Every year in autumn comes “changeover.” Floatplanes are only useful in this part of the world for four months, give or take, for the simple reason that they land on liquid water, not frozen water.  The season is up.  June fifteenth to September twenty-fifth, this year — a pretty short run.  For me, and our little mom- and-pop flying biz, changeover means a 550-mile flight south and mostly west, to Fort Nelson, British Columbia.  That is our contracted Maintenance shop, with engineers, tools, spares, and a big hangar, which is a requirement for commercial air operators.

At Fort Nelson there is no convenient lake or slough adjacent to the airport, so when it comes time to end the water-flying season we perform the rather bizarre maneuver of landing floatplanes on the grass (preferably but not always the frosty or slightly snowy grass) of the infield alongside the runway.  This sounds dramatic, and for the first few times it is one of those moments known in aviation as sphincter-crunchers.  It is surprisingly uneventful, though, so long as certain rules of thumb are kept in mind:  have the touchdown area walked and marked by trusted people; don’t mess with big crosswinds; keep the load light; and have a backup exit strategy such as going to a lake or river to await better conditions.  Most of the time we adhere to all those rules.  Most of the time. 

Touch down at minimum speed, in a flat attitude, yard the stick back and – after a half-dozen times of doing it – remain confident that the whole kit and kaboodle is not going to go right over on its nose. The rapid deceleration is about as close as us mere mortals will come to what must be the astounding deceleration after landing a jet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier and snagging a big cable with a tail hook.

There follows the odd sensation of stepping down from the deck of the float to solid ground, high and dry, as the cart and truck and smiling engineer pull up to tow the plane to the hangar. Another float season done.

The next two or three days are a steady blur of hanging the plane from a hangar rafter, unbolting the floats, bolting on the landing gear, and then the myriad small steps of dismantling, examining, cleaning, troubleshooting, minor repair, discussion, and re-assembly that together constitute a routine airframe and engine inspection.

Days go by, no show-stoppers are encountered in the inspection, and all the checks are done.  These are the days, I would point out, that the paying customers of a little air service, and a big airline, don’t see, and probably don’t think about, so maybe I’m reminding some of you that these days are there, month after month, year after year, expensive repair after expensive repair – and you should be damned glad that these inspections are done and happy that the cost of these days gets folded into the challenge of staying on the black side of the accountant’s ledger.  Ahem. I shall desist.

There follows the flip side, the former floatplane is now a wheel-plane on fat tires, ready to fly north and east, all signed out in the logbook.  But at home, alas, there is no ice yet.  No one expects there to be. In fact, in this strange autumn we are having so far, there has barely even been any frost. The little “airstrip” we use in the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring is just a 550-foot swath of grassy sand, punctuated by a couple of “gotcha!” boulders. It lies on a bearing of 062 and 242 degrees, and it slopes pretty steeply up to the northeast.  It is thus what pilots call a one-way-in, one-way-out strip – its use or non-use dictated on any day by windspeed and direction.  The wind has to be right, or it has to be calm, when you arrive overhead for a landing, or you simply must fly away and wait for a change. Sometimes for many days. A good exercise in patience, and in living that old adage about accepting things that are beyond our control.

The entire landing, from touchdown of the fat tires on the sand or sand-and-snow mulch, to end of rollout a few hundred feet later, takes about four seconds, or less. From 58 knots to zero in the Bush Hawk, that’s another attention-grabbing deceleration. And so on these autumn days, heading to the strip, there are mornings like yesterday, when I jotted this:

The Day is Four Seconds

Wake in the Super Eight, (singing with Jason Isbell.)

First thought, the four seconds just north of home, late this afternoon.

Instant coffee in a paper cup, chair by the window.

Familiar back-side of Northern Metallic and beyond it the sleepy –

some would say moribund –

industrial district of Fort Nelson.

In the far distance, some rosy alpenglow on the snowy peaks southwest.

Pull out the damned Ipad, to compare about four different forecasts for wind at home.

Thinking of the four seconds.

Conclusion: it may work today, if I can get up there, eight hours from now,

but tomorrow’s a no-go,

and the next day,

and the next.

We shall see.

Anyone who likes guarantees would not like this line of work.

In March of 2015 I posted a piece here called “The Ovibos Resurgence.” Muskox, genus Ovibos, species moschatus, had by then been piling into this taiga neighborhood in such numbers that within one decade, 2005-2015, they became far and away the most common large mammal seen here from day to day.  I ended that post with “To be continued…” and today I will continue the saga, since the Ovibos, bless their wooly hides, have certainly kept their story interesting. The shaggy beasts surround us. We see them constantly, and nowadays they barely elicit more notable mention here than a red-throated loon on the lake or a marten scurrying under a shed. The past weeks have seen two notable events in our little niche of the muskoxen’s ever-expanding forest habitat. 

First, on an afternoon in June, an old bull, who by then we had nicknamed Buster, decided to barge right in through the gate of the wooden slab-fence surrounding the dog yard and bully a few huskies around with his head. Luckily, very luckily, for three of our sled dogs – Rugan, Susitna, and Yentna – Buster had no horns left, only a thick bone “boss” on the crown of his forehead.  He had first appeared here in June of 2020, with one horn broken right off to a bloody, scabbed-over stump. I wondered whether he would even survive, what with warm weather, flies, and the likely severity of a bone infection. Then, in 2021, he came back in June again, this time with both horns broken off.  Remember, these are horns, not antlers.  Muskox, like bighorn sheep and beef cattle, do not shed their horns annually. (Moose and caribou and the rest of the deer tribe have antlers, not horns.)   

When old bald Buster appeared again this year, in June, he had a sidekick with him, whom we had nicknamed Buddy.  Buddy came fully equipped with an impressive pair of curving horns, one on each side, and he is “size large.” Maybe 650 pounds on the hoof.

(I would gladly ramble on longer about encounters with Buster and Buddy, but it is my informed impression that no one reads anything much longer than around a thousand words these days; 300 being more popular and 160 characters, start to end, being the coin of the realm. So I best be hurrying along.)

I was away from home the day Buster changed his tune, but a few .30-06 rounds lofted over his belligerent but hornless head, courtesy of Kristen and our daughters, soon put the run on him and he busted out a portion of wooden fence and blasted south right out of the kennel area. Next morning, he was back, browsing just up the hill from the dog yard, intentions unknown. And, well, let’s just say we were wondering the other night over dinner just how many tables on the planet were likely to be graced with “muskox-moose lasagna.” Maybe only one, that evening, and we were sitting at it.

So that was wake-up call number three or four in our local muskox saga.  Then, the other day, out on a flying contract with a trio of biologists, I offered to pitch in and assist the effort of retrieving some remote-sensing equipment.  We were down in the jack-pine forests forty miles southwest of here. (We have no jack-pine here at home, being ten miles from treeline and miles north of the boreal forest proper.) The pine trunks were thick where we were working, and beneath the canopy of needles the ground was mostly smooth sand and lichen. The walking was fast and easy, and I was closing in on the coordinates of the equipment post when – whoa – something very big and jet black loomed into view fifty feet ahead of me. Just a giant black lump, mostly blocked from my sight by the tree trunks. If that is a bear, thinks me, that is a frickin’ big one.

I started shouting and making myself obvious. The beast turned, and through the dense scrim of pine I caught a glimpse of curved brown horn.  Okay, not bear, muskox bull. Relax. A little. Hand on pepper spray, trigger guard off, still shouting. “Hey there mister, move along now, out of my way. Comin’ through.  Hey! You!”

Nope. He was coming toward me. And now I was wondering, as my family and I have often wondered in the last fifteen years or so, just what and how much goes on in the brain sequestered deep down inside that armour-plated, bashed-around skull? (Talk about Bobby Clobber…)  Not sure. And of course, animals are all individuals. They are not generic specimens stamped from a mold.

Blank fixed stare, shambling but steady gait, not slow, not running, but coming on and keeping eye contact with me.  What the **%$## — ?   Then, oh shit oh dear, this is getting scary. Fifteen feet, ten, eight. “Get a move on, bud!”  

Pppsssshhhhhhhtttttt! goes the pepper spray.  (Hmm, I remember thinking, not much oomph left in this one – a guy might be wise to check the expiry date on these things now and then…) A whiff of pale aerosol cloud did reach that bristly black ovoid snout, even with the breeze blowing back at me like it was.  Mister M.O. gave a deep coughing grunt, spun like an 800-pound fullback, and crashed away at a gallop.  I yanked out my walkie-talkie and keyed the mike: “I just sprayed a big bull muskox and he is galloping north. Copy?” Within a few seconds Jeanne chimed in: “He just blew past me. Still galloping.” Then Dan: “All okay here. Can’t see him.” Biologist number three is evidently on another channel; no response from him.

These two events, inside of ten weeks, might herald the start of another twist in the saga of Ovibos and their strange expansion southward from the tundra. We still find these new neighbors interesting, but from time to time, to tell the truth, we have all been a little annoyed by them. Perplexed, at least, by big critters so oblivious to our presence, so nonchalant when we do run into them, and – to wit – so unpredictable.

992 words. Well, better wrap up. Hey, might be something else in the Metaverse that needs a few seconds of your time, and probably a half-dozen text messages just in.

Muskox waltzing through the jack-pine.  Whodathunkit? And again, “To be continued…”

In a postscript, some optimism. Up on the tundra north of here on dozens of flights in the past month, I am seeing more caribou, farther south and at an earlier date, than I have seen up there for more than twelve years. Fingers crossed, folks. We might be watching the slight uptick of a sine curve, right before our eyes.  Wouldn’t that be some welcome good news about now?

“The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines – that is, that there is no difference between creation and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation.”

  • Wendell Berry, in the first chapter of Life is a Miracle – An Essay Against Modern Superstition

Back in March of 2020, over breakfast in Yellowknife, my friend the scientist and I were talking. I’ve been musing about parts of that conversation for a couple of years now. One line in particular. Trying to sway me, he said, “Dave, shooting wolves from helicopters is just another tool in our toolbox.”

We are Homo sapiens, closing in on 8 billion strong.  You got something broken? (Never mind who broke it.) We got tools to fix it. Here, let’s have a look in the toolbox…

He is a scientist. His religion (face it, we all have one) is Science. The holy trinity of Hypothesis, Data, and Theory.  Graphs, equations, and Bayesian bootstrap statistical formulae are his sacraments.

We were all schooled in that faith, but over the years my belief began to waver. Nowadays my heart just isn’t in it. I have continued to drift from the fold. Oh, I still attend services, listen to the sermons, thumb through the peer-reviewed hymnals, mumble the creeds and kyries. (And yes, I am happily and thrice vaccinated.) I just can’t muster the cold fire, the passionless zeal, of the true believers.

Set all emotion aside, they say. Just the facts, ma’am. Feelings, hunches, and intuition are of no help here. We are marching down the bright white road to truth and wisdom. There will be no mysteries left when we get done. Once we reach the promised land every question will be answered. We will have eliminated variables, modelled possible outcomes, and fine-tuned the matrices of the graphs. Marching, marching, marching.  

Nah, you better just go on ahead without me. I may catch up, but these days I am more inclined not to march, but to dawdle and meander. And, doing so, I keep catching glimpses and whiffs of things that just won’t compute.

Oh, no, they cry. C’mon. Look here, read the numbers. Up on the barrens north of you, the Cumulative Body Mass Index clearly shows that things are out of whack. Too many kilograms of wolf per kilogram of caribou.

Have a look in that toolbox, will you? Grab the Remington pump and a box of double-ought buck. We can fix this.

Once you’ve got a visual on them swing around into wind and slide the door back.  As they scatter, choose and fire. Bang. Bang-bang. Out on the job, tools in hand, hard at work, ever confident, fixing what is broken. (Never mind who broke it.)

NOTE, for clarification: Although there was a (remarkably unsuccessful) trial project of “aerial wolf removals” in late winter of 2020 in the Northwest Territories, that method (shooting wolves from helicopters) has not been continued in the past two years. The debate over publicly funded “wolf control” continues, in many jurisdictions and regions of the world.

Versions and revisions of this post have been stored away in my journal for many months. I am busy with paid work in July and very short on writing time, but I have no reason to consider this post as particularly timely. It reflects a broader theme in my thinking, and I post it here today for that reason. See you in August… Dave.

Ospreys,
I am told,
mate for life.

One year ago, in a tall snag
west of the mouth of the river,
a pair of ospreys
began to build an aerie. 

We were tickled pink.
Ospreys!
We could watch them at work
right from the kitchen window. 

I guess this was only construction,
because we saw no sign of fledglings,
and by late August
the pair was gone. 

This spring, in early May, a northeast gale
-- 52 knots if you must know numbers --
toppled most of that new nest.
But the big burned spruce hung on,
a ragged clump of bird-placed sticks
still tangled in its top. 

Well, we said to each other,
you never know. 

Last week, one osprey appeared again.
She, or he, circled and circled, high and away,
back and around, again and again.
So far up it was just a speck,
and much too far from water to be fishing. 

Calling, soaring, circling, over and over,
sending long raspy whistles down the breeze. 

Well, we said to each other,
that's something new.
You never know. 

Now it is another day,
and the osprey is at it again.
Rain today, with wind,
and I am cold after being out in the boat trolling.
(A couple of nice ones, if you must know.) 

The lone osprey circles and calls. 
I stand and watch, transfixed. 

And I can't help but wonder,
my dear,
which one of us two will be left alone
sooner or later
to circle what's left of our nest. 

In the second half of May, it is hard to say what season it is here. We call the months of May and June “spring,” but with the ice auger boring down to the very limit of two add-on extensions, through fifty-six inches of ice, and with a wool cap and wool coat and two layers of wool trousers feeling still about right in the clothing department, “spring” rang a little hollow when I talked on the phone with my mother down in Minnesota last week.

It is not “break-up,” because nothing here breaks up with any force. There is no Mackenzie or Yukon River juggernaut, where boxcar-sized blocks of silt-encrusted ice tear out trees and wreck houses in an annual signal that winter has again given way to summer. Here, the ice just melts. Yes, eventually some fifty-acre pans will separate and start to move and drift. The wind can get up and push them around for a week or three, and sometimes they crash and pile jumbles of broken ice onto points and islands.  It can be slightly dramatic, for a minute or two. Then, on a day in late June or early July, the ice is gone. Summer begins by July first, give or take a week.  

In the bush-pilot realm of my life, it is still necessary to pre-heat the engine for an hour or so before departure, on some mornings well along into May. The planes are out on the ice on fat tires and wheel-skis now, and only in the past day or so can I confirm that the skis won’t be needed now, as long as I don’t get asked to go too far away to the north or northeast.

And in the dog-musher facet of our life, the season has abruptly shifted from “on” to “off.” Not for any lack of ice out there to run teams over, but only by reason of easy access. Now the shore lead is a little too wide for the dogs to plunge through at the start and end of each run. Sadly, we hang up the harnesses for the year.

The birds are coming back, and passing through. Robins and warblers, seagulls and geese, eagles, a gyrfalcon, and a flicker who has been banging on various wooden walls around the place. The first Harris’s sparrows about the 13th, now steadily whistling through the day.  A loon, looking in vain for a place to land.

The landscape — all burned to a crisp eight years ago, for those of you who are just joining the story — is plain, brown, and drab. Sorry if that terse description is a little harsh for you romantics, but I think even Wordsworth would agree. Green grasses and fireweed sprouts and birch buds are still weeks away.

The sun today, May 25th, is as high and will follow the same path as it will on July 18th. Yet on July 18th it could easily be 30 degrees C. (90 degrees F.) here, and by then we will all be happy to dip three or four times a day in the lake just to keep cool.  This morning, with the same sun-path as mid-July, a sweater felt good. My bare feet were downright chilly and, truth be told, looking a little purple as I dangled them over the edge of the outside balcony.

I do appreciate the ponderous pace that our planet takes to warm and cool, season by season. Easy there, it is always saying, no need to rush into this next big thing. What’s the hurry?

What this second half of May is — perhaps surprisingly, so I will elaborate a little now — is prime ice-fishing season. That is one activity that these May days are made for: the sheer excitement of ice fishing. Around here that tongue-in-cheek line comes from a tee-shirt we saw years ago, with a line drawing of a frumpy fellow in a heavy overcoat, hunched over a hole in the ice with a jigger rod in his hand, frost layered thick on his bushy eyebrows.  The caption: “For sheer excitement, try ice fishing.”

But wait, smart-aleck. Let’s consider that crystalline four-and-a-half-foot tube, eight inches around, and think for a moment about where it leads, what it connects. That ice-hole is a portal to utter mystery.  Nothing less than a different world; call it “inner-planetary space.”  Think about it. A pane of translucent cold crystals, wafer-thin in the grand view (four feet of ice perched over five hundred — and not far from here a couple thousandfeet of water.) Above it, topsides so to speak, is our known and knowable world. Air, rock, trees, fellow creatures warm and cold, large and small.  All beautiful and welcoming (despite the drab burnt-over miles to the north) and familiar.  But go below — and again, I mean hundreds and thousands of feet — what? Certainly nothing familiar, or cozy, or welcoming. No air, and in winter no light, and the crushing pressure of a gazillion tons of water that all year long stays just barely warm enough to be a liquid.

And yet. We walk our rounds daily out to three or four of these little drilled holes, where bait minnows on double hooks dangle like offerings to the gods of that nether realm. The merest filament of line, less than half a millimeter in diameter, connects us to what is so far beyond our comprehension. Down and down. Just off the bottom, a hundred feet, almost two hundred in some of the good spots.  Loop it off and wait. And wait. Entire days and nights. (“For sheer excitement,” someone always says, on days when we are skunked.)

And then, checking again after a long quiet stretch, Kristen and Annika and I hike out and come up to one of the holes, crunch-crunching on the dead-flat seventy-five-mile membrane of McLeod Bay, the little skiff of frozen water that divides up here from down there, topsides from below. At hole number two, with one questioning tug on that miniscule wisp of line, we can tell. Got one.

And hold on, this fish has some size to it.  Comes up for a bit, the line goes slack, and then a powerful surge away and deep again, and I let out line as fast as I can. No rod and reel here, just a little chunk of scrap lumber with the line wrapped around two nails.  (They don’t sell them at Cabela’s.)

It is a bit of a battle this time. Five minutes, maybe, as big loops of line come hand over hand out onto the ice. Getting closer now. Annika kneels by the hole. We all lean over, rapt, staring down the narrow sunlit tube of ice. Brief glimpses of the fish now; the flash of a silver flank goes whizzing past the porthole. It is about to cross over the brink. From down there to up here, from life to death, through the narrow gate the auger drilled a week ago.

A big head, eyes wide apart and staring right up at us. The big lake trout — a freshwater char — is played out. She (as it turns out) is now right there five feet down at the bottom edge of the ice. One smooth fast pull up through the hole, and Annika’s hand reaches under the gill and jiu-jitsues a fine slab of silver and orange, sideways and over, onto the clean white ice. She takes the chunk of stick that the line is wrapped around, mutters a matter-of-fact “Thank you for your life,” and whacks the fish very hard three times across the brow. It quivers. Just a beauty. Wow.

Warm sunshine, late May, smooth white ice. Fillets grilled over birch coals will be the five-star menu tonight. And direct, today, from a part of the world we will never know. That’s sheer excitement, with no sarcasm.

“In ways that are for the most part imperceptible to us, we all bend our lives to fit the templates provided to us by myth and archetypes. We all tell ourselves stories, and bring our futures into line with those stories, however much we cherish the sense of newness, of originality, about our lives.”

                                                                   — from Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane, 2003.

 

It was November 17, 1977, exactly two years and a week after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior with 29 crewmembers on board.

I was a student at Northland College, on the south coast of Lake Superior, in Ashland Wisconsin. Northland in those years had received some funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, came to campus to speak and to hold a few seminars with students. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975, was already a cult classic – a cult flourishing with me and my peers. 

I was in the first of my two years at Northland, having just transferred from the University of Montana. I was naïve and starry-eyed as all get-out. And wonder of wonders, I had landed the plum job of meeting this lion of wilderness literature face-to-face, talking with him, and reporting on it all for the school paper.

It was a cool gray late-autumn day. I met Mr. Abbey out in front of the aging frame house that was the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, still in its infancy. We started north down Ellis Avenue. Abbey was tall and so am I, and together we made great strides down the boulevard. 

He liked Ashland and said so. It was, back then, an Ed Abbey kind of place. Working-class, light-years from hip, long past its glory years and down on its luck. I suggested we head for the Lake and the old ore docks. We talked. (I still have a cassette tape of our conversation, and I cringe and vow to destroy it whenever it surfaces around here. I dare not quote from it.) I was star-struck, ridiculously pedantic and postured, and Abbey was simultaneously bored and mystified by my obtuse lines of questioning. In my journal a few days later, I wrote: “Big soft-spoken man – he seems almost depressed…” Then a quote from Abbey to underscore this: “I’m an optimist. Things are a lot better now than they will be.”

I relaxed and we lapsed into easy stretches of silence as we reached the harbor and admired the lake. That autumn there was a labor strike up on the Iron Range of Minnesota. This resulted in a temporary tie-up on Ashland’s ancient ore dock by two idle Great Lakes taconite freighters.  Real whoppers like the Edmund Fitzgerald. We walked out onto that massive pier structure of concrete, rusting steel, and enormous timbers. (It is gone from Ashland’s harbor now, I gather.) A steel ladder led up to the deck of the vessel on the west; “NO TRESPASSING!” on metal placards swaying in the cold wind off the bay. “Well, hell,” says Ed, “I’ll never get another chance to see one of these big fellas.” Up the ladder we went.

I remember the vast expanse of the ship’s deck, the twinkle in Abbey’s eye, and then – of course – the watchman appeared from the wheelhouse shouting and cursing and chasing us back down the ladder. Ed and I laughed and fled and waved good-bye to the guard.

The trespass might have been the high point of Ed’s visit to Northland. Or maybe not. There were rumors. He was, after all, Edward Abbey. He had a reputation to live up to.

There were many famous literary visitors to campus in those halcyon years, a Who’s Who of environmental thought and writing. Along with Abbey, it was Gary Snyder, John Haines, Wendell Berry, and William Stafford whom I recall most vividly, because they were all heroes of mine. Still are. Had Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and Lao Tzu been alive, professors Peg Jackson and Lee Merrill would surely have landed gigs for them at Northland while the grant money lasted. With each of these visitors, a tiny clutch of students on this obscure college campus had a chance to listen, talk, share a meal, and mull over the ideas of the day. Ticking off those names to a professor friend of ours in Alberta a few years ago, her response was, “Holy cow, who didn’t come to Northland back then?”   

And who can say how a few moments of sitting down with, or walking with, or fleeing from the deck of an ore-boat with one’s literary heroes – all while at that wide-eyed age of 19, or 21, or 23 – will resonate down through the years of a writing life? 

All I can say is, resonate they have.  

Evening, a short distance east of the Hoarfrost River, about 30 miles north of home, on a small pond.

It is clear, cold but not bitterly so, and today there was no wind at all. Beautiful winter weather. This is night three of our five-night second outing, with a group of four students plus Joe Sartison and me.

It is night three, but it is also night 88. Starting with the first of these courses in 2005, I have been out on so many of these “night three of fives” that they all blur together. Faces, campsites, dogs. Tents set up, dogs staked out, coolers of dog feed buried in snowbanks for morning, firewood gathered, meals mostly good, a few not-so-good, all devoured with that best of sauces: hunger. A range of winter dusks and dawns: starry nights; cloudy nights; windy nights.

I may sound like I am waxing sentimental, writing this, but I am not. Just reflective. There’s a difference. After all, these courses have been a major theme running through nearly the past two decades of my life. We – Kristen, Morten, and I – have been pulling this off for more years now than I was racing, and yet I still view the fifteen racing years as the defining years in the “dog musher” facet of my life.

Tonight I ponder, “Why?” Why out here, all these nights and years, roaming around in this harsh, often unpleasant, sometimes hostile and deadly corner of the world, guiding these little troupes of neophyte mushers, fledgling arctic winter campers, along with legions – entire generations – of barking, yapping, chewing, tugging, mostly happy and, yes, sometimes unhappy, huskies? Why? Why out here, on this little network of rough-hewn snowy trails? (Where, it is worth noting in bold letters – in all these miles and all these years on all these courses – we have never, not once, encountered another human being.)

The reason to be out here, I think, is not the hard practical skills we teach and learn. It matters not one iota whether twenty years from now these students remember how to tell a dead tamarack from a dead spruce, or how to string up a picket line for the hounds while waltzing around on snowshoes. We don’t come out here just to endlessly refine our systems of winter travel, although over the decades there has been plenty of refinement. And, let’s be honest, it is not just to have “fun,” because there is simply too much “not so fun” already built into any wilderness journey in the subarctic winter taiga. Trips like these are never going to catch on as the next fun fad, not in February and early March.

The why is in the moments that each, or at least most, of the nearly 100 students now carry tucked away, as memories. Moments of facing adversity as a small team, pitching a snug camp on a threatening night, slogging through the morning chores of breaking camp, loading sleds, harnessing dogs and counting down to the nervous instant of departure. Moments of floating along on good trail in sunshine, toes and fingers warm, parka hood cinched down, the only sounds the whisper of sled runners and the gentle chuff-chuff of panting dogs.

It is fitting that tonight I don’t know precisely where we are. We spent the day scouting a new route and wound up a bit baffled when it came time to camp.  So be it.  I “kind of sort of” know where we are.

We are up the river from home, and just east of the river valley. Close enough, because hey, I don’t know precisely where I am in my life tonight either. What I do know is that there are some lumbar-region hints that this chapter of my life may soon grind to an end. At sixty-four, the “warranty” on moving parts is expired. (As if our bodies came with such a thing.)

A recent quote in the Economist Espresso, from one Hubert de Givenchy (whoever he was; best guess he was not Norwegian): “Life is like a book. One has to know when to turn the page.”

Maybe. Maybe not. (Stubborn denial of the inevitable might make for an interesting chapter.)

This will be my post for February. Soon I will be out on the trail with dogs and students, for the rest of the month.  So long and fare thee well, everyone. Knock on wood, fingers crossed.

February 16, 2022

Forty-two degrees below zero.

I’m up in my morning lookout.

Out the west window

Castor and his brother Pollux

fade and descend.

Halfway through winter now, and

those two are the only stars I can see;

the rest all done in

by the high white disc of moon to the west

and the pale wash of dawn in the northeast.

Nautical twilight.

This morning my thoughts drift

again, and yet again

to a distant border I shall never see,

and the whims of yet another

mad tyrant

hell-bent on settling some old score.

Deep breaths.

Castor, Pollux, old buddies,

I want to join you, drop down below the ridge,

keep low, head down,

stay quiet,

hope,

and pray.

To subscribers, this is a repeat from last night. text unchanged, you can trash it if you got the original last night. The "formatting" was fouled up on the website version. I am trying to repair this.  Thanks for your patience. Happy Groundhog day...tomorrow. 
Dave, the digital doofus.


”As we sometimes see individuals following habits different from those proper to their species… we might expect that such individuals would occasionally give rise to new species, having anomalous habits, and with their structure either slightly or considerably modified from that of their type. And such instances occur in nature.”
 – Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter VI

Sometimes on trips to town and beyond (“town,” for us, being the city of Yellowknife 165 miles away), when I am masquerading as a normal, upper-middle-class citizen of the developed world, hobnobbing with friends and associates, or when I am in correspondence or telephone conversation with distant friends and family, I am suddenly struck by a thought: “These people have not the slightest flippin’ idea where I started my day, or how utterly different my routine of life is from theirs.” I am now sixty-four years old, and for forty-some years and counting I have never had indoor plumbing, grid-connected power, or central heat. Kristen and I sold our last road vehicle, as in a car or truck, 22 years ago.  Good-bye and good riddance. When we need a car, or a truck, or a taxi-cab, we hire one. Then when we are done, we give it back and go home (usually aboard our vehicle -- another noisy, polluting, expensive vehicle -- called an airplane.)

I think it is universal human nature to assume that we know how the lives of other people – especially those we know well – must look and feel, day by day, year by year. And of course, in that assumption we are all utterly mistaken. It is not just that the grass looks greener on the other side of the hill. It’s that it’s often not green, and might not even be grass.
  
About a year ago The Writers’ Union of Canada invited members to an onscreen “visit” with Margaret Atwood, and I signed up. The event was hosted by a British writer’s group, so for us it took place early in the morning, our time. Margaret joined us at breakfast, so to speak, on the screen of Kristen’s computer, way out here at the Hoarfrost River. It was amazing, all things considered.

I was fascinated. I have always admired Atwood for her steadfast refusal to play along with political correctness, to kowtow to the rampant groupthink of identity politics, or to be co-opted by any clique or camp. She speaks and writes eloquently, of course, in her own articulate and artistic voice.  That morning was back during the harsh pandemic lockdown period in Ontario, so Margaret mostly just showed her anonymous audience around her Toronto working space, her home office. All the while chatting affably into her screen and answering a few questions that people had sent to the moderator. Walking to the file cabinets, opening drawers in her desk, perusing the bookshelves and telling us what books they held and how they were arranged.

After that forty-five-minute Zoom glimpse right into this literary giant’s working headquarters, on that dark sub-arctic winter morning, I ambled down to my own office in the north end of our big log workshop.  Hmm, thought I.  Kind of a different feel to things here, Margaret.

How so? Well, there’s the smell for one thing. (What is that cologne you’re wearing, sir?) Strong overtones of spruce woodsmoke, subtle whiffs of gasoline vapors, aviation hydraulic oil, hints of thawing dog food, stray stale pipe tobacco, melting moose-meat, just to name the major components of this magical (carefully guarded, highly proprietary) mix.

Then the visuals. Hmm. Cluttered hardly seems to do it justice. Entropy comes immediately to mind. “A measure of the randomness, disorder, or chaos in a system.”

The entropic upheaval and tightly-packed near-chaos of this space, especially now, in deep winter, is well beyond “cluttered.” It is to clutter what a tornado is to a brief summer thundershower. Let’s have a look around.

Front and center, poised by the door, here are two gas-powered generators, “big yellow” and “little yellow” stacked one on top of the other. (thus some of the whiff of gasoline, despite all best efforts). There are two chainsaws, old and trusty Husqvarna, and older and still trusty Jonserud (more dribbles of gasoline vapors, I suppose.) There is the big bank of lead-acid batteries up against the east log wall, under the window, the transformer for the wind generator, the various chargers and charge regulators of the homestead, all fed by solar, wind, and – in winter’s calm and darkness – about two or three hours a day of a busily humming generator, see above.)

And yes, that is blood on the floor. Moose blood to be precise, after a sled with a moose head and a hind quarter aboard was slid in here to stay unfrozen last week, and after getting cracked on a rough ride down one of the steep trails following an at-last-successful moose hunt. Oh happy day. Some of the moose juice soaked into the bottom of my cloth “town briefcase” overnight, and that will surely elicit some renewed attention from the pet dog where I sometimes stay overnight.  More raised eyebrows. It’s fun to be considered, uh, “interesting.”

Everywhere around the ten-by-sixteen foot room with its ten-foot high ceiling, there are big jugs and pails of liquids: chainsaw bar oil, canola oil, aviation engine oil, airplane hydraulic fluid, white carpenter’s glue.  A big table just north of the battery and the power regulators is covered with battery chargers for cordless electric tools, now including an ice auger and our oldest daughter’s new electric (!) chainsaw.
 
In most of the rest of “everywhere you look” are books and papers and folders and files and binders, on about seven different shelves and levels, and strewn all up and down the twelve-foot double-wide two-by-twelve that I still refer to as my “desk” but for which I should use some other name – as does everyone else in the family.

The desk is a long flat surface festooned not only with reams of papers and booklets and maps, but also  – at a quick glance – a tube of silicone caulk, an old Sony cassette tape player (still works!), four cans of pens and pencils and paint markers, three little rechargers for small batteries, stray phone books, a busted aircraft thermometer, a landline phone in its cradle, various black wires with various end pieces and either AC or DC plug-ins...  and I could go on and on but I won’t. This is getting ridiculous.
  
Across on the other side of the narrow room are strewn, all winter long, the many parts and pieces of cold-weather bushplane operation in the far north – at least four electric “Buddy heaters” all re-wired with new cord after the stock cord failed on each of them in the cold, big black duct for the propane Tundra Toaster heater, a spare five-pound pony keg of propane (Horrified gasps from many quarters. Quarters inhabited by readers who do not realize that when one really needs the propane for an emergency aircraft heat-up, it needs to be warm, not gelled. And relax, there is no property insurance here. Never has been, never will be.  Some buildings, in some locations, are insurable; some, in the far outback, simply are not.)

On that big south wall east of the shelves of airplane paraphernalia is a map at 1:500,000 scale, an inch to eight statute miles, depicting the home range of our flying business. 60th parallel north to the Arctic Ocean coast, and from longitude 103 to about 115 degrees west. Call it roughly 175,000 square miles. Pin and measuring string and protractor hanging at Hoarfrost River, just below center of the area.

Now we are getting close to the very heart of the matter. It’s back here, right past the collage of bent propeller blade, busted piston ring and frayed mooring line, with the instructional placard referring to the display “Always Remember the Seven P’s: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

We have come finally to the soul, the raison d’etre of this enclave. The essential reason why all of this stuff is crammed into this room. The woodstove. Not very big, but a beauty of efficiency. RSF made some great stoves back in the day, and this one, with a long life already behind it, was spotted on a local trading website by a savvy friend who snapped it up and phoned us, then cleaned it all out and delivered it to the airport.  It is ticking along as I write, and my sweater is about to be pulled off again for the second time this evening. It is warm with a capital W in here. Just the way we like this little corner of the homestead, when it’s forty below outside in the dark.

Because, you see, this entire space, in January, is all about the heat. Most of the really tiresome clutter is in here because of a need to thaw, or stay warm, or heat up, in order to be of any use to us at all. Outside this room, even in the rest of the interior of the workshop, it may as well be out in deep space. Little by little, right on through the autumn and into the start of winter, right through the depth of winter and on out the far side sometime in late April or early May, warmth is everything. Things come in here and they do not leave for months except to go outside to work or to be used.  Then to be hustled right back in to Mama again, in the warmth. On this homestead, there are only two spaces that are kept warm all winter, to the best of our ability and the limitations of wood-only, no-backup-from-anything-else heat, and this is one of them. “Dave’s Office.” The other, 180 feet away, is “The House.”

Thoreau summed it all up in his essay, A Winter’s Walk. “In the winter, warmth stands for all virtue.” I think I will carve that sentence on the door here.

My office is a paragon of unassailable virtue tonight. And yes, I can even get some writing done here. I kind of dig this place, if you must know. It suits me. Yes, Darwin might well consider me anomalous, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my species is truly endangered. A pity, really, because “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken,” as my old pal Bert Hyde liked to say.

Bonus fact to mark the end of January, the third month of Winter Dark, and the onset of Winter Light (February, March, April):  Sam, our solar-power guru in northern Alberta, told me the other day that a solar panel rated for 80 watts at “room temperature” (22 degrees Celsius, about 72 degrees American), will put out nearly 100 watts at minus 30 degrees.  This made me smile. I knew there was some improvement with solar panels in deep cold, but I had no idea it was in the realm of 20 to 25 percent.  And it just gets better, the colder it gets.  Which is why solar panels are so powerful out in space.  Cool, eh?

We call it flying, which sounds pretty tricky, unless you're a bird. But mostly it’s sitting. Hours and hours of sitting. Strapped into my little chair in this steel tube cage. Gossamer skin of painted fabric and thin panels of aluminum. Sitting and watching: gauges, sky, earth. And again please. Steering a little, with one hand and both feet. 14,000 hours. That's a chunk of a lifetime. Do the math.

Some days I think they could teach the average chimp to do this gig.

About forty inches ahead of me prop blades do the heavy work, at forty revolutions per second.

Read that again.

Between that cyclone and my chair, lots of other high-speed magic. Magnetos spin, sparkplugs fire, pistons hammer. Gasoline and oxygen

Combine,

Compress,

Explode.

  

Don't ask me hard questions. I just "fly" the thing.

  

Into the dusk of this gray December afternoon I'm headed home. A thousand feet above the lake's new ice. Hugging the coastline, ticking off landmarks: Barnston River, Bigstone Island, Bedford Creek. My little chair, steel cage, fabric wings, whirling blades and synchronized explosions. An airborne bundle of fire, spin, lift,

And, uh, sit,

All chugging east at ninety-five knots.

  

There must be a swallow of morning coffee left in my mug.

  

The air outside is thirty-three below zero. But in here, a breath of heat fetched from the exhaust gases, leftover warmth from all the pyrotechnics up front, comes to me through a few feet of flexible hose. So while I sit, I blow hot air onto my cheek.

  

Ahh. Nice. Fat, dumb, and happy, as the old saying goes.

  

Meanwhile, Earth rounds the bend of another Winter Solstice, hurtling through space (must we always be "hurtling?") at 67,000 miles an hour. And not just hurtling. Spinning too, like a wicked curveball, or a bullet.

  

Read that part again too. Yikes.

  

Nearly home now, I reach down for the dregs of coffee from the screw-top mug on the cockpit floor by my mukluks. I bank and descend into thick cold air down low, and the cup jostles. A little coffee spills onto my lap. Damn, I mutter, suddenly quite offended, then catch myself.

Give your head a shake, pal. 
I mean, considering what's goin' on here, 
A splash of coffee on your coverall and
Now you're gonna start whining? 

Really?

                           -- 2150Z, 22 December 2021