Skinning Pallets, Taltheilei Narrows
Late April and it has been, so far, a late spring.
We go to the shed and count and figure;
we are running low on kibble and rice for the dogs.
A look at the calendar and some quick calculations.
Better try for a load, by plane, from the stockpile
that came last summer, on the barge to the narrows.
On maybe the second-to-last day I would even consider it,
I fly to Taltheilei and touch down on the ice,
forty feet from the broad blue swath of open water there.
Taxi the plane north on a narrow band of shoreline white,
up into the narrows as far as I dare, and shut down.
The ice along shore is still thick and sound,
but the water is wide and wave-flecked,
what with the narrows and the current,
a south wind and the welcome warmth of the springtime sun.
On snowshoes I tow a pair of plastic sleds,
pick my way along the sharp border of blue water and white ice,
on up through deep snow, past the summertime boats and docks of the lodge,
to the Sea Can where the barge crew dropped it.
Wrestle with padlock and rusty hinges,
swing the big door open through the heavy wet drifts.
Inside it is clean and dim, dry and cool.
Three pallets and a wheelbarrow, two jugs of avgas cached last autumn.
80 bags of kibbled dog food on two skids,
milled in Perham Minnesota,
and half a skid, or thirty 20-kilo bags, of plain white rice.
(From where? From Thailand! Welcome to the brave new world.)
Here is food for the sled dogs at home. Shipped north from the factories of the south, from the floors of North America’s slaughterhouses and canneries and chicken farms and corn and beet and wheat mills, the offal and waste and leftover detritus of this weird and utterly unholy world food system that we all inhabit and that we all, almost without thought or contemplation, every day embrace, and ingest.
“Broken rice” bagged in Thailand – the broken stuff sells cheaper and cooks faster, but might not be so favored by the market, so we buy it for the dogs, and it’s good stuff and we eat it ourselves. Here is a half-ton of it, half a world away from where it grew, sitting on a pallet and soon to be airlifted to the Hoarfrost River, 140 miles past the end of the road. On this sunny day in late winter in northern Canada, I think about this.
These pallets are still shrink-wrapped, so I reach for the knife on my belt, to slit the thick taut half-inch layer of plastic. Gently now, gently, I think to myself as I start to cut, and suddenly I laugh out loud. Because this is so exactly like skinning a moose – or a musk ox, or a caribou, or a bear, or even a fish – all those good, wild, real, and truly holy things that dogs and people up here can eat. I’m thinking of all of them that my various knives and these hands of mine have skinned in their career. Chuckling at this irony, easing the sharp tip of the blade along, just beneath the layers of clear shrink-wrap, trying not to puncture the bulging kibble-bags stacked inside.
And this is how we feed our sled dogs now. Our draft animals. Our winter freedom and summer servitude. Yes. I think about this. I have thought about this. I must not stop thinking about this.
No more these days the shot, the blood, the frozen pile of carcasses. Lance and Richard’s and Gus’s and Ingstad’s and Louison’s dogs, like countless generations of huskies before them, used to go nuts at the crack of the rifle, the merest hint of un-sheathing a weapon, with a herd in sight, because they knew what almost always came next – raw liver, hot blood, crack of bone and thick marrow jelly. Our dogs, by contrast, are panicked by the crack of gunfire. As most dogs are, for there is no connection there to food, for them – no Pavlov’s bell.
Yes, of course there is our fish net in summer and autumn, and slabs of good fat fish are hung to dry, and to be boiled up each morning in the barn with the rice. But let’s be forthright and clear-eyed here: when all is said and done, feeding our big teams of dogs comes right down to this: placing the order, wiring the payment, loading the semi-trucks in Vancouver and Winnipeg, then at Hay River or Yellowknife loading the barge, then at Taltheilei the boat or the plane… stowing and stacking these forty-pound bags of kibble and rice. My huskies and I are thus complicit with the whole damned mess, the entire untenable system of supply and consumption. Them’s the facts, ma’am, despite anyone’s furry romantic notions about what’s going on here in the far north.
Living where we do, and wanting to make miles in winter, it’s a choice narrowed to two options: snowmobiles and barrels of gas, or sled dogs and bags of rice and kibble. If you want to travel miles out from home on snow and ice, in a seven-month stretch from mid-October to the end of May, and to do it with any kind of speed or hauling any real load, those are your two choices. Given the options, my choice so far has always been to feed sled dogs and to keep simple bare-bones skidoos. I’m sixty now and I don’t see that choice changing.
Four decades of dog-food runs, first by truck down to Duluth and back, when I lived in northern Minnesota, and by boat or barge or plane, for the past 30 years up here beyond all the roads. I do a little math – maybe 10,000 sacks of kibble and rice, along with 30 tons of lard from pigs and cattle, and 4,000 gallons of oil squeezed from yellow prairie canola crops… Thought-provoking numbers. Dogs are the winter transportation choice we have made, and these have been their fuels.
City people arrive at our place and see the dog-yard and ask – “Wow, what does it cost you to feed and look after all these dogs?” I get a little tired of this, to tell the truth. As if I would walk out to their attached garage or back alley and have the gall to intone, “Wow, what does it cost you to feed and look after all these vehicles?” or to stand at a ranch or a reservation in Alberta or Wyoming and say, “Wow, what does it cost you to feed and look after all these horses?” But people are funny, and our back-country household economics somehow seem to be fair game to a lot of them. Like I said, we choose to run sled dogs, and we have no regrets.
I have skinned the pallet of kibble and laid bare the smooth shiny bags. I slip my knife back to my belt. Four snowshoe treks with the little plastic sleds, back and forth to and from the plane. Hard work in the deep snow, and on the third trip I search out a cup in the pilot shed by the dock, scrape and rinse some sort of old brown grunge out of it, and gingerly walk to the edge of the ice for a sip of cold Taltheilei water.
Lock up the sea can, load the plane, kick the skis loose, strap myself in, fire up. The Husky (a happy coincidence, I assure you, for a lifelong musher to make his living flying a plane with that moniker) lifts off in trademark style, just in the nick of distance, banks in a slow climbing turn with the heavy load onboard, and rolls out bearing northeast. I level at 3500’ ASL, 3,000 feet above the lake, for the 40-minute flight, 65 nautical miles to home.
There our four new pups, and all the veterans of the main team, are hungry and eager. They will set up a long howl at the distant sound of the little plane, long before Kristen can hear me coming. The sound of the engine must be their version of the crack of a rifle in a herd of caribou, or the boat coming ashore from the gill net — the distant sound of some machine on water or sky, bearing a load of kibble and rice, boxes of lard and pails of vegetable oil.
I’ll land and we’ll unload, put the plane to bed for the night, and it will be feeding time again in the dog-yard. As it has been for years, and as it will be for years, I suppose, if these dubious lines of supply continue to hold, and we continue to make our uneasy peace with it all.