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

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

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

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

“Ruth Bowen is Frank Smythe’s granddaughter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton, 1933:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Moose, Three Wolves

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

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

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

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

Old story.

— April 2021, upper Hoarfrost River

 

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

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

 

“And there I too wanted to stay…

speak quietly to the trees,

tell in a notebook sewn from

their leaves my brief of passage:

long life without answering speech,

grief enforced in that absence;

much joy in the weather,

spilled blood on the snow.

 

With a few split boards,

a handful of straightened nails,

a rake and a broom;

my chair by the handmade window,

the stilled heart come home

through smoke and falling leaves.”

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 The Low-Fat Blues

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

Woke up in camp dis’ mornin’

It was twenty five below,

I shuffled to the kitchen tent

To brew a cup o’ Joe.

Got a long cold day a’ comin’

And I’m gonna need some grub

Some serious keel-o-calories,

(…Aye, there’s the rub.)

‘Cause I’m gazin’ at my choices 

Not likin’ what I see

Is there nothin’ in this frickin’ camp

That packs some energy?

The big milk jug is Skim, emblazoned

“Zero Point Zero Percent!”

In big bold capital letters

Like some weird new compliment.

The yogurt in its plastic tub

Is bright and upbeat too,

But that irksome goose-egg Zero,

Man, this just won’t do.

Chorus

Gimme fat, gimme grease,

I want nothin’ marked with “Oh.”

Pile it on, spread it thick,

Oh baby, feel the glow.

I’m searchin’ for some fat,

Thick grease is what I crave

To stoke my fires and make some heat

And fuel the workin’ Dave.

Lite Margarine, Lite Cheese, Skim Milk,

Good lord what have they done?

Will they take the fat from butter,

Render bacon “zero” fun?

The human brain is huge, I’ve read, 

And sixty percent fat,

You people need to shake your heads,

And give a thought to that.



(Muttered: While you can still think.)

I step outside, the tundra’s bleak,

The wind is whippin’ strong,

I’m feelin’ pretty desperate 

This day’s clearly startin’ wrong.

But as they say out on the sea,

“Any port in a storm,”

I’m eye-in’ that Canola oil

‘Cause that’ll keep me warm.

Chorus

I pour three swigs into a pan

Fry up some store-bought bread,

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

That this will keep me fed.

It sizzles and turns dark and brown,

While that yummy oil soaks in,

I pile on some o’ that strange Lite cheese,

Now I might have a chance to win.

But really it’s a desperate move 

Just desperate, but I’ll try,

I’ll maybe make it through the day, 

And on toward home I’ll fly.

And there, at home, is fat to eat,

Rich trout and butter and bear, 

I’ll try to take it easy,

Once I make it there.

But here in camp, oh man,

It does just make me wonder,

No fat, no cream, no bacon, 

And full winter on de tundra!

Chorus

Fade to… white. 

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

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

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

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

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

“What? I did?”

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

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

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

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

What a won’erful bird de frog are

When he sit, he stan’ almos’

When he stan’, he fly almos’

He ain’t got no sense hardlee

He ain’t got no tail hardlee ee-der

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

Almos’.

 

So long February.  It’s been real. I guess I am not going to see Pollux set behind the northwest ridge.  Every clear morning lately I have sought him out, if the timing was right, from my lookout perch, a little cubicle that juts up from the roof of our house. I’ve been wondering whether that one star will still be visible, from this spot on the planet, when it touches the ridge-top horizon, or whether the steadily mounting wash of dawn, banishing the night stars earlier every day, will overtake it.  It looks like that is what is going to happen.

Here we have had long steady weeks of calm weather, cold and ringing clear as a bell on every quadrant, the smoke rising straight up from the chimneys into azure sky and sunshine. Not a breath of wind for days at a stretch. Ten days ago I saw a first tentative icicle on the brink of a south-facing eave, along a dark roof edge facing south. Out cutting and hauling wood that day, I stripped to just a wool t-shirt on top, but still in heavy double trousers over longjohns and with my mittens still on.  Our daylight gain is a solid six minutes every day now, which comes to nearly three hours over the month.  The snow, which is deeper than we have had here for decades, lies pillow-soft across the curves of the land, and stretches away in rolling wind-hardened drifts on the lakes. Travel away from any broken trail now demands some serious perseverance. Bring snowshoes, the big no-nonsense kind.

A phrase came into my mind the other day: “the fullness of February.” It stuck.  I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with my appreciation of this month, and its character. Winter, pure and simple. I love this fullness of February. Or maybe, in the current jargon, what I really love is the “full-on-ness” of February. February makes no apologies, does not negotiate, offers and accepts no excuses. It takes no prisoners. It says, “Okay, listen up. If you slip up or screw up too badly, on the wrong day, too far from fire or shelter or assistance, you are dead meat, pal. You got that?”

Like January, February holds no Solstice or Equinox or change of season, but this second month of deepest winter is much more lovable than its predecessor.  February is the mirror image of August, which is, I think, the best month of summer.  Because both February and August still manage to tease us with a few subtle foreshadowings, little hints of what lies ahead.

In August I love the return of stars to the night sky, the return of some cool darkness after the sometimes-wearisome non-stop sunlight of June and July.  The demise of the mosquitoes is welcome too, of course, and the faltering of the very hottest afternoons. And now, in the fullness of February, I love the inertia, the certainty –especially amidst so much uncertainty – of that unstoppable accretion of daylight. If that were to falter, well, all our other worries would look a little trivial by comparison.

This morning Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, were fading fast as the northwest horizon loomed up toward them. The dawning of the day over in the eastern sky is washing them out. Week by week they are saying goodbye, and soon it will be time for some new star companions, if I happen to rise early enough to see any stars at all. That will require some very early risings in the months ahead. So long, twin brothers, it’s been pleasant having morning coffee with you.

The last day of the month is clear, calm, and cold again. The electronic thermometer is stuck at -41.4, where it gives up and refuses to read any lower. It is colder than that, for sure, somewhere down in what we lately have been calling the “surface-of-Mars realm.” (Just to be clear, I am no fan of forty and fifty below zero, except as a sort of occasional chin-up bar test, with the ensuing slightly-weird northern bragging rights. Yep, still okay. Now can we be finished with that again, please?)  

I woke up thinking, oddly enough, about the wood frogs. Northernmost and “alpine-most” amphibians in the world.  We see them every summer, in July and August, on the warmest days, down along the little creek below the workshop. Delicate moist mottled skin, tiny dark eyes that must have been the inspiration for “beady-eyed,” exquisitely formed limbs ending in tiny finger pads. Every time I see one, I cannot help but think of February. Strange, I know.  Right now, as nautical twilight eases to civil twilight and another frigid day dawns, the frogs of summer are down there, somehow, beneath those deep white snowdrifts, down near the line where creek-ice bonds with creek-mud, and they are somehow suspended in a state of being that no one can fathom, or fully explain.  And alive.  Yes, just biding their time. See you on the flip side, guys, if we all should be so lucky. I’ll be walking the beach on a hot August afternoon, pulling up a canoe or heading down to swim.  Ribbet, ribbet.  Oh, there you are.

In Sharon Chester’s superb book The Arctic Guide, I read this:

“Frogs of the Far North have adapted to the arctic climate in a remarkable way – they freeze solid in winter and thaw out in spring. As winter approaches, each frog makes a shallow depression in leaf litter and places dead vegetation over the hollow for insulation. As soon as the frog’s skin touches an ice crystal, solid ice envelops the body cavity, bladder, and subcutaneous tissues. The frog stops breathing, its heart stops beating, its blood stops flowing, and it cannot move. Only the vital organs remain unfrozen, this due to high concentrations of glucose and urea that accumulate in its tissues in summer.  Both act as cryoprotectants, which limit ice formation and reduce osmotic shrinkage of cells. When the soil warms in spring the frog’s frozen parts thaw, its heart and lungs resume activity, and in a few hours, the frog can jump and mate.”

The deep torpor of my fellow mammals I can almost imagine.  The slumbering bears and marmots, the thick fur, the humid funky-smelling dens, the heart and body functions slowed… weeks and months passing. But these frogs with that paper-thin moist skin, those tiny naked finger-pads, are something else entirely.  They are cool to the touch even on an August day whenever the sun slips behind clouds, the wind gets up, and a few small birches are showing a yellow leaf or two.

Now, somewhere down in that frozen muck, the wood frogs are akin to interstellar astronauts on some fantastic future voyage, sequestered and somehow pickled in liquid nitrogen preservatives as they prove out Einstein and grow younger with each passing light-year, hurtling across the cosmos to take a peek at the far side of Castor or Pollux.

How would it feel to wake up from such a state, to regain, moment by moment, tiny hints of movement and breath and consciousness?  I can only imagine. Except that I can’t. Come August, and my next lucky glimpse of a wood frog, I know I will think back to February.  I will stand there barefoot on hot sand, evening sun on my warm brown shoulders, and I will probably just sigh and shake my head, dumbfounded yet again.

Maybe one of these years I will make it through the month of January and never find myself out cutting firewood.  It should be pretty simple, after all. Theoretically. conceivably, ideally, yes yes I know. We use wood at the average rate of n armloads, or cubic feet, or sled loads, or cords per day, over x many days; therefore, going into late autumn we will require n times x of whatever the units are, and what could be so complicated about that? Huh? You there, squirming uncomfortably and looking up at the ceiling — I’m waiting, and I’ve been waiting for years. Okay then, try to make peace with this reality, and at the same time try not to take this need for some mid-winter top-ups to our various woodpiles as a reflection of larger personal shortcomings as a human being, a woodsman, or a husband.

Midwinter in the sub-arctic is not the best season for gathering wood. It is not the ideal season for the gathering of anything, in deep snow on short cold days. Better a time to gather one’s thoughts, on brief outings in the bracing air, then to scurry back inside, to resume a project in the workshop or at the desk. Or to perch in a comfortable chair by the fire and watch the flicker of flames, just gathering stored-up sunshine from past decades, burning logs that were sensibly felled, bucked, hauled, and stacked way back in May or October, by someone capable of sixth-grade algebra. Midwinter is the perfect season to relish the lines from My Fair Lady, and the sweet voice of Julie Andrews: “Lots of chocolate for me to eat, lots of coal makin’ lots of heat, warm face warm hands warm feet, oh wouldn’t it be loverly.”

Yes, it would be loverly. It is. We do that sometimes. Leaping a little too quickly to my own defense, let me clarify the situation here. The wood sheds are not empty. They are, uh, depleted, and that is not good because it is only late January. Three and a half months of firewood consumption, in five separate wood-burners, lie ahead.

The weather gurus at Environment Canada produce a map of northern North America every Thursday morning, depicting the temperature forecast for the coming four weeks. Being a weather nerd, I rarely miss a week of checking it. On this map the color blue denotes a greater than fifty-fifty chance of temperatures being “colder than normal.” On the latest one, for the month of February starting Monday, a giant blue blob covers all of Canada, like a glacier of the Ice Age, and spills far down over the northern half of the U.S. So I assure myself that by getting my butt out there and gathering more firewood at this season, I am not just paying the price for improvidence and poor planning. No, I am being proactive. Time to send Julie Andrews back inside and segue to Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger. . . Henry V – Act 3..

There are some comforts to this necessity, one being that after decades of doing it, I daresay I am the unrivalled local expert on mid-winter wood gathering. I have experience, after all, built up over 33 years of being such an improvident, short-sighted… no no no. Oh and the marital harmony aspect, never to be ignored, because just as in the old adage “No man has ever been shot while doing dishes,” likewise “No man has ever been shot while felling, hauling, bucking, splitting, or stacking firewood at thirty below zero.” Righto. Let’s leave the dishes for this evening and go find some firewood.

Choices, immediately.  First off, transport. Will it be skidoo, or dogteam, or just wandering around out back on snowshoes to drop some standing dead trees alongside the trail for pickup later on? Second – and this might surprise most people – choice of cutting tool.  Chainsaw, Swede saw, or the trusty old axe.  Each has merits and disadvantages.  Third, choice of sled – the favorite by far being the bobsled with twin bunks and cross-chains, built years ago by a Yukon high-school shop class on the pattern of a New Brunswick one-horse logging sled. But the bobsled needs a packed trail to haul a good load. Sometimes in a fresh cutting area the big plastic skimmer is better to start with, heaped up with stove rounds bucked right where the trees fall. And finally, should I wear snowshoes large or small, or just go wade through the snow in mukluks?  Tradeoffs there, too.

Where to cut, where to deliver the wood (shop, house, barn, sauna, guest cabin); which then dictates the best sizes and lengths for bucking. And finally, what to cut? There are three options: spruce, birch, and tamarack. Standing-dead spruce, white and black, are all around us in every size from dainty to jumbo, and this is the wood we depend upon for everything from building to burning. Birch, killed by wildfire and standing bark-free now for over six years, is beautiful stuff, and burns more efficiently than spruce, by about a quarter or so. One problem with birch is that I wind up not wanting to cut some of the bigger pieces into stove-wood because they are too enticing a raw material for woodworking and furniture. Tamarack never grows very large here, but it is a dense wood that burns almost twice as hot as spruce, and it holds fires overnight in the stoves.

It all becomes one of those motion studies of time and efficiency, calories burned, gas consumed, engines and blades worn, versus BTU’s gained, and as with all studies (yawned over any of those lately?) “the results are somewhat surprising.” Surprising, because the knee-jerk choice in our motor-driven, gas-powered, speed-and-noise-and-fume-worshiping day and age would seem to be skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw.  “Go big or go home.” “Git ‘er done.” “Time is money.” 

But hold on.  Say it’s 30 below. If you value your eyeballs, and your hearing, using the chainsaw at that temperature means either fogged-up safety glasses, which are not safe at all, with ear muffs or foam ear plugs, or the combo hard-hat earmuff face-screen that precludes wearing a warm hat and will, within minutes, result in a wire-mesh face-screen clogged with rime ice and frozen snot. The chainsaw is a heavy thing to tote around while snowshoeing, and its carburetion gets a little finicky below about 25 below. The chain has been known to discover boulders and bedrock lying hidden beneath the snow, instantly dulling the teeth and sending me back to the shop for a half hour of sharpening and filing. (Not unpleasant, but certainly not efficient.) The Swede saw or bow saw is light, almost weightless, and on trees up to about six inches thick at the stump it cuts very efficiently. A sharp axe is great in really deep cold, and is always the last resort anytime something else breaks down or fails. Just whacking away is so pleasant sometimes.

You get the idea. A lot depends on what mood I am in. Given a moment, I can make a case for almost any combo.

This afternoon feels like a snowshoe, bowsaw-and-axe, skidoo-and-bobsled, tamarack day.  I will go cut in a thick stand of fire-killed tamarack up on the dogsled trail east of the river. Using the Swede saw will make for easier maneuvering in the thickets. I won’t need safety glasses (but please don’t tell the truly whacked-out safety gurus out there that I operate a handsaw with only my eyelids as safety gear.) I will get a good workout on snowshoes, and my hands will stay warm. There will be no noisy saw to fuel up and adjust, to tote and thaw and set down carefully out of the snow.

Best of all, it will be quiet. Just the huffing of my breath and the sound of saw teeth and axe swipes. Peaceful, until I start up the skidoo to tow the load home. I will wind up with a big load of a few dozen heavy three-to-six inch tamarack poles piled on the bunks of the bobsled. Some day soon I can buck the poles to stove lengths with the chainsaw, and stack the rounds in a “tamarack-only” pile on one side of the shed.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends. A good round of huffing and puffing, some sweat-soaked wool with a delicate patina of frost, and a load of golden-hearted tamarack. On the trail home I’ll be singing at the top of my lungs over the snarl of the Bravo’s valiant little 25-horse motor: “Oh so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still. I would never budge ’til Spring crept over the windowsill.”

(Ah, Julie, where’s the adventure in that?)

In this cold dark silence

I am glad that I can

make heat and light and sound.


Half past seven. Must have slept right through

the chirp of the wristwatch.

But c’mon, who cares?

Three hours and more to sunrise, and hey,

it’s not like there’s a flippin’ bus to catch.

I pad barefoot down the stairs,

to the cold and dark and silent hulk

of the big Amish woodstove.

It’s gone right out overnight;

cast-iron top cool to the touch.

After the sweat in the sauna last night I guess I slept right through,

with no three a.m. urge to feed the fire

or step onto the porch and “water the petunias,” shall we say.

An empty paper sack and some little wads of tissue,

dry spruce splits and two smooth rounds of birch,

Strike a match, open the drafts.

Wide open, just let ‘er rip.

I say let’s smell some hot stovepipe today,

see some embers launching in red arcs from the chimney top.

Let those be our solstice celebration.

Fire cleans a chimney better than a brush, every time.

Says who? Says me.

The cabin this morning is a big old sternwheeler grinding slowly upriver,

bucking the current of  the Yukon, the Missouri, the Columbia or Mackenzie.

Or it’s a steam locomotive grunting up some impossible grade in the Rockies,

strained and overloaded, belching black smoke.

The foreman is hollering at the firemen,

“More!”  “Stoke ‘er, boys!”

Light flares in the dark room,

There’s sound, too – a happy crackle from the kindling,

staccato knocks and pings from the water tank alongside the hot pipe.

And heat.  Oh, heat.


Well, today we crest it,

this upstream uphill grind.

Locomotive, sternwheeler, house, planet,

all of them, all of us, take your pick.

There’s the captain yelling again,

he’s just a wild man today,

Shouting down the voice tube to his sweating stokers,

“More!”  “Heat ‘er up, boys!”

“The driest stuff you got! “  “Peg the damned gauges!”

Watch that pipe there, now, it’s gonna cherry right out.

Relax, I got it. 

I’m watchin’ it go red.

I’m hearin’ the burn.

I’m feelin’ the heat.

I’m likin’ that.