The final ten days of January and the first few days of February contain the essence of deepest winter. By that I mean the days are still short enough that the sun cannot raise the temperature much, before it sets and evening cooling comes on again. As a general weather statement (yes, I know, those are always risky), if there is to be any truly deep cold – cold that sets records and disrupts day-to-day life, even in the bush – it will usually come at this time of the winter, about a month past Solstice, just as in summertime any record-breaking heat – if there is to be some – will generally be at the tail end of July or the first days of August. The earth is an enormous lump to warm or cool, and it lags slightly behind the seasonal arcs of the sun.
This year we had some “normal” cold for a while, not record-setting, down to -41 or -43, depending upon which of our several thermometers we choose to believe. Then a break, with overnight lows of -25, -19, -30… Now maybe we will see some more cold; hard to say. Nowadays, our work and activities vary more than they used to with these waves of colder and milder winter temperatures. (Maybe we are getting – gasp – wiser? I dunno. Pretty far-fetched claim.) In the entire year’s round of seasons and weathers, it is only the periods of deepest cold and most extreme heat that can alter a day’s round of outdoor activities here.
And thankfully, to force us outside no matter what the air and sky are up to (or down to), there are the chores. Most prominently the dogs – all 32 of them – along with woodpile and water pails and slop buckets and so on, to guarantee that each and every day, at morning and evening, someone here will be out doing chores. That will happen no matter what the weather is. Like a dairy farmer with a barn full of cows to milk every morning at five a.m., we have had our “dog chores” to mark the start and end of every one of our days (though not with the urgency of a distended udder) for so long now that I sometimes seriously wonder what we might have done differently with all those thousands of hours of living. And then I go out to the dog yard to water or feed, or to light up the cooker, or scoop dog poop, and decide, ever and again, “Nope. This is fine. All good.” Sled dogs, always and forever. (Bumper sticker seen in Fairbanks, years ago: “When sled dogs are outlawed, only outlaws will have sled dogs.”)
But this is, for me, the winter of logs, not dogs. Cabin logs, for the house that will rise on the site of the old one that burned. The winter of logs began in November, on the afternoon of the sixth to be precise, when I towed the red wooden cross-chain bobsled down the shoreline trail to the east and turned up into the woods. Chainsaw and hardhat in the rack behind the seat of the skidoo. Circled a burned standing spruce, to break a trail, then started the saw, stepped to the tree, cut and felled and limbed it, and began to dice it up. Measuring tape, stub of red lumber crayon. A nine-two, an eight-one, a twelve-foot stringer, and a thinner length of tip leftover for firewood. That is: two wall logs, each 112 inches long (as all 185 wall logs will be), one of them nine and a half inches in diameter at the small end, the other eight and a quarter. Beautiful wood, now three and half years since the fire killed it. The black bark peels off in foot-wide slabs with just a flick of a mittened hand, revealing pale golden smoothness beneath, dotted with charred knots. This is going to be one strikingly beautiful building.
I realize again on these rhythmic winter days, cutting and hauling logs, running teams of dogs, doing chores, watching the weather, that I am always most happy when there is a clear task and goal at hand. I love the focus that a task brings, and I cherish the way intense concentration cancels mental clutter and chatter.
It can be elusive, but it does come, that focus…
… when the tip of the chainsaw begins the back cut, with the felling notch already made, and now, at any split second, the entire tree will begin to tilt and tip, and I will yank the saw-bar free and step quickly back. My old chainsaw guru (and lifelong friend) Mitch told me 40 years ago: “Ole, just keep your eye on the saw and the notch. Everything you need to know in the world at that moment is happening right there.” Good advice, advice I have harked back to – so far safely – for who knows how many tens of thousands of cuts and leans and crashing falls.
… in the first few seconds of a takeoff, as the prop winds up and the skis or floats or wheels begin to accelerate over snow or water or runway. Stick or yoke coming alive to one hand, throttle pushed to the stop with the other. And the far end of the same flight, the final seconds of final approach, dancing a nimble two-step on the rudder pedals, throttle eased back, upwind wing tilted down, the artificial bird about to alight. No daydreaming now, please – just this and only this.
And the finest of these intensely focused moments, because this one comes with no direct connection to howling engine or high-tech chunks of steel:
… at that moment of deafening barking and yelping, when the lead dogs of an eager twelve-dog string are toggled to their tuglines. Sheer bedlam, some days, cacophony defined. A glance down the team at everyone’s harness, as I yank my anorak down over my head and glance at the snowhook in its holster, the sled bucking like a rodeo bull and the handlebar in a vise grip, snubline pulled free to the slipknot, ready to release, decibel level sky-high, leaders looking back – “which way today, boss – out onto the ice or up the hill into the woods?” “Haw! Haw!” The leaders swing left. Rope released, and it whips free in a flash from the hitching-post – sled-builder Keith Poppert in Alaska once showed me his hand, minus the finger he’d lost to a stuck snub-knot on a big team. Instantly the barking stops and now the only sound is the whoosh of moving runners. Cacophony and chaos are behind, and forward is poetry in motion and miles of trail, as 48 paws and 192 toe-nails dig into hard-packed snow. Gonzo.
A friend of mine recently reminded me, as I looked over some new aircraft headsets, that it is now almost impossible to purchase one not pre-wired to receive cell-phone calls in flight, and that it’s now pretty straightforward to wire a satellite phone right into the instrument panel. End result being, of course, phone calls in flight, piped right into the plane’s intercom. “You could make calls while you fly,” he said, somewhat breathlessly.
Yep, I could, I thought. Probably, according to most people, I really “should.”
But I won’t. At least not until I’m forced to, as I was more or less forced years ago to start carrying a satellite phone when guiding dogteam trips. While I can, I’ll keep those moments, those hours in the cockpit, to myself and my passengers, and my colleagues on the VHF radio. (“New bumper sticker — When solitude is outlawed…?”)
In 1927, Greenlander Knud Rasmussen wrote a line that I have always loved. Last summer I asked Liv to paint it on a polished wooden plaque that now hangs on the back wall of the cooker shack out in the dogyard:
“Giv mig vinter, giv mig hunde — så kan du beholde resten!”
“Give me winter, give me dogs — you can have the rest.”
Amen to that, Knud. Dogs, logs, prop, saw-chain. That focus.