“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. Ilike 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.
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.
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:
So long February. It’s been real. I guess I am not going to see Pollux set behind the northwest ridge. Every clear morning lately I have sought him out, if the timing was right, from my lookout perch, a little cubicle that juts up from the roof of our house. I’ve been wondering whether that one star will still be visible, from this spot on the planet, when it touches the ridge-top horizon, or whether the steadily mounting wash of dawn, banishing the night stars earlier every day, will overtake it. It looks like that is what is going to happen.
Here we have had long steady weeks of calm weather, cold and ringing clear as a bell on every quadrant, the smoke rising straight up from the chimneys into azure sky and sunshine. Not a breath of wind for days at a stretch. Ten days ago I saw a first tentative icicle on the brink of a south-facing eave, along a dark roof edge facing south. Out cutting and hauling wood that day, I stripped to just a wool t-shirt on top, but still in heavy double trousers over longjohns and with my mittens still on. Our daylight gain is a solid six minutes every day now, which comes to nearly three hours over the month. The snow, which is deeper than we have had here for decades, lies pillow-soft across the curves of the land, and stretches away in rolling wind-hardened drifts on the lakes. Travel away from any broken trail now demands some serious perseverance. Bring snowshoes, the big no-nonsense kind.
A phrase came into my mind the other day: “the fullness of February.” It stuck. I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with my appreciation of this month, and its character. Winter, pure and simple. I love this fullness of February. Or maybe, in the current jargon, what I really love is the “full-on-ness” of February. February makes no apologies, does not negotiate, offers and accepts no excuses. It takes no prisoners. It says, “Okay, listen up. If you slip up or screw up too badly, on the wrong day, too far from fire or shelter or assistance, you are dead meat, pal. You got that?”
Like January, February holds no Solstice or Equinox or change of season, but this second month of deepest winter is much more lovable than its predecessor. February is the mirror image of August, which is, I think, the best month of summer. Because both February and August still manage to tease us with a few subtle foreshadowings, little hints of what lies ahead.
In August I love the return of stars to the night sky, the return of some cool darkness after the sometimes-wearisome non-stop sunlight of June and July. The demise of the mosquitoes is welcome too, of course, and the faltering of the very hottest afternoons. And now, in the fullness of February, I love the inertia, the certainty –especially amidst so much uncertainty – of that unstoppable accretion of daylight. If that were to falter, well, all our other worries would look a little trivial by comparison.
This morning Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, were fading fast as the northwest horizon loomed up toward them. The dawning of the day over in the eastern sky is washing them out. Week by week they are saying goodbye, and soon it will be time for some new star companions, if I happen to rise early enough to see any stars at all. That will require some very early risings in the months ahead. So long, twin brothers, it’s been pleasant having morning coffee with you.
The last day of the month is clear, calm, and cold again. The electronic thermometer is stuck at -41.4, where it gives up and refuses to read any lower. It is colder than that, for sure, somewhere down in what we lately have been calling the “surface-of-Mars realm.” (Just to be clear, I am no fan of forty and fifty below zero, except as a sort of occasional chin-up bar test, with the ensuing slightly-weird northern bragging rights. Yep, still okay. Now can we be finished with that again, please?)
I woke up thinking, oddly enough, about the wood frogs. Northernmost and “alpine-most” amphibians in the world. We see them every summer, in July and August, on the warmest days, down along the little creek below the workshop. Delicate moist mottled skin, tiny dark eyes that must have been the inspiration for “beady-eyed,” exquisitely formed limbs ending in tiny finger pads. Every time I see one, I cannot help but think of February. Strange, I know. Right now, as nautical twilight eases to civil twilight and another frigid day dawns, the frogs of summer are down there, somehow, beneath those deep white snowdrifts, down near the line where creek-ice bonds with creek-mud, and they are somehow suspended in a state of being that no one can fathom, or fully explain. And alive. Yes, just biding their time. See you on the flip side, guys, if we all should be so lucky. I’ll be walking the beach on a hot August afternoon, pulling up a canoe or heading down to swim. Ribbet, ribbet. Oh, there you are.
In Sharon Chester’s superb book The Arctic Guide, I read this:
“Frogs of the Far North have adapted to the arctic climate in a remarkable way – they freeze solid in winter and thaw out in spring. As winter approaches, each frog makes a shallow depression in leaf litter and places dead vegetation over the hollow for insulation. As soon as the frog’s skin touches an ice crystal, solid ice envelops the body cavity, bladder, and subcutaneous tissues. The frog stops breathing, its heart stops beating, its blood stops flowing, and it cannot move. Only the vital organs remain unfrozen, this due to high concentrations of glucose and urea that accumulate in its tissues in summer. Both act as cryoprotectants, which limit ice formation and reduce osmotic shrinkage of cells. When the soil warms in spring the frog’s frozen parts thaw, its heart and lungs resume activity, and in a few hours, the frog can jump and mate.”
The deep torpor of my fellow mammals I can almost imagine. The slumbering bears and marmots, the thick fur, the humid funky-smelling dens, the heart and body functions slowed… weeks and months passing. But these frogs with that paper-thin moist skin, those tiny naked finger-pads, are something else entirely. They are cool to the touch even on an August day whenever the sun slips behind clouds, the wind gets up, and a few small birches are showing a yellow leaf or two.
Now, somewhere down in that frozen muck, the wood frogs are akin to interstellar astronauts on some fantastic future voyage, sequestered and somehow pickled in liquid nitrogen preservatives as they prove out Einstein and grow younger with each passing light-year, hurtling across the cosmos to take a peek at the far side of Castor or Pollux.
How would it feel to wake up from such a state, to regain, moment by moment, tiny hints of movement and breath and consciousness? I can only imagine. Except that I can’t. Come August, and my next lucky glimpse of a wood frog, I know I will think back to February. I will stand there barefoot on hot sand, evening sun on my warm brown shoulders, and I will probably just sigh and shake my head, dumbfounded yet again.
Maybe one of these years I will make it through the month of January and never find myself out cutting firewood. It should be pretty simple, after all. Theoretically. conceivably, ideally, yes yes I know. We use wood at the average rate of n armloads, or cubic feet, or sled loads, or cords per day, over x many days; therefore, going into late autumn we will require n times x of whatever the units are, and what could be so complicated about that? Huh? You there, squirming uncomfortably and looking up at the ceiling — I’m waiting, and I’ve been waiting for years. Okay then, try to make peace with this reality, and at the same time try not to take this need for some mid-winter top-ups to our various woodpiles as a reflection of larger personal shortcomings as a human being, a woodsman, or a husband.
Midwinter in the sub-arctic is not the best season for gathering wood. It is not the ideal season for the gathering of anything, in deep snow on short cold days. Better a time to gather one’s thoughts, on brief outings in the bracing air, then to scurry back inside, to resume a project in the workshop or at the desk. Or to perch in a comfortable chair by the fire and watch the flicker of flames, just gathering stored-up sunshine from past decades, burning logs that were sensibly felled, bucked, hauled, and stacked way back in May or October, by someone capable of sixth-grade algebra. Midwinter is the perfect season to relish the lines from My Fair Lady, and the sweet voice of Julie Andrews: “Lots of chocolate for me to eat, lots of coal makin’ lots of heat, warm face warm hands warm feet, oh wouldn’t it be loverly.”
Yes, it would be loverly. It is. We do that sometimes. Leaping a little too quickly to my own defense, let me clarify the situation here. The wood sheds are not empty. They are, uh, depleted, and that is not good because it is only late January. Three and a half months of firewood consumption, in five separate wood-burners, lie ahead.
The weather gurus at Environment Canada produce a map of northern North America every Thursday morning, depicting the temperature forecast for the coming four weeks. Being a weather nerd, I rarely miss a week of checking it. On this map the color blue denotes a greater than fifty-fifty chance of temperatures being “colder than normal.” On the latest one, for the month of February starting Monday, a giant blue blob covers all of Canada, like a glacier of the Ice Age, and spills far down over the northern half of the U.S. So I assure myself that by getting my butt out there and gathering more firewood at this season, I am not just paying the price for improvidence and poor planning. No, I am being proactive. Time to send Julie Andrews back inside and segue to Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger. . . Henry V – Act 3..
There are some comforts to this necessity, one being that after decades of doing it, I daresay I am the unrivalled local expert on mid-winter wood gathering. I have experience, after all, built up over 33 years of being such an improvident, short-sighted… no no no. Oh and the marital harmony aspect, never to be ignored, because just as in the old adage “No man has ever been shot while doing dishes,” likewise “No man has ever been shot while felling, hauling, bucking, splitting, or stacking firewood at thirty below zero.” Righto. Let’s leave the dishes for this evening and go find some firewood.
Choices, immediately. First off, transport. Will it be skidoo, or dogteam, or just wandering around out back on snowshoes to drop some standing dead trees alongside the trail for pickup later on? Second – and this might surprise most people – choice of cutting tool. Chainsaw, Swede saw, or the trusty old axe. Each has merits and disadvantages. Third, choice of sled – the favorite by far being the bobsled with twin bunks and cross-chains, built years ago by a Yukon high-school shop class on the pattern of a New Brunswick one-horse logging sled. But the bobsled needs a packed trail to haul a good load. Sometimes in a fresh cutting area the big plastic skimmer is better to start with, heaped up with stove rounds bucked right where the trees fall. And finally, should I wear snowshoes large or small, or just go wade through the snow in mukluks? Tradeoffs there, too.
Where to cut, where to deliver the wood (shop, house, barn, sauna, guest cabin); which then dictates the best sizes and lengths for bucking. And finally, what to cut? There are three options: spruce, birch, and tamarack. Standing-dead spruce, white and black, are all around us in every size from dainty to jumbo, and this is the wood we depend upon for everything from building to burning. Birch, killed by wildfire and standing bark-free now for over six years, is beautiful stuff, and burns more efficiently than spruce, by about a quarter or so. One problem with birch is that I wind up not wanting to cut some of the bigger pieces into stove-wood because they are too enticing a raw material for woodworking and furniture. Tamarack never grows very large here, but it is a dense wood that burns almost twice as hot as spruce, and it holds fires overnight in the stoves.
It all becomes one of those motion studies of time and efficiency, calories burned, gas consumed, engines and blades worn, versus BTU’s gained, and as with all studies (yawned over any of those lately?) “the results are somewhat surprising.” Surprising, because the knee-jerk choice in our motor-driven, gas-powered, speed-and-noise-and-fume-worshiping day and age would seem to be skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw. “Go big or go home.” “Git ‘er done.” “Time is money.”
But hold on. Say it’s 30 below. If you value your eyeballs, and your hearing, using the chainsaw at that temperature means either fogged-up safety glasses, which are not safe at all, with ear muffs or foam ear plugs, or the combo hard-hat earmuff face-screen that precludes wearing a warm hat and will, within minutes, result in a wire-mesh face-screen clogged with rime ice and frozen snot. The chainsaw is a heavy thing to tote around while snowshoeing, and its carburetion gets a little finicky below about 25 below. The chain has been known to discover boulders and bedrock lying hidden beneath the snow, instantly dulling the teeth and sending me back to the shop for a half hour of sharpening and filing. (Not unpleasant, but certainly not efficient.) The Swede saw or bow saw is light, almost weightless, and on trees up to about six inches thick at the stump it cuts very efficiently. A sharp axe is great in really deep cold, and is always the last resort anytime something else breaks down or fails. Just whacking away is so pleasant sometimes.
You get the idea. A lot depends on what mood I am in. Given a moment, I can make a case for almost any combo.
This afternoon feels like a snowshoe, bowsaw-and-axe, skidoo-and-bobsled, tamarack day. I will go cut in a thick stand of fire-killed tamarack up on the dogsled trail east of the river. Using the Swede saw will make for easier maneuvering in the thickets. I won’t need safety glasses (but please don’t tell the truly whacked-out safety gurus out there that I operate a handsaw with only my eyelids as safety gear.) I will get a good workout on snowshoes, and my hands will stay warm. There will be no noisy saw to fuel up and adjust, to tote and thaw and set down carefully out of the snow.
Best of all, it will be quiet. Just the huffing of my breath and the sound of saw teeth and axe swipes. Peaceful, until I start up the skidoo to tow the load home. I will wind up with a big load of a few dozen heavy three-to-six inch tamarack poles piled on the bunks of the bobsled. Some day soon I can buck the poles to stove lengths with the chainsaw, and stack the rounds in a “tamarack-only” pile on one side of the shed.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends. A good round of huffing and puffing, some sweat-soaked wool with a delicate patina of frost, and a load of golden-hearted tamarack. On the trail home I’ll be singing at the top of my lungs over the snarl of the Bravo’s valiant little 25-horse motor: “Oh so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still. I would never budge ’til Spring crept over the windowsill.”
Kristen, my saintly wife and the homestead matriarch, is a wizard and a whirlwind in our woodstove kitchen. My own culinary skills and interests are mostly limited to boiling coffee water, making Saturday sourdough pancakes, roasting slabs of fish on the outdoor fire, and almost-always-cheerfully washing big piles of dishes. As early-winter daylight dwindles, our cold-weather appetites kick in. So it is a happy fact that here at the Hoarfrost River we have always enjoyed not just one, but two full-on Thanksgiving dinners. Clever as can be, we label the one in early October “Canadian Thanksgiving,” and 45 days later we sit down to “American Thanksgiving.” There are usually no turkeys involved, but there is always good food and plenty of it.
This doubled-down Thanksgiving is wonderful from the pumpkin-pie, gravy, and fresh rolls standpoint, believe me. The second one also says a lot about the strength of traditions and the durability of origins, and about our memory and our innermost allegiances. Thanksgiving in October seems all well and good, but when that final Thursday in November rolls around, we both know, deep down, that it’s just gotta be a holiday around here.
When our ancestors, on all sides and branches of the extended families, left Scandinavia for North America in the mass exodus of the late 1800’s, they brought their own holiday calendars with them, too, including Santa Lucia Day on December 13 th. A crown of candles on a white-robed daughter and pre-dawn gatherings for coffee and pastries in houses with no electric lights allowed. My sister still keeps that tradition alive in Minneapolis, every year, to the great delight of her mostly non-Scandinavian friends and neighbors.
These are small things, you say, just nostalgic gestures. But are they? We can all leave a country behind and become citizens of another. But can we? How are we coded, deep down, by our countries of origin and the ambience of those “formative” years? Kristen and I are immigrants. Maple leaves on our passports, yes, and taxes all paid to CRA, not IRS, but we are “American ex-pats” always and forever. (Some Canadians consider that a derogatory label, trust me.) This past month we have done a lot of mulling and musing over that strange brew of allegiances, upbringing, attitudes, and roots that gets lumped under the heading of “patriotism.”
A little story, my story, to start with:
In 1957 a boy was born in Moline, Illinois, a small city on the Mississippi River. His mother was twenty; his father was twenty-six. Eisenhower was President. In Canada John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, although, as usual, maybe two out of ten thousand Americans would have known that. Sputnik had just been launched. On the streets of Moline and Rock Island, Vietnam was as unfamiliar a name as Diefenbaker.
Dad worked at the local television and radio station, where his appearance as Mr. Peterson the Swedish Postman on the afternoon kid’s show was a popular gig. Television was small and local, new and exciting, and it was all in black-and-white. A lot of things were all in black and white, in Illinois and in America, in 1957.
Within the year the family moved north and east to Crystal Lake, a town along the Wisconsin line, northwest of Chicago. Dad began a long career as a high-school teacher. A sister soon graced the scene, and later another. The boy’s years blur together, just the good moments remembered. Fishing at the gravel pits, bicycles on dirt paths, baseball on back lots, a cold basketball bouncing on a concrete driveway in autumn dusk, to the smell of burning leaves. Trombone practice and tornado-warning sirens. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and camp-outs in Stearn’s Woods.
Politics? Well, there’s November 1963, walking home from first grade to find Mom standing in front of the television in mid-afternoon, watching awful news come in from Dallas. And there’s August 1968, at the ripe old age of ten, with the television on downstairs late one night, still in black-and-white, the screen and commentary a frantic melee from Chicago’s Grant Park — just over an hour’s drive away. The Democratic convention, Hoffman and Hayden, Humphrey and Daly. Confusion, mayhem, billy-clubs, gas masks. Uncle George and Aunt Jean, Mom and Dad, all leaning forward toward the screen. Up to bed you go, young man.
Every morning at school, announcements over the loudspeaker from Mr. Husman the Principal, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at the front of the classroom, the Stars and Stripes. Fifty years on, and the words are still right there in my mind, without the slightest pause or effort to recall them:
I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republicfor which it stands
With liberty and justice for all.
End of little story. Moral: No salmon has ever been more thoroughly imprinted with the chemistry of its home stream than that boy was infused with the scenes, sounds, scents, and repetitive recitations of his youth. (How about you?)
Fast forward to a July morning in 1990, here at the Hoarfrost River. Kristen and I were out in front of the old log cabin, the original “Jimmie Colburn shack,” enjoying an alfresco breakfast when a power boat rounded the headland and turned in toward us. I laughed when through the binoculars I saw the woman on the boat looking right back at me through her own binoculars. She laughed too, and we waved. They came ashore. Clint and Jan, out cruising and camping, from Yellowknife. Two little children. Introductions all around. He worked at the Con Mine, as an engineer or a geologist, and they had lived all around the world.
We gave them our own story in a nutshell. They both laughed out loud. “The minute we saw this place,” said Jan, “I told Clint and the kids I’d bet my bottom dollar you were Americans.”
She then gave us her succinct and witty rundown on the national character of Canadians, Aussies, New Zealanders (like her husband), Brits, South Africans, and Americans (like herself.) It was a fascinating set of insights, mostly to do with the relation of each country to its great outdoors, its back-country and wilderness, its vision of the perfect mix of urban and rural living, and its ideals of cottage and cabin life. I wish I had it all on tape.
Jan’s instant assessment was still fresh in my mind when later that summer I stood before Thomas Eagle in Yellowknife. He was a Citizenship Judge, with a small office on Franklin Avenue. (Sir John Franklin, not Ben.) Judge Eagle was Ojibwe Anishinabe. He was a veteran of the Canadian military, and he was a lifelong advocate for the welfare of Metis and First Nations people. He was a handsome old man with a soldier’s posture. He had black-and-grey hair, bronze skin, and high cheekbones. I still remember standing there looking at him, taking in his appearance and knowing a little about his background, and then looking down at the words of the Citizenship Pledge I was about to recite. I remember thinking, ”He really wants me to say this? With a straight face? Yep. Evidently he does.” And so I did, looking Tom Eagle right in the eye to see if I could spot any twinkle there, any small acknowledgement of the many layers of irony rife in that moment. I could not. The oath goes like this, for those of you who have never actually taken it:
“I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
Weird, huh? The Queen? And the pronoun Her capitalized? Elizabeth, descendant of King George, whose redcoats the Yankees rose up to oust in 1776, so that they could start their new experiment, their Republic “with liberty and justice for all.” Americans are a rebellious bunch, and I remember feeling a little too “American” in my attitude and outlook as I recited that antiquated oath and thus became a Canadian citizen.
We take a lot with us when we leave a country and go to live in another. I well remember how much material “stuff” I had with me when my Dad and I pulled into the border crossing between Minnesota and Ontario on a muggy July night in 1987, for my official entry into Canada. Two worn-out pickup trucks each towing a trailer, one with two dogsleds lashed down on top, and on each truck roof a lashed-down canoe. A dozen huskies; crates of tools and books; chainsaws, skis, snowshoes; bundles of clothes; a ton of dog kibble. Jed Clampett would have been proud of us.
What I could not see, though, was how much “stuff” I had between my ears, stuff that was American through and through and was most definitely coming north with me, and that – unlike the dogs and gear and clothes – was never going to die or wear out.
Fast forward again, to November 2020. It has been a strange month, Kristen and I both constantly “checking in” by radio and phone and satellite inter-tube from our snow-globe bubble of germ-free taiga, as a tumultuous election and rampant disease have threatened a descent into total chaos south of the border. Today, as the month ends and the year winds down, maybe there is some calm on the horizon, but I am edgy. This ain’t over yet, I think.
From here, though, it is hard to know what to think, hard to hold an opinion that will not the very next day go up for grabs again. Will he? Will they? Won’t he? How could they? What if? What if not?
“It’s just a shitshow.” That same exact phrase, within 24 hours, came from two different people. My brother-in-law, who lives just blocks from the spot where George Floyd was killed and where burned-out and boarded-up buildings mark the aftermath of the riots that followed; and another good friend, writing from his timber-frame farmhouse off to the west.
The discord and upheaval haven’t quite brought me to tears yet. There have been times when things “down there” have done just that. Three different occasions come to mind. One, sitting alone on the houseboat in Yellowknife Bay on the morning of September 11, 2001, tears of anguish welled up as I listened to radio reports from New York. Seven years later, tears of wonder, as I sat alone in a motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., glued to the television while a hopeful and eloquent former Senator from Illinois took the oath of office as America’s 44 th President. And most recently, almost four years ago in January, sitting alone in the workshop on a bitterly cold morning, in front of the woodstove, hearing the first few paragraphs of number 45’s Inaugural Address immediately plunge into vitriol and finger-pointing. Tears again, just sad and bewildered.
The only thing I know for certain these days is that when it comes to these “ex-pat” compartments of my mental life, I am indeed in a snow-globe bubble, locked to a false and filtered notion of current events and everyday life in the old country. Because, of course, another aspect of moving away from anywhere, or anything, is that we lock it into our memory as it was, and it stays there unchanged. For example, distant friends or relatives have children. We see them, we meet the kids, and then ten or twenty years go by, and somehow we are surprised when – voila – we hear that little Betsy is now lecturing in anthropology or Rob is off fighting fires in the Yukon. How could this be? Aren’t they still giggling and trying to tie their shoes, like they are in our trustworthy mind’s eye? It’s the same with countries, and with ex-pats. Kristen and I cannot claim, after more than three decades of living in Canada, to know or understand what it is to be American in 2020. Face it, we tell each other. We don’t understand because we have been gone too long. Visits are just visits. (On the flip side, the far north and its legacy of opinionated non-resident visitors comes to mind.)
November is usually a tough month here, but for other reasons. It’s a bad month for flying weather, but with the current state of the pandemic shutdown there has been virtually no flying to do. Both planes are just tied down on the ice like a couple of expensive lawn ornaments. It’s the month of freeze-up, and for this year that is already finished, the second earliest ever in our time here, and in Kristen’s words it was “just not all that dramatic.” One day the lake was open, and the next day it was frozen.
We had our American Thanksgiving the other night, with an entrée of Dall sheep from the Nahanni Range, courtesy of a friend who was up there in September. Kristen moved gracefully around the kitchen, tending pots and doughs, and she was so absolutely enthused about it all that I wondered whether cooking and feasting on the final Thursday of November is some sort of genetic gender imprint or a North Dakota soil-chemistry side-effect.
And this November I have concluded that there is no such thing as an “ex-pat.” There is always and forever patriotism , which of course should just as well, and much more accurately, be called matriotism. And we might as well pre-emptively coin “they–triotism,” in advance of someone claiming that they somehow came to life without ever having a mater or a pater.
And for now, the usual cluck-clucking from north of the border will go on, watching the “shitshow” and the “meth lab” to the south. Schadenfreude is as common among neighbors as borrowing a cup of sugar – or as borrowing a cup of sugar used to be, in my locked-in memory of 1960’s small-town Illinois. You see, there I go again. When did somebody last go borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors?
As I said the other day to Kristen over our lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers, “Man, I’d give my eye teeth to have a few neighbors drop by.” And right now there are more people than ever who know what we mean by that.
Montana literary legend A. B. Guthrie, Jr. liked to say that if he could rewrite Genesis, it would open: “In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was change.“— David Petersen, in his book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America
Winter roared in with a five-day gale in mid-October, bringing snow that has not melted, so I guess this is it. Last Sunday afternoon I filled a thermos with cocoa, coffee, and a splash of cream, and walked down to the beach to chip the ice from the hull of an overturned canoe. Lumpy rollers were pushing in on a south wind, so I carried the canoe to a little eddy of calm water behind the island and slipped it into the lake. I put my rifle and knapsack into the tip of the stern, set a couple of paddles aboard, and eased down between the bow seat and the center thwart. I knelt on my life jacket and pushed off. (Apologies to the safety police, but I could not possibly wear a Personal Flotation Device over all my warm clothes and still swing a paddle.) The breeze was below freezing, but barely, and once I was out and away from the beach it was pure pleasure to feel the lift and surges of those big waves. I hugged the shoreline and paddled east. I was so close to land, and over such shallow water, that if my little vessel had swamped or capsized I would have just stood up and waded ashore.
The water was deeper, though, and dark and fast and ominous, as I crossed over the main channel of the river. The Hoarfrost is still running so high in late October that we are constantly remarking to each other about it. I bumped the canoe’s bow stem into the rim of ice on the east bank. One lens of my glasses dropped right out of its frame as I stood up to get out, and I had a brief glimpse of that thin wisp of clear glass, just as the surge of the next wave pulled it away forever. For the rest of the day I wore the glasses with just the right lens in place, and I got a few laughs back home when I showed up cock-eyed. Luckily, I only need glasses for hunting, and legally nowadays for flying, and surprisingly one lens seems almost as good as two.
I flipped the canoe over in the snow at the river’s edge, put on my knapsack and slipped a round into the rifle, safety on. I walked a few yards southeast along the shoreline and turned up a steep rise on the path we call The Mail Trail. We cut this trail in 1989, when I desperately needed to sign a document that we knew would be in the mail bag going into the weather station at Reliance. There was a ski-plane booked to deliver that mail bag and some groceries to the station, and the pilot, Peter Arychuk, kindly landed to meet me up at a frozen inland lake. Kristen and I cut a trail to the lake, met Peter, and we had coffee around a fire while I signed my paper. There were caribou up there that day, drifting past, but back then caribou in autumn were so common that we hardly mentioned it.
As I walked away from the canoe I was thinking back to the origin of the Mail Trail and trying to discern its uphill route through the new snow. Our familiar trails are all burned over now, and it has been surprisingly hard for us to find them at the start of every winter. The dogs find them more easily than we do.
I was moose hunting, but I hesitate to call it that. By southern standards, it hardly looked like hunting – no blaze-orange vest, no camouflage hat, no scope on the rifle, no paraphenalia. I was just walking, very slowly, and pausing often, and listening and constantly looking around. Yes, I had my .30-06 carbine, and it was loaded. My sheath knife was on my belt, and in my pockets I had cord, some fire-starters, and a sharpening stone. But all those tools and backups are on my person almost every day of the year, unless I am in town, when I really do need to remember to take the sheath knife off my belt. I was just looking, and being quiet and slow about it. To me, “looking” only becomes “hunting” if I happen to cross a fresh track, or catch a glimpse of dark movement up on a ridge or down in a swale. Or, as has happened many times, I just turn my head to one side and suddenly see, staring right back at me, not so many yards off, a moose. Where, oh where, did you come from, oh so silently?
It was not always this way. In the years from 1989 until about 2005, I hunted moose like a man possessed, starting like clockwork on the autumn equinox and carrying on, sometimes frustrating everyone involved, until the enormous front and hind quarters of a moose were hung in the meat cache. Those long-ago mornings off down the shore in my boat fed my soul, and I treasure them, but something has changed now. I still want to eat what is around me, and I still hunt moose to do so, but the obsession has eased. I am pondering this change, among many others.
In 1989 Kristen and I went for a walk and reconnoitered the route that would need to be cut to meet that mail plane with a dog sled team. That, too, was a late-October Sunday; we were in the first year of our marriage. Her hair was dark, mine was thick and curly, and I suppose my gait and posture, seen from a little distance,were a lot more fluid and limber than they are nowadays. (Lifting heavy things, our joke used to be, “Remember to lift with your back, boys, your knees won’t last forever.” Oh, the flippancy of youth. I floated that quip a couple of summers ago, hoisting logs for the new house, and all I got from my comrades was a soft groan and a couple of raised eyebrows.)
I wrote about that long-ago Sunday with Kristen, and how it swiftly changed, in North of Reliance:
Suddenly from up ahead we heard the clatter of antlers… The woods were filled with caribou…sweeping in from the northeast, deflected by the open water of McLeod Bay… Some of the caribou, not to be deterred by a mere ten miles of frigid water, actually waded out past the shorefast ice and started swimming south … A steady stream of caribou. La Foule,the voyageurs had called them – “the throng.”
In those years, the late eighties and early nineties, the Bathurst caribou herd was nudging the half-million mark. Maybe more, maybe less – the counting of caribou is always a guessing game. In the parlance of the locals, there were “really really lots” of caribou around in those years.
Same patch of snow-covered sandy bench above the east riverbank. Thirty years on, just a blip, a sliver of time. Kristen had come on a walk with two friends this past September, looking for berries, and she told me that evening that she had thought about this bench of tall timber and how it used to be, and remembered that long-ago Sunday and those throngs of caribou. She told me she was surprised at how utterly “bleak” and scorched the bench was now, what a scene of chaos and devastation, even on a bright blue late-summer day six years after the fire. And she told me she was surprised that this still surprised her.
In early winter, with a gray sky and a cold south wind, six inches of new snow on the stumps and snags, “bleak” is completely inadequate. Quick, call Cormac for another new adjective. Blackened trunks of charred trees, tipped and fallen and lying all akimbo in every direction, some hollowed by the flames into weird charcoal gargoyles partway up thick trunks, massive webs of tipped root clusters, hung with clumps of sand and small boulders still snared in their tangle when they were yanked sideways up out of the ground. Not a track on the snow anywhere, not so much as a mouse or a squirrel, and not a bird in sight. And most certainly not a caribou within fifty or a hundred miles of here, today. Not one.
It was sobering, but I did not find it sad. I feel like we have been given a rare, true, glimpse of “the real deal” here, by this long lesson we are living in now. All my early life was steeped in the grandeur and glory of the woods and the wilderness, my reading and thinking always tending to paeans of color and light and the balance of nature. The words of Muir and Thoreau, the colorful images and upbeat narrations of Disney and Cousteau. I took that bait, and I am glad to have done so, because I have lived out so many of my boyhood dreams, way back of beyond out here in pristine and wondrous country.
And now, farther along the road, I am being shown the flip side of all this, the facets of the jewel that I could not have comprehended earlier on. I will not live long enough to see this bench festooned with century-old spruce again, the ground beneath them carpeted with fifty or seventy-five years of soft green lichen. And until that lichen is there, the caribou will never linger long in this part of the country. They may pass through, as they did in long-ago Octobers, coming down off the barrens and finding the lake still open here to deflect them either east or west. There are limits to this massive burn, of course, and out beyond the charred country the growth must have been good over this past summer of extraordinary moisture and sunshine. The feeding will be getting better, and I will go out on a limb and predict that the Bathurst caribou will cycle upward again soon. Maybe someday they will swing down through here again, the bulls sparring, the cows skittering with their half-grown calves at their sides, the ravens overhead and the wolves and wolverines and foxes all in trail.
Or not. See how easily I still slide into that seductive Disney vision, that “Nature is always going to make things perfect if we only let her” litany? It’s like the mantra of a cult buried in my head, so deeply and at such a young age, that I circle back to it whether I try to or not. But does it hold water? Maybe the caribou will go extinct, you know. Every species does, after all. What gets them? Change.
Mulling and musing, looking, I had walked by then up beyond the level bench, past a furrowed trough in the snow with pawprints that I took to be porcupine, over some low ridges and onto a high smooth slab of pink rock, burned clean of all lichen and blown clean of snow. These patches of clean granite and gneiss have been one true gift of the fire, and I love walking on them. There, way up on top with a view south out over the dark gray lake to the far hills, I paused alongside a giant boulder. It sits just perched up there, half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Jagged and sharp-edged, not tumbled or rounded at all, as if it had just cleaved from a cliffside. But there is no cliff within two miles of it. What? Hello? How did you get here? It looks like it was flung from outer space. Out east they say “God took six days to make Labrador, and on the seventh day He rested and threw rocks at it.”
I walked on. Eye out for a moose, rifle in hand. Not hunting, but ready to hunt if the opportunity came. Thinking about that boulder, and about changes.