Where We Stay

“The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” 

        — Gary Snyder (Back on the Fire, 2007)

In late March down in Fort Smith I crossed paths with Roger Beck.  Roger is a hunter and dog musher from the large Beck clan of Yellowknife, Fort Resolution, and Hay River.  We met in 1985 when we were both racing dogteams on the northern circuit – Roger pretty successfully, as I recall; me trailing in at the rear of the pack, just learning and having fun. In March we were both working on a moose survey. He was an observer in the Cessna 185, and I was flying our Aviat Husky, with a biologist in the rear seat.  The day we talked, he had spent eight hours or so around a campfire at 30 below zero, after the pilot of the Cessna had made a precautionary ski landing 40 miles east of Fort Res. When word of that came to my observer and I, we returned to the airport and I ferried a mechanic up there to have a look at the engine.  It needed a part replaced, and the moose-survey crew would have the next day off, so Roger was headed back home that night. He and his wife were pulling out of the motel parking lot and he stopped and rolled his window down. “You remember Dave?” he asked her, “He stays at Hoarfrost River.”  I don’t think she did remember me, but we nodded and smiled at each other. As they drove away, it was Roger’s phrasing that got me thinking.

Over the years we have wondered from time to time how to succinctly refer to our place and our life out here. “Where we stay” has been a difficult place to sum up in a single word, especially as our lives and the spread of cabins, buildings, and efforts have evolved and expanded. In lighter moments I use “Hoarfrost River Asylum for the Chronically Bewildered,” along with a few other off-beat labels.

The first word we began to use, upon landing here and wintering over, was “homestead.”  Being a freshly immigrated cocky American back then, (and likely still, to some, I suppose) I was a little self-satisfied to learn that this was not a common term in these parts. Kristen having grown up in North Dakota, I in small-town Illinois, we were both steeped in the vernacular of the upper Midwest.  (The mantle of formal Canadian citizenship for us has done little to dispel the notion that we both are stamped “Made in America” – a fact that, among a small but tiresome caste of Canadians, carries some prickly baggage whenever our origin comes to light. That is an interesting digression, postponed until another time…)

As a one-word label for this plot of deeded land, the center of our life and home and efforts hereabouts, “homestead” stuck pretty tenaciously over the early years.  Surprisingly to us, the word seemed to baffle and even rankle some people. I realized much later that our early use of “homestead” for our place even raised the hackles of a few local sages (never a bad thing to do from time to time), evoking as it does a bygone era of Manifest Destiny, free land for settlement, forty-acres-and-a-mule, and crusty Old Jules pounding survey stakes into the Nebraska sandhills.

What shall we call the place where we stay?  Local parlance, especially when we first arrived here, favored “camp.”  Any cabin or tent or stopover in the North is a camp. I never did find that one creeping into my own jargon as a reference to our home.  I flew to camps, mostly mining camps of tents and drillers and stakers and geologists, and of course we did plenty of camping, but it has never felt as though we are camped here.  Our clutter and sprawl, from sawmill to sauna to fuel dock to boat harbor to workshop to kennel, dog barn, greenhouse and garden, would not strike anyone as a “campsite.”

“Lodge” is the next one that came along, and still comes along constantly, from other people, especially if they have not been out here. It is a fact that millions of modern Canadians are a culture of dichotomy, the two facets being urban-home-and-job-doing-real-work-in-the-serious-world and lake-country-cottage-lodge-holiday-escape.  While I’m tossing broad generalizations around, I may as well say that of the two cultures, Canadian and American, the latter has always been more strongly instilled with the libertarian and Thoreauvian notions of “lighting out for the Territories” (as Huck Finn put it) and rural independence that so strongly influenced my early thinking and thus the path of my life.  The Canadian view of bush life and cottage holiday, and the myriad commercial lodges of the north, along with the fact that we do some guiding and flying, make it a short step to the assumption that we must be running a Lodge for fishermen, hunters, or tourists.  Another common set of tacit assumptions is that no one would choose to live beyond the realm of cell-phone service, Tim Horton’s double-doubles, and that most sacrosanct of amenities, indoor plumbing, unless they were somehow being well paid for their very obvious sacrifices and discomfort. But a Lodge we are not.

A couple of other labels come into use occasionally. I always liked the word “outpost,” as I have written elsewhere, but my attraction to the word and its connotations is, like many aspects of my life, mostly boyish and outmoded.  And these days, with our mom-and-pop flying business firmly entrenched as the key to our livelihood (another great word) out here, we could legitimately refer to this place as our “base.”

Camp. Base. Outpost. Basecamp. Lodge. All useful words in the right context, but they all sound either odd or ridiculous when referring to this place, our home. A whiff of the short-term and temporary in those first ones, and Lodge is just not accurate at all.  There is something a little pretentious, macho, and military in them all, though not so blatant as in the myriad “Forts” that are spread across the continent’s North and West. From Fort Snelling on the Mississippi, on across thousands of Fort-dotted miles to Fort Nelson, Fort Saint John, Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, Fort McPherson, clear over to Fort Yukon in Alaska, and south to Fort Macleod, Fort Peck, Fort Collins and Fort Worth, the gazetteer of the frontier supplied an abundance of Forts, replete with their implication of threat, invasion, security and control.  Fort Hoarfrost?  Fort Olesen?  Funny, yes, but only as satire.  (I am reminded of my friend, the author and biologist Chris Norment, who in the winter of 1977-78 christened the log outhouse behind the Warden’s Grove cabin on the Thelon River “Fort ROIF” — the acronym standing for “Royal Order of Impacted Feces.” But again I digress…)

I wind up back at “homestead.”  A wonderful old word; I have come across none better.  Not capital-H, government-grant Homestead, but a lower-case blend of two ancient and evocative words in the realm of people and their relationships to landscape:

— home, with everything that old word implies, from the Norse hjem.

— stead, derived from the same solid root as steady, stand, and stay.

Staying home.  Home stay.  Home-Stead.  homestead.  It’s home.  It’s where we stay.

I will be standing in the woods

where the old trees

move only with the wind

and then with gravity. 

In the stillness of the trees

I am at home. Don’t come with me.

You stay home too.

from “Stay Home,”  a poem by Wendell Berry in his 1980 collection A Part 


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