Sorry, subscribers, this is exactly same post as the other day.

I had to take it down, correct the format, and have now put it back up again so that it will have paragraph spacing on the Home Page. . (If anybody understands this #*%@‘ B.S. I tip my hat to you.)

Anyway, this is the same post. One little typo corrected. No need to re- read, Yawn… ;> ) dave o.

A few mornings ago I slept late. I think we all sleep a little longer at this darkest time of year, here on the northern half of the planet.  Let the Chileans and the Aussies get up early in December! It was not so late that it was anywhere even close to daylight outside, but it was well past seven, CST. I fumbled my way up out of the bed and over to the propane light fixture on the wall, to turn the knob and begin the day with the flick of a chartreuse plastic Bic lighter. Hyggelig, right?  

“Done usual chores.” Classic line from the old homesteader’s daily log. Hauled on my layers and stoked the stove and carried in more wood from the entryway, put on water for coffee, set two places at the table for breakfast, let the aging wheezy dog out and very quickly back in again. She is a no-sled dog, a husky of ours who was born with a bronchial constriction that has only gotten worse with age, and in deep cold she is a disaster. Never thought we’d have a house-dog. When her saga is over, some year soon, we won’t.

Went to the weather station and VHF radio niche by the upstairs west window, and wrote down the morning news: Wind NE 5 knots, Vis 15+ miles, Sky CLR, Temp -25, Dewpoint -28, Altimeter 30.61 and rising. Remarkable high air pressure (it is 30.95 as I draft this on Wednesday), but otherwise a classic McLeod Bay early-winter morning.

A brief phrase scrolled across the little screen on the weather box: “Geminids Meteor Shower.” The device had been flashing that same pop-up for several mornings, but overcast skies had persisted lately so I had been shrugging it off. A change that day, though. It was clear and crisp after all that wearisome overcast. It had been a long week, when there were steadily a few flakes of snow in the air – never enough to say “it’s snowing,” but every morning a new half-inch on the chopping block or the handle-bar of a sled. Days when it never seemed to get completely light, until it was obviously getting dark again.

I finished making coffee for myself and for Kristen. She was up and moving through her own morning routine. Well into our fourth decade of marital bliss — with only fleeting brief episodes of marital blitz — we both know that in that first hour of dawn it is best to simply nod and smile if we meet on the stairs. Conversation can wait until breakfast. I poured a mug-full and climbed the ladder up into my lookout lantern, where the stovepipe juts out through the roof.  A little perch with windows all around – readers of this blog are tired of hearing about it, I’m sure. Usually I stand up there looking north while I sip away. Out that way a big bluff we call Home Hill makes the skyline. Our little log outhouse is in the foreground, as if placed there to prevent my ruminations from ever getting too lofty or grandiose.  Looking out that way, in all seasons, at Guy de Mauppasant’s ”…immense network of deserted little valleys with not a single trace of smoke…”

On the morning I’m describing, though, I twigged on the obvious. The meteor shower named The Geminids must be emanating from the constellation Gemini, the twin stars Castor and Pollux. And by this hour, at this season, those two old friends would be front and center out the west window-door of the lantern, the biggest window of all, where we can step right out onto the roof when we need to. So instead of standing and gazing north, I sat down facing west, and waited. Clear black sky, washed out slightly by a waning quarter moon. There were the twins, high and centered in my rectangular triple-pane view. Wow, what were the odds? If the Geminids were going to shower as advertised, I had a warm box seat for the event.

Sip. Nothing yet.

Then a long bright shooting star dropped fast and down. Maybe twenty seconds later a much brighter one screamed from north to south just below Gemini. Then some long minutes of nothing.  Kind of like a slow sixth inning, I thought. And here is the catcher going out to the mound again, while the right fielder looks up into the bleachers and chews his plug.  Sip. Sip. One more faint zeemer going obliquely down and away.  Sip.

Whoa. Did that just happen? A burst of light, a big flash right up in the Gemini. Just a second or so, on and then off. Nothing before or after.

That must have been a meteorite, and I thought about the fact that when you are flying at night, looking for other air traffic in the dark sky, or you are out on the water with eyes peeled for the lights of other boats, it’s the lights that don’t seem to be moving that are most important. Because, if you can see them and they aren’t sliding sideways, and it’s red on the right and green on the left, then heads up: that one is headed straight at you.

I sipped a little more coffee. One more meteorite dropped vertically from the twins. I waited some more. Coffee mug empty. Five bits of hot space dust in maybe ten minutes, and probably hundreds more invisible, but hey — one of them headed was straight for the house. Well. Interesting perspective for the start of a day.

Solstice is here again. I have scheduled this post for the exact hour and minute of the “sun standing” this year: 21:48 Zulu, Wednesday.  Early to late afternoon in North America, evening in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. So if you’re reading this, well then yippee, we’ve rounded the turn and the lights are already coming up again, second by second and day by day. (North of the equator, that is. Those Chileans and Aussies now start down the back stretch.) We spin forward into another enormous lap. Hang onto your hats, boys and girls. And hang on to each other. There’s stuff falling out of the sky, and depending where you live some of it is a lot more than just hot flecks of gravel from outer space.  

Wasn’t sure what to call this post.  This missive. This entry.  This “blog.” First time I heard that word I blanched.  And now look at me, for Pete’s sake, hammering away every month as if nobody could get along without this… this blog. (As my Dad, an English teacher, liked to say, ‘When I was a kid I never thought of becoming an English teacher. Now I are one!’)

Blog? It sounds like a flippin’ fungus, and not a very pretty one at that.

Titles. Hmm. Starvations in November ?  Or The Cruellest Month ? Or — almost instantly rejected (but still worth a chuckle) — Up in the Taiga, Ogling the Super-Models

So let’s just leave it at Ah, November and get started.

T.S. Eliot started his poem “The Waste Land” with the famous line April is the cruellest month. To anyone north of 60, maybe anyone in Canada, or in the world north of about the 45th parallel, well inland from any coasts, that is hogwash. April?  April?

Eliot had his reasons, I’m sure.  We have ours.  And for cruelty, in the north, it’s November, hands down.

Consider the odds of starvation, for starters. Not you and I, of course, all of us with the screens of our tablets and I-Phones and Androids and laptops close at hand, electrons humming busily back and forth, warm java with a touch of cream and sugar, a good meal certainly not more than hours fore or aft of the present moment.  No, not us, but historically. Check the journals and sagas of the far north, the records and oral histories handed down in every culture and tradition north of 60.  The caloric line between making it and not making it is never more thin and tight than at the very onset of winter, because right now there might be no trustworthy ice to facilitate wide-ranging travels, no good snow to build and insulate with, trails all hard and bare, lakes full of overflow. In the north, mobility is quintessential to survival.

Modern wilderness types pride themselves on partaking of the rich traditions of the past. We embrace the traditional ways of getting around this vast country. Portages, tumplines, the babiche webbing on snowshoes, snow-houses and bannock and windbound days.  They are all a part of the north.  We embrace them all, except for that one notable northern tradition: sheer starvation, ever looming just around the corner.

We have seen it in our animal neighbors, even though we came just a few decades late to see it in our human predecessors.  We have gone out on dark mornings and the wan days of gray November and encountered wolves, foxes, wolverines, bears, to name a few, all dead or dying of starvation. Weak, wobbling, pitiful bags of bones.  Those are just the obvious ones, because those are the ones that have been drawn into our place over the years here, very often in November, overcoming their instinctive shyness and fear of us, to make one last Hail Mary attempt at survival.  Stealing dog dishes, chewing on ropes, sleeping in porches, skulking around the edges of the place, tottering on the brink of collapse, until finally they have collapsed, to be found curled up, frozen solid, under sheds and lean-tos, out on the edge of the place or right on the path between one building and the next. Once a wild animal is completely behind the power and energy curve, it is doomed.  It has no hope but to throw in its lot with whatever crumbs and leavings the edges of an outpost might give it.

November is a dramatic month, and if one can rest easy on provisions and firewood and shelter, it can be inspiring in its austere and parsimonious way.  Wow, the cloud cover cleared and there were 15 minutes of direct sunshine today!  That was so great.  Did you see it?  No, sadly, I was inside, doing an online course in Human Factors In Aviation Maintenance. And checking the long-range forecast.

This November started with a ten-day blast of deep cold out this way, and I will have to check our 35 years of daily notes, but it might have been the coldest first one-third of November we have ever seen.  It did wonders for the ice on the inland lakes, and it chased us right off the big lake. Our nets and boat and everything else were all stowed before October was even over.  Then the pendulum swung back the other direction, not to thawing or big snowfall but just to a steady progression of milder days, well below freezing to just flirting with thaw, and no more snow to speak of.  In sharp contrast to the west end of the big lake, we have had very little snow, only inches coming a few flakes at a time. I have kept everyone around here entertained (kind of) with my predictable rants against the accuracy of weather “modelling” as contrasted with the real weather – the weather right outside the door, hour after hour. Now as I write it is deeply cold, and calm, and tonight McLeod Bay might freeze.

It is comical, isn’t it, to flash up a weather “model” site on the Inter-Tube, and find there a bold black-and-white pronouncement of what the weather will be nine days from now, with no hint of humility or caveat or disclaimer. Yes not only that but a new feature: “weather now.”  This from a site that is nothing but a model, generated by a computer in Norway, with no local hour-to-hour actual temperature or wind reading from anywhere. Yet there it is: Weather Now.

It really does make me wonder, because weather is, well, fickle. Pilots have a favorite saying: “Get the actuals.”  Meaning, get me some weather from somewhere in the past hour – what is it doing, right on the thermometer and anemometer and barometer and hygrometer of the airport or weather station closest to where we are going? Then ponder.  Don’t give me “Windy Dot Come says this,” or “Y R Dot N-oh is showing this.”

I still fall into this trap.  I did so just the other day. Moments after taking off (after three hours of heating and uncovering and fuelling the plane, which was parked on an inland lake two miles uphill from home) a fellow pilot called me on the radio and – having heard I was heading for Yellowknife – asked me if I had the latest Yellowknife weather.  No, I said, I have only the aerodrome forecast from early morning.  OK, the helpful voice said, they’ve amended that.  It’s sitting at about 200 feet; vis underneath isn’t too bad. Just not great, and it’s low cloud over town.

Do I turn back, give up, re-cover the airplane, tie it down and go home? Or do I trust the forecast for improvement (which never mentioned any 200-foot ceiling at any time)? It’s nice out here, I said; I think I’ll continue west for a while.

Which I did.  Stupidly.  On for nearly a hundred and ten miles through reasonable-to-marginal early-winter flying conditions, enjoying the day, trusting the “models” and the forecast they had generated. 50 miles out of Yellowknife the ceiling went down to the treetops, ice rimed the windshield, and although by then all reports from town were of improving conditions, there was a solid wall of icy klag between me and brighter skies.  Turn around, fly home, call it quits – as I should have done the moment I got the “actuals.”

I would claim “lesson learned,” but I am too old to claim that with very much credibility. Hope springs eternal.

Weather Models. And Weather Super-Models. Take your pick among them: NAM, GEM, ECMWF, GFS, UKMO, ARPEGE, GDAPS/UM, and I could go on — it’s the Festival of Acronyms!

How can anyone even begin to model weather?  I dunno, but some very clever people seem to be taking a serious stab at it.  As long as we keep our expectations reasonable (that is the big caveat) and if we continue to believe in the adage GTA (Get The Actuals), these are pretty useful things: I recall the wisdom of the Sage of Lanesboro, about the motto of modern design engineers: “If it’s not broken, it doesn’t have enough features.”  A corollary among the weather modellers might be – “If you think it is going to be completely accurate, you haven’t added enough variables.”

You read all the way to the end? Wow. You and three other people, including Mom. Thanks. Put another log on the fire.  Boil up a pot of western Canada’s finest oatmeal.  Add some brown sugar and powdered milk, from some factory and some cow somewhere, via barge and truck, or truck and plane. Check the weather on the Inter-Web.  And please, take those super-models with a grain, or better yet a few teaspoons, of salt.

 

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder what the look on my face might have been if, at age 30, I had somehow caught a brief glimpse into the future. A fleeting few moments of time travel, to leap ahead and stand here now, 35 years on. That notion sometimes makes me chuckle; sometimes it makes me cringe.

In October of 1987, Kristen and I had settled in for our first freeze-up at the Hoarfrost River. We had a big blue drum of “Coleman fuel” to feed our two trusty pump-up gas lights and the Coleman stove: plenty of fuel for those simple appliances to last the coming winter and several winters beyond. We had rice and flour and canned beans, bacon and a hind quarter of moose from our neighbors at Reliance, and some fish from the lake. We had an AM radio antenna strung up between spruces, and an HF radio transceiver with 12 “C” batteries, to crackle brief messages out to the world. There was dead firewood standing in the forest, and we had nineteen sled dogs to pull the firewood home.

Ever ahead of the curve, we were putting the finishing touches on a truly tiny house – the 8 by 8 foot crackerbox cabin that still stands here, and we had slung a big blue tarp and a bale of pink insulation from the ceiling of the ramshackle “Jimmy Colburn shack” that was already here. We were young and in love and, literally, shacked up for the winter. Thousands of caribou were streaming down out of the hills. I had a full head of curly hair, and Kristen’s hair was jet black. Nobody’s knees creaked and our backs hardly ever ached at night.        

Fast forward… The other day, on the final floatplane flight of the season, a Twin Otter landed on the lake and taxied into the steep-sided beach at the river mouth. On board was a thousand-pound hunk of bright red steel festooned with hydraulic hoses, with an orange steel disc bolted to the end of a big cylindrical ram. Somehow, with ramps and pallets and, I presume, ample discussion, (not sure quite how it proceeded, because I was 500 miles from home that day), five clever people managed to slide and lower this behemoth safely to the beach, with nary a scratch to the airplane’s floats and no apparent injuries to anyone’s bodily parts or pieces.  Shawooh.

After the plane left, Kristen latched onto the monster with the pallet forks of the skid steer, and slowly, steadily, she crept the half-mile back to home along the beach trail and up the steep bit of smooth rock to the homestead.

Those odd goings-on are one vision I would like to show to our 1987 starry-eyed selves, just to see the bewildered look on those fresh young faces. What the hell is that thing? And where did the skid-steer come from? And, holy cow, what is going on around here? What happened to bare-bones simplicity?

Hint: It’s about adapting to changes, and the big red thing is about fuel drums.

A few years ago I realized I had never read The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.  I ordered a copy, and when it arrived I put it on the shelf.  A few more years went by, as happens. Last year I brought it up into the lookout lantern where in the morning I like to do some reading over my first cup of coffee.

(I have some other classics up there, including the Bible, and before all you secular humanists become too alarmed by that admission, just remember that the Bible remains the single most influential and widely read book in the history of humankind. Have a look sometime, if you haven’t – that is, if you dare even carrying it around these days. Maybe put a plain brown cover on it or load it on your e-reader.  Flip it open at random, and you will be by turns bemused, appalled, inspired, bewildered, embarrassed, and mystified – just for starters.)

But back to Darwin, and the big red and orange machine, and fuel drums. I open Darwin’s masterpiece up at random sometimes too, and my single consistent response is sheer humility. I am humbled by the man, and by his life’s work. By deep time, human genius, life’s diversity, and the constant, never-ending march of changes. The edict of the universe: adapt, make changes, roll with the punches, or else.

That thousand-pound, ten-thousand-dollar chunk of welded pig iron is the SL-55 Drum Crusher from TeeMark Manufacturing of Aitken Minnesota, and it is one outlandish symbol of change marching onward, here in the outback of the Northwest Territories.

Everyone in the North knows at least a little bit about fuel drums. They are everywhere. They litter our pristine landscapes in the most exotic and far-flung places. Tundra Daisies. Beach Furniture.

Nobody teaches young pilots about fuel drums, in flying school.  But they should, at least in Canada, because the lowly steel “45’s” (for 45 imperial gallons) are as much a part of bush flying as runways and control towers are a part of more civilized aviation. The little instructional pamphlet for students could be called “All About Fuel Drums” – edited by “Roland Cursem” of course.

Bush pilots quickly master many tricks of barrel handling. We have to, because the damned things weigh 400 pounds, give or take.  We learn how to roll them over beach, ice, rock, and tundra; stand them up; load and unload them and strap them down as cargo; maneuver them out of planes without hurting anything or anyone.  How to decipher the faded labels of Fill Date and Batch Number.  How to shovel them out from beneath drifts of snow; tip them in and out of skimmer sleds and pickup trucks; float them to shore from barges and ice floes (thank goodness they float!); and force them open with bung wrenches (and sometimes axes and chisels.) How to peer down into them with flashlights to see whether the fuel is clean and clear, and how to deliver their vital contents to our flying machines, with every conceivable combination of pump, hose, jerry can, and siphon tube.

That liquid, whether it’s gasoline or diesel or the glorified kerosene known as Jet Fuel, is the go-juice of everything that connects the North. Connects the whole damned world.  We’re all addicted. Shoot it to me Gotta have it, man. Lithium battery car, sleek solar panel, yes, but it is still a petroleum-powered world and it will be for a while yet.

And lo, at last the drum (the dozens, the hundreds, the millions) is Empty. Now it is just a relatively light steel can, three feet tall and two feet around, weighing around 38 pounds.  Paint starting to peel, rust starting to show, dented a little after all that rolling and cursing. It is now scrap steel without a path forward, littering landscapes from Timbuktu to Tuktoyaktuk.  And we slowly circle back to the SL-55, and to change, and adaptation.  But here we come to the part that doesn’t make any sense. 

In years past, “back in the day,” a drum was like a giant beer can.  When you bought a drum of fuel you paid a “drum deposit.”  Fifty dollars, when last we paid this, years ago. When you had emptied the drum, and it had somehow been returned to the fuel dealer who sold it to you, the yard apes there would look the motley collection over, and give the thumbs-up to some fairly good percentage of the drums: “suitable for re-use.” The dealer would cut you a cheque, and chances are, if you had taken reasonably good care of the drums both full and empty, you could expect to get better than half of your deposits back.  The good empties were cleaned, re-labelled, and re-used. Makes all the sense in the world, right?

However. (Ominous drum roll, please.) About ten years ago the “drum deposit” on all the barrels morphed into a “Drum Fee,” and the fifty dollars went up to eighty.  A fee, not a deposit, and thus no hope of a return, and thus no real incentive to transport an empty drum back whence it came.  In a land of 10-cent beer-can deposits on a virtually weightless wisp of aluminum, this is hard to fathom. 

For a few more years the aging laid-back barge operators based in Yellowknife stayed in the game, and we just rolled our dozens and hundreds of empties onto their westbound barge, never to be seen again.  No return on any deposit, but at least the drums went away. 

Then times changed again. This year, after the new, corporate-slash-government big-time, not-so-laid-back barge operators took over, they told us that yes, they would happily transport empty drums back down the lake to their terminal at Hay River, 250 miles to the west. But there was a catch, or several catches.  The empty drums needed to be loaded four to a pallet and banded with steel strapping. Then – and here it is best to sit down – they would take the four drums per pallet off our hands for a transport fee of just over twelve hundred dollars.  When they got to Hay River, they would call us, and we could come pick up our empties.  (And do what?)

Times change.  Sometimes I think something outlandish like this must be a momentary hiccup in history.  Surely common sense will come circling back around, right?

In the meantime, we can wring our hands and pine away about the old days and wonder how it could have come to this, or we can get with the program and start crushing drums into six-inch-thick Frisbees of flattened scrap steel.  These we can load by the dozens into an outgoing plane; even a small plane like our Bush Hawk will hold eighteen or twenty. And to heck with the drum deposit and the palletized, steel-banded empties forklifted onto the barge. Crush them, fly them out, send the scrap steel south.

What would Mr. Darwin predict an adaptive organism would do? 

We’re crushin’ it, dude.  And so far, it’s kinda fun.  (Bet that will wear off after a few hundred.)

P.S. On November first Kristen will once again start her day-by-day photo record of Freeze-up, as she has – to the delight of many – for dozens of past autumns.

Look for her daily freeze-up photo-drama on TurningLightImages Facebook page. Or, at Instagram, she tells me the ident is simply “kbgo.”  Free of charge, just tossed out there like these ramblings of mine, from this far-flung corner of the world.

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.