Archive for February, 2007

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Musk Ox Warming

I clutched the musk ox fur inside the wool liners of my weathered leather mitts. I am thankful for this shaggy beast that lives on as a relic of the ice age where it shared the landscape with wooly mammoths.

I have a passion for the arctic. Recently I have been thinking of the arctic as the threatened home to musk ox.

With humans impacting climate change by the increased release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, it saddens me to think of the rapid change in the arctic. Some scientists are forecasting an ice-free arctic before 2050. And what will come of the overdressed musk ox?

No mammal in North America has longer guard hairs. The two-foot long hairs hang straight down giving this beast, that is more goat than ox, a push broom appearance.

Oomingmak is the melodious Inuit word for musk ox. The translation is “the bearded one.” This beast thrives in the arctic winters because of its soft, thick under fur. The Inuit call the wool “qiviet.”

I live in Minnesota, but my hands clutch a ball of qiviet inside my mitts as I drive a tractor pulling a hay wagon of firewood.

Over twenty summers ago, I journeyed to the high arctic. While hiking on the tundra, I discovered clumps of shed musk ox under fur clinging to stunted willow shrubs. Attracted to the soft sensory pleasure of simply handling it, I stuffed handful after handful into my pockets.

On hikes, I jammed my chilly hands into my pockets.  They quickly warmed in the nests of qiviet. I brought a bag full of qiviet home to Minnesota.

On a cold winter day, my fingers always prefer the company of each other. That is why I choose loose fitting mitts instead of gloves. Gloves condemn each of my fingers to a cruel sentence of solitary confinement. Alone, without the ability to snuggle with each other gloved fingers soon turn numb and useless.

I am to the point that my stash of qiviet is almost gone. Each winter I freshen up each of my mitts with a small handful of under fur. By winter’s end the wool is matted into a tight ball. The compressed hair no longer effectively insulates my hands.

As I pull into our driveway, my face is cold enough to crack but my fingers are cozy in the comfort of qiviet. If I make it back to the arctic, will the change be too much to bear? Will the musk ox survive? In a world that is gradually warming I fear that my Minnesota winter will be experienced without the company of qiviet.

Dog Watching and Reading Weather

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Three nights ago, when the temperature dropped well below zero and the wind chill made the comfort level even more brutal, our eleven-year-old dog chose to stay outside curled up beneath the artificial shelter of the overhanging bay window. When I stepped out to coax him indoors, he only lifted his massive head slightly and resumed the tight curl. At eleven years old his hips are in a perpetual state of seeming frozen up and getting up from his mostly prone position is a slow laborious effort.
He resembles a beautiful blend of large northern sled dog and wolf. His name, Taiga, speaks of the land of the little sticks where the sub-arctic boreal forest thins and merges with the tundra.
He is an excellent example of the biological axiom known as Bergman’s Rule. The rule asserts that within a particular species, the body mass increases with the latitude and colder climate. It is easier for a larger animal to keep from freezing in cold climates.
Another good example of the rule is illustrated in the whitetail deer. The Midwest and southern Canada are known for their hefty whitetail deer while the whitetails found in Mexico are slight and smaller animals.
This morning I relished the quiet time that a bright winter day can bring by simply fixing my gaze on the resting old dog. He lifted his head and I watched each of his exhaled breaths vaporize in a wispy plume. Normally watching his steamy breathing would not cause concern in February, but this time I my stare wore the look of incredulity and I felt a tinge of alarm. Taiga was laying in our dining room not outside!
After a moment of stunned silence, I realized I was witnessing an excellent physics lesson. Hot air rises. Heat given off a warmed earth creates thermals, those unseen swirling currents of air that are often used by hawks and other birds to help them migrate effortlessly.
The small snarl of cobwebs tucked in the corner between the ceiling and the wall were dancing in the flow of hot air coming off the stove. I got up, pulled up a chair and stood on the chair putting my head closer to the ceiling. It was much warmer here.
I have learned to watch Taiga move around the house during the cold weather. His thick pelage is such an efficient insulator that he literally moves himself seeking the most comfortable place to sleep.
In this case he had curled near the glass door that leads out to our small deck. Laying close to the floor, in close proximity to a cool surface and he had found a microclimate that betrayed his breathing.
I simply pulled my chair closer to the woodstove, warmed up my cup of coffee with another pour and marveled at the practice of adaptation.

Frigid Moonshadows

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Tonight, the eve before Groundhog day, the weatherman is warning us of frigid arctic air flowing into Minnesota. Finally we are getting the necessary ingredients for an honorable Minnesota winter. The moon is full and from my the window I can see an eerie shadow flowing across the snow. It is a smoke shadow and it tells me that the oak I am burning in the wood burning stove is creating BTUs that allow me to live in comfort.

No thermometer is needed when I step outside to look to the east towards the distant canvas tent. It’s cold, the snow squeaks and that is enough to hurry me back indoors. I wonder if my wife Nancy and fellow young camper Zoie are sleeping yet. They are camping tonight, maybe 250 paces from the house. I made an earlier trip out to see them and to deliver a thick buffalo robe to add to their multiple layers of sleeping covers.

I joined them for a cup of cider and a piece of cornbread. Zoie was the fire tender. Every five to ten minutes she opened the door to the titanium wood burning stove inside the canvas tent and fed the coals more firewood. By winter camping standards it was a cozy shelter.

Though Nancy and I have an annual tradition of heading into the BWCA for a week of winter camping and lake trout fishing, tonight’s outing is clearly a “girls night out” affair. I am pleased for this is the kind of night that one forges unforgetable memories. Zoie is too young to be a teenager and too old to be a little girl. She is confident, smart and smiles easily. Nancy is creating one of those emotional bookmarks for Zoie that she will be relating for years to come. Guaranteed.
With a little imagination and sense of adventure, it is easy to create strong memories for kids. And the best part is that these memories are right outside your door and they are inexpensive requiring a sense of adventure and a little imagination. These memories are the fodder that could very well move them towards their own calling.

David Orr author of  Earth in Mind, argues that our educational system promotes ever climbing up the socio-economic ladder. He writes, “The first and overriding danger is that it will encourage young people to find careers before they find a decent calling. A career is a job, a way to earn one’s keep, a way to build a long resume, a ticket to somewhere else. For upwardly mobile professionals, a career is too often a way to support a “lifestyle” by which one takes more than one gives back. In contrast, a calling has to do with one’s larger purpose, personhood, deepest values, and the gift one wishes to give the world. A calling about the use one makes of a career. A calling comes from an inner conversation. A career can always be found in a calling, but a calling cannot easily be found in a career.”

In the glow of two burning candles, we spoke of the Yukon, the gold rush at the brink of the twentieth century and eventually we found the literature of famous poet, Robert Service and The Cremation of Sam McGee. I just happened to have a copy stuffed in my jacket. I can recite the first half fairly well, but will have to add the second half to my memory bank. “There are strange things done in the midnight sun . . .”

That was nearly three hours ago. I had my venison chili warmed up in the microwave and they had theirs warmed over the wood burning stove. Hmmm which would be more memorable? I just checked the thermometer and the temp is dropping. I need to go down and throw a couple thick chunks of oak in the stove for the night’s heat. I wonder if I should have left Taiga, our aged 120 pound sled dog with the campers? His thick coat and body mass would certainly add a furnace for the two slight ladies. But instead, he is curled on the rug dreaming of younger years.

And out in the quiet tent, I suspect layers of confidence, laughs and shared stories are tucked in for the night. All is well. All is very well.

 “The arctic trails have their secret tales . . .”

p.s. Huge thanks to Blake, Maddog, Durtsche, an awesome son-in-law and the guy who understands things like blogs and domains.