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27 July 2019, near the north end of Aylmer Lake:

Barely one degree above freezing here this morning, a few miles northwest of the headwaters of the Back River, with squalls of snow and a brisk north wind.  A hundred and ten miles north of the Hoarfrost, yes, and well up on the tundra, yes, but even here in the almost-Arctic, snow in July is something to remark upon.  The month’s weather has been all over the map, with a cold start that prompted us to mark Canada Day morning by lighting a fire in the woodstove. Then in mid-month came a string of warm calm days (I at first wrote “hot” but then realized that describing temperatures of 80 degrees F.  / 27 degrees C. — with virtually zero humidity — as “hot” would be scoffed at by readers who have been having truly hot summer weather.) Today as the month winds down we have this parting shot of cold wind and snow.  So long July, bring on August.  Never a dull moment.

A few days ago, it was warmer and we were southeast of here, near the lower Hanbury River… “Can you land in that lake?” (A bush pilot’s favorite question.) “We’d like to get one sample there.”  

Three geologists studying eskers, and following the path of the grand-trunk highway of all eskers,  known as the Exeter Esker.  For these guys, and even to my un-scientific eye, this esker stretches unbroken from the tundra near Dubawnt Lake to the area of Exmouth Lake, a distance of 500 miles.  Eskers are the bas-relief gravel piles of under-ice riverbeds, laid down seven to thirteen thousand years ago as the most recent continental ice sheets melted.  Flying with a plane-load of geologists who are fascinated, in fact almost giddy, to have this aerial view of this notable esker and its corollary landforms, is pretty entertaining.

“Yeah, we can land there. We can get to shore up in that narrows.”

Once we are down and they’ve gone off for their sand and gravel sampling, I wade ashore too, to walk for a while barefoot on the warm sand.  But for the black flies and a cooler-than-Caribbean breeze, I could be in Barbados or the Bahamas. Spotless white beach, deep blue sky, verdant green midsummer bushes. 

I am so struck by that spot, that day, as I loiter and wait for my passengers, that I wade back out to the plane to pinpoint it on my map.  When I do so I realize, with a startle, that the widening we have come to is a stretch of the Radford River.  Which means I have been here before, twice, in April of 1981, on skis and alongside a dogsled, 38 years ago.

I stand there on the float and try to conjure up those days, one day as my two friends and I were eastbound, and one when just two of us were westbound.  In the meantime our little group had dwindled by one, when a skiplane had whisked away John, whose mother had fallen ill.  It was on that day that I had for the first time met up with my future neighbor Roger, who flew a Super Cub from his cabin on the upper Thelon, and who had somehow managed to find our tiny party in all that white blank expanse.

I can’t honestly say I recall anything specific about those days here, then. As I try, I find again that it is always a little painful to envision my younger self, brash as I was back then.  So green and yet so confident. My opinions outweighed my experience by a staggering ratio, as is so common when we are “sophomores” i.e. “wise fools.”  I think back to our gear, our dogs, our methods, and I can only wonder that we made it as far as we did — and came to no harm.  

Oh well, no need to be sheepish.  We all begin somewhere.  We made the trip and we made it back.  Nowadays a trip like that would be perceived as borderline lunacy.  Yeegads, no satellite telephone, no Garmin InReach tracker and texter and weather forecaster and for all I know coffee-maker.  Not even a two-way radio.  We set off for Baker Lake, from Yellowknife, about 600 miles by trail, the three of us and ten dogs. There is a long saga here but the gist of it is that, at Hornby Point on the Thelon, about 4 weeks and 400 miles out, Kurt and I realized we would be at least 10 days overdue, if we made Baker Lake at all, so we turned back.  It was the right thing to do.  Safe and sound and wiser, we pulled into the Reliance weather station on Day 42, the 25th of April, 1981.

And here I am, back again, much to my surprise, on this widening of the little Radford River, a dozen miles west of the Thelon and south of the Hanbury.  My life has circled me back to here, and I can’t help but wonder whether, in four decades, any other humans have passed on foot through this little notch of the esker.  It is not impossible that someone has, of course, but I cannot imagine what they might have been up to.  There is some chance — a good chance,  I’d say — that my friends and I, in April of 1981, were the last of our far-flung and oh-so-pervasive species to set foot in this north-south notch of this long east-west esker.  These days, there is comfort and some reassurance in knowing of places like this.  And I wonder if this is it, for this spot, for my life, or if I will someday, for some reason, circle back to stand here again.  

And now as I re-write this post, it is the 29th, and warm (I almost wrote “hot” again) and calm.  The snow of two days ago is hard to fathom this afternoon.  The horseflies are out, and they love this weather.  Working from the Husky now, with just one of the geologists.  This is to be our final day of this, and we’ll be glad to be done. We have reached the area where this grand-champion of the planet’s eskers finally peters out and spreads into a confusion of moraines and curving sand-piles.  A few more hours and we will turn and climb southeast toward home; by then we will be almost 275 miles northwest of home base at the Hoarfrost.

Circling out, and circling back, returning and revisiting places, again and again, sometimes on purpose, often only by accident and serendipity, is a gift of this life and work.  How many times I have looked down on and walked on various parts and pieces of this long wavery esker, as I’ve flown along it with all the various stripes of  “-ologists “ over the years.  Studying wolves, studying bears, studying rocks, looking for canoers, looking for diamonds, looking for caribou…

Decades pile on, and my life keeps circling low and slow in these funny little flying machines, as the landscape overflows with layer upon layer of memories.

I like these lines by Wendell Berry, a poet and writer eloquent in his passionate attachment to place:

 

Memory,

native to this valley, will spread over it

like a grove, and memory will grow

into legend, legend into song, song

into sacrament.

 

from The Vision,  a poem quoted in an interview / article, Going Home with Wendell Berry, by Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker, July 14, 2019

 

 

Mornings are slow here.  When city people come to visit, they are surprised by the pace of the start of our days. I gather that one myth of homestead life goes something like this: Bounce out of bed at 5 a.m. and hit the cold hard floor at a half-trot; axes to sharpen and rifles to clean, sleds to varnish and dogs to feed… chop chop the wood, fetch fetch the water, grab a chunk of cold bannock on the fly, wash it down with a swig of lake water. Busy busy busy. 

Not so.  Another cliché bites the dust. Over the years our morning rhythm has not changed much.  Wake up, light or stoke the woodstove fire (a given, for eight or nine months of the year – it’s May 28th as I begin to draft this post, and the first thing I did upon waking was light the woodstove.) Put on the kettle, wash and brush and comb, and take the clipboard from its nail to carefully jot down the specifics of the morning’s weather:  temperature, dewpoint, altimeter, windspeed and direction, sky cover, high and low of the past 24 hours, and some random notes (this morning,  “Still easily walking onto ice.  Ran dogs to west on bay yesterday.”) Then it’s coffee and a book and maybe some scratching of pen on paper; a few words, or not, of quiet conversation with my people, and before we all know it, a solid hour and a half has passed in blissful sloth, with nary a moose milked nor a chainsaw sharpened.

At the far end of the day, I sense from the same worldly and urbane visitors that our workaday evenings catch them just as much by surprise as our mornings do. For one thing, there are never any night-time social engagements on the docket.  No one is going to stop in, and there is no event to go out and attend. We tend to work late at whatever we’re working on, then feed dogs and wash up, and eat supper even later. After dinner, most nights, we shuffle off to bed. Dinner around nine and people saying “good night” by ten is not at all uncommon.

Our friend Hakun from Norway told me that when he was a teenager on the farm, every year on just the right April evening his father would look outside and announce: “Guter, nå er det tiden for ute pilse.” “Boys, it’s time for outside beer.” Then to adjourn to where the evening sun was hitting the west side of the house, and there sit, bundled warmly, and pour the first “outside beer” of a new spring. A truly civilized ritual.

The season of ute pilse is slow to start here, and not helped by the facts that home-made lager has not been made here in five years, and store-bought beer is ludicrously expensive once bought and flown out here from town. But the season of ute kaffe is already upon us. Outside coffee. Mornings are still cold, but with a puffy down coat and a wool hat on, I can go out to the front deck of the workshop and sit and sip and stare across the ice at the snow-flecked hills of the Kahochella Peninsula.

It is interesting, going outside here on a spring morning to sit and try to read and write.  A few mornings ago, for instance, it was nine below zero, with the chill amplified by what I described in my journal as a “lively” east wind. Still, in my coat and hat I was happy enough to be out at the table for a while. (Lying on a long wooden table, belly down, is a great posture for a stack of worn-out vertebrae. Try it, you whose shock absorbers are starting to give out.) On cold mornings it is utterly quiet. At this season, sound is linked directly to warmth. A few mornings earlier this month, with no wind and bright sun, ute kaffe was downright noisy. The stream was babbling just east of the workshop, draining the land’s paltry runoff after the driest winter we have ever seen in all our years here. Sea gulls were wheeling and shrieking and raising heck over at their ice-bound rookery on the reef to the west. The first Harris’ and white-crowned sparrows, and some warblers, announced their arrival on May nineteenth.  Two robins had already piped up on the fourteenth of May.

Slowly things are coming alive, but very slowly, and only in fits and starts. If we drop the temperature ten degrees from one morning to the next, all the noise and action come to a complete stop. This amazes me.  What does everyone do, and more to my point today, what does everyone eat, in this landscape of brown vegetation still weeks from turning green, the lake ice still a month from melting, the land mostly bare rock and the sky a cold blue-gray bowl of northeast wind for days at a stretch?

I spotted a couple of seagulls standing forlornly on the ice by the tiny outflow of the creek, staring down into the puddle as if just maybe there would be something to eat there, as I ripped past on what we thought would be our final dogteam run out onto the bay. That was on a warm evening a while back, and then it turned cold again, and we were still running teams on the ice as of three days ago. The seagulls have been here in steadily growing numbers since the first one appeared on May seventh, took a look around, and disappeared for five days before showing up again.

A famous sentence from Thoreau: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” I will place the expanded quote below this post for those would like to see that sentence in context.  It is from the chapter “Spring” of his masterpiece Walden.  A book which should, in my not-so-humble opinion, be required reading for every literate citizen of the world, maybe once every five years.  But no.  The economy would go to hell in a handbasket.  Air Miles and Apple and Amazon Prime, Walmart and Costco would buckle and fold.  Oh, the horror.

Pasturing. And what oh what was that bear pasturing on?  The one I flew over just the other day, as I was homeward bound in the Husky after a day spent drilling through the ice for lake-sediment samples (at the behest of geologists on the trail of a rich cobalt deposit — cobalt being a darling of the exploration business just now, as it is a key ingredient of those electric-car and smart-phone lithium-ion batteries.) The bear was sitting at ease on its haunches, in a patch of sand, three miles up a narrow valley from the frozen expanse of McLeod Bay. I was not sure at first whether or not it was a bear or a muskox I was seeing, and I was intrigued enough to turn around even though I was eager to get home for dinner. I slowed and doubled back and lost three hundred feet of altitude. Came back upwind with the wing flaps down.  Creeping below the lee of the ridge, groundspeed less than 45 knots, I turned off the strobelights on the wingtips. As I got closer I thought, no, not a bear, just a big black rock. But no again, as up the boulder jumped and sprinted out of the sandflat into the sparse cover of the scraggly burnt taiga. The scraggly burnt taiga that now forms the entirety of our late-May backyard, and stretches in an arc thirty miles long and seven wide, a vast sweep of country that looks to me to be capable of starving a small squirrel, never mind a four-hundred-pound bear.

It was not a grizzly, but a big black bear, not long awake after a solid six months of sleep. Although people who claim to know about such things have assured me that bears do not awaken in spring under any real “food stress,” I wonder if the same smug experts have ever confirmed this with the bears themselves. Seems to me that after a six-month fast, at least a few of the bears might be on the lookout for a little break-fast.  And all around that bear as I left him alone and climbed away southeast toward my own dinner, not a swelling bud or an open pond or a blade of green grass in sight – just ice and rock and brown burned forest. Our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing, Henry? Pasturing on what?

Maybe I am too easily amazed. This is becoming a theme with me, but I am intrigued and I keep circling back to it. This morning it is the pilot in me, wondering at the fuel-flow aspect of all that running and bounding and flapping and squawking. And the dog musher in me, tallying the total kilocalories burned in a day by a warm body in cold weather. And also just the weak, pink, mostly hairless human that, like billions of others, has held to the habit of tucking into three square meals a day, nonstop now for over six decades. Every wing beat of those seagulls and warblers, every loping stride of that bear, every waggle of a fin and lift of a paw, is energy being expended, and somehow, all around us, the critters roam and soar and swim around to find and procure that energy. They don’t split atoms or dam rivers; they never pump and pipe and burn fossilized jungles. Yet they go on and on. And if that is not amazing, and is not a plain instance of our own limits transgressed, then I don’t know what amazement or transgression are.

So long for now. Just barely squeaked this one in by the close of May. Tempus has been fugiting again. HDT’s lines are expanded below.

 

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

—  Thoreau, Walden

 

We are living even now among punishments and ruins. — Wendell Berry  

I must admit that I think of Berry’s pronouncement fairly frequently. As a more upbeat counterpoint to it, I think he might agree, on a good day, that we do live also in an age of startling confluences and juxtapositions. Layers upon layers of sometimes comical, sometimes thought-provoking non sequiturs that can pile up thick and fast enough to take your breath away.

For example, try to imagine fitting all of these together in one place, at one moment:

Grizzly bear, Islamic call to prayer, and a constellation of satellites circling the earth.  Ski-plane, seismometer, and six solar panels. Glacial esker, Haiti, and a stone spearpoint thousands of years old. Ottawa, Calgary, and Gardenia Lake. 

All of these converged for three of us on an afternoon in April 2010, about a hundred miles east of here on the edge of the tundra.  Looking back through my journals from that time, I cannot find any reference to that startling day. That lack of reference surprises me, because I still think about that day, and over the years I have regaled many friends with this story.

It was late winter, early spring – April in the far north.  I was flying our Bush Hawk on skis for the Geological Survey of Canada.  My passengers were Issam, a Syrian-born seismologist living in Vancouver and working for the GSC, and Alex, a native from the Lutsel K’e band of Dene.  We were based at the Hoarfrost River, and flying out each day from there to service a string of seismic sensing stations positioned about 25 miles apart.  The sensors were positioned to straddle a rift deep down in the earth’s crust.  Each station had a small buried box – the seismometer, which was sensitive to nearly imperceptible tremors in the earth – along with an electrical system and a storage computer and an array of solar panels.  The major stations also had a satellite dish, through which the data was transmitted in what computer gurus are fond of calling “real time.”  (Chew on that phrase next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in a line… “Hmm, I wonder if I am in real time right now?”)

Issam is not a happy aviator.  He has had some unpleasant experiences, I gather, so I was on my best pilot’s behavior that day – no steep turns, no sudden power changes – with airsickness bags handy in the side pocket next to his seat. He seemed to be doing okay and as we droned along I tried to get him to expound on what we were doing, partly to keep him from reaching for the sick sacks.  Over the intercom he happily told Alex and I about the P-waves and S-waves that are  generated by earthquakes, and he said that during a recent magnitude-four tremor down in the Andes of Peru, the little buried boxes quivered, way up here beneath the frozen tundra, “a tiny fraction of a millimeter.”  Each box registered the waves at a very precise moment, and the differential between each station’s onset of trembling could tell some of Issam’s colleagues about the earth’s crust, 50 kilometers (30 miles) below the surface, (read that again) and whether that structure might have potential to form a diamond-bearing kimberlite.

As we arrive overhead the site at Gardenia Lake, I circle to look at the ice and set up for landing.  We touch down and I taxi across lumpy snowdrifts toward shore, and shut down the engine.  We get the gear from the plane and walk a short distance up the steep side of the esker to the station.  The sidehill up to the esker top is drifted deep with snow.  We carry Issam’s toolboxes and gear, and Alex – our official “bear monitor,” without which not much institutional field work seems to take place in the outback of the North nowadays – totes a rifle in a scabbard.

“Oh Gotch” is one of Issam’s favorite exclamations, along with – at times – “I hate my job.” This latter is sometimes, but only sometimes, delivered with a smile. He is in high gear with the “Oh Gotch” line now, because it is clear that the Gardenia Lake seismic station is a real wreck.  Within the past few days, a grizzly bear has leaned hard enough on the back side of the big six-panel solar array to topple it forward and lever its aluminum footings out from beneath their ballast of hefty boulders. There is twisted metal and broken wire, and the faces of the big blue solar panels are all opaque with shattered glass. (But the panels remain functional; in fact several are still hard at work here at the Hoarfrost this morning nine years later, turning April sunshine into flowing electrons a few feet from where I sit writing.)

Issam gets out his laptop computer along with a satellite phone, and starts to troubleshoot. First he checks the contents of the station’s main box and all of its components, and tells us that the transmitter dish must be re-aimed.  He climbs up on the big support structure with a couple of wrenches in hand.  Comes back down, kneels on the gravel and pale green lichen and pulls out a satellite phone. Places a call and pokes his index finger at the computer keyboard while he waits for someone to answer.

Alex has gone for a walk down the esker, following the gentle curve of the upside-down meltwater river laid down by the Keewatin ice sheet ten thousand years ago. I can see him standing and smoking and looking south over the frozen white expanse of Gardenia Lake and its multitude of odd little circular islands.

Issam says, “OK, I’ll get him on the line too.”  He takes out a second phone and makes another call. “Jim?… Right… Yes.” He hands both phones to me.  “O.K., Dave, I’ll go up on the dish. Jim is in Calgary and he’s on this phone; Robin is in Ottawa on that one.  Just tell me what they say.” I kneel there with a phone in each ear, thinking to myself “Some days I just want to fly the plane.”  But hey, I tell myself, this is fun.  Stick with it.

Issam with his trusty wrenches goes back up on the dish.  Jim, in my right ear, says, “Tell him ‘up a little.’” I tell Issam.  “Okay, I see it.  Tiny nudge to one side.”  I relay.  “Okay, I see it. What does Robin say?” Robin, in my left ear, says “It’s getting better.”

“He says it’s getting better,” I tell Jim.

This goes on and on for many minutes, like a space-age version of the old “Who’s on first?” routine. Tweak tweak, nudge nudge, up and down, stronger and weaker, back and forth.  Finally, Robin is getting cheerier. Jim too.  “Okay, that’s it!” they both say.  “Tell him to lock it down!”

“Issam, they say to lock it down!” He does.  Calgary and Ottawa both still happy.  The dish is aimed at the right point in outer space.  Issam comes down and speaks briefly into each phone, and sets them both down. He is just about to go back toward the power supply box when from his laptop computer come the unmistakable strains of a Muslim call to prayer – at a pretty high volume.  Issam stops and turns to his computer, as if it is a person: “What?  What?” He looks at his watch.  I look at mine – it is three o’clock. The wailing continues. He turns down the volume.  Then he shuts the lid and the song stops.

“Oh, I know what it is,” he says. “That computer is still on Haiti time for prayers.  I was working down there in January with that computer, right after the big earthquake.”  He pauses. He seems perplexed. “Okay, I know. I’ll just pray now.  Then prayers are done. It’s okay if I do that.” He walks to his knapsack, pulls out a little rug, goes down the esker a few yards, spreads out the rug and kneels on it.

I feel a little awkward and turn away.  I see Alex, kneeling down on the esker too, looking closely at something.  I stand there in the silence.  This is really pretty wild, I’m thinking. But is it?

Issam comes back.  We set to work on tipping the panel back up and bracing it, twisting the bent aluminum frame into position.  We connect some wires and he checks to see that power is flowing. It is not full power, but it is April and there is plenty of light hitting the damaged panels. He thinks the seismometer and the transmitter will work.

And with the clincher here comes Alex, back from his walk.  He is silent, but smiling, as he holds out a perfect four-inch-long stone spearpoint in one gloved hand.

Of course, this would have been a perfect vantage point, to sit and look out and chip points and watch for caribou.  I wonder how long that spear point has been lying here. To my untrained eye, it looks identical to one a friend of ours found on the upper Hoarfrost, and we were told that one was four or five thousand years old.

We gather up our gear and walk to the plane.  Fire up and fly a hundred miles home.  Spring slush along the shore ice, but the ice on the main bay still 45 inches thick.

And that was it.  Maybe you are wondering what the point of all this is. Not sure there is one, but I remember that day often, and the memory mostly makes me smile. Maybe it should not.  After all, Issam’s homeland has been torn apart by internecine strife.  A lot of Haiti is still a wreck after the earthquake of 2010. Alex and his culture are adrift and beleaguered, in a world almost completely out of touch with the world of the hunter who shaped that stone spear point. Still, my wonder, at all those layers of humanity, earth, and space (not to mention a strong brown bear) coalescing on that sunny April afternoon, mostly just makes me smile.

Day after day we weave together so many disparate threads, meanwhile trembling ever so slightly to the “S” waves and “P” waves of distant events. The fabric of our lives becomes – becomes what?  More intricate?  More perplexing? More sophisticated? More unhinged?

Not sure.  No grandiose conclusions here tonight, from this cowboy. Just bemused astonishment.

 

March is the month of the Iditarod race across Alaska, and for any musher who has ever run a team of huskies to Nome, it is a month when flashbacks from races on that thousand-mile trail flit across the imagination at odd moments, day and night.  I suppose it is the same for aging jockeys who have ridden a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby:  a spring day in May, with a glimpse of sunshine on green grass, a mint julep and a fancy hat, or a whiff of horse manure, and on comes a breakneck parade of vividly remembered instants, galloping across the track in the mind’s eye. One race takes a few minutes, the other takes weeks. Both are pageants, with histories, and on the nitty-gritty level they both boil down to quests. Quests for the magical connection that dedicated humans can (sometimes, maybe) make with gifted animals, and the reciprocation of that connection (sometimes, maybe) by those animals.

This year the Iditarod start fell on the same Saturday that here at the Hoarfrost I began some dogteam trips with nine university students.  I spent the first two weeks of March on the trail north of here, driving dogs every day and making camp every night. By Iditarod racing standards this was a paid holiday.  One night, as I tucked myself into my private berth, a 1975-vintage North Face mountain tent, pitched a short distance away from the wall tent full of chattering students, my thoughts drifted to the Iditarod, and specifically to the night we nearly lost Joe Senior, up in the Topkok Hills.  Maybe we didn’t nearly lose him, but that is how I always think of it.

In 1991, a captivating Alaskan drama played out across the final 77 miles of the Iditarod Trail.  A tight pack of front-runners marched, and retreated, in the face of a classic coastal blizzard.  Rick Swenson somehow swept forward through the storm to his fifth victory, cementing forever his reputation as one of dog mushing’s great champions. It was a race of trail-breaking, bivouacs, snow, and wind, and as a grand finale the coast of Norton Sound on the Bering Sea dished out its deadly mix of blasting wind and bitter cold. There is a stretch just out of White Mountain, the final checkpoint rest stop before the finish line, where the trail leaves the coast and heads up into the hills.  Those hills can generate fierce katabatic winds, and the “Topkok wind tunnel” is a stretch of trail feared by mushers and local residents in such conditions.

My dogs and I were in a pack of five teams travelling together, through the night on that final stretch of trail. Race-wise, we were back in the standings a ways, but we were not tail-enders, and we were not on a camp-out.  We were racing to Nome. Dan MacEachen, Dave Allen, Raymie Redington, Joe Redington Senior, and yours truly. I was running at the head of the caravan at one point, about two in the morning, and the five teams had melded to become one long string of dogs with multiple sleds in it. The wind was howling, snow was blowing, and it was not a fit night for man nor beast. Suddenly something bumped my leg, and I looked down to see a slim brown husky right up between the tails of my sled runners, trotting along in the gap between my mukluks.  I turned around and flashed my headlamp beam at the musher behind me, as if to say, “What the heck, man? Back off a bit.”  No change.  I slowed my team and shouted back through the wind, “You wanna go by?”

I recognized the sled, and the gnome standing on its runners in an enormous parka. It was Joe Senior. He shouted up to me, “She won’t go by, Dave; she wants to just tuck in up there and follow you.” Referring to his lead dog, Luna.  Under other circumstances, and with anyone other than Joe, I would not have put up with this.  Either go by, I would have said, or drop back – I have enough going on here without having your lead dog running between my legs all night. But this was Joe Senior, age 74, and if he felt like he needed to draft my team through this wild night in the Topkok Hills, or piggyback us all the way to Nome, for that matter, who was I to turn him down? Read More

A wintry Sunday evening in Fort Nelson B.C., just over 500 miles southwest of the Hoarfrost River.  My day began there, at home at the Hoarfrost, in the dark at 6 a.m., with a grumpy glance at the clock and another grumpy glance at a thermometer reading 40 below zero.  I stoked the fire, made a cup of coffee, attained semi-consciousness, and donned enough layers of clothing for a moonwalk.  Headlamp strapped to forehead, and out the door to tug the generator and cords and heaters into position alongside the five-seat Bush Hawk parked on the lake ice.  Yanked the generator to life, plugged in three electric heaters, and set them in place to begin their task of warming the engine and cockpit for a flight.  This is a four-hour process at that temperature.  A ritual familiar to hundreds of northern bush-plane and helicopter pilots, who fly out from bases not connected to that big juicy “grid” of abundantly flowing electrons by which all of modern society seems to live, breathe, work, play, and die.

Daylight is coming earlier and earlier, and by the time I next walked to the plane about 8 o’clock, it was light out.  What a cheerful change that is from January!  At just before 11, Kristen and I took off, flew south ten miles to the dot on the map called Reliance, where we picked up our nearest neighbor and his dog.  Richard is off to town for some dental work – he has been in pain and was trying to tough it out, but he’s had enough of that.  Kristen has some town chores and visiting to do now, too, having not been into town since just after Christmas.

I carried on southwest from Yellowknife, alone, at about 1 p.m.  A fast and smooth flight at 8,500 feet, 330 nautical miles straight to the airport here at Fort Nelson, in just over two and a half hours. Put the plane to bed in front of the hangar, its engine heaters tapped into the aforementioned big juicy power grid, called a sleepy taxi driver, and came into town. I write tonight from a familiar room at the Blue Bell Inn, motel plus gas station plus convenience store on the Alaska Highway which forms the main street of Fort Nelson. I have become a regular here in the past year, having now sampled every low-end motel in town over the past 33 years of driving up to Alaska for sled dog races, and since 2006 coming to Fort Nelson for airplane maintenance. The Blue Bell is clean, cheap, and a little old and tired. The managers are friendly enough, and – how to say it? – this place will never be even remotely in the running for five stars.

My flight southwest from Yellowknife, on a Sunday, is all about due diligence. The plane has a minor oil leak, and I have been monitoring it over the course of about fifty hours of wildlife survey flying that I just completed.  Nothing to panic about, and I am not in a panic, but after every three or four hour flight I lie on my back under the plane and wipe up a little dribble of oil, drooling back from somewhere high and forward in the engine compartment and splattering the clean white metal of the lower cowling’s inner surface.  I have spoken with my maintenance people, and they are not alarmed.  A seal, maybe affected by the cold.  We could have a look, they say.  What’s the worst case scenario, I ask.  Long pause on the phone.  Well, it’s probably just a seal, and nothing major. There are other things it could be.  Not likely. We could have a look.

This is the edge of one of those grey areas in the flying business.  It is a place common to a lot of professional pursuits, where you have to find your own level of comfort and follow your instincts, and consider extra expenses, your responsibility to customers, and do the due diligence.  There are no hard and fast rules in this grey realm. Vague mechanical nuisances with airplanes — along with vague nuisances like strong crosswinds, unimproved airstrips, and all manner of marginal weather — go past the textbooks and rule books and bring a pilot into the realm of gut feelings and instinct.  You have to decide what you are comfortable with, just as I’m sure a doctor does, a teacher does, mountain guides and mechanics do, ship’s captains, accountants, police officers, and on and on. But – and here’s the big but again – these are flying machines. Gravity is calling them home, as in right now, should something happen forward of the firewall, while out counting moose at 400 feet above the ground, or just slipping the surly bonds of earth enroute to somewhere.

In a bigger aviation company, like one I used to fly for in Yellowknife, dealing with an aircraft maintenance concern is a more cut and dried process.  The pilot writes up the snag in the airplane’s log book, the maintenance manager notices the write-up at the start of the next shift, someone qualified is tasked with looking into it, and after the assessment the plane is either returned to service or taken out of service for repair.  If the machine is taken off line, another plane is substituted for it, usually no trips are cancelled, and life goes on. Hardly ever does anyone wake at night mulling over the prospect of an unpaid roundtrip flight to a warm hangar and a familiar engineer five hundred miles from home base… tossing and turning about if and whether and how and why, and so on, to finally decide and wake in the morning and go heat up the plane and file a plan for the flight.

In 1975, when I was a freshman at the University of Montana — back when “blog” sounded like something Jacques Cousteau had just dredged up from the depths of the South Pacific — a friend of mine had a poster in his dorm room.  I remember it still: a black and white photo showed a 1920’s era biplane twisted and awkwardly perched in the upper branches of a leafless tree, somewhere out on the prairies.  The quotation beneath the photo read:

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” — Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. 1930’s.

I am sure Captain Lamplugh is long gone, but he would be happy to know how many people have read and pondered those grammatically awkward words of his.  The kicker for me is “To an even greater degree than the sea…” For anyone who has ever been scared in a vessel out on big water far from shore, that is a pretty dramatic statement, yet it holds up, when one is strapped into a little chair behind a spinning propeller thousands of feet above terra firma.

We go along, in the small-time-operator world of bushplane charter companies, trying to make the right decisions.  Maintenance and precaution are expensive.  And there is the lore and the long shadow of the old-time bush pilots and their trials and triumphs, the oil leaks spattering their goggles, their engines coughing and snorting, their machines plowing ahead through all imaginable weather, guided only by a jittery compass…

The “Aviation Industry” gets personal when you scale it down. People walk up to your flying machines, these odd little planes on skis or floats or tundra tires. People with young families, people in the midst of busy careers that include many hours of flying time: prospectors, biologists, game wardens, tourists. You greet them and they climb in and you take them somewhere or help them do their aerial work, and when it is all done you send them an invoice.  An exorbitant invoice, some (who have never run a flying business) would say…

Then when you have an unexplained minor oil leak in the engine compartment, and you cannot tell quite where the oil is coming from, and the heated hangar run by the people that are familiar with that engine and that airplane and your own standards for maintenance are 500 miles from your home base… you go there.  You wait for Monday morning, when they will bring it in from the deep cold, wash the engine down, run it up, find and assess the problem, talk to you about it, and do something to fix it.

I suppose that if I had known, all those years ago in Missoula, how my life path would lead me, I would have dropped out and gone to aviation mechanic’s training.  Then again, looking around our homestead at the contraptions that I do maintain, and keep running, and keep not replacing because if you twitch this and wire that and so on, the outboard or generator or chainsaw still — sorta, kinda, — runs… well, it is better for everyone that the rules require me to have all my aircraft maintenance done and signed off by licensed professionals who are not overly concerned about our company’s bank account.

To cover my bets I have bought myself an airline ticket out of Fort Nelson for day after tomorrow.  It is one of the more expensive tickets around, because it allows me to cancel right up to two hours before flight time, or to change the date at no extra charge. That is in case I have to leave the plane here and return home without it. I am hoping not to use that ticket this time around, and instead just go back to Yellowknife, pick up Kristen and Richard sometime on Tuesday, and fly home to continue the work that awaits me there.  I hope I can just tuck that unused ticket away for another time. There will surely be another time, if we stay in the business, and keep doing the diligence.

Over breakfast one morning last week I asked Kristen what she would like as a gift to mark our wedding anniversary.  It had been thirty years to the day since we had tied the knot on a mild January day in Minneapolis. Ever practical, and with a twinkle in her eye, she didn’t miss a beat: “A moose would be nice.”  

Moose, and more precisely moose meat, were much on our mind that morning. Kristen, Liv, and I had spent most of the daylight hours of the previous day roaming on snowshoes, toting rifles, up and down some small drainages east of the Hoarfrost valley, looking for fresh moose tracks. But alas, by the close of the day, we had not looked at any moose. The moose-hunting season in the Northwest Territories ends on the 31st of January.  Time was getting a little tight.   But we had been here before and there was still a glimmer of hope. 

It has been very cold here this January, and in between cold snaps the snow has deepened with small incremental snowfalls. Moose do not truly migrate, yet over our many winters here I have noticed that around Christmas or New Years we always start to see more moose sign down in the lower ends of the drainages that fall into McLeod Bay from the north. My pet theory is that as winter’s snow starts to build up and drift into the hollows of the landscape, especially up near the taiga edge and the tree-line, the scattered moose that make their summer homes up there do shift south a few miles to easier movement and better browsing. Every year around Christmas we start to see moose sign again, even if we haven’t seen any at all since mid-autumn. In recent years, when most of the milder part of the hunting season has been spent pounding nails and sawing lumber up at the new house site, or in years when some other work or distraction has disrupted the prime autumn hunting time, the Hail Mary move is to make one last effort for moose meat during January. Sometimes it works.

Like all who dwell in the remote outbacks of the world, we wind up speculating a lot about the movements of wild animals, their tracks and sign, the patterns of local weather, changes in the water level of rivers and lakes, and the constant interplay between and amongst all these things. I suppose this ongoing theme of our home conversations strikes urbane and worldly types as quaint, or downright odd, as would Kristen’s wish for a Moosemeat Anniversary (a la silver anniversary, or emerald, and so on, as listed on the chart in the jewelry store. It’s a pearl for 30, if you must know.)

This year we have had a new source for long conversations about our chances of re-filling the meat cache, starting on the day I last posted some writing here, December 30th.  That morning Kristen and our two daughters had three dogteams all harnessed for a run up into the hills.  I was inside, worshipping the woodstove, and planning to go out with a small dogteam later on. Liv burst through the door, breathless, and said, “there’s a big pack of wolves out on the ice,” and bolted outside again.  I grabbed a coat, hat, mitts and binoculars, and hurried out the door. Kristen was pointing toward the lake. Just beyond the rocky island where our windmill stands was the biggest assembly of wolves I have ever seen in one place. There were 22 of them. Most were standing still, some were pacing back and forth; a couple were half-sitting, and several were howling – I could clearly see heads tilted back and even the steam of breath, but their voices were drowned out by the clamor of two dozen huskies all yelping to get going. It was an awesome sight, and I choose that drastically over-used word only when nothing else will serve.  Twenty-two wolves, none small, several of them hundred-pounders. I have never seen such a group – the other big packs I have seen have been eighteen, once, thirty years ago, and a few groups of fourteen.  

I thought about what we should do.  Here was a cadre of strong and savvy carnivores, right on our doorstep at forty below zero, in a place where food for them was not abundant.  The sheer size of the pack and its individuals put a new perspective on our situation.  I went back inside and grabbed a 30-30 carbine, and when I got back down to the shore, the wolves had grouped together on the ski trail leading off across the ice, where the girls had been out skiing, in the dark just after dusk the night before.  (Grudgingly toting pepper spray and a firearm, after some family discussions about a much smaller pack of wolves we had seen on the ice earlier in winter.) I lifted the gun and fired into the air above that herd of wolves, three shots in rapid succession, and they scattered instantly, sprinting off to the east-southeast whence they had come. Clearly they got the one plain message I wanted to convey, which was simply this:  “Not welcome here. Come no closer.” 

The dogteams and mushers all departed on their outing, with a change of route to remain on this side of the river that day.  We have seen no sign of that big wolf-pack since that morning. A few days ago there were tracks of a few wolves and a file of musk ox together, on the trail uphill from home. 

Wolves have long elicited wild swings of unreasonable attitudes from us humans, ranging from steely-eyed hatred to misty-eyed adulation. A new book sheds some needed clear light on these amazing animals, and on their situation today.  I am reading it, and I recommend it. (Wild, Paula. Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence. Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.)

Seeing that enormous group of wolves led us to some long discussions and rudimentary calculations on calories, body size, and predation. It is deep  winter and we know, better than most people, what a volume of feed and fat it takes to keep our 34 sled dogs warm and healthy day after day, week after week. If a pack that size stays together for long, they must bring down a sizeable animal – a moose would do nicely, for instance, or better yet a cow-calf pair of moose – every few days, just to sustain themselves. This line of thinking had convinced us that the already long odds of our finding and killing a late-season moose had just dwindled even further. Having seen the competition face to face, it was clearly their game to lose. We could only hope that they had moved out of the area, up toward treeline east or north where there are some caribou herds.

Liv and I went out hunting on that wedding-anniversary morning, and Kristen stayed back to await word.  We had our open-sight rifles and a limited amount of 30.06 bullets we had re-loaded.  First we split up; Liv snowshoed north and I circled around by a different trail to cut for fresh tracks, and then we joined up and drove by skidoo up the Gyrfalcon trail east of the river. I will skip the Field and Stream hunting saga and only say that on that day we were lucky.  I make no great claims as a hunter, or as a marksman. In fact my biggest attribute in the field, over the years, has been just dogged perseverance. By mid-day we had a beautiful moose lying dead on the snow, about two miles from home and about a quarter mile off the trail. And as with many aspects of the hunting and gathering life, once the primeval thrill of the chase ended, the work began.

The dinner that night, here in the log workshop that has been home since the fire of 2014, was one I will never forget.  The table was spread with a fancy tablecloth, the good tableware was out, and the entrees included garden potatoes, boletus mushroom sauce, sourdough garlic bread, and – trumpet fanfare – medallions of moose tenderloin. What put our Hoarfrost River stamp on the night, though, was the ambience of the room out beyond the edges of the elegantly set table.  There, five feet from the candles, still dusted with slowly thawing snow from the forty-below night outside, was a big sled piled high with the glistening quarters, ribs, neck, back, and choice inner bits of a butchered moose. A thick brown hide draped over it all.  A couple of feet past that sat a big construction-grade generator, two chainsaws, various tools and axes and stained coveralls, and beyond that the makeshift cage where our ancient barn cat Razor – now incontinent – is living out his final days in the warmth of the house. Past that sat another big tub of parts and pieces saved for the dogs, and on top of that a severed moose head, one opaque eye staring upward. And on and on: stacked firewood, buckets of lake water, shelves of canned goods, layers of outer clothing and winter boot parts drying on racks and pegs. A laundry-drying line slung high above it all, festooned with clean undies, socks, long johns, and tea towels. Way up along the north wall, our bed with its sidebars of books and pillows and flashlights… Are you still with me? A decidedly gruesome scene to some, and completely beyond the comprehension of many. And maybe not an elegant dinner setting for the squeamish or the prim and proper, I admit.

This is local eating, in this land beyond agriculture. Those mounds of muscle, fat and sinew — those are the miracle, and they are a gift not to be purchased on the shelves of the stores of the world. That frosty pile of meat that will grace our table for many months ahead, a hide that in summer will become smoke-tanned leather, those enormous marrow-bones and racks of fat ribs — all given to us by a fellow denizen of this cold white January world.  A moose that spent countless mornings of life standing knee-deep in snow, in dim twilight and wan sunrise, at forty below zero, munching on twigs!  The onus is now upon us to stand and be worthy of such a gift.  

Out there beyond our tiny cluster of warmth and light and buildings, those big packs of real hunters are endlessly on the hunt. I would not want to be on their to-do list. Strong and stealthy, they excel where we blunder. Hunting for meat is their entire life, not just a fleeting facet of it bound by distractions, alternative sources of food, and closed and open seasons. This time we lucked out and snatched the prize they would like to have had for their own.  Happy anniversary, sweetie!