of snow, lift the three-foot square plywood-and-styrofoam cover, and then set to work with the ice-chisel.  Open the hole, scoop with the dipper pail, in and out, in and out, filling the pails, then re-cover and heap snow on top of the hole, and pull the sled of full pails up to the workshop. Carry them inside one or two at a time and refill woodstove water tank, main barrel, and the drinking-water pails.  As I stood there on the porch, this familiar process had all the appeal of a session of root canal work.

For I also knew, at this point in the winter, that what was really called for was an even longer and more laborious — but in some ways more satisfying  — project: the creation of water hole number two for the season.  The first hole of the season is always close to shore, and by now the ice has thickened, as ice will always do, and with the very next cold snap, downward-thickening ice will meet up with sandy lake-bottom, rendering the hole useless.  Time to carry the power auger down to the lake, out another ten or fifteen yards to where the water is truly deep. There shovel an area clear, drill a test hole to gauge the ice thickness, and then drill a tight cluster of contiguous holes, a big 30-inch square, being careful to keep the holes all dry, that is, not to hit water with any of them until the entire excavation is complete and cleaned of ice chips.  Then plunge through around the perimeter, lever up an enormous block of clear ice, and –voila – new water hole, sure to last another six weeks or more.  What will render that one un-usable will not be its freezing to the bottom, but instead the tall dike of chips and frozen slush and piled snow which will build up around it, higher and higher, until there is such a ludicrous amount of bending and stooping involved in filling pails that –yep – it will be time to excavate hole number 3.

I decided upon that necessity of making a new hole. After making sure that there was still a gallon of water left to see me through mid-day I brought the ice auger inside the workshop to warm up. As I did so, a little lazy voice in my mind piped up and suggested that it might be worth checking out the mouth of the river.

Although our place has been referred to for years as The Hoarfrost, our cluster of buildings and our day-to-day life has little direct connection with the flow of the river.  “The Hoarfrost” as a label for our location is more a point of reference, and the mouth of the river is half a mile east of our doorstep.  In wintertime we are much more aware of the day-to-day state of the river upstream two miles, where our trail crosses it, than of the changes and patterns that go on at its outlet.  Between December and April It is often weeks between visits there. In winter the patterns of freezing and current make a swift river a dangerous and constantly changing place, and our trails all give the river mouth a wide berth.

Yet there is magic in that moving water, and never stronger magic than in these months of deep and silent cold.  It draws us closer, lures us for a look. Shrouded as we are in thick heavy layers, mitts and mukluks, it is always a delight to stand close to the chuckle and gurgle and whisper of the river, and let thoughts run toward summer.

From a practical standpoint, though, the Hoarfrost as a source of day-to-day water presents problems.  Every year the freeze-up takes on a slightly different pattern, with sloping balconies of undercut ice, deep swift water diving below thin shelves, and sudden eruptions as the current gives up on finding its way beneath the ice and instead overflows and floods upward.

And – the big caution: this all changes constantly from day to day, and even from hour to hour.  Thus our prosaic safe water hole on the lake ice out in front of the homestead, instead of the poetic adventure of stowing the ice chisel forever, and going to the river to dip. One year there was decent access to river water over on the east bank, and we hauled water from there for a few days while I procrastinated on drilling a new lake-hole, but the ice was sloping and the deep water diving beneath it was so ominous that I made a fixed rope fast to a shoreline boulder and put a belay on as we moved back and forth with the pails.  That was a welcome change of routine, and exciting enough for a few days, but the roping-up took most of the pleasure out of the process and we soon abandoned it for a new water hole on the safe, broad lake.

In late afternoon I gathered up the water pails, started the skidoo, slung my rifle over my shoulder (for it is still moose season here, and the cache is still empty, and there was still some dusky twilight) and set off down the shoreline to have a look at the river and see what access to water it might offer. I hugged the shoreline and the west beach of the river mouth, and steered through thick alders on the gravel bar that built up in the big flood of June 1992.

I stopped the machine and walked ahead, axe in hand. This year in that one spot the river has built a thick bank of layered ice, ice that is now nearly four feet thick, with a sheer smooth face dropping straight down to swift flowing water about two feet deep.  This looked promising – easily the most convenient water hole at the river that I have ever seen.  I brought the sled forward, attached a stout rope to the handle of a plastic five-gallon pail, and flung it out and down, into the current. The pail floated a moment, then dove out of sight beneath the undercut ice bank. I felt a solid tug, like the lurch of a whopper fish on a line: full pail. Up it came with an arcing lift to land at my feet and splash a little ice-water over the tops of my boots. Forget drudgery, man – this was downright fun! I threw and lifted the pail again and again, until all ten plus the dipper pail were lined up brimful in the sled.

The day’s light had faded now, and it was dark. I stood for a moment, listening and letting my mind run upstream fifty miles to the wide tundra lakes where the Hoarfrost rises.  Fletcher, Walmsley, Cook, Lac la Prise. Miles of white tundra and taiga, all frozen hard in the grip of January, but just beneath that frozen veneer, even in these long months of steady sub-zero cold, the water-blood of the country still somehow runs and pulses. Groundwater, stream and river, steady and constant, down the falls and rapids to the lake.

Somewhere up there, just off to the west of one branch of the Hoarfrost watershed, but separate from the headwaters – or so we have been assured – are the deep pits of a new diamond mine at Gacho Kue, now in production after decades of planning and construction.  A miniature city of hundreds of workers, enormous craters that dwarf the giant haul-trucks, steady round-the-clock digging and blasting and crushing, jet traffic direct to Edmonton from a mile-long runway, lobster salad and fresh kiwi fruit on the buffet tables at dinnertime.  Video surveillance and security guards.  An exercise gym, T.V. and ping-pong for the off hours. A Mars colony, really, unconnected to any of this, and all in the quest for a few pricy baubles to decorate the pinkies of faraway fiancées and brides.  And lives, entire lives, being spent in that scrabble for shiny stones.  Funny bunch, us humans.  Just upstream, between high rock walls, I could see the steep white rise of Beverley Falls, named in 1833 for a British arctic traveller (who never saw his falls) by his friend Captain George Back of the Royal Navy (who did.)

Below me was the smooth murmur of the river, and downstream a soft hiss as the current slid beneath the shelf of ice leading out into the lake.  Movement slowing, shallow water diving deep.  River becoming lake, poetry settling in to prose.

Reverie ended, I yanked on the starter cord and motored slowly for home.  Once I had lugged the pails up the steps and filled the various water containers in the house, I smiled and took the power ice-auger back outside. “Won’t be needin’ that for a while,” I murmured to no one.  Maybe I will make a new ice hole in the lake out front, one of these days, but for now I’ll just enjoy these jaunts to the river for as long as that perfect access point endures.

Thirsty and tired, I poured myself a jar-full and took a long drink. So cold. So perfectly clear and sweet. Is it just illusion, or does this wintertime river water, super-cooled and aerated as it is down all those miles of falls and rapids, taste better than any water I have ever had?  Running water.  Oh yes, we have running water.

As the Solstice slides past and Christmas comes on, this morning I pull my chair up close to the yellow-orange stored-sunshine glow of the woodstove’s fire and consult a clipboard-mounted chart of dates, times and numbers.  Like all pilots who take off and land and fly small machines over country where there are no runway lights, and for many hundreds of miles no man-made lights at all, I am dutifully cognizant of the constant subtle shifts of daylight and darkness, season by season.  Here at the Hoarfrost River we count and measure the dwindling and advancing sunlight, and watch as it plays into our daily power usage, our indoor and outdoor light,  and the rhythms of our work.  We are well and truly “off the grid”  — that irksome recent label for any outback residence — as if The Grid and its brother The Net were themselves a pair of magnanimous new Deities, pinnacles of human accomplishment, and not in fact more akin to the shifty-eyed heartless dealers, selling dear to hundreds of millions of trembling, drooling addicts.  (And all of us groovy off-grid types are right in there with the rest, clamoring ever for More — more barrels of aviation fuel, more lead-acid batteries and solar panels, more and better generators and chainsaws and LED lights from China.)

But I digress, as usual.  The fire crackles and my knees toast in the glow.   “The chart” laid open on them is a day-by-day annual table, generated by the National Research Council of Canada, which I obtained by simply entering our longitude and latitude. Anyone can generate such a chart, for any location, and the link is here: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/services/sunrise/advanced.html

For each date of the year the chart lists Sidereal Time (which I do not claim to comprehend), Nautical and Civil Twilight times for dawn and dusk, Sunrise, Local Noon, and Sunset, followed by three daily Totals. Today I am focused on those totals, one for Day (sun above the horizon) one for Sky (sun within 6 degrees of the horizon – thus giving legal daylight for flying) and, the last of the chart’s eleven columns, Total Illumination.

I am intent on the Total Illumination column – the sum of daylight and usable twilight, or in effect how many hours of light will our dear star send us today, here at 62 degrees, 51 minutes North, 109 degrees, 16 minutes West?

And I see that – oh happy day – tomorrow we will turn the corner, by 36 seconds.  Starting on December 19th, we have had 7.13 hours of daylight per day, and for five days straight the total has been steady there at 7.13.  Seven hours, seven minutes, forty-eight seconds today,  Seven hours, eight minutes, twenty-four seconds tomorrow.  (And yes, I do know that this is all an approximation, an estimate to the nearest hundredth of an hour.)

Another digression is clearly called for, since as I sat here pondering that previous paragraph our battery-powered household system shut itself right down, as it is wont to do whenever the system voltage dips to 11.4 – which it does frequently in these darkest days.  Time to don a headlamp, fetch the little generator, lug it out into the 33-below darkness, pour the fuel, yank on the cord, swaddle the little machine in some old sleeping bags salvaged from the Yellowknife dump, and let it put some juice back into the batteries.  Or, alternatively, just sit here by the fire and peck away in the dark for a while, un-connected to almighty Net or Grid or what some insist upon calling The Real World (as in “reality T.V.?”)  I will digress no further into speculation about the cherished hallucinations of those who imagine that a fully-tricked-out modern North American household (micro-wave, electric lights around the bathroom mirror that are bright enough to illuminate open-heart surgery, dishwasher, ice-cube maker, clothes dryer, 56 inch HD teevee) can all be powered to the standard its inhabitants have so flippantly come to expect, just by bolting a few 2 X 3 solar panels up on the south-facing balcony.

Whoa there Nellie.  Fire-glow, warm knees, hot coffee, and climb down from Soapbox.  Clipboard, chart: Where was I before the lights went out?   Oh yes, for tomorrow, the 24th of December, the Total Illumination here goes from 7.13 to 7.14.  Near as I can figure, that one-hundredth of an hour amounts to 36 seconds.  And – the cause for jubilation – this is 36 more seconds than today, not less.  We have turned the corner and begun the glorious winter-long slide of the sun’s day-by-day return.

What to do with those 36 seconds?  In these scary, secular, fundamentalist, para-scientific, crass, hateful, polarized, battered-Christmas-magic days, I think I will use those 36 seconds, once the sun is up tomorrow, to take down from the wall a plaque my sister made for us, and re-read a poem by Sandburg. Carl Sandburg, born in 1878 in Galesburg Illinois to Swedish immigrant parents, died in 1967.  He was a favorite of our Mor-Mor (Swedish for Mother’s Mother) and she always recited this one from memory, in candle-light  around the tree on Christmas Eve. That recitation, each year, is among my most enduring memories of the Solstice and Christmas and New Year holiday season.

With Sandburg’s homespun poem to fill your new-found seconds of sunlight, I wish each of you a Merry Christmas and a good New Year.

STAR-SILVER

The silver of one star
plays cross-lights against pine-green
And the play of this silver cross-wise against the green is an old story.
Thousands of years.

And sheep grazers on the hills by night
watching the woolly four-footed ramblers
watching a single silver star.
Why does this story never wear out?

And a baby, slung in a feed box back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum
A baby’s first cry,
mixing with the crunch of a mule’s teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn
Baby fists, softer than snowflakes of Norway

The vagabond mother of Christ
and the vagabond men of wisdom
all in a barn on a winter night
and a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay
Why does this story never wear out?

The sheen of it all–is a star, silver and a pine, green
For the heart of a child asking a story
The red and hungry, red and hankering heart
Calling for cross-lights of silver and green

(Now I bet those are four words not strung together often!)

Since mid-November I have been away from the Hoarfrost River, based in Yellowknife, Gameti, and Lutsel K’e for a contract with the Bush Hawk.  Flying transect lines laid out by the survey biologist, with two observers in the back seats calling out wildlife spotted (“anything with fur” were the instructions to us on day one), and the wildlife biologist in the right front seat recording locations and details.  Lest some readers get the notion that these flights are a non-stop frenzy of animal sightings, I hasten to add that several of the common themes of our very widely spaced onboard conversation, interjected into long periods of engine-and-prop hum,  are comments like “Well, a few tracks there…” and “Wow, pretty quiet,” and the occasional wistful “Sure looks kinda moosey.”

The themes in my blog post from August 2013, “Summer Hunger” apply, although on this survey we are well within treeline. A Parks Canada brochure laying out the case for a new National Park out on the east end of Great Slave Lake included a remarkable comment, to wit:  “This is a land teeming with wildlife.”  I quoted it over the intercom the other day, after a perfectly silent low-level transect of some 90 nautical miles (167 kilometers) and my fellow observers responded with quiet chuckles. I really must invite the Parks Canada author of that phrase along for a flight or two.

This vast expanse of northern North America has many marvelous attributes, and I heartily support the uncompromising preservation of some enormous unfettered tracts of it. (Oh look, it’s the Chamber of Mines and the NWT Chamber of Commerce marching toward me with buckets of hot tar and Five-Star sleeping robes leaking duck feathers!)  But let’s get one thing straight, and keep it clearly in mind (remembering Haines’ admonition to northern writers about making “a sustained effort to demolish the cliché”):  This is the ice-scraped, fire-quilted, rock-floored northern limit of the boreal forest, squeezed between the cold depths of Great Slave Lake and the edge of the Arctic tundra.  “Teeming with wildlife” it is not.  Never has been, never will be.  In Saturday morning English, this is tough country for critters.

So what does a pilot do on these long quiet lines, hour after hour – and on these (even longer!) grounded “weather days,” one after the next? Lately I’ve been dabbling in Haiku.  5-7-5 syllables.  The textbooks tell me that this form is not to be punctuated and should be free of capital letters.  I will leave them the way I jotted them.

 

Over Stark Lake

Airborne, skis pumped down.

Cliffs and whitecaps slide below.

Engine snarl – good noise!

 

The Meadow

Shot caribou here,

But that was decades ago.

Now just ice and wind.

 

Ice on the Wings

Of the months we fly,

November is the worst by far.

Each night, down safe – good.

 

Groggy

Transect Line Three-Nine

Post-lunch sleepies setting in.

One-liner anyone?

 

Trumped — 1

Moose! – On the ridge there!

Do you know or give a rip

About this craziness?

 

Trumped – 2

Of course not, he says,

Or so I think I hear.

“You are strange creatures.”

 

Watching Hockey with Joe Lockhart

During ads we talk.

Old stories of his good bush life.

These days, TV games.

 

East of Yellowknife

These miles of charred moss

Will burst green again, someday.

Our children will see.

 

Airborne at Sunrise

Over water, cliffs and trees,

Skis down, as if they would help.

Life insurance paid?

 

Back in YZF

At least in Lutsel K’e

We could see the stars at night.

Here, only streetlights.

 

Weather Day 4

Two words are comfort,

Just five welcome syllables:

“Daily minimums.”

 

At the Pool — Weather Day 5

When we cannot fly,

Swim twenty-five meter lines.

Creature of habit.

 

Annual Reminder

Minute by minute

The days keep squeezing shorter.

Why am I surprised?

Grounded on yet another gray and snowy November day in Yellowknife.  Trying to get an aerial survey contract finished, and dodging the season’s unsettled weather day by day.  Reciting that old bush-pilot mantra: “Better to be on the ground wishing we were flying, than to be flying around, wishing like hell we were on the ground…”

I’ll try to post something for November in the next few days but today I have an announcement here, and as Tom and Ray of Car Talk on NPR would say, “Welcome to the Shameless Commerce Division, folks…”

A new edition of my 1994 book North of Reliance is now available from the publisher, Raven Productions of Ely, Minnesota, or by inquiring through your local bookstore.  This is a happy resurrection for this collection of essays, after a period of about 15 years in “out of print” status.

Congratulations and Thanks to everyone who has made this happen!

Here is the link to book information from Raven:

http://www.ravenwords.com/books_for_adults/books_for_adults/north_of_reliance.html

Some comments from the back cover:

Olesen confronts the contradictions in using the tools of the modern world to touch the purity, serenity, and magnificence of wild nature in the far North. …This is a beautifully written, often moving, account of a couple’s quest to live a life together that touches what matters.

— Erik F. Storlie, author of Nothing on my Mind and Go Deep and Take Plenty of Root

Dave Olesen has captured a sweet spot in place-based writing where mystery, beauty, paradox, contradiction, and intimacy all gel together into an elegant truth.

— Bob Henderson, author of Every Trail has a Story: Heritage Travel in Canada and co-editor, Pike’s Portage, Stories of a Distinguished Place 

Dave Olesen is a writer/poet/observer of nature’s relationship with humanity like no other. He writes in the tradition (and standard) of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Eisley, Abbey, Dillard, Stegner, Berry and Snyder, but his perspective of the subject is as different from theirs as his lifestyle is from yours or mine.

— Dick Dorworth, author of Climbing to Freedom and The Perfect Turn

If you enjoy my monthly Hoarfrost River musings on this blog, you will find some good reading in North of Reliance. And if you have already read the book, you will enjoy the layout of this new version, including 40 photographs by Kristen Gilbertson Olesen. A link to her portfolios is http://www.kristenolesenphotography.ca/Portfolio/     It was a pleasure for me to work with the people at Raven, and with Kristen, on this new edition — at times a mixed pleasure upon which I reflect in my Preface:

A late-winter morning here at home, half a mile west of the Hoarfrost River.  White ice, blue sky, and the fathomless silence that is the essence of the Far North. Time to place some new words ahead of this book’s original Preface.

It was John Dos Passos who claimed that “If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.” (New York Times, October 1959.) Re-reading North of Reliance chapter by chapter over these past few months has not been a hellish experience. Far from it. The memories and images, clear and strong, have come back to me from those mostly-halcyon first seven years here: visions of caribou streaming the October hills and of June mornings alone, peeling logs for the sauna. As I have reviewed these chapters I have smiled often.

But Dos Passos was onto something with his comment, too, and there have been plenty of moments during my review when I have had to pause and consider not only my writing, but my thinking.  In the easy and straightforward instances I have just smoothed the grammar, corrected a typo, or changed punctuation.  (I thank Erin and Johnna at Raven, too, for their eyes and hands in this.)  In other places – places the readers might not suspect – I have had to take a deep breath, cringe, and resist a strong impulse to delete a phrase or to scrap an entire three-paragraph riff. In those soul-searching moments I have looked to other writers for wisdom. British author and World War One pilot Cecil Lewis, in his preamble to a third edition of Sagittarius Rising:

“They say that men grow wiser as they grow older, but I think they only get more gaga.  However, I am not so far gone as to tinker with what I wrote in those glorious years when life stretched before me like a landscape from ten thousand feet and there were no shadows in the day.  Certainly I can add nothing to what I said then.  A few passages, somewhat naïve or foolish, I might have suppressed; but since they are all part of the picture of extreme youth in action, let them stay.”

With that example in mind I have done only what I set out to do – that is, to let the gist of these quarter-century-ago impressions and conclusions stand as first written, stalwart in the face of my urges to qualify or alter them.  So I admonish readers of this second edition:  take these stories and essays for what they are, written when they were, and be thankful, as I am, that the passage of time does change us all – or at least we can hope it will.  (For who would want to live in a world steered by headstrong, footloose, starry-eyed thirty-year-olds? Seriously now.)

With Cecil Lewis and countless others nodding sagely at my side I say:  “Here is how it was for me, way out here, back in those days. Enjoy!”

D.O.

8 April 2016

Call me dimwitted, because even the most obvious facts sometimes take a while to sink into my thick skull.  It is late October, and although the days have been calm and mild lately, we have had a few autumn gales and we will almost certainly have a few more before deep winter.  After every hard blow we walk our trails and find our way blocked by fire-killed trees that have fallen.  All the trees here and for many miles around being dead and burnt – their blackened skeletal stems stark in ranks across slope and swale – one by one and sometimes two by two and sometimes in dramatic domino-effect jumbles, the charred remains of a mature taiga forest are falling down. Day by day, storm by storm, month after month, year after year, the trees will fall until they are – and this is what it took me a couple of years to fully grasp – all lying down.  One by one and ten by ten gravity will call them home.  Of course this is obvious, and a given, but it took me a few years to realize it.  They will all fall down.  Not some of them, not just the weak ones.  All of them.  My, what a mess.

And I have been surprised by this lately.  Not sure why.  After all, what had I thought a dead tree would do, if not fall down? Did I think the trees would stand upright for decades, slowly turning to an elegant silvery gray, and then somehow melt away at their butts and sink gradually and gracefully out of sight?  Nope. Some might hang on for a decade or two or even three, but the soil around the bases of most of these trees is gone, and the roots and trunks of many of them are deeply charred. They topple down. They crash, they lie in jumbles, they heap themselves into thick piles that will, my friend Mitch likes to say, “stymie a moose.” In some places now, two years after the burn, it looks as though a tipsy D-8 Cat skinner has been wandering randomly across the hillsides, pushing up slash piles, clearing ground for a new airstrip or pasture. 

There are no new seedlings of spruce pushing up just yet, and where the fire burned hottest there is still no new growth at all, but blonde rows of grasses and rich stripes of purple fireweed laced the less intense portions of the burn this past summer. (It is interesting that it took two years for the fireweed to appear. Pink Corydalis was the only prominent pioneer in the first summer.)  Every so often old daydreams of Icelandic horses have revived.  Maybe, just maybe, a horse really could make a living around here in these coming years.

When the most precarious burned trees began to topple down in the weeks and months right after the fire, I was seized by an urge true to my boyhood roots in small-town street-and-yard Illinois.  The CBD (Call Big Doug) Landscaping mentality of my high-school part-time job: “It’s autumn and the leaves are down. Time to get raking and make the yards clean and neat again, and impose our tidy order on this unruly cycle, at least here in town.”  Here by the Hoarfrost River my urge was not to grab a rake but to reach for hardhat and chainsaw, to get out there and buck and pile and clear.  A laughable reaction really, in the face of the day-to-day realities of time and work, and the vast scale of the place, but the instinct is there and after every new windfall it surges again.   

But no, one does not rake up the fallen leaves in an autumn forest, and after a wildfire one does not blithely set out to cut and clear and slash-burn the millions upon millions of trees that will now be tipping over and falling down.  (In my layman’s calculations I easily get an estimate into billions, for this big burn alone, but I will hold back and stick with millions.) My urge is just a deep desire to combat the chaos, to do my small bit to restore the beauty and wholeness that have been obliterated. Tilting at windmills has been a theme around here for thirty years.  “Cleaning up” after a forest fire falls squarely in that category. 

The soothing sitting-room wisdoms of “nature’s cleanup,” “let it burn,” and “the wonder of rejuvenation,” like so many sitting-room wisdoms about wild nature, are all valid, and at some remove yes, they can be soothing.  Reality is more chaotic, and at times it is horrific.  (The string of starving wolves we have watched die slow deaths here over the past two winters come to mind as examples of not-so-soothing wildness.  Likewise the charge of a senile half-blind grizzly bear on a November morning nine years ago — his hot sour breath and the look in his eyes and the sudden realization that it might be my day to die, or his.)

It has not been soothing, but instead more like jarring and jaw-dropping, to pause deliberately and squint across miles of rolling outcrop hills, and to try to imagine the scene before me going through the changes and successions that lie ahead.  It is like trying to imagine the country under the weight of the last – or the next – wave of glacial ice.  That is something I have tried to do from time to time, but I have never honestly conjured up a convincing image of the ice sheet, in my mind’s eye. This latest attempt to envision long change is easier, because the change is already well underway: the once-lovely green hills are black and jumbled, and the trees are toppling day by day.  As if the lip of the next Keewatin ice sheet was visible on the far horizon, and on a calm day audible, rumbling and grinding down the valley.

My stilted efforts to conjure the changes that are coming to the scene before me are accompanied by a surprisingly deep sadness.  This, like the falling trees, caught me off guard, even as it brought me close to tears the other day.  “Heartfelt” is a maudlin word, but here it has its place.  I can feel sometimes, right in my heart, that span of years, and with it comes the awareness that I will not be here to see this place return to any semblance of that mature, deep-rooted, spongy-lichened, taiga-forest integrity that we all recall from a long Sunday hike we took together as a family, just over two years ago.  I will never see it come back to that. None of us will. That is gone, and all four of us will be long gone before it comes back to what it was on that memorable afternoon just before the lightning struck and the fire began to prowl the hills.

Once down, these dense spruce and tamarack trunks will lie in heaps for decades far beyond a narrow human time-span.  Decay proceeds extremely slowly here in a country where our first old cabin – the one that was here from the late 1970’s – stood for nearly 40 years on unpeeled birch rounds laid crosswise right on the sand.  When we took that place down, in 2004, to erect on its site this workshop that we have called home since the fire, the wood of those birch logs was as solid as it was on the day the trees were felled.  Try that in a temperate latitude!  Hell, in the Pacific Northwest an unpeeled birch round laid on the ground beneath a building would soften to mush before lunchtime. Charred wood being highly resistant to decay, the bark-free trunks that now lie perched a foot above the ground will still be here, lying in jumbles, when my children are older than I am now, just starting lap 60 around the sun.  This is not sad, but it is not soothing Mother Nature Knows Best stuff either.  More like the cold hard facts of life and death, more like the hot breath of a bear about to kill you. It gives new meaning to the glib phrase “a 200-year burn,” and gives visible and visceral meaning to a span of two centuries. 

Again and again I turn from my reverie and stride down the hill toward home, rifle or chainsaw forever in hand, while a trio of four-month-old husky pups rockets around and leaps over and wriggles under the windfalls.  Another generation of that boundless young-dog energy enlivening our walks down these familiar trails into another freeze-up season.  Sad as it makes me some days, I feel fortunate to have been given this first-hand lesson in Time, and Nature, and the Real Deal.  Not given, so much as smacked-up-side-o’-the-head by it.      

“What emerges from the recent work on chaos and complexity is the final dismemberment of the metaphor of the world as machine, and the emergence of a new metaphor – a view of a world that is characterized by vitality and autonomy, one which is close to Thoreau’s sense of wildness, a view that, of course, goes well beyond him, but one he would no doubt find glorious.  Instead of a vast machine, much of nature turns out to be a collection of dynamic systems, rather like the mean eddy lines in Lava Falls… They are aperiodic, like the weather, they never repeat themselves but forever generate new changes, one of the most important of which is evolution.  Life evolves at the edge of chaos, the area of maximum vitality and change.”  — Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild.   Tucson:  University of Arizona Press, 1996.