Monthly Archives: December 2012

Yule Logs

Out cutting wood yesterday, I was thinking.  As our dear old planet turns through the Winter Solstice, the twice-yearly standing-still of our favorite star, there is much to ponder.  As I type now it is past 6 a.m., so at least by some predictions we have squeaked past the end of the Mayan calendar.  Perhaps it was a close call.  Perhaps we don’t even know how close.

End of world or not, winter solstice or not, there are realities in the depth of winter that are cold and hard.  At 5 a.m. my alarm chirped.   I padded downstairs.  I stoked the fire, suited up in coverall and bunny boots, donned headlamp, and stepped out into the darkness.  Walked down to the workshop, dragged out the generator, tugged it down to the ice alongside the Bush Hawk, yanked it to life, laid out the cord, checked the heater, and plugged in.  Five hours into morning, at first legal light, after further heating later on from the propane Tundra Toaster, the engine will be warm enough to start, and the plane warm enough to fly to Yellowknife.  Christmas guests to fetch – a father and his two sons.    

Our winter woodpile is in its all-too-common Solstice state of slimness – not quite in the red zone but certainly well into the yellow and far from the green.  I was thinking the other day that one common romantic perception of life in the woods is that the woodpiles are always stacked and ready, brim-full and abundantly adequate, by the time the last leaves of autumn fall.  This has never been my experience.  There may have been a couple of years when the woodshed saw us all the way through winter, but those winters have been few and far between, and probably uncommonly mild, and likely held some long stretches when we were away from here and not heating all these darned buildings. 

I suppose it is as much a matter of wishful vicarious thinking as anything else.  I sometimes picture what my life would be like in a cosmopolitan city, were I ever to jump ship and leave the bush.  Copenhagen, say, or Cologne, or San Francisco.  I picture that life as naively as city people must picture ours.  Long afternoons at sidewalk cafes, reading the paper or a book of poems, sipping espresso until late afternoon, when it might be time to switch to beer or wine.  A little apartment, a friendly landlord, rugs and a sofa and an easy chair.  Perhaps I would take up pipe smoking again.  I never imagine grimy subway-station urinals, traffic jams, power outages, street people lying in alleys, gunfire in the dark, sirens, or heavy traffic.

So it is with woodpiles, and many other aspects of the bush life.  The realities are mostly at odds with the romantic vision. Oh I know there are superior human beings out there in other parts of the hinterland, with firewood stacked in enormous neat piles, split and dry, ready for winter.  But look closer and you may find that the firewood has in fact been purchased from a local purveyor of cordwood, or that there is in fact a backup heat source in the house, or that the wood-heated house is not in full-time year-round use in one of the coldest climates inside of the treeline , with woodburning sauna, wood-heated workshop, wood-fired dog barn and dogfood cooker for 39 dogs, woodstove in guest cabin, and yet another one in the smaller guest cabin…  Which leads to another rhetorical question:  how big would people’s houses be if everyone heated with wood they gathered themselves? 

You get the idea.  The woodshed will not provide through the coming months without some steady input.  So I’ll be out cutting and hauling, right through the winter, whenever my days allow and coincide with some milder weather.   Hopefully we can avoid wood-gathering at minus-40, with bow-saws.  That is not fun, but it can be done.    

There is no oak or maple at these latitudes.  We take what we can find, close to home and not too steep.   Mostly black and white spruce, with a smattering of tamarack and some carefully rationed birch.  All in all it is easy enough to find dry standing wood. 

As for Thoreau’s famous adage about firewood that warms you twice, I think he had the right idea but his number was way off.  Warmed by snowshoeing in from the main trail to find the stand of tall dead spruce,  warmed by yanking on the chainsaw to coax it into life at 25 below, warmed by felling, warmed by stacking, warmed by hauling, warmed by untangling dogs and getting bobsled back on trail, warmed by stacking again, warmed by bucking and throwing, warmed by stacking yet again, warmed by splitting, warmed by carrying into house, and warmed… thoroughly and completely and finally… by burning in the maw of that lovely cast-iron stove.

Thinking along these lines the other day as I cut and hauled wood, I was struck by the paradoxical, almost incomprehensible tradition of the giant Yule bonfires.  When wood is coming in by hand, without chainsaws, without pickup trucks, with houses full of children to keep warm and winter at its very darkest and coldest, what an amazing and paradoxical form of celebration:  hey I know, let’s stack up a huge pile of dry wood and set it all on fire, all at once, and dance around it!  How amazingly and wonderfully human, that willingness to give over such a precious commodity to mark the passing of the world through the narrows of another year.

I would be hard pressed to give much of my wood to a giant bonfire right now, that’s for sure.  But for a big barrel of mead and some wild revelry with like-minded friends, I would. 

Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas to all who read this. 


Morning, Hay River.  Dark and windy.  A week until the earliest sunset of the year, fourteen days to the Winter Solstice, and a little over three weeks until the days truly begin to expand at both ends.  This is my 25th autumn at this latitude (we missed one when we wintered down at boatbuilding school in 2000-2001.)  The darkness at this season is less oppressive than it was many years ago, in the old shack at the Hoarfrost, with its hissing gas lantern and finicky kerosene Aladdins.  These days at home we enjoy the moonlight blue of LED’s, a wonder at only a few watts each, and the old standby propane mantles help warm the tone of the lighting. 

Here in Hay River where I am posted with the Bush Hawk on a 50-hour moose survey, there is electric lighting and plenty of it.   Bulbs and switches take the sting of long darkness away, until the moment at the start of each working day when I put on my headlamp and stride across the dark apron of the airport terminal, to the Bush Hawk parked out on the edge in the blackness.  I slip a hand under the thick insulation of the engine covers, and reassure myself that it is indeed warm in there.  Then I begin an hour or so of intermittent work.  First I plug in the cabin and cockpit heaters, so that the gyros and instruments can warm up.  I don’t leave those plugged in overnight simply because I don’t trust them.  The wing covers come off, the fuselage is swept, the tires and skis are scrutinized in the beam of my headlamp.  I go back into the warm terminal, now beginning to fill up with waiting passengers for the various scheduled departures on the airlines.  I phone Arctic Radio in North Bay Ontario and file a flight note for the day. 

I go out again, sweltering after fifteen minutes indoors wearing my thick clothes.  The frigid breeze is a stimulant and — lo and behold — there is some light in the southeastern sky.  I uncover the engine completely, check the oil sump with the dipstick, and climb into the cockpit.  Startup goes smoothly, and I warm the engine for about five minutes.  Shut down again, cover the engine again, leave the cabin heaters running inside the cockpit. 

Nearly light now.  The headlamp is stowed in my breast pocket.  I go inside and meet the survey crew — Sonny from Hay River, George from Kakisa, Karl from Fort Smith.  We look at the map and talk about the plan for the day.  We file out to the plane, stow all the covers and heaters, and taxi out.  For a few hours, wedged between dawn and dusk, we fly low and slow over the scrubby bog and forest west of Hay River, and south of the Mackenzie River.  We see some moose, and a few boreal caribou.  Mostly we see snow and trees and a very few outcrops of rock.  The day begins to wane.  It is becoming dusky again, and by the time we turn final for our landing the runway lights are blazing brightly.  It is not quite legally “dark” but it is getting closer by the minute.

Taxi to the fuel pump.  The crew jumps out and people groan and stretch a little.  They flee to the terminal and the truck.  “9 o’clock again tomorrow?”  Karl delivers them back to town, and in an hour or so, when I have finished fueling the plane and putting it to bed for the night, I call him for a ride.  In only sixteen hours it will start to get light again.