Dispatch from Hoarfrost River — June 28, 2015

I think that one function of a shared journal like this blog, and in fact a corollary but still constructive benefit of recording the daily life at any remote outpost, is to note and pass along the observations and the musings that come our way – way out there.   There being here, for us, and here being the northeast coast of this enormous lake, fifth largest on the continent.  Perhaps a cop-out for a writer, to simply post a rambling morning dispatch and oblige others to peruse it, if only by default, and expect that some of them will find it interesting, but given such a unique geographical perspective I will do so, for that is the gist of what I am inspired to do today.   Take it or leave it, friends. There’s no real theme coming in the paragraphs below.   You might want to go for a walk instead…  But here’s how it is here, a week past Summer Solstice, on McLeod Bay at 62° 51’ North, 109° 16’ West:

Front deck of workshop.   Birdsong. Cool air with just a hint of an easterly breeze. Today there are nearly enough mosquitoes, but not quite enough, to force me and my morning coffee off the deck and back into the workshop. (We as a family still stubbornly insist on calling it “the workshop,” although in reality it has been “the house” for almost precisely a year now, and I do hear that usage creeping in.)

This morning the smoke is thick here, and visibility is down to a mile or two, but the smoke’s precise origin is not threatening or obvious. There are dozens of wildfires burning many miles to the south and southwest of here, between Hay River and Fort Smith, west into the Fort Simpson and Mackenzie region. I just traversed some of that area two days ago, flying northeast out of Fort Nelson (all these “Forts” in Canada and the West — what are we still so stockaded against?) after bolting floats onto the Husky for the open-water season, and enduring what we hope is the finale of a long and frustrating and expensive saga with its exhaust system (don’t get him started…)   In cruise I sat up there for over three hours in that favorite perch of mine, happy and cool and alone at 9500 feet, OAT about -1° Celsius, while below me lumbering tankers, bumblebee helicopters, and nimble “bird dog” turbines buzzed around the smokes and scurried back and forth to Hay River and High Level for top-ups on fuel and retardant. I listened through my headset to their busy radio chatter.

South from there hundreds more fires are burning across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Yukon and Alaska, and on down into the Excited States, from what I gather. ‘Tis the season, again this year. I do not have a clear grasp of the scope of the boreal and montane fire belt this season, for I have completely stopped looking at the public-information fire maps on the internet.   In fact I have not looked at an online fire map since sometime early last July, and I am not sure I will ever seek out and flash up that particular web page again. Even the thought of doing so raises my blood pressure, and pumps to the surface an unpleasant bile of anger and frustration. A relic left over from staring at them — and talking to officials who last year (and I suspect still this morning) placed far, far too much faith in their moment-to-moment accuracy.   As ensuing events and a winter of tense de-briefs have now made plain. As with everything in print or on a screen, lest we ever forget, it has to be taken with an ample scoop of reader and viewer beware. It’s a portrayal of the world, not a world of real time — whatever the hell that means — and it is spun by so many vagaries and layers of technicality, timing, and blatant prejudice, intentional or no, that what emerges is always and forever suspect… to put it mildly.

(Eyes back to the almighty screen now, everyone. We’ll brook no more of that pontificating bullshit or blowhard subjectivity here, I assure you…)

The first anniversary of “our fire” – the fire that took out our home – is approaching, and these days our thoughts and conversations circle back to the clear progression of events which led up to it last year. Hindsight is always so darned clear, isn’t it?  We do not intend to have the rest of our lives here defined by that fire, but as the calendar swings round a year we do quite naturally hark back to it all.   My father was always a great one for the dinnertime conversational gambit of “Last year at this time we were…” or “Next week at this time we’ll be…“ so I do come by this habit honestly. But that recognition of anniversary will be, on this calm morning, my final nod to that topic, and to our changed blackened home valley. Onward through the smoke.

The smoke, its presence or absence or thickness day to day, is just an interesting fact here now, like rainfall or wind direction. We have joined a handful of boreal bush dwellers with virtually no concern at all about the threat of wildfire, now that we are encircled by a 10-mile “blackline” in three directions and a 2000-foot-deep liquid blue line to the south.  Last night just before midnight the thunder crashed and the lightning was so bright that Annika claimed she saw the flash through closed eyes. The house (sorry, the workshop) shook. A strike to the north, but as the rain pelted down I did no more than climb out of bed and have a sleepy casual glance out the north door. Good luck starting a fire out there, I thought…

Or maybe that blue-line to the south is only 1,999 feet deep.   Out on the calm lake, whose horizon melds seamlessly into the gray-tan smoke, two rocks jut up from the glassy water just east of our Windmill Island. That island has not truly been an island for at least 10 years now, although I can remember when the channel between it and the shore was deep enough to float a passing canoe or even to row the skiff across with the motor tipped up. That was the early nineties, give or take. Those two rocks, along with a couple of others and a big field of stones and sand down near the river mouth, are benchmarks of the lake level. They still catch my eye whenever I see them, because for 28 years they were not visible and today they jut nearly a foot out of the water. Those rocks plainly say “in your brief decades here the lake has never been so low.” The volume of water represented by a one foot drop in the level of a lake this large is nothing shy of staggering. It reiterates the fact that something close to 70 percent of Great Slave’s inflow comes from the Peace and Athabasca, which join at Fort Chipewyan and are re-named the Slave (not for any slaves,  but after the Slavey bands and language-speakers of that region), and which are fed by the snows of the Rockies and the watersheds of northern Alberta and B.C.

Low water, smoke, the sun a copper disk through what look to be clear skies high above. I will climb up there later today. An elderly woman, a lifelong adventurer from Germany and Calgary, is on our flying schedule today, to be met in Lutsel K’e and dropped off with her gear about 200 miles northeast on the tundra, for a two-week solo sojourn on the lower Hanbury.

Two nights ago a pair of women, canoeing, both from Smithers British Columbia and both of them mothers of adult children grown and fledged, marked our first drop-ins of drop-in season. They intend to be out for no less than 10 more weeks, final destination the Arctic Ocean via the Hood River or the Coppermine. (Still deciding which, and no rush to do so just yet.) Starting point Yellowknife. Inspiring, pleasant people, as almost all self-propelled passers-by here have been over the years. Last night Kristen came with me and we flew in the Husky to drop off a re-supply cache of their food and supplies up on the far side of Pike’s Portage.    

Family stirring, work to do. Even more mosquitoes now. Ferocious bloodthirsty youngsters, just hatched, and it’ll be “Sally-bar-the-door” (I have always loved that expression – Kentucky? Daniel Boone?) for a month or so now.

A rambling missive from the quiet shoreline of McLeod Bay. Best I can do this June morning.   Happy Solstice all.

Henry David Thoreau, from Visitors, Chapter 6 of Walden:

                “I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not… young men who had ceased to be young and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions, — all these generally said that it was not possible to do so much good in my position. Ay! There was the rub. The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger, — what danger is there if you don’t think of any? – and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment’s warning. To them the village was literally a com-munity, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.”

 

 

 

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