Archive for October, 2008


Monday, October 20th, 2008

So here I am at the brink of my first winter in the Yukon. Though it is only October, we have flirted with single digit thermometer readings, had a couple of light snows and had Thanksgiving. No turkey at this table. . .nor siree. . .we had a black bear standing roast complemented with a platter of spruce and ruffed grouse breasts in a wonderful thick gravy and two slices of pie. After losing about 15 pounds over the first six months here, I am on a mission to consume calorie to better cope with the harshest of seasons.

Winter is the esteemed judge in determining if I am worthy of Knighthood in this land North of 60. To successfully “winter over,” in ecological terms, is to survive to spring, the season of rebirth. Whether it’s a tulip bulb buried with its stash of carbohydrates and sunshine, a fattened black bear, or the compulsive pine and spruce cones hoarder, the red squirrel, all measure another year by successfully wintering over.

My first Yukon winter will result in my receiving the ceremonial distinction of maturing from the newcomer title of “Cheechako” to “Sourdough.” Over the past four months I have become quite fond of the word “Cheechako.” The echoing “ch” sound has an exotic Latino countenance about it, especially if you whisper it loudly. I can barely contain my hips from wiggling when I say it.

Though the word “sourdough” might come with grander accolades in the northern hierarchy, its melody doesn’t dance off the tongue like saying “lily” or “marionette.” Instead it carries images of a fetid old wool sock left in a trapline shack.

I have never heard the prefix “sourdough” assigned to any other northern creatures. There are no sourdough ravens and there is no way I would call a spring grizzly a sourdough. They just go on surviving, demanding nothing, particularly attention. I suspect it has something to do with their egoless souls.

In fact my search for fellow sourdoughs often leads me to the Alpine Bakery in downtown Whitehorse. This is a genuine 100% organic bakery where loaves of breads and muffins are baked daily in a brick oven. The husky loaf of Alaska Sourdough bread is one of my favorites. Toast it golden, slather it in butter and spoon a good dose of blueberry jam on it and you will experience a preview of the Pearly Gates.

I think I inherently balk at the prefix “sour.” It is as if the bread itself is an antonym to its title . . .one is so good and the other elicits a look of disgust. The word “sour” is a short and harsh descriptor. In my mind it conjures up nothing that is worthy of a promotion. However I am fully aware that the word “sourdough” has a rich history in this neck of the woods. During the gold rush era breads, particularly sourdough breads were a mainstay to the diet of the Klondike stampeders.

You see sourdough breads are those breads that ferment and rise by capturing wild yeasts in the dough, rather than getting a boost from domestically cultured yeasts. This “more wild” bread cultivates a symbiotic relationship a group of bacteria referred to as lactobacilli and natural yeasts. Consequently the flavor is tangy or sour.

While on the trail to Dawson City, gold prospectors simply kept a small amount of “starter” dough, which contained the yeast culture. And just as they had to feed their dogs, they had to feed the starter batch with new flour, a pinch of salt and water. The new growth would provide the batter for the next loaf of bread and part of the batch was saved to repeat the process over and over. Some sourdough “bloodlines” have created hundreds and hundreds of loaves of bread. In fact there is a well-known bakery in San Francisco that has a uniquely tasting sourdough with a lineage that might match Abrahams of the Old Testament. They have used the same sourdough culture since it’s origin during the California Gold Rush in 1849.

Old timers, ironically referred to as “sourdoughs,” learned that keeping a sourdough culture warm was necessary for it to survive. They often carried a pouch of starter around their neck or on a belt, tucked inside their shirt.

It’s not the cold I fear as much as the lack of daylight that might trip up my march towards “Sourdoughdom.” Last week we had an energy audit done on the Outpost. Theo, the fellow doing the audit and a veteran of more than a score of Yukon winters, told us that he lives at Crag Lake, about thirty miles south of the Outpost. It is a beautiful spot, tucked between two mountain ranges that run east and west. He told us that when the sun is at it lowest, during the winter solstice, he and his family experience one and a half minutes. . .yes minutes. . . of sunshine! Good thing I will be home in Minnesota to see family and friends over the holidays and solstice.

Oops. . . the sun has emerged from behind the clouds. I’ve got to get outside and get a dose of needed sourdough starter.


Sunday, October 5th, 2008

I was a good dozen feet below the surface of our snow-dampened Yukon yard. I had taken apart our aluminum extension ladder, tied “rag slippers” on the bottom of the ladder so as not to scratch or damage the bowels of the fiberglass 1500-gallon tank. The sphere-shaped tank, accessed by a ten-foot circular shaft, holds our domestic water supply.

Years ago, prior to our buying the Outpost, our well was capped. Apparently the septic system was placed too close to the well so environmental codes required that the well not be used. The large holding tank was buried under the deck and accessed through a trap door. Water is trucked 34 miles from the Whitehorse municipal water supply at the cost of about $100 per delivery.

When we arrived here in mid-May, we found the tap water quite distasteful. In short order we bought a five-gallon water receptacle with a spigot and filled it at a friend’s house in Whitehorse every two weeks or so. The bitter tap water was used for other domestic duties such as washing dishes, showers, toilet, and so on.

Every year from about mid-August through the fall and winter, the Watson River, which is less than one hundred feet from our water tank, runs clear. (See previous blog entry for information on the quality of the Watson River). During spring and into summer it carries mountain silt and runs cloudy. During the clear months, folks from all around the area come down to the river and collect it in drums, kettles or other water receptacles to take it home. They describe its taste as “magical” or the “best water ever tasted.”

Our plan was to fire up a gas powered water pump and fill the tank with this magical river water once our May water shipment was drained dry. Recently, as I finished my shower after cutting wood, the water trickled out of the showerhead and I knew it was time to go down into the tank for its biennial cleaning.

For nearly $300 professional tank cleaning folks would come in and do the job. But being pathetically frugal and stubborn about doing many jobs myself, I confidently made plans to turn troglodyte for an afternoon.

Wearing chest waders, I slowly disappeared down the dark shaft. At the bottom, armed with two big sponges, a Tupperware container for scooping and a five gallon bucket tied to a rope that was affixed to the top rung of the ladder, I found myself standing in the eight-foot diameter orb in ankle deep water. The smell was not foul but it didn’t smell like a good source of drinking water. It didn’t take long to scoop water with my Tupperware into the bucket. I climbed back towards the blue sky, emerged, noting how good fresh air tasted and pulled up forty pounds or so of water. I repeated this six times.

By the time I got to the bottom of the water, it was literally muddy in color, due to the fine river sediments including fine sand and gravel that had accumulated from previous water pumpings. What I didn’t expect to find swirling in the clouded waters was a small rodent doing the perfect rendition of the “dead mouse float.” Clearly this mouse had been in this watery crypt for some time. Not only was its image less than appealing but also the agitated waters of death released the miasmic essences of decomposition.

I quickly, but reverently, scooped up the mouse and transferred it into the bucket elevator and I scurried like a winter-weary woodchuck towards the promise of blue sky. Gulping great gulps of fresh air was my reward for dealing directly with the corpse.

It was during the final sponging of the tank, followed by repeated fresh water rinses and two final light bleach solution washings, followed by two more fresh water rinsings, that I discovered the recording studio in the tank.
My earlier utterances of disgust had echoed nicely in the tank, but now with thinks looking much better, I began to sing. And better yet, the cave like acoustics inspired me to find the Tom Waits voice within me.

Wikipedia describes Tom Waits an American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor. Waits has a distinctive voice, described by Music critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

I am particularly fond of his rendition of “Chocolate Jesus.” (Go to You Tube to see and hear this song as played on the Dave Letterman show.

I like to think that Waits, who leans towards the bizarre, would love the idea of singing in a buried water tank or even septic tank. Suddenly inspired by combined clouds of death’s essence and Hilex, my voice devolved into gravel and I suddenly began to find my inner music.

Living in the bowels ain’t so bad.
No howlin of the neighbor’s dogs.
Just me and my voice singin oh so sad
in the wash of a mouse’s soul.


No cheese down here,
No little fella, cousin to Mickey,
There’s no cheese down here.

Over and over I belted that verse out finding joy in the reverberation of my Darth Vader melodies. A chore was never so fun. I began to think about looking in the classified ads for old tanks. What great playhouses of fun these could be!

Next week, Nancy is hosting a music jam for a handful of musicians in the area. With the tank sparkling, I could usher the small group with their instruments down the ladder and offer them a pillow to sit on, while they find the inspiration of this musical room– or should I say “musical womb.”

Filling the tank with magic water from the river can wait. We will continue to carry water up from the river for a few days and consider it exercise as well as a personal visit to the river.

No cheese down here,
No little fella, cousin to Mickey,
There’s no cheese down here.