July 4 2017, Hoarfrost River
Three years ago this morning Kristen started the day alone, here at our place. I was away at a camp on the tundra, flying for a graduate student who was doing research on wolves. Our daughters Annika and Liv were on the distant North Arm of Great Slave Lake, west of Yellowknife, on a canoeing trip with a group of friends.
July 4, 2014 began smoky here, as all days had been for several weeks already, what with a big hot wildfire less than ten miles to the east and northeast of our home. Smoke was the theme of that early summer, and the presence of that big windblown wandering fire was a constant presence in everyone’s day-to-day lives at this end of the lake. The ice had completely cleared from McLeod Bay on about the first of July, and although the weather had been remarkably cool for June, it had also been remarkably dry.
By the time Kristen had written down the weather and poured herself a cup of coffee a northeast wind was up, and quickly building to the gale force that would change that fire and that day and our lives. By lunchtime she was a harried and exhausted woman, pumping water, driving the loader, dumping sand, hauling propane bottles, making phone call after phone call, unable to sit still and unable to calm down. The smoke was thick and the winds were stronger than ever, blowing directly down-slope from the northeast. Precisely from the direction where together we had last studied the edge of the fire, as we circled above it in the Husky, eight miles to the northeast, just three nights before. By three p.m. she could see flames in the forest just north of the house, and something “let go” inside of her, as she later said. She somehow pushed the boat out into the crashing waves of the lake, turned all the dogs loose, and changed her strategy, wisely, from fight to flight.
And the rest, as they say, is history. A tiny piece of history, yes, and inconsequential compared to the losses at Fort McMurray last year or in other well-known wildfire events across the years. There have been many days like that day, in The North and the West, for this landscape has always burned; it will always burn.
By the close of that long day, as July 4 became July 5, I was here with Kristen, and with helicopter pilot Sage Suzuki, and three firefighters, John and Eric and Patrick, all based in Yellowknife. Our four neighbors from Reliance, the first people who came to help, had gone home tired and sad and hungry, having done what they could. We were trying to rustle up some supper, the exhausted crew was preparing to find their bedrolls, the smoke was so thick that flying was out of the question, and of course the house and guest cabin were gone. In a poignant moment that still brings a wry smile to my face, I wandered up toward the smoldering ruins of the house and found a young firefighter there roasting a frankfurter over the coals. He turned to me sheepishly, and I told him “Go ahead, man, enjoy your dinner. We might as well get one more use out of the place. You got any more of those wieners?”
Three years on, marking the day, I sip my morning coffee on the wide workshop deck. The workshop which has been home for us for three winters, and likely will be for two more winters yet, before it can at last revert to its role as a workshop. Thinking. This morning the ground here is moist and soft, after rains late yesterday and some good drenching rainfalls the day before last. Yesterday, up at the old house site, Kristen and Annika and Liv, along with three young friends, set to work in earnest after all these years: clearing rubble, knocking down old concrete footings, carting away burned, rusted, twisted hunks of metal: freezer, woodstove, kitchen range, coiled bedsprings…
I stayed away, puttering on the details of a system for watering the potato patch with solar panel and a twelve-volt pump, the hardware for which just arrived by mail the other day.
It is not my intent this morning to craft a piece of literature, but just to send a dispatch three years on. We move forward. Five main points come to my mind again and again, as the years tick past.
- We will not be defined by this event. It happened, and it was big, but it does not define us. We move on. Life moves on. As Gary Snyder wrote to me succinctly after the fire, when I pressed him for some snippet of wisdom: “ Wisdom? We all know that all is impermanent. It’s how we handle it when it happens that counts. And what we learn from it.”
- In the aftermath, we do not curry a mood of vindictiveness and anger. Life is too short to wallow in anger and negativity. We asked questions, in the aftermath, and we got some answers – some satisfying, some not so. At this point that process of “de-brief” is done. Onward.
- The land is healing, but it will look burnt for the rest of my life, even if I live to a preposterous old age. It is scarred, but its scar is a perfectly natural scar. Fire and the recovery from fire, again and again, are all a part of how this landscape cycles itself from century to century. Were it not for the loss of the house and the guest cabin, and all those structures meant for and held for us, the fire would be only a magnificent first-hand lesson in ecology.
- We are beginning to rebuild what was lost. The structures will be new, and fresh, and different, but still small and simple and made mostly from materials that are here. The new guest cabin sits now just above where the old one stood, and it has already held its first groups of students, guests, tourists, and passing pilots. There are plans afoot for the house, and I pore over them with pencil and ruler. Re-bar and cement and forms for the pouring of a foundation are being assembled for the first barge of the summer.
- We are changed. A loaded statement, and not to be plumbed at all here this morning, except perhaps to say that our life moves now to a slightly different rhythm here. See Stafford’s final lines below.
And finally, this poem from William Stafford, which I have quoted so often over the years, because it says so much to me and about our life here at the Hoarfrost River. Read it. Really, just skip to it, right past everything I have said above. Because three years on, all we need to say is here in Stafford’s lines:
It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.
Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked —
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders: — we
encounter them in dread and wonder,
But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.
Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.