Taking Out the Garbage, every 25 years

This little riff is about Garbage.  And clutter, or “stuff.” And Life beyond the Landfills.  And perplexity, bordering on pessimism.

In late July we will mark the 25th anniversary of my permanent arrival at the Hoarfrost River.  On the evening of July 27th, 1987, the steel-hulled freighter Hearne Channel rounded the headland to the west and dropped anchor offshore.  Aboard were my father Jim, myself, the boats’s owner and captain Dave Smith, 19 huskies, and a mixed load of freight including 5000 pounds of Glencoe Husky dogfood, about 20 sheets of plywood and some framing lumber, a 16 foot Lund skiff and a 17 foot Seliga canoe, 14 steel drums of fuel including one of kerosene and one of white gas (“Coleman fuel”), about 1800 pounds of dry, canned, and basic groceries; at least two tons of my tools, books, and clothing; four  dogsleds and a big crate of dogsledding gear; skis, tents, snowshoes, rifles, fishnets, ice chisels, and so on.  There were airplane tires and skis, for the 1946 Piper Cub which was already over in Reliance on floats.  As if that was not enough, we were towing two boats behind the freighter – a 26-foot fiberglass replica of a fur-trade North canoe, and a refurbished 17-foot Thompson runabout built of lapstrake mahogany plywood.  Also with us that night were a father-and-son pair of canoers headed east, Pat Leonard and his son Marcus, along with their canoe and their supplies for a trip down the Thelon River.  We had picked them up along the way and given them a lift.  (Pat didn’t like dogs, at all, as it turned out, which was unfortunate for him given our situation on board.)

It was, as Dave had wryly remarked as we had finished our loading back at the dock in Yellowknife about 28 hours previous, “a July load.”  By that remark I gathered he meant that it was so far over the 20,000 pounds he had quoted me as a load that he was glad it was July – typically the calmest of  the four months of ice-free water here.  The scuppers of the boat were maybe five inches from the waterline.  Luckily, we had – as Dave had hoped – nothing but mill-pond glassy water for 210 miles, from Yellowknife Bay right to the beach of the Hoarfrost River.

It was early evening, hot, calm and buggy on shore.  We ferried the dogs ashore and tied them out on a picket line.  After a day or so I ended up just  turning the dogs loose for a few days, until we got our first simple dogyard set up with posts and chains and makeshift A-frame plywood houses. (Watching how they spent those days, absolutely free to do whatever they wished and roam wherever they wanted, has always been a salve to my conscience when I keep dogs in their yard all summer, because they chose to do virtually no roaming, in the hot July and August sun, but found some sand and sprawled in it for 23 and a half hours a day – which is exactly what they do in the dog yard in summer.)  The dogs set ashore, we opened a bottle of whiskey that had belonged to my grandfather, and which we had saved for the occasion.

Wonderful memories, exciting days, our life here still a complete mystery to us back then…

My point here this morning, though, is still coming.  I arrived with a lot of stuff, yes, 25 years ago, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to the sheer volume, variety, and sprawl of… depending on our mood – stuff, crap,shit, froo-froo, garbage, clutter – that festoons our little acre of paradise now, 25 years later.

This is one of the unexpected lessons which our life here has brought to us.  We – Kristen and I – both grew up in little towns in the Midwest, where a household’s refuse and trash could be placed out by the street on the proper day of the week, and – poof – it would simply disappear.  We knew where it went, because on days when we had too big a load for the Garbage Men, my Dad and I could load up the trunk of the Pontiac, or even a wooden trailer to be towed behind it, and go directly out to the city dump.  There we could back right up to the nearest smoldering, stinking pile, and heave the leaves or woodscraps or broken dishes or, well, absolutely anything out – and drive away, consciences clean, problem solved.

Now, here, for 25 years, it has been different.  This summer is going to go down in memory as the Great Muckout, or the Quarter Century Cleanup, as we wade through the piles and layers of accumulated Stuff, in our various sheds and shops.  It has come to the point where in some of our buildings a person can hardly walk, much less have any hope of actually finding anything.  So it is high time for a Cull.  Some of the junk will be burnt, some will be shifted out to our own little version of a landfill or midden heap, some will just be stacked and organized more neatly, (probably just a reprieve from eventual incineration) and some of it will be shipped off to Yellowknife, fittingly enough, on the same Hearne Channel under the same Captain Dave, when he arrives next week with our annual load of airplane fuel and propane cylinders.  Once it goes back to Yellowknife, a kind friend has even offered to take charge of whatever “clutter” we decide to send west – books, children’s shoes, tin cans and glass bottles for the recycler.

But far outweighing any still-useful tidbits, there are mountains of Crap that at this point are just plain “landfill fodder,” and that is the truly perplexing, disheartening or enlightening part of this process..  I have, for instance, the accumulated headlamp parts and pieces from 15 years of long-distance dog racing.  That, in case you can’t imagine, is a lot of headlamp Stuff, and almost every bit of it is now obsolete and useless.  The headlamps themselves are all fitted for incandescent bulbs, which suck the life out of a battery about 20 times faster than the new LED’s.  A lot of the wiring and battery cases have a heavy component of molded plastic, which really should not be burnt (as my daughters remind me), and there are many “garbage conundrums” like dead lithium, nickel cadmium, and alkaline batteries.  There are plenty more utterly useless relics, like the old rechargeable screwdriver my sister gave me once at Christmas.  It is, like the headlamp stuff, now obsolete, useless, made of metal and molded plastic and filled with some sort of rechargeable battery and wiring.

And on it goes.  There is no curb to set this junk out to.  It will not go away easily, or mindlessly, and there is a BIG pile of it.  A quarter century of it, 200 miles from the nearest landfill, and no road from here to there.  Hmmm.

40 years ago, when I was a Boy Scout at Canyon Camp, one of the long-haired and hip Nature Merit Badge instructors (it was the early 70’s) gave us his lunchtime lecture on The Four Laws of Nature.  These were coined by Dr. Barry Commoner, a Founding Father of the North American environmental movement.  (Note — Commoner just died, age 95, in September 2012.)

I still remember them:

1)   Everything is connected to everything else.

2)   Everything must go someplace.

3)   There is no such thing as a free lunch.

4)   Nature knows best.

And now I stand knee-deep in the back shop, holding in one hand a broken plastic ladle and in the other a trapezoidal sun-cracked chunk of three-quarter inch polyethylene, once the source of sled brushbows and now the epitome of modern-day garbage.

It is a rainy gray day.  I am not sure if I should burn these things, bury them, or just stack them neatly off to one side where maybe one of my descendants can make that decision for me.  What I know for certain is that this is not the last of it, and that on this planet of 7 billion, I am not the only one wondering what to do with all this Stuff.

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