La Foule, Remembered

Montana literary legend A. B. Guthrie, Jr. liked to say that if he could rewrite Genesis, it would open: “In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was change.“ — David Petersen, in his book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America 

Winter roared in with a five-day gale in mid-October, bringing snow that has not melted, so I guess this is it. Last Sunday afternoon I filled a thermos with cocoa, coffee, and a splash of cream, and walked down to the beach to chip the ice from the hull of an overturned canoe. Lumpy rollers were pushing in on a south wind, so I carried the canoe to a little eddy of calm water behind the island and slipped it into the lake. I put my rifle and knapsack into the tip of the stern, set a couple of paddles aboard, and eased down between the bow seat and the center thwart. I knelt on my life jacket and pushed off. (Apologies to the safety police, but I could not possibly wear a Personal Flotation Device over all my warm clothes and still swing a paddle.) The breeze was below freezing, but barely, and once I was out and away from the beach it was pure pleasure to feel the lift and surges of those big waves. I hugged the shoreline and paddled east. I was so close to land, and over such shallow water, that if my little vessel had swamped or capsized I would have just stood up and waded ashore. 

The water was deeper, though, and dark and fast and ominous, as I crossed over the main channel of the river. The Hoarfrost is still running so high in late October that we are constantly remarking to each other about it. I bumped the canoe’s bow stem into the rim of ice on the east bank. One lens of my glasses dropped right out of its frame as I stood up to get out, and I had a brief glimpse of that thin wisp of clear glass, just as the surge of the next wave pulled it away forever. For the rest of the day I wore the glasses with just the right lens in place, and I got a few laughs back home when I showed up cock-eyed. Luckily, I only need glasses for hunting, and legally nowadays for flying, and surprisingly one lens seems almost as good as two.  

I flipped the canoe over in the snow at the river’s edge, put on my knapsack and slipped a round into the rifle, safety on. I walked a few yards southeast along the shoreline and turned up a steep rise on the path we call The Mail Trail. We cut this trail in 1989, when I desperately needed to sign a document that we knew would be in the mail bag going into the weather station at Reliance. There was a ski-plane booked to deliver that mail bag and some groceries to the station, and the pilot, Peter Arychuk, kindly landed to meet me up at a frozen inland lake. Kristen and I cut a trail to the lake, met Peter, and we had coffee around a fire while I signed my paper. There were caribou up there that day, drifting past, but back then caribou in autumn were so common that we hardly mentioned it.

As I walked away from the canoe I was thinking back to the origin of the Mail Trail and trying to discern its uphill route through the new snow. Our familiar trails are all burned over now, and it has been surprisingly hard for us to find them at the start of every winter. The dogs find them more easily than we do.  

I was moose hunting, but I hesitate to call it that. By southern standards, it hardly looked like hunting – no blaze-orange vest, no camouflage hat, no scope on the rifle, no paraphenalia. I was just walking, very slowly, and pausing often, and listening and constantly looking around. Yes, I had my .30-06 carbine, and it was loaded. My sheath knife was on my belt, and in my pockets I had cord, some fire-starters, and a sharpening stone. But all those tools and backups are on my person almost every day of the year, unless I am in town, when I really do need to remember to take the sheath knife off my belt. I was just looking, and being quiet and slow about it. To me, “looking” only becomes “hunting” if I happen to cross a fresh track, or catch a glimpse of dark movement up on a ridge or down in a swale. Or, as has happened many times, I just turn my head to one side and suddenly see, staring right back at me, not so many yards off, a moose. Where, oh where, did you come from, oh so silently? 

It was not always this way.  In the years from 1989 until about 2005, I hunted moose like a man possessed, starting like clockwork on the autumn equinox and carrying on, sometimes frustrating everyone involved, until the enormous front and hind quarters of a moose were hung in the meat cache. Those long-ago mornings off down the shore in my boat fed my soul, and I treasure them, but something has changed now. I still want to eat what is around me, and I still hunt moose to do so, but the obsession has eased. I am pondering this change, among many others.

In 1989 Kristen and I went for a walk and reconnoitered the route that would need to be cut to meet that mail plane with a dog sled team. That, too, was a late-October Sunday; we were in the first year of our marriage. Her hair was dark, mine was thick and curly, and I suppose my gait and posture, seen from a little distance,were a lot more fluid and limber than they are nowadays. (Lifting heavy things, our joke used to be, “Remember to lift with your back, boys, your knees won’t last forever.”  Oh, the flippancy of youth. I floated that quip a couple of summers ago, hoisting logs for the new house, and all I got from my comrades was a soft groan and a couple of raised eyebrows.) 

I wrote about that long-ago Sunday with Kristen, and how it swiftly changed, in North of Reliance:

Suddenly from up ahead we heard the clatter of antlers… The woods were filled with caribou…sweeping in from the northeast, deflected by the open water of McLeod Bay… Some of the caribou, not to be deterred by a mere ten miles of frigid water, actually waded out past the shorefast ice and started swimming south … A steady stream of caribou. La Foule, the voyageurs had called them – “the throng.”

In those years, the late eighties and early nineties, the Bathurst caribou herd was nudging the half-million mark.  Maybe more, maybe less – the counting of caribou is always a guessing game. In the parlance of the locals, there were “really really lots” of caribou around in those years.

Same patch of snow-covered sandy bench above the east riverbank. Thirty years on, just a blip, a sliver of time. Kristen had come on a walk with two friends this past September, looking for berries, and she told me that evening that she had thought about this bench of tall timber and how it used to be, and remembered that long-ago Sunday and those throngs of caribou. She told me she was surprised at how utterly “bleak” and scorched the bench was now, what a scene of chaos and devastation, even on a bright blue late-summer day six years after the fire. And she told me she was surprised that this still surprised her.

In early winter, with a gray sky and a cold south wind, six inches of new snow on the stumps and snags, “bleak” is completely inadequate. Quick, call Cormac for another new adjective. Blackened trunks of charred trees, tipped and fallen and lying all akimbo in every direction, some hollowed by the flames into weird charcoal gargoyles partway up thick trunks, massive webs of tipped root clusters, hung with clumps of sand and small boulders still snared in their tangle when they were yanked sideways up out of the ground.  Not a track on the snow anywhere, not so much as a mouse or a squirrel, and not a bird in sight. And most certainly not a caribou within fifty or a hundred miles of here, today. Not one.  

It was sobering, but I did not find it sad. I feel like we have been given a rare, true, glimpse of “the real deal” here, by this long lesson we are living in now. All my early life was steeped in the grandeur and glory of the woods and the wilderness, my reading and thinking always tending to paeans of color and light and the balance of nature. The words of Muir and Thoreau, the colorful images and upbeat narrations of Disney and Cousteau. I took that bait, and I am glad to have done so, because I have lived out so many of my boyhood dreams, way back of beyond out here in pristine and wondrous country. 

And now, farther along the road, I am being shown the flip side of all this, the facets of the jewel that I could not have comprehended earlier on. I will not live long enough to see this bench festooned with century-old spruce again, the ground beneath them carpeted with fifty or seventy-five years of soft green lichen. And until that lichen is there, the caribou will never linger long in this part of the country.  They may pass through, as they did in long-ago Octobers, coming down off the barrens and finding the lake still open here to deflect them either east or west. There are limits to this massive burn, of course, and out beyond the charred country the growth must have been good over this past summer of extraordinary moisture and sunshine. The feeding will be getting better, and I will go out on a limb and predict that the Bathurst caribou will cycle upward again soon. Maybe someday they will swing down through here again, the bulls sparring, the cows skittering with their half-grown calves at their sides, the ravens overhead and the wolves and wolverines and foxes all in trail. 

Or not. See how easily I still slide into that seductive Disney vision, that “Nature is always going to make things perfect if we only let her” litany? It’s like the mantra of a cult buried in my head, so deeply and at such a young age, that I circle back to it whether I try to or not. But does it hold water? Maybe the caribou will go extinct, you know. Every species does, after all.  What gets them? Change.   

Mulling and musing, looking, I had walked by then up beyond the level bench, past a furrowed trough in the snow with pawprints that I took to be porcupine, over some low ridges and onto a high smooth slab of pink rock, burned clean of all lichen and blown clean of snow.  These patches of clean granite and gneiss have been one true gift of the fire, and I love walking on them.  There, way up on top with a view south out over the dark gray lake to the far hills, I paused alongside a giant boulder.  It sits just perched up there, half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.  Jagged and sharp-edged, not tumbled or rounded at all, as if it had just cleaved from a cliffside. But there is no cliff within two miles of it. What? Hello? How did you get here? It looks like it was flung from outer space.  Out east they say “God took six days to make Labrador, and on the seventh day He rested and threw rocks at it.” 

I walked on. Eye out for a moose, rifle in hand. Not hunting, but ready to hunt if the opportunity came. Thinking about that boulder, and about changes.

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