As April ends I am struggling to post something here. My “musings from the Hoarfrost River” have been circling around the same theme for so many weeks that I am getting weary of it, and I hesitate to glaze your eyes over with it. What to do? Maybe I can fall back on that handy dodge of writers who are struggling to find words – that being to quote someone else, some writer you admire, who obviously did have something worthwhile to say. Old trick but a handy one, as tricks go.
Some of my favorite lines of poetry are in a poem by John Haines called “There Are No Such Trees in Alpine, California.” The final stanzas of that poem have been a touchstone for me for over forty years:
“And there I too wanted to stay…
speak quietly to the trees,
tell in a notebook sewn from
their leaves my brief of passage:
long life without answering speech,
grief enforced in that absence;
much joy in the weather,
spilled blood on the snow.
With a few split boards,
a handful of straightened nails,
a rake and a broom;
my chair by the handmade window,
the stilled heart come home
through smoke and falling leaves.”
Isn’t that beautiful? If I ever write a memoir of our years here, I already have a title, thanks to those lines from Haines. Brief of Passage, with that poem of his as an epigraph on the first page. John lived at a remote homestead in central Alaska. I last spoke with him in Fairbanks in 2004, and he was gracious enough to pretend to recall that we had met and talked and corresponded a few times over the years. He is one of my heroes. He knew that a sub-arctic wilderness life, spread out over decades, finally boils down to just a few rock-bottom realities: long life without answering speech / much joy in the weather / spilled blood on the snow.
There is much joy in the weather. Thank goodness. “The weather” – wind, cloud, snow, storm, sun, and a thousand subtle nuances through and beyond and within those elements – sustains our interest, day and night, because it changes hour by hour, day by day, season by season – and year by year. (And of course, as I think Mark Twain said, thank goodness for the weather because most people could never start a conversation without it.)
For people immersed in weather, farmers and loggers and bush pilots and mariners, any worker not sequestered in a paved and insulated urban kingdom, every slight change of “the weather” immediately affects some aspect of daily life. All year round, from the suspense of freeze-up in late autumn to the crescendo of spring warmth… which, hmm, come to think of it, should be well underway by now, shouldn’t it?
It should be, but it is not. These days my steadfast joy in weather is tempered by trepidation. If not downright fear, then at least a good case of the jitters. Hearing news from around the North, I know I am not alone in this. We are on the cusp of a spring meltdown that has potential to wreak havoc. Several factors play in. Here at the Hoarfrost we have near-record snow on the land, and probably a real record snow depth out on the big lake, because McLeod Bay froze so early last fall that it captured the snow of some big storms early on in winter. Usually those first dumps of snow fall into open water out on the bay. Last year they fell on solid ice, and those dumps of snow are still out there. We have never seen such deep snow on the ice. Rivers across the north have been flowing all winter at nearly twice normal volumes, and the water beneath the ice is literally pushing up from below. A simple hole with an ice auger will send water gushing up to prove that. I have seen a lot of good old-fashioned overflow on lakes, but I have never seen pressurized water below the ice like we have here now.
A couple of nights ago I pulled down our fat binder of handwritten daily weather records, and over dessert I recited aloud to Kristen the high temperatures that we had jotted down for April 27th, from every spring back to 1988. This assured me that I was not just imagining things, or becoming a predictable old fart who drones on about how things were, way back when. (My grandmother once said, as she was pushing 90, “Things were different then, David, but not any more.”)
We are in a steady trend of cold Aprils and delayed spring melts. It is a fact that is there to be seen in the records. I have no idea how such a pattern could repeat itself year after year, and what is causing it to entrench itself more obviously over these past four Aprils in a row, but it is there. I don’t have any initials after my name, but I do have a thermometer, perseverance, a pen and a notebook.
These days I am not nearly as concerned about what might be behind all this coldness as I am about what lies immediately in front of us. Right out the door and the handmade windows, so to speak. Flooding on the ice, powerful freshets sluicing across the land around us, the prospect of hurriedly-constructed wing dams on the north sides of the house and workshop, and our two ski-planes sitting up to their bellies in water out on the flooded lake ice. Who can say for sure how this is going to play out? The people along the big northern rivers, in Nahanni Butte, Hay River, Fort Simpson, and clear down the Mackenzie, are all just as nervous as we are. The other day I was musing about all of this, while I was out doing dogyard chores on the icy crust of three-foot snowdrifts, and I started laughing out loud, recalling the punch line of a ribald joke about foreplay in Australia: “Brace yourself, Sheila!”
The only certainty is up in the sky, with our local star. Every cold day is just postponing the inevitable. The daily temperatures can somehow hold far below “normal,” with frigid winds pouring in from the Arctic, but that does not change the fact that every day the sun rises a few minutes earlier, climbs higher, sets later and farther into the northwest. Its radiant energy will prevail; there is no Krakatoa or Pinatubo erupting (last I checked!) to make the stratosphere murky with ash. This energy of the sun is an unstoppable melting force, and it gets stronger every day. Even on a twenty-below day, a few flecks of snow on a black skidoo seat in direct sun turn immediately to drops of water. Some probably skip that, and just sublimate.
I am pinning a lot of hope on sublimation these days. Sublimation being the direct change of snow and ice to water vapor, a transforming of solids to gases, with no intermediate stage as liquid. Losing all this snow by means of sublimation will be impossible, but sublimation on a grand scale can be impressive. Two springs ago, in mid-March, a powerful Chinook swept up the spine of the northern Rockies and even spilled over into the Mackenzie basin and the far west end of Great Slave Lake. This huge air mass was very warm and dry. There was sublimation up high in the tall ranges west of Fort Nelson, and entire mountaintops changed almost overnight from white to brown – with no runoff down the rivers. Poof! Snow became cloud. The old-timers were still talking about it when I was down there a few weeks later.
I saw a snow bunting two days ago. First one. Weeks late. That, and a distant golden eagle wheeling high overhead in the midst of another snowy gale last week, are the only two springtime bird arrivals we have seen here so far, and in a few minutes it will be May. That snow bunting looked right at me, through sideways snow and a biting wind, and put out one pathetic little cheep, which I took as “Hey, bud, what the ___?”
I just shrugged. Much joy, some trepidation. And three cheers for sublimation. Brace yourself.