Heaving To, Out at the Floe Edge

Mid-June, McLeod Bay.  Two degrees overnight, four degrees now.  Clear and calm, and a thin layer of fog blankets the near horizon of ice.  The sun is well up in the sky and it is not yet seven in the morning.   It is June mornings like this, just before Summer begins, when I most love the season that  has not even officially started yet. July gets all the rave reviews from most of our non-native northern friends, but here at our place not one of us lists July as a favorite month.  In fact it is not even very high on the list. 

A friend from southern Minnesota called last night and told about a daily heat advisory there, steamy air, and temperatures already into the high thirties (the high nineties F.) by late morning.  Yikes.  I grew up in Illinois, so I remember those days, my summers spent mowing grass and laying sod, soaked with sweat and daydreaming about the mountains and the far north. 

June, especially the first half of it, is an especially good season here.  Miles of white and gray ice still quilt the bay, but the inflow of the Hoarfrost River opens an area of water bordered by shorelines of beach, forest, rock and the crumbling edge of the “pack ice.” With the frozen bay as a breakwater, this swath of open water out front is more like a lake in cottage country than a seventy-mile arm of Great Slave Lake.  It is never wracked by whitecaps or the big swells that pound the coast after many miles of fetch.  Those pounding swells can see us out on the shore at all hours of the day and night, wrestling to secure planes and boats and gear.  On our little June lake we paddle or row out to fish, or to fill a bucket with candled ice for lunchtime lemonade or evening whisky.  By June 10 or so, the area of open water becomes roomy enough to take off and land in a good floatplane. The mosquitoes are now barely getting started, the onslaught of little blackflies is still a few weeks off, and the first pale-green leaves on the birches just appeared a few days ago.  

The two periods of the year surrounding each solstice are usually times of stable weather here, because the wide daily swings of solar energy, night to day and back again, have almost disappeared.  In the weeks on either side of winter solstice the darkness dominates, and in June it is never dark at all.  It can get truly hot here, even before the solstice and with ice still covering the bay, but the hottest days come in late July, just as the cold of winter is deepest in late January.  As for humidity, for someone who knows Illinois in August, there are no humid days in the far north.

We have had a nine-ton wooden spidsgatter sloop here for many years, called Ørn. She’s Danish, built just north of Copenhagen in 1924.  Hauled out for repair late in 2016, she will not be launched again until we have finished and moved into our new post-fire house.  The boat’s long journey from Denmark to the Hoarfrost, via a long stay in San Francisco and a massive restoration in Port Townsend Washington, would make a good modern Norse saga.

As a family we sailed steadily here in the summers between 2005 and 2015, and it was Ørn that helped us all learn to love July and the hottest, buggiest days of summer. A broad reach in Ørn out on the wide cool bay, sails set and a load aboard, or, in my work, a flying job when there was time to climb to 10,000 feet and slide open a window for a whiff of cold air, have been among my best mid-summer moments.

The sailboat taught us a lot about sailing, as boats will do, and we all practiced one helpful technique early on.  Flummoxed as we sometimes were by all the halyards and sheets and stays and spars of a gaff rig, it was good to know that there was a way to stop all the action and re-assess, or reef the sails, or just eat lunch. “Heaving To” is the mariner’s term for purposely putting a vessel’s sails and rudder into a stalled and counterbalanced setup. On a thirty-footer like Ørn, with just two sails, you round up into the wind as if coming about, but then leave the jib backed and the mainsail sheeted in, with the tiller hard over.  The boat’s rig is counterbalanced, and the sails alternately draw and stall, calmly arguing with each other.

Like all pilots who know a little about sailing, I have sometimes wished there was an aeronautical version of “heaving to.”  How wonderful it would be, in bad weather or when faced with some other stress and confusion aloft, if the plane could somehow be set momentarily at ease while a new strategy was made or some problem was assessed, or a hot cup of coffee was poured, hands-free. Alas, if an airplane ceases its rush forward through the sky and loses the steady flow of air over its wings, it becomes not an airplane, but a falling chunk of machinery.  There is no “heaving to” allowed to the fixed-wing pilot, and even for our cousins in the rotor-wing crowd, a hovering helicopter cannot be nearly as restful as a sailboat that is hove to.  (Hovering, and making a quick about-face to have a look around, are the maneuvers I most envy when I watch good pilots flying helicopters.)

We all need some “heaving to” from time to time, and June here gives us some of it. 24-hour daylight, this placid pond out front, and all the rush and whirl of real summer still looming ahead. We have for a time a little fiefdom, almost unreachable from the outside world.  For days at a time we don’t even bother to catch the “news” on the radio.  Steady work with logs and lumber and good friends; the days passing, good sleeps.

Luff, draw, back-fill, luff.  Tiller hard over.        

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