Wasn’t sure what to call this post. This missive. This entry. This “blog.” First time I heard that word I blanched. And now look at me, for Pete’s sake, hammering away every month as if nobody could get along without this… this blog. (As my Dad, an English teacher, liked to say, ‘When I was a kid I never thought of becoming an English teacher. Now I are one!’)
Blog? It sounds like a flippin’ fungus, and not a very pretty one at that.
Titles. Hmm. Starvations in November ? Or The Cruellest Month ? Or — almost instantly rejected (but still worth a chuckle) — Up in the Taiga, Ogling the Super-Models
So let’s just leave it at Ah, November and get started.
T.S. Eliot started his poem “The Waste Land” with the famous line April is the cruellest month. To anyone north of 60, maybe anyone in Canada, or in the world north of about the 45th parallel, well inland from any coasts, that is hogwash. April? April?
Eliot had his reasons, I’m sure. We have ours. And for cruelty, in the north, it’s November, hands down.
Consider the odds of starvation, for starters. Not you and I, of course, all of us with the screens of our tablets and I-Phones and Androids and laptops close at hand, electrons humming busily back and forth, warm java with a touch of cream and sugar, a good meal certainly not more than hours fore or aft of the present moment. No, not us, but historically. Check the journals and sagas of the far north, the records and oral histories handed down in every culture and tradition north of 60. The caloric line between making it and not making it is never more thin and tight than at the very onset of winter, because right now there might be no trustworthy ice to facilitate wide-ranging travels, no good snow to build and insulate with, trails all hard and bare, lakes full of overflow. In the north, mobility is quintessential to survival.
Modern wilderness types pride themselves on partaking of the rich traditions of the past. We embrace the traditional ways of getting around this vast country. Portages, tumplines, the babiche webbing on snowshoes, snow-houses and bannock and windbound days. They are all a part of the north. We embrace them all, except for that one notable northern tradition: sheer starvation, ever looming just around the corner.
We have seen it in our animal neighbors, even though we came just a few decades late to see it in our human predecessors. We have gone out on dark mornings and the wan days of gray November and encountered wolves, foxes, wolverines, bears, to name a few, all dead or dying of starvation. Weak, wobbling, pitiful bags of bones. Those are just the obvious ones, because those are the ones that have been drawn into our place over the years here, very often in November, overcoming their instinctive shyness and fear of us, to make one last Hail Mary attempt at survival. Stealing dog dishes, chewing on ropes, sleeping in porches, skulking around the edges of the place, tottering on the brink of collapse, until finally they have collapsed, to be found curled up, frozen solid, under sheds and lean-tos, out on the edge of the place or right on the path between one building and the next. Once a wild animal is completely behind the power and energy curve, it is doomed. It has no hope but to throw in its lot with whatever crumbs and leavings the edges of an outpost might give it.
November is a dramatic month, and if one can rest easy on provisions and firewood and shelter, it can be inspiring in its austere and parsimonious way. Wow, the cloud cover cleared and there were 15 minutes of direct sunshine today! That was so great. Did you see it? No, sadly, I was inside, doing an online course in Human Factors In Aviation Maintenance. And checking the long-range forecast.
This November started with a ten-day blast of deep cold out this way, and I will have to check our 35 years of daily notes, but it might have been the coldest first one-third of November we have ever seen. It did wonders for the ice on the inland lakes, and it chased us right off the big lake. Our nets and boat and everything else were all stowed before October was even over. Then the pendulum swung back the other direction, not to thawing or big snowfall but just to a steady progression of milder days, well below freezing to just flirting with thaw, and no more snow to speak of. In sharp contrast to the west end of the big lake, we have had very little snow, only inches coming a few flakes at a time. I have kept everyone around here entertained (kind of) with my predictable rants against the accuracy of weather “modelling” as contrasted with the real weather – the weather right outside the door, hour after hour. Now as I write it is deeply cold, and calm, and tonight McLeod Bay might freeze.
It is comical, isn’t it, to flash up a weather “model” site on the Inter-Tube, and find there a bold black-and-white pronouncement of what the weather will be nine days from now, with no hint of humility or caveat or disclaimer. Yes not only that but a new feature: “weather now.” This from a site that is nothing but a model, generated by a computer in Norway, with no local hour-to-hour actual temperature or wind reading from anywhere. Yet there it is: Weather Now.
It really does make me wonder, because weather is, well, fickle. Pilots have a favorite saying: “Get the actuals.” Meaning, get me some weather from somewhere in the past hour – what is it doing, right on the thermometer and anemometer and barometer and hygrometer of the airport or weather station closest to where we are going? Then ponder. Don’t give me “Windy Dot Come says this,” or “Y R Dot N-oh is showing this.”
I still fall into this trap. I did so just the other day. Moments after taking off (after three hours of heating and uncovering and fuelling the plane, which was parked on an inland lake two miles uphill from home) a fellow pilot called me on the radio and – having heard I was heading for Yellowknife – asked me if I had the latest Yellowknife weather. No, I said, I have only the aerodrome forecast from early morning. OK, the helpful voice said, they’ve amended that. It’s sitting at about 200 feet; vis underneath isn’t too bad. Just not great, and it’s low cloud over town.
Do I turn back, give up, re-cover the airplane, tie it down and go home? Or do I trust the forecast for improvement (which never mentioned any 200-foot ceiling at any time)? It’s nice out here, I said; I think I’ll continue west for a while.
Which I did. Stupidly. On for nearly a hundred and ten miles through reasonable-to-marginal early-winter flying conditions, enjoying the day, trusting the “models” and the forecast they had generated. 50 miles out of Yellowknife the ceiling went down to the treetops, ice rimed the windshield, and although by then all reports from town were of improving conditions, there was a solid wall of icy klag between me and brighter skies. Turn around, fly home, call it quits – as I should have done the moment I got the “actuals.”
I would claim “lesson learned,” but I am too old to claim that with very much credibility. Hope springs eternal.
Weather Models. And Weather Super-Models. Take your pick among them: NAM, GEM, ECMWF, GFS, UKMO, ARPEGE, GDAPS/UM, and I could go on — it’s the Festival of Acronyms!
How can anyone even begin to model weather? I dunno, but some very clever people seem to be taking a serious stab at it. As long as we keep our expectations reasonable (that is the big caveat) and if we continue to believe in the adage GTA (Get The Actuals), these are pretty useful things: I recall the wisdom of the Sage of Lanesboro, about the motto of modern design engineers: “If it’s not broken, it doesn’t have enough features.” A corollary among the weather modellers might be – “If you think it is going to be completely accurate, you haven’t added enough variables.”
You read all the way to the end? Wow. You and three other people, including Mom. Thanks. Put another log on the fire. Boil up a pot of western Canada’s finest oatmeal. Add some brown sugar and powdered milk, from some factory and some cow somewhere, via barge and truck, or truck and plane. Check the weather on the Inter-Web. And please, take those super-models with a grain, or better yet a few teaspoons, of salt.