Hot Frogs in the Hinterlands

In a dream I met an older version of myself. A figure in the distance, alone on a small rise.  At first I thought it was my father, or my Alabama friend Augustus. But as I walked up  I realized it was me. Tall but a little bent, bald on top and all gray at the sides; glasses. He smiled when he saw me. “Ready to stop trying so hard?”  Yes, I nodded, I am. Good, he said.  He led me down a path through young birches, to a clearing and a chair.  “Come sit.”

Overcast with some snow in the air this morning, minus eight with the trademark northeast breeze flowing down off the barrens. April has been cold and windy here with only one day of real melting, on the 18th.  The inland trails are still in decent shape for sledding and hauling.  Spring is biding its time this year.

I have been thinking about frogs and hot water lately, and the hinterlands of Canada. One of those wonderful old words, hinterland – “From German, hinter, back + land, land; an area far from big cities or towns; back country.” The other day at lunch the three of us – Kristen, Liv and I – were speculating and scheming about the summer ahead, and about supplies and barges.  Avgas in drums, lumber and groceries, bags of cement for new house footings, heavy pails of acrylic chinking slurry, four tons of kibble and rice for the dogs, six cylinders of propane and so on. And vessels to move it — barges and push-boats: waterline length, displacement, hull speed, horsepower. Freight men and barge companies:  Captain Happy, Sean Buckley, Snow King, Mike Whittaker, the Rowe brothers, NTCL. All with an eye to moving some freight while the lake is open, and to another winter, and to re-building, and to more changes afoot and more changes ahead.

As we sat and talked I grew weary.  I remembered my recent dream.  There was no clear path ahead, at least that I could see. Certainly no pleasant path through autumn birches, leading to a sunny clearing and a chair.

It is a hazard of growing older, and of sticking to one place on the planet for decades, that one begins to spend as much time looking back as forward – or so it seems some days.  Such mental strolling back through time is hazardous, because the mood of the journey can change from reflective and inspiring to whiny and resentful, and the trail is bordered by the crevasses of self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement. No joy and no enlightenment in any of those wallow pits.

My 1994 book North of Reliance, a collection of essays and narratives set in our first years here at the Hoarfrost River, is to come back into print later this year. This second edition is thanks to Raven Productions down in the Minnesota / Ontario border country, where I lived for most of my twenties.  In preparation for a new edition I have been re-reading the book, correcting some of my grammar and fixing small passages that never read very smoothly, while at the same time resisting a strong impulse to edit its tone and alter some of its conclusions. Looking at those chapters again has brought me back in time, and has led me to this metaphor of warming frogs.

I first stood in the narrows at Reliance, first set foot on the ice of McLeod Bay proper, 35 years ago on this date.  April 26, 1981. I was 23. Two of us, Kurt Mitchell and I, along with ten dogs, had just finished a six-week journey, starting from Yellowknife, east four hundred miles or so to Hornby Point on the Thelon River, and back to Reliance.  But that is another story.

Now I am thinking back to that April day. I walked a half mile across the ice from the weather station to the locked-up summer cabin of Roger and Theresa (who in those years, with their two young children, still wintered out at their cabin on the upper Thelon), and continued west from there to stand alongside the narrow strait at the south tip of the Fairchild Peninsula. I remember the wind. It was a westerly that day, and cold.  l remember thinking, “ Wow, it’s still winter up here in late April.” Sentinel Point rose blue-black out in the far distance, and ten miles to the north of where I stood a small river called the Hoarfrost flowed into the bay.  Little did I know…

What strikes me today on this date is how “the country” felt to me that day, a third of a century ago.  “The country” being a vast place, but a somewhat defined place at least to its inhabitants, a smattering of personal fiefdoms and interwoven lives all centered on that little outpost called Reliance.  Call it the Greater Reliance Area.  I’m trying to recall how the place was and how it felt to me then, and how, subtly and steadily over the years, both the place and the feeling of being immersed and at home in it have changed.  This is where the frog comes in.  I have often heard that if you put a frog in a bath of pleasantly tepid water, and then gradually heat the water, the frog will not sense the rising temperature in time to hop out to safety.  Hot frog, hotter frog, boiled frog.

Those who have read my writing elsewhere have run across this quoted phrase before, but I will trot it out again:  “The land lives in its people.”  That was the late John Haines – Alaska woodsman and trapper, acclaimed poet and essayist.  I met John a few times and enjoyed a fleeting correspondence with him. In 1994, coming home from racing, Kristen and I stopped in at his homestead southeast of Fairbanks for a morning visit.  Haines was a serious and deep thinker, who did not think much of sled-dog racing and who would not think much of my flippant title today, but who just might crack an understanding smile at what I am trying to say, having lived a parallel experience along the upper Tanana.

What I realize is that by Haines’ measure the land hereabouts, our hinterland, was much more alive back then than it is now.  In fact by that measure, all of Canada’s back country was more alive 35 years ago than it is today – maybe, but be careful, because that broader statement is not entirely clear of confusion.  I gather from some queries to Mr. Google that in 1981 Canada had a population of about 24.3 million people. 24% of those lived in rural areas, defined as “outside centres with a population of 1,000 AND outside areas with 400 persons per square kilometer.”  (Note here that by this definition, if you live in a village of, say,  350 people, but you rarely if ever go out on the land or turn off the televsion, you are still a “rural person” in the view of Statistics Canada.  So one must tread carefully, as always, in the realm of statistics.)

5.8 million country people in 1981, 24% of 24.3 million.  (The planet in 1981 had about four and a half billion human souls on board.)  We have another accurate five-year National Census coming up in May, but a good estimate puts the total Canadian populace today at just under 36 million. That population is now less rural by percentage, down to 18% by the same definition given above, but in total “rural people” that is nearly six and a half million. And in those 35 years the world’s human population has grown by another three billion.  I didn’t ace my university Statistics class back at Missoula, but these numbers do tell a story that is worth pondering. Any way you cut it, the rural people as a species in Canada are steadily being outnumbered by the city people.  Canada, like the world at large, is becoming predominantly urban.

Here around the far east end of Great Slave Lake, and roaming out onto the barrens nearby, a reasonable population estimate of “the neighborhood,” circa 1981, would seem to be about 20-25.  There were trappers both native and non-native, active hunters on the move, and at least four or five distinct households spread thinly across those miles. Central to this human presence, albeit in an odd way, at Reliance proper there was the Weather Station, with three full-time meteorologists employed 24 /7, year-round, to collect and transmit hourly weather reports.  The reports went out by single-sideband radio, and were re-broadcast on the territorial CBC radio.  The visibility and wind conditions at Reliance were eagerly checked by the pilots who flew east from Yellowknife supplying and servicing various camps, projects, and outposts.  They flew bushplanes on floats and skis, year-round — Cessnas, Otters, Beavers, Twin Otters — and also helicopters.  The weather station and its staff, like the crew at a seasonal mining camp or fishing lodge, do not embody the kind of people that give the land its life in the way Haines meant. But those meteorologists, and all those planes and pilots dropping in on residents to re-fuel or bring mail or have coffee, and the station itself with its tall red-lighted NDB tower (now obsolete in the era of GPS), were certainly a part of the ambience I recall as I think back to standing on the ice in the narrows.

The weather station staff was a fluid entity, with individuals rarely posted to Reliance for more than a few years.  Some are still elsewhere in the North doing other work.  Most are not. The most well-known of them, Claire Martin Morehen, became for years the television “weather personality” on the evening CBC National news, and she would sometimes sneak a passing reference to Reliance into her monologue.  Claire thus ranks as the most nationally famous former denizen of Greater Reliance, with John Hornby a hungry but distant second. Helge Ingstad (Pelsjegerliv Blandt Nord-Kanadas Indianere, 1931, and its English version The Land of Feast and Famine, 1933) would undoubtedly take the honors if the vote was taken today in Norway.  Ingstad trapped and travelled hereabouts in the late 1920’s, and is now nothing short of a national icon over there.

Because “The Station” was there at Reliance, the barge came every summer from Hay River — the massive 5,000 horsepower NTCL barge with its trucks, loaders, bulk fuel and SeaCans stacked on board, its captain and first mate, cook and deckhands. Up top were the office people in lawn chairs and suntan oil who would sign on to the East Arm freight run as the most enticing plum voyage of all the various routes served by the company.  Every summer the barge came.  Groceries, fuel, skidoos, dog kibble, lumber, you name it.  If one managed to get something of any shape, size, or description delivered to the NTCL Terminal before the cut-off date, it would be on the barge.

Every autumn and every winter, with many variations on the theme, the caribou came, and along with them the wolves, the wolverines, the hunters and the trappers.  There was life, there was movement, there was give and take.  People stopped by other people’s camps and cabins, unannounced, for tea or repair parts, or a warm place to throw down a bedroll. There were even feuds — surely, that is some dubious measure of how populated a country is – “are there enough people out there that some of them have decided not to get along?”  Maybe Statistics Canada could probe that line of questioning on their next long form.

And now, these past two winters, there are six of us. Roger, Libby, and Gus at Reliance; Dave and Kristen and Liv at the Hoarfrost.  Six, down from twenty or twenty five (and yes, we are all getting along just fine.)  In those 35 years twelve million more people in Canada, and an additional three billion people in the world.

These years there are no trappers out at distant cabins, no prospecting or drill camps off to the east or northeast, and this year no one is coming out hunting from Lutsel K’e because no caribou have come.  The big NTCL barge ceased service east of Taltheilei Narrows after 2004, when they pushed and broke ice down McLeod Bay for 50 miles on the night of July 15, in the latest spring breakup on record. The weather station was shut down completely by 1994, replaced by an automated box that sends out coded weather information (hard to access and of dubious accuracy) via satellite. The Reliance weather doesn’t come up on the morning CBC, except on weekends when there is less rush for air time — and honestly, why should it? The dilapidated buildings of the station itself are falling down and being carted away as a Federal cleanup project, and the landing of a plane or helicopter is an event to be remarked upon.

Bush planes, you ask?  (This being, after all, the bushedpilot blog.) Two based here, one of those out for overhaul right now, still filling our oddball niche in the mom-and-pop charter business, yes, but these days in Yellowknife (a city of 20,000, up from 9,400 in 1981) there are no single-engine ski planes licensed for charter.  Say that again: There is not one single-engine bush plane for hire in a city of 20,000 people, for eight months of the year.

I sometimes smile.   It’s the water, I chuckle to myself, and it’s heating up.  I am imagining The Big Fella, or a quirky boreal version of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, with a labcoat and a vat and a frog:  “Let’s see what happens if we take away the weather station. OK now stop the barge; now stop the other barge.  Now the caribou.  All right let’s just torch the forest for 30 miles right down to the shoreline.  Hell, burn down the house while we’re at it.  Now build up those dams in B.C. and siphon off more water at the tarsands in Fort Mac, and drop the lake level by three feet. What? They’re still there?  Was that a kick I just saw from those froggy legs?”

Yup.  That was a kick. “Hot frogs in the hinterlands.”  (I’m working out the chords, don’t worry.) Stubborn, and still in love with this place.  Some mornings I find myself half-assed enthused at the prospect of building yet another log house, milling some big burnt timbers, and putting in all those days of honest sweat as I finish out my fifties. But believe me, sometimes we really do wonder.  I imagine there are plenty of other rural frogs, spread right across this second largest country in the world (Russia being the largest), all in that dwindling hinterland percentage of a city-fied and city-fying world, all sitting around the lunch table asking their own variations of the same questions. The gist of which is:  “Where did everybody go? And is it just me, or does it get harder every year to put the pieces of this logistical puzzle together?”

Thank you, if you have stuck with me this far.  I know these blog posts should ideally be shorter.  Let me close this ramble with a passage from the opening chapter of one of my all-time favorite books, Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, by Paul St. Pierre,a deceptively simple story set in the Chilcotin country of central British Columbia:

“Smith had come into the Namko Country to build a ranch on the four-thousand-foot contour of the fifty-third parallel of north latitude.  One might say that he and men like him should have more sense. One might be right.  Indeed, in the current view of government and industry, such country is better left unsettled until such time as a large corporation is prepared to establish instant towns therein, complete with pre-sliced bread and dripless candles. Nevertheless Smith went there and tried to build up a ranch.”


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