“I had learned years ago, though, at the little cabin on Stump, that at least one popular notion of rustic log-cabin life is mistaken. The daily chores which dilettantes and visitors imagine to be so all-consuming – splitting wood, hauling water, feeding dogs – are not the sole substance of one’s days and years. In fact, as seasons pass one’s days are less filled with mundane, repetitive tasks.”
- from North of Reliance, “Lighting Out”
Reading that passage of mine, it seems a little breezy nowadays, a little too eager to dismiss the day-to-day chores here in the outback as not being of any real consequence. The chores are the chores, was my point, no matter where you live, and my take on this has always been that the basic 3-W’s — wood and water and waste — are not drudgery, nor should they dominate log-cabin life. (And there is this, too, as Will Steger offhandedly remarked to me forty years ago, as we sat in his cabin after a round of water-hauling up the steep cliff shoreline at Picketts Lake – “Hauling water will keep you young, David.”) Or, as we joke with visitors, “Yep, we have running water. Just go down to the lake and carry a pail back up to the house. If you feel like running with it, go ahead.”
Some days, though, light-hearted breeziness blows past, no matter where one chooses to live, or has been chosen to live, and the chores become, well, chores.
The other night I landed at dusk after a flight in and out from Yellowknife. I had dropped Kristen off there, and she spent most of last week in town, doing errands, making appointments, and catching up with some friends after three months at home without a trip “in.” Having put the airplane to bed for the night, with all the attendant fussiness of engine and wing and pitot covers, ice stake tie-downs, and so on, I came up to the house.
I was alone – and that prospect was both pleasant and daunting. Solitude, some simple meals and focused reading, dog runs and wood cutting, some repairs, some tedium with logbooks and flying-business paperwork. We would have a good week, her there and me here, and at the end of it a reunion and a marking of our 28th wedding anniversary.
That first night, though, what greeted me as I stepped inside our workshop-become-house and flicked on the light was a pile of dishes in the sink, a stove-side firewood bin that was scraping bottom, and a scant few gallons of drinking water left in the pails. Out in the yard there were three dozen hungry huskies still to feed, and barely enough water on hand for their morning soup. And as for the final W of the three, the pails under the sink needed emptying, as did the burnable-trash bin, and it had been three full days since the dogyard had been cleaned, to put it politely, or since the dog shit had been scooped, to put it in Saturday-morning English. There was work to do.
Water, I decided, could wait until morning. Wood was not a big deal. The main shed was still half-full of spruce and tamarack and I just needed to carry some indoors. Dishes I could tackle in the evening. Closing my flight plan by satellite phone was the first thing, and then the feeding of the dogs. I put a big chunk of frozen lake trout on to simmer for supper, and as I scrubbed dishes I listened to the BBC and its poignant news pieces about the outgoing administration down in the Excited States. (These are sad, confused, even scary days in this ex-pat household. And no, I am not going to go there in this dispatch.)
Morning. Windy. Time to haul some water. The routine is this: trudge out to the hole (or, to be more efficient, motor out there with the smelly one-lung Bravo skidoo), towing a sled full of pails, clear away the insulating pile of snow, lift the three-foot square plywood-and-styrofoam cover, and then set to work with the ice-chisel. Open the hole, scoop with the dipper pail, in and out, in and out, filling the pails, then re-cover and heap snow on top of the hole, and pull the sled of full pails up to the workshop. Carry them inside one or two at a time and refill woodstove water tank, main barrel, and the drinking-water pails. As I stood there on the porch, this familiar process had all the appeal of a session of root canal work.
For I also knew, at this point in the winter, that what was really called for was an even longer and more laborious — but in some ways more satisfying — project: the creation of water hole number two for the season. The first hole of the season is always close to shore, and by now the ice has thickened, as ice will always do, and with the very next cold snap, downward-thickening ice will meet up with sandy lake-bottom, rendering the hole useless. Time to carry the power auger down to the lake, out another ten or fifteen yards to where the water is truly deep. There shovel an area clear, drill a test hole to gauge the ice thickness, and then drill a tight cluster of contiguous holes, a big 30-inch square, being careful to keep the holes all dry, that is, not to hit water with any of them until the entire excavation is complete and cleaned of ice chips. Then plunge through around the perimeter, lever up an enormous block of clear ice, and –voila – new water hole, sure to last another six weeks or more. What will render that one un-usable will not be its freezing to the bottom, but instead the tall dike of chips and frozen slush and piled snow which will build up around it, higher and higher, until there is such a ludicrous amount of bending and stooping involved in filling pails that –yep – it will be time to excavate hole number 3.
I decided upon that necessity of making a new hole. After making sure that there was still a gallon of water left to see me through mid-day I brought the ice auger inside the workshop to warm up. As I did so, a little lazy voice in my mind piped up and suggested that it might be worth checking out the mouth of the river.
Although our place has been referred to for years as The Hoarfrost, our cluster of buildings and our day-to-day life has little direct connection with the flow of the river. “The Hoarfrost” as a label for our location is more a point of reference, and the mouth of the river is half a mile east of our doorstep. In wintertime we are much more aware of the day-to-day state of the river upstream two miles, where our trail crosses it, than of the changes and patterns that go on at its outlet. Between December and April It is often weeks between visits there. In winter the patterns of freezing and current make a swift river a dangerous and constantly changing place, and our trails all give the river mouth a wide berth.
Yet there is magic in that moving water, and never stronger magic than in these months of deep and silent cold. It draws us closer, lures us for a look. Shrouded as we are in thick heavy layers, mitts and mukluks, it is always a delight to stand close to the chuckle and gurgle and whisper of the river, and let thoughts run toward summer.
From a practical standpoint, though, the Hoarfrost as a source of day-to-day water presents problems. Every year the freeze-up takes on a slightly different pattern, with sloping balconies of undercut ice, deep swift water diving below thin shelves, and sudden eruptions as the current gives up on finding its way beneath the ice and instead overflows and floods upward.
And – the big caution: this all changes constantly from day to day, and even from hour to hour. Thus our prosaic safe water hole on the lake ice out in front of the homestead, instead of the poetic adventure of stowing the ice chisel forever, and going to the river to dip. One year there was decent access to river water over on the east bank, and we hauled water from there for a few days while I procrastinated on drilling a new lake-hole, but the ice was sloping and the deep water diving beneath it was so ominous that I made a fixed rope fast to a shoreline boulder and put a belay on as we moved back and forth with the pails. That was a welcome change of routine, and exciting enough for a few days, but the roping-up took most of the pleasure out of the process and we soon abandoned it for a new water hole on the safe, broad lake.
In late afternoon I gathered up the water pails, started the skidoo, slung my rifle over my shoulder (for it is still moose season here, and the cache is still empty, and there was still some dusky twilight) and set off down the shoreline to have a look at the river and see what access to water it might offer. I hugged the shoreline and the west beach of the river mouth, and steered through thick alders on the gravel bar that built up in the big flood of June 1992.
I stopped the machine and walked ahead, axe in hand. This year in that one spot the river has built a thick bank of layered ice, ice that is now nearly four feet thick, with a sheer smooth face dropping straight down to swift flowing water about two feet deep. This looked promising – easily the most convenient water hole at the river that I have ever seen. I brought the sled forward, attached a stout rope to the handle of a plastic five-gallon pail, and flung it out and down, into the current. The pail floated a moment, then dove out of sight beneath the undercut ice bank. I felt a solid tug, like the lurch of a whopper fish on a line: full pail. Up it came with an arcing lift to land at my feet and splash a little ice-water over the tops of my boots. Forget drudgery, man – this was downright fun! I threw and lifted the pail again and again, until all ten plus the dipper pail were lined up brimful in the sled.
The day’s light had faded now, and it was dark. I stood for a moment, listening and letting my mind run upstream fifty miles to the wide tundra lakes where the Hoarfrost rises. Fletcher, Walmsley, Cook, Lac la Prise. Miles of white tundra and taiga, all frozen hard in the grip of January, but just beneath that frozen veneer, even in these long months of steady sub-zero cold, the water-blood of the country still somehow runs and pulses. Groundwater, stream and river, steady and constant, down the falls and rapids to the lake.
Somewhere up there, just off to the west of one branch of the Hoarfrost watershed, but separate from the headwaters – or so we have been assured – are the deep pits of a new diamond mine at Gacho Kue, now in production after decades of planning and construction. A miniature city of hundreds of workers, enormous craters that dwarf the giant haul-trucks, steady round-the-clock digging and blasting and crushing, jet traffic direct to Edmonton from a mile-long runway, lobster salad and fresh kiwi fruit on the buffet tables at dinnertime. Video surveillance and security guards. An exercise gym, T.V. and ping-pong for the off hours. A Mars colony, really, unconnected to any of this, and all in the quest for a few pricy baubles to decorate the pinkies of faraway fiancées and brides. And lives, entire lives, being spent in that scrabble for shiny stones. Funny bunch, us humans. Just upstream, between high rock walls, I could see the steep white rise of Beverley Falls, named in 1833 for a British arctic traveller (who never saw his falls) by his friend Captain George Back of the Royal Navy (who did.)
Below me was the smooth murmur of the river, and downstream a soft hiss as the current slid beneath the shelf of ice leading out into the lake. Movement slowing, shallow water diving deep. River becoming lake, poetry settling in to prose.
Reverie ended, I yanked on the starter cord and motored slowly for home. Once I had lugged the pails up the steps and filled the various water containers in the house, I smiled and took the power ice-auger back outside. “Won’t be needin’ that for a while,” I murmured to no one. Maybe I will make a new ice hole in the lake out front, one of these days, but for now I’ll just enjoy these jaunts to the river for as long as that perfect access point endures.
Thirsty and tired, I poured myself a jar-full and took a long drink. So cold. So perfectly clear and sweet. Is it just illusion, or does this wintertime river water, super-cooled and aerated as it is down all those miles of falls and rapids, taste better than any water I have ever had? Running water. Oh yes, we have running water.