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In the second half of May, it is hard to say what season it is here. We call the months of May and June “spring,” but with the ice auger boring down to the very limit of two add-on extensions, through fifty-six inches of ice, and with a wool cap and wool coat and two layers of wool trousers feeling still about right in the clothing department, “spring” rang a little hollow when I talked on the phone with my mother down in Minnesota last week.

It is not “break-up,” because nothing here breaks up with any force. There is no Mackenzie or Yukon River juggernaut, where boxcar-sized blocks of silt-encrusted ice tear out trees and wreck houses in an annual signal that winter has again given way to summer. Here, the ice just melts. Yes, eventually some fifty-acre pans will separate and start to move and drift. The wind can get up and push them around for a week or three, and sometimes they crash and pile jumbles of broken ice onto points and islands.  It can be slightly dramatic, for a minute or two. Then, on a day in late June or early July, the ice is gone. Summer begins by July first, give or take a week.  

In the bush-pilot realm of my life, it is still necessary to pre-heat the engine for an hour or so before departure, on some mornings well along into May. The planes are out on the ice on fat tires and wheel-skis now, and only in the past day or so can I confirm that the skis won’t be needed now, as long as I don’t get asked to go too far away to the north or northeast.

And in the dog-musher facet of our life, the season has abruptly shifted from “on” to “off.” Not for any lack of ice out there to run teams over, but only by reason of easy access. Now the shore lead is a little too wide for the dogs to plunge through at the start and end of each run. Sadly, we hang up the harnesses for the year.

The birds are coming back, and passing through. Robins and warblers, seagulls and geese, eagles, a gyrfalcon, and a flicker who has been banging on various wooden walls around the place. The first Harris’s sparrows about the 13th, now steadily whistling through the day.  A loon, looking in vain for a place to land.

The landscape — all burned to a crisp eight years ago, for those of you who are just joining the story — is plain, brown, and drab. Sorry if that terse description is a little harsh for you romantics, but I think even Wordsworth would agree. Green grasses and fireweed sprouts and birch buds are still weeks away.

The sun today, May 25th, is as high and will follow the same path as it will on July 18th. Yet on July 18th it could easily be 30 degrees C. (90 degrees F.) here, and by then we will all be happy to dip three or four times a day in the lake just to keep cool.  This morning, with the same sun-path as mid-July, a sweater felt good. My bare feet were downright chilly and, truth be told, looking a little purple as I dangled them over the edge of the outside balcony.

I do appreciate the ponderous pace that our planet takes to warm and cool, season by season. Easy there, it is always saying, no need to rush into this next big thing. What’s the hurry?

What this second half of May is — perhaps surprisingly, so I will elaborate a little now — is prime ice-fishing season. That is one activity that these May days are made for: the sheer excitement of ice fishing. Around here that tongue-in-cheek line comes from a tee-shirt we saw years ago, with a line drawing of a frumpy fellow in a heavy overcoat, hunched over a hole in the ice with a jigger rod in his hand, frost layered thick on his bushy eyebrows.  The caption: “For sheer excitement, try ice fishing.”

But wait, smart-aleck. Let’s consider that crystalline four-and-a-half-foot tube, eight inches around, and think for a moment about where it leads, what it connects. That ice-hole is a portal to utter mystery.  Nothing less than a different world; call it “inner-planetary space.”  Think about it. A pane of translucent cold crystals, wafer-thin in the grand view (four feet of ice perched over five hundred — and not far from here a couple thousandfeet of water.) Above it, topsides so to speak, is our known and knowable world. Air, rock, trees, fellow creatures warm and cold, large and small.  All beautiful and welcoming (despite the drab burnt-over miles to the north) and familiar.  But go below — and again, I mean hundreds and thousands of feet — what? Certainly nothing familiar, or cozy, or welcoming. No air, and in winter no light, and the crushing pressure of a gazillion tons of water that all year long stays just barely warm enough to be a liquid.

And yet. We walk our rounds daily out to three or four of these little drilled holes, where bait minnows on double hooks dangle like offerings to the gods of that nether realm. The merest filament of line, less than half a millimeter in diameter, connects us to what is so far beyond our comprehension. Down and down. Just off the bottom, a hundred feet, almost two hundred in some of the good spots.  Loop it off and wait. And wait. Entire days and nights. (“For sheer excitement,” someone always says, on days when we are skunked.)

And then, checking again after a long quiet stretch, Kristen and Annika and I hike out and come up to one of the holes, crunch-crunching on the dead-flat seventy-five-mile membrane of McLeod Bay, the little skiff of frozen water that divides up here from down there, topsides from below. At hole number two, with one questioning tug on that miniscule wisp of line, we can tell. Got one.

And hold on, this fish has some size to it.  Comes up for a bit, the line goes slack, and then a powerful surge away and deep again, and I let out line as fast as I can. No rod and reel here, just a little chunk of scrap lumber with the line wrapped around two nails.  (They don’t sell them at Cabela’s.)

It is a bit of a battle this time. Five minutes, maybe, as big loops of line come hand over hand out onto the ice. Getting closer now. Annika kneels by the hole. We all lean over, rapt, staring down the narrow sunlit tube of ice. Brief glimpses of the fish now; the flash of a silver flank goes whizzing past the porthole. It is about to cross over the brink. From down there to up here, from life to death, through the narrow gate the auger drilled a week ago.

A big head, eyes wide apart and staring right up at us. The big lake trout — a freshwater char — is played out. She (as it turns out) is now right there five feet down at the bottom edge of the ice. One smooth fast pull up through the hole, and Annika’s hand reaches under the gill and jiu-jitsues a fine slab of silver and orange, sideways and over, onto the clean white ice. She takes the chunk of stick that the line is wrapped around, mutters a matter-of-fact “Thank you for your life,” and whacks the fish very hard three times across the brow. It quivers. Just a beauty. Wow.

Warm sunshine, late May, smooth white ice. Fillets grilled over birch coals will be the five-star menu tonight. And direct, today, from a part of the world we will never know. That’s sheer excitement, with no sarcasm.

“In ways that are for the most part imperceptible to us, we all bend our lives to fit the templates provided to us by myth and archetypes. We all tell ourselves stories, and bring our futures into line with those stories, however much we cherish the sense of newness, of originality, about our lives.”

                                                                   — from Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane, 2003.

 

It was November 17, 1977, exactly two years and a week after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior with 29 crewmembers on board.

I was a student at Northland College, on the south coast of Lake Superior, in Ashland Wisconsin. Northland in those years had received some funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, came to campus to speak and to hold a few seminars with students. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975, was already a cult classic – a cult flourishing with me and my peers. 

I was in the first of my two years at Northland, having just transferred from the University of Montana. I was naïve and starry-eyed as all get-out. And wonder of wonders, I had landed the plum job of meeting this lion of wilderness literature face-to-face, talking with him, and reporting on it all for the school paper.

It was a cool gray late-autumn day. I met Mr. Abbey out in front of the aging frame house that was the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, still in its infancy. We started north down Ellis Avenue. Abbey was tall and so am I, and together we made great strides down the boulevard. 

He liked Ashland and said so. It was, back then, an Ed Abbey kind of place. Working-class, light-years from hip, long past its glory years and down on its luck. I suggested we head for the Lake and the old ore docks. We talked. (I still have a cassette tape of our conversation, and I cringe and vow to destroy it whenever it surfaces around here. I dare not quote from it.) I was star-struck, ridiculously pedantic and postured, and Abbey was simultaneously bored and mystified by my obtuse lines of questioning. In my journal a few days later, I wrote: “Big soft-spoken man – he seems almost depressed…” Then a quote from Abbey to underscore this: “I’m an optimist. Things are a lot better now than they will be.”

I relaxed and we lapsed into easy stretches of silence as we reached the harbor and admired the lake. That autumn there was a labor strike up on the Iron Range of Minnesota. This resulted in a temporary tie-up on Ashland’s ancient ore dock by two idle Great Lakes taconite freighters.  Real whoppers like the Edmund Fitzgerald. We walked out onto that massive pier structure of concrete, rusting steel, and enormous timbers. (It is gone from Ashland’s harbor now, I gather.) A steel ladder led up to the deck of the vessel on the west; “NO TRESPASSING!” on metal placards swaying in the cold wind off the bay. “Well, hell,” says Ed, “I’ll never get another chance to see one of these big fellas.” Up the ladder we went.

I remember the vast expanse of the ship’s deck, the twinkle in Abbey’s eye, and then – of course – the watchman appeared from the wheelhouse shouting and cursing and chasing us back down the ladder. Ed and I laughed and fled and waved good-bye to the guard.

The trespass might have been the high point of Ed’s visit to Northland. Or maybe not. There were rumors. He was, after all, Edward Abbey. He had a reputation to live up to.

There were many famous literary visitors to campus in those halcyon years, a Who’s Who of environmental thought and writing. Along with Abbey, it was Gary Snyder, John Haines, Wendell Berry, and William Stafford whom I recall most vividly, because they were all heroes of mine. Still are. Had Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and Lao Tzu been alive, professors Peg Jackson and Lee Merrill would surely have landed gigs for them at Northland while the grant money lasted. With each of these visitors, a tiny clutch of students on this obscure college campus had a chance to listen, talk, share a meal, and mull over the ideas of the day. Ticking off those names to a professor friend of ours in Alberta a few years ago, her response was, “Holy cow, who didn’t come to Northland back then?”   

And who can say how a few moments of sitting down with, or walking with, or fleeing from the deck of an ore-boat with one’s literary heroes – all while at that wide-eyed age of 19, or 21, or 23 – will resonate down through the years of a writing life? 

All I can say is, resonate they have.  

Evening, a short distance east of the Hoarfrost River, about 30 miles north of home, on a small pond.

It is clear, cold but not bitterly so, and today there was no wind at all. Beautiful winter weather. This is night three of our five-night second outing, with a group of four students plus Joe Sartison and me.

It is night three, but it is also night 88. Starting with the first of these courses in 2005, I have been out on so many of these “night three of fives” that they all blur together. Faces, campsites, dogs. Tents set up, dogs staked out, coolers of dog feed buried in snowbanks for morning, firewood gathered, meals mostly good, a few not-so-good, all devoured with that best of sauces: hunger. A range of winter dusks and dawns: starry nights; cloudy nights; windy nights.

I may sound like I am waxing sentimental, writing this, but I am not. Just reflective. There’s a difference. After all, these courses have been a major theme running through nearly the past two decades of my life. We – Kristen, Morten, and I – have been pulling this off for more years now than I was racing, and yet I still view the fifteen racing years as the defining years in the “dog musher” facet of my life.

Tonight I ponder, “Why?” Why out here, all these nights and years, roaming around in this harsh, often unpleasant, sometimes hostile and deadly corner of the world, guiding these little troupes of neophyte mushers, fledgling arctic winter campers, along with legions – entire generations – of barking, yapping, chewing, tugging, mostly happy and, yes, sometimes unhappy, huskies? Why? Why out here, on this little network of rough-hewn snowy trails? (Where, it is worth noting in bold letters – in all these miles and all these years on all these courses – we have never, not once, encountered another human being.)

The reason to be out here, I think, is not the hard practical skills we teach and learn. It matters not one iota whether twenty years from now these students remember how to tell a dead tamarack from a dead spruce, or how to string up a picket line for the hounds while waltzing around on snowshoes. We don’t come out here just to endlessly refine our systems of winter travel, although over the decades there has been plenty of refinement. And, let’s be honest, it is not just to have “fun,” because there is simply too much “not so fun” already built into any wilderness journey in the subarctic winter taiga. Trips like these are never going to catch on as the next fun fad, not in February and early March.

The why is in the moments that each, or at least most, of the nearly 100 students now carry tucked away, as memories. Moments of facing adversity as a small team, pitching a snug camp on a threatening night, slogging through the morning chores of breaking camp, loading sleds, harnessing dogs and counting down to the nervous instant of departure. Moments of floating along on good trail in sunshine, toes and fingers warm, parka hood cinched down, the only sounds the whisper of sled runners and the gentle chuff-chuff of panting dogs.

It is fitting that tonight I don’t know precisely where we are. We spent the day scouting a new route and wound up a bit baffled when it came time to camp.  So be it.  I “kind of sort of” know where we are.

We are up the river from home, and just east of the river valley. Close enough, because hey, I don’t know precisely where I am in my life tonight either. What I do know is that there are some lumbar-region hints that this chapter of my life may soon grind to an end. At sixty-four, the “warranty” on moving parts is expired. (As if our bodies came with such a thing.)

A recent quote in the Economist Espresso, from one Hubert de Givenchy (whoever he was; best guess he was not Norwegian): “Life is like a book. One has to know when to turn the page.”

Maybe. Maybe not. (Stubborn denial of the inevitable might make for an interesting chapter.)

This will be my post for February. Soon I will be out on the trail with dogs and students, for the rest of the month.  So long and fare thee well, everyone. Knock on wood, fingers crossed.

February 16, 2022

Forty-two degrees below zero.

I’m up in my morning lookout.

Out the west window

Castor and his brother Pollux

fade and descend.

Halfway through winter now, and

those two are the only stars I can see;

the rest all done in

by the high white disc of moon to the west

and the pale wash of dawn in the northeast.

Nautical twilight.

This morning my thoughts drift

again, and yet again

to a distant border I shall never see,

and the whims of yet another

mad tyrant

hell-bent on settling some old score.

Deep breaths.

Castor, Pollux, old buddies,

I want to join you, drop down below the ridge,

keep low, head down,

stay quiet,

hope,

and pray.

To subscribers, this is a repeat from last night. text unchanged, you can trash it if you got the original last night. The "formatting" was fouled up on the website version. I am trying to repair this.  Thanks for your patience. Happy Groundhog day...tomorrow. 
Dave, the digital doofus.


”As we sometimes see individuals following habits different from those proper to their species… we might expect that such individuals would occasionally give rise to new species, having anomalous habits, and with their structure either slightly or considerably modified from that of their type. And such instances occur in nature.”
 – Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter VI

Sometimes on trips to town and beyond (“town,” for us, being the city of Yellowknife 165 miles away), when I am masquerading as a normal, upper-middle-class citizen of the developed world, hobnobbing with friends and associates, or when I am in correspondence or telephone conversation with distant friends and family, I am suddenly struck by a thought: “These people have not the slightest flippin’ idea where I started my day, or how utterly different my routine of life is from theirs.” I am now sixty-four years old, and for forty-some years and counting I have never had indoor plumbing, grid-connected power, or central heat. Kristen and I sold our last road vehicle, as in a car or truck, 22 years ago.  Good-bye and good riddance. When we need a car, or a truck, or a taxi-cab, we hire one. Then when we are done, we give it back and go home (usually aboard our vehicle -- another noisy, polluting, expensive vehicle -- called an airplane.)

I think it is universal human nature to assume that we know how the lives of other people – especially those we know well – must look and feel, day by day, year by year. And of course, in that assumption we are all utterly mistaken. It is not just that the grass looks greener on the other side of the hill. It’s that it’s often not green, and might not even be grass.
  
About a year ago The Writers’ Union of Canada invited members to an onscreen “visit” with Margaret Atwood, and I signed up. The event was hosted by a British writer’s group, so for us it took place early in the morning, our time. Margaret joined us at breakfast, so to speak, on the screen of Kristen’s computer, way out here at the Hoarfrost River. It was amazing, all things considered.

I was fascinated. I have always admired Atwood for her steadfast refusal to play along with political correctness, to kowtow to the rampant groupthink of identity politics, or to be co-opted by any clique or camp. She speaks and writes eloquently, of course, in her own articulate and artistic voice.  That morning was back during the harsh pandemic lockdown period in Ontario, so Margaret mostly just showed her anonymous audience around her Toronto working space, her home office. All the while chatting affably into her screen and answering a few questions that people had sent to the moderator. Walking to the file cabinets, opening drawers in her desk, perusing the bookshelves and telling us what books they held and how they were arranged.

After that forty-five-minute Zoom glimpse right into this literary giant’s working headquarters, on that dark sub-arctic winter morning, I ambled down to my own office in the north end of our big log workshop.  Hmm, thought I.  Kind of a different feel to things here, Margaret.

How so? Well, there’s the smell for one thing. (What is that cologne you’re wearing, sir?) Strong overtones of spruce woodsmoke, subtle whiffs of gasoline vapors, aviation hydraulic oil, hints of thawing dog food, stray stale pipe tobacco, melting moose-meat, just to name the major components of this magical (carefully guarded, highly proprietary) mix.

Then the visuals. Hmm. Cluttered hardly seems to do it justice. Entropy comes immediately to mind. “A measure of the randomness, disorder, or chaos in a system.”

The entropic upheaval and tightly-packed near-chaos of this space, especially now, in deep winter, is well beyond “cluttered.” It is to clutter what a tornado is to a brief summer thundershower. Let’s have a look around.

Front and center, poised by the door, here are two gas-powered generators, “big yellow” and “little yellow” stacked one on top of the other. (thus some of the whiff of gasoline, despite all best efforts). There are two chainsaws, old and trusty Husqvarna, and older and still trusty Jonserud (more dribbles of gasoline vapors, I suppose.) There is the big bank of lead-acid batteries up against the east log wall, under the window, the transformer for the wind generator, the various chargers and charge regulators of the homestead, all fed by solar, wind, and – in winter’s calm and darkness – about two or three hours a day of a busily humming generator, see above.)

And yes, that is blood on the floor. Moose blood to be precise, after a sled with a moose head and a hind quarter aboard was slid in here to stay unfrozen last week, and after getting cracked on a rough ride down one of the steep trails following an at-last-successful moose hunt. Oh happy day. Some of the moose juice soaked into the bottom of my cloth “town briefcase” overnight, and that will surely elicit some renewed attention from the pet dog where I sometimes stay overnight.  More raised eyebrows. It’s fun to be considered, uh, “interesting.”

Everywhere around the ten-by-sixteen foot room with its ten-foot high ceiling, there are big jugs and pails of liquids: chainsaw bar oil, canola oil, aviation engine oil, airplane hydraulic fluid, white carpenter’s glue.  A big table just north of the battery and the power regulators is covered with battery chargers for cordless electric tools, now including an ice auger and our oldest daughter’s new electric (!) chainsaw.
 
In most of the rest of “everywhere you look” are books and papers and folders and files and binders, on about seven different shelves and levels, and strewn all up and down the twelve-foot double-wide two-by-twelve that I still refer to as my “desk” but for which I should use some other name – as does everyone else in the family.

The desk is a long flat surface festooned not only with reams of papers and booklets and maps, but also  – at a quick glance – a tube of silicone caulk, an old Sony cassette tape player (still works!), four cans of pens and pencils and paint markers, three little rechargers for small batteries, stray phone books, a busted aircraft thermometer, a landline phone in its cradle, various black wires with various end pieces and either AC or DC plug-ins...  and I could go on and on but I won’t. This is getting ridiculous.
  
Across on the other side of the narrow room are strewn, all winter long, the many parts and pieces of cold-weather bushplane operation in the far north – at least four electric “Buddy heaters” all re-wired with new cord after the stock cord failed on each of them in the cold, big black duct for the propane Tundra Toaster heater, a spare five-pound pony keg of propane (Horrified gasps from many quarters. Quarters inhabited by readers who do not realize that when one really needs the propane for an emergency aircraft heat-up, it needs to be warm, not gelled. And relax, there is no property insurance here. Never has been, never will be.  Some buildings, in some locations, are insurable; some, in the far outback, simply are not.)

On that big south wall east of the shelves of airplane paraphernalia is a map at 1:500,000 scale, an inch to eight statute miles, depicting the home range of our flying business. 60th parallel north to the Arctic Ocean coast, and from longitude 103 to about 115 degrees west. Call it roughly 175,000 square miles. Pin and measuring string and protractor hanging at Hoarfrost River, just below center of the area.

Now we are getting close to the very heart of the matter. It’s back here, right past the collage of bent propeller blade, busted piston ring and frayed mooring line, with the instructional placard referring to the display “Always Remember the Seven P’s: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

We have come finally to the soul, the raison d’etre of this enclave. The essential reason why all of this stuff is crammed into this room. The woodstove. Not very big, but a beauty of efficiency. RSF made some great stoves back in the day, and this one, with a long life already behind it, was spotted on a local trading website by a savvy friend who snapped it up and phoned us, then cleaned it all out and delivered it to the airport.  It is ticking along as I write, and my sweater is about to be pulled off again for the second time this evening. It is warm with a capital W in here. Just the way we like this little corner of the homestead, when it’s forty below outside in the dark.

Because, you see, this entire space, in January, is all about the heat. Most of the really tiresome clutter is in here because of a need to thaw, or stay warm, or heat up, in order to be of any use to us at all. Outside this room, even in the rest of the interior of the workshop, it may as well be out in deep space. Little by little, right on through the autumn and into the start of winter, right through the depth of winter and on out the far side sometime in late April or early May, warmth is everything. Things come in here and they do not leave for months except to go outside to work or to be used.  Then to be hustled right back in to Mama again, in the warmth. On this homestead, there are only two spaces that are kept warm all winter, to the best of our ability and the limitations of wood-only, no-backup-from-anything-else heat, and this is one of them. “Dave’s Office.” The other, 180 feet away, is “The House.”

Thoreau summed it all up in his essay, A Winter’s Walk. “In the winter, warmth stands for all virtue.” I think I will carve that sentence on the door here.

My office is a paragon of unassailable virtue tonight. And yes, I can even get some writing done here. I kind of dig this place, if you must know. It suits me. Yes, Darwin might well consider me anomalous, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my species is truly endangered. A pity, really, because “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken,” as my old pal Bert Hyde liked to say.

Bonus fact to mark the end of January, the third month of Winter Dark, and the onset of Winter Light (February, March, April):  Sam, our solar-power guru in northern Alberta, told me the other day that a solar panel rated for 80 watts at “room temperature” (22 degrees Celsius, about 72 degrees American), will put out nearly 100 watts at minus 30 degrees.  This made me smile. I knew there was some improvement with solar panels in deep cold, but I had no idea it was in the realm of 20 to 25 percent.  And it just gets better, the colder it gets.  Which is why solar panels are so powerful out in space.  Cool, eh?

We call it flying, which sounds pretty tricky, unless you're a bird. But mostly it’s sitting. Hours and hours of sitting. Strapped into my little chair in this steel tube cage. Gossamer skin of painted fabric and thin panels of aluminum. Sitting and watching: gauges, sky, earth. And again please. Steering a little, with one hand and both feet. 14,000 hours. That's a chunk of a lifetime. Do the math.

Some days I think they could teach the average chimp to do this gig.

About forty inches ahead of me prop blades do the heavy work, at forty revolutions per second.

Read that again.

Between that cyclone and my chair, lots of other high-speed magic. Magnetos spin, sparkplugs fire, pistons hammer. Gasoline and oxygen

Combine,

Compress,

Explode.

  

Don't ask me hard questions. I just "fly" the thing.

  

Into the dusk of this gray December afternoon I'm headed home. A thousand feet above the lake's new ice. Hugging the coastline, ticking off landmarks: Barnston River, Bigstone Island, Bedford Creek. My little chair, steel cage, fabric wings, whirling blades and synchronized explosions. An airborne bundle of fire, spin, lift,

And, uh, sit,

All chugging east at ninety-five knots.

  

There must be a swallow of morning coffee left in my mug.

  

The air outside is thirty-three below zero. But in here, a breath of heat fetched from the exhaust gases, leftover warmth from all the pyrotechnics up front, comes to me through a few feet of flexible hose. So while I sit, I blow hot air onto my cheek.

  

Ahh. Nice. Fat, dumb, and happy, as the old saying goes.

  

Meanwhile, Earth rounds the bend of another Winter Solstice, hurtling through space (must we always be "hurtling?") at 67,000 miles an hour. And not just hurtling. Spinning too, like a wicked curveball, or a bullet.

  

Read that part again too. Yikes.

  

Nearly home now, I reach down for the dregs of coffee from the screw-top mug on the cockpit floor by my mukluks. I bank and descend into thick cold air down low, and the cup jostles. A little coffee spills onto my lap. Damn, I mutter, suddenly quite offended, then catch myself.

Give your head a shake, pal. 
I mean, considering what's goin' on here, 
A splash of coffee on your coverall and
Now you're gonna start whining? 

Really?

                           -- 2150Z, 22 December 2021

Believe it or not there are days here when finding clean water can be a problem. Not “clean” so much as “clear.” November is notorious for this, because there can be a week or more when the shoreline is not a sharp division between land and water, but instead a jostling mass of ice-pans and slush ice, rolling and heaving and grating against the sand and clay of the lake bottom out in front of our home beach. The water, if a person can figure out a way to get to it, is probably not unhealthy to drink, but it looks like pale chocolate milk. “Too thick to navigate, too thin to cultivate” was the saying in flood time on big rivers like the Yukon and the Missouri.  

Faced with this the other day, and with drinking water getting low in the house, I came up with what I thought was a clever solution. We still don’t have much snow here so far this winter, and up until the other day the weather had been holding mild, just a little below freezing. I started up the four-wheel Honda ATV that we use for off-season dog training and general hauling, and I hitched on the trailer.  Our trailer is a gerry-rigged plywood box, bolted to an old car axle with two big tires gleaned from the junkyard in Yellowknife years ago. I grabbed eight or nine water pails, which are bright yellow plastic and came in here full of canola oil for the dogs, tossed them in the trailer, tied a chainsaw and an ear-muff hard-hat onto the front rack, threw an axe into the trailer for chopping ice, slung my gun over my shoulder in case this should turn out to be my lucky day for Mr. Moose (still at large, since you asked), and bounced off down the shore toward the river mouth, where I thought the water would be clear. Trailer squeaking and rattling, four-wheeler, chainsaw, empty pails, gun, axe. Lots of stuff.

With some stops to cut alder and deadfall, a detour out onto the shorefast ice, and some cutting and piling of more burn-slash, I finally reached the open beach at the river mouth. Shut off the machine. Feeling very clever and resourceful, I might add.  

The water there was as clear and clean as I had hoped it would be, the best water in the world. I dipped pail after pail, and snapped the lids into place. Had a good look around. Out at the riffle of fast water, across to the east bank where the muskox have often come down in recent years, and south where the big lake was a vast expanse of whitecaps and jostling ice pans. 

I looked at all my paraphenalia. Chuckled to myself, “Homo sapiens, the tool-making ape.” Snapped a photo, started the machine, slung on my weapon, and set off bouncing and squeaking with a couple hundred pounds of water splashing in the trailer.


As I drove home, a correction to that phrase came to me, and I have been mulling it over. We are only and always tool users now, not tool makers. There is not a soul on the planet who, even if given an entire lifetime (or five!), could fashion from scratch even a fraction of the modest array of gadgets I was calling on to help ease my simple water-hauling chore. Think of it: the smelting, the digging, the felling and milling, honing and machining, wiring and circuitry, pumping and refining, trucking and barging, on and on and on. 

People tend to use predictable adjectives to describe this odd outback life we have chosen here. On the list you can always count on self-reliant, resourceful, and independent. Which are all a crock! Stripped of the tenuous connections out and away from here, the lines of supply to tools and foods and fuels and so on, I wonder if we would last a year.  In two months or less, our life from day to day would already look a whole lot different, and it would only get more desperate (and dis-spirited) from there, to a drawn-out and miserable extinction. I kid you not.

A couple of years ago I wrote along these same lines here, also in November, in a post called Fuel Haul.  Tipping my hat, I wrote then, to all the workers and systems and legions of truly clever individuals — me not among them — upon whom we have depended to live this far-flung 34-year sham of “self-reliance.” I circle back to that theme now, after a year and a half in this grinding pandemic. The plague has, we can hope, at the very least forced many tool-using apes to sit up and smell their coffee, or their chai latte. Has it ever been more obvious that we are all in this together? That perhaps we can address big global problems with big global actions? And who, and what, were truly essential to you during quarantine and lockdown, as you huddled in front of your Zoom-meeting screen, working from home in your jammies? 

Okay, down off the soapbox again, pal.

I got home, with my water and all my gadgets. Toted pails up the steps and dumped them one by one into the tanks and barrels in the kitchen.  Had a celebratory sip of clear ice-cold water. Splashed some on my face. We all need that now and then.  Helps clear cherished delusions, like “self-reliance” and “clever” and “tool-maker.” 

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“Plan? What’s my plan? Well I guess my plan right now is to take a little nap, and then in two hours I’m gonna try to get this string of fishburners up and moving, and head for Elim.”

  • An Iditarod musher, overheard answering a reporter at Koyuk, 1992 race. (Just might have been Charlie Boulding…)

It is an arcane mental leap, I admit, from the glimpse down through clear water to the white belly of a lake trout (which is a char, in fact, not a trout at all) or a salmon, wriggling in a gillnet – and from there to the bouncing yellow toggle that connects a tugline to the X-back harness of a sled dog. And yet it is a solid link, a connect-the-dots pathway of energy, wriggling fish-belly, bouncing toggle. “Fishburners.” Get it?

Somewhere back in the dim beginnings of the human-dog story, it must have dawned on one of the two-legged protagonists, struggling to keep a helper-dog or a team of helper-dogs fed and healthy, with game scarce and hunting poor… fish!  Eureka! They will eat fish! A gate swung open, a new possibility for survival, maybe even for abundance and ease, to get these amazing four-legged help-meets through seasons when fat red meat was scarce.

It is no accident that Alaska and the Yukon have always been the hard-core Mecca of mushing, for that is the region of the North where winter is long enough to make mushing truly worthwhile, and where salmon runs and salmon-fishing are a basic part of life. What penniless aspiring dog musher could afford to feed a team, or a kennel, without a dependable salmon run?  Back in the day, before this brief historical blip of high-octane dogfood and low-cost trucking that we have lived through (and, pssst, guess what,  is now ending), fish and huskies went together like gasoline and Fords. “Fish head stew, fish head stew, fish heads lookin’ back at you,” goes the refrain of a song by Libby Riddles, first woman to win the Iditarod.  A musher without a dogfood cooker and a pile of fish was in for a tough season. Over here in the deep Interior east of the Yukon, far from salmon (although they are coming closer every year), it used to be whitefish and lake trout and inconnu, those oily cousins of the whitefish, that got most dogteams through the year.

Wolves will eat fish, too, and that option helps to get many a pack and its pups through that lean period of June, just after whelping, up on the edge of the tundra, when the caribou herds have passed north toward their calving grounds and the wolves are forced to fall back and make a den and tend a batch of tiny but insatiable pups. This is crunch time for these tundra wolves. No big warm-blooded prey at hand, and the hunting mobility of the pack severely limited by the tiny pups at the den. This is mouse-and-lemming season, ptarmigan-and ground-squirrel season… and fish season. Suckers might be running up a shallow creek near the den, or grayling might be sunning in the shallows of a lake. A wolf can make a meal of that, and a mother wolf can make milk from that meal.  It’s survival, any port in a storm.

As a neophyte musher forty-some years ago, I came right away to the notion of huskies as fishburners. My mentor Duncan Storlie made an annual spring trek to the shore of Lake Superior, to spend some long nights dip-netting bucketloads of smelt, then freezing them in milk cartons. Smelt are not salmon, but a hundred pounds of fish is a hundred pounds of fish, and smelt are oily and abundant. The dogs gobbled them up.  We ate them ourselves, too, happily and often.

Years ago, after sincere and sustained effort and some blessings from the local powers-that-be, we secured a “domestic fishing license” to set a hundred-yard gillnet in the waters of McLeod Bay, our front yard. This is lake-trout and whitefish water mostly, with the occasional pike, a sucker or a burbot now and then, and, rarely, a grayling big enough to get caught in a 5-inch mesh. Last year around the last day of October we lifted the first inconnu out of our net, but we haven’t seen another one since. And still no salmon, but stay tuned. Times are changing.

We tend the net daily from June through the end of October. In summer it is just a tiny scrap of old net, lest we take more than we can use in warm weather. In mid-September when the first frosts come, we start stockpiling for winter, hanging the split fish on a double-stick rack. This becomes a pretty fragrant collection until the deep cold comes, so the cache is surrounded by wire mesh and corrugated steel.  The martens, foxes and ravens are thus mostly stymied, but I have no delusions about a visiting bear. The motion-sensor alarm (the nearby dogyard) would likely give us a chance to take up with a marauder before too many hard-earned fish disappeared.

This year winter has been slow to start, and the net is still in. Nearly November now, and not a speck of snow on the ground. 1998 was like this, as we recall. (“Much joy in the weather,” as ever. Especially when it’s up to some new trick. But lest you get the wrong impression, this is indeed an ominous and weird autumn, and the facts are not lost on us.) Despite a slowdown in the netting over the first half of October, we are now back at it and catching up day by day.  If we can hang a few dozen more fish before boating becomes too icy and the job of handling and cutting fish gets too cold and miserable, we will be doing well.

And soon, all these fish will slowly, steadily, come down off the rack and go into our long-suffering  soot-and-grease-slathered cook-barrel, there to boil hard enough to kill any parasites and to thoroughly cook the rice that is in there with it. Then when it cools we will cut in some more fat, some scoops of kibble, then go ladle that rich stew out onto the packed snow of each dog’s dinner-place.

Tails will wag.  Winter coats will grow thick and glossy. Tuglines will be tight, and miles will be made.  Every now and then in the depth of winter, as I cruise along at ten miles per, with nary a sputtering piston or muffler for miles around, I will think back to mornings in October drizzle, leaning out over the pitching stem of the skiff, looking down through some of the clearest water on the planet at the flash of a fish-belly.  Calories, and the myriad species of poetry in motion: fish in water, sled dog on the trail. Energy, going around.

We’ve all heard it a hundred times, seems like.

“It’ll be cheaper just to buy a new one.”

This is what the Husqvarna chain-saw man told me the other day, cheerily prefacing it with, “My condolences, Dave. The old 357 has gone to meet her maker.”

This being the second scored piston / cylinder on that same saw in just over 18 months, this was not the news I was hoping to get. The diagnosis was piston and cylinder damage. I had been hoping it was a carburetor problem, which in fact it might be, and might have been all along, because an overly lean mixture will certainly fry a piston and cylinder. Insinuations that I had simply made the boneheaded mistake of running the two-stroke saw on unmixed gas did not help my mood. I had not done that, nor had anyone else done that. That much I know, since the saw failed while running right alongside another saw, both fuelling from the same jug of carefully mixed fuel.

What I had been doing, all last winter, was fiddling with the carburetor, trying to tune the mixture so the saw would run smoothly and take throttle without hesitation, at temperatures at or below the “not very smart to be running a chainsaw” mark.

Long story slightly shortened, lest I lose you, I made the choice to once again pay for complete repair to the saw, which is about as major as a chainsaw repair can get, and this time around I decided to up the ante by having a new carburetor installed.

And yes, I suppose it would have been cheaper to buy a new saw, in that strange form of math and accounting that assures us, like a mantra, that spending a thousand dollars is “in the long run” better than spending five hundred. A logic that time and again we acquiesce to, nodding wisely and walking the old unit – camera, computer, telephone, washing machine, pickup, whatever, out the door and off the premises, to become more fodder for the groaning, mile-high landfills and junkyards of our dear planet.

This chapter in chainsaw stubbornness reinforced suspicions I have, about where this thinking has brought us, and is still bringing us (whistling down the gangplank toward very deep water) and it made me wonder too whether my 40-year involvement with aviation and airplane components might have changed my personal viewpoint on obsolescence, repair, and replacement. In aviation you will almost never hear that opening line, with reference to anything bigger than a minor component, because repair is almost always the first choice that is considered. Cracked wing rib? Engine losing compression? Radio on the fritz? Landing gear leg, busted right off? First question is not how to replace it, but how to fix it.

Fact is, aircraft are so expensive “Brand New” that a typical pilot can work an entire career and never fly an airplane that was built within the past five or ten years.  It is really only insurance adjusters, viewing a photo of a burned-out smashed-up wreck high on the side of a mountain, who would say without a moment’s pause that “it’ll be cheaper to buy a new one.” (And they don’t mean new; they just mean a different used and similarly old one.)

Commercial aircraft, even little fart-cart bushplanes like the ones we fly at Hoarfrost River, are rigorously maintained and inspected, frequently refurbished and repaired.  The hours of use are tracked to the nearest tenth, and the hours between inpections and overhauls of everything from seatbelt webbing to propeller blades are bound by hard and fast rules. Not loose rules of thumb, but laws, as in break-it-and-lose-your-certificate laws.

And believe me, all of these limits and times and inspections, and all of the attendant record-keeping and paperwork, is a royal pain in the keester. But the history of the industry shows that it is a system that works, and that it helps even the lowliest dirtbag bush-pilot attain the daily goal of keeping the noisy end forward and the dirty side down, and delivering everyone safely back to where they had breakfast, just in time for dinner.

I have become more resistant to the knee-jerk application of “cheaper to just buy a new one.” Partly because I suspect that this “logic” also plays to the human animal’s innate laziness, and our deep-down magpie-like desire to acquire that shiny “new one” instead of gritting our teeth and keeping our less-shiny tools soldiering along. Feeling all sensible and logical and hard-nosed about how it is cheaper to go buy a new one just helps salve our consciences as we cart the carcasses of our myriad old ones off to the dump. 

The engine in our two-place Husky, model year 2004, is now coming right up to 4400 hours of air time, and this is its second TBO or “time between overhauls.”  There is no wiggle room on this impending limit, and no surprise.  At 2200 hours, the engine was removed and sent away for overhaul, and this time around, at 4400, it will be replaced by a “factory re-manufactured” engine straight from Lycoming in Pennsylvania. That is our choice.  Sometime in mid-winter I will fly the Husky down to the maintenance hangar in Fort Nelson, in its final hours before the cutoff, and the engines will be swapped out, pretty-much-new for pretty-much-old.  I wonder whether I will even see another TBO, 2200 hours ahead, as pilot of C-GTYC. Somehow I doubt it.

The difference between aviation and our day-to-day life with other mechanical contraptions is that there is a sizable value represented by the time-expired engine, which now becomes known as a “core,” to the tune of 16,000 U.S. dollars.  “This is an expensive game we play,” as a helicopter pilot said to me the other day out at our place. No kidding. The silver lining in such painfully expensive transactions is that there is not a “new one” anywhere in the picture, and that is good. It helps to debunk the “cheaper to just go buy a new one” mindset, and that is a mindset we all need to try to debunk.  Because in the long long run, it can be better to keep old stuff running than to run out the door, Visa card quivering, in search of something new.

Here’s to subverting the dominant paradigm.

There are coincidences in life that just knock you back a few steps. Take your breath away, if you’ll pardon the attempt at humor, that will come clear below. About six years ago my wife Kristen was talking with our British-Canadian friend Ruth Bowen in Yellowknife, and Ruth mentioned that she was getting ready to take a visual celebration of her grandfather’s life down to a showing at Jasper or Banff, or maybe both, because of his historical involvement with mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. “Oh,” Kristen said, “Was he a mountain climber?” Yes, Ruth said. Quite a climber in fact. His name was Frank Smythe.

At this, Kristen’s jaw probably went slack for a split second, but not as slack as mine went about a day and a half later, when she was back home and recounting her town run, and nonchalantly let slip with “Oh and I saw Kris and Ruth; Ruth is going off on a tour with an exhibit she’s made about her grandfather, Frank Smythe.”

Now like many husbands, I am not always so finely attuned to the detailed specifics of my wife’s monologue as I should be, when she returns home after a whirlwind of visiting and errands in the big city, Yellowknife (population about 18,000.) Thus maybe it took a second or two for me to say, “Hold on, wait, what?”

Now she knew she had me — and that thus by default, up to that point she maybe had not quite, well, had me a hundred percent, so to speak.

“Ruth Bowen is Frank Smythe’s granddaughter.”

At this point, Kristen likes to tell people, “Dave gave me a look as if I had just announced I was pregnant.” Which at that age and stage in our life, not to mention my sterilization status, would have been about as likely as, well, about as likely as our friend Ruth in Yellowknife being the granddaughter of the man whose books about mountaineering in the first half of the twentieth century I had been devouring at the rate of one a month for the past six months. I think I said something profound and insightful like, “Auughff?”

It has been a busy month, I am away from home now on a flying contract, and it is time to post something here. Maybe this is a last-ditch maneuver, but it is an inspired one, I promise.

If you want to read something astounding, inspiring, and utterly devoid of any reference to you-know-what, or you know where, or you know who, for a complete change, try this. As I did just the other morning, gazing at the inner sanctum of our bookshelf and looking for something to ease my aching back, clear my mind, and take me far, far, away. It is excerpted from Frank Smythe’s book Camp Six. I have asked no one’s permission to reprint it here, but I promise to buy Frank’s granddaughter Ruth a pint next time I see her, right in Yellowknife, where she lives about sixty feet from where I tie up the floatplanes when I come and go from there on charters. It is a small big world at times, isn’t it?

{Here is Smythe writing of his escapades with Eric Shipton, and then alone, high on the northeast ridge of Everest, in 1933. Nine years, almost to the day, after the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine.  From Camp Six, published 1937.}

And now I must recount the first of two strange experiences that befell me that day. All the time that I was climbing alone, I had the feeling that there was someone with me. I felt also that were I to slip I should be held up and supported as though I had a companion above me with a rope. Sir Ernest Shackleton had the same experience when crossing the mountains of South Georgia after his hazardous open-boat journey from Elephant Island, and he narrates how he and his companion felt that there was an extra ‘someone’ in the party.  When I reached the ledge I felt I ought to eat something in order to keep up my strength. All I had brought with me was a slab of Kendal mint cake. This I took out of my pocket and, carefully dividing it into two halves, turned round with one half in my hand to offer my ‘companion.’

The second experience was bizarre, to say the least of it. It was in all probability an hallucination due to lack of oxygen, which affects not only the physical powers but the mental powers also. I was making my way back towards Camp Six when chancing to look up, I saw two dark objects floating in the blue sky. In shape they resembled kite balloons, except that one appeared to possess short squat wings. As they hovered motionless, they seemed to pulsate in and out as though they were breathing. I gazed at them dumbfounded and intensely interested. It seemed to me that my brain was working normally, but to test myself I looked away. The objects did not follow my gaze but were still there when I looked back. So I looked away again, but this time identified by name various details of the landscape by way of a mental test. Yet, when I again looked back, the objects were still visible. A minute or two later, a mist drifted across the north-east shoulder of Everest above which they were poised. As this thickened the objects gradually disappeared behind it and were lost to sight. A few minutes later the mist blew away. I looked again, expecting to see them, but they had vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. If it was an optical illusion, it was a very strange one. But it is possible that fatigue magnified out of all proportion something capable of a perfectly ordinary and rational explanation. That is all I can say about the matter and it rests there. 

It was not easy finding my way back {down – my emphasis} to Camp Six {at 27,400 feet ASL – again, my astonished emphasis} across the wilderness of slabs, and it was a relief when at last the little tent came into view. Shipton was safely there, and after a hot drink we talked over the situation. We were both of us very loath to spend a third night at the camp, which for two men was very uncomfortable. At the same time, I was too tired to descend to Camp Five.  It was arranged, therefore, that Shipton, who had had a long rest and had completely recovered, should descend, leaving me behind. I am not sure now that it was a wise decision. It would have been better for us to have remained together, but at the time we both welcomed it. Accordingly, Shipton set off down to Camp Five. 

The weather was not looking good when he left and grey clouds were beginning to form about Everest, yet neither of us anticipated the storm that broke an hour later. It caught him when he was still a long way from Camp Five, and he had a terrible descent, narrowly escaping being frozen to death in the blizzard. He told me afterwards that at one point he nearly met with disaster. He had let himself down from a rock by his arms on to a slope of snow, when the latter suddenly slid off, exposing a smooth slab destitute of all footholds. To let go with his hands meant a certain slip, and the only alternative was to pull himself back. To any one who has never done it, it is impossible to give any idea of the strength and determination required for an arm-pull at twenty-seven thousand feet. Suffice it to say, Shipton did it, and thereby saved his life. He arrived at Camp Five almost exhausted, where he was welcomed by Birnie who was in support there. 

When the storm broke, and I heard the wind roaring past the little tent, I felt anxious for Shipton’s safety, and was relieved when, towards sundown, the weather cleared a little. 

It was an extraordinary experience spending a night higher than any other human being, but I scarcely appreciated this at the time. I was concerned only with making myself as comfortable as possible, and one of my memories is a grand brew of café au lait. 

At sundown the wind died away, and I prepared to settle down for the long cold night which at that latitude lasts for nearly twelve hours. But before doing so, I unlaced the flaps of the tent and glanced outside. It was a scene of incredible desolation. All round were great slabs of rocks mortared with snow in their interstices like an immense expanse of armour-plating. Thousands of feet beneath lay a great sea of cloud slowly writhing and twisting in its uppermost billows and, here and there, seeming almost on fire, where it was touched by the rays of the setting sun. There was not a sound. No stone-fall or avalanche disturbed the serenity of Everest. There was silence, an absolute and complete silence; and permeating all, investing all, with a deadly embrace, was the cold, the coldness that reigns in the abysses of space. 

The last flare from the sun was illumining the rocks as I laced up the tent and snuggled deeply in my sleeping-bag. The lull in the weather was only temporary, and later the wind rose, but I was not aware of it; I slept the clock round, a sleep of sheer exhaustion.

Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton, 1933: