So. (Notice how almost every narrative and interview nowadays, even on the radio, starts with “so?” Drives me nuts.)
So we were flying along this afternoon on about mile 400 for the day, staring out our respective sides of the plane, looking 500 feet down at a trackless expanse of snowy taiga forest northeast of Whati, Northwest Territories. Dean, my longtime biologist passenger and partner in many a long day of wildlife-survey flying over the past 26 years, said over the intercom, “Dave, you know frogs are not reptiles.”
“Yeah, I know that. Frogs are amphibians.”
“Well, in your blog last week you wrote that they were reptiles.”
“What? I did?”
Yep, I did. Sorry people, frogs are amphibians. I wrote that the amazing cryogenic-wizard wood frogs, Rana sylvatica, were the world’s northernmost reptiles, and of course they are not reptiles, they are amphibians.
Which of course begs the question, what is the world’s northernmost reptile? Quick search-engine visit… drum roll. And the winner is… The viviparous lizard of Europe and Asia. But how about on this side of the pond? In North America the red-sided garter snake might be a candidate, living in the very southern reaches of the NWT, near Fort Smith, 200 miles straight south of the Hoarfrost River. Encyclopedia Britannica, on the other hand, opines that no reptiles occur north of 60 degrees north latitude, in North America. I know that is wrong, since I have talked to people (again on long boring wildlife-survey transect flights; it’s amazing what topics can come up) who have seen our north-of-sixty garter snakes.
So anyway. There you have it. Correction published. As we finished up for the day and taxied in from the Whati airport’s snow-packed airstrip, Dean said, “Well guys, not very many moose today, pretty surprising really. Oh and Dave — moose are mammals.”
Bonus frog poem, which was a lot funnier after two or three beers back in college days, delivered by my copain Robert Savignac in a thick Quebecois patois, a la William Henry Drummond, wit’ de ac-cent on de wrong syl-la-ble:
So long February. It’s been real. I guess I am not going to see Pollux set behind the northwest ridge. Every clear morning lately I have sought him out, if the timing was right, from my lookout perch, a little cubicle that juts up from the roof of our house. I’ve been wondering whether that one star will still be visible, from this spot on the planet, when it touches the ridge-top horizon, or whether the steadily mounting wash of dawn, banishing the night stars earlier every day, will overtake it. It looks like that is what is going to happen.
Here we have had long steady weeks of calm weather, cold and ringing clear as a bell on every quadrant, the smoke rising straight up from the chimneys into azure sky and sunshine. Not a breath of wind for days at a stretch. Ten days ago I saw a first tentative icicle on the brink of a south-facing eave, along a dark roof edge facing south. Out cutting and hauling wood that day, I stripped to just a wool t-shirt on top, but still in heavy double trousers over longjohns and with my mittens still on. Our daylight gain is a solid six minutes every day now, which comes to nearly three hours over the month. The snow, which is deeper than we have had here for decades, lies pillow-soft across the curves of the land, and stretches away in rolling wind-hardened drifts on the lakes. Travel away from any broken trail now demands some serious perseverance. Bring snowshoes, the big no-nonsense kind.
A phrase came into my mind the other day: “the fullness of February.” It stuck. I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with my appreciation of this month, and its character. Winter, pure and simple. I love this fullness of February. Or maybe, in the current jargon, what I really love is the “full-on-ness” of February. February makes no apologies, does not negotiate, offers and accepts no excuses. It takes no prisoners. It says, “Okay, listen up. If you slip up or screw up too badly, on the wrong day, too far from fire or shelter or assistance, you are dead meat, pal. You got that?”
Like January, February holds no Solstice or Equinox or change of season, but this second month of deepest winter is much more lovable than its predecessor. February is the mirror image of August, which is, I think, the best month of summer. Because both February and August still manage to tease us with a few subtle foreshadowings, little hints of what lies ahead.
In August I love the return of stars to the night sky, the return of some cool darkness after the sometimes-wearisome non-stop sunlight of June and July. The demise of the mosquitoes is welcome too, of course, and the faltering of the very hottest afternoons. And now, in the fullness of February, I love the inertia, the certainty –especially amidst so much uncertainty – of that unstoppable accretion of daylight. If that were to falter, well, all our other worries would look a little trivial by comparison.
This morning Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, were fading fast as the northwest horizon loomed up toward them. The dawning of the day over in the eastern sky is washing them out. Week by week they are saying goodbye, and soon it will be time for some new star companions, if I happen to rise early enough to see any stars at all. That will require some very early risings in the months ahead. So long, twin brothers, it’s been pleasant having morning coffee with you.
The last day of the month is clear, calm, and cold again. The electronic thermometer is stuck at -41.4, where it gives up and refuses to read any lower. It is colder than that, for sure, somewhere down in what we lately have been calling the “surface-of-Mars realm.” (Just to be clear, I am no fan of forty and fifty below zero, except as a sort of occasional chin-up bar test, with the ensuing slightly-weird northern bragging rights. Yep, still okay. Now can we be finished with that again, please?)
I woke up thinking, oddly enough, about the wood frogs. Northernmost and “alpine-most” amphibians in the world. We see them every summer, in July and August, on the warmest days, down along the little creek below the workshop. Delicate moist mottled skin, tiny dark eyes that must have been the inspiration for “beady-eyed,” exquisitely formed limbs ending in tiny finger pads. Every time I see one, I cannot help but think of February. Strange, I know. Right now, as nautical twilight eases to civil twilight and another frigid day dawns, the frogs of summer are down there, somehow, beneath those deep white snowdrifts, down near the line where creek-ice bonds with creek-mud, and they are somehow suspended in a state of being that no one can fathom, or fully explain. And alive. Yes, just biding their time. See you on the flip side, guys, if we all should be so lucky. I’ll be walking the beach on a hot August afternoon, pulling up a canoe or heading down to swim. Ribbet, ribbet. Oh, there you are.
In Sharon Chester’s superb book The Arctic Guide, I read this:
“Frogs of the Far North have adapted to the arctic climate in a remarkable way – they freeze solid in winter and thaw out in spring. As winter approaches, each frog makes a shallow depression in leaf litter and places dead vegetation over the hollow for insulation. As soon as the frog’s skin touches an ice crystal, solid ice envelops the body cavity, bladder, and subcutaneous tissues. The frog stops breathing, its heart stops beating, its blood stops flowing, and it cannot move. Only the vital organs remain unfrozen, this due to high concentrations of glucose and urea that accumulate in its tissues in summer. Both act as cryoprotectants, which limit ice formation and reduce osmotic shrinkage of cells. When the soil warms in spring the frog’s frozen parts thaw, its heart and lungs resume activity, and in a few hours, the frog can jump and mate.”
The deep torpor of my fellow mammals I can almost imagine. The slumbering bears and marmots, the thick fur, the humid funky-smelling dens, the heart and body functions slowed… weeks and months passing. But these frogs with that paper-thin moist skin, those tiny naked finger-pads, are something else entirely. They are cool to the touch even on an August day whenever the sun slips behind clouds, the wind gets up, and a few small birches are showing a yellow leaf or two.
Now, somewhere down in that frozen muck, the wood frogs are akin to interstellar astronauts on some fantastic future voyage, sequestered and somehow pickled in liquid nitrogen preservatives as they prove out Einstein and grow younger with each passing light-year, hurtling across the cosmos to take a peek at the far side of Castor or Pollux.
How would it feel to wake up from such a state, to regain, moment by moment, tiny hints of movement and breath and consciousness? I can only imagine. Except that I can’t. Come August, and my next lucky glimpse of a wood frog, I know I will think back to February. I will stand there barefoot on hot sand, evening sun on my warm brown shoulders, and I will probably just sigh and shake my head, dumbfounded yet again.
Maybe one of these years I will make it through the month of January and never find myself out cutting firewood. It should be pretty simple, after all. Theoretically. conceivably, ideally, yes yes I know. We use wood at the average rate of n armloads, or cubic feet, or sled loads, or cords per day, over x many days; therefore, going into late autumn we will require n times x of whatever the units are, and what could be so complicated about that? Huh? You there, squirming uncomfortably and looking up at the ceiling — I’m waiting, and I’ve been waiting for years. Okay then, try to make peace with this reality, and at the same time try not to take this need for some mid-winter top-ups to our various woodpiles as a reflection of larger personal shortcomings as a human being, a woodsman, or a husband.
Midwinter in the sub-arctic is not the best season for gathering wood. It is not the ideal season for the gathering of anything, in deep snow on short cold days. Better a time to gather one’s thoughts, on brief outings in the bracing air, then to scurry back inside, to resume a project in the workshop or at the desk. Or to perch in a comfortable chair by the fire and watch the flicker of flames, just gathering stored-up sunshine from past decades, burning logs that were sensibly felled, bucked, hauled, and stacked way back in May or October, by someone capable of sixth-grade algebra. Midwinter is the perfect season to relish the lines from My Fair Lady, and the sweet voice of Julie Andrews: “Lots of chocolate for me to eat, lots of coal makin’ lots of heat, warm face warm hands warm feet, oh wouldn’t it be loverly.”
Yes, it would be loverly. It is. We do that sometimes. Leaping a little too quickly to my own defense, let me clarify the situation here. The wood sheds are not empty. They are, uh, depleted, and that is not good because it is only late January. Three and a half months of firewood consumption, in five separate wood-burners, lie ahead.
The weather gurus at Environment Canada produce a map of northern North America every Thursday morning, depicting the temperature forecast for the coming four weeks. Being a weather nerd, I rarely miss a week of checking it. On this map the color blue denotes a greater than fifty-fifty chance of temperatures being “colder than normal.” On the latest one, for the month of February starting Monday, a giant blue blob covers all of Canada, like a glacier of the Ice Age, and spills far down over the northern half of the U.S. So I assure myself that by getting my butt out there and gathering more firewood at this season, I am not just paying the price for improvidence and poor planning. No, I am being proactive. Time to send Julie Andrews back inside and segue to Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger. . . Henry V – Act 3..
There are some comforts to this necessity, one being that after decades of doing it, I daresay I am the unrivalled local expert on mid-winter wood gathering. I have experience, after all, built up over 33 years of being such an improvident, short-sighted… no no no. Oh and the marital harmony aspect, never to be ignored, because just as in the old adage “No man has ever been shot while doing dishes,” likewise “No man has ever been shot while felling, hauling, bucking, splitting, or stacking firewood at thirty below zero.” Righto. Let’s leave the dishes for this evening and go find some firewood.
Choices, immediately. First off, transport. Will it be skidoo, or dogteam, or just wandering around out back on snowshoes to drop some standing dead trees alongside the trail for pickup later on? Second – and this might surprise most people – choice of cutting tool. Chainsaw, Swede saw, or the trusty old axe. Each has merits and disadvantages. Third, choice of sled – the favorite by far being the bobsled with twin bunks and cross-chains, built years ago by a Yukon high-school shop class on the pattern of a New Brunswick one-horse logging sled. But the bobsled needs a packed trail to haul a good load. Sometimes in a fresh cutting area the big plastic skimmer is better to start with, heaped up with stove rounds bucked right where the trees fall. And finally, should I wear snowshoes large or small, or just go wade through the snow in mukluks? Tradeoffs there, too.
Where to cut, where to deliver the wood (shop, house, barn, sauna, guest cabin); which then dictates the best sizes and lengths for bucking. And finally, what to cut? There are three options: spruce, birch, and tamarack. Standing-dead spruce, white and black, are all around us in every size from dainty to jumbo, and this is the wood we depend upon for everything from building to burning. Birch, killed by wildfire and standing bark-free now for over six years, is beautiful stuff, and burns more efficiently than spruce, by about a quarter or so. One problem with birch is that I wind up not wanting to cut some of the bigger pieces into stove-wood because they are too enticing a raw material for woodworking and furniture. Tamarack never grows very large here, but it is a dense wood that burns almost twice as hot as spruce, and it holds fires overnight in the stoves.
It all becomes one of those motion studies of time and efficiency, calories burned, gas consumed, engines and blades worn, versus BTU’s gained, and as with all studies (yawned over any of those lately?) “the results are somewhat surprising.” Surprising, because the knee-jerk choice in our motor-driven, gas-powered, speed-and-noise-and-fume-worshiping day and age would seem to be skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw. “Go big or go home.” “Git ‘er done.” “Time is money.”
But hold on. Say it’s 30 below. If you value your eyeballs, and your hearing, using the chainsaw at that temperature means either fogged-up safety glasses, which are not safe at all, with ear muffs or foam ear plugs, or the combo hard-hat earmuff face-screen that precludes wearing a warm hat and will, within minutes, result in a wire-mesh face-screen clogged with rime ice and frozen snot. The chainsaw is a heavy thing to tote around while snowshoeing, and its carburetion gets a little finicky below about 25 below. The chain has been known to discover boulders and bedrock lying hidden beneath the snow, instantly dulling the teeth and sending me back to the shop for a half hour of sharpening and filing. (Not unpleasant, but certainly not efficient.) The Swede saw or bow saw is light, almost weightless, and on trees up to about six inches thick at the stump it cuts very efficiently. A sharp axe is great in really deep cold, and is always the last resort anytime something else breaks down or fails. Just whacking away is so pleasant sometimes.
You get the idea. A lot depends on what mood I am in. Given a moment, I can make a case for almost any combo.
This afternoon feels like a snowshoe, bowsaw-and-axe, skidoo-and-bobsled, tamarack day. I will go cut in a thick stand of fire-killed tamarack up on the dogsled trail east of the river. Using the Swede saw will make for easier maneuvering in the thickets. I won’t need safety glasses (but please don’t tell the truly whacked-out safety gurus out there that I operate a handsaw with only my eyelids as safety gear.) I will get a good workout on snowshoes, and my hands will stay warm. There will be no noisy saw to fuel up and adjust, to tote and thaw and set down carefully out of the snow.
Best of all, it will be quiet. Just the huffing of my breath and the sound of saw teeth and axe swipes. Peaceful, until I start up the skidoo to tow the load home. I will wind up with a big load of a few dozen heavy three-to-six inch tamarack poles piled on the bunks of the bobsled. Some day soon I can buck the poles to stove lengths with the chainsaw, and stack the rounds in a “tamarack-only” pile on one side of the shed.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends. A good round of huffing and puffing, some sweat-soaked wool with a delicate patina of frost, and a load of golden-hearted tamarack. On the trail home I’ll be singing at the top of my lungs over the snarl of the Bravo’s valiant little 25-horse motor: “Oh so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still. I would never budge ’til Spring crept over the windowsill.”
Kristen, my saintly wife and the homestead matriarch, is a wizard and a whirlwind in our woodstove kitchen. My own culinary skills and interests are mostly limited to boiling coffee water, making Saturday sourdough pancakes, roasting slabs of fish on the outdoor fire, and almost-always-cheerfully washing big piles of dishes. As early-winter daylight dwindles, our cold-weather appetites kick in. So it is a happy fact that here at the Hoarfrost River we have always enjoyed not just one, but two full-on Thanksgiving dinners. Clever as can be, we label the one in early October “Canadian Thanksgiving,” and 45 days later we sit down to “American Thanksgiving.” There are usually no turkeys involved, but there is always good food and plenty of it.
This doubled-down Thanksgiving is wonderful from the pumpkin-pie, gravy, and fresh rolls standpoint, believe me. The second one also says a lot about the strength of traditions and the durability of origins, and about our memory and our innermost allegiances. Thanksgiving in October seems all well and good, but when that final Thursday in November rolls around, we both know, deep down, that it’s just gotta be a holiday around here.
When our ancestors, on all sides and branches of the extended families, left Scandinavia for North America in the mass exodus of the late 1800’s, they brought their own holiday calendars with them, too, including Santa Lucia Day on December 13 th. A crown of candles on a white-robed daughter and pre-dawn gatherings for coffee and pastries in houses with no electric lights allowed. My sister still keeps that tradition alive in Minneapolis, every year, to the great delight of her mostly non-Scandinavian friends and neighbors.
These are small things, you say, just nostalgic gestures. But are they? We can all leave a country behind and become citizens of another. But can we? How are we coded, deep down, by our countries of origin and the ambience of those “formative” years? Kristen and I are immigrants. Maple leaves on our passports, yes, and taxes all paid to CRA, not IRS, but we are “American ex-pats” always and forever. (Some Canadians consider that a derogatory label, trust me.) This past month we have done a lot of mulling and musing over that strange brew of allegiances, upbringing, attitudes, and roots that gets lumped under the heading of “patriotism.”
A little story, my story, to start with:
In 1957 a boy was born in Moline, Illinois, a small city on the Mississippi River. His mother was twenty; his father was twenty-six. Eisenhower was President. In Canada John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, although, as usual, maybe two out of ten thousand Americans would have known that. Sputnik had just been launched. On the streets of Moline and Rock Island, Vietnam was as unfamiliar a name as Diefenbaker.
Dad worked at the local television and radio station, where his appearance as Mr. Peterson the Swedish Postman on the afternoon kid’s show was a popular gig. Television was small and local, new and exciting, and it was all in black-and-white. A lot of things were all in black and white, in Illinois and in America, in 1957.
Within the year the family moved north and east to Crystal Lake, a town along the Wisconsin line, northwest of Chicago. Dad began a long career as a high-school teacher. A sister soon graced the scene, and later another. The boy’s years blur together, just the good moments remembered. Fishing at the gravel pits, bicycles on dirt paths, baseball on back lots, a cold basketball bouncing on a concrete driveway in autumn dusk, to the smell of burning leaves. Trombone practice and tornado-warning sirens. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and camp-outs in Stearn’s Woods.
Politics? Well, there’s November 1963, walking home from first grade to find Mom standing in front of the television in mid-afternoon, watching awful news come in from Dallas. And there’s August 1968, at the ripe old age of ten, with the television on downstairs late one night, still in black-and-white, the screen and commentary a frantic melee from Chicago’s Grant Park — just over an hour’s drive away. The Democratic convention, Hoffman and Hayden, Humphrey and Daly. Confusion, mayhem, billy-clubs, gas masks. Uncle George and Aunt Jean, Mom and Dad, all leaning forward toward the screen. Up to bed you go, young man.
Every morning at school, announcements over the loudspeaker from Mr. Husman the Principal, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at the front of the classroom, the Stars and Stripes. Fifty years on, and the words are still right there in my mind, without the slightest pause or effort to recall them:
I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republicfor which it stands
With liberty and justice for all.
End of little story. Moral: No salmon has ever been more thoroughly imprinted with the chemistry of its home stream than that boy was infused with the scenes, sounds, scents, and repetitive recitations of his youth. (How about you?)
Fast forward to a July morning in 1990, here at the Hoarfrost River. Kristen and I were out in front of the old log cabin, the original “Jimmie Colburn shack,” enjoying an alfresco breakfast when a power boat rounded the headland and turned in toward us. I laughed when through the binoculars I saw the woman on the boat looking right back at me through her own binoculars. She laughed too, and we waved. They came ashore. Clint and Jan, out cruising and camping, from Yellowknife. Two little children. Introductions all around. He worked at the Con Mine, as an engineer or a geologist, and they had lived all around the world.
We gave them our own story in a nutshell. They both laughed out loud. “The minute we saw this place,” said Jan, “I told Clint and the kids I’d bet my bottom dollar you were Americans.”
She then gave us her succinct and witty rundown on the national character of Canadians, Aussies, New Zealanders (like her husband), Brits, South Africans, and Americans (like herself.) It was a fascinating set of insights, mostly to do with the relation of each country to its great outdoors, its back-country and wilderness, its vision of the perfect mix of urban and rural living, and its ideals of cottage and cabin life. I wish I had it all on tape.
Jan’s instant assessment was still fresh in my mind when later that summer I stood before Thomas Eagle in Yellowknife. He was a Citizenship Judge, with a small office on Franklin Avenue. (Sir John Franklin, not Ben.) Judge Eagle was Ojibwe Anishinabe. He was a veteran of the Canadian military, and he was a lifelong advocate for the welfare of Metis and First Nations people. He was a handsome old man with a soldier’s posture. He had black-and-grey hair, bronze skin, and high cheekbones. I still remember standing there looking at him, taking in his appearance and knowing a little about his background, and then looking down at the words of the Citizenship Pledge I was about to recite. I remember thinking, ”He really wants me to say this? With a straight face? Yep. Evidently he does.” And so I did, looking Tom Eagle right in the eye to see if I could spot any twinkle there, any small acknowledgement of the many layers of irony rife in that moment. I could not. The oath goes like this, for those of you who have never actually taken it:
“I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
Weird, huh? The Queen? And the pronoun Her capitalized? Elizabeth, descendant of King George, whose redcoats the Yankees rose up to oust in 1776, so that they could start their new experiment, their Republic “with liberty and justice for all.” Americans are a rebellious bunch, and I remember feeling a little too “American” in my attitude and outlook as I recited that antiquated oath and thus became a Canadian citizen.
We take a lot with us when we leave a country and go to live in another. I well remember how much material “stuff” I had with me when my Dad and I pulled into the border crossing between Minnesota and Ontario on a muggy July night in 1987, for my official entry into Canada. Two worn-out pickup trucks each towing a trailer, one with two dogsleds lashed down on top, and on each truck roof a lashed-down canoe. A dozen huskies; crates of tools and books; chainsaws, skis, snowshoes; bundles of clothes; a ton of dog kibble. Jed Clampett would have been proud of us.
What I could not see, though, was how much “stuff” I had between my ears, stuff that was American through and through and was most definitely coming north with me, and that – unlike the dogs and gear and clothes – was never going to die or wear out.
Fast forward again, to November 2020. It has been a strange month, Kristen and I both constantly “checking in” by radio and phone and satellite inter-tube from our snow-globe bubble of germ-free taiga, as a tumultuous election and rampant disease have threatened a descent into total chaos south of the border. Today, as the month ends and the year winds down, maybe there is some calm on the horizon, but I am edgy. This ain’t over yet, I think.
From here, though, it is hard to know what to think, hard to hold an opinion that will not the very next day go up for grabs again. Will he? Will they? Won’t he? How could they? What if? What if not?
“It’s just a shitshow.” That same exact phrase, within 24 hours, came from two different people. My brother-in-law, who lives just blocks from the spot where George Floyd was killed and where burned-out and boarded-up buildings mark the aftermath of the riots that followed; and another good friend, writing from his timber-frame farmhouse off to the west.
The discord and upheaval haven’t quite brought me to tears yet. There have been times when things “down there” have done just that. Three different occasions come to mind. One, sitting alone on the houseboat in Yellowknife Bay on the morning of September 11, 2001, tears of anguish welled up as I listened to radio reports from New York. Seven years later, tears of wonder, as I sat alone in a motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., glued to the television while a hopeful and eloquent former Senator from Illinois took the oath of office as America’s 44 th President. And most recently, almost four years ago in January, sitting alone in the workshop on a bitterly cold morning, in front of the woodstove, hearing the first few paragraphs of number 45’s Inaugural Address immediately plunge into vitriol and finger-pointing. Tears again, just sad and bewildered.
The only thing I know for certain these days is that when it comes to these “ex-pat” compartments of my mental life, I am indeed in a snow-globe bubble, locked to a false and filtered notion of current events and everyday life in the old country. Because, of course, another aspect of moving away from anywhere, or anything, is that we lock it into our memory as it was, and it stays there unchanged. For example, distant friends or relatives have children. We see them, we meet the kids, and then ten or twenty years go by, and somehow we are surprised when – voila – we hear that little Betsy is now lecturing in anthropology or Rob is off fighting fires in the Yukon. How could this be? Aren’t they still giggling and trying to tie their shoes, like they are in our trustworthy mind’s eye? It’s the same with countries, and with ex-pats. Kristen and I cannot claim, after more than three decades of living in Canada, to know or understand what it is to be American in 2020. Face it, we tell each other. We don’t understand because we have been gone too long. Visits are just visits. (On the flip side, the far north and its legacy of opinionated non-resident visitors comes to mind.)
November is usually a tough month here, but for other reasons. It’s a bad month for flying weather, but with the current state of the pandemic shutdown there has been virtually no flying to do. Both planes are just tied down on the ice like a couple of expensive lawn ornaments. It’s the month of freeze-up, and for this year that is already finished, the second earliest ever in our time here, and in Kristen’s words it was “just not all that dramatic.” One day the lake was open, and the next day it was frozen.
We had our American Thanksgiving the other night, with an entrée of Dall sheep from the Nahanni Range, courtesy of a friend who was up there in September. Kristen moved gracefully around the kitchen, tending pots and doughs, and she was so absolutely enthused about it all that I wondered whether cooking and feasting on the final Thursday of November is some sort of genetic gender imprint or a North Dakota soil-chemistry side-effect.
And this November I have concluded that there is no such thing as an “ex-pat.” There is always and forever patriotism , which of course should just as well, and much more accurately, be called matriotism. And we might as well pre-emptively coin “they–triotism,” in advance of someone claiming that they somehow came to life without ever having a mater or a pater.
And for now, the usual cluck-clucking from north of the border will go on, watching the “shitshow” and the “meth lab” to the south. Schadenfreude is as common among neighbors as borrowing a cup of sugar – or as borrowing a cup of sugar used to be, in my locked-in memory of 1960’s small-town Illinois. You see, there I go again. When did somebody last go borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors?
As I said the other day to Kristen over our lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers, “Man, I’d give my eye teeth to have a few neighbors drop by.” And right now there are more people than ever who know what we mean by that.
Montana literary legend A. B. Guthrie, Jr. liked to say that if he could rewrite Genesis, it would open: “In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was change.“— David Petersen, in his book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America
Winter roared in with a five-day gale in mid-October, bringing snow that has not melted, so I guess this is it. Last Sunday afternoon I filled a thermos with cocoa, coffee, and a splash of cream, and walked down to the beach to chip the ice from the hull of an overturned canoe. Lumpy rollers were pushing in on a south wind, so I carried the canoe to a little eddy of calm water behind the island and slipped it into the lake. I put my rifle and knapsack into the tip of the stern, set a couple of paddles aboard, and eased down between the bow seat and the center thwart. I knelt on my life jacket and pushed off. (Apologies to the safety police, but I could not possibly wear a Personal Flotation Device over all my warm clothes and still swing a paddle.) The breeze was below freezing, but barely, and once I was out and away from the beach it was pure pleasure to feel the lift and surges of those big waves. I hugged the shoreline and paddled east. I was so close to land, and over such shallow water, that if my little vessel had swamped or capsized I would have just stood up and waded ashore.
The water was deeper, though, and dark and fast and ominous, as I crossed over the main channel of the river. The Hoarfrost is still running so high in late October that we are constantly remarking to each other about it. I bumped the canoe’s bow stem into the rim of ice on the east bank. One lens of my glasses dropped right out of its frame as I stood up to get out, and I had a brief glimpse of that thin wisp of clear glass, just as the surge of the next wave pulled it away forever. For the rest of the day I wore the glasses with just the right lens in place, and I got a few laughs back home when I showed up cock-eyed. Luckily, I only need glasses for hunting, and legally nowadays for flying, and surprisingly one lens seems almost as good as two.
I flipped the canoe over in the snow at the river’s edge, put on my knapsack and slipped a round into the rifle, safety on. I walked a few yards southeast along the shoreline and turned up a steep rise on the path we call The Mail Trail. We cut this trail in 1989, when I desperately needed to sign a document that we knew would be in the mail bag going into the weather station at Reliance. There was a ski-plane booked to deliver that mail bag and some groceries to the station, and the pilot, Peter Arychuk, kindly landed to meet me up at a frozen inland lake. Kristen and I cut a trail to the lake, met Peter, and we had coffee around a fire while I signed my paper. There were caribou up there that day, drifting past, but back then caribou in autumn were so common that we hardly mentioned it.
As I walked away from the canoe I was thinking back to the origin of the Mail Trail and trying to discern its uphill route through the new snow. Our familiar trails are all burned over now, and it has been surprisingly hard for us to find them at the start of every winter. The dogs find them more easily than we do.
I was moose hunting, but I hesitate to call it that. By southern standards, it hardly looked like hunting – no blaze-orange vest, no camouflage hat, no scope on the rifle, no paraphenalia. I was just walking, very slowly, and pausing often, and listening and constantly looking around. Yes, I had my .30-06 carbine, and it was loaded. My sheath knife was on my belt, and in my pockets I had cord, some fire-starters, and a sharpening stone. But all those tools and backups are on my person almost every day of the year, unless I am in town, when I really do need to remember to take the sheath knife off my belt. I was just looking, and being quiet and slow about it. To me, “looking” only becomes “hunting” if I happen to cross a fresh track, or catch a glimpse of dark movement up on a ridge or down in a swale. Or, as has happened many times, I just turn my head to one side and suddenly see, staring right back at me, not so many yards off, a moose. Where, oh where, did you come from, oh so silently?
It was not always this way. In the years from 1989 until about 2005, I hunted moose like a man possessed, starting like clockwork on the autumn equinox and carrying on, sometimes frustrating everyone involved, until the enormous front and hind quarters of a moose were hung in the meat cache. Those long-ago mornings off down the shore in my boat fed my soul, and I treasure them, but something has changed now. I still want to eat what is around me, and I still hunt moose to do so, but the obsession has eased. I am pondering this change, among many others.
In 1989 Kristen and I went for a walk and reconnoitered the route that would need to be cut to meet that mail plane with a dog sled team. That, too, was a late-October Sunday; we were in the first year of our marriage. Her hair was dark, mine was thick and curly, and I suppose my gait and posture, seen from a little distance,were a lot more fluid and limber than they are nowadays. (Lifting heavy things, our joke used to be, “Remember to lift with your back, boys, your knees won’t last forever.” Oh, the flippancy of youth. I floated that quip a couple of summers ago, hoisting logs for the new house, and all I got from my comrades was a soft groan and a couple of raised eyebrows.)
I wrote about that long-ago Sunday with Kristen, and how it swiftly changed, in North of Reliance:
Suddenly from up ahead we heard the clatter of antlers… The woods were filled with caribou…sweeping in from the northeast, deflected by the open water of McLeod Bay… Some of the caribou, not to be deterred by a mere ten miles of frigid water, actually waded out past the shorefast ice and started swimming south … A steady stream of caribou. La Foule,the voyageurs had called them – “the throng.”
In those years, the late eighties and early nineties, the Bathurst caribou herd was nudging the half-million mark. Maybe more, maybe less – the counting of caribou is always a guessing game. In the parlance of the locals, there were “really really lots” of caribou around in those years.
Same patch of snow-covered sandy bench above the east riverbank. Thirty years on, just a blip, a sliver of time. Kristen had come on a walk with two friends this past September, looking for berries, and she told me that evening that she had thought about this bench of tall timber and how it used to be, and remembered that long-ago Sunday and those throngs of caribou. She told me she was surprised at how utterly “bleak” and scorched the bench was now, what a scene of chaos and devastation, even on a bright blue late-summer day six years after the fire. And she told me she was surprised that this still surprised her.
In early winter, with a gray sky and a cold south wind, six inches of new snow on the stumps and snags, “bleak” is completely inadequate. Quick, call Cormac for another new adjective. Blackened trunks of charred trees, tipped and fallen and lying all akimbo in every direction, some hollowed by the flames into weird charcoal gargoyles partway up thick trunks, massive webs of tipped root clusters, hung with clumps of sand and small boulders still snared in their tangle when they were yanked sideways up out of the ground. Not a track on the snow anywhere, not so much as a mouse or a squirrel, and not a bird in sight. And most certainly not a caribou within fifty or a hundred miles of here, today. Not one.
It was sobering, but I did not find it sad. I feel like we have been given a rare, true, glimpse of “the real deal” here, by this long lesson we are living in now. All my early life was steeped in the grandeur and glory of the woods and the wilderness, my reading and thinking always tending to paeans of color and light and the balance of nature. The words of Muir and Thoreau, the colorful images and upbeat narrations of Disney and Cousteau. I took that bait, and I am glad to have done so, because I have lived out so many of my boyhood dreams, way back of beyond out here in pristine and wondrous country.
And now, farther along the road, I am being shown the flip side of all this, the facets of the jewel that I could not have comprehended earlier on. I will not live long enough to see this bench festooned with century-old spruce again, the ground beneath them carpeted with fifty or seventy-five years of soft green lichen. And until that lichen is there, the caribou will never linger long in this part of the country. They may pass through, as they did in long-ago Octobers, coming down off the barrens and finding the lake still open here to deflect them either east or west. There are limits to this massive burn, of course, and out beyond the charred country the growth must have been good over this past summer of extraordinary moisture and sunshine. The feeding will be getting better, and I will go out on a limb and predict that the Bathurst caribou will cycle upward again soon. Maybe someday they will swing down through here again, the bulls sparring, the cows skittering with their half-grown calves at their sides, the ravens overhead and the wolves and wolverines and foxes all in trail.
Or not. See how easily I still slide into that seductive Disney vision, that “Nature is always going to make things perfect if we only let her” litany? It’s like the mantra of a cult buried in my head, so deeply and at such a young age, that I circle back to it whether I try to or not. But does it hold water? Maybe the caribou will go extinct, you know. Every species does, after all. What gets them? Change.
Mulling and musing, looking, I had walked by then up beyond the level bench, past a furrowed trough in the snow with pawprints that I took to be porcupine, over some low ridges and onto a high smooth slab of pink rock, burned clean of all lichen and blown clean of snow. These patches of clean granite and gneiss have been one true gift of the fire, and I love walking on them. There, way up on top with a view south out over the dark gray lake to the far hills, I paused alongside a giant boulder. It sits just perched up there, half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Jagged and sharp-edged, not tumbled or rounded at all, as if it had just cleaved from a cliffside. But there is no cliff within two miles of it. What? Hello? How did you get here? It looks like it was flung from outer space. Out east they say “God took six days to make Labrador, and on the seventh day He rested and threw rocks at it.”
I walked on. Eye out for a moose, rifle in hand. Not hunting, but ready to hunt if the opportunity came. Thinking about that boulder, and about changes.
English is a rich language with an amazing variety of vocabulary. Drawn as it is from Norse, French, Latin, Celtic and Gaelic roots, to name some, then all spiced and infused with the words and phrases gleaned from a vast empire of master sailors and seafarers who still called an offshore island Home (Viking “heim“), English gives and gives, when it comes to finding just the right word. Still, it leaves us needing a word now and then. Sends us searching and not finding anything adequate. I am thinking of “lake.”
Especially in Autumn, the word “lake” falls short for me. At this season we spend a lot of time and conversation here trying our best to gauge and react to the moods and power of the vast waters stretching away to the south and west of us. I yearn for a word more than “lake”; I want something that is bigger, deeper, and more majestic. If I could find something vaguely ominous, that would be even better. So far as I can see, that word is not out there. I am open to suggestions.
Two decades ago, freshly back north from a winterlong hiatus down in the Gulf Islands off Vancouver, where Kristen and I and our two little daughters had been steeped and surrounded by boats and ships and maritime life, I found myself talking about going down the coast of McLeod Bay. An affectation, maybe (Lord knows I’ve been guilty of those), but I liked the connotation of “coast” over “shore” because I noticed that it changed my perception in a subtle way. It made some people, upon hearing me use it, pause and consider that choice of word. (“A sea or an ocean has a ‘coast,’ but a lake has a ‘shore.’ Doesn’t he know that?”) Now it has become a habit. If I am referring to a voyage or a landmark more than a few miles distant by water or ice, I tend to say “along the coast” or “on the coast.” Coast of what, though?
Two weeks ago in mid-September, a week before the equinox, we got the autumn warning shot across the bow. Equinoctial winds are a recognized phenomenon, in March and September, because the energy balance of equal nights and days makes for bigger swings in a twenty-four-hour period, and energy swings drive pressure differentials and thus make for windier weather. This year, with record high water levels that so far show no sign of abating, we knew we would be sitting ducks for just such a storm surge, and still we had a struggle. A west wind in the morning built up and backed to southwest, and soon big blue-green rollers were playing havoc with both our our hauled-up floatplanes, the big crib dock was being lifted and heaved, an overturned skiff was being buried in wave-washed sand, the narrow strip of remaining beach between here and the river mouth was flooding, and we were scurrying around all day, fretting and trying to hold things together, our moods a mix of awe, acceptance, and resignation. We were hoping that the wind would not defy the forecasters and shift even farther into the south, and luckily it did not.
By first light the next morning, the air temperature was below freezing and steadily dropping, and Kristen and I talked in bed and made a plan. We were soon down at each of the planes in turn, digging and pumping and heating water in a cutoff barrel over a big fire. The smaller plane that we operate here, the two-seat Husky, was in more dire straits, but luckily it is of a size and weight that make it more manageable. After some memorable heaving and levering and coaxing, and with a little help from the rhythmic surging of the subsiding swells, by late morning we had both planes levelled and heeled up and tied off. The sun began to poke through and the smooth swells continued to subside. If the wind had not changed, or if it had been mid-October with truly frigid air sweeping in behind the storm, things would have gotten ugly.
“Lake?” Of course this is a lake. Any and all inland bodies of fresh water too big to be “ponds” or “tarns” are, in English, going to be lakes. From gigantic Lake Superior to tiny Oak Lake, Wisconsin, where my parents lived for years and my Grandfather and I used to fish for sunnies. The doomed ore-carrier Edmund Fitzgerald would have spanned Oak Lake cross-wise, like a bridge, and if lowered into it vertically until its bow touched bottom, the stern would have towered high above the surrounding forests and farms, easily the tallest structure in Washburn County.
In trying to differentiate lakes from Lakes, Longfellow might have been on to something, purple and flowery though it is, with his Gitchee Gumee, from the Ojibwe kitche-agaming, giving it to us as “the shining big sea water.” Now that’s more like it. Or Tu Nedhe. Local Dene Soline word for Great Slave. Big Water, near as I can gather, as I tiptoe cautiously into the ever-more-treacherous pool of cultural appropriation. What more can you say? Big Water.
“Sea” will not serve, I gather, because the dictionary has decreed that a Sea must properly be salty. I did learn, though, that the Sea of Galilee is not saline, but fresh, and surprisingly small, being about 13 miles by 8 miles all told. Strictly speaking, it is Lake Galilee. It is called a Sea only by some quirk of tradition and translation.
I was flying some local weather-station technicians over the big water earlier this month, and we saw a sizeable research ship slowly circling the spot in the western part of Christie Bay, sixty miles southwest of here, where the water is at its deepest, just over 2,000 feet. 614 meters. Deepest fresh water in North America. They were circling because of course they could not anchor in such depths, and they had a smaller boat out doing some work. They have had a sensor of some sort sunk clear to the bottom there, on a cable, taking readings and measurements since a year or so ago.
That big ship, unable to drop anchor, made me think that maybe there could be some clear parameters for a lake becoming more than a lake. Is there a spot offshore, for instance, where from a boat on a clear day there is no sight of land on any horizon? Is there water more than 500 feet deep? Can a gale-force wind raise waves of two meters, or seven feet, or can a storm surge bring water levels along the shore – oops, the coast – up by more than two feet in a matter of hours? If so, then it is Big Water.
And so I am now doubly frustrated. As Kristen and I head out to look for a pail of cranberries or a sign of moose, coasting the shore of Great Slave Lake, not only does the antiquated and misleading moniker “Great Slave” irk me, now I yearn for something other than “Lake.” I will continue to seek some possibilities, and as I said I am open to suggestions. The changing of a geographic name in the North is certainly not my battle to fight. I will continue my smaller quixotic quest to get “fire flower” to catch on in place of “fireweed.” And in my head I will just think “shining big sea water” or “Tu Nedhe.” It’s still a free country, last time I checked, and language, our choice of words, is a bastion of that freedom, as it should be.
Addendum one. As I write this, another low-pressure center is sliding past us and the winds are forecast to pipe up out of the southeast, then south, then west, then northwest. Yesterday I cancelled a day of flying and just spent my time flying planes up away from the big lake, and they are both now tied up in the first wide stretch of the river, inland and safe from swells and surges. Having done this, I now of course hope that the winds do pipe up and prove the effort out.
Addendum two. But they did not. Nothing even close. It takes me a few sessions to write this, and I have to admit now that my cautionary effort to move the planes up the river was all for nothing. Several trusted weather prediction sources, and the Marine Forecast’s “strong wind warning” of 25-knot winds to play havoc with our usual safe havens… nope, nothing. So far. Computer models and forecasts are still just that. Forecasts and models. Guesses. It’s comforting, in a way, when Nature thumbs her nose at them.
It was two in the morning on Front Street in Nome, mid-March of 1992. I had just crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, my fourth time. A parka-bundled figure appeared out of the bustle, from the edge of the cold darkness, clearly a tourist or something, but confident and plain-spoken, and walked up close to me. A strong voice penetrated the sleep-starved fog and finish-line elation that together form the weird mental state of the Iditarod musher finally standing, after 12 days and nights, beneath the burled arch.
“These are the best-looking dogs I’ve seen here so far.” Gratifying words, guaranteed to grab the attention of any musher. I smiled back at the stranger. “Well, yeah, these guys are fantastic, just great, but hey, aren’t we in 26th place or something?”
Of course at that moment I could not know that I had crossed paths with a larger-than-life character, a fellow who would become a friend and confidante and a denizen of the Hoarfrost off and on over the next twenty-five years. Together we would share many small miseries and many large adventures — not to mention countless moments of head-shaking, hand-wringing exasperation — from Dubawnt Lake to the upper Nahanni, from Nome to Duluth to the trails above the Hoarfrost, finally winding down to some final poignant moments in the strange world of upper-class Palm Springs, California, in April of 2017.
Harry B. Turner died peacefully in his sleep a week ago, almost certainly in Southern California. I learned of his death just today. And today, had he made it, would have been birthday number 96. I have been thinking about Harry most of the day, and as I do I chuckle to realize that I could effortlessly start posting a blog entitled “Travels With Harry,” once a month for at least two years straight, without ever once needing to scratch my head for more material. And you would love it — most of it, anyway. Granted, some of it would not be rated “G,” but so it goes. Harry was Harry.
Harry could be exasperating, to say the least, and 30 seconds later he could be inspiring. Sometimes, when he was well into his cups, late at night, in Whitehorse, or Grand Portage, or Yellowknife, I had learned all too slowly that it was best to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Harry, probably best if we head back and call it a day, don’t you think?” Particularly if there was a stray set of XX chromosomes anywhere within hailing distance…
One of Harry’s favorite after-dinner aphorismic rhetorical questions (he had a million of these) was “If you could know, precisely and infallibly, the time and date of your own impending death — would you want to know?” Of course this sparked a debate. Harry, though, was always emphatic. Of course, he claimed, he would want to know, “because that way I could plan.”
I don’t think Harry knew, the other day. And I do wonder, deep down, even after all his bluster, if he would have wanted to.
One Harry story. In 1994, three friends and I made a canoe trip on the upper Hoarfrost, and Harry came with us, to make five. Around the fire one night the talk turned to money, of which Harry had plenty. My friend Mike Murphy’s ears perked up beneath his ball cap. Mike and I were both flying for Air Tindi at that time, and we had flown together as Captain and co-pilot (Mike the captain, me the co-joe) for two crazy diamond-rush summers in 1992 and 1993. In those crazy boom years Mike had often taken great delight in exasperating me by racing off to Weavers’ grocery on our quick turnarounds in Yellowknife, at the height of the biggest mineral rush since the Klondike, to grab the day’s edition of The Globe and Mail while the Twin Otter was being refuelled and reloaded for another trip north. We would cut loose from the dock, taxi out, and within seconds of liftoff he would pull out the paper and say, “Take over, will ya?”
I would continue climbing out, as Mike yanked down his side cockpit window and proceeded to stuff entire sections of the paper into the 140-knot slipstream. “Man, no! Hold on! I’ll read that!” To no avail. Crumple. Stuff. Crumple and stuff. Having thus happily reduced the entire fat newspaper, the New York Times of Canada, to a set of stock-market tables, the TSX and the Vancouver exchanges, where the values of the myriad penny-stock junior mining and staking consortiums, syndicates, scheisters, and con-men were all tallied every day in fine type — in those long-ago days before the World Wide Web — he would settle in to read and ponder the numbers. “This is all that matters, right here,” he’d chide me. I often wonder if a canoeist or a moose about 30 miles north of Yellowknife in those summers ever wondered why, every few afternoons, some crumpled sheets of newsprint came floating down out of the sky.
1994, late summer, diamond rush just barely beginning to wind down, and the five of us on the trail, by the fire, and the talk having turned to money… Mike all ears, Harry ready to hold forth on the nitty gritty of his decades in hedge funds, foreign currency exchange futures, and the mysteries of the Baltic Dry Index, and I finally got rewarded for my anguish. It was no secret that the only real reason Mike had joined us on the canoe trip, which was not really his cup of tea in those days, had been for just this moment.
“So Harry, tell us about your day, your working day,” said Mike.
Harry said, “Well, I get up early. I have coffee and I go for a walk. I come back to my little shack (A rental, in those days, and not palatial. Think Warren Buffet.), and I look over six or eight papers that I subscribe to. London, Hong Kong, New York, Brisbane, Moscow, Johannesburg, you know, around… Then I pace around out back for a while, and I think.
“And then maybe I make a few phone calls, and maybe I don’t. Then I go play tennis, or go for another walk.”
A pause. Then Mike again, puzzled. “But in all the papers, you just look at the business sections, right? The stocks? The markets and the currencies?
“Oh no, not those parts. Those are the done deals. If it’s in there, then I already missed it. What I read, what I think about, is the rest of it. All of it. The politics, the fashion section, the Arts, the Sports. Hell, even the funny pages.”
And the look on Mike’s face at that moment, and probably the look on mine, as we both recalled those sections of paper stuffed out of the cockpit window, just to spite me. The editorials and politics and sports sections falling slowly to earth over Gordon Lake. Well, it still makes me smile.
Harry stories. They go on and on. Rest In Peace, old man. They broke the mold after you, I swear.
Next month maybe I’ll post the piece I had written, before this morning. It has to do with living the dream, day by day, at a homestead in the outback, as compared to living the dream on trips into the outback, out away from home, in a tent and on the trail. Harry would have liked it, and we would have had a good back-and-forth about it. Now I will turn off the light and sit back and look out at the quiet dark, and maybe have a little sip of something smooth. Cheers. Good night.
“Seems like you do a lot of navel-gazing.” That was one reader’s remark after he finished my book Kinds of Winter, an account of four solo trips by dogteam. That stung a little, but I just nodded and chuckled. I have a slightly thicker skin to criticism as I get older, and it is serving me well. As for navel-gazing, I guess I do mull things over in quirky ways, and my musings do run along some odd pathways, (don’t yours?) especially when I am working quietly and alone.
On a recent hot July day I was making my way around the narrow upstairs balcony of our octagonal log house, installing an array of small solar panels at offsets of 45 degrees, one at each of five railing corners: east, southeast, south, southwest, and west. Something clicked in my cranium as I looked out at the green leaves of summer birches and the green needles of the stately white spruce we call Lucy. Suddenly I was trying to call up a passage from a woodworking text I had readyears ago. I paraphrase from memory: “Wood is the fundamental material of all trees, evolved for two purposes: first, to raise the foliage of the tree up from the ground toward sunlight for improved photosynthesis; and second, to transport water and nutrients between the various parts of the tree.”
When I first read that definition I was enrolled in a seven-month course in boatbuilding on Gabriola Island, just off the Pacific coast near Vancouver. A memorable winter, 2000-2001, when Kristen and I and our two young daughters boarded up our place here, leased out our huskies for the winter, and stepped completely aside from our life and work in the Northwest Territories.The course wasa long session in learning about wood, boats, and tools.Wood, most of all. Its grain and its quirks and the myriad ways to fasten and bend and shape it; what it liked to do and what it did not like to do; why it floated and why it rotted, and how a boat fashioned from it can become something magical.
Immersed though my classmates and I were in all things wood and wooden, coming across that matter-of-fact definition of “wood” still brought me up short, and I have thought about it now and then ever since.The essence of wood, it says, the reason for its existence, has nothing to do with usefulness to humankind. Wood’s usefulness to people is only a happy coincidence. Wood is about lifting green leaves up toward sunshine, with enough strength and support to brace them there in wind and storms, and about getting water up to those leaves, and sugars down from them. Period.
Another thing I took away from that course on Gabriola Island was the trick of looking upside down or sideways at something, to change and improve perspective. Our instructor told us that when we were lofting the curves of a boat onto the shop floor, it was helpful to back up, turn around, bend over, and view the arc of the pencil line upside-down, between our legs. This makes for some comical moments in a workshop, but it does help. Any unfairness in the desired “fair curve” becomes instantly more obviouswhen the line is looked at upside-down. Mountaineers do a version of this, too, tilting their head to one side to ease the eye’s natural foreshortening of a steep pitch viewed from a distance. Look at anything sideways, or upside down, and the change can be refreshing and instructive.
Wood, for instance. Even in this age of smooth black plastic, shiny aluminum, weird epoxies, rusted steel and gray concrete, we are still surroundedby wood and immersed in the demands of its properties.Because wood is for most of us a material, it is easy to look at a stack of lumber and slip into the habit of thinking of wood as we think of all the other materials– concrete, steel, glass, plastic, etcetera – that humanity has learned to fabricate for specific purposes. But wood is different, because it is not for us or by us. It is for trees. We cut down the trees and use the wood. And in doing so we are obliged to acknowledge its unique rules and properties, some of which are inconvenient at times. Use quarter-sawn boards when strength and stability are crucial. Lay a deck with the heart side of the planking downward. Steam a sled runner or a boat rib fifteen minutes for every quarter inch of thickness before bending it in a jig, and leave it in there for two weeks to cure and set. Lay a sheet of plywood across joists or rafters, with the grain in the outer veneers perpendicular to the supports.
Historian Yuval Harari, in his excellent book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, writes:“Artifactsmade of more perishable materials – such as wood, bamboo, or leather – survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of thetools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.”
Ancient hunter-gatherers, yes, but modern brain surgeons, taxi drivers, air-traffic controllers and bureaucrats all use and enjoy and depend on wood every day too.Just lift your head up from the almighty screen, tilt it to one side, and look all around, and notice how much wood is in your life at this moment. Or how little. The woodiness of this moment might even be a gauge of the quality of your life right now. The “woodiness index” as a gauge of human happiness? Just throwing it out there.
I was happy the other day, walking the wooden balcony of our log house, setting screws through the narrow fir frames of the blue-and-silver silicon–and–aluminum solar panels (man-made leaves?), bracing them with short lengths of spruce back to the birch stanchions of the railing, crimping the number-ten copper wire and running it along the underside of thickspruce girders, drilling a hole with the ships-auger bit, through the 200-year-old fire-killed wall log, pushing the wire through, routing it to the regulator and from there to the groovy blue Lithium-Iron-Phosphorus storage battery, mounted high on the timber wall in Kristen’s studio, there surrounded by dozens of books, pads of notepaper, smooth pencils lying in a wooden cup on a slab supported by two matched tamarack knees… as out in front all along the lake the birch and sprucereached for the sky and the sun, lifting their own solar energizers up to quiver in the warm July breeze. Making sugarand growing more wood, day after day, year after year.
Oh there I go, navel-gazing again.
Two by fours, plywood sheet, pencil shaft, glue-lam beam, bridge timber, main wing spar of a nimble aerobatic biplane, split and stacked cordwood, stair-treads, pages of a novel, fancy varnished tabletop. Grain, knot, texture, heat, and strength, and all made out of thin air, sunlight, water, and the stuff of soil.
We just use wood, we do not make it.
Fact is, clever as we are, we cannot make wood. The forests of the world, apart from us and independent of us, offer it to us. What a gift!Tilt your headand think about that.
Pen and paper at hand, to try to write something and post it here before the end of the month, I draw a blank.
Oh, there is plenty I could take up with. Look out the window or go for a walk, pick a topic, run with it for a few paragraphs, try to say something insightful or witty or profound, or aim to combine all three, and why not? A big bull muskox with a horn on only one side, the other one busted right off to a bloody stump, was four feet from the front deck of our guest cabin last evening. The lake trout are up in the shallows again, like tarpon down in the Florida Keys. I thought about writing a riff about mosquitoes as the salvation of solitude and wilderness in the far north. The landscape and our life here offer and offer, but sometimes there is the voice of Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, whispering over my shoulder, “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”
Don’t worry, friends, there won’t be any shooting here.
The water is high here. Record-setting high. Out in front of the homestead, “Windmill Island” is a small knob of smooth granite bulging up from our otherwise sandy shoreline. On it stands the yellow steel mast of our wind generator, guyed off by cables and rock-bolts. But Windmill Island is kind of a joke, too, because it has not truly been an island for over twenty years now. A broad isthmus of sand, festooned with tall beach grass, has allowed easy access to the “island” on foot, dry except during easterly gales when the swells pound in. Now, within the past two weeks, Windmill Island has regained its title. From my solitary perch here on the deck of our guest cabin (where I am currently sequestered each night at a slight remove from my wife and house – more on that in a moment), it looks like we could paddle a canoe or row the skiff right through that barricade of beach grass and on over to the water west of the island.
The ice is still lying close to shore and it stretches away for miles in a vast white plain. The air above it shimmers in the warmth of the morning sun, and the ice surface is mottled more and more each day with dark leads and open holes, but that ice will be a part of our lives for some days yet, maybe a week or more. Our two planes are now on floats and ready for the brief summer season, and they are heeled up side-by-side down at the river mouth. The current there will keep them clear of shifting floes on the lake. Some past Junes we have been locked in here by floating ice for long strings of calm sunny days, waiting for a north wind to puff up and open the front gate.
The high water here in Great Slave Lake, they say (that convenient catch-all pronoun and vague but unspecified authority, “they”), is the result of a springtime surge of snowmelt water rushing down all of the biggest rivers that flow into the lake. Biggest by far being the Slave, which accounts for something like 70 percent of the water feeding the lake basin. The Slave is a big but a very short river, because its waters keep changing their name. It is the merger of the Peace and the Athabasca, rivers both big and better-known, that spring from sources high up along the backbone of the northern Rockies. Confounding the river-naming confusion is the fact that the Slave flows into Great Slave Lake but does not flow out under the same name. The Mackenzie River leaves the lake from the southwest side and flows from there 600-some miles “down north” to the Arctic Ocean. (And, by the way, these names have nothing to do with slavery, but with the Slavey indigenous peoples at home all along the watershed.)
Set my ramblings aside (right now, go ahead), even if you live up here and think you have a good sense of this stuff, and find yourself a depiction of the entire watershed of the Mackenzie River, all the way upstream to the Peace, the Athabasca, and the Liard – not to mention dozens of smaller but still very big rivers like the Taltson, the Lockhart, the Nahanni, the Prophet, the Hay, the Clearwater, and on and on. It is Canada’s largest watershed, and second on the continent only to the Mississippi – Missouri.
Welcome back. The high water is real, but it is a handy metaphor too. As summer starts and the lake laps up onto stretches of beach and rock that it has not wetted in a quarter of a century, swelled by invisible forces far beyond the horizon, so too the far north, or at least its busy two-legged populace, is staggering and shifting under the high and still rising effects of a tiny germ from half a world away. A not very subtle reminder that nowadays there is no “away.”
The ripple effect is grim, and strange, and downright daunting. In the far North the virus itself is still just talk on the news, with not a single active case of this bug in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, or Yukon, but its effects are busy wreaking a different form of havoc on lives and livelihoods. Like the water rising right here, fed by snow melting almost a thousand miles away, this unseen force is right on my desk, staring me in the face. The booking-sheet calendar of our little flying business is usually, at this season, a hodge-podge of notes and names and dates and times: geologists, film crews, sampling jobs, canoe-trippers, visitors, fishing lodges, and survey flights. Today its sheets are almost completely blank and white, right through July, August, September, and beyond. Scary white, to be honest.
Dismal prospects, for a mom-and-pop flying business, because this scenario is not survivable over any sort of long haul. No amount of government largesse or no-interest loans can sustain an aviation industry for which people have decided there is no longer a need, or a desire, or the accustomed combination of both. As a pilot friend of mine said, “Pilots just got real cheap.” Our insurance man in Vancouver made another observation, and I paid attention to it because he is in the business of brokering coverage for airlines of every size and scope. He knows the aviation business from the inside. His prediction was that when, sometime, maybe, the airlines rise up and dust themselves off from this disaster and take a look at their books, we will see airline ticket prices about two to two-and-a-half times what they were way back when – long ago, like in January of this year. And he predicts that the low-cost flyers will be gone completely. The party, strange and misguided as it was, may be over.
It is a re-set, any way you cut it. And, they say (there “they” are again), what comes after all of this will be different from what went before. Kristen and I are in our early sixties, born 1957 and ’58. You can dial back through all those decades, as we did the other night over dinner, and there is nothing we have seen in our lives that comes close to these past three months. You have to go back farther, to our parents’ and grandparents’ time, to find analogues, in a world completely at war, or the sudden onset of the “great” depression. Taking that long view and perspective, I am not looking for pity, trust me on that. I find that I am mostly just fascinated, a little morbidly maybe, by the whole thing. The lessons and fallout and — yes — the far and wide benefits that might be ahead for humanity, and for the rest of the planet and the critters we share it with. A friend from Wisconsin wrote to me and said “I just hope I live through this, because I am so completely intrigued by how it will all play out.” Yep.
Today I am sitting alone, in sunshine, ruminating over this spiky fleck of germ and genetic code that has tapped humanity on the shoulder and whispered, “Oh, you think so? Well, stand back and watch this.”
As usual, as winter becomes summer, I have been down to our maintenance base at Fort Nelson B.C. in two back-to-back trips of a thousand miles each, starting on June fifteenth with a final takeoff from the lake ice here with one plane, and again on the twenty-first from the little patch of sand up the hill. It was an eye-opener for me to be Outside, as northerners sometimes call the world beyond their borders, because even by the time I got to Hay River and overnighted there on the first trip, waiting on weather, I could tell that something “out there” was very, very different. Up until then, and even on treks into Yellowknife over the spring, this had all been just news on the radio, really. We in the north were in a bubble, and we at the Hoarfrost River were in a bubble inside of a bubble.
In fact I had at first considered trying to come and go on those necessary trips out of the Territories without telling a soul in officialdom. The territorial borders remain closed, but I figured a couple of single-engine planes could come and go from the middle of nowhere, and that no one needed to be the wiser. The notion kind of appealed to me, to be honest. Luckily I had a little wake-up call back in late May, thanks to a friend who is an air traffic controller in the tower at Yellowknife. As I was taxiing in for fuel in the midst of a work flight, he asked – right on the radio – “So Dave, how are you gonna work those trips to Fort Nelson this spring for inspections and changeover?” I mumbled something about flight-crew exemptions, but a light bulb came on in my brain: there are never any secrets in the close-knit, far-flung community of northern aviation. As the saying goes: telephone, telegraph, tell-a-pilot. Sneaking down and back, 500 miles from Hoarfrost River to Ft. Nelson, twice in two weeks, was not an option.
Long story short, I went to the public health people, stated my case, got a file number and am now at home with both planes inspected and changed over to floats. I am sleeping separately from my dear wife and sorta kinda trying to go through some semblance of “self-isolation.” It’s weird, to tell the truth, and my effort is a little lame.
Because why? Because the northern territories of Canada are all doing their best to dodge this thing physically, although we will not dodge it economically, and I understand that. This virus, landing and spreading in a remote fly-in community with a half-dozen beds in the nursing station and no hospital, repeated three or four dozen times across the Arctic and sub-arctic, could be tragic. And I have been down to Fort Nelson, right on the Alaska Highway, which is still surprisingly busy as a corridor for overland travel by people from all over the U.S. People with permission to move themselves across Canada in a certain number of days, to reach their work or home in Alaska or the lower 48. And who knows where they have been, or who they have been with, or what their habits and health are.
Strange times. High water and hand sanitizer. A person cannot make such a story up. Maybe the lake will keep rising, maybe it will begin to ebb in mid-July. On several levels we are all waiting for whatever is next. Wondering whether in a few years we could possibly be back to “business as usual.” I have my doubts.
Only one thing is certain to me here this morning, and that is this: anyone who cannot relish some uncertainty in life, at least for a while, at least just a little, is not going to have a pleasant summer.