Crushing It with Mr. Darwin

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder what the look on my face might have been if, at age 30, I had somehow caught a brief glimpse into the future. A fleeting few moments of time travel, to leap ahead and stand here now, 35 years on. That notion sometimes makes me chuckle; sometimes it makes me cringe.

In October of 1987, Kristen and I had settled in for our first freeze-up at the Hoarfrost River. We had a big blue drum of “Coleman fuel” to feed our two trusty pump-up gas lights and the Coleman stove: plenty of fuel for those simple appliances to last the coming winter and several winters beyond. We had rice and flour and canned beans, bacon and a hind quarter of moose from our neighbors at Reliance, and some fish from the lake. We had an AM radio antenna strung up between spruces, and an HF radio transceiver with 12 “C” batteries, to crackle brief messages out to the world. There was dead firewood standing in the forest, and we had nineteen sled dogs to pull the firewood home.

Ever ahead of the curve, we were putting the finishing touches on a truly tiny house – the 8 by 8 foot crackerbox cabin that still stands here, and we had slung a big blue tarp and a bale of pink insulation from the ceiling of the ramshackle “Jimmy Colburn shack” that was already here. We were young and in love and, literally, shacked up for the winter. Thousands of caribou were streaming down out of the hills. I had a full head of curly hair, and Kristen’s hair was jet black. Nobody’s knees creaked and our backs hardly ever ached at night.        

Fast forward… The other day, on the final floatplane flight of the season, a Twin Otter landed on the lake and taxied into the steep-sided beach at the river mouth. On board was a thousand-pound hunk of bright red steel festooned with hydraulic hoses, with an orange steel disc bolted to the end of a big cylindrical ram. Somehow, with ramps and pallets and, I presume, ample discussion, (not sure quite how it proceeded, because I was 500 miles from home that day), five clever people managed to slide and lower this behemoth safely to the beach, with nary a scratch to the airplane’s floats and no apparent injuries to anyone’s bodily parts or pieces.  Shawooh.

After the plane left, Kristen latched onto the monster with the pallet forks of the skid steer, and slowly, steadily, she crept the half-mile back to home along the beach trail and up the steep bit of smooth rock to the homestead.

Those odd goings-on are one vision I would like to show to our 1987 starry-eyed selves, just to see the bewildered look on those fresh young faces. What the hell is that thing? And where did the skid-steer come from? And, holy cow, what is going on around here? What happened to bare-bones simplicity?

Hint: It’s about adapting to changes, and the big red thing is about fuel drums.

A few years ago I realized I had never read The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.  I ordered a copy, and when it arrived I put it on the shelf.  A few more years went by, as happens. Last year I brought it up into the lookout lantern where in the morning I like to do some reading over my first cup of coffee.

(I have some other classics up there, including the Bible, and before all you secular humanists become too alarmed by that admission, just remember that the Bible remains the single most influential and widely read book in the history of humankind. Have a look sometime, if you haven’t – that is, if you dare even carrying it around these days. Maybe put a plain brown cover on it or load it on your e-reader.  Flip it open at random, and you will be by turns bemused, appalled, inspired, bewildered, embarrassed, and mystified – just for starters.)

But back to Darwin, and the big red and orange machine, and fuel drums. I open Darwin’s masterpiece up at random sometimes too, and my single consistent response is sheer humility. I am humbled by the man, and by his life’s work. By deep time, human genius, life’s diversity, and the constant, never-ending march of changes. The edict of the universe: adapt, make changes, roll with the punches, or else.

That thousand-pound, ten-thousand-dollar chunk of welded pig iron is the SL-55 Drum Crusher from TeeMark Manufacturing of Aitken Minnesota, and it is one outlandish symbol of change marching onward, here in the outback of the Northwest Territories.

Everyone in the North knows at least a little bit about fuel drums. They are everywhere. They litter our pristine landscapes in the most exotic and far-flung places. Tundra Daisies. Beach Furniture.

Nobody teaches young pilots about fuel drums, in flying school.  But they should, at least in Canada, because the lowly steel “45’s” (for 45 imperial gallons) are as much a part of bush flying as runways and control towers are a part of more civilized aviation. The little instructional pamphlet for students could be called “All About Fuel Drums” – edited by “Roland Cursem” of course.

Bush pilots quickly master many tricks of barrel handling. We have to, because the damned things weigh 400 pounds, give or take.  We learn how to roll them over beach, ice, rock, and tundra; stand them up; load and unload them and strap them down as cargo; maneuver them out of planes without hurting anything or anyone.  How to decipher the faded labels of Fill Date and Batch Number.  How to shovel them out from beneath drifts of snow; tip them in and out of skimmer sleds and pickup trucks; float them to shore from barges and ice floes (thank goodness they float!); and force them open with bung wrenches (and sometimes axes and chisels.) How to peer down into them with flashlights to see whether the fuel is clean and clear, and how to deliver their vital contents to our flying machines, with every conceivable combination of pump, hose, jerry can, and siphon tube.

That liquid, whether it’s gasoline or diesel or the glorified kerosene known as Jet Fuel, is the go-juice of everything that connects the North. Connects the whole damned world.  We’re all addicted. Shoot it to me Gotta have it, man. Lithium battery car, sleek solar panel, yes, but it is still a petroleum-powered world and it will be for a while yet.

And lo, at last the drum (the dozens, the hundreds, the millions) is Empty. Now it is just a relatively light steel can, three feet tall and two feet around, weighing around 38 pounds.  Paint starting to peel, rust starting to show, dented a little after all that rolling and cursing. It is now scrap steel without a path forward, littering landscapes from Timbuktu to Tuktoyaktuk.  And we slowly circle back to the SL-55, and to change, and adaptation.  But here we come to the part that doesn’t make any sense. 

In years past, “back in the day,” a drum was like a giant beer can.  When you bought a drum of fuel you paid a “drum deposit.”  Fifty dollars, when last we paid this, years ago. When you had emptied the drum, and it had somehow been returned to the fuel dealer who sold it to you, the yard apes there would look the motley collection over, and give the thumbs-up to some fairly good percentage of the drums: “suitable for re-use.” The dealer would cut you a cheque, and chances are, if you had taken reasonably good care of the drums both full and empty, you could expect to get better than half of your deposits back.  The good empties were cleaned, re-labelled, and re-used. Makes all the sense in the world, right?

However. (Ominous drum roll, please.) About ten years ago the “drum deposit” on all the barrels morphed into a “Drum Fee,” and the fifty dollars went up to eighty.  A fee, not a deposit, and thus no hope of a return, and thus no real incentive to transport an empty drum back whence it came.  In a land of 10-cent beer-can deposits on a virtually weightless wisp of aluminum, this is hard to fathom. 

For a few more years the aging laid-back barge operators based in Yellowknife stayed in the game, and we just rolled our dozens and hundreds of empties onto their westbound barge, never to be seen again.  No return on any deposit, but at least the drums went away. 

Then times changed again. This year, after the new, corporate-slash-government big-time, not-so-laid-back barge operators took over, they told us that yes, they would happily transport empty drums back down the lake to their terminal at Hay River, 250 miles to the west. But there was a catch, or several catches.  The empty drums needed to be loaded four to a pallet and banded with steel strapping. Then – and here it is best to sit down – they would take the four drums per pallet off our hands for a transport fee of just over twelve hundred dollars.  When they got to Hay River, they would call us, and we could come pick up our empties.  (And do what?)

Times change.  Sometimes I think something outlandish like this must be a momentary hiccup in history.  Surely common sense will come circling back around, right?

In the meantime, we can wring our hands and pine away about the old days and wonder how it could have come to this, or we can get with the program and start crushing drums into six-inch-thick Frisbees of flattened scrap steel.  These we can load by the dozens into an outgoing plane; even a small plane like our Bush Hawk will hold eighteen or twenty. And to heck with the drum deposit and the palletized, steel-banded empties forklifted onto the barge. Crush them, fly them out, send the scrap steel south.

What would Mr. Darwin predict an adaptive organism would do? 

We’re crushin’ it, dude.  And so far, it’s kinda fun.  (Bet that will wear off after a few hundred.)

P.S. On November first Kristen will once again start her day-by-day photo record of Freeze-up, as she has – to the delight of many – for dozens of past autumns.

Look for her daily freeze-up photo-drama on TurningLightImages Facebook page. Or, at Instagram, she tells me the ident is simply “kbgo.”  Free of charge, just tossed out there like these ramblings of mine, from this far-flung corner of the world.

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