Ute Kaffe, in a Chilly Pasture

Mornings are slow here.  When city people come to visit, they are surprised by the pace of the start of our days. I gather that one myth of homestead life goes something like this: Bounce out of bed at 5 a.m. and hit the cold hard floor at a half-trot; axes to sharpen and rifles to clean, sleds to varnish and dogs to feed… chop chop the wood, fetch fetch the water, grab a chunk of cold bannock on the fly, wash it down with a swig of lake water. Busy busy busy. 

Not so.  Another cliché bites the dust. Over the years our morning rhythm has not changed much.  Wake up, light or stoke the woodstove fire (a given, for eight or nine months of the year – it’s May 28th as I begin to draft this post, and the first thing I did upon waking was light the woodstove.) Put on the kettle, wash and brush and comb, and take the clipboard from its nail to carefully jot down the specifics of the morning’s weather:  temperature, dewpoint, altimeter, windspeed and direction, sky cover, high and low of the past 24 hours, and some random notes (this morning,  “Still easily walking onto ice.  Ran dogs to west on bay yesterday.”) Then it’s coffee and a book and maybe some scratching of pen on paper; a few words, or not, of quiet conversation with my people, and before we all know it, a solid hour and a half has passed in blissful sloth, with nary a moose milked nor a chainsaw sharpened.

At the far end of the day, I sense from the same worldly and urbane visitors that our workaday evenings catch them just as much by surprise as our mornings do. For one thing, there are never any night-time social engagements on the docket.  No one is going to stop in, and there is no event to go out and attend. We tend to work late at whatever we’re working on, then feed dogs and wash up, and eat supper even later. After dinner, most nights, we shuffle off to bed. Dinner around nine and people saying “good night” by ten is not at all uncommon.

Our friend Hakun from Norway told me that when he was a teenager on the farm, every year on just the right April evening his father would look outside and announce: “Guter, nå er det tiden for ute pilse.” “Boys, it’s time for outside beer.” Then to adjourn to where the evening sun was hitting the west side of the house, and there sit, bundled warmly, and pour the first “outside beer” of a new spring. A truly civilized ritual.

The season of ute pilse is slow to start here, and not helped by the facts that home-made lager has not been made here in five years, and store-bought beer is ludicrously expensive once bought and flown out here from town. But the season of ute kaffe is already upon us. Outside coffee. Mornings are still cold, but with a puffy down coat and a wool hat on, I can go out to the front deck of the workshop and sit and sip and stare across the ice at the snow-flecked hills of the Kahochella Peninsula.

It is interesting, going outside here on a spring morning to sit and try to read and write.  A few mornings ago, for instance, it was nine below zero, with the chill amplified by what I described in my journal as a “lively” east wind. Still, in my coat and hat I was happy enough to be out at the table for a while. (Lying on a long wooden table, belly down, is a great posture for a stack of worn-out vertebrae. Try it, you whose shock absorbers are starting to give out.) On cold mornings it is utterly quiet. At this season, sound is linked directly to warmth. A few mornings earlier this month, with no wind and bright sun, ute kaffe was downright noisy. The stream was babbling just east of the workshop, draining the land’s paltry runoff after the driest winter we have ever seen in all our years here. Sea gulls were wheeling and shrieking and raising heck over at their ice-bound rookery on the reef to the west. The first Harris’ and white-crowned sparrows, and some warblers, announced their arrival on May nineteenth.  Two robins had already piped up on the fourteenth of May.

Slowly things are coming alive, but very slowly, and only in fits and starts. If we drop the temperature ten degrees from one morning to the next, all the noise and action come to a complete stop. This amazes me.  What does everyone do, and more to my point today, what does everyone eat, in this landscape of brown vegetation still weeks from turning green, the lake ice still a month from melting, the land mostly bare rock and the sky a cold blue-gray bowl of northeast wind for days at a stretch?

I spotted a couple of seagulls standing forlornly on the ice by the tiny outflow of the creek, staring down into the puddle as if just maybe there would be something to eat there, as I ripped past on what we thought would be our final dogteam run out onto the bay. That was on a warm evening a while back, and then it turned cold again, and we were still running teams on the ice as of three days ago. The seagulls have been here in steadily growing numbers since the first one appeared on May seventh, took a look around, and disappeared for five days before showing up again.

A famous sentence from Thoreau: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” I will place the expanded quote below this post for those would like to see that sentence in context.  It is from the chapter “Spring” of his masterpiece Walden.  A book which should, in my not-so-humble opinion, be required reading for every literate citizen of the world, maybe once every five years.  But no.  The economy would go to hell in a handbasket.  Air Miles and Apple and Amazon Prime, Walmart and Costco would buckle and fold.  Oh, the horror.

Pasturing. And what oh what was that bear pasturing on?  The one I flew over just the other day, as I was homeward bound in the Husky after a day spent drilling through the ice for lake-sediment samples (at the behest of geologists on the trail of a rich cobalt deposit — cobalt being a darling of the exploration business just now, as it is a key ingredient of those electric-car and smart-phone lithium-ion batteries.) The bear was sitting at ease on its haunches, in a patch of sand, three miles up a narrow valley from the frozen expanse of McLeod Bay. I was not sure at first whether or not it was a bear or a muskox I was seeing, and I was intrigued enough to turn around even though I was eager to get home for dinner. I slowed and doubled back and lost three hundred feet of altitude. Came back upwind with the wing flaps down.  Creeping below the lee of the ridge, groundspeed less than 45 knots, I turned off the strobelights on the wingtips. As I got closer I thought, no, not a bear, just a big black rock. But no again, as up the boulder jumped and sprinted out of the sandflat into the sparse cover of the scraggly burnt taiga. The scraggly burnt taiga that now forms the entirety of our late-May backyard, and stretches in an arc thirty miles long and seven wide, a vast sweep of country that looks to me to be capable of starving a small squirrel, never mind a four-hundred-pound bear.

It was not a grizzly, but a big black bear, not long awake after a solid six months of sleep. Although people who claim to know about such things have assured me that bears do not awaken in spring under any real “food stress,” I wonder if the same smug experts have ever confirmed this with the bears themselves. Seems to me that after a six-month fast, at least a few of the bears might be on the lookout for a little break-fast.  And all around that bear as I left him alone and climbed away southeast toward my own dinner, not a swelling bud or an open pond or a blade of green grass in sight – just ice and rock and brown burned forest. Our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing, Henry? Pasturing on what?

Maybe I am too easily amazed. This is becoming a theme with me, but I am intrigued and I keep circling back to it. This morning it is the pilot in me, wondering at the fuel-flow aspect of all that running and bounding and flapping and squawking. And the dog musher in me, tallying the total kilocalories burned in a day by a warm body in cold weather. And also just the weak, pink, mostly hairless human that, like billions of others, has held to the habit of tucking into three square meals a day, nonstop now for over six decades. Every wing beat of those seagulls and warblers, every loping stride of that bear, every waggle of a fin and lift of a paw, is energy being expended, and somehow, all around us, the critters roam and soar and swim around to find and procure that energy. They don’t split atoms or dam rivers; they never pump and pipe and burn fossilized jungles. Yet they go on and on. And if that is not amazing, and is not a plain instance of our own limits transgressed, then I don’t know what amazement or transgression are.

So long for now. Just barely squeaked this one in by the close of May. Tempus has been fugiting again. HDT’s lines are expanded below.


“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

—  Thoreau, Walden


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