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I am coming to the end of the month with nothing written here, and, it seems, no inspiration to write it. I am away from home and finishing a long flying job, and at the end of each day when I think I might write something to post here for the month of May — well, it hasn’t been happening.

The passage that follows is from some writing I have in progress. For years I have been tinkering with a story, based on some mysterious events in the 1930’s, east of here. (See the excerpt from official RCMP files, which I have pasted below the passage.)

Howard Price sat on the broad orange slope above camp. Mackay was splitting kindling. Howard could see the rise and fall of the axe, but the tap-tap of the sound was out of rhythm, for the distance between. It made for a sense of time distorted, that delay between the sight of the chopping and the sounds of the blows.

Every September, every one that Price could recall, there were maybe two or three days on the barrens that were so perfect a man could just die at sundown and go straight to his long sleep and call it all fair and square. It was one of those days. There was a puff of a breeze from the northeast, and the sky was the blue of azure or turquoise. Price could not recall which was bluer. All around camp to every horizon the hillsides were as red as a baboon’s ass, as Jack Stark never got tired of saying. The Thelon a sparkling ribbon bordered by fine white sand, the water level dropping by an inch every few days.

Howard rolled a smoke and crossed one foot over the other. There was not a damned blackfly in sight. The moss and gravel hollow beneath him was dry and soft. He struck a match and took a deep drag. He studied the dog sitting a few yards below him on the slope in the sun, the stocky brown female they called Bastille. Price had bought her from the police in Fort Smith, summer of 1930. Pierre Savignac was a helper at the police post there, an old Frenchman from the Red River country south of Winnipeg. He had come north with Henri Gagnon years ago. Henri was the head cop at Smith. Howard had asked Pierre the dog’s name and Savignac told him they called her Bastille. Said that in Fort Res one of the Beaulieu boys had named her Batarde, but Henri said that was no name for a lady, and changed it to Mademoiselle de la Bastille, or Bastille when she was running in harness.

Which Howard did not understand until one night he had asked Gene Olson about it. Gene knew history and liked to talk. He had gone on for twenty minutes about 1789, King Louis, Marie Antoinette, guillotines and the big Bastille prison.

Bastille the husky was sniffing now and looking south up the river. She barked and stood, all at once, and Howard jabbed with his elbows on the moss and pushed himself higher. The dogs in camp by where Mackay was chopping were barking now too, and Bill had set the axe down. All the dogs were staring toward the river.
Howard spotted them then, and so did Bill. Coming along the edge of the water, just below camp, still shaking water from their scrawny coats. Two dark dogs. Skinny. One had a little limp.
Price saw Mackay swing his rifle and he shouted. Bill looked up.
Those are dogs, Howard shouted. He trotted down to the camp and got there just as the two dogs came in. To Mackay he said, I know these dogs.
They look like hell, said Bill.
They do. But those are both dogs of Gene or Emil. I’ll be damned. That taller one is the one Emil calls Budbringer. It’s Danish, or Swedish maybe, for Messenger. I’d bet my bottom dollar on it.
They sure look like hell, said Mackay again.

The next morning, the eleventh of September, Price and Mackay paddled upriver with a light outfit of overnight gear stowed in the canoe. They kept their eyes peeled, studying the little tongues of timber in the swales along the river’s east bank.

And so it was discovered.

“Re — Murder of Eugene Edward Olson and Emanuel Henrik Bode, Thelon River N.W.T.

1. On January 4, 1932, Superintendent Acland [sic] advised by wire from Inspector Gagnon, Fort Smith, that the dead bodies of the above named had been discovered in a cabin (tent) on the Thelon River, N.W.T.
2. Only meager details were received and early in January, 1932, Inspector Gagnon left Fort Smith via dog team to investigate the deaths. About this same time, Constable Gray, i/c Reliance Detachment, Great Slave Lake Sub-District, was also acquainted with the case, having been advised by letter from one Clarke Croft, a white trapper in the district. This letter embraced further information on the matter and stated that the dead bodies had been discovered by a trapper named “Price,” who also found the remains of seven dogs, all of which had apparently starved to death on their chains. This letter did not disclose the cause of death.”

— opening paragraphs of an RCMP report, dateline Ottawa, 25 May, 1932

Alas, it looks as though the melt is upon us. The little creeks and rivulets of runoff are noisy and alive.  The shoreline ice is flooded, because the meltwater flowing onto it still has no drainage portals to the lake water below the ice.  I may take matters in hand and try drilling a few holes for drainage.  The effect of that is sometimes startling, with a little eight-inch hole rapidly eroding out to a two-foot diameter sucking whirlpool.  Very cool, for those of us who are easily amused.

Always there is this feeling of bittersweet resignation when the year’s dominant season starts to loosen its grip. Six months of winter grudgingly give way, and we about-face into the other half of the year.  Six months into which Spring, Summer, and Autumn are compressed — two months apiece.

Every spring brings a variation on the repetitive theme. One year, with a rapid melt well underway by the first of May, and with a plane whose landing gear had just failed a routine inspection, we opted to go ahead and put that plane onto its floats down at the maintenance hangar, and to bring it back home and land here on the ice surface, on floats. I did that, and it worked out perfectly well, albeit a bit noisy on the vvveeerrryyy long run-out after touchdown.  A 3,000 pound sled on smooth keels can skitter a long ways on smooth wet ice.  It reminded me of a friction experiment in a physics class.  We tied the plane down to the ice — this was back in 2010, I think — and it sat there perched on its floats, only to see Winter make a decisive comeback with temperatures sliding back far below zero.  It was nearly the first of June before I finally taxied the plane off the ice edge and into open water near the river mouth. 

I must admit that I don’t like the uncertainty of meltdown nearly as much as I relish the mystery and uncertainty of freeze-up.  I suppose that is because it is more necessary to try to plan for and predict the melt.  People have work to do, in and out flights to make, and there are calls for charters here and there while conditions change by the day and by the hour. The planes sit out on the ice and the changes begin to call for an ever increasing amount of time spent measuring, assessing, predicting, and thinking about contingencies. In late autumn and early winter, awaiting the freedom of freeze-up, we have mostly adopted a mode of just tucking ourselves in, hunkering down, and watching with bemusement the progress of the season.  There is a little more tension in the spring, not as much bemusement. When the ice finally says it is time to get the planes onto something solid, you damned well better be ready to move them, and now.

I have been thinking about “Traditional Knowledge” lately, now often abbreviated  “TK.” I am forever mulling over the way buzzwords and acronyms rise and fall and get bandied about. Watching the fads and fashions of language is entertaining.  It has been fun to see the rise of “reaching out,” for instance.  And “pivot” is having its day in the sun. And of course there is the weird morphing of verbs into nouns, and vice versa.  “That is a big ask.” “I’m doing an install.”  “We need to action that.”  “Did someone gift that to you?”  English, as my dear wife reminds her groaning pedantic husband, is constantly evolving. C’mon Dave, chill. Pivot. Reach out. Gift people a break. (I will try.)

Like I said, TK is big and it’s been much on my mind.  What is it exactly?  When it comes to Traditional Knowledge, I keep thinking about  our old white spruce friend Lucy.

Lucy is a tree that stands front and center, almost precisely in the middle of our little trapezoid of homestead activity.  The tree is a “she” to us, called Lucy now for over 25 years, and I will have to ask my daughters why. They named her, and each of them sometimes climbed up into her wide comforting branches to escape whatever needed escaping on some childhood day. I will never forget the question they asked after the fire, before they had made it home: “Did Lucy burn?”  Thankfully, no.

I would guess Lucy’s height now to be just shy of 60 feet, or 19 meters.  She is over two feet across at the base. A big tree so close to the tundra. Based upon my own cutting and ring-counting of many dead spruces around here over the years, I am guessing Lucy is around 220 to 240 years old. This past year, she is not doing very well. I think she is what foresters call “over-mature” or “decadent.”  Lucy is getting decadent, and the neighbors are whispering…

I think there is an element of that buzzword “traditional knowledge” wrapped up with living in a place long enough to know a tree by name, to worry about her and love her.  Call me a tree hugger. It is sad to know that at some time fairly soon we are going to have to consider toppling her, lest she topple and kill someone in their bed, on a stormy night, in the tiny cabin nearby. That was the first building we built here, back in 1987, when Lucy was younger, firmer of flesh, and not quite as tall.

Last year on the eighth of May, we had a windstorm the likes of which we had not seen before.  Peak gusts of 52 knots, or 100 kilometers per hour, or 27 meters per second, take your pick. Damned windy.  “Whole Gale” on the Beaufort wind scale, with the note: “rarely experienced inland.”   Three of us were here that day, and we rushed around for a while battening and securing and ballasting things (including two planes out on the ice), and then we just watched and waited.  Some very large cousins of Lucy came down that day, and the ground beneath Lucy on the windward side was lifting as one of her main roots was leveraged upward. But she held.

I should probably consider taking her down soon.  There are brown patches in her foliage that we have not seen before. I have no doubt that a cross-section of her trunk, down near ground level, will already show a brown and black center core of decay.

This has gotten me thinking about TK, like I said.  Anyone can have TK.  That is the biggest point to be made in the bastions of buzzwords these days. TK is simply local knowledge acquired over time spent living in a place.  It is not genetic, it is not racial, it is not linked to some presence or absence of inclusivity or political stripe. Wendell Berry said it well, in his essay “The Way of Ignorance” :

The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.”

Another poet and man of letters, Gary Snyder — soon to turn 93 on the eighth of May —  is a longtime friend of Berry, and he summed up the path to “traditional knowledge” succinctly when he wrote:  “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”

I have quoted that in a post here before, but it bears repeating.

Okay, rambling around here. Wish us luck with our decision about Lucy. Think about your own traditional knowledge.  We can all aspire to it. We all need it. It comes from paying attention.  The world that matters most is here, around us, not on a screen, not somewhere far away or out there.

Truth be told, I am pre-occupied because at any moment now, or maybe not ’til tomorrow morning, Day 39, the dogs that are in the yard here are going to set up a joyous howl, and we are going to look out to the lake toward the east, across the soggy drifts and pools of meltwater, and there are going to be three dogteams and three sleds and three mushers, on the final half-mile of their journey from here to the Arctic Ocean and back. Read last month’s post and you will know what I’m referring to.  It’s been quite a journey, now nearly done.

They made it, and they are within a few miles of here as I type this.  Banging and bouncing down the steep trails into the basin of the big lake, where the snow is now mostly gone. We have the signal horn and some red flares handy. And some beer in a bucket of melting ice, in the shade by Lucy.

“Make voyages. Attempt them.  There’s nothing else.”  — Tennessee Williams

 

Here’s a trick question for readers savvy to the “local” geography of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. (Readers who think the Yukon shares a common border with Greenland can just skip this part.)

Which of the following, A or B, is nearer to the northeast tip of Great Slave Lake, (i.e. the area where I live, around the outlets of the Hoarfrost and Lockhart Rivers, and Fort Reliance)?

A) The southwest shore of Great Slave Lake, just west of Hay River. 

B) The Arctic Ocean, at Bathurst Inlet.

Since I set it up as  “tricky,” I suppose I gave it away.  The answer is B. 

The southwest corner of Great Slave Lake, where the current of the Mackenzie / Deh Cho becomes perceptible and flows west out of the lake, is 430 kilometers or 267 miles from here, as the raven flies.  Answer “B,” the nearest saltwater shore of the Arctic Ocean, is almost due north of here, at just 400 kilometers or 248 miles.

Surprised? I am not surprised, but I admit to having an unusual perspective on this, since I have often flown straight north out of here and covered that distance to the nearest tidewater in around two hours, landed, done some work, jumped back into the plane and flown home again.  Probably almost as often as I have taken off for Hay River, direct, or for quiet little Fort Providence, on the Mackenzie’s north bank.  

Even now, after decades here, our relative proximity to Canada’s third coast still excites me.  I have touched down in a small floatplane on the surface of Bathurst Inlet on many a bright summer day, taxied in to shore, tied up, and just leaned down for a sniff and a taste of that salty water.  On those memorable days I have stood for long moments gazing north down the Inlet toward the Northwest Passage and thinking, Wow, the ocean.  Every continent in the entire world is accessible by water, from right here. Pretty heady stuff for a perennial small-town Illinois boy. 

On the 21st of March, our two daughters and their good friend Joe whooshed out of the dogyard onto the ice of McLeod Bay, and within minutes they had disappeared from sight around the headland and into Gyrfalcon Cove.  Three sleds, three mushers, and 21 carefully-chosen huskies (some chosen for talent and athleticism, others to boost morale, and at least one or two mostly to provide comic relief, I gather.)  From here they had a trail already broken for 26 miles, up to the first hints of tree-line along the upper Hoarfrost. In the sleds, and a few miles up the trail, they had a total of nine days of supplies to bring them to their first re-supply cache.

In around three weeks, they hope, they will reach the south tip of Bathurst Inlet, that salt ice I started out discussing here.  From there — this is the best part, I think, since it is pretty unusual nowadays — they will simply turn around, head into the sun and the oncoming warmth of spring, and set their course right back here to where they started.  May first is the target date for homecoming, making it a six-week journey.  You might see the fireworks and hear the whooping and hollering from anywhere within a few hundred miles, when Kristen and I first glimpse the mushers and their teams rounding that home point again. It’s gonna be a party, especially if they succeed. 

It is wonderful that sometimes in our brief lives we are lucky enough to see the next generation take up some of our own various torches: torches we might have fumbled, or dropped, or simply left behind us along the way. With youthful pizzaz, they grab the flames and trot on ahead, literally or figuratively. Forty years ago I spent an entire summer camped out just a few miles from where I now live, and on some of my evenings alone that summer, or talking with my buddy Mitch,  I pored over the map and imagined the journey that my kids and their buddy are now taking. But I only talked about it; I never hooked up the dogs and loaded the sled and did it.  It’s their time now, and off they’ve gone. “So long, old-timers, see you in six weeks.”

The route is straightforward. I daresay that at this time of year, with a good string of huskies behind a gifted lead dog, a musher could go to the ocean and return to McLeod Bay without ever once looking at a map.  (Don’t worry, Mom, they brought maps.) In a nutshell, the route is north-northeast, steadily on a heading of about 16 degrees True.  Up the Hoarfrost to its headwaters, then over onto the watershed of the Lockhart and into the north arm of Aylmer Lake.  There a low gravel ridge forms an unremarkable watershed divide, and beyond it you are northbound onto the first trickles of the Back River. Downstream, north-northeast still, to where the Back swings east in a big oxbow at Beechey Lake. Leave the Back there, and climb away from it to cross some rugged high tundra and esker country. (It is “high” only by barrenland standards, the maximum elevations being 1660 feet (500 meters) above sea level.) Pick up the drainage of the Western River, and avoid its canyons and falls as you parallel it down to — the Arctic Ocean!

It sounds easy if you say it fast.

And is this creaky pension-plan dog musher just a tad bit proud of these youngsters and their dogs? Well, is the Pope Argentinian? Those aren’t trick questions.  Yes. Yes. 

Bon voyage!

 

Now we come into the golden days of winter, with sunshine, calm air, and ample snow. By high noon the sun is perceptibly warm on the skin, and I find myself pausing to turn and talk aloud to old Sol herself. (Himself? Itself? What are the personal pronouns of a star?)

“Oh hello. Hello! I’ve missed you, seeing you skim briefly along the south horizon all those months, cool and distant, just passing by with hardly a glance. No smile, no warmth, no brightness. Knew you were out there, making your rounds, but now you’re really back and let me just say, you still have it. Wow.”  (People would wonder, if they overheard me. But that would be nothing new.)

The sun is warm, yes, but it still holds back from melting ice or snow, even on dark objects in direct sunshine. That is a later phase of winter, those premonitions of melt, and that will be a few weeks yet.  These final days of February and first few days of March are the zenith of the season. Still deeply cold, but bright and blue, white and gold, and windless.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

Sorry, subscribers, this is exactly same post as the other day.

I had to take it down, correct the format, and have now put it back up again so that it will have paragraph spacing on the Home Page. . (If anybody understands this #*%@‘ B.S. I tip my hat to you.)

Anyway, this is the same post. One little typo corrected. No need to re- read, Yawn… ;> ) dave o.

A few mornings ago I slept late. I think we all sleep a little longer at this darkest time of year, here on the northern half of the planet.  Let the Chileans and the Aussies get up early in December! It was not so late that it was anywhere even close to daylight outside, but it was well past seven, CST. I fumbled my way up out of the bed and over to the propane light fixture on the wall, to turn the knob and begin the day with the flick of a chartreuse plastic Bic lighter. Hyggelig, right?  

“Done usual chores.” Classic line from the old homesteader’s daily log. Hauled on my layers and stoked the stove and carried in more wood from the entryway, put on water for coffee, set two places at the table for breakfast, let the aging wheezy dog out and very quickly back in again. She is a no-sled dog, a husky of ours who was born with a bronchial constriction that has only gotten worse with age, and in deep cold she is a disaster. Never thought we’d have a house-dog. When her saga is over, some year soon, we won’t.

Went to the weather station and VHF radio niche by the upstairs west window, and wrote down the morning news: Wind NE 5 knots, Vis 15+ miles, Sky CLR, Temp -25, Dewpoint -28, Altimeter 30.61 and rising. Remarkable high air pressure (it is 30.95 as I draft this on Wednesday), but otherwise a classic McLeod Bay early-winter morning.

A brief phrase scrolled across the little screen on the weather box: “Geminids Meteor Shower.” The device had been flashing that same pop-up for several mornings, but overcast skies had persisted lately so I had been shrugging it off. A change that day, though. It was clear and crisp after all that wearisome overcast. It had been a long week, when there were steadily a few flakes of snow in the air – never enough to say “it’s snowing,” but every morning a new half-inch on the chopping block or the handle-bar of a sled. Days when it never seemed to get completely light, until it was obviously getting dark again.

I finished making coffee for myself and for Kristen. She was up and moving through her own morning routine. Well into our fourth decade of marital bliss — with only fleeting brief episodes of marital blitz — we both know that in that first hour of dawn it is best to simply nod and smile if we meet on the stairs. Conversation can wait until breakfast. I poured a mug-full and climbed the ladder up into my lookout lantern, where the stovepipe juts out through the roof.  A little perch with windows all around – readers of this blog are tired of hearing about it, I’m sure. Usually I stand up there looking north while I sip away. Out that way a big bluff we call Home Hill makes the skyline. Our little log outhouse is in the foreground, as if placed there to prevent my ruminations from ever getting too lofty or grandiose.  Looking out that way, in all seasons, at Guy de Mauppasant’s ”…immense network of deserted little valleys with not a single trace of smoke…”

On the morning I’m describing, though, I twigged on the obvious. The meteor shower named The Geminids must be emanating from the constellation Gemini, the twin stars Castor and Pollux. And by this hour, at this season, those two old friends would be front and center out the west window-door of the lantern, the biggest window of all, where we can step right out onto the roof when we need to. So instead of standing and gazing north, I sat down facing west, and waited. Clear black sky, washed out slightly by a waning quarter moon. There were the twins, high and centered in my rectangular triple-pane view. Wow, what were the odds? If the Geminids were going to shower as advertised, I had a warm box seat for the event.

Sip. Nothing yet.

Then a long bright shooting star dropped fast and down. Maybe twenty seconds later a much brighter one screamed from north to south just below Gemini. Then some long minutes of nothing.  Kind of like a slow sixth inning, I thought. And here is the catcher going out to the mound again, while the right fielder looks up into the bleachers and chews his plug.  Sip. Sip. One more faint zeemer going obliquely down and away.  Sip.

Whoa. Did that just happen? A burst of light, a big flash right up in the Gemini. Just a second or so, on and then off. Nothing before or after.

That must have been a meteorite, and I thought about the fact that when you are flying at night, looking for other air traffic in the dark sky, or you are out on the water with eyes peeled for the lights of other boats, it’s the lights that don’t seem to be moving that are most important. Because, if you can see them and they aren’t sliding sideways, and it’s red on the right and green on the left, then heads up: that one is headed straight at you.

I sipped a little more coffee. One more meteorite dropped vertically from the twins. I waited some more. Coffee mug empty. Five bits of hot space dust in maybe ten minutes, and probably hundreds more invisible, but hey — one of them headed was straight for the house. Well. Interesting perspective for the start of a day.

Solstice is here again. I have scheduled this post for the exact hour and minute of the “sun standing” this year: 21:48 Zulu, Wednesday.  Early to late afternoon in North America, evening in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. So if you’re reading this, well then yippee, we’ve rounded the turn and the lights are already coming up again, second by second and day by day. (North of the equator, that is. Those Chileans and Aussies now start down the back stretch.) We spin forward into another enormous lap. Hang onto your hats, boys and girls. And hang on to each other. There’s stuff falling out of the sky, and depending where you live some of it is a lot more than just hot flecks of gravel from outer space.  

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.

 

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.

Every year in autumn comes “changeover.” Floatplanes are only useful in this part of the world for four months, give or take, for the simple reason that they land on liquid water, not frozen water.  The season is up.  June fifteenth to September twenty-fifth, this year — a pretty short run.  For me, and our little mom- and-pop flying biz, changeover means a 550-mile flight south and mostly west, to Fort Nelson, British Columbia.  That is our contracted Maintenance shop, with engineers, tools, spares, and a big hangar, which is a requirement for commercial air operators.

At Fort Nelson there is no convenient lake or slough adjacent to the airport, so when it comes time to end the water-flying season we perform the rather bizarre maneuver of landing floatplanes on the grass (preferably but not always the frosty or slightly snowy grass) of the infield alongside the runway.  This sounds dramatic, and for the first few times it is one of those moments known in aviation as sphincter-crunchers.  It is surprisingly uneventful, though, so long as certain rules of thumb are kept in mind:  have the touchdown area walked and marked by trusted people; don’t mess with big crosswinds; keep the load light; and have a backup exit strategy such as going to a lake or river to await better conditions.  Most of the time we adhere to all those rules.  Most of the time. 

Touch down at minimum speed, in a flat attitude, yard the stick back and – after a half-dozen times of doing it – remain confident that the whole kit and kaboodle is not going to go right over on its nose. The rapid deceleration is about as close as us mere mortals will come to what must be the astounding deceleration after landing a jet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier and snagging a big cable with a tail hook.

There follows the odd sensation of stepping down from the deck of the float to solid ground, high and dry, as the cart and truck and smiling engineer pull up to tow the plane to the hangar. Another float season done.

The next two or three days are a steady blur of hanging the plane from a hangar rafter, unbolting the floats, bolting on the landing gear, and then the myriad small steps of dismantling, examining, cleaning, troubleshooting, minor repair, discussion, and re-assembly that together constitute a routine airframe and engine inspection.

Days go by, no show-stoppers are encountered in the inspection, and all the checks are done.  These are the days, I would point out, that the paying customers of a little air service, and a big airline, don’t see, and probably don’t think about, so maybe I’m reminding some of you that these days are there, month after month, year after year, expensive repair after expensive repair – and you should be damned glad that these inspections are done and happy that the cost of these days gets folded into the challenge of staying on the black side of the accountant’s ledger.  Ahem. I shall desist.

There follows the flip side, the former floatplane is now a wheel-plane on fat tires, ready to fly north and east, all signed out in the logbook.  But at home, alas, there is no ice yet.  No one expects there to be. In fact, in this strange autumn we are having so far, there has barely even been any frost. The little “airstrip” we use in the shoulder seasons of autumn and spring is just a 550-foot swath of grassy sand, punctuated by a couple of “gotcha!” boulders. It lies on a bearing of 062 and 242 degrees, and it slopes pretty steeply up to the northeast.  It is thus what pilots call a one-way-in, one-way-out strip – its use or non-use dictated on any day by windspeed and direction.  The wind has to be right, or it has to be calm, when you arrive overhead for a landing, or you simply must fly away and wait for a change. Sometimes for many days. A good exercise in patience, and in living that old adage about accepting things that are beyond our control.

The entire landing, from touchdown of the fat tires on the sand or sand-and-snow mulch, to end of rollout a few hundred feet later, takes about four seconds, or less. From 58 knots to zero in the Bush Hawk, that’s another attention-grabbing deceleration. And so on these autumn days, heading to the strip, there are mornings like yesterday, when I jotted this:

The Day is Four Seconds

Wake in the Super Eight, (singing with Jason Isbell.)

First thought, the four seconds just north of home, late this afternoon.

Instant coffee in a paper cup, chair by the window.

Familiar back-side of Northern Metallic and beyond it the sleepy –

some would say moribund –

industrial district of Fort Nelson.

In the far distance, some rosy alpenglow on the snowy peaks southwest.

Pull out the damned Ipad, to compare about four different forecasts for wind at home.

Thinking of the four seconds.

Conclusion: it may work today, if I can get up there, eight hours from now,

but tomorrow’s a no-go,

and the next day,

and the next.

We shall see.

Anyone who likes guarantees would not like this line of work.

In March of 2015 I posted a piece here called “The Ovibos Resurgence.” Muskox, genus Ovibos, species moschatus, had by then been piling into this taiga neighborhood in such numbers that within one decade, 2005-2015, they became far and away the most common large mammal seen here from day to day.  I ended that post with “To be continued…” and today I will continue the saga, since the Ovibos, bless their wooly hides, have certainly kept their story interesting. The shaggy beasts surround us. We see them constantly, and nowadays they barely elicit more notable mention here than a red-throated loon on the lake or a marten scurrying under a shed. The past weeks have seen two notable events in our little niche of the muskoxen’s ever-expanding forest habitat. 

First, on an afternoon in June, an old bull, who by then we had nicknamed Buster, decided to barge right in through the gate of the wooden slab-fence surrounding the dog yard and bully a few huskies around with his head. Luckily, very luckily, for three of our sled dogs – Rugan, Susitna, and Yentna – Buster had no horns left, only a thick bone “boss” on the crown of his forehead.  He had first appeared here in June of 2020, with one horn broken right off to a bloody, scabbed-over stump. I wondered whether he would even survive, what with warm weather, flies, and the likely severity of a bone infection. Then, in 2021, he came back in June again, this time with both horns broken off.  Remember, these are horns, not antlers.  Muskox, like bighorn sheep and beef cattle, do not shed their horns annually. (Moose and caribou and the rest of the deer tribe have antlers, not horns.)   

When old bald Buster appeared again this year, in June, he had a sidekick with him, whom we had nicknamed Buddy.  Buddy came fully equipped with an impressive pair of curving horns, one on each side, and he is “size large.” Maybe 650 pounds on the hoof.

(I would gladly ramble on longer about encounters with Buster and Buddy, but it is my informed impression that no one reads anything much longer than around a thousand words these days; 300 being more popular and 160 characters, start to end, being the coin of the realm. So I best be hurrying along.)

I was away from home the day Buster changed his tune, but a few .30-06 rounds lofted over his belligerent but hornless head, courtesy of Kristen and our daughters, soon put the run on him and he busted out a portion of wooden fence and blasted south right out of the kennel area. Next morning, he was back, browsing just up the hill from the dog yard, intentions unknown. And, well, let’s just say we were wondering the other night over dinner just how many tables on the planet were likely to be graced with “muskox-moose lasagna.” Maybe only one, that evening, and we were sitting at it.

So that was wake-up call number three or four in our local muskox saga.  Then, the other day, out on a flying contract with a trio of biologists, I offered to pitch in and assist the effort of retrieving some remote-sensing equipment.  We were down in the jack-pine forests forty miles southwest of here. (We have no jack-pine here at home, being ten miles from treeline and miles north of the boreal forest proper.) The pine trunks were thick where we were working, and beneath the canopy of needles the ground was mostly smooth sand and lichen. The walking was fast and easy, and I was closing in on the coordinates of the equipment post when – whoa – something very big and jet black loomed into view fifty feet ahead of me. Just a giant black lump, mostly blocked from my sight by the tree trunks. If that is a bear, thinks me, that is a frickin’ big one.

I started shouting and making myself obvious. The beast turned, and through the dense scrim of pine I caught a glimpse of curved brown horn.  Okay, not bear, muskox bull. Relax. A little. Hand on pepper spray, trigger guard off, still shouting. “Hey there mister, move along now, out of my way. Comin’ through.  Hey! You!”

Nope. He was coming toward me. And now I was wondering, as my family and I have often wondered in the last fifteen years or so, just what and how much goes on in the brain sequestered deep down inside that armour-plated, bashed-around skull? (Talk about Bobby Clobber…)  Not sure. And of course, animals are all individuals. They are not generic specimens stamped from a mold.

Blank fixed stare, shambling but steady gait, not slow, not running, but coming on and keeping eye contact with me.  What the **%$## — ?   Then, oh shit oh dear, this is getting scary. Fifteen feet, ten, eight. “Get a move on, bud!”  

Pppsssshhhhhhhtttttt! goes the pepper spray.  (Hmm, I remember thinking, not much oomph left in this one – a guy might be wise to check the expiry date on these things now and then…) A whiff of pale aerosol cloud did reach that bristly black ovoid snout, even with the breeze blowing back at me like it was.  Mister M.O. gave a deep coughing grunt, spun like an 800-pound fullback, and crashed away at a gallop.  I yanked out my walkie-talkie and keyed the mike: “I just sprayed a big bull muskox and he is galloping north. Copy?” Within a few seconds Jeanne chimed in: “He just blew past me. Still galloping.” Then Dan: “All okay here. Can’t see him.” Biologist number three is evidently on another channel; no response from him.

These two events, inside of ten weeks, might herald the start of another twist in the saga of Ovibos and their strange expansion southward from the tundra. We still find these new neighbors interesting, but from time to time, to tell the truth, we have all been a little annoyed by them. Perplexed, at least, by big critters so oblivious to our presence, so nonchalant when we do run into them, and – to wit – so unpredictable.

992 words. Well, better wrap up. Hey, might be something else in the Metaverse that needs a few seconds of your time, and probably a half-dozen text messages just in.

Muskox waltzing through the jack-pine.  Whodathunkit? And again, “To be continued…”

In a postscript, some optimism. Up on the tundra north of here on dozens of flights in the past month, I am seeing more caribou, farther south and at an earlier date, than I have seen up there for more than twelve years. Fingers crossed, folks. We might be watching the slight uptick of a sine curve, right before our eyes.  Wouldn’t that be some welcome good news about now?