Bush pilots get tasked with some unusual add-on jobs, as a part of everyday working life. In a vast and roadless country like the far north, it often makes the most sense for the pilot to do one or two other errands after landing at a remote camp or stop-off. ”Oh and while you’re there, can you go up to the generator shack and turn off the blue valve on the back side of the diesel, right below the yellow cover? We forgot about it.” Or grab the mayonnaise and pickles, or re-set the bear fence. I have single-handedly dismantled and crated up entire seismic sensing stations, bagged a prospector’s dirty laundry and personal effects (don’t ask; in fact, don’t even start to imagine) and I have humped many a sack of garbage, thousands of rock and sand samples, and many ten-foot lengths of rusted steel drill-rod over hlll and dale, sometimes while moaning in self-pity and swatting at bugs. And, of course, every bush pilot has searched for, dug up from a snowdrift, and inventoried countless drums of fuel, for ourselves and for those helicopter types who depend on the stuff and need to know exactly how much is out there, and exactly where it is.
On one job in the two-seat Husky on floats, my passenger and I were tasked with visiting a dozen or so old tent-camp sites that had been abandoned as the frantic diamond rush of the early 1990’s began to wane. Our instructions were to gather up everything combustible at each site, douse it all with jet fuel, torch it off, and babysit each fire until it was out. That was the same year that we were assembling the materials to build our first house here, the 1997-2014 house. That August my friend from the mining company and I flew all over the west-central Barrens, armed with chainsaw and sledge and matches, and burned enormous stacks of perfectly good plywood. I got paid for doing this, and I used the money to buy… plywood.
The other day, mid-April, I was chuckling with myself – there being no one within 50 miles to chuckle with – as I shuffled along on snowshoes, back to the Husky. The plane was on skis, on the ice alongside open water at Taltheilei Narrows. There is a big sport-fishing lodge there. I was towing two plastic sleds. I had brought this odd job on myself, going to fetch some of the dog kibble and rice that arrive each summer by barge and are stored year-round in a sea container. Aboard the sleds were two cardboard cases of whole-wheat tortilla wraps, a case of pitted dates, and two gallon-size bags of “store-bought” blueberries. All leftovers, kindly stored in our sea can by the lodge manager after they had finished feeding a television crew in late December.
I made several more back and forth trips, toting a few more unlikely treasures from the kitchen shutdown, plus a few hundred pounds of rice and dog feed. I flew back home, forty minutes at 3000 feet, and when I circled overhead the homestead Kristen piped up on the radio. I answered, “Good day madam. I have the 480 tortilla wraps you ordered, plus the case of dates and the fresh-frozen B.C. blueberries.”
Next morning, blueberry pancakes. That night after supper, blueberries in our snow ice-cream. And the next morning, it was a showdown of sorts at the breakfast table. One jar of our tiny wild local blueberries, from the 35 pounds of them that the passionate berry-pickers in our family put away last August. Right alongside, a bowl of those enormous and obviously un-wild blues from a farm in Delta, B.C. And the conclusion, unanimous, that there is simply no comparison between the two. The big cultivated berries are bland. Not because of any “best-before” date being long past. They are simply big, and bland, and yes they are blue and yes they are berries. But the little wild berries, a quarter the size, are so much more tasty that they are a different food. The wild has it, hands down. Necessity weeds and cultivates the patch, chance brings rain and sunshine at the right times, or doesn’t. And this truth, and this uncertainty, do not waver. And somehow the wild has it, hands down, every time. Wild salmon from the north Pacific, farm salmon from a rectangular pond. Elk raised on a ranch, packaged and sold as free-range organic; elk from a mountain meadow at dusk, butchered in the twilight, and packed out on horseback. And, just maybe, while I’m wondering, anyway — a Neanderthal hunter (now extinct), his skills and knowledge and awareness and strength and senses, alongside the slightly overstuffed manager on the air-conditioned seventeenth floor, manning a brightly lit work station in the Department of Some Such or Another.
A few days later I was trying to “convince” a distressed husky of ours to swallow the front end of a three-foot soft plastic tube, in a last-ditch effort to save him from a gastric-torsion crisis. Needless to say, getting a big sled dog who is already hurting to start willingly taking a tube down his gullet is not easy. Surprisingly, once started, it is also not that difficult, if you know the dog and the dog knows you. At one point in the process, though, that dog bit down very hard on my finger and I saw some bright red blood ooze from beneath the nail of my left thumb. Ouch. But I can’t blame you a bit there, bud.
Later I got to thinking about that brief chomp of teeth, and about those big bland berries again, and about a wolf I raised from a pup here thirty-two years ago. Big mistake, dumb move, and ill-fated tragedy. Do not ever ever think about doing this. The sad saga is all laid out in a chapter of North of Reliance, called “Esker.” Esker was the name of the wolf. The only meagerly positive paltry result of that sad experience was, I suppose, that it taught me some big lessons. Lessons I still ponder. Esker forced me to think about what is “wild” in this world and what is not, and I have been thinking about that a long time now. The other day, nursing my slightly sore dog-bitten thumb, I thought of Esker. With just a modest clamping of her wild jaw muscles and teeth, she would have severed half my hand, and that is no exaggeration.
A dog, even a ten-year-old veteran husky, is a dog, and not wild. A wolf – even a juvenile, confused, partly tame wolf raised on the wrong menu – is something else entirely. It is wild. Wildness is honed – by reality, by truth, by necessity. When I try for a moment to sweep my mind clear of all the constructs, constraints, props, helps, and artifices of “civilization,” I am left mostly aghast at what has gone away, and at my prospects. I look out on a snow-covered clearing two hours after sun-up. Tracks of a fox, tracks of a ptarmigan, old blown-in tracks of a wolf. Up the hill farther, I know, are a few wolverine tracks (so big that at first we mistook them for sign of a spring bear), and some moose tracks.
The snow lies deep as April now ends, and it has stayed on. I love the uncertainty now mounting, day by day, the not knowing when and how spring will finally come. It will come – it is already here astronomically. The sun is exactly as high in its arc and as powerful now, on 30 April, as it will be on 13 August. Think about that, here where the day’s high was still well below freezing. It is as if Old Man Winter has said to himself, as he did back in 2004, “Hmm, I bet May is nice in this country. Maybe I’ll stick around a while and take that in again this year.” In 2004 there was ice in McLeod Bay until the fifteenth of July. Not little shards of ice, but thick solid ice in miles-long sheets, and the barge that used to come here from Hay River spent an entire night bashing through it to get here with a small load of freight. (Small for them, big for us.) That barge has not been back here since, and thus the sea can down at the narrows 70 miles away, and thus our bags of bland but voluminous tame blueberries.
I look at the tracks of those critters and I step out and listen for birdsong. Only silence. None of the spring arrivals are back yet. The Wild is here, though, waiting, and out there somewhere at this very moment the fox is somehow finding or not finding the hare, the wolf is somehow finding or not finding the moose. Maybe the intensity of each of their desires is the gist of it all. The hare desires to live to hop another day, just as much as the fox desires to kill another hare, see another dawn, welcome another spring. Likewise, all up and down what we so glibly label “the food chain.”
On one side the bland cultivation, the garden plot, the domesticated agreement. On the other the wanting, the trying, and the relentless uncertainty.
Do we have to choose? I don’t know. It’s a question.