Archive for March, 2009

The Purr of the Lynx

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

On my Yukon ‘bucket list’ I have had three wildlife sightings that I hoped to secure. One was to see a grizzly bear while out on the land. This means not seeing one from inside the protective shell of a car. Next on the list was to see a wolverine loping in that pronounced big, heavy, fluid bound that is their signature rhythm of locomotion. And third, was to see the phantom appearance of a lynx.

Twice a grizzly and I crossed paths last summer. The first time it happened, the bear was several hundred meters from me and it never saw or smelled me. The second time the bear was altogether too close and we both watched each other. One of us had a racing heartbeat and the other likely not.

About two weeks ago, in early March, with bears still sleeping mightily, the landscape up here still wore the appearance of mid-winter. The Hunger Moon of February had just slipped past and perhaps it was the hunger of a long winter that persuaded a mid-afternoon lynx to betray itself. When I spotted the large cat it was lunging in long leaps with its lanky legs up an impossibly steep bank. Such feline leaps are impressive enough, but going up a 50% incline, over one to two meters of deep and fluffy snow was all gold medal Olympian.

It bounded up the face of the hill, walking on water, so to speak, barely dimpling the surface, on oversized paws. Seconds passed with my jaw dropped and then suddenly the lynx stopped, turned its head back. For a moment we locked stares. Finally I unlocked the message behind the stare. It simply said, “Come on two-legged-one -who -wears -arrogance-so-well, let’s see what you got! Bring it on!”

I simply floundered in deep amazement and saluted the winter traveler.

As I write these words, I am two hours south of that lynx sighting courtesy of Air Canada. I am sitting in a Starbucks in Vancouver. The place is a montage of sounds. Somewhere overhead is piped in jazz; to my immediate left are two conversations in an Asian language, likely Chinese. Off to my right there is simply a droning babble merging from clusters of tables.

I recall a report on public radio that addressed the physical changes that happen to people around a drone. The commentator spoke about the droning of bagpipes, summer day insects or the consistent parade of waves that wash a beach. Our minds settle and our heart rates ease when stimulated by a consistent drone. A drone almost always accompanies yoga sessions. I find it absurd that you can even buy small tabletop machines that generate white noise to help you relax and maybe even sleep.

It is Sunday and assorted church and coffee shop congregations have gathered to speak in tongues while communing on blends of various stimuli. With a cache of muffin calories neatly arranged in glass fronted cases sitting nearby, I reflect on the lynx with whom I had earlier shared stares. I doubt it knows the luxury of a Sunday morning. For the lynx, each day of the week is spelled the same: s…u…r…v…i…v…a….l.

The human drone in the Starbucks suddenly filled me with a desire to leave. I want to run from this collection of tribe members and lunge up a snow-deepened slope of impossible angle. I feel an ache to get back to those surrounding mountains where the grizz stirs in the passing of winter, the wolverine lopes tirelessly and unseen and the lynx delivers a droning scripture that is unmistakably a wild purr.

Playing with Gravity

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

The day had started clear, sunny and thirty below zero. That seems a bit cold for March 8th. Even though afternoon temperatures climbed to above zero the wood burning stove was still hungry for dry pine and spruce.

It was time for Nancy and me to bundle up and fetch a couple of days worth of firewood from under our deck, toss it up and hurry it indoors. Still feeling a bit restless and needing to energetically move my body, I grabbed my long plastic red sled and hurried up Pulpit Hill. This pronounced pimple of a hill, courtesy of the last ice age, rises directly behind our Outpost, protecting us from north winds. Typical of the arrogant practice of naming natural features we have titled this hill “Pulpit” because we like to climb up to receive a sermon rather than deliver it. The view up and down the Watson River and beyond towards Needle, Goat and Twin Mountains is awe-inspiring.

The grade of Pulpit Hill is steep and the snow deep. With my legs churning and streams of breath trailing behind me, I can feel the blessed pain of burning thigh muscles. Best of all, attaining the summit warms me.

Below me, the groove of the sled track remains from runs made days earlier. I pause, taking the view in and catching my breath. Closing my eyes to relish the miracle of gulping breaths of such fresh air I find myself transformed towards a place where dreams happen.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself at the Worlds Luge Distance Championship Finals. Rather than go for the fastest time, this contest is all about sliding further than the competition.

I imagined that the Yukon Territory lobbied hard to garner the event. Typically, this event is held in Europe. This isn’t surprising since Europeans, particularly the Germans, have dominated the event. The Germans have been so dominant that they have even sent a retired champion racer, named Hans be the official race coordinator.

Hans smiles at me and waves me into position for my race down the track. Of course I am the last contestant to make the run. The gold medal is on the line. I set my sled down and carefully position myself so I will reduce any wind resistance.

The anticipation and the crowd noise are building. My eyes are focused on the groomed track, that looks like a sinuous otter slide. Both of my mittened hands are planted in the snow on each side of the sled. I push myself forward and back several times to warm the hull of the sled so that I can reduce friction and increase my speed. I nod my readiness towards Hans and I time the rhythm of my false starts to coincide with his loud countdown.

“Drie! Zwei! Eins!”

I am oblivious to the wildly cheering crowd and the clanging of their waving cowbells. This is it! All those years of sliding down hills, bloody noses, face plants in cold snow, reddened cheeks and stinging cold toes have come to this . . .the world championship!

With a massive pull in the snow, I send myself forward. In one smooth motion, I lie back on the sled and peer down the length of my descending body, over the tops of my pointed race mukluks down towards the narrow slot that separates an old spruce tree and an even more ominous propane tank. Clearly this is the most dangerous section of the course. I try to blot out the rows of white crosses that mark the spot where death has been the final playmate.

The top pitch of the course is steep and it is here that I team up with my loyal playmate ‘Gravity.’ Whether it is skiing down a mountain, a sinuous cross country ski trail or paddling through whitewater on a lively river, it can only happen with the help of my buddy Gravity.

WHOOSH! I rocket past the lanky spruce and its portly companion propane tank. There is no time to bask in the relief that I am through one of the most difficult stretches of this demanding course. I hit a rough stretch, where luge fans have constantly hiked across the course on their way out to pee near the edge of the course. I firmly grit my teeth, so as not to bite my tongue, and ride the bumps. I am reminded that the sledding runs of my childhood seemed much smoother.

For only a second or two, as I speed across a flats, I can allow myself the luxury of relaxation. Now I have to determine how much of my weight I have to throw to the right so as to miss another spruce and the corner of the garage. If I act to soon, I will create unnecessary friction on my run, loosing valuable distance. On the other hand if I react to late, I run the risk of shattering my sled and perhaps a bone.

Still oblivious to the cheering crowds, I time it perfectly, rolling to my right, without falling off the sled and I miss the tree by less than a foot. For the first time on my run, I can afford a smile as I slide to a stop between narrow corridor between the pile of shoveled snow and the front of the garage. I leap off the sled, jump up and down while madly waving and bask in the celebratory cacophony coming from the waving crowd.

About a hundred years ago Robert Service, poet laureate of the Yukon wrote,
“There are strange things ‘neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.”
On this late afternoon, of a late winter day that admittedly looks and feels like midwinter, I am proud to have moiled for my gold medal in the Worlds Championship Luge event. It was the highest of honors to win for my favorite nation. . . the Imagination.

Leaving the celebratory crowd behind me, I skipped through the snow, put the sled away. Suddenly the racing boy was also put away and a man, smiling like the boy, walked slowly to the house to join his wife for supper.