Archive for September, 2008

Fellow Americans tonight I want to address some fears. . .

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Tonight the first of three scheduled presidential debates takes place. I suspect millions of people will have their televisions tuned in and rightfully so. With the shaky economy and the bailout taking center stage over the past few days there is good reason to watch the two, or perhaps one candidate(s) address their stance on various issues.

I cannot watch and I confess to a little pouting on that matter. Since we left Minnesota early last May I have not watched any television.

For the time being we have deliberately chosen not to have one in the Yukon. Besides the only way we could pick up any channels would be to activate the roof bound satellite dish that came with the purchase of the Outpost (our Yukon home) back in 2001. For now it makes a reasonable bird perch, though it is hardly befitting the image of a log home on the edge of a roiling river.

No television means more time for Nancy and I to spend outdoors paddling a canoe, bagging another peak, picking berries or negotiating trails on mountain bikes. There is more time for reading, shared intimate conversation, and consequently. . . pay attention couch potatoes. . . more lovemaking. More time to perform household duties, such as fetching firewood, splitting it and stacking it, without the stress of other tasks such as catching the six o’clock news, which incidentally only makes you feel more stressed, depressed or paranoid. But then after the news you can mentally escape the reign of paranoia and enter the fantasy world of becoming a superstar by watching “Something Idol” or “Fear Factor.”

Up here, north of ordinary, I can experience fear factor without commercials. Let me tell you about two Yukon episodes of fear factor. Both events left me thankful for my DNA connection to cats and their multiple lives.

The first brush with disaster happened when I was training for the Kuane Chilkat International Bike Relay last spring. The bike relay is a 150 mile or so bike race from Haines Junction in the Yukon to Haines, Alaska. I was on a team of four riders and each of us had to ride two legs of the relay. My legs are the dreaded third and fourth legs that include some gnarly mountain climbs. The website description of these legs provided the prod to get me out on the road to train. Knowing I had barely a month to fine tune myself I decided to train on a relatively hilly section of the Klondike Highway not far from the Outpost.

It was my first ride since getting up here and was disappointed to find the highway a bit rough with no paved shoulders. Hopefully courteous driving habits are part of the norm on this highway. As I rode, I was enthralled by the snow-covered mountains while closely watching the forested edges along the highway for spring grizzly and black bears that might be grazing on early growth of succulent roadside plants. Being new to the area and very bear aware I did not want to be a succulent roadside snack.

The uphill climbs painfully reminded me that I had been on my bike only once in over a week and a half since we had made the trek up the Alaska Highway after leaving Minnesota. I relished the downhill glides. . .until one long hill. As I descended, picking up speed, I detected a slight wobble in the front wheel. The tremors grew quickly in intensity and suddenly the wobble became seismic and it was all I could do to hold the violently shaking handle bars while trying to frantically, yet evenly, apply the brakes. I remember clearly thinking, “This is it, I’m going down!!” Fighting off images of my daughters, Nancy and mother I wondered if I should edge over onto the narrow strip of gravel shoulder that flanked a deep ditch that in itself nudged the granite base of a mountain. My mind raced wondering where to lay the bike down causing the least amount of injury. Still wobbling violently over a better part of the highway lane, I could hear a car coming up behind me. “Oh please!” I mentally pleaded, “ Slow your car down and allow me to hog the lane in my out of control re-entry.”

Somehow I managed to stay upright and come to a stop. A wide-eyed and alarmed woman driver slowly passed me in her Honda and gave me that look that plainly asks, “Are you okay?” My fake smile urged her on.

I was only about eight miles into my ride but I was so rattled that I decided to head home for a shot of Yukon Jack. On the return ride I tensed up with each drop of the road, no matter how slight. And all I could think of was the
Race website that describes my two legs of the race. “The leg starts on a long, fast and potentially dangerous downhill to Million Dollar Falls.”
Now I was really intimidated.

Within the week, after toting the bicycle to a bike repair shop, I learned that the front spokes had been knocked out of alignment when the bike was strapped to a bike rack behind the truck on the bouncy 2500 mile ride to the Yukon. I was also given some tips from the repair “dude” and from a bike racer in the states about how to more comfortably deal with fast down hills.

The June race and came and went and I managed to survive wobble-free. . .though I didn’t have the courage to let the bike go all out on the down hills.
Brakes are a good thing.

The other dance with fear took place on our two and a half week canoe trip down the Wind River through the Wernecke Mountains in the northern Yukon. The river races through spectacular mountains and is very remote and required a floatplane to get us to the headwaters. Six of us paddled our way down for about a week when we had a camp visitor. . .a big, very blonde grizzly bear.

As the dominant and most numerous species of mammal on the planet, humans have little to fear in our casual walk through the typical North American life. But here is an animal that sometimes preys on our kind and this one was ambling down a sharp ridge right towards our camp. In this part of the world, no animal accelerates ones heart rate like a grizzly bear.

The six of us immediately stood up from our tasks of preparing pita pizzas for supper and formed a football huddle of sorts. We were using the same strategy the musk ox uses, another northern mammal, when confronted with danger. They position themselves into a circle, shoulder to shoulder to face the threat.

The bear positioned uphill and therefore looking even bigger, paused and lifted its massive head and scented the air. “Could it smell the grated cheese?” Thankfully the wind was blowing cheddar essences away from the bear and us. The bear began slowly coming down the hill snuffling up bearberries as it moved.

We moved slowly and deliberately away from the pizza fixings and edging towards our tents to gather up two more cans of bear spray. We now had three cans of the pepper spray propellant and all were in the ready state. With three cans of this eye-watering, foul-tasting, mouth-burning, vomit- inducing substance we could, in unity, create an ominous orange cumulous cloud of clout.

The bear kept coming. At 35 yards from us and 10 yards from our Whelen tarp, the bear hesitated. Was this the calm before the storm? Suddenly a sharp gust of wind snapped a loose corner of the tarp emitting a sound unlike that of someone snapping a towel at ones rear. The bear was clearly startled and it turned and walked away, never looking back once.

We remained in our huddle for some time but found it awkward to cook supper in such a tangle of limbs. Later, after a quick downpour, the sun burst out in the evening light and a spectacular double rainbow was birthed practically in our camp. It was so utterly other worldly that Kurt, one of our crew, declared, “Maybe the bear killed and ate us and this is heaven!”

Those moments of fear have only served as piquant reminders of the miracle of being alive. I suspect, and oddly enough almost hope, that there will be more brushes with fear.

And without television I have learned to embrace the abundance of options to live largely. And in doing so I have come to realize how small I am.

Go ahead turn your televisions on and let me know how the debates went and I’ll tell you about a new color of red I discovered in a parade of color-crazy northern lights.

Walking to the Source

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

After putting our truck into four-wheel drive we crept up a washed-out and boulder-strewn mining road for several miles. I was amazed at the terrain that the truck could ease through. Finally, when we were confronted with a fast creek jagged boulders daring us to drive forward, we stopped and unloaded our backpacks.

For five days we hiked and camped, climbing into the high alpine plateau that is located about 18 miles from our house. It was time for a walk and to check out our water supply.

The Watson River runs by our Yukon Outpost, and is for much of the year our drinking water supply. During the spring runoff up until mid-summer when the river is clouded with sediments we fetch our water elsewhere.
The Watson, named after a 19th century Harvard biologist, collects rainwater and snowmelt from scores of miles of rivulets, freshets, seeps, creeks, ponds and lakes. Each segment of the watershed miraculously filters out sediments and with the help of gravity moves the water downstream.

Each day of hiking we paused at the many creeks we crossed and refilled our water bottles. And every night we camped close to a creek or pond. Based on the sign left by other beasts, we were not the only ones drawn to water.

In hopping from rock to rock over one lively, clear creek, I wondered how could it be that over one billion people don’t have access to clean water? There is no shortage of clean water since it is constantly recycled through the water cycle. There never has been more water nor has there been less. More might be tied up in ice and more might be polluted by our actions or lack of them.

Now even those waters that melt away from snow and glaciers are not pure.
As the Watson snakes its way to the pitch in the river’s grade, where it passes our house, it becomes impure as it picks up traces of minerals and other elements. I find it amusing and ironic that bottled “mineral” water fetches a ridiculous sum simply because the consumer is given the illusion that this is a sort of virgin water. Interesting how we now have learned that so many bottled waters are simply bottled tap water and priced at costs that compete with oil prices.

Some of our neighbors in the Watson River valley go through the work of collecting river water and hauling it home as their preferred drinking water. Some claim it has a taste that is “magical.”

All of us should have the opportunity to make visual contact with the source of our drinking water. Admittedly water’s clarity can be deceiving since it can hold within that clear state a plethora of toxins. There is a possibility that even this seemingly healthy water could be home to giardia, tiny protozoans that could upset my digestive system.

Over the course of our backpacking water inspection we surprised a young bull caribou at the water’s edge. He splashed through the rocky creek, ran up the hillside and paused to pee as he looked back at the two-legged intruders. We never saw any caribou, moose or bear droppings in the water or right at the water’s edge. Do you suppose they have a local “wild ordinance” that prohibits tainting the water with their wastes?

We flushed flocks of ptarmigan, wearing summer browns and winged in winter white, that seemed to prefer to congregate in the riverside willows.
After spying a pair of peregrine falcons coursing over the creek valley we understood that the water-loving willows provide a screen from raptor threats to the ptarmigan.

Clearly these waterways are pathways for wildlife and flora. Over the span of two days we found more than 10 shed moose antlers, and one fine set of bull caribou antlers. All of these were within a few feet of the water. Along another lively stream I collected shards of long mountain goat fur that had snagged on the riparian brush, and I tucked them into my pants pocket. I am reminded of a verse in Psalms: “He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills. They give drink to every beast.”

Some of the freshets were shawled in dark blues from monkshood flowers, reddened by king’s crow and creamed with carpets of arctic heather blossoms.

Flowers shawl the freshets. The dark blues of monkshood, the reds of king’s crown and the creams of arctic heather provide the threads befitting a queen’s robe. Can there be a better, more efficient, and lovelier water filter? I doubt it.