It is an evening in late March. We have been flying all afternoon and into the evening, on a job to locate and photograph herds of muskox for a study being done by the territorial wildlife people. It is good work for the little Husky ski-plane, with me folded into the front seat and Kristen right behind me with her cameras. It is cold work, though, since she slides the side window open for the photos as we make a low pass over herds we find, and the air whistling past that open window is downright frigid. It will be 35 below here again tonight. We call the second three months of winter “Winter Light” (February, March, and April), and that season is well underway, but Winter is still the first word in the season’s designation.

Five hours of low-level circling and spotting and note-taking, ending with a climb to 7500 feet for the 100-mile flight back to home, have left me a little brain-fogged. The plane is tied down with its winter covers all on, and as Robert Service would say, “The dogs are fed / and the stars o’erhead / are dancing heel and toe…” A quarter moon and Venus sliding down in the west.

It’s a picture, isn’t it? Almost a cartoon. I stand at the big steel sink and wash the day’s dishes, and we tune in the news on the BBC. Coleman lamps hissing, one hung on a nail in a ceiling timber, the other set up on a makeshift plywood shelf. The big electric worklight messes up the radio reception, so we leave it off while the news airs, and use up some of the stale naptha gas bequeathed to us by various expeditions over the decades. It doesn’t keep forever.

The news is all lockdowns, confirmed cases, stimulus plans and the flattening of curves. A couple of months ago, when we first moved into our new cabin, the reports were already touching, but just touching, on the bat virus from the wild-food markets of Wuhan, then getting back to Iran, Bernie, Biden, and the aftermath of Brexit. Little did we know. May you live in interesting times. Check.

I scrub, I listen, I finish and pour a shot of bourbon (moderation in all things, lads) and lie alongside the woodstove on a rug of muskox hide. Kristen has finished putting some dinner together, moose-meat and potatoes and cabbage salad, and is sitting with a glass of wine from a box. (Card-bordeaux.) We sip, still listening, and then switch from the BBC to the CBC. News closer to home, all things being relative, but still. It is news from a far distant land. Montreal and Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Sometimes a passing mention of one of the three northern territories.

We are, I know, almost a caricature in this, our rustic remoteness. And okay, I can let go of the “almost.” We are. And I guess I may as well make my peace with having become a caricature. If I have over the years become a caricature of myself, and if this place and our life out here are, for some, just a tired cliché of such places and lives, well… so be it. Log buildings, plaid wool shirts, red suspenders, moose meat and chainsaws and sled dogs and ski planes.

Coleman lamps, for God’s sake – who the hell pumps a Coleman lamp any more? LED’s, man, and double A batteries that will light up a room for weeks, all on sale today at Cambodian Tire. Walk the aisles, if you dare.

Yes, I am a caricature. A cliché. Isolation and “social distancing” writ large. Six feet? Try sixty thousand, or 600,000.

But not so fast, folks — take a look, and a glance in the mirror, and note what a clever cartoonist might make of you and your own life. And then — just have a good chuckle and get on with it. It’s okay. If you can chuckle you can trust it. And that will be my entire chestnut of self-help advice for 2020, I promise.

Like I said, we moved up into the new house in January. It is a delight to be here. It is an odd-looking place, from the outside, being a spruce-log octagon ten feet on a facet and two very tall stories high, capped by a low-slope roof with a three-foot overhang. One friend likened it to a mushroom. Another visitor, last summer, an architect by trade, went so far as to glance up from his notebook (where I like to think he was making notes on the brilliance of my design, but probably not) to say to me, simply and point-blank “You know you’re crazy, don’t you?.” Yep. Like I said, caricatures need to know when to chuckle.

The lantern, though, is a great feature of the new place. “Lantern” being, we are told (again by an architect friend), the proper designation for a jutting protrusion upwards from a roofline, festooned with windows. Imagine a bay window going up out of a roof. Ours has four windows, a small ladder leading up to a perch platform above the second floor, and views all around. Now that it is starting to be daylight at waking time (sun cresting the horizon at 06:55 today, gaining three and a half minutes a day on each end) I go up to the lantern every morning with my first cup of coffee. I have always liked that saying attributed to Saskatchewan farmers: “Going out for a coyote’s breakfast. That being a whiz and a good look around.” Up in the lantern I skip the first part but I do have a really good look around, almost every day. Until the season moderates enough to sip coffee out on the balcony or “widow’s walk” (another architectural term, but not popular with some in the household), the lantern’s four views are fine.

First I look north, to the crest of the big rock bluff and the folds and skylines beyond it. Burnt spruce and white snow. Not a green wisp to be seen.

East there is a small window, mostly blocked by the black steel stove-pipe that juts up through the lantern’s ceiling, and the view there is toward the river mouth. Mostly just sun glare lately, in the mornings. That will change by the week as the sunrise  slides northeast.

South, the vast white frozen lake and the escarpment of the Kahochella in the distance, the notch of the narrows at Reliance, and mile after mile of sculpted white drifts atop four feet of ice.

In the foreground out that south lantern window is our homestead in all its snow-covered chaos and clutter. I like watching the dogs from my high vantage point, unseen by them, but I cannot let my gaze linger too long on the rest of the homestead before my mind begins to conjure a long list of what must be done, should have been done, might be nice to do, or was done and didn’t really work out very well. When that list kicks in it is time to turn west.

West is the long ridge sloping south to the lake from the high bluff north. A copse of thick timber high up caught my eye one morning, and at first I thought it was green spruce. But no, the binoculars showed it to be just another clump of trees a little thicker and less burned than the rest, but burned and dead all the same.

I have come full circle and my mug is empty. I go down the ladder. The day starts. That’s about all there is to say, from here, right now.

Oh, that and to pass along to those readers and friends who should know, that singer and songwriter extraordinaire John Prine is on a ventilator down in Tennessee, stricken with this damned bat-virus. An Illinois boy tried and true, and a credit to us. Check out Tree of Forgiveness, on his most recent album of the same name, and you are in for a treat. I was humming it all day. Spare a prayer for old John.

Take care of each other, people. So long, from the caricature, up in his lantern.

When I was a boy growing up in Illinois, there were only a few days every winter when it got “so cold you could see your breath.” Seeing breath was something to remark upon in that time and place of my life. Now, half a century and a few thousand miles northwest, it seems remarkable that just seeing one’s breath could be cause for any comment at all, unless maybe it happened in mid-July, or unless I was watching the puffs of my breath while still tucked in a warm bed inside four walls and under a roof, as Kristen and I often have on winter mornings here in our succession of huts, cabins, and less-than-ultramodern houses.

But if you can hear your breath, well, then it is Cold. The first time I heard my breath was in the winter of 1990, here at the Hoarfrost, when the thermometer dipped to a new low – a record that still stands, over all the 80 years that official records have been kept for this part of the world, since the early 1940’s. Minus 54 at the Environment Canada station in Reliance, or 65 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Kristen and I were here at home, young and newly married, and definitely still seeing our breath on every winter morning when waking up in the drafty cabin we called home. The slender glass thermometer we checked that day was difficult to read but extremely accurate, being a spare given to us by the weather station meteorologists. When it said minus 54, it was minus 54, give or take a tenth of a degree at most.

To hear your breath, the air around you has to be truly and deeply cold. -49 Celsius seems to be the start of it. You need to stand perfectly still, out away from any other source of noise, and just exhale. It is a strange tsssh, not quite a shhh, because there is an odd crackling or shattering undertone to the sound, like the distant breaking of a thousand tiny crystal goblets. Again, breathe out. Tsssh. Tssh. When I first heard it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I walked a little way up the trail north of home, to look around, and I was somewhere near the place where our house now stands. I slowed my walk, and I heard it again. My footfalls, causing snow to settle in the drifts around me? Something up in the trees? An animal? What was that new and persistent soft tssh, tssh that I’d never heard before? Then I got it.

It was not the snow around me, not the trees, not something in the distance, but the water vapor of my every exhalation, crystallizing instantly in the puffs of my out-breaths.

I haven’t heard my breath for a couple of winters now. I did in 2017, up on the trail with a group of university students on a dogteam expedition. Anyway, it’s a good marker. If you can hear that sound, you know for a fact that it is fifty below C. or fifty-eight below F., or lower, and no thermometer is needed.

It was another cold morning, a few weeks back, so cold that I was listening for my breath. I was walking up to our new house after checking on the woodstove fire in the workshop, in the dim blue light that begins long before sunrise. It was almost hearing-your-breath cold, I was guessing, but in recent years we have not been able to find a thermometer that is worth a nickel when it gets truly cold. The fancy wireless weather station out near the fuel cache stops for good at a whimpy -41.4, Celsius, and the “Accu-Temp” made-in-China unit out on the front railing gives up long before that, at about minus thirty – even though the dial is marked down to minus sixty. I paused to listen for my breath, and confirmed that it couldn’t be heard, so I knew we were not to minus fifty yet.

Standing there listening, I saw our two familiar ravens gliding in from the north, from wherever they roost and wait out their long feather-puffed winter nights. (I had been appreciating feather-puffed fluff for myself, earlier that same morning, as I lay beneath a thick quilt stuffed with down plucked from some hapless geese.)

Their jet-black wings set and steady, twin gentle dihedrals, the raven pair made a soundless slow descent. The air was so cold and dense it was as if an invisible syrup had been poured over the landscape. In unison they banked in an arc over the barn and dog yard, checking it all out, then broke formation, one slipping to a touchdown on the top of a wooden fence slat and the other to a branch on a spruce just west of the dog yard.

Every morning this winter, at the first hint of daylight, they’ve been coming in. This tiny puff of woodsmoke here, our dogyard and our daily activity, make this their best bet for fifty miles in any direction, maybe more. They arrive, settle, puff up their feathers, wait and watch. And every day it pays off for them, somehow, sometime in the first hours of the morning. Some days there is a gift waiting right away, in the form of some food from the dogs’ evening meal, spilled or uneaten and by morning frozen on the snow. Even one white flake of frozen tallow, say no bigger than a pinky finger, flipped off to one side and lying forgotten in the snow as we chop up a block of lard for the cooker in the barn, is worth an entire morning’s vigil. That little flake is pure fat, pure energy, which makes pure warmth at the astonishing rate of 4,000 kilocalories per pound.

There is no guarantee, no agreement between us. The ravens only know that every day we bundled-up two-legs will appear, faithful servants to our sled dogs. No matter what the temperature we will do our morning chores, and every day there will be some reward for patience, maybe not a bonanza like 200 grams of pure lard, but something. Maybe a pail will tip or a few nuggets of kibble will spill from a bag, or a husky will purposely spill her bowl of soup, and after picking out all the appealing morsels retreat back into her straw-filled house. Game on.

This is the good part. The raven lands, side-hops cautiously into the edge of the dog’s circle, pauses, side-steps forward, looks both ways, minces back, then forward, then relaxes ever so slightly. Pecks at a little fleck of fat or rice or kibble, and another. Backs away, checks again, like a pitcher with a known base-stealer poised on first. So far so good. The dog is watching intently, three feet away. But it’s okay. At least today it is. I am not sure how this agreement ever goes awry, but every once in a very long time it must, and then we find a raven feather in the dog yard, or some other sign that there has been some trouble, maybe deadly trouble, for one of the big black birds.

Lately I’ve been thinking of these two ravens as Hugin and Munin, the ravens of Viking lore. In Norse mythology, these two were perched on the shoulders of the god Odin, helping, advising, flying away on recon missions and reporting back. Huginn (pronounced Hoo-gen) was thought or mind, and Muninn (Moo-nen) was memory. (The names seem to be spelled nowadays both with and without the double “n.”)

Bernd Heinrich, the scientist author who has written several fascinating books about ravens during his lifetime of study, describes Hugin and Munin in an interesting context:

In a biological symbiosis one organism typically shores up some weakness or deficiency of the other(s). As in such a symbiosis, Odin was the father of all humans and gods, though in human form he was imperfect by himself. As a separate entity he lacked depth perception (being one-eyed) and he was apparently also uninformed and forgetful. But his weaknesses were compensated by his ravens, Hugin (mind) and Munin (memory) who were part of him. They perched on his shoulders and reconnoitered to the ends of the earth each day to return in the evening and tell him the news. He also had two wolves at his side, and the man/god-raven-wolf association was like one single organism in which the ravens were the eyes, mind, and memory, and the wolves the providers of meat and nourishment. As god, Odin was the ethereal part—he only drank wine and spoke only in poetry. I wondered if the Odin myth was a metaphor that playfully and poetically encapsulates ancient knowledge of our prehistoric past as hunters in association with two allies to produce a powerful hunting alliance. It would reflect a past that we have long forgotten and whose meaning has been obscured and badly frayed as we abandoned our hunting cultures to become herders and agriculturists, to whom ravens act as competitors.

I just love thinking about this mythic team of man/god, ravens, and wolves. Maybe it is just that great aside about how Odin spoke only poetry and drank nothing but wine. Now there’s a gig.

It seems to me, though, that there should be a third raven perched on one of Odin’s shoulders, alongside either Hugin and Munin. Or maybe perched right on top of Odin’s head (sounds as though he might not notice.) There is certainly a third layer, a third raven, in my mental life. Yes, there is thought, as in thinking and pondering and figuring. And of course there is always memory, and memories. Recalling, remembering, revering, regretting, and all those other great “re” words. Remorse, retribution, revenge; reconsideration, retaliation, and reconciliation.

So yes, thought and memory. Present and past.

My third raven would be called Wunderin. From wonder, both as verb, as in “I’m wonderin’ how this whole deal is going to sort itself out,” and as noun, as in “that is just an absolute wonder.”

Should I ever happen across a lost and confused Viking, a wild-haired scraggle-toothed descendant of Leif the Lucky, somewhere far out on the northeast barrens after lo these thousand years, I will suggest this revision to him or her as we share a swig of mead. Hugin, Munin, and Wunderin. Thought, Memory, and Wonder.

Smart birds, those ravens. They know the deal. In they come, every morning at first light. They check and wait and watch, and they most definitely think and remember. I’m betting that they wonder, too. Wonder about it all, and wonder at it all. Who’s to say they don’t?

It’s working out for them, this quiet deep winter, as it has for so many winters, and I have no doubt that they’ll still be around whenever this chapter of the north’s story closes. I wonder who will be here with them.

Maybe just that one-eyed forgetful god and his magical wolves. Odin, sipping wine and spouting poetry.

Now there’s an image to make a person pause for a moment on the snowy path, to listen for the telltale sound of warm breath becoming ice.

When I first learned to fly airplanes I lived along the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. One night in 1983 I got my first taste of night-time flying on a full moon night, and after that I would mark on my calendar the two or three nights either side of the winter full moons. If on one of those nights the weather happened to be clear and not desperately cold, I would go over to the little airport where I worked and take one of the little planes up for a flight over the Quetico-Superior canoe country.

A full winter moon shining over a snow-covered landscape mottled with broad lakes bathes a landscape in light so bright that a person can stand and read a newspaper by moonlight, at least down to the second-smallest font. I felt confident that with that sort of light, even I as a fledgling pilot could probably set the plane down on a snowy lake if the urgent need arose. Awash in confidence, whether justified or not, I would taxi out and take off.  Once airborne I would head north past the lights of Ely and Winton and cross over the border at Basswood Lake, into Canadian airspace.

As far as I knew, this international aerial incursion was legal back then as long as I did not land and as long as I stayed more than 2,000 feet above the wilderness preserve. Not sure I would recommend trying it nowadays – there might be a fighter-interceptor off your wingtip in short order, although it would be somewhat comical to see him trying to slow that jet down to a hundred miles an hour so as to flash you the red lights.

On some of those nights I would fly north until I was over the very heart of the Quetico, then bank in a broad arc above the shining white swaths of Agnes Lake, Kawnipi, and Kahshahpiwi, and in the distance I could see the twinkling lights of Atikokan, Ontario. With a full moon over it all, the sensation of pure flight at some moments of those flights utterly transcended the putt-putt of the little motor and the spinning propeller, the gauges and the radio and the clumsy metal bird. When that happened it was about as much fun as a young fellow could have with his clothes on.

It is a little-known fact that the full moon’s path through the winter sky is almost precisely the same path that the sun will follow from dawn to dusk in mid-summer. And vice versa. In high summer here in the far north I seem to scarcely notice the moon, what with the sky so light and the days so long and the sun so high on its arc. But the moon is there if I look for it, pale and low, even in June and July, as a reminder to anyone paying attention, showing how the winter sun will rise in the southeast and slink along the southern horizon for a few hours until it sets again in the southwest.

These patterns of seasonal symmetry baffle me, as does almost every aspect of astronomy, but on a cold winter night I look up at the full moon so impossibly high in the sky, and it is just a gift of wonderful brightness. The difference between a cloudy, dark, snowless, new-moon night in autumn and a clear, bright, snowy, full moon night in January, is the difference between night and almost-day. It is inspiring to remember that the mid-winter moonrise, set so impossibly far north of due east, and the moon’s high bright trajectory overhead through the fifteen-hour night, is exactly the same path the sun will be on in six months, at the height of summer. It is inspiring, and in late January I need to take my inspiration wherever I can find it.

When I began to compose this post on January 25th, the moon was new. “New moon,” as in “no moon,” – that is, the one completely moonless night of the four-week cycle. By the time this writing is finished tonight the sliver of waxing crescent moon will just be sinking off to the west. The moon is forever chasing the sun and always losing the race, growing fatter and falling behind about 50 minutes every night, until the next full moon night, this one coming on the ninth of February.

Over the long (to us) and brief (to the moon) arc of humanity’s conscious journey, the vast majority of our collective nights have been very dimly lit – by lanterns and lamps, candles and torches, firelight, and for long eons before any of those, by moonlight and starlight. The moon is thus our most natural calendar. The sun can be the day’s clock, rising and setting and giving us a “local noon” wherever we are, while the moon is the month’s calendar hung on the wall of the sky, there whenever the clouds are not too thick. Two centuries ago, or less, before streetlights and indoor plumbing, almost anyone you met would have known, pretty much as soon as you asked, what phase the moon was in.

When I took a class in the Ojibwe Anishinabe language back in 1977, our teacher was an old woman from the Bad River Reservation on Lake Superior. One day she ticked off by memory a list of a year’s moons, and I am now inspired to go dig that list out again. I’m sure it’s in a file folder around here somewhere. There was the Moon When Trees Crack In the Cold (that was around now), the Maple Sugar Moon in early spring, the Moon of Crust on the Snow in late winter, and Manomin Gisiss, the Wild Rice Moon, in late summer when the rice got ripe. Every moon had a distinct name or two, and hearing them you would know, if you lived there, what time of year that moon would come.

Uber-urban moderns could still do the same, of course, and it might open a few people’s minds. Say you needed to call your next big meeting with your co-workers, and you announced that it was set for “two hours after sunrise on the first day after the full Moon of the Fiscal Year End.” I think most people who wanted to be there would probably figure it out and show up on time, give or take a few minutes. Of course when they heard your announcement they would not first look up at the big night sky, but straight down at their little screens, thumbs busy, brows furrowed, as urban people do whenever… well, whenever, full stop. But maybe on some of the nights leading up to the confab some of them would actually look up at the sky, and notice the shape and aspect of the moon. For some people it might be the first time in years. It would at least tweak their interest. Maybe.

So around we go again. As February looms, here in the very heart of winter, Buzz and Neil’s shape-shifting chunk of rock will be waxing from new to crescent to quarter (which looks like half) to gibbous, to full, and then, night by night, it will wane back through its repertoire to new and dark and young again, on the twenty-third of the month.

Musing about moon names and old Delores Bainbridge from Bad River, rest her soul, I think if I was pressed to give a name to this second moon of deep winter I would call it the Moon of Cold Hard Facts. Or maybe The Moon of Consequences. Such as:

  • If you didn’t put up all your firewood back in the fall, guess what – you get to do it now, in the cold, wearing snowshoes and cursing the balky cold chainsaw.
  • It is very hard to tiptoe on snowshoes. And even if you succeed the moose still hears you.
  • Snow is a wonderful insulator unless it has just cascaded right down your bare neck from a heavily laden spruce branch overhead, bumped while you were concentrating on trying to tiptoe on your snowshoes.
  • Boot liners and water holes in the ice that are ignored one day, by not drying the liners or not chopping the ice hole open wide enough, will come back around to collect their due the following day. You get to have cold feet while you chop twice as much ice today as you should have chopped yesterday.

And so on. One unassailable and welcome fact is that the bright winter moon is getting bigger each night, riding its high arc through the sky. And that is something to appreciate.

“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well, I have really good days.”  

Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mother Blues

“The sun is but a morning star.”

— Henry David Thoreau (the last sentence of Walden)

 

Drum roll please, for the final solstice of this second decade of these still-infant two-thousands, tonight at 0419 UTC. As we head round the far turn of our annual orbit, this past six months the darkening half-lap in this hemisphere, I am taking my solstice solace in the coming light, and in mystery.

Our touted “brave new world” does on some good days still strike me as truly brave. It always has, and I hope it always will. Living where I do I seem able to find bravery, or some decent allegory for it, without too much effort, almost anytime I need to. There is abundant courage out here in the outback — not in me personally, I hasten to add – but among the finned and feathered and furry and leafy ones. In that realm perhaps it should be called something else, but bravery is such a great word. And there is no shortage of it, or something akin to it, out amongst the critters.

When it comes to humanity, though, the bravery I can discern these days is mostly on the personal level. I take inspiration from brave people doing brave things as they live their lives, get through their days, and play the cards they’ve been dealt as best they can. On a level of society and empire and civilization, though, it is cowardice that has carried the decade. We dither and forestall, postpone and deny, prevaricate and hedge. We spend too much time and energy and verbosity splitting ourselves up and building walls and looking backward, obsequious and apologetic, nasty and arrogant, when we could be picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, shaking hands and peeling off our insignia and labels, and looking forward. Has it always been thus? Not sure, can’t say, wasn’t there.

It’s been a long decade, these twenty-tens. Longer even, in many ways, than the ominous opening stanza of the millenium that got underway almost as soon as the celebratory fireworks had stopped sparkling across the sky. And now it’s farewell to the teens, and bring on the twenty-twenties. (Would it be too corny to ask whether our collective human vision might improve to 20-20 in the twenty-twenties? Yep. It would be corny, and naïve to boot.)

Enough of this. I am not a very good pundit, and this monthly post from McLeod Bay is not written as some sort of half-baked opinion piece, so I will now push the tiller hard over and steer away from that tack.

 

As I move through my days, up and down, weary and energized, inspired and not, living this odd life out here on this burned-over shoreline in a remarkably uncrowded corner of this seriously overcrowded planet, it is not only the examples of courage that I look to for my inspiration, but examples of utter mystery. Awash in so much confident information, booming cocksure and certain from every quarter, over the radio and across the screen and the page, it is the unknowns, the utterly un-know-ables, that fire my imagination.

There is still plenty of downright mystery in the world. Ask any honest (preferably an older and lifelong) scientist. Ask anyone who has pulled their head out of their tiny little world of easy answers and explanations, and stood for a quiet moment looking up, or out, or in. There are still plenty of things happening around us for which we have absolutely no explanation. Mysteries.

On this Solstice I am taking solace in my personal list of mysteries from this past decade. Including these, listed below – the “short list” in the final draw.

 

  • Who cut that straight line of blazes back through the woods west of the river, forty or fifty years ago? And who left that birchbark canoe in Yearling Bay, and who abandoned the ancient double-barrel percussion cap rifle we once found on the north Twin Island, its one hammer still pulled back, the other down?
  • What was the enormous force or pressure or wave that lifted from below and shattered a solid half-acre of shorefast ice, over in Gyrfalcon Cove on the tenth of December 2016? Whatever it was, that force peeled a couple of dozen two-ton blocks of twenty-inch-thick ice right up off the clay bottom and scattered and flipped them like huge cold dice, and it did this in five or six other places up and down the shore of a completely frozen McLeod Bay, all at once.
  • When will the caribou commence their natural resurgence, swing through this downturn like the earth swings through its solstices, and start increasing again as the Porcupine herd has done, and as caribou have done again and again over these past tens of thousands of years? Or will they? (They will. I saw some things this autumn, flying alone up north, and that is all I am going to say about that.)
  • Where did a rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) come from, in August of 2017, to hover and buzz in front of a bright yellow life-vest that was hung to dry in the morning sun on the south wall of the workshop? Where did it go when it departed from here, a solid 450 miles from the nearest limit of even its “rare” range, a tiny beautiful whirring vision of color and delicacy three feet from my face. And while we’re at it, where will the twenty-year southward march of these ever-increasing muskox herds, now happily at home clear down into the jackpine and aspen forest a hundred miles south of treeline, come to its limit?
  • How do fish know what the weather is like up above the water, in the sky and the air, and beyond a layer of solid ice, and how does the lichen reclaim a burned cliff-face of clean white and pink rock and how do wood frogs freeze solid in a layer of fifty-below-zero mud and emerge to hop and feed and breed on a hot July afternoon the very next year, and how do minnows get into a completely landlocked high lake… and, and, and?

As a real show-stopper, anytime and anywhere, and covering all the categories of when and how and what and why and where and who, there is always my old fallback. Just a dark sky chockfull of bright stars on a clear night. I can stand and look up for a few moments and ponder, and I always manage to come up with something eloquent to say, such as “Hmm.”  (Long pause.)  “Huh.” 

And here’s the kicker, for the decade now done, in my own Mysterious Anecdote category. The envelope please.

Why? 

Our old lead dog Sophie, littermate to Ernie, was in her sixteenth year and failing fast on a bitterly cold night in the final days of December 2015. She was a very shy and wolfish dog who only once in her life, in our collective memory, had ever asked to come into the house. She had been with us in the workshop overnight though, because our daughters had carried her in from the barn at dusk. She was unable to walk. She spent a restless night in a makeshift bed on the floor by the woodstove, and the next day at dawn twilight, at forty-something below zero, she stood up and walked to the door and clearly asked to be let out. I opened the door, and out she went into the morning. In her condition, at that temperature, we did not think she would or could go far, and after a few minutes I went to let her in. She was gone, and at first we could not find her. Her tracks led east, up from the beach and along the summer trail toward the river. The snow there was soft and deep and she was plowing through it breaking trail.

Kristen found her, lying dead and facing east, just as the 1980’s-era Iditarod musher, author Gary Paulsen, claimed that dying dogs and wolves will always do, if allowed to choose their final lie-down unfettered and unrestrained. Face the east, face the rising sun, face the new day.

Well, well. As one of my grandfathers used to say, “put that one in your pipe and smoke it.”

Happy Solstice all.

 

 

 

 

High noon in November, gray and dim. Raw northeast wind in my face as I trudge along. Coming back from the fuel-barrel cache, through the burnt spruce west of the sawmill, towing two red five-gallon jugs of gas on a yellow plastic sled. Those faded red jugs and that patched yellow sled are the only vestiges of color in the entire scene. Pale gray sky; dark gray water out beyond new white ice; the horizon across the bay just a black line dividing pale gray from darker gray.

The sled lurches and tips on a drifted boulder. One jerry can flops out and starts leaking from a cracked vent bung. I stop, curse gently, tip it up, and pull the load forward across the snowy beach.

The same beach where on bright summer evenings we all come down to wash and swim. Green shoreline grass, purple fire-flowers, cool water and warm air, soap and sunlight on bare brown skin.

I tug my gas. That stuff we need to run the tools, run our lives, build and cut and heat and switch on our brave little lights. I smell the spilled gas on my mitten, sniff the cold wind, and push aside those soft and utterly inconsequential memories of summer. Early August may as well be flippin’ Tahiti today. Buck up, bush man.

Suddenly I’m thinking about the refineries at Fort Saskatchewan, the steel mills of Gary Indiana. I smile and tip my wool cap to the workers down south. I mean the workers, not the suits or the hats or the flip-flops and groovy T’s. The ones who make and load. The ones I might not agree with on certain things, if we got right into it. But then again, some days I’m not so sure.

Right now, at high noon, someone is punching in or punching out. Eight-hour shift at the plant, where out back the loading docks are cluttered with pallets and the forklifts scurry back and forth to the trucks. Black steel stove-pipe, 3031 gunpowder, triple pane window glass, thirteen-sixty-fourths inch carbide chainsaw files, 205-liter drums of pure cold gasoline.

Much obliged, people. Keep up the good work. These real and solid things you make and pump and smelt and ship are nothing less than wonders of my world. Yes, I know, I know, there may be other ways forward. I cannot quite see those ways yet, from here, and I cannot imagine facing this winter day without stove-pipe, window glass, gunpowder, chainsaw files, and gasoline. To name just a handful. And I have not the foggiest idea how to make any of that stuff myself.

 

 

“This day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.” – Emerson

I came home last Monday from another round of changeovers, the twice-yearly switching of landing gear from floats to wheels (or skis) in October, and from wheels (or wheel-skis) back to floats sometime in June. It was a thousand-mile round trip to Fort Nelson and back.  Since in the eye of officialdom we are, in effect, running a miniature airline, we must do these things according to the rulebook  Long gone are the days of doing the changeovers ourselves with spruce-pole tripods and cable come-alongs.

It was high time to be done with water flying. On Election Day in Canada, October 21st, Kristen and I were near town (Yellowknife) on an aerial photo flight for a customer, and we decided to land and go to the polls. We found, sadly, that we weren’t properly registered to cast our ballots, owing to our unusual and remote residential address, but that’s a story for another time. As we taxied into the fuel dock that day, the Husky floats shattered brittle panes of skim ice for the final 200 yards. On Monday I finally bounced the same Husky down on its fat rubber tires, and parked it on the little patch of sand and grass we have grandiosely dubbed “the airstrip.” It will sit up there grounded for a week or more, until we get at least four or five inches of solid black ice on the inland lakes.

Another float-flying season done and gone. As years go by I find I enjoy the seven or eight months of ski and wheel flying more than the summer float flying, especially after a windy and unsettled summer like the one just past. When I switch back to wheels and skis, I relish being able to just sit quietly in the cockpit for a second or two with the engine off and the gyros winding down, and to skip all the rope-in-hand gymnastics of float-plane docking, fending off of rocky shorelines, or grabbing the paddle and jousting with the wind. It’s nice to just land the plane and shut it off. Solid gravel, grass, pavement, or snow are a pleasure after a summer and autumn of touching down on roiling acres of ice-cold liquid.

I came down the hill and through the front door of the workshop, to the smell of woodsmoke and the welcome warmth of cast-iron heat. Went through the familiar ritual of transition from that workaday part of my life to this one. Took wallet and flip-phone out of my trousers pockets, and noticed that the phone‘s tiny screen was still lit up. “No Service.” Sounds fine to me, I thought, as I turned it off and stowed it away for a few weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, people. I am not trying to beat a dead horse here, every autumn, in nattering country-mouse amazement and dismay. I love communication as much as anyone. More than many. I love to hear from people, talk to people, and listen to people. I am not a hermit, nor a recluse, nor a “One Man’s Wilderness” wooden-hinged (wooden un-hinged?) misanthrope. Robinson Jeffers of the sub-arctic? Not this bushed pilot.

It’s just that I do look forward to turning it all off, and I get skittish and weary when the steady barrage of input, message, and reply never does turn off. Humanity’s burgeoning billions now navigate every hour of their lives like pilots on the flight deck, or sea captains up on the bridge, with all channels tuned, dutifully maintaining what the air regs call a “listening watch” on all the designated frequencies, and steadily tapping out responses. Dit-dah ditt-ditt-dah-dah…

Unlike seasoned aviators and mariners, though, people seem more and more oblivious to anything real and direct and un-digital. Ask any cyclist dodging distracted drivers in a busy city, for starters. Or ask yourself if there is a wind today, where you are? If so, where from? Are the clouds flowing in the same direction as the surface wind, or oblique to it? How quaint, to remark upon such things, and in real time too!

Text, phone, e-mail, streams, pods, pads, blogs (!), chats and tweets. Dashboard phones and earbuds. I keep wondering, as I did almost exactly one year ago, after a similar return home to silence and woodsmoke, Does no one else find this ‘new normal’ utterly exhausting? The incessant streaming – for that is exactly what it is – of electrons, ones, and zeroes. Digits, yes, but are we now reduced to only two? Forever? I mean, after all, most of us were lucky enough to be born with twenty. And now we’re down to just two? This is progress?

I came late to this thing called internet. The outbacks of the north, from Shishmaref to Stony Rapids, all came late to it, for obvious reasons. But it came. At first I was confused as to what it was, and even more confused as to what it was properly called. Was it internet, interweb, or intertube? I kid you not. If someone twenty years ago had sidled up to me and said, “Yeah, sorry I missed your e-mail – my inbox was full of spam ‘cause the firewall on the Google accounts in my i-Pad went down,” I would have stared at them in bafflement.

Gradually it dawned on me that, as the happenin’ Hebrew from Hibbing put it, the times really were a’ changin’. On an evening in 1999, sitting at a tech-savvy friend’s place in Yellowknife, I sent my first e-mail, to a friend in northern Minnesota (No, not Bob.) I was suitably awe-struck. Whoosh. No postage. No delay. Message sent? You mean, he’s got it right now? Yup, my friend said, he’s got it right now if he’s online.

A few years later, messages from a fellow bush rat and lifelong comrade of mine began to pipe up on the screen, instead of via paper letters scrawled in ink and folded into stamped envelopes. The Hoarfrost River had a very slow and very expensive satellite connection to the interweb back then, but it did send and receive straight e-mail without attachments, and my old friend encouraged me to use it, saying, “C’mon, man, shoot me some ones and zeroes.” So I did. So I do. And as we all now will, until the next lane of the highway appears, somewhere just off the shoulder of the lanes we’re all hurtling down tonight. What is new today will be old tomorrow.

 

It is early morning. Earlier than I thought. 4:30 by the dim green glow of my wristwatch. A new moon night, and when I step outside there is nothing but starlight filtered through thick cloud. With fresh snow on the ground, there is just enough light drifting in from some unimaginably distant source in the galaxy that I can make out the horizon to the south, and the rocky hilltops to the north and west.

Home again from nearly a week of treading water among all those steadily streaming ones and zeroes, I consider some ones and zeroes of my own, ones and zeroes that directly influence my Hoarfrost River life and times. To wit:

  • The temperature minus one-zero; there will be some ice thickening tonight on the lakes up top.
  • The one-zero minutes of daylight we lose every two or three days, for another two months.
  • The one moose I’d like to find in the three months before the season ends.
  • The zero moose I’ve seen so far.
  • The one-zero-zero fish we’ve hung for the dogs, before we pulled the net for the season.
  • The one-zero neighbors (ten!) we had within 10 miles of here, when we first came here to live, in 1987.
  • The one neighbor we had, within those same ten miles, last winter.
  • The zero neighbors we have now, as we go into this winter.
  • The zero understanding I have as to why this change has happened, and is happening, in remote places and rural areas around the world.

The one day that now lies ahead of me, with all its possibilities, and the zero other places in the world that I’d rather be at the start of this new day, awash in faint starlight, barefoot on these cold rough planks, with “No Service.”

 

On Sunday the 22nd of September I made a long flight in the Husky, first heading due north to Nose Lake and the headwaters of the Mara River, then east to the upper Ellice watershed, then southwest to cross the Back River, and finally southwest two hours back to home. About 650 miles altogether. It has become almost an annual ritual, this final flight on floats over the far reaches of the central Arctic mainland, and it is chartered by the wildlife department. The goal has to do with retrieving dropped (and still valuable when refurbished) radio-tracking collars that are hung nowadays by the hundreds on the necks of a random selection of hapless individual animals. The collars automatically drop off when the pre-programmed time and date are reached, and of course are left if and when one of the collared animals is killed by predators. There is an entire long saga to be written someday, detailing some of my comical and not-so-comical adventures retrieving these gadgets. Mud pits, boulder fields, snow slopes, malfunctioning receivers, stuck airplanes, and on and on.

Collar-retrieval misadventures and my own satellite-wildlife-tracking misgivings aside, it feels like a privilege to someone as enamored of The Big Empty as I am, to be sent out there on these flights and to be paid to make them, to choose the days for them and to come and go right from home. No passengers, no cargo, paid work… every pilot’s dream.

Autumn Equinox is pushing the season’s limits for this kind of work, up past treeline, on floats. It is late in the year, for decent flying weather and even for walking around and getting in and out of shorelines that will soon be coated with ice and snow. We have had a mild September this year, and the first dusting of snow is lying on the ground here as I prepare to send this out.

On a day in late September a flight up into that part of the world feels like a stealthy raid, sneaking past a row of signs marked “Closed For Season.” It was a Sunday when I flew that route, and Sundays are always a little quieter in terms of flying activity, but the other day every clue was reminding me that I was the only human moving around out there for hundreds of miles. This is exhilarating, in a way, to certain oddballs like myself, but nerve-wracking to a pilot because we always have in the back of our minds the real possibility that something mechanical could go wrong, or we could botch the job and wreck something, and then we might need assistance or rescue. The air-to-air radio on 126.7 was dead silent, and the only mineral exploration camp I flew over, at Goose Lake, was obviously mothballed and shut down. The canoers are long gone down those northern rivers. Snow was already hugging some of the slopes. As I got up toward Nose Lake a layer of low cloud forced me to fly at a hundred and fifty feet above the tundra, but by mid-afternoon near Beechey Lake I was hiking in shirtsleeves and bright sun, and the Arctic winter felt a long ways off.

Scooting along low to the ground, with the little engine chugging and the propeller augering its miniscule whirlwind in that enormous air, cruising at a hundred knots with a tailwind push, I look down, look out, sip coffee, munch Corn Nuts, study the GPS, and make random notes to myself. But mostly, minute after minute, hour after hour, I look down. Brown, black, gray, pale blue. The bright reds and yellows of autumn are gone. Dull brown and gray dominate, with patches of green lichen interspersed. Mile after mile of boulder fields, trickling water in tiny creeks, winding sand eskers. l do not know if I can come close to describing it all. Its austerity, its silence and emptiness. I love this country most, maybe, at this time of year, maybe because I love the feel of all that emptiness and silence, with a hard dark winter coming on. It is a thrill to see it. That is, I suppose, an odd statement. The thrill I feel as I fly over and walk across this bleak late-autumn tundra might explain why I spent so much of my summer in West Texas.

I have never actually been to West Texas, nor to any part of Texas. Over the past ten years I have probably read more pages of fiction and non-fiction set in and around Texas than about any other specific non-northern, non-Arctic part of the world. Along with the open ocean, the high Himalaya, and the Far North, frontier and rural Texas have been a top-choice destination for my armchair travels. Been musing lately about why this might be, and I have come up with a few motives.

Maybe we all like to have a fantasy-land, a part of the world where we have never been, where we know no one. Unencumbered by any grounding in real experiences, we can blithely imbue that far-off place or far-off life with characters and scenes and constructed realities that suit our imagination and our desires. The stuff of myth and legend. The places and peoples of the Far North exist only in this way for a great many people, and the Arctic has been layered and peopled with fantasy and romantic fallacy for centuries. Still is, and often to its detriment. West Texas for me, this past summer, was that place.

And maybe for some of us a place of extremes is always more appealing than a place of moderation. I am not a man much given to extremes, in my habits or my hobbies, or my tempers (usually), but I do have a predilection for places, weathers, terrain, and lifestyle that edge toward extremity, on the scale of these variables.

West Texas sounds extreme, in the prose of Cormac McCarthy (as does almost everything) and Elmer Keaton, and Larry McMurtry. McMurtry is the father of musician James McMurtry, and he set a long (and long-winded) novel there, Comanche Moon. I picked it up on a whim in a used-book shop just before a long train ride back in late June, and after nearly giving up on it a hundred pages in, I worked my way through it all summer. Sitting on float struts and on patches of rock and sand tundra, waiting, as bush pilots do, for the return of biologists and camera people and geologists. (Pilots are glorified taxi and bus drivers, after all. Same line of work, different machinery.)

I can’t say I will plough through the 700-some pages of Comanche Moon again, since life is short and books are many, but I did find some real nuggets in there, sentences and sentiments that made me appreciate McMurtry’s efforts. At times I would think “why am I reading this stuff?” and then I would think back to a letter from my friend and English prof, the poet Lee Merrill, years ago when he told me he was working his way through the westerns of Louis L’Amour. Lee said, “I’m enjoying reading at the seventh-grade level, some days.” One blurb on the cover of McMurtry’s magnum opus was from none other than the New York Times Book Review (so there!): “A sprawling, picaresque novel.” (Picaresque sent me to the dictionary, and now it may send you there too. A big heavy paper one, I hope, since it leads to so many other side-trails on the same page.) I often underscore things in books, as I read, and if after I finish a book I have underscored some passages in it, I know that my reading was time well spent.

I learned a lot about the Comanches this summer. Always up til now my fascination, when it comes to particular races and tribes, had centered on the Sioux, the Ojibwe, and the Inuit, at least in my reading. The Comanches were much too far south to interest me as I shaped my path in life. S.C. Gwynne’s history of the Comanches Empire of the Summer Moon details their origins (up in the Wind River range), their migration, their rise to fearsome power as mounted warriors, and their eventual demise. I thank the passing July boater (from Austin Texas) who took the time to mail me the book after he got home.

And I continue to return to Cormac McCarthy, although only in doses. One can only bear so much Cormac at a time. (I have often wondered whether he might have managed to write light-heartedly about, oh, say, his child’s 8th birthday party, for Pete’s sake…) The Sherriff’s italicized soliloquies in No Country for Old Men – only a few of these made it into the movie – are the soul of that book. His ponderings on his life and on the future of his dry, hardscrabble homeland are timely today, and timeless.

I don’t like hot weather. Don’t know much about horses. Can’t speak or read Spanish. I like water, rock, snow, sled dogs, old sailboats, caribou, and wild empty unpopulated scrawny Arctic and sub-arctic landscapes. Maybe what I find way down in Texas, through all the pages, just feeds layers of craving for an other-ness, a place far away and unfamiliar, where my imagination can just roam and roam, unfettered by personal experience or nuanced facts.

I think there might be one other important aspect to my infatuation. West Texas is harsh, vast, unforgiving, yes, but still it is actively and even vibrantly populated. It has had a human presence since long before the Comanches swept into it three hundred years ago on their newly-acquired horses, and it still has a human presence, and a human culture adapted to it. There are people moving around in its vastness, twelve months a year, year after year. I crave that year-round indigenous presence here – and please note that I use the small-i, non-racial original meaning of the word indigenous. Every year this country gets emptier. The country I flew over the other day is nearly as empty of humankind nowadays as Mars. I do not think this bodes well. It is a confounding mystery to me. But that is a topic for another time.

Here are a few snippets from my summer in Texas:

Larry McMurtry. Comanche Moon (Simon and Schuster)

“Thinking about the buffalo – how many there had once been; not a one remaining on the comancheria – Kicking Wolf grew so heavy with sadness that he could not speak. He had never thought that such abundance could pass, yet it had. He thought that it would have been better to have fallen in battle than to have lived to see such greatness pass and go.”

“Famous Shoes {Kickapoo tracker, a main character of the novel} had been wondering about the same thing. The journeys that people took had always interested him; his own life was a constant journeying, though not quite so constant as it had been before he had his wives and children. Usually he only agreed to scout for the Texans if they were going in a direction he wanted to go himself, in order to see a particular hill or stream, to visit a relative or a friend, or just to search for a bird or animal he wanted to observe… When he felt disturbances in his life, as all men would, Famous Shoes tried to go back to one of the simple places, the places of rock and sky, to steady himself and grow calm again.”

 

From Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men (Vintage International)

Bell watched him. The old man stubbed out his cigarette in the lid. Bell tried to think about his life. Then he tried not to. You aint turned infidel have you Uncle Ellis? No. No. Nothin like that. Do you think God knows what’s happenin? I expect he does. You think he can stop it? No. I dont. They sat quietly at the table. After a while the old man said: She mentioned there was a lot of old pictures and family stuff. What to do about that. Well. There aint nothin to do about it I dont reckon. Is there? No. I dont reckon there is. I told her to send Uncle Mac’s old cinco peso badge and his thumb-buster to the Rangers. I believe they got a museum. But I didnt know what to tell her. There’s all that stuff here. In the chifforobe in yonder. That rolltop desk is full of papers. He tilted the cup and looked into the bottom of it. He never rode with Coffee Jack. Uncle Mac. That’s all bull. I dont know who started that. He was shot down on his own porch in Hudspeth County. That’s what I always heard. They was seven or eight of em come to the house. Wantin this and wantin that. He went back in the house and come out with a shotgun but they was way ahead of him and they shot him down in his own doorway. She run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Tried to get him back in the house. Said he kept tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses. Finally left. I dont know why. Somethin scared em, I reckon. One of em said somethin in injun and they all turned and left out. They never come in the house or nothin. She got him inside but he was a big man and they was no way she could of got him up in the bed. She fixed a pallet on the floor. Wasnt nothin to be done. She always said she should of just left him there and rode for help but I dont know where it was she would of rode to. He wouldnt of let her go noway. Wouldnt hardly let her go in the kitchen. He knew what the score was if she didnt. He was shot through the right lung. And that was that. As they say. When did he die? Eighteen and seventy-nine. No, I mean was it right away or in the night or when was it. I believe it was that night. Or early of the mornin. She buried him herself. Diggin in that hard caliche. Then she just packed the wagon and hitched the horses and pulled out of there and she never did go back. That house burned down sometime back in the twenties. What hadnt fell down. I could take you to it today. The rock chimney used to be standin and it may be yet. There was a good bit of land proved up on. Eight or ten sections if I remember. She couldnt pay the taxes on it, little as they was. Couldnt sell it. Did you remember her? No. I seen a photograph of me and her when I was about four. She’s settin in a rocker on the porch of this house and I’m standin alongside of her. I wish I could say I remember her but I dont. She never did remarry. Later years she was a school-teacher. San Angelo. This country was hard on people. But they never seemed to hold it to account. In a way that seems peculiar. That they didnt. You think about what all has happened to just this one family. I dont know what I’m doin here still knockin around. All them young people. We dont know where half of em is even buried at. You got to ask what was the good in all that. So I go back to that. How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothin, but that dont mean much. I seen a man shoot his pickup truck with a shotgun one time. He must of thought it done somethin. This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?

From S.C. Gwynne. Empire of the Summer Moon (Scribner)

“On grassy plains and timbered river bottoms from Kansas to Texas, Nautdah had drifted in the mystical cycles of the seasons, living in that random, terrifying, bloody, and intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one. And then, suddenly, all of it disappeared. Instead of Stone Age camps aswirl in magic and taboo and scented smoke from mesquite lodge fires, she found herself sitting on taffeta chairs in drawing rooms on the outer margins of the Industrial Revolution, being interrogated by polite uncomprehending white men who believed in a single God and in a supremely rational universe where everything could be explained.”

“No other tribe, except possibly the Kiowas, so completely lived on horseback. Children were given their own horses at four or five. Soon the boys were expected to learn tricks, which included picking up objects on the ground at a gallop. The young rider would start with light objects and move to progressively heavier objects until finally, without assistance and at a full gallop, he could pick up a man. Rescuing a fallen comrade was seen as one of the most basic obligations of a Comanche warrior… Women could often ride as well as men. One observer watched two Comanche women set out at full speed with lassoes and each rope a bounding antelope on the first throw.”