It is an evening in late March. We have been flying all afternoon and into the evening, on a job to locate and photograph herds of muskox for a study being done by the territorial wildlife people. It is good work for the little Husky ski-plane, with me folded into the front seat and Kristen right behind me with her cameras. It is cold work, though, since she slides the side window open for the photos as we make a low pass over herds we find, and the air whistling past that open window is downright frigid. It will be 35 below here again tonight. We call the second three months of winter “Winter Light” (February, March, and April), and that season is well underway, but Winter is still the first word in the season’s designation.
Five hours of low-level circling and spotting and note-taking, ending with a climb to 7500 feet for the 100-mile flight back to home, have left me a little brain-fogged. The plane is tied down with its winter covers all on, and as Robert Service would say, “The dogs are fed / and the stars o’erhead / are dancing heel and toe…” A quarter moon and Venus sliding down in the west.
It’s a picture, isn’t it? Almost a cartoon. I stand at the big steel sink and wash the day’s dishes, and we tune in the news on the BBC. Coleman lamps hissing, one hung on a nail in a ceiling timber, the other set up on a makeshift plywood shelf. The big electric worklight messes up the radio reception, so we leave it off while the news airs, and use up some of the stale naptha gas bequeathed to us by various expeditions over the decades. It doesn’t keep forever.
The news is all lockdowns, confirmed cases, stimulus plans and the flattening of curves. A couple of months ago, when we first moved into our new cabin, the reports were already touching, but just touching, on the bat virus from the wild-food markets of Wuhan, then getting back to Iran, Bernie, Biden, and the aftermath of Brexit. Little did we know. May you live in interesting times. Check.
I scrub, I listen, I finish and pour a shot of bourbon (moderation in all things, lads) and lie alongside the woodstove on a rug of muskox hide. Kristen has finished putting some dinner together, moose-meat and potatoes and cabbage salad, and is sitting with a glass of wine from a box. (Card-bordeaux.) We sip, still listening, and then switch from the BBC to the CBC. News closer to home, all things being relative, but still. It is news from a far distant land. Montreal and Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Sometimes a passing mention of one of the three northern territories.
We are, I know, almost a caricature in this, our rustic remoteness. And okay, I can let go of the “almost.” We are. And I guess I may as well make my peace with having become a caricature. If I have over the years become a caricature of myself, and if this place and our life out here are, for some, just a tired cliché of such places and lives, well… so be it. Log buildings, plaid wool shirts, red suspenders, moose meat and chainsaws and sled dogs and ski planes.
Coleman lamps, for God’s sake – who the hell pumps a Coleman lamp any more? LED’s, man, and double A batteries that will light up a room for weeks, all on sale today at Cambodian Tire. Walk the aisles, if you dare.
Yes, I am a caricature. A cliché. Isolation and “social distancing” writ large. Six feet? Try sixty thousand, or 600,000.
But not so fast, folks — take a look, and a glance in the mirror, and note what a clever cartoonist might make of you and your own life. And then — just have a good chuckle and get on with it. It’s okay. If you can chuckle you can trust it. And that will be my entire chestnut of self-help advice for 2020, I promise.
Like I said, we moved up into the new house in January. It is a delight to be here. It is an odd-looking place, from the outside, being a spruce-log octagon ten feet on a facet and two very tall stories high, capped by a low-slope roof with a three-foot overhang. One friend likened it to a mushroom. Another visitor, last summer, an architect by trade, went so far as to glance up from his notebook (where I like to think he was making notes on the brilliance of my design, but probably not) to say to me, simply and point-blank “You know you’re crazy, don’t you?.” Yep. Like I said, caricatures need to know when to chuckle.
The lantern, though, is a great feature of the new place. “Lantern” being, we are told (again by an architect friend), the proper designation for a jutting protrusion upwards from a roofline, festooned with windows. Imagine a bay window going up out of a roof. Ours has four windows, a small ladder leading up to a perch platform above the second floor, and views all around. Now that it is starting to be daylight at waking time (sun cresting the horizon at 06:55 today, gaining three and a half minutes a day on each end) I go up to the lantern every morning with my first cup of coffee. I have always liked that saying attributed to Saskatchewan farmers: “Going out for a coyote’s breakfast. That being a whiz and a good look around.” Up in the lantern I skip the first part but I do have a really good look around, almost every day. Until the season moderates enough to sip coffee out on the balcony or “widow’s walk” (another architectural term, but not popular with some in the household), the lantern’s four views are fine.
First I look north, to the crest of the big rock bluff and the folds and skylines beyond it. Burnt spruce and white snow. Not a green wisp to be seen.
East there is a small window, mostly blocked by the black steel stove-pipe that juts up through the lantern’s ceiling, and the view there is toward the river mouth. Mostly just sun glare lately, in the mornings. That will change by the week as the sunrise slides northeast.
South, the vast white frozen lake and the escarpment of the Kahochella in the distance, the notch of the narrows at Reliance, and mile after mile of sculpted white drifts atop four feet of ice.
In the foreground out that south lantern window is our homestead in all its snow-covered chaos and clutter. I like watching the dogs from my high vantage point, unseen by them, but I cannot let my gaze linger too long on the rest of the homestead before my mind begins to conjure a long list of what must be done, should have been done, might be nice to do, or was done and didn’t really work out very well. When that list kicks in it is time to turn west.
West is the long ridge sloping south to the lake from the high bluff north. A copse of thick timber high up caught my eye one morning, and at first I thought it was green spruce. But no, the binoculars showed it to be just another clump of trees a little thicker and less burned than the rest, but burned and dead all the same.
I have come full circle and my mug is empty. I go down the ladder. The day starts. That’s about all there is to say, from here, right now.
Oh, that and to pass along to those readers and friends who should know, that singer and songwriter extraordinaire John Prine is on a ventilator down in Tennessee, stricken with this damned bat-virus. An Illinois boy tried and true, and a credit to us. Check out Tree of Forgiveness, on his most recent album of the same name, and you are in for a treat. I was humming it all day. Spare a prayer for old John.
Take care of each other, people. So long, from the caricature, up in his lantern.