Believe it or not there are days here when finding clean water can be a problem. Not “clean” so much as “clear.” November is notorious for this, because there can be a week or more when the shoreline is not a sharp division between land and water, but instead a jostling mass of ice-pans and slush ice, rolling and heaving and grating against the sand and clay of the lake bottom out in front of our home beach. The water, if a person can figure out a way to get to it, is probably not unhealthy to drink, but it looks like pale chocolate milk. “Too thick to navigate, too thin to cultivate” was the saying in flood time on big rivers like the Yukon and the Missouri.  

Faced with this the other day, and with drinking water getting low in the house, I came up with what I thought was a clever solution. We still don’t have much snow here so far this winter, and up until the other day the weather had been holding mild, just a little below freezing. I started up the four-wheel Honda ATV that we use for off-season dog training and general hauling, and I hitched on the trailer.  Our trailer is a gerry-rigged plywood box, bolted to an old car axle with two big tires gleaned from the junkyard in Yellowknife years ago. I grabbed eight or nine water pails, which are bright yellow plastic and came in here full of canola oil for the dogs, tossed them in the trailer, tied a chainsaw and an ear-muff hard-hat onto the front rack, threw an axe into the trailer for chopping ice, slung my gun over my shoulder in case this should turn out to be my lucky day for Mr. Moose (still at large, since you asked), and bounced off down the shore toward the river mouth, where I thought the water would be clear. Trailer squeaking and rattling, four-wheeler, chainsaw, empty pails, gun, axe. Lots of stuff.

With some stops to cut alder and deadfall, a detour out onto the shorefast ice, and some cutting and piling of more burn-slash, I finally reached the open beach at the river mouth. Shut off the machine. Feeling very clever and resourceful, I might add.  

The water there was as clear and clean as I had hoped it would be, the best water in the world. I dipped pail after pail, and snapped the lids into place. Had a good look around. Out at the riffle of fast water, across to the east bank where the muskox have often come down in recent years, and south where the big lake was a vast expanse of whitecaps and jostling ice pans. 

I looked at all my paraphenalia. Chuckled to myself, “Homo sapiens, the tool-making ape.” Snapped a photo, started the machine, slung on my weapon, and set off bouncing and squeaking with a couple hundred pounds of water splashing in the trailer.


As I drove home, a correction to that phrase came to me, and I have been mulling it over. We are only and always tool users now, not tool makers. There is not a soul on the planet who, even if given an entire lifetime (or five!), could fashion from scratch even a fraction of the modest array of gadgets I was calling on to help ease my simple water-hauling chore. Think of it: the smelting, the digging, the felling and milling, honing and machining, wiring and circuitry, pumping and refining, trucking and barging, on and on and on. 

People tend to use predictable adjectives to describe this odd outback life we have chosen here. On the list you can always count on self-reliant, resourceful, and independent. Which are all a crock! Stripped of the tenuous connections out and away from here, the lines of supply to tools and foods and fuels and so on, I wonder if we would last a year.  In two months or less, our life from day to day would already look a whole lot different, and it would only get more desperate (and dis-spirited) from there, to a drawn-out and miserable extinction. I kid you not.

A couple of years ago I wrote along these same lines here, also in November, in a post called Fuel Haul.  Tipping my hat, I wrote then, to all the workers and systems and legions of truly clever individuals — me not among them — upon whom we have depended to live this far-flung 34-year sham of “self-reliance.” I circle back to that theme now, after a year and a half in this grinding pandemic. The plague has, we can hope, at the very least forced many tool-using apes to sit up and smell their coffee, or their chai latte. Has it ever been more obvious that we are all in this together? That perhaps we can address big global problems with big global actions? And who, and what, were truly essential to you during quarantine and lockdown, as you huddled in front of your Zoom-meeting screen, working from home in your jammies? 

Okay, down off the soapbox again, pal.

I got home, with my water and all my gadgets. Toted pails up the steps and dumped them one by one into the tanks and barrels in the kitchen.  Had a celebratory sip of clear ice-cold water. Splashed some on my face. We all need that now and then.  Helps clear cherished delusions, like “self-reliance” and “clever” and “tool-maker.” 

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“Plan? What’s my plan? Well I guess my plan right now is to take a little nap, and then in two hours I’m gonna try to get this string of fishburners up and moving, and head for Elim.”

  • An Iditarod musher, overheard answering a reporter at Koyuk, 1992 race. (Just might have been Charlie Boulding…)

It is an arcane mental leap, I admit, from the glimpse down through clear water to the white belly of a lake trout (which is a char, in fact, not a trout at all) or a salmon, wriggling in a gillnet – and from there to the bouncing yellow toggle that connects a tugline to the X-back harness of a sled dog. And yet it is a solid link, a connect-the-dots pathway of energy, wriggling fish-belly, bouncing toggle. “Fishburners.” Get it?

Somewhere back in the dim beginnings of the human-dog story, it must have dawned on one of the two-legged protagonists, struggling to keep a helper-dog or a team of helper-dogs fed and healthy, with game scarce and hunting poor… fish!  Eureka! They will eat fish! A gate swung open, a new possibility for survival, maybe even for abundance and ease, to get these amazing four-legged help-meets through seasons when fat red meat was scarce.

It is no accident that Alaska and the Yukon have always been the hard-core Mecca of mushing, for that is the region of the North where winter is long enough to make mushing truly worthwhile, and where salmon runs and salmon-fishing are a basic part of life. What penniless aspiring dog musher could afford to feed a team, or a kennel, without a dependable salmon run?  Back in the day, before this brief historical blip of high-octane dogfood and low-cost trucking that we have lived through (and, pssst, guess what,  is now ending), fish and huskies went together like gasoline and Fords. “Fish head stew, fish head stew, fish heads lookin’ back at you,” goes the refrain of a song by Libby Riddles, first woman to win the Iditarod.  A musher without a dogfood cooker and a pile of fish was in for a tough season. Over here in the deep Interior east of the Yukon, far from salmon (although they are coming closer every year), it used to be whitefish and lake trout and inconnu, those oily cousins of the whitefish, that got most dogteams through the year.

Wolves will eat fish, too, and that option helps to get many a pack and its pups through that lean period of June, just after whelping, up on the edge of the tundra, when the caribou herds have passed north toward their calving grounds and the wolves are forced to fall back and make a den and tend a batch of tiny but insatiable pups. This is crunch time for these tundra wolves. No big warm-blooded prey at hand, and the hunting mobility of the pack severely limited by the tiny pups at the den. This is mouse-and-lemming season, ptarmigan-and ground-squirrel season… and fish season. Suckers might be running up a shallow creek near the den, or grayling might be sunning in the shallows of a lake. A wolf can make a meal of that, and a mother wolf can make milk from that meal.  It’s survival, any port in a storm.

As a neophyte musher forty-some years ago, I came right away to the notion of huskies as fishburners. My mentor Duncan Storlie made an annual spring trek to the shore of Lake Superior, to spend some long nights dip-netting bucketloads of smelt, then freezing them in milk cartons. Smelt are not salmon, but a hundred pounds of fish is a hundred pounds of fish, and smelt are oily and abundant. The dogs gobbled them up.  We ate them ourselves, too, happily and often.

Years ago, after sincere and sustained effort and some blessings from the local powers-that-be, we secured a “domestic fishing license” to set a hundred-yard gillnet in the waters of McLeod Bay, our front yard. This is lake-trout and whitefish water mostly, with the occasional pike, a sucker or a burbot now and then, and, rarely, a grayling big enough to get caught in a 5-inch mesh. Last year around the last day of October we lifted the first inconnu out of our net, but we haven’t seen another one since. And still no salmon, but stay tuned. Times are changing.

We tend the net daily from June through the end of October. In summer it is just a tiny scrap of old net, lest we take more than we can use in warm weather. In mid-September when the first frosts come, we start stockpiling for winter, hanging the split fish on a double-stick rack. This becomes a pretty fragrant collection until the deep cold comes, so the cache is surrounded by wire mesh and corrugated steel.  The martens, foxes and ravens are thus mostly stymied, but I have no delusions about a visiting bear. The motion-sensor alarm (the nearby dogyard) would likely give us a chance to take up with a marauder before too many hard-earned fish disappeared.

This year winter has been slow to start, and the net is still in. Nearly November now, and not a speck of snow on the ground. 1998 was like this, as we recall. (“Much joy in the weather,” as ever. Especially when it’s up to some new trick. But lest you get the wrong impression, this is indeed an ominous and weird autumn, and the facts are not lost on us.) Despite a slowdown in the netting over the first half of October, we are now back at it and catching up day by day.  If we can hang a few dozen more fish before boating becomes too icy and the job of handling and cutting fish gets too cold and miserable, we will be doing well.

And soon, all these fish will slowly, steadily, come down off the rack and go into our long-suffering  soot-and-grease-slathered cook-barrel, there to boil hard enough to kill any parasites and to thoroughly cook the rice that is in there with it. Then when it cools we will cut in some more fat, some scoops of kibble, then go ladle that rich stew out onto the packed snow of each dog’s dinner-place.

Tails will wag.  Winter coats will grow thick and glossy. Tuglines will be tight, and miles will be made.  Every now and then in the depth of winter, as I cruise along at ten miles per, with nary a sputtering piston or muffler for miles around, I will think back to mornings in October drizzle, leaning out over the pitching stem of the skiff, looking down through some of the clearest water on the planet at the flash of a fish-belly.  Calories, and the myriad species of poetry in motion: fish in water, sled dog on the trail. Energy, going around.

We’ve all heard it a hundred times, seems like.

“It’ll be cheaper just to buy a new one.”

This is what the Husqvarna chain-saw man told me the other day, cheerily prefacing it with, “My condolences, Dave. The old 357 has gone to meet her maker.”

This being the second scored piston / cylinder on that same saw in just over 18 months, this was not the news I was hoping to get. The diagnosis was piston and cylinder damage. I had been hoping it was a carburetor problem, which in fact it might be, and might have been all along, because an overly lean mixture will certainly fry a piston and cylinder. Insinuations that I had simply made the boneheaded mistake of running the two-stroke saw on unmixed gas did not help my mood. I had not done that, nor had anyone else done that. That much I know, since the saw failed while running right alongside another saw, both fuelling from the same jug of carefully mixed fuel.

What I had been doing, all last winter, was fiddling with the carburetor, trying to tune the mixture so the saw would run smoothly and take throttle without hesitation, at temperatures at or below the “not very smart to be running a chainsaw” mark.

Long story slightly shortened, lest I lose you, I made the choice to once again pay for complete repair to the saw, which is about as major as a chainsaw repair can get, and this time around I decided to up the ante by having a new carburetor installed.

And yes, I suppose it would have been cheaper to buy a new saw, in that strange form of math and accounting that assures us, like a mantra, that spending a thousand dollars is “in the long run” better than spending five hundred. A logic that time and again we acquiesce to, nodding wisely and walking the old unit – camera, computer, telephone, washing machine, pickup, whatever, out the door and off the premises, to become more fodder for the groaning, mile-high landfills and junkyards of our dear planet.

This chapter in chainsaw stubbornness reinforced suspicions I have, about where this thinking has brought us, and is still bringing us (whistling down the gangplank toward very deep water) and it made me wonder too whether my 40-year involvement with aviation and airplane components might have changed my personal viewpoint on obsolescence, repair, and replacement. In aviation you will almost never hear that opening line, with reference to anything bigger than a minor component, because repair is almost always the first choice that is considered. Cracked wing rib? Engine losing compression? Radio on the fritz? Landing gear leg, busted right off? First question is not how to replace it, but how to fix it.

Fact is, aircraft are so expensive “Brand New” that a typical pilot can work an entire career and never fly an airplane that was built within the past five or ten years.  It is really only insurance adjusters, viewing a photo of a burned-out smashed-up wreck high on the side of a mountain, who would say without a moment’s pause that “it’ll be cheaper to buy a new one.” (And they don’t mean new; they just mean a different used and similarly old one.)

Commercial aircraft, even little fart-cart bushplanes like the ones we fly at Hoarfrost River, are rigorously maintained and inspected, frequently refurbished and repaired.  The hours of use are tracked to the nearest tenth, and the hours between inpections and overhauls of everything from seatbelt webbing to propeller blades are bound by hard and fast rules. Not loose rules of thumb, but laws, as in break-it-and-lose-your-certificate laws.

And believe me, all of these limits and times and inspections, and all of the attendant record-keeping and paperwork, is a royal pain in the keester. But the history of the industry shows that it is a system that works, and that it helps even the lowliest dirtbag bush-pilot attain the daily goal of keeping the noisy end forward and the dirty side down, and delivering everyone safely back to where they had breakfast, just in time for dinner.

I have become more resistant to the knee-jerk application of “cheaper to just buy a new one.” Partly because I suspect that this “logic” also plays to the human animal’s innate laziness, and our deep-down magpie-like desire to acquire that shiny “new one” instead of gritting our teeth and keeping our less-shiny tools soldiering along. Feeling all sensible and logical and hard-nosed about how it is cheaper to go buy a new one just helps salve our consciences as we cart the carcasses of our myriad old ones off to the dump. 

The engine in our two-place Husky, model year 2004, is now coming right up to 4400 hours of air time, and this is its second TBO or “time between overhauls.”  There is no wiggle room on this impending limit, and no surprise.  At 2200 hours, the engine was removed and sent away for overhaul, and this time around, at 4400, it will be replaced by a “factory re-manufactured” engine straight from Lycoming in Pennsylvania. That is our choice.  Sometime in mid-winter I will fly the Husky down to the maintenance hangar in Fort Nelson, in its final hours before the cutoff, and the engines will be swapped out, pretty-much-new for pretty-much-old.  I wonder whether I will even see another TBO, 2200 hours ahead, as pilot of C-GTYC. Somehow I doubt it.

The difference between aviation and our day-to-day life with other mechanical contraptions is that there is a sizable value represented by the time-expired engine, which now becomes known as a “core,” to the tune of 16,000 U.S. dollars.  “This is an expensive game we play,” as a helicopter pilot said to me the other day out at our place. No kidding. The silver lining in such painfully expensive transactions is that there is not a “new one” anywhere in the picture, and that is good. It helps to debunk the “cheaper to just go buy a new one” mindset, and that is a mindset we all need to try to debunk.  Because in the long long run, it can be better to keep old stuff running than to run out the door, Visa card quivering, in search of something new.

Here’s to subverting the dominant paradigm.

There are coincidences in life that just knock you back a few steps. Take your breath away, if you’ll pardon the attempt at humor, that will come clear below. About six years ago my wife Kristen was talking with our British-Canadian friend Ruth Bowen in Yellowknife, and Ruth mentioned that she was getting ready to take a visual celebration of her grandfather’s life down to a showing at Jasper or Banff, or maybe both, because of his historical involvement with mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. “Oh,” Kristen said, “Was he a mountain climber?” Yes, Ruth said. Quite a climber in fact. His name was Frank Smythe.

At this, Kristen’s jaw probably went slack for a split second, but not as slack as mine went about a day and a half later, when she was back home and recounting her town run, and nonchalantly let slip with “Oh and I saw Kris and Ruth; Ruth is going off on a tour with an exhibit she’s made about her grandfather, Frank Smythe.”

Now like many husbands, I am not always so finely attuned to the detailed specifics of my wife’s monologue as I should be, when she returns home after a whirlwind of visiting and errands in the big city, Yellowknife (population about 18,000.) Thus maybe it took a second or two for me to say, “Hold on, wait, what?”

Now she knew she had me — and that thus by default, up to that point she maybe had not quite, well, had me a hundred percent, so to speak.

“Ruth Bowen is Frank Smythe’s granddaughter.”

At this point, Kristen likes to tell people, “Dave gave me a look as if I had just announced I was pregnant.” Which at that age and stage in our life, not to mention my sterilization status, would have been about as likely as, well, about as likely as our friend Ruth in Yellowknife being the granddaughter of the man whose books about mountaineering in the first half of the twentieth century I had been devouring at the rate of one a month for the past six months. I think I said something profound and insightful like, “Auughff?”

It has been a busy month, I am away from home now on a flying contract, and it is time to post something here. Maybe this is a last-ditch maneuver, but it is an inspired one, I promise.

If you want to read something astounding, inspiring, and utterly devoid of any reference to you-know-what, or you know where, or you know who, for a complete change, try this. As I did just the other morning, gazing at the inner sanctum of our bookshelf and looking for something to ease my aching back, clear my mind, and take me far, far, away. It is excerpted from Frank Smythe’s book Camp Six. I have asked no one’s permission to reprint it here, but I promise to buy Frank’s granddaughter Ruth a pint next time I see her, right in Yellowknife, where she lives about sixty feet from where I tie up the floatplanes when I come and go from there on charters. It is a small big world at times, isn’t it?

{Here is Smythe writing of his escapades with Eric Shipton, and then alone, high on the northeast ridge of Everest, in 1933. Nine years, almost to the day, after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine.  From Camp Six, published 1937.}

And now I must recount the first of two strange experiences that befell me that day. All the time that I was climbing alone, I had the feeling that there was someone with me. I felt also that were I to slip I should be held up and supported as though I had a companion above me with a rope. Sir Ernest Shackleton had the same experience when crossing the mountains of South Georgia after his hazardous open-boat journey from Elephant Island, and he narrates how he and his companion felt that there was an extra ‘someone’ in the party.  When I reached the ledge I felt I ought to eat something in order to keep up my strength. All I had brought with me was a slab of Kendal mint cake. This I took out of my pocket and, carefully dividing it into two halves, turned round with one half in my hand to offer my ‘companion.’

The second experience was bizarre, to say the least of it. It was in all probability an hallucination due to lack of oxygen, which affects not only the physical powers but the mental powers also. I was making my way back towards Camp Six when chancing to look up, I saw two dark objects floating in the blue sky. In shape they resembled kite balloons, except that one appeared to possess short squat wings. As they hovered motionless, they seemed to pulsate in and out as though they were breathing. I gazed at them dumbfounded and intensely interested. It seemed to me that my brain was working normally, but to test myself I looked away. The objects did not follow my gaze but were still there when I looked back. So I looked away again, but this time identified by name various details of the landscape by way of a mental test. Yet, when I again looked back, the objects were still visible. A minute or two later, a mist drifted across the north-east shoulder of Everest above which they were poised. As this thickened the objects gradually disappeared behind it and were lost to sight. A few minutes later the mist blew away. I looked again, expecting to see them, but they had vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. If it was an optical illusion, it was a very strange one. But it is possible that fatigue magnified out of all proportion something capable of a perfectly ordinary and rational explanation. That is all I can say about the matter and it rests there. 

It was not easy finding my way back {down – my emphasis} to Camp Six {at 27,400 feet ASL – again, my astonished emphasis} across the wilderness of slabs, and it was a relief when at last the little tent came into view. Shipton was safely there, and after a hot drink we talked over the situation. We were both of us very loath to spend a third night at the camp, which for two men was very uncomfortable. At the same time, I was too tired to descend to Camp Five.  It was arranged, therefore, that Shipton, who had had a long rest and had completely recovered, should descend, leaving me behind. I am not sure now that it was a wise decision. It would have been better for us to have remained together, but at the time we both welcomed it. Accordingly, Shipton set off down to Camp Five. 

The weather was not looking good when he left and grey clouds were beginning to form about Everest, yet neither of us anticipated the storm that broke an hour later. It caught him when he was still a long way from Camp Five, and he had a terrible descent, narrowly escaping being frozen to death in the blizzard. He told me afterwards that at one point he nearly met with disaster. He had let himself down from a rock by his arms on to a slope of snow, when the latter suddenly slid off, exposing a smooth slab destitute of all footholds. To let go with his hands meant a certain slip, and the only alternative was to pull himself back. To any one who has never done it, it is impossible to give any idea of the strength and determination required for an arm-pull at twenty-seven thousand feet. Suffice it to say, Shipton did it, and thereby saved his life. He arrived at Camp Five almost exhausted, where he was welcomed by Birnie who was in support there. 

When the storm broke, and I heard the wind roaring past the little tent, I felt anxious for Shipton’s safety, and was relieved when, towards sundown, the weather cleared a little. 

It was an extraordinary experience spending a night higher than any other human being, but I scarcely appreciated this at the time. I was concerned only with making myself as comfortable as possible, and one of my memories is a grand brew of café au lait. 

At sundown the wind died away, and I prepared to settle down for the long cold night which at that latitude lasts for nearly twelve hours. But before doing so, I unlaced the flaps of the tent and glanced outside. It was a scene of incredible desolation. All round were great slabs of rocks mortared with snow in their interstices like an immense expanse of armour-plating. Thousands of feet beneath lay a great sea of cloud slowly writhing and twisting in its uppermost billows and, here and there, seeming almost on fire, where it was touched by the rays of the setting sun. There was not a sound. No stone-fall or avalanche disturbed the serenity of Everest. There was silence, an absolute and complete silence; and permeating all, investing all, with a deadly embrace, was the cold, the coldness that reigns in the abysses of space. 

The last flare from the sun was illumining the rocks as I laced up the tent and snuggled deeply in my sleeping-bag. The lull in the weather was only temporary, and later the wind rose, but I was not aware of it; I slept the clock round, a sleep of sheer exhaustion.

Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton, 1933:

“Henry Thoreau has probably been more wildly misconstrued than any other person of comparable literary stature.  He got a reputation for being a naturalist, and he was not much of a naturalist. He got a reputation for being a hermit, and he was no hermit. He was a writer, is what he was.”

  •     – E.B. White, in The New Yorker, 7 May 1949

And what a writer he was. (Thoreau I mean, but White too.) Is. Will ever be.

As a high school student in Illinois, I went into the library on some mornings before classes began, early because school started really early in those years.  Our school was overcrowded to the point of overflowing, since in 1971 the second-wave Baby Boomers had just hit grades 9-12 – and we were doubling up on Central High’s space capacity by attending in two overlapping shifts, one starting early and one ending late.

I have a happy memory of sleuthing out the two enormous bound volumes of The Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I had decided, in those typically confused and eclectic years of adolescence, that in and amongst Boy Scouts and jazz trombone; Mountain Gazette, John Denver and WSDM Chicago, there was going to be a place for some reading of this Thoreau fellow’s journals.

And, mirabile dictu, (took Latin in high school too, showing a penchant for flying in the face of conventional wisdom – hey, why not study a dead language? – and maybe a glimpse of my lifelong penchant for being an insufferable pedant, as I am right now) — now, nearly half a century on, I am still reading Thoreau’s journals. Off and on, haphazardly, still early in the morning.  A 2009 edition, edited and cherry-picked by Damion Searls and published by The New York Review of Books, is excellent.  Wander through its 667 pages willy-nilly, and I bet you will soon agree with Mr. White.  “He was a writer, is what he was.”  Yikes, even his journal entries sometimes take my breath away.

Those readers of these posts who actually see me in person now and then might have noticed that in recent months I have taken to the wearing of suspenders on work days – which around here is most days.  This is not an affectation or a yearning for hayseed credentials. Or so I claim.  It is, however, a good way of keeping my trousers sitting comfortably high on my hips as I go through all the bending, lifting, kneeling, squatting, barrel-rolling and heaving that a bush pilot – especially a summertime floatplane bush pilot – does in the course of a day’s work, all while wearing a belt and multiple pockets all loaded up with tools like knife and pliers and carabiner and camera pouch, match-safe and lighter and birchbark in a waterproof packet, a whetstone and a whistle and a magazine of .30-06 bullets, and a bottle of bug dope.  (I have this lifelong dread of someday lying immobilized after a bad wreck, in mosquito country, waiting for help and wondering not whether my injuries will kill me, but whether the bugs will bleed me dry before rescue arrives.) All this, together with the cut of some modern pants and maybe the changing physique of age, and, well, suspenders just seem to help.  Except for that annoying habit the straps have, slipping off my shoulders.

And who could have imagined that Thoreau, he of Walden and Civil Disobedience, could in passing give a fellow worker some useful tips on clothing? Not me. Until the other morning I ran across this, from his journal entry of a summer 165 years ago, June 30, 1856:

“Saw a haymaker with his suspenders crossed before as well as behind. A valuable hint, which I think I shall improve upon, since I am much troubled by mine slipping off my shoulders.”

And thus I came down to breakfast the other morning sporting ‘spenders crossed both front and back.  Looks pretty dorky, I have to say. (My daughters both cringed. Kristen just rolled her eyes.) But man, those straps sure stay up on the shoulders when rigged fore and aft. Thanks, Hank.

This is the kind of simple reassurance I appreciate.  Just a simple reminder that in 165 years, or twice or ten times that long, working men and women are still doing the best they can just to get through their days. The job at hand, the straps that hold us together, the little tricks we learn. A comfort in times like these, and those, and all others. 

A little farther along in the journals of that same 1856 summer, there is a play-by-play, blow-by-blow description of a heroic effort to re-capture a runaway pig.  Henry waxes eloquent as ever on this saga, to just his personal journal, for what must be nearly two thousand words.  I don’t know much about pigs, but his story gave me new insight into pig-headedness, pig cunning, and plain pig orneriness.  He does catch the fugitive, finally, with help from neighbors and a half-dozen fellow Concordians drawn from all over town on a hot August day. (Thoreau lived “in the woods” at Walden Pond for only about two years.  He lived right in his family home in residential Concord for most of his 45-year lifespan, an odd and quirky bachelor, working as a land surveyor and a pencil manufacturer, while moonlighting as a lecturer… and a writer. He knew there was no livelihood in that.)

There is a lesson in his runaway pig story, one I have been trying to think of a way to apply, as analogy, to other situations in life.  It is this:  after the pig was captured and the excitement was nearly over, Henry discovered that the only way to “drive” a pig was to get him to make an enraged lunge at something that was put out in front of him, such as a small boy or a grown Henry, waving a stick.  Trick is, get the angry pig to lunge, but, matador-like, encourage the lunge to be made in the desired direction. This worked for long enough for Henry to take note of it, before he and his young helper finally just dragged the hog-tied hog into a wheelbarrow and rolled him home.

“The door is opened, and the driving commences.  Roll an egg as well. You may drag him, but you cannot drive him… All progress in driving at last was made by facing and endeavoring to switch him from home. He rushed upon you and made a few feet in the desired direction.”

There must be some parables there.  Surely, in military strategy, or self-defense, or politics, maybe even in families, there are situations where the “adversary,” real or figurative, can be made so angry that they rush and lash out and attack, but if the direction of attack can be toward the goal, the pig-headedness can result in progress.

I will be mulling that one over for a while yet. And with no suspenders slipping off my shoulders, at least when I’m out working, because they will be crossed front and back and, thankfully, no one really cares how dorky I look as long as I safely and efficiently accomplish the rest of the aspects of my job. Rubber boots, crossed suspenders, glasses cocked upward so that the temples don’t pass under the headset pads, breaking the seal and letting in more engine noise. I must be quite a sight, but it is best not to worry too much about how one looks while plying a trade.  I know HDT would agree.  He made a point of it, I think.

I am a bundle of contradictions. I like the smell of a spruce campfire in the morning, the quiet lapping of water on a crescent-shaped beach, the steady leverage of my arms and back sent along the shaft of a canoe paddle, the silent trot of a dogteam in fresh snow. I like the steadfast trustworthiness of hand tools – claw hammer, rip saw, brace and auger. I like the way a sail bellies with wind, and the firm ache in my calves as I hump a load over a portage. I like to run, gulping lungfuls of clean cool air.  The movements of life, silent and direct, are beautiful.

I like too the smooth advance of the paired power levers of a 300-series DeHavilland Twin Otter, the spine-shaking thunder of two Pratt and Whitney turbine engines as they spin screaming propeller blades in full fine pitch. I like the ponderous heft of the control yoke pulled back in my lap as we start the takeoff run, the gentle nosing forward as the massive floats rise onto their steps, the glance at the torque gauges pegged on the redlines, and the temperature needles as they climb through 675 degrees Celsius.  Airspeed 60 knots. A gentle tug on the yoke.  Airborne.  Beautiful.

— Chapter 6, North of Reliance, 1994, by Dave Olesen (used by permission.)

NOTE:  As those of you who know me might have guessed, I am a little bamboozled by the recent innovations and “improvements” to the WordPress system of editing and posting these monthly missives.  (“Why can’t they leave well enough alone?” he asks anyone within earshot…)

I am trying to get up to speed, as usual.  Muttering as I go.  Bear with me if you can.  This is a repeat of the May 30th post, with the font corrected and the layout of the poem repaired.  I hope.  Here goes.

In the parlance of pilots, “zero-zero” is shorthand for a no-fly day. Zero visibility, and zero “ceiling” or height of cloud above ground. Zero-zero, say no more, there’s no need to weigh options. It’s a no-brainer. Pour another coffee or, if it’s still too early, just go back to bed.

There is another kind of zero-zero morning, though, and our first one of the year, a week or so ago, sent me straight up onto the roof. At six a.m. the sun was already bright and high and warm. Even from bed I could hear robins, warblers, sparrows, and the distant honking of northbound geese. I got up, dressed, lit the fire, and reached for my weather-record clipboard. (It is good to be a creature of habit. I am one.) For the first time in several weeks, the wind-speed indicator on the left-hand side of the weather station screen was showing a big fat zero. The pennant on its tall pole down by the lakeshore confirmed it. Temperature also reading zero (Celsius), for the first time this month. Yep, time for the rooftop.

When I designed the house that we built here after the fire of 2014, the one feature I clung to most tenaciously from the start was to have inside access out onto the roof. The old house was a two-and-a-half story square, twenty feet on a side. This house is two stories, an octagon ten feet on a facet, but with its raised foundation and two ten-foot ceilings, it is an even taller building than the original.

The low-slope roof has a trapezoidal “lantern” that juts up west of the center peak. I’ve mentioned this in other posts, and I’m sure it will appear again, since a lot of these writings first take shape up there. From the west wall of the lantern, a triple-pane window on stout hinges makes a doorway out onto the roof. This was a great help during the roofing and finishing of the place, and it continues to be in steady use for practical matters like capping, uncapping, and cleaning the stovepipe chimney from season to season. No longer is there any need to go up a forty-foot stepladder and make that jittery first maneuver off the ladder and onto the eave. A move even less pleasant in reverse, from roof to top rung. That little step back and forth needed to happen two or three times a year on the old house, and I don’t miss it one bit.

Anyway, zero-zero. Zero wind and zero degrees. Clear and sunny and spring. Up the ladder to the lantern, swing open the hatch and clamber barefoot out onto the warm black shingles. Coffee mug, binoculars, a light sweater. Take up a perch on the east triangle of the roof, facing the sun and the river mouth. In the foreground I see Kristen wending her way up a bare outcrop across the swale, between drifts of crusty snow. Her morning stroll.

White ice stretches away to the south; mottled pink-and-white rock ridges make the north, west, and east horizons. Birdsong and sunshine all around. As a friend of mine liked to say at appropriate moments around a campfire, or snug in a tent on the tundra, “I wonder what the rich people are doin’ today?”

I pull out my journal and keep working on this, and I’ll post it tonight because hey, there’s no editor in sight!

One Moose, Three Wolves

Low and slow northbound,
tracks west of the river catch my eye.
Odd swipes and arcs
on a little lake close to tree-line.
Caribou?
Throttle back, bank left, drop some flap.
Looks like a hunt.

Trails of paw and hoof
wobble down from a steep ridge,
to become a confusion of lines and loops on the ice.
There! Up on the crest
a splash of red,
one raven flapping, low and slow, right over it.

Big moose, sprawled full length, laid right out,
open to the sky.
White drifts blood-bright in cold sunshine.
Your long days are over, friend.
Eight or ten years of nibble, browse, nap, roam.
And wary, always and forever wary.
Surely this was not your first life-and-death tango,
but clearly it was your last.

Three wolves a hundred yards up the ridge.
They hear the plane, trot away north,
plow through powder shoulder-deep in the hollows.
Brawny fellows, they are a juggernaut, nothing less,
of muscle, savvy, and fangs.
Happy hunters,
bellies full, thick shiny coats,
muzzles stained with gore.

Old story.

— April 2021, upper Hoarfrost River

 

As April ends I am struggling to post something here. My “musings from the Hoarfrost River” have been circling around the same theme for so many weeks that I am getting weary of it, and I hesitate to glaze your eyes over with it. What to do? Maybe I can fall back on that handy dodge of writers who are struggling to find words – that being to quote someone else, some writer you admire, who obviously did have something worthwhile to say. Old trick but a handy one, as tricks go.

Some of my favorite lines of poetry are in a poem by John Haines called “There Are No Such Trees in Alpine, California.” The final stanzas of that poem have been a touchstone for me for over forty years: 

 

“And there I too wanted to stay…

speak quietly to the trees,

tell in a notebook sewn from

their leaves my brief of passage:

long life without answering speech,

grief enforced in that absence;

much joy in the weather,

spilled blood on the snow.

 

With a few split boards,

a handful of straightened nails,

a rake and a broom;

my chair by the handmade window,

the stilled heart come home

through smoke and falling leaves.”

 

 

Isn’t that beautiful? If I ever write a memoir of our years here, I already have a title, thanks to those lines from Haines.  Brief of Passage, with that poem of his as an epigraph on the first page. John lived at a remote homestead in central Alaska. I last spoke with him in Fairbanks in 2004, and he was gracious enough to pretend to recall that we had met and talked and corresponded a few times over the years. He is one of my heroes. He knew that a sub-arctic wilderness life, spread out over decades, finally boils down to just a few rock-bottom realities: long life without answering speech / much joy in the weather / spilled blood on the snow.

 

There is much joy in the weather. Thank goodness. “The weather” – wind, cloud, snow, storm, sun, and a thousand subtle nuances through and beyond and within those elements – sustains our interest, day and night, because it changes hour by hour, day by day, season by season – and year by year. (And of course, as I think Mark Twain said, thank goodness for the weather because most people could never start a conversation without it.)

 

For people immersed in weather, farmers and loggers and bush pilots and mariners, any worker not sequestered in a paved and insulated urban kingdom, every slight change of “the weather” immediately affects some aspect of daily life. All year round, from the suspense of freeze-up in late autumn to the crescendo of spring warmth…  which, hmm, come to think of it, should be well underway by now, shouldn’t it?

 

It should be, but it is not. These days my steadfast joy in weather is tempered by trepidation.  If not downright fear, then at least a good case of the jitters. Hearing news from around the North, I know I am not alone in this. We are on the cusp of a spring meltdown that has potential to wreak havoc. Several factors play in. Here at the Hoarfrost we have near-record snow on the land, and probably a real record snow depth out on the big lake, because McLeod Bay froze so early last fall that it captured the snow of some big storms early on in winter. Usually those first dumps of snow fall into open water out on the bay. Last year they fell on solid ice, and those dumps of snow are still out there. We have never seen such deep snow on the ice. Rivers across the north have been flowing all winter at nearly twice normal volumes, and the water beneath the ice is literally pushing up from below. A simple hole with an ice auger will send water gushing up to prove that.  I have seen a lot of good old-fashioned overflow on lakes, but I have never seen pressurized water below the ice like we have here now. 

 

A couple of nights ago I pulled down our fat binder of handwritten daily weather records, and over dessert I recited aloud to Kristen the high temperatures that we had jotted down for April 27th, from every spring back to 1988.  This assured me that I was not just imagining things, or becoming a predictable old fart who drones on about how things were, way back when.  (My grandmother once said, as she was pushing 90, “Things were different then, David, but not any more.”)

 

We are in a steady trend of cold Aprils and delayed spring melts. It is a fact that is there to be seen in the records. I have no idea how such a pattern could repeat itself year after year, and what is causing it to entrench itself more obviously over these past four Aprils in a row, but it is there. I don’t have any initials after my name, but I do have a thermometer, perseverance, a pen and a notebook.

 

These days I am not nearly as concerned about what might be behind all this coldness as I am about what lies immediately in front of us. Right out the door and the handmade windows, so to speak. Flooding on the ice, powerful freshets sluicing across the land around us, the prospect of hurriedly-constructed wing dams on the north sides of the house and workshop, and our two ski-planes sitting up to their bellies in water out on the flooded lake ice. Who can say for sure how this is going to play out?  The people along the big northern rivers, in Nahanni Butte, Hay River, Fort Simpson, and clear down the Mackenzie, are all just as nervous as we are.  The other day I was musing about all of this, while I was out doing dogyard chores on the icy crust of three-foot snowdrifts, and I started laughing out loud, recalling the punch line of a ribald joke about foreplay in Australia: “Brace yourself, Sheila!”

 

The only certainty is up in the sky, with our local star. Every cold day is just postponing the inevitable. The daily temperatures can somehow hold far below “normal,” with frigid winds pouring in from the Arctic, but that does not change the fact that every day the sun rises a few minutes earlier, climbs higher, sets later and farther into the northwest. Its radiant energy will prevail; there is no Krakatoa or Pinatubo erupting (last I checked!) to make the stratosphere murky with ash. This energy of the sun is an unstoppable melting force, and it gets stronger every day. Even on a twenty-below day, a few flecks of snow on a black skidoo seat in direct sun turn immediately to drops of water. Some probably skip that, and just sublimate.

 

I am pinning a lot of hope on sublimation these days. Sublimation being the direct change of snow and ice to water vapor, a transforming of solids to gases, with no intermediate stage as liquid. Losing all this snow by means of sublimation will be impossible, but sublimation on a grand scale can be impressive. Two springs ago, in mid-March, a powerful Chinook swept up the spine of the northern Rockies and even spilled over into the Mackenzie basin and the far west end of Great Slave Lake. This huge air mass was very warm and dry. There was sublimation up high in the tall ranges west of Fort Nelson, and entire mountaintops changed almost overnight from white to brown – with no runoff down the rivers.  Poof!  Snow became cloud. The old-timers were still talking about it when I was down there a few weeks later.

 

I saw a snow bunting two days ago. First one. Weeks late. That, and a distant golden eagle wheeling high overhead in the midst of another snowy gale last week, are the only two springtime bird arrivals we have seen here so far, and in a few minutes it will be May.  That snow bunting looked right at me, through sideways snow and a biting wind, and put out one pathetic little cheep, which I took as “Hey, bud, what the ___?” 

 

I just shrugged. Much joy, some trepidation. And three cheers for sublimation. Brace yourself.

“It is positively astounding what warmth and vitality that good fat food imparts!” 

— J. C. Critchell Bullock, on the Thelon River, 24 August 1925, in Letters From The Barren Lands, ed. Carsten Iwers, pub. 2019.  

 The Low-Fat Blues

and uh-one, uh-two, uh-one two three four…

Woke up in camp dis’ mornin’

It was twenty five below,

I shuffled to the kitchen tent

To brew a cup o’ Joe.

Got a long cold day a’ comin’

And I’m gonna need some grub

Some serious keel-o-calories,

(…Aye, there’s the rub.)

‘Cause I’m gazin’ at my choices 

Not likin’ what I see

Is there nothin’ in this frickin’ camp

That packs some energy?

The big milk jug is Skim, emblazoned

“Zero Point Zero Percent!”

In big bold capital letters

Like some weird new compliment.

The yogurt in its plastic tub

Is bright and upbeat too,

But that irksome goose-egg Zero,

Man, this just won’t do.

Chorus

Gimme fat, gimme grease,

I want nothin’ marked with “Oh.”

Pile it on, spread it thick,

Oh baby, feel the glow.

I’m searchin’ for some fat,

Thick grease is what I crave

To stoke my fires and make some heat

And fuel the workin’ Dave.

Lite Margarine, Lite Cheese, Skim Milk,

Good lord what have they done?

Will they take the fat from butter,

Render bacon “zero” fun?

The human brain is huge, I’ve read, 

And sixty percent fat,

You people need to shake your heads,

And give a thought to that.



(Muttered: While you can still think.)

I step outside, the tundra’s bleak,

The wind is whippin’ strong,

I’m feelin’ pretty desperate 

This day’s clearly startin’ wrong.

But as they say out on the sea,

“Any port in a storm,”

I’m eye-in’ that Canola oil

‘Cause that’ll keep me warm.

Chorus

I pour three swigs into a pan

Fry up some store-bought bread,

It’s gluten-free, but still there’s hope 

That this will keep me fed.

It sizzles and turns dark and brown,

While that yummy oil soaks in,

I pile on some o’ that strange Lite cheese,

Now I might have a chance to win.

But really it’s a desperate move 

Just desperate, but I’ll try,

I’ll maybe make it through the day, 

And on toward home I’ll fly.

And there, at home, is fat to eat,

Rich trout and butter and bear, 

I’ll try to take it easy,

Once I make it there.

But here in camp, oh man,

It does just make me wonder,

No fat, no cream, no bacon, 

And full winter on de tundra!

Chorus

Fade to… white. 

Bring up sound of blizzard wind, a distant howling wolf….

So.  (Notice how almost every narrative and interview nowadays, even on the radio, starts with “so?” Drives me nuts.)

So we were flying along this afternoon on about mile 400 for the day, staring out our respective sides of the plane, looking 500 feet down at a trackless expanse of snowy taiga forest northeast of Whati, Northwest Territories.  Dean, my longtime biologist passenger and partner in many a long day of wildlife-survey flying over the past 26 years, said over the intercom, “Dave, you know frogs are not reptiles.”

“Yeah, I know that. Frogs are amphibians.”

“Well, in your blog last week you wrote that they were reptiles.”

“What? I did?”

Yep, I did. Sorry people, frogs are amphibians. I wrote that the amazing cryogenic-wizard wood frogs, Rana sylvatica, were the world’s northernmost reptiles, and of course they are not reptiles, they are amphibians.

Which of course begs the question, what is the world’s northernmost reptile? Quick search-engine visit… drum roll. And the winner is… The viviparous lizard of Europe and Asia.  But how about on this side of the pond?  In North America the red-sided garter snake might be a candidate, living in the very southern reaches of the NWT, near Fort Smith, 200 miles straight south of the Hoarfrost River.  Encyclopedia Britannica, on the other hand, opines that no reptiles occur north of 60 degrees north latitude, in North America.  I know that is wrong, since I have talked to people (again on long boring wildlife-survey transect flights; it’s amazing what topics can come up) who have seen our north-of-sixty garter snakes.

So anyway.  There you have it. Correction published. As we finished up for the day and taxied in from the Whati airport’s snow-packed airstrip, Dean said, “Well guys, not very many moose today, pretty surprising really.  Oh and Dave — moose are mammals.

Bonus frog poem, which was a lot funnier after two or three beers back in college days, delivered by my copain Robert Savignac in a thick Quebecois patois, a la William Henry Drummond, wit’ de ac-cent on de wrong syl-la-ble:

What a won’erful bird de frog are

When he sit, he stan’ almos’

When he stan’, he fly almos’

He ain’t got no sense hardlee

He ain’t got no tail hardlee ee-der

When he sit, he sit on what he ain’ got,

Almos’.