“Comin’ down the mountain, boys,

What’d I see,

Bear tracks, bear tracks,

Comin’ after me… “

—- “Slew Foot” – traditional., recently recorded by James McMurtry

 

A grizzly up on his two hind legs, big round head raised. A team of huskies, in an arc curving forward from a sled, heads down, working. Two iconic northern images — separate images, though. Were we to see them juxtaposed, say for instance in a mural on the side of a tourist lodge, with the bear and the dogteam painted together in one view, it would immediately look wrong, and bush-savvy people would scoff – after all, when sled dogs run, grizzly bears are asleep. Right?

This cliché northern life of mine, replete with log cabins, bush planes, and huskies, has offered up some sobering surprises, some moments when tidy know-it-all assumptions and predictions have been blown away, or gone through the ice, or up in smoke. Moments and days when the wildness that is, thankfully, still afoot in the world, has asserted its absolute freedom to be and do as it pleases.  Times that continue to assist the “sustained effort to demolish the cliché…” that John Haines admonished northern writers to make.

The grizzly bears of November 2007, for instance…

Ten years ago on a mild November afternoon, I was riding the sled runners behind a small team of six veteran dogs. We were ploughing through soft wet snow, downhill and heading for home.  The sled was crammed with a load of gear I had just taken out of our plane, which was tied down at a sandy bench a few miles up the trail.

I had been out with the dogs for hours, checking the thickness of ice on a couple of small lakes and stopping to visit the plane at the little landing strip. The snow was getting deep there, and the plane was on big tires, not on skis. The airstrip there is very short, and thus my big sled-load: I had pulled almost everything except the pilot seat out of the plane, to lighten it up for takeoff in another day or two. 

With a Saturday-night sauna and the evening at home ahead, I was daydreaming happily as the trail dropped down to Dietz Lake. The dogs were quiet and eager to be home, too, and working steadily… and then something stopped or slowed them, maybe a dog barked (I can’t remember) and I glanced ahead. On all fours, facing the lead dogs and about five yards ahead of them, smack dab dead center on the narrow trail, was a grizzly bear.

And then this all happened, in far less time than it takes to write or read the next couple of paragraphs: The bear stood on its hind legs, head lolling side to side, tongue out. Dropped to all fours again and charged forward. I was waving my arms, shouting in a voice as booming and confident as I could make it, “Hey bear, hey bear, off the trail, it’s us, comin’ through,” or some such jibber-jabber. 

The bear came on, and my next thought was “There are going to be dogs killed here.”  But no – as the six dogs in three pairs heaved themselves in unison off to one side of the trail, the bear galloped right past them, reached the brush bow at the prow of the sled, still coming on, past the heaped-up sled-load, and rounded the back runners. 

I was still shouting – (was I?) – and waving – (was I?) – and the bear was there.

Right there, his big furry round face maybe sixteen inches from mine. A glimpse of a dark eye and yellowed old teeth, and I remember that my mind flashed two pragmatic thoughts:  1) “this is really gonna hurt;” and 2) “now I should hit the ground, tuck, and cover the back of my neck with my hands.”  And on top of or mixed in with those thoughts, a third odd voice flashed, corny as could be, lifted straight out of the final scene of the movie version of Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall, where the Cree narrator One Stab murmurs quietly, “Every warrior hopes that a good death will find him.”

That face-to-face instant, inches apart, my mind (and his?) blurred and racing, certain that nothing good was going to happen next.  And then he (I say “he,” because three days later I confirmed that he was a “he”) dropped to his fours again and body-checked me with a thick shoulder, bumping my hip and nearly sending me down. Then he was past and up a slope to a knoll on the north side of the trail, huffing, chuffing, and clattering his jaws – I do remember those sounds.

I stood to the runners, steadied myself on the handlebar, picked up the snowhook and called to the dogs: “You guys ready?” The team agreed that moving out of the woods and across Dietz Lake toward home seemed like a very fine idea.

The drawn-out denouement of that brief clumsy dance on the snow took several days and nights.  The team brought me home, and within 24 hours that same bear had followed the trail down out of the hills and was in the woods nearby.  We had met on a Saturday, the fifth of November, and by Monday at dusk he was moving along the edges of the dog yard, trying to take frozen dried fish from a metal barrel.  I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, since he had done the same for me, so I yelled and fired some shots over and around him, trying to scare him off. I walked toward him and he slowly retreated.  Half an hour later he was back, it was almost fully night, and I began looking for a killing shot.  I took one shot, not a good one, and he disappeared again.  A few minutes later as I took off my parka, up in the house, I caught a glimpse of that big round head again, right at the northwest window, peering in. This was getting very strange. 

That was a long night. Confusion and uncertainty as to the bear’s motives and condition (was he wounded now?), real fear for the dogs’ safety, intermittent noise from the dog yard, a couple of glimpses of the bear on the path just below the house.  I slept in my clothes, down on the couch, and at 2 a.m. Kristen called me from upstairs, the third floor of our house.  “He’s on the path coming this way again; I can see him.” Together we stepped onto the second-floor deck, and she lit the bear up with the spotlight.  I pulled the trigger and he fell.  Disappeared, actually, out of sight.  It was quiet then, but we were not sure what had happened.  At dawn, many hours later, I walked very slowly down the path from the house.  Kristen watched from above, on the balcony. The bear was there where he had fallen, hidden behind a low hump of rock and snow, silent and completely still.  Dead.

Some of the strangeness and confusion of the past few days dissipated as I stood over the bear and realized that it was very likely the second time the two of us had been so close.  I ran my hand over his torso. Ribs! Ribs right there to feel, just under the skin, on a bear in late autumn!  I folded his lips back and the teeth told the story of a very long life.  Broken and worn, some horribly rotted and some missing altogether, his mouth a dentist’s nightmare of yellow and green.  This was an ancient animal. Denning up for winter had not been an option for him.  He was starving, and possibly half-blind, maybe deaf, who knows? An old soul at the ragged edge of life.

Andy McMullen, who has made a career of delivering solid advice on safety in bear country, told me a few weeks later in Yellowknife that “when you run into a bear anytime after Halloween, that bear is a bear in trouble.”  This seemed to explain that first encounter.

And yet – there is more.  Nineteen days later, exactly ten years ago today, another grizzly was here, apparently healthy and fat – on the 27th of November!  That is a story for another time, but the gist of it is this – a bear ran full tilt into the dog yard in the light of early morning, and then ran away again, with some urging from Kristen and her rifle, back out onto the ice of McLeod Bay. 

And there are more – a grizzly bear, first the tracks and then the animal itself, lit up by the headlights of a snowmobile, as our distant neighbors Rick and Lance came down the final miles of Pike’s Portage, just a day or two before Christmas back in 1988. The bear my friend Roger told me about, up on the ice of Artillery Lake at 30 below zero in early winter, feasting on the carcasses of caribou that had drowned after breaking through thin ice. And the cold night in November 1990 when we had two big strings of dogs, resting alongside the trail, and all twenty dogs suddenly peered off into the woods, restless and barking. In the snow on the next lake, fresh tracks of a grizzly.

I was regaling a young biologist with a sampler of these Ursus Novemberis and Decemberis stories one day as we were flying around, on some sort of grizzly-bear research project.  He looked baffled, and then, I could tell, he more or less discounted the entire conversation. (“Pilots are so full of bullshit sometimes,” I could almost hear him thinking.) I think he will learn, as he moves through the coming decades of his chosen field of study, that there are mysteries afoot out in the world, and that not all bears or wolves or caribou or birds have read the textbooks, so to speak. Scientists, especially young scientists, sometimes forget to allow for variety, vastness, and quirks, while older scientists, in my experience, allow more room for mystery, more room for a shrug of the shoulders and a quizzical, pondering, “Hmmm.” 

Just a few days ago Kristen was running a dogteam up in the hills north of home, and suddenly, just a foot or two above her head, coming silently in from behind, wings level and steady in a five-foot span, was a Great Gray Owl.  The next day the bird was there again, watching her pass with the dogs. Such are the lucky encounters that are out there waiting one day out of a hundred, maybe, as we come and go.

With such odds I can hope that someday I might be so lucky as to have another encounter with a grizzly, from the unusual vantage point of a dogsled, in winter.  Maybe he could be about a half-mile off to one side of the trail this time, clear across an open stretch of tundra or lake. Maybe he could rise to his hinders and throw his massive head around again, then drop down and hit the ground running – away!  I’d like that.  

When I came north to Canada for good in the summer of 1987, I stowed two big metal trunks of books and papers into the cargo hold beneath the dogsled-and-sled dog-and-lumber-and-fuel-barrel-cluttered deck of Dave Smith’s trusty freighting boat, the Hearne Channel.  Tucked into one trunk was a sheaf of torn-out pages from a mid-1970’s edition of Mountain Gazette.

Night Driving, by Dick Dorworth, was the long piece (as long as any night drive) that I had torn out a dozen years earlier and somehow, strangely, kept with me for years — years that led me from high school in Illinois to university in Montana, back to college in Wisconsin, and on to cabin life in the border lakes of north Minnesota.

It still strikes me as somewhat odd that I kept this particular piece of writing with me over all those moves and miles. Odder still, if a person who knows me picks it up and reads it, for Night Driving is a hip, rambling 1970’s discourse about long nights of driving, including side opinions on the merits of amphetamines, heavy drinking, dope and ginseng, and more digression down the runs of ski racing, broken love affairs, and on and on.  And on. My own night driving seems to be mostly past now, but my long nights behind the wheel always had more to do with cold northern highways and the steering of trucks loaded with teams of sled dogs. Coffee and chocolate were the strongest stimulants on board. (Dick is nowadays a vegetarian and he writes that “I haven’t had a recreational drug stronger than caffeine in more than 20 years, not even a beer, though a morning without good coffee is unimaginable…”) When I pick up Night Driving again (happily it is out there between hard covers in several editions)  I ponder just what special spark it was that I first found so noteworthy, in its wild and crazy rides along desert and mountain highways.

What I found, and still find, is Dorworth’s trademark blunt wild word-rich prose, and it must have been just that style and flavor that inspired me to tear his writing out and keep it with me for a dozen years and more, until it found a place on the shelf of the cabin we built here at the Hoarfrost River.  I meandered through Night Driving again the other night, and discovered,  in the preamble to a passage describing one very long night drive from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe, that the 16th of October is Dick Dorworth’s birthday, and that today he will turn 79.  Thus this post.

I had a chance to meet up with Dick one year ago, in Montana.  We have been in contact over the past few years, ever since I had contacted him about a quotation I wanted to use in Kinds of Winter. We share some things in common, it’s clear, but in most day-to-day spheres of our lives we do not.  I am not a downhill skier or an accomplished climber or a denizen of the Mountain West, and he is not a bush pilot or a dog musher or a denizen of the taiga Canadian Shield.  (Dick held the world record for speed on a pair of skis, in 1963, set at 103 miles per hour on a track in Chile, and he still skis almost every day of every winter, at Sun Valley in Idaho.  He is in the Skiing Hall of Fame.) Dick is a practicing Buddhist, while I am some sort of undisciplined amalgamation distilled out of a Lutheran upbringing and faith and heritage, seasoned with a hefty dose of Buddhist inspiration from writers and poets including Matthiessen, Snyder, Storlie, and Dorworth — all stirred together with some unsorted pantheistic tendencies.

When I met Dick in person we talked and walked, and he fed me a good Tofu and bean sprout sandwich, which was the first tasty edible thing containing Tofu that I had ever ingested.  Made an old moose and caribou connoisseur pause.  Today I wish Dick a happy birthday, and I encourage readers to seek out his writing, which is published in at least five of his books now, the latest just out.  Night Driving, The Straight Course, The Perfect Turn, Climbing to Freedom.  The most recent, which I have not read but will soon, is a memoir, The Only Path.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dorworth, and thanks for so much good writing, so many hard fast runs down steep mountains, so much inspired living…  and here’s to many happy returns.

Below, some snippets I’ve underlined or page-marked in Dorworth’s books:

“The edge has its hardships but at least one can be sure that it is life out there (here?) and not the Barbie-Doll, TV-dinner mentality that plasticland has ramrodded down the gullets of those hordes of iron bellies who can stomach Styrofoam horseshit for dinner, breakfast, lunch, brunch, snacks, feasts, celebrations and sacrifice.” — from Night Driving

“Uninspired is the state of life of the coward who would rather live with an unacceptable comfortable situation, than throw it all over for a chance at joy.” — from Coyote Song 

“Words are incomplete mediums of communication, much as we love them. There is no way to know how it was except to have been there, and the experience lasts in its fullness only as long as the experience. Afterwards, something remains besides the memory, but it is something other than the experience. It is like food for the spirit — it nourishes, giving strength for another day.” — from Climbing to Freedom

“Now I know that strange things happen to your body when it meets the snow at 100 mph, no matter what the position. In the twinkling of hitting the snow I regained a proper respect for speed.  If you are inattentive, as well as somewhat stupid, you may breed a contempt for big speeds, forgetting respect through the grace of being atop your skis each run.  No one on his back at 100 mph will ever after have contempt for speed.” — from The Perfect Turn

“Life is really a thesaurus and everyone wants it to stop at being a dictionary.” — from The Straight Course

“Greyhound wants to cease serving Alaska Highway customers from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse”  — headline, Fort Nelson News, 6 September 2017

On a sunny spring day in 2007 I was sitting on a Greyhound bus a hundred miles west of Winnipeg, listening (because no one in the front half of the bus could help but listen) to a whining passenger a few seats behind me, as she bemoaned her fate into her cell phone. “Yeah,” she whimpered, “they decided I needed to go to this meeting, and now it’s a two-hour trip on the flippin’ loser cruiser.”  I rankled at this, partly because of her sniveling and partly because this was something like hour 36 on the Greyhound for me, having been aboard a succession of buses since departing from Hay River, the roadhead on the southwest side of Great Slave Lake at 0800 the previous morning. I turned in my seat and she, still yammering away, shot me a scornful glance which plainly said “Yeah, I mean you, loser.

I have long been a bus rider — partly because I gave up hitchhiking quite a few years ago, and partly because I am by nature somewhat backwards and contrary.  I like to think that Muir and Thoreau, not to mention a dozen of my other literary and life heroes would have honestly preferred “slow” overland travel by bus and train to “efficient” airline zap-zipping, given any reasonable sort of choice.  Also I think it is demonstrable that short-haul airline travel is an environmental blasphemy — launching kerosene-guzzling pressurized Spam cans to 30,000 feet above a landscape already amply festooned with highways, backroads, expressways, and railroad tracks. The bus is cheap and simple, and can be half-assed enjoyable when compared to other modes of transportation.  I live 160 miles past the nearest terminus of the continent’s road system, and we have not owned a car or truck since 2000, when we more or less retired from the winter road-warrior life of the racing sled dog musher.  When we need ground transportation more elaborate than shank’s mare or a bike, we rent a car, take a cab, or hop on a bus.  (Do the math.)

I like the bus, or I mostly have over the years, mainly for its pace and its straightforward simplicity.  On that 2007 trip, for instance, I flew the Husky to Hay River one evening and rolled out my sleeping bag under the wing for a nice night of sleep on warm green grass (it was early May.) Early in the morning I took my knapsack and hiked a mile or so to the bus depot on the edge of town.  Boarded the bus with my bundle of books and pens and pillow and thermos, a $200 round-trip ticket in hand, and set off to see my sisters and Mom in Minneapolis. It was a long trip, and I don’t know that I would do it again — but Greyhound, driven by our own preferences and assumptions  —  is steadily withdrawing the option.  On that trip I smiled at times, musing that I was saving $15 an hour, over the entire 80-some hours, back and forth across the continent, and at my weariest moments I would imagine a smiling attendant appearing in the aisle every hour on the hour, handing us all our savings, in cash.  .

For decades I told anyone who would listen that they should try the bus, and the train, and I would encourage them to do so. Dare them, even. Now I don’t.  I used to say that airline travel had become just like bus travel — but now I don’t.  Airline travel has certainly become unpleasant, but bus travel, when last I rode (last December, Edmonton to Fort Nelson, 16 hours, $180. 6 hours or so, $600 on Central Mountain Air) had dropped even farther down the scale of petty annoyances and discomforts.  On that trip, at least until we hit the Alaska Highway and things started to become more rural and civilized, that midnight bus from Edmonton really was starting to feel like the loser cruiser. I tried to take it all in a good light, and root for the Hound in the face of WestJet, just like I have tried, with mixed success over the years, to cling to other quixotic notions.

But no.  The bus and the train nowadays choose their own, and until that unlikely day when the lunacy of launching skyward for a 300-mile journey, complete with a requirement to arrive at the airport (miles from the center of town) at least 90 minutes before liftoff, for a battery of X-rays, interrogations, and sniffer dogs, dawns on people — perhaps only through their pocketbooks, which is the only way any real-life decision seems to come to most people — the bus and train routes through the hinterlands of the west and the north will continue to dwindle.

Airline travel was once elegant. The Greyhound has never been elegant, and it never will be.  At best it can be dignified, but nowadays its dignity is faltering right along with the dignity of airline travel.  It is good to travel with a sense of humor, when travelling on the bus — and I suppose nowadays on the increasingly maddening airliners — so that you can chuckle when the bow-legged and thoroughly inebriated cowboy who got on at Manning lurches up the aisle to proclaim in a booming voice that the toilet at the back of the coach is “locked up tighter ‘n a bull’s ass in fly time.”  On the bus this is just standard stuff, like standing alongside the coach under the stars with the driver at three in the morning while he smokes his smoke and whacks the tires with a baseball bat to check their pressure at 35 below zero..

But here, my friends, is the beauty of the bus, and to some extent the trains of the far north (limited as those are nowadays, even more limited than the buses.)  It is the beauty that comes from three words, three words that WestJet, Air Canada Jazz, Delta and all the rest will never rival:  All Points Between. When the voice comes over the loudspeaker at the Edmonton depot, (sadly now relegated to a grim location far from the nightlife and bookstores of Jasper Avenue), announcing a bus “now boarding on Track Two for Grande Prairie, Dawson Creek, Fort Saint John, Fort Nelson, Whitehorse, and all points between — that final phrase is one of the enduring values of bus travel.

To be aboard a bus as it pulls over at a lonely road crossing on the Alaska Highway or the south coast of Iceland or a farmstead in north-central Norway, and watch as someone young or old gathers their bags and steps off, or steps on, greets the driver, finds a place that suits them, and plops down with a happy sigh, just as the bus begins to roll forward again, or to feel the train slow down and stop late on a spring night in northern Manitoba, and watch a Cree family step up from the spruce forest alongside the track to load their packsacks and a canoe and a couple of dogs into the open door of the baggage car… these are the moments and the convenience and the elegance we are now losing, as we lose the loser cruisers. Soon no more bus to Fort Nelson; already no bus south from Hay River, and years since there has been a bus clear north to Yellowknife from points south. There are things I won’t miss about the bus, but I will miss its simplicity and efficiency, and that unmatched access to All Points Between.  Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one.

 

 

 

 

“The point when a lot of wind becomes too much wind is a difficult but very important moment to identify.” — Kevin Patterson, from his book The Water In Between: A Journey At Sea

Every year there are one or two. Moments, sometimes agonizingly long moments, when the successful outcome of a particular phase of a flight – be it a takeoff, a landing, the safe arrival overhead a destination in gusty winds or reduced visibility or freezing precipitation – is nagged by nerves and uncertainty. Always these moments pass, as moments do, and almost always they pass with “no harm done.” Of course they do, or no one would fly in airplanes, least of all us pilots. But if a bush pilot were to claim that he or she has never, not once, had a moment like this, and if they have been flying for a few years – well, all I could think to say (politely) would be, “That’s incredible. Literally incredible.”
We emerge from the far end of these moments chastened, sobered, and reminded of the physics of flight. And of frailties: frailties of our systems and our aircraft and our oh-so-human judgements and processes of decision. Reminded, too, of the power of wind and weather and water. Emerging, we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and climb back on the horse that just threw or nearly threw us. Sometimes in my work’s tense times I think of a remark I read years ago in an article about Navy fighter pilots, who were –now listen up here – landing jets, in the dark, on the decks of ships. (Yeah, you might want to read that last bit again.) Not that anything I do with my little float-and-ski fart-carts ever approaches that degree of sophistication or savvy, not to mention technological complexity, but there was a snippet from that article that stuck with me: “Night landings at sea are what we get paid for; the rest is just plain fun.”
Some of you already know, reading this, where this slightly ominous preamble is leading. The Reader’s Digest version of the July 18th “aviation occurrence” (sometimes sterile bureaucratic mumble-speak can be so comforting) would read something like this, if only the Reader’s Digest could loosen up its line spacing and punctuation:

Summer morning, unsettled. Blowing 20 at Yellowknife and piping up.
East to the Thelon in one long ride, pushed by that wind.
One sample-site done and on to Dubawnt.
Memories of a five-day blow there, late August of 1996, with Harry.
We land at the usual spot, in the lee of a low tundra spit,
taxi into wind, blowing gusty and hard, but there is shelter there, and the anchor holds.
Stefan and I step out onto the floats, and he does his work – another water sample.
“Windy!” he says. (Master of understatement.)
Anchor raised, we drift back, flaps down, rudders up, letting the wind push us into position for takeoff.
Seas “confused,” as the sailors would say, humping and peaking with some swells
rolling around the tip of the peninsula, some coming in from the west,
and the river’s deep current roils it all.
Messy.
Windy.
I’m gripped, but steady and still confident. Eager to get airborne and westbound.
Throttle forward, power coming in,
and just then a lurch and yaw on a steep crowned wave,
yoke hard over, but the right wing rises,
too high and too fast,
and every inch gives more grip to that gale.
I haul back on the throttle, try to abort.
Too late.
Over we go.
As in over. Upside down. In the water. In the plane.

So that is how it all began, that afternoon. Upside down in the plane, hanging there in our harnesses, as time slowed to a crawl, as it always does in such moments. ELT on, find life-jacket, channel those swimming-pool Underwater Egress training sessions. Door-latch, seat belt, cold water coming in, both of us moving, out and up, a brief struggle and the satellite phone case lost somehow from grip. Now climbing up the struts of clean white floats, which still ride high as the plane settles deeper beneath them. Some vehement cursing, by yours truly.
I take the paddle from its rack on the float and we start trading off, fifty strokes a side, passing it back and forth, more to keep warm than to make any progress. Shouting back and forth to each other in the wind. Drifting very slowly, carried by current and swell, maybe a quarter-mile an hour? Cold. But we are going to do this, and it is okay. We are going to live. I can feel it already, and I think Stefan can too. After maybe an hour of this, the plane stops drifting, about 150 yards off a low shoreline to the north. A concerted effort to get some gear out – without diving back down and into the cabin (a move I briefly consider and reject) – yields some useful things and some trivial things, among them my briefcase, a quart of cream and a bag of carrots, the orange “survival pail” and a couple jerry cans of avgas, and two more life-jackets to join the ones we’re wearing.
The plane has stopped drifting. Shore is way over there, and no one is coming for a long, long time. (We are 400 miles from Yellowknife, nearly 200 miles from Baker Lake.) No tough decision here. Ready? We swim.
Stumble ashore, deeply chilled, strip some layers, find some scrub wood. Pocket match-safe bone dry, and avgas with a Whoosh changes everything. “Fire, brother! This is what separates us from the apes!” We laugh. We are going to do this, and it is okay.
Moved camp after Stefan found a better spot. More wood, more shelter, and my red poncho strung up as a tarp. The wind still roaring, and squalls of cold rain. A long evening, and a short period of Arctic mid-summer twilight. Shiver, move around, heat some soup, shiver, doze. Long talks… we go quite a ways back, Stefan and I. Our conversation circles and loops. Dog-mushing, jobs, raising children. “You warm enough?” “Yep. O.K.”  “I wonder what will come first – A Herc or a Twin Otter?”

There was no real suspense to our twelve-hour wait, because we knew all along we would be found, and relatively quickly. It is 2017, not the 1950’s. Trackers, satellites, phones, and Ops Manuals have changed the game. Kristen, watching the tracker back at the Hoarfrost, had sounded the first alarm that afternoon, and things rapidly spooled up after our “overdue time” came and went with no word from us, no arrival back at base. All night around that hot little fire, we were alive and remaining so, and we knew help was coming. We only wished we could re-assure those who were wondering. Our loved ones, and Stefan’s work colleagues, passed a much longer and more difficult night than we did.

It’s the Herc. 4 a.m., just past dawn. Low to the south we hear it. They circle, drop a handheld radio on a 30-foot streamer. I’m still cold, but is that the real reason my knee is doing the Elvis as I fumble with the radio? And then talking. “Roger, we are both okay, cold and wet.”

“We are going to drop you some gear. Stay out of the way.” Around again, a couple of times. Six-foot heavy sleds on a cargo chute, drifting down. We figure that’s it, and we haul the goods across the stony tundra to our little camp. Open the sleds up, and it’s Christmas in July – parkas, boots and balaclavas, cookpots, stove and food, tent and axe – hell, now we could stay a week, easy!

We tell them so, but they’re coming back. Two jumpers, drifting down, and in a moment walking over. Joel and Darcy –the Air Force is here! We shake hands. “Well, yeah, we know you said you were okay, but when we see a plane like that” – he points at the white floats, upside down, far offshore, with the red form of the wings and fuselage dimly visible in the cold clear water below – “we have a hard time believing everybody’s okay until we look at you.”

Joel gets on the radio. “Two crew, both here. They’re Charlie Green.” (I don’t know the lingo, but I’m guessing maybe C for Conscious and Green for uninjured. “Uniform Red” would maybe not be so good.)

Now it is late August. The Bush Hawk is back at our maintenance base in Fort Nelson, after a 400-mile sling ride beneath a Bell 412 helicopter, and a 600-mile journey south by truck. Insurers, adjusters, and owner / operators (that would be Kristen and I) all conferring with the mechanics and engineers. Estimates, timelines, and conjecture. The coming week will tell whether the airplane is to be repaired or written off. Only a thorough inspection will answer that big question. We are urged by others, more seasoned in this, who advise, “It’s just bent metal. Don’t get all sentimental about it.” Yep, bent metal. Wet metal, in this case, now drying. Just a damaged machine, yet I would have to be carved of stone not to be a little sentimental about a cockpit and a flying machine that has been my workplace for 3000 hours.

On a morning of low cloud and steady drizzle, I sit and ruminate on wind and moments and flying and floatplanes. Stefan is back with his wife and young children in Yellowknife, and has been working again on weather stations or water samples. Whatever the fate of dear old C-GROH, we two are both “Charlie Green” today, and Charlie Green we are happy to be.

 

 

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:

Allegiances

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.

 

(Summer Solstice Tuesday night at 22:24 MDT, 0424 Z)

From the workshop’s south deck on this warm Solstice morning I gaze south at a breeze-ruffled swath of McLeod Bay. Just offshore, like a fleet of flattened ships at anchor, lie a few acres of mottled gray-white ice pans. For days the pans have lingered there to the southwest, although from the sky on a flight a few nights ago it was obvious, and surprising, that most of the bay – and all of the rest of Great Slave Lake – is now ice-free.  On Summer Solstice!  That is about five or six days “early,” at least by our phenology logbook of past springs here, this being number 30.  We talk and remember other years – of running dog teams and landing planes on twenty inches of ice here on Summer Solstice day in 2004, and of sailing clear to Reliance and back on the tenth of June, two years later.  The timing of these grand and subtle events is endlessly fascinating to me.  (He drones on…)

In more southerly latitudes, by the time Summer Solstice arrives, Winter is already a distant memory.  Not here.  It strikes me that “Ice on Summer Solstice” might be one quick way of defining “The North” or “The High Country” – those two vague place names that get so glibly tossed around.  Of course, there are other factors at play up north and up high, apart from latitude and altitude, factors that help a certain lake’s ice to linger until the first day of Summer.  Depth and aspect and the overall size of the lake play into it. McLeod Bay has it all, being a broad deep trench of the continent’s fifth largest lake, set at a sufficiently high latitude, and plenty deep, with a sounding of 293 meters, or 961 feet, forty miles west of here. (Christie Bay, just over the southwest skyline, bottoms out at 614 meters or 2015 feet.)

Open-water season has come, after all that winter, and I – being somewhat easily astonished, I admit – am astonished all over again by the pace of the ice’s vanishing act. The utter disappearance, over the course of a few short sunny weeks, of that broad white plain upon which we lived and worked all winter, is magical.  No, the rational, logical scientists will rush to intone, it is not magic at all.  Nothing less than pure magic, I retort.  And after another round or two of sparring we will agree that, like almost everything to do with life, Earth, energy, and – well, everything – it all comes back to our dear old star.

Old Sol, on his trek up and down the ridgeline of the sky.  Drawing his arc these past six months, climbing a little higher every day, straining toward the zenith he will not reach – not at this latitude.  That is how I imagine him sometimes.  And, late this evening, he will turn.  No, he will stand: Sol Stice. He will pause, like a gray-bearded mountain guide suddenly feeling all his weariness, and say to us, his eager charges, with a wistful smile:  “Well, I thought maybe I could go up a bit higher, but I’m played right out. Just going to take a breather here for a minute, and then I’m starting down.”

And he does, every year. And every year we follow him down, by small degrees and steps at first, day by day, night by night. Then faster and faster, dropping toward the valley of December.

Yet also as if by magic, the warmth and fecundity of Summer will still come charging onward for weeks after today’s turn-around, fuelled by the stored momentum of all that arduous climbing, stoked by the solar effort that has been soaked up for months by rock and water and sky. The powerful crest of summer’s heat wave is still ahead of us, even while the sun itself starts slipping back from its high point.

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The past week found me doing the bush-pilot waiting game, with daily flights north from Yellowknife up to a world-famous outcrop of bedrock on the edge of the tundra. On the second of the three long days of ferry flights and waiting, I wrote this:

 

Coffee on the Rocks

 

Waiting for Korean geologists; day two of three. 

I crouch in a hollow of bedrock and boulders,

while a billy-pot of lake water

warms on my little gas stove.

 

Acasta River, 210 miles north of Yellowknife.

Over lunch Panseok and Kim and Lee told me more about Acasta Gneiss. 

It is, by all reckonings, the oldest surface rock on the planet.

Four billion years.

 

The three of them are busy banging away on it, day after day.

Gesturing and talking, loading samples into pails, for the lab.

I pull out pen and paper while my coffee-water warms.

Let’s see – an eighty-year life – if I am oh-so-lucky as to make twenty more…

 

Eighty years.  Times what?

Times fifty million, that’s what.

I try, for long minutes, to let this span of time sink in,

hunkered low in cold wind on this knob of bedrock.

 

Live five lifetimes.

Now do all of that, ten times.

And then all of that…

times a million.

 

I give up. 

(Again.)

Water’s hot.

Coffee time.

 

–Acasta River, 15 June 2017

 

 

In spring I crave a reunion with solid rock, and when it arrives I savor it and smile.  After six  months of life in snow, moving in and on and over and through that miraculous medium, on sled runners, snowshoes, skis, and snowmobile tracks; feet swaddled in bulky soft warm boots and moccasins, always subconsciously gauging and second-guessing the consistency and depth, the give and take, of that smooth white surface, there is a moment every spring when it ends with one solid step.  (Barefoot will come later – it’s still cold here.)  My love for the feel of firm rock underfoot is bolstered, I suppose, by the fact that once the snow melts right here at home, we live on a wide sand slope – a beach.  The snow melts in spring only to reveal sand.  Pushing a loaded wheelbarrow through sand would account for one good practical reason to love rock.  When we re-build our house, it will be right where the old one was – on an outcrop of bedrock.

 

Finished with soft flakes,

All done with smooth white curves and muffled footfalls,

creak of snowshoe, hiss of ski, rumble of rubber track – 

had enough of slip and slide –so long, Snow White.

 

At the evening end of a mid-May day —

chores, repairs, sawing and sharpening —  

I stow the tools and saunter onto seventy miles of white ice

 to kick myself east toward the mouth of the river.

 

Wood-and-steel spark sled from Norway

comes into its glory now.

A kid’s scooter on metal rails, nothing more.

Just kick and glide.  It goes! 

 

Sentinel Point in the far distance,

its flank still white with drifts.

East the rise of Pike`s and edge of the barrens,

where May is hardly spring at all.

 

Beneath me fifty inches of solid ice,

no hint of candling yet.

Another snow-drought winter,

another late cool spring.

 

T-shirt and old sweater are enough tonight.

Jeans and work boots, wool hat in pocket just in case.

Pepper spray strapped on my belt, for those bears we’ve met,

black and brown, over the years, out on the ice.

 

Kick and glide, smooth and steady,

frictionless or nearly so.

Across broad pools of meltwater,

spray slinging up from the rails. Kick and glide.

 

Over a mile out and breathing hard,

I arc back toward the north Twin Island.  

Home and supper ahead,

wind at my back, flyin’ now —  but wait…

 

That dark island – oh man, that smooth bare bedrock.

I pull in and step off the runners

up onto granite and – yes –

that first firm footfall is delicious.

 

Sole on stone, crunch of lichen,

steep slope of the rise,

step lively now, and up. 

Terra firma. Boot on rock.

 

For ten minutes I scamper the crest of the island,

Every solid step a pleasure, like the handshake of an old friend.

I cut up and clamber through the steepest notches. 

Boot on rock, stretch of legs, start of spring.

 

Turn back to the sled, step onto the ice

and kick for home.

 

May 14 2017