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Looking for Ernie

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Sometime during a three-day span in early July, our adopted dock keeper, Ernie lost his balance during a strong blast of wind and was quickly washed downstream through the rapids that flows by the Outpost.

When Nancy and I returned from a canoe trip over that period, we were saddened by disappearance of Ernie. Ernie’s, companion dock sentry, Bert remained, standing stoically on the dock.

This past May we had found Bert and Ernie at the Annual Mt. Lorne Dumpster Dining Picnic at the local dump and recycling shack, called the “Free Shack.” This is a shack you can bring items that are too good to throw away or you are tired of and leave for someone else. Well on this day, when our eyes fell on the pair of faux stone Easter Island heads, both made from foam and painted stone gray, we whisked them to our truck.

Our monoliths were not twenty feet tall like the real stone giants on Easter Island. These were maybe thirty inches but no more. In short order our pair, christened “Bert” and “Ernie” were firmly wedged to the edge of the river dock. In an odd way the dock guardians looked perfect.

At the time of Ernie’s disappearance the river levels were still high from June snowmelt in the upper Watson River. Mounting a canoe rescue operation was too dicey.

The Watson is born well upstream in an area known as the Yukon Stikine Highlands ecoregion. Located in the cool rain shadow of the Coastal Mountains, this region is home to the greatest mammalian diversity in the Yukon. This area has historically been a network of trade and travel routes for First Nations people and later Europeans who entered the region to prospect gold and fur.

In three summers at the Outpost, we have not observed a single canoe descending the river. Two weeks after Ernie disappeared, my younger brother Scott arrived from Minnesota for a visit. The river levels had dropped and we immediately made plans to initiate a recovery expedition. We knew little of the river and its character. I had spoken with a couple of folks who had paddled it over twenty years ago. There was also a brief description of the river in a local paddling guide but the emphasis is on the lower river.

Canoeing is usually done as a recreational sport. But for Scott and I it would provide a means to accomplish a task. We would weave around river bends, drop through rapids, pull over trees lying across the river and do what we must to find the foam statue. How long this fragile statuary last in the wilderness was anyone’s guess.

So with packs of food and camping gear we waved goodbye to Miss Nancy. The following day she and two other women backpacker friends would shoulder their packs and take a 15-mile hike far up the Watson River to spend the night at an old trapline cabin before returning.

While a canoeing warm up is nice, Scott and I immediately had to contend with the boisterous rapids that pass our dock. We were so focused on the run, that we could not even salute the solitary Bert who forlornly stood on the dock as we passed him. Within seconds we rounded the bend and were feeling good about negotiating the first of many stretches of rapids.

Scott and I have each logged thousands of river miles in a canoe. Oddly we have never been paddling partners for a river trip so this was a rare opportunity. Scotts passions are his dog Dingo and messing around in a canoe. He is a very good bow paddler and does a great job in moving the front of the canoe around. A good bow partner makes an average stern paddler look good.

The time together was rich in conversation and observations and yes, even for brotherly spats. Being older and supposedly wiser I am quick to offer advice to my brother. I should have learned long ago that this is not a good strategy. But some things never change and consequently we had a couple of river miles of grumbling at each other and making accusations. Amazing how incidents from nearly half a century were still simmering.

And suddenly, a stretch of whitewater would show up and demand that we focus on more important issues. It worked. The wisdom of the river prevailed and demanded that we focus on the surroundings.

Both of us were amazed at the serpentine nature of the river. At times we swore that we had just completed a complete circle. We certainly covered each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. Repeatedly I pointed out Caribou Mountain. During the third morning of the trip, Scott challenged my woods knowledge by asking, “Tom, this is the third day of passing Caribou Mountain. Face it you don’t know where we are.” He was right. . . kind of. Because the third day it was the real Caribou Mt. and the others were some other peaks.

There was usually an accompanying maze of timber piled on every outside river bend. We peered through the trunks and branches hoping to see the somber face of Ernie. No luck. We did see a few old pieces of foam insulation and I wondered if these were fragments of a rapids battered Ernie. Could there be some sort of DNA tracing of the chunks to Ernie?

At one point, during a break, I slipped into the spruce forest to make my way upstream to cut a leaning spruce trunk that was bulging in mid stem with a softball-sized burl. I cut the burl and an accompanying two-foot section of the trunk and carried it back to the canoe. Proudly I showed Scott my future sauna water-dipping ladle. No Ernie, but I had a souvenir of spruce.

The river became a boa of bends, slowly drawing us further and further along. Each sand bar was riddled with moose tracks, beaver sign was abundant and here and there we saw where bears had been digging for tender roots. On one bend Scott pointed out a massive shed moose antler so we stopped and fetched it. Still no Ernie, but we had a handsome antler.

As we turned one tight corner and looked ahead, we spotted a pale orb in an upcoming logjam. We drifted towards it puzzled as to what it was. Only when we were within a few feet of it could we tell that under the coating of mud and grime that it was a soccer ball. I splashed water over the ball to wash it off and in the process discovered its name. Franklin. Still no Ernie but we had found Franklin.

After scores and scores of river bends, enough to hypnotize a swimming beaver, we suddenly found ourselves at the brink of a major gorge where the water roared its deep throaty challenge for us to enter. No way. Quickly we got to shore and were faced with a nearly vertical scramble up a very steep climb of fifty or so yards through spruce and brush.

Scott was not happy. Not at all. He let me know and in the process taught me a new word. ““This is idiocracy! If I’d had know this was here I would have not agreed to this trip.” Tired, we settled around the campfire as our supper cooked, sipping on the last feeble ration of Yukon Jack. Still no Ernie but I had been issued a new word to take home.

The third morning broke as a blue-sky repeat of the previous two days. We finished the portage and paddled into the river current below the gorge. During a pee break, we discovered large wolf tracks prancing around the point of sand. Looking up we discovered the reason for wolf giddiness. There was a trail of dry moose bones strewn along a trail. We wondered how many wolves did it take to kill the cow?

We rounded another bend, perhaps our 168th bend, and found ourselves facing the mother lode of all logjam. It spanned the entire river. We groaned about the work that lay ahead of us. Luckily we discovered that the right side of the jam was partially open next to shore. With the help of a camp saw and pushing some logs out of the way, we were able to heave the loaded canoe over partially submerged logs. We cheated the ragged jam that was easily six to eight feet over the water. We looked all over and around the jam for Ernie. He could have easily been buried under the tons of tangled logs. Nothing.

We knew there was a lower river gorge to deal with and while we heard tales of canoe carnage inflicted there. But we had also heard the set of rapids was runnable. Not long after the logjam, we rounded a corner and suddenly the river accelerated hurrying us towards a canyon of steep granitic walls. There was no choice but to quickly read the water and slalom our way through three bends of whitewater. We got hung up on a rock less than forty yards from the bottom. Quickly the current spun the canoe around, like a compass needle spinning north, and suddenly Scott was facing upstream. “We’ve got a problem!” he called out. I yelled for him to turn around and I did the same. And just like that we had changed paddling positions. I stepped out with one leg and pushed off a rock to free us and we finished the canyon in fine style. We earned our lunch.

Just downstream from the lunch spot, we entered another set of rapids and I mistakenly called out “Right!” I actually meant the other right. There was confusion and Scott blew up. This was our third spat in three days. This was the third of three brotherly verbal sparring matches. I was scolded in a rather biting way. Scott hissed accusations that he was tired of a lifetime of me telling him what to do. Of course, I hissed back at him which only added fuel to the argument.

Silently we paddled the next two bends. Sullenly I considered his biting words. He was right. It was no longer necessary for the older brother to watch out for his little brother. And to a degree he was right. I should lay off. But I love him and I will likely fail in not making future suggestions to him.

Suddenly we discovered that we earned the last river bend and the world opened up into Bennett Lake. After a half-hour of vigorous paddling on the windy lake we beached the canoe in Carcross where the truck was parked. We raised our hands and high-fived each other. We had made it. Alas, there was no Ernie. But over the two and a half days we had engaged with a river shaped like a series of question marks and discovered an antler, a unique burl and recovered Franklin, and perhaps the greatest treasure, a bonding of brothers.

Walking in a Graveyard

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

It was a morning where the sun owned the sky; a good time to visit a graveyard. Even though it was broad daylight, I had my eye out for bear. Besides, walking in a graveyard at night is just a little creepy. The smell was mostly boreal, a blend of spruce and balsam poplar. Seven dead were in plain sight even though the vegetation was growing up through portions of the large skeletons.

I carefully stepped through the bones of Tyrrell, a paddle wheel steamboat from the gold rush era. She had been laying here for nearly one hundred years. She was born in 1898, the same year as the great gold rush up on the Klondike. And now her remains are slowly merging with the riverside forest, less than five miles from those historic gold fields.

The locals call this quiet stretch of shoreline the Steamboat Graveyard. It is where seven steamboats, the Tyrrell, the Mary F. Graff, the Schwatka, the Seattle #3, the Julia B, the Victorian and the Alandian were pulled out of the Yukon River. They were victims of a forced retirement. They either needed major repairs or simply had outlived their time.

At the turn of the last century these proud sternwheelers had been the workhorses of the Yukon River. For over half a century, more than 240 steamboats plied the waters of the northern frontier. They were the primary means of transporting ore, freight and supplies up and down rivers. Built to travel over shallow rivers, these ships had a draft of only four and a half feet of water between the waterline and the flat bottom.

The power and design of the boats made it possible for a good pilot to hold the ship in the channel while carving a tight turn, almost like running in place, around a sharp river bend. Good river pilots became legendary for their ability to read the ever-changing river. They could quickly determine the river’s depth and mood by reading the swirls, eddies, and current lines. The pilots steered for the highway of smooth and fast water. When they spotted ripples and flecks of foam they maneuvered to avoid grounding the boat on shallow shoals. This was not an uncommon experience and the boats averaged two groundings per season. Some pilots were so adept at maneuvering the 36-foot wide boats between narrow riverbanks they were said to “move a boat like a fat man squeezing through a door.”

The steam engine that powered the paddle wheel had a healthy appetite for firewood. In 1951 it required 110 cords of wood to power a round trip between Whitehorse and Dawson City, a distance of 920 miles. Independent folks who enjoyed living in the bush made money cutting firewood for the paddle wheelers. They would stack logs along the riverbank and the ships would stop and resupply. Cost of firewood in 1951 was $22-28 per cord.

Even with a relatively cheap fuel, the end of the steamboat era was inevitable with the increase of aviation and highway building. The more modern means of transport were much faster than the boats that averaged ten miles per hour going downstream but only four miles an hour going upstream.

As there was no sign warning me not to investigate, no fences to keep me out, I delicately climbed up on to the deck of Tyrrell. She was 142 feet long. I tiptoed as lightly as I could over the weathered and twisted deck. The paint that had brightened the orange paddles and the white hulls was long grayed. Belching smoke stacks were a signature on these boats. Now one lay crumpled across the Tyrrell’s deck and the other was tilted like an aimed cannon.

Finding a ragged hole in the deck, I eased my way down into the boat’s hold. I crouched my way through the dark and damp cavern beneath the rotting deck. I ran my hand along the massive timbers that were the backbone of the ship’s hull. This once proud boat was built in 1898 in Vancouver, British Columbia. At that time giant Douglas fir were practically growing in the city limits. These trees had started their skyward growth hundreds of years before any European had stepped on to North America. It’s too bad these beams could not have been salvaged to reuse in other building projects before they started to soften in rot. But then maybe it is perfect that they return in this silent manner.

Due to their hard use and common encounters with the river bottom or banks, most riverboats were short-lived. Tyrrell was no exception. After twenty years of operation, she was dry docked here in 1918.

I climbed back out into the sunlight and stared at the tilting smoke stack. I imagined June 8, 1898, when that first steamboat pulled into the marshy site that would become Dawson City. Who would know that in the span of two years the population would grow to between 30,000 and 40,000 people making Dawson City the largest city in Canada west of Winnipeg. It is said that on that day of the boat’s arrival there were loud cheers by the gathered crowds who were intent on building a city and working the streams and hills for gold. They knew that there was whisky on that boat. Sixteen barrels to be exact. The purveyors of that whisky sold it for a dollar a shot and made more money than most miners. The majority of prospectors arrived to find the best gold bearing sites already claimed. Most miners returned home without any gold.

If a shot of whisky had been available as I paid my respects, I would have raised my glass in honor of these dead but not forgotten riverboats.

“There is joy in Dawson City.
When we hear that cheerin’ note,
From the nozzle of a tooter,
On a Yukon River boat.”
-Anonymous poet

No Name Rocks

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Not long after we returned to the Yukon this past spring, Nancy and I took up prospecting. One would think that with gold prices at record highs, over $1000 an ounce, we might have started the search long ago. But no, it was not gold we were after; we were looking for another rock. In our world at the Outpost, the rock had no name. Though I took a semester of geology in college, any knowledge on the subject has weathered away long ago.

We wanted rocks with strength and beauty for replacing the steps down to our river deck. The steps were beams salvaged thirty years ago from the old Annie Lake Road bridge. The foot high steps were too much of a leg lift and they were rotting. We wanted hefty rocks that had flat surfaces for stability and smooth, or mostly smooth, treads. We had been told by a long time Yukoner that flat rocks are a rarity in the Whitehorse area and that the best flat rocks are found several hours north. We began by searching the area close to the Outpost. We drove down a remote road, past the terminus of road maintenance, to some outwash areas that resemble deltas of rock spilling down off the mountains.

In our search we discovered a particular kind of rock that had an intriguing color and pattern, though it is rarely flat. The rock was black and splotched with irregular white to cream colored splats. The color like a reverse Dalmatian dog: white spots on black. All the specimens were rounded and smooth, indicating that over the millennia they had been tumbled in water.

Over the course of three or four trips down that part of the valley we would stop and pick rock for the truck ride back to the Outpost. Eventually we had a fair-sized rock pile on the riverbank. These included a couple of very flat rocks we had collected up in Keno. Keno is an old mining town, mostly deserted now, nearly six hours north of our place. I had also grunted a couple of reasonably flat stepping stones into the truck that I had spotted along the Alaska Highway.

The old beam steps mostly crumbled apart as I dug them up. Then I dug another three steps into the bank so that the rise was more gradual. Two days later I nudged the last flat rock puzzle piece into place. I spilled washed gravel into the joints of the placed rocks and danced up and down the steps to check for stability. While I had used some of our speckled rock in the treads and risers I still had quite a few left so I placed them down along each side of the steps to serve as sloping retaining walls.

Visitors commented on the fine workmanship and the pattern of the rocks. No one seemed to know what the speckled rock was called. One friend suggested I bring a small sample to Whitehorse to the Yukon Geological Survey staff.

So the next time we went to town for supplies, I took a golf ball sized sample rock and made my way into the sunlit foyer of the downtown building. I figured I was in the right room when I found the reception counter bearing a worn bumper sticker reading, “If it can’t be grown it’s gotta be mined.” This proclamation is to remind us that most everything we have and everything we use comes from our natural resources. And there are only two basic industries and those are agriculture and mining. Whether you like it or not, the economy north of sixty degrees is primarily driven by tourism and mining.

Luckily one geologist was on hand while all the others were at lunch. The well-tanned, strong looking woman, named Daniele, had an easy smile and was eager to see what I had found. Her first question was going to make her job easier. “Where did you find it?” Rocks can be like a signature to a particular locale.

She pulled out her small magnifying loupe to peer more closely at the rock. She began by explaining some simple geology, “Well this is clearly an igneous rock.” She peered over the loupe at me to see if I understood. I nodded and she continued. “It is a granitic rock that formed deep in the crust and slowly cooled under the crust of the overlaying material. These are called plutonic rocks.”

Scanning the surface of my sample rock with the rock held inches from her eye and magnifying loop, she continued. “You can see the large crystals. That is a good clue that tells of a slow cooling process.” She handed the lens to me for a look. Sure enough the small rectangular crystals were very evident. She went on to explain about the iron rich and dark colored blend of minerals called hornblende and the more abundant blend of minerals called feldspar.

And then I learned that over 700 types of igneous rocks have been formally described. How can I possibly retain the little bit that Daniele explained about my pocket sample when I am surrounded by a landscape of rock hard questions?

So if you come by our place I will gladly show you my new steps made up of a handsome collection of what I will continue to refer to as “no-name rocks.”

Walking and Talking in the Company of Bears

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

“You’ve got bear spray?” is a commonly heard query in the summer.

Recently we picked up our truck from Rick, a mechanically inclined neighbor some three miles down the Annie Lake Road from the Outpost. We had just told him we were off to head up the Alligator Lake trail on our mountain bikes. The plan was to ride six or seven miles and then rest our “bush ponies” as Nancy calls them, and hike to the summit of Goat Mountain. We assured him that we had a couple of cans of the potent pepper spray.

Pepper spray, also known as OC spray (from “Oleoresin Capsicum”), OC gas, and capsicum spray, is formally known as a lachrymatory agent. This is a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain, and even temporary blindness. It is frequently used in riot and crowd control, and personal self-defense. The pepper spray used on bears is far more potent than the human deterrent.*

In writing the series of regional books, Things That Bite: A Realistic Look at Critters that Scare People, I have consistently found that across the continent, there is an overriding fear of bears. (The book is available online, in most major book store or through Adventure Publications.

I believe there is a deep-rooted, primal fear of large carnivorous animals. Somewhere in our brief history we were prey to larger animals that sometimes found our flesh tasty. These included alligators, sharks, large cats and bears. Most people believe that all bears are inherently dangerous and consequently many bears are killed without a charge of guilty.

Let’s set the record straight. The wild critters that cause more human deaths every year than any other beast in North America is the honeybee and other stinging wasps and hornets. And the only reason they sting is that when they feel threatened they will sting to protect themselves and their home colony. Two percent of the human population is allergic to their venom and could go into anaphylactic shock. Without proper diagnosis or medical attention the person who has been stung can die of breathing complications.

Rick, the mechanic, went on to say that in his thirty plus years in the Yukon he had never seen so much bear sign as this year. Other long time residents have been echoing Rick’s observations. Indeed we likewise had noted the abundance of piles of bear crap alongside the road. And no, there was no distinct odor of pepper spray nor any bear bells in the feces.

When we get visitors from Minnesota, they almost always ask about bears and usually show real concern when we venture out for a hike. While Nancy and I are out mountain biking, backcountry hiking, canoeing or camping at least three times a week, we have yet to spray our bear spray. This summer we have had two encounters with grizzly bears and one night while I was on my mountain bike I suddenly found myself less than ten yards from a husky black bear. Both of us looked surprised. I kept pedaling, no faster and no slower, the bear simply stood and watched me moving on.

Two years ago we had a very blonde and very adult grizzly come ambling down a hill towards our campsite while on a canoe trip in the remote country of the Wind River of the northern Yukon. The bear came within 35 yards of us; six of us all huddled together to make ourselves look large and ominous. It was a sudden flap of the tarp in a gust of wind that scared that bear away.

Three weeks ago we were taking a break from hiking up in the alpine area above Fraser Lake in northern British Columbia, when we spotted a very large grizz ambling along swinging its massive head back and forth as it munched on the abundance of wild produce. It was about 300 yards from us and we simply sat and watched. With a breeze blowing towards the bear, it suddenly stopped, lifted its snout skyward and sniffed our presence. In the briefest of moments, the bear swung around and took off running. We watched the bruin gallop for at least a mile.

Then yesterday we were up on top of White Mountain in the alpine area. We hiked over s a slight rise and there was a grizzly bear about 150 yards from us. The bear paused to look at the four hikers and three leashed dogs. I might add that the dogs stayed silent but they were straining at their leashes. The handsome bear did not dally and it turned an about face and loped away.

Seeing grizzly bears is a tremendous highlight but we have learned that the best deterrent is to simply be aware of where you are. You are in the bears “house.” It is best that you do not slip in quietly. You should be making noise.

Last summer I interviewed Rick Sinoff, a wildlife biologist from Anchorage, Alaska. He is very aware of bear/human issues. “You don’t want to ever surprise a bear. You should make noise, sing a loud song or whatever it takes to make your presence known, particularly while in thickly vegetated areas.” Most bears will do their best to avoid you if you let them know you are in the area.

And traveling with others is a good idea. Sinoff noted, “Grizzly bears rarely attack groups of 4 or more people. Because almost all brown bear attacks are defensive, often involving cubs or food, and contact is rare, the best way to avoid an attack is to talk to the bear, increase distance without running, and play dead only when contact is made. Black bears are usually much less dangerous. They tend to avoid people. However, if a black bear follows you or approaches closely, the bear is not behaving defensively, so be prepared to fight it off. It’s too late to wish you had a can of bear spray in your hand when a bear charges or approaches very closely: much better to carry it with you within easy reach.”

Just this morning Nancy and I walked downstream through the brush along the Watson River hoping to find two plastic chairs that blew off our river deck during a recent blow. While we didn’t find the chairs, we did find some blueberries.

And yes, we carried the bear spray and chattered along the way.

*In the past few years the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of bear spray to firearms. The following is a synopsis of that study:
When it comes to self-defense against grizzly bears, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt. Evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death of the human or the bear. While firearms can kill a bear, can a bullet kill quickly enough — and can the shooter be accurate enough — to prevent a dangerous, even fatal, attack? The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun. Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality — based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research — a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used. Awareness of bear behavior is the key to mitigating potential danger. Detecting signs of a bear and avoiding interaction, or understanding defensive bear behaviors, like bluff charges, are the best ways of escaping injury. The Service supports the pepper spray policy of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which states that bear spray is not a substitute for following proper bear avoidance safety techniques, and that bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear.

A Delightfully Noisy Neighbor

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Yukon residents generally keep to themselves but our neighbor to the west, Watson, must never sleep. Always restless and on the go and always, always making noise.

Silence, real silence, is difficult to secure. Even in the wee, dark hours of a new day, any home might sound quiet, but true silence is nearly impossible. Granted, such noiseless moments are more difficult for those who live in urban areas or near a highway or hospital with its string of sirens. And if you live in a rural area you will likely find that long after the lights and bedding have been turned down and all seems quiet, you can focus your fading attention to the simplest of whispers. In some houses it is the quiet hum of the fridge or the seasonal blow of cool air-conditioned or heated furnace air.

Here at the Outpost, only seven miles inside the power grid that allows me to type these words and listen to my own fridge, we are always in the company of a lively neighboring river titled Watson. Some would argue that even a formally named neighbor who constantly drones on in liquid tones would be tiresome.

How is it that the music of moving waters, whether they are hurried downstream by gravity, splashing over rocks, boulders and sheets of gravel settles my inner being, lowers my blood pressure and carries away tensions? Or how can wind-heaved waves cast onto lake and ocean shorelines draw my attention and then peacefully hypnotize me? Even small drops of a steady rain on a roof or tent will inspire me to pause and anchor to rest in my quiet place.

What is the magic hold, the power to stop us, to slow us down from pretended urgencies, that moving water has on us? I wonder if it is a primal calling. A calling us home so to speak. That would put us in the company of the salmon that are called home from the ocean to the very stream from which they were born. Powerfully, they swim, leap up hefty rivers and subject themselves to a gauntlet of nets, claws, teeth and talons as they are determined to drive on towards their home waters.

Does my homage to the moving water align me with the ancient waters from which our evolution as a species might have come from? After all my own blood is more like saltwater than freshwater and it could be that I carry my birth waters within my humble frame.
Or could it be that the fondness for water symphony is not unlike the internal watershed of our own circulatory system? Perhaps our nine months, or in my case seven months, of floating in our mother’s amniotic pool and surrounding circulatory flow has left an indelible emotional bookmark, an affinity towards songs of serenity delivered by moving water.

From spring through fall and even into early winter, no matter what the weather is, Watson’s ramblings are the first thing we hear when we step outdoors. We often stroll, coffee in hand, to the small section of dock that is perched over the river. The river’s movement and score of music demand our attention so we often sit in silence and just watch and listen. We are not alone in our attraction to Watson’s neighborliness. One day a mink hurried by as it bobbed expertly through the rapids in passing us. More recently, a trio of red-breasted mergansers dawdled, preening themselves on a midriver boulder that sits at the river bend just upstream from the dock. Was it the river’s restful noise that attracted a mid-May cow moose and her newborn, gangly-legged calf to the river’s edge near the merganser resting rock? And even bears have left clues of their riverside dining in the diggings of succulent roots located just feet from the river.

Spending enough time with Watson has made us keenly aware of the river’s cadence and signature song. So it came as no surprise when we suddenly became aware of a new sound coming from the river. Curious I went down to investigate and discovered that Watson was being retuned.

I am married to a fine musician. Nancy loves jamming with other players and does so weekly. While she adds her lively fiddle to the mix, I sometimes will join them by contributing some simple and tentative percussion. We have found that a cylindrical Scotch container housing a handful of rice makes a good shaker that almost sounds like raspy snare drum. Or beating our five-gallon blue water container adds an amazing variety of percussion tones. While mindlessly beating or shaking, I like to watch the real musicians. The guitarists, usually a pair of them, will often affix a clamp, called a capo on the neck of their guitars, compressing the instrument’s strings to raise the guitar’s tone.

Down at the river deck, I looked upstream towards the merganser’s boulder and discovered that Watson now had its own capo. A long, smooth log had floated downriver during the late spring high water period and had jammed itself up on the boulder. It had now swung on its rocky pivot point and stopped perpendicular to the river’s flow creating an instant small ledge from which new river notes were coming. Like a metronome, the log slowly rose and fell in the surging current, as if it were tapping its thick trunk in time to the music.

I wondered if I were to brave the cold, mountain-born waters and wade into the river and roll some of the large rocks into new positions if I could, in fact, be a composer of sorts. I would argue that such a task would make me a songwriter of liquid lyrics.

The capo log has not gone unnoticed by another neighbor who lives north of the Outpost. The other day, ten-year old Anthony urged me up Pulpit Hill to look down on the river. Excitedly, he pointed out the recently stranded log. I loved the fact that he had found this newsworthy event worthy of neighbor news. Earlier in the day I had noticed that the log had also attracted the attention of a passing spotted sandpiper that paused and bobbed its tail up and down as it inspected the river log. I like to think it stopped to take in the new music, raising and lowering its tail in time to the rivers beat, rather than look for small invertebrate tidbits on the log’s surface.

Our bed is less than forty feet from the river. During the we often open the window above our heads. When my head settles into the pillow, the river never fails to lull me to sleep. In the evening, Watson’s flow sounds like a distant applause that rises and falls but never tires.

Good night Watson.



Nancy and I made the trip to Dawson last weekend to watch some of the River Quest Canoe and Kayak Race come into the finish. The total race distance was 460 miles. Due to the rainy, cold weather at the start and then facing a very rough paddle on Lake Lebarge, nearly 1/3 (around 22 teams) of the teams that started the race scratched. The winning team, the Texans, a voyageur canoe with six paddlers won the race again this year. This men’s team has won the race three of the last four years. They finished the grueling race in 42 hours and 48 minutes. Eleven seconds behind them was a solo kayaker from Sausalito, California.

I spoke with Rod Price, the Floridian, when he finished at about 7:30 AM. He said that at about 6 AM, that morning, he had drank two cans of Red Bull to try and stay awake. Not long after drinking them, he actually lost his balance during a stroke due to his drowsiness and he tipped over into the cold river. Alone and no one in sight, he had “to do a Michael Phelps” and swim after his drifting canoe, grab it and get he and the boat to shore where he could empty it and change into dry clothes. “It did wake me up though.”

For results and team bios go to the Yukon River Quest website.

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Not Fit for Man Nor Beast

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Overcast and rainy all AM,
Morning Temps (F): 40-mid 40s

I was out of bed before six o’clock. Rain was falling and it looked gloomy. I was supposed to be in Whitehorse at 7 AM. I had shuffled to the kitchen, got a pot of coffee going and turned on the computer to log in for the regional weather check. Hmmmm. . . .what was this? A “Rainfall Warning? ” Predicting up to 15mm of rain!?!? That means a deluge of just over a half an inch to those of you metricphobes out there. Is that an ark I see the worried neighbors building? Why back at Basecamp in Minnesota, a half-inch of rain is generally praised in platitudes rather than deemed a “warning.”

Perhaps in this part of the Yukon, that is officially deemed arid or semi-arid, such warnings are necessary. Visitors are surprised by the dryness found here. No cacti or hump-bearing moose mind you, but plenty of sand and stunted and sparse vegetation.

Watersheds are fed by numerous creeks and freshets and they will rise when a rainfall occurs. The mighty Yukon River is fed by a whole landscape of gurgling and rushing circulation. And on this day, this mighty river provided a speedway for the start of the “Yukon River Quest, the Longest, annual canoe and kayak marathon.” The 460 mile race starts in Whitehorse, the territorial capital and goes to Dawson City. . . .a city built during the famed Klondike gold rush back in 1898.

Though I fantasize about paddling this race, I am reluctant to subject myself to hours and hours of sitting, going without sleep, enduring rain, winds or scorching sun and then continuing for more hours and hours. It’s not that I mind a bit of suffering in a competition, as I have endured running marathons, short sprint canoe races, cross country skiing for over 50 km and more recently cycling a leg of the Chilkat International Bike Relay over the Coastal Mountains from the Yukon to Alaska. I have likely paddled thousands of miles on various remote canoe trips and not-so-remote canoe excursions, but for some reason I have a block on paddling the Yukon River Quest. If I ever do it, it will be simply to do it and not compete in it.

So one way to participate in the event is to volunteer. I did so and so I was there helping with equipment checks on the paddler’s boats. With clipboard in hand, I went down a list of gear that each boat must have. The needed equipment included things like a spare paddle, spray skirt, a throw bag or heaving line for rescue purposes, a navigation light for nighttime paddling, river maps, adequate food as there will be no stores to buy food while enroute, sleeping bags that are rated for 20 degrees F or colder, a proper first aid kit with a minimum of listed items and so on. We had done our first equipment check the day before so that any missing items could be secured for the final pre-race equipment check on race morning.

Before leaving the Outpost I downed a cup and a half of hot coffee, chewed down a bowl of cold cereal and made a sandwich out of leftover salmon cakes before I suited up in stout rain gear and headed out the door.

In a little over a half an hour I pulled into the Yukon Visitor Center parking lot, grabbed my umbrella and made my way through steady rain to the starting area. A green tarp was strung up for the volunteers to gather under and get final instructions. We donned our orange mesh volunteer vests and began greeting arriving racers.

It was a dismal morning and as we did equipment checks it was clear that there were two distinct schools of thought on the weather. One was “It’s quite perfect and lovely.” And the other was “Yuck. . .it’s cold and miserable.”

Teams like the tandem Seattle young men and voyageur team of British fellows actually wanted more wind and chop so as to replicate their respective home training waters. Another paddler, Rod Price, a veteran of several paddling competitions, including the Great River Amazon Rafting Race in Peru. He is the author of a recently published book, Racing to the Yukon. Rod was mixing up a gallon jug of a Hammer energy drink under the Volunteer Tarp. Home for him was Florida, yet he thought the conditions for the race were good and he wouldn’t mind more wind as it would quickly separate the competition. He clearly came here to compete. In fact he was on the winning tandem canoeing team for last year’s inaugural Yukon 1000 Mile Canoe Race down the Yukon River.

Then there are the teams who will measure victory by simply finishing the race downriver in Dawson City. There was the father/daughter team from Cleveland, Ohio. They were easy to check in as they were so organized. With an indelible Sharpie, the twenty eight year old daughter had neatly printed the number of calories contained in each sandwich or snack bag.

Another pair of paddlers, two young men, dressed as a pirate and an accompanying parrot were trying to use humor to relax themselves and other paddlers. Secretly I hoped they would kick ass and win but you know they won’t.

Then there are the teams of voyageur canoes. These boats hold 6-8 paddlers and one of them will most certainly complete the 460 miles in the fastest time. . . .likely around 40 hours. There is the team from Texas, plus one Californian, who barely lost to a team of Canadians two years ago. They created a stir with complaints about the high tech, all carbon canoe that the Canadians used. The Texans came back to win it last year, in a carbon boat, and are here to defend their title.

Looked to me that there were three lightweight carbon voyageur boats in this year’s race. The prize of “most beautiful” arguably went to a team of middle-aged British men. The boat, not unlike several of the entries that have sailed in the highly prestigious America’s Cup sailing race, was kept under wraps most of the morning. In recent years, several of the Cup entries have been cloaked so the competition cannot see design innovations in the boat’s hull. The group of British paddlers, were so properly polite and looked fit. Indeed, it turns out that several had experience in rowing the Atlantic. Their all-black wardrobe of rain gear and head gear matched the canoe color and marked them as the team to be reckoned with. Hardly villains, but why not start the race psychologically before you even get in the canoe? I heard a competing paddler mumble in reverence something about “Men in Black.” Clearly he had already thrown in the towel.

Temperatures not much above freezing had the a pair of paddlers from South Africa concerned. It appears they assumed that a race across the land of the midnight sun, means eternal summer. I suspect the team from Finland and maybe Austria and France were better equipped.

This year marked the tenth anniversary of a Yukon voyageur team of women breast cancer survivors. A dear Yukon neighbor, Claire, who lives about two and a half miles upriver from us, was paddling sixth race for the Paddlers Abreast team. About four years ago a wonderfully moving film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada <> called the River of Life. It is a documentary that tells the story of this amazing group of women.

Two years ago a group of Australian women, all breast cancer survivors, watched the film and were so moved that they have made the long trip to North America and with their husbands or family as support teammates, they are entered in this race. Several of the women have dragonboating experience and all of them have completed a 24 hour paddle challenge. Out of respect and solidarity the Aussies have chosen the team name: “Yukon Buddies.” At 10:30 AM the two cancer surviving teams gathered at the river’s edge and tossed pink carnations into the river’s current. Clearly they are all winners and they hadn’t even shoved their boats into the current.

Finally, chilled to the core, we completed the equipment checks on all the canoes and kayaks. We helped the teams carry their loaded boats to the river’s edge. It was quite a scene looking up and down the river and seeing all the colorful craft with their bows floating in the river and the stern still tucked on shore.

All the racers gathered about one city block away for introductions and comments from race dignitaries. And at noon, the loud horn signaled “Go!” This dash would be the last exercise their legs would have for many hours and even days. Most of them will have to be helped from their craft at the first mandatory seven hour layover in Carmacks, some 200 miles downriver.

I stood watching the last of the paddlers disappear around the distant curve of the river. This wasn’t a day suited for even a leisurely paddle, not to mention a nearly 500 mile outing. I quickly shed my volunteer vest and with water dripping off my wide-brimmed hat, I shivered and hurried for my truck for the ride back to the Outpost. I couldn’t wait for a hot shower and a piping hot cup of hot chocolate. And maybe a mid-afternoon nap under a heap of blankets might be in order.

For updates on this year’s race go to their website at

Fetching Garden Seed

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Gardening at the Outpost is a challenge. While there is ample sunshine in the summer the cold river that skirts our yard is a corridor for cool breezes that wash over our garden.

During our first summer here, two years ago, a Whitehorse gardener friend was visiting. He strolled over to the garden and was mightily impressed with our bonsai garden. I recall my potatoes were about four inches tall and it was the end of July. With the river breezes and being situated low in the valley we have chilly conditions for the garden. It didn’t help that we received five inches of snow on June 9th of that summer.

According to a friend, Val, who operates three thirty-foot long greenhouses in raising bedding plants for two garden centers in Whitehorse, “All soil does in the Yukon is provide texture, you have to add the nourishment.” So the first step is soil building by seriously composting.

Farming livestock is mostly done on a personal scale up here. It is not unusual for folks to have a few chickens, rabbits and perhaps a horse or two. Occasionally one finds someone raising a pig or two and a handful of sheep or goats. Manure is hard to come by and it is valued. There are some small horse operations for offering tourists trail rides or providing horses for backcountry big game hunting purposes. One learns to scrounge where you can.

Several of our neighbors, including Val, use a brew called “manure tea,” to enhance their crops. All you do is scoop a few cups of manure into a burlap sack, tie the end shut and drop this potent tea bag into a barrel of water. The enhanced fertile water is then doled out to the plants as needed providing both needed moisture and nutrients.

On the way to the Outpost, less than six hours from here, we paused along the Alaska Highway, to gather bison droppings. During the winter and early spring, the bison concentrate along the highway corridor where humans have inadvertently created corridors of pastureland for the big ruminants. After the snow melts the ditches are specked with large brown piles that resemble over baked cinnamon buns. With gloves on, I moved quickly from pile to pile stashing them in my big garbage bag. Most of the mounds of fertilizer were already dried by the spring sun and weighed almost nothing. My hope was that this bag of plop and plunder, when added to our Yukon compost pile, would boost the garden’s production.

Then there is the issue of good seed stock. We learned from a neighbor who grows and sells vegetables for the Whitehorse Farmer’s Market every Thursday that Denali seed grows well here, particularly the spinach. It is a northern variety of seed developed in Alaska. She said that it is available at the hardware in Skagway Alaska, ninety miles from here.

Well who would know we would have the opportunity to marry pleasure a task into one episode. A friend called and asked if we wanted to partake in the “Yukoner’s Special” and take the train ride from Fraser, British Columbia, not far over the Yukon boundary, to Skagway. The cost; a mere $27 each.

The sun shone bright that sunny day as we drove an hour south on the South Klondike Highway to Fraser. We passed four black bears that at this time of the year find the roadside gardens of greenery particularly inviting and sumptuous.

The White Pass Railroad still functions in the summer months, primarily as a tourist attraction. Thousands ride the rails through one of the most spectacular sections of rail line in the world. The passenger cars are replicas of the old ones and you feel as if you have stepped back into time. Each car is named after a regional lake. Amazingly, we were ushered by a historically correct conductor to the car titled Lake Annie on its side. Our Yukon Outpost is located just off the Annie Lake Road and the lake itself is ten miles west of us.

This railroad was built in two years around the turn of the last century as a means to accommodate the floods of gold stampeders and commerce that followed the gold rush.
Over 35,000 men worked year around on the project. At the summit it is not unusual for over twenty feet of snow to accumulate. Hundreds of thousands of tons of dynamite were used to sculpt a mountain pass up and over the Coastal Mountain range.
In that time it seemed almost miraculous that only 35 laborers died during the railroad construction.

Given that we would be descending from the summit up near Fraser to Skagway, we would be moving quite slowly, hopefully, through the numerous bends. We passed through two tunnels cut through the mountain and passed over several trestle bridges.
Those who wanted to brave the outside cool air, could move to the platforms between the linked cars and shoot photographs.

As we descended from the alpine landscape into the temperature, lush forests around Skagway the air temperature warmed and the passing landscape became almost jungle like with ferns and more flowers. Spring was more advanced at the lower elevations.

We pulled into Skagway and were informed that we would have fifteen minutes to stretch and relax before our return trip back up the pass. We strategized and got directions to the hardware. It would be a four-block scurry. And scurry we did. We hustled down the wooden sidewalks, counting the blocks into the old hardware and found quickly found the rack of Denali Seed. No spinach. We grabbed packets of Swiss chard, mustard greens, various lettuces, kale and peas. Since our plans are to return to Minnesota in the fall, we were only interested in cool weather crops that we could enjoy this summer.

Nervously, I looked at my watch as I waited for the man in front of me at the cashier buy his kitchen cookware. With the seed packets jammed into our pockets, hurried back to the train and arrived with a few minutes to spare.

The return trip to the car was slower as we climbed and climbed. No bears were spotted on the way home. The next day we slowly made our way along scratched furrows in the garden tucking seeds into the warm soil that was flecked with crumpled bits of bison gold. I was visualizing fresh salads and crisp pea pods.

Chasing Yellow-Rumps

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Clearly I need to clarify this entry’s title. One might think we are pursuing a coward’s rear end as they retreat, but in this case we are following the vanguard of yellow-rumped warblers as they migrate northward. Prior to leaving Minnesota we got word from our Yukon Outpost that these early migrant warblers had arrived along the Watson River, in the Hamlet of Mt. Lorne. It would be frivolous if I claimed that such news inspired us to pack up our pick up truck and head north from our Minnesota Base Camp to the Yukon but that would be stretching it.

Ever since we returned to Minnesota last fall, we knew we would be returning to the Yukon this spring to recharge our wilderness batteries. With a dependable house sitter in place and a truck packed reasonably full, complete with two bikes and a red canoe tied securely on the topper, we pulled out on the tenth day of May.

The pair of Vesper sparrows that flashed their white outer tail feathers in fluttering out of our way at the end of the driveway reminded me that we needed to start our “trip bird list.” Nancy began the process of jotting down the names of birds as we encountered them on the backside of an old envelope she found in the pocket of the passenger door. This exercise helps to pass the time on road trips and is simply a list of all the bird species that we observe on a road trip. Compiling a trip bird list is a great way to sharpen observation skills and note habitat and accompanying bird species. Some might argue that driving and birding could be the equivalent of driving while drinking a handful of beers or texting messages to anyone interested in such drivel. Since I will not drink and drive nor text or chatter on a cell phone, particularly since we don’t own one, I will periodically scan the roadsides and passing landscape for birds.

While I am very fond of birds and take pride in my ability to identify them, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool bird lister. Some birders are listers. They keep track of “life lists” or a tally of every bird species they have ever seen or positively identified by song or call. While I have had wonderful opportunities to watch birds from the high arctic to the Amazon rainforest and even on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, I really have no clue how many bird species I’ve seen.

Just beyond our driveway, before the blacktop county road, we had scored our second entry, an American crow. Immediately, Nancy asked me for my prediction of how many birds we would total over the next 2,500 miles. Without any deliberate analytical thinking I blurted out “Fifty three species.”

The first day of birding on the road, particularly if you pass through diverse habitats, is like picking off the easy low-hanging fruit as you tally common birds. For nearly nine hours we drove northwest to a friend Karen’s strawbale home located on a lovely, rolling expanse of North Dakota prairie speckled with wetlands. Her closest neighbor is three miles, much further than our closest Minnesota neighbor. Surprisingly, our nearest Yukon neighbor is perhaps 150 yards away from the Outpost.

Karen joined us for a tour of her 611 acres of restored prairie/wetland complex. While we spotted no sharptail grouse we marveled at the trampled ground where the males had been earnestly dancing a few weeks ago. Karen suddenly held up her hand as if to be quiet and we listened to a pure tinkling sound that drew a smile on her face as she declared “Sprague’s Pipit.” The details of the distant sparrow were not easily observable but Karen, an avid birder and artist, is very familiar with this increasingly rare bird. It was a new bird for me, as I could not recall ever seeing or hearing one. We walked back to her house for a supper of sharptail grouse breasts simmering in a mushroom sauce.
But before we stepped in, I heard the distinctive winnowing of a high-flying common snipe. He was number fifty for the day. Not bad.

The next day we crossed comfortably into Canada, clearing the border in less than five minutes. Not bad compared to the three hour crossing two years ago. We hadn’t gone far when I scored a big hovering rough-legged hawk for the trip list. It was species number fifty-four, the bird that surpassed my own trip estimate of fifty three. We passed through the flat southern Saskatchewan country where oil wells scattered across grain stubbled expanses of fields seem to tirelessly bow up and down to unknown gods.

A couple hours west of Saskatoon, we found a small Fibre Mill Farm, where we would be spending the night in an old one-roomed schoolhouse. That evening as Nancy and I strolled through a yawning coulee that curved down through the rolling prairie, It was there that I got to watch the darting, mouse like antics of a LeConte’s sparrow As daylight eased into dusk, we flushed a great horned owl from a thicket of aspen near a livestock water dugout. It was number fifty-eight.

Two days later we finally reached the Alaska Highway. However, not until you pass through the oil country of St. John and Fort Nelson can you really ease into an epic landscape that draws out sudden exclamations of astonishment. As we climbed higher in elevation, we encountered some stubborn sightings of roadside patches of snow. The aspens here are only beginning to show the slightest of green blushes. I am confident we have advanced ahead of the primary songbird migration, as any sightings of feathers were less common.

At Summit Lake, in northern British Columbia, the highest point on the Alaska Highway, we encountered winter. The lake was white and frozen while the surrounding area was still nearly knee deep or more in snow. Leaving Summit behind us, we descended and it didn’t take long to come upon the soft greening of aspens again.

Number sixty-eight came shortly after passing five elk on the slope to our right. It was a cautious ruffed grouse that took its time in crossing the Alaska Highway directly in front of us.

The yellow-rumped warbler is generally the first warbler species to make its appearance in Minnesota each year. They move on northwardand are common nesters at the Yukon Outpost. We did not see our first one until we were at the Liard Hot Springs. I might add I tallied a Lincoln’s sparrow while I slowly and quietly breaststroked across the hot springs to within six feet of the little foraging fellow.

Oddly we never did see a single loon the entire trip and the last bird we tallied, number eighty-six, only two hours from our destination at the Outpost, was a bald eagle. Go figure.

The irony about this whole bird listing exercise is that once we arrived at the Outpost and I settled down to read the Yukon News Newspaper, I found a story announcing that Hollywood is coming to the Yukon this summer. A portion of an upcoming movie, entitled The Big Year will be shot in the northern part of the territory and will star Steve Martin, Jeff Black and Owen Wilson. The movie is based on a book, of the same title, by Mark Obmascik who, in 1998, followed a trio of competitive birdwatchers who raced around North America trying to spot the most bird species in one year. This sort of competition attracts bird fanatics who drop everything in their lives to spend a year scouting out sometimes more than 600 species of birds. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to the movie.

I wonder if they need any stand in birders?


The following is the entire bird list. I have also included our wild mammal tally for the Alaska Highway portion of our trip.

1) Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Common Egret
American Bittern
Canada Goose
10) No. Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Am. Wigeon
Wood Duck
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
20) No. Harrier
Am. Kestrel
Ring-necked Pheasant
Wild Turkey
Moorhen (Coot)
Upland Plover
Common Snipe
30) Ring-billed Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Tree Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Blue Jay
Common Crow
40) Robin
Eastern Bluebird
Sprague’s Pipit
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Vesper Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

Day 2 Bird List

50) Horned Grebe
House Sparrow
Harris Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Rough-legged Hawk
Horned Lark
Rusty Blackbird
Western Kingbird
Great-horned Owl
LeContes Sparrow

Day 3 Bird List
60) Avocet
Savannah Sparrow

Day 4 Bird List
White-throated Sparrow
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Water Pipits
Ruffed Grouse
70) Common Goldeneye
Barred Owl
Ring-necked Duck
Belted Kingfisher
Trumpeter Swan

Day 5 Bird List
Mew Gull
Gray Jay
Common Merganser
Dark-eyed Junco
Yellow-rumped Warbler
80) Semi-palmated Plover
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper

Bird List Day 6
Spotted Sandpiper
Herring Gull
86) Bald Eagle

Alaska Highway Wild Mammal List
1 red squirrel
1 coyote
1 red fox
9 black bears
8 moose
20 stone sheep
5 elk
33 woodland bison
5 mule deer

Passing of the Shack Patriarch

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

In the dim dawning of daybreak on day four, I quietly passed Humility Grove as I headed uphill with my pack on my back and rifle slung over my shoulder to my distant deer stand. The cathedral of half a dozen or so of old white cedar trees seem to demand silence and a humble attitude. They help remind me that I’m not all that important in the grand scheme of things. For years now, I have made it an annual practice to stop and pay my respects the day before the hunt. And then, several days later, I always stop again to pay my respects before heading out of the bush and back home.

It felt good. . .real good. . .to be back in the northwoods at the renowned deer shack for another deer hunt. Actually I missed the 2008 hunt, as Nancy and I were 2500 miles north in the Yukon Territory. By this time a year ago, we had one-third of a big bull moose in the freezer. A brand new freezer I might add, purchased simply because we were the recipients of this precious stash of moose meat. I had been an unarmed participant in the moose hunt but I had helped skin, gut, quarter and ferry out the big animal downriver, around numerous bends, across small lakes and down a mile or more of exciting rapids.

Though the annual event is steeped in ritual, this year’s hunt was very different. A little over a month ago, the deer camp patriarch, Ev Nelson, had failed to wake up. The day before he slipped away, he had gone to church in the morning and then as usual volunteered at The Villages, assisted living center, where he helped push residents in their wheel chairs to lunch, where he always joined them. That evening he spoke with his younger brother and two of his sons before going to bed for the ultimate rest.

Less than a month before his passing, Ev had turned 96 years old. Not only was he one of the builders of the 1940 deer shack, but also he had been hunting in the vicinity of the shack since 1932. The only time he missed the annual deer hunt was during his three years he was in Europe during WWII and a couple of years during the Korean conflict.

For years Ev’s brother Tip, another one of the shack builders, had been part of the shack brotherhood. He died in his eighties at least ten years ago but his stories, sense of humor and presence are still felt here. In fact for this hunt, I am borrowing his old 30.06 from his son and my buddy, Nels.

For over a decade Ev has put aside his old Model 94, lever action .3030. His vision and hearing were going downhill and so in recent years he has provided our camp cook, Howard, with support while fully imparting his decades of knowledge and wisdom on the rest of us. He never smirked when he would adamantly interpret a deer track. “Now this one is a doe.” Pausing, he might add, “and she has known a buck this year.” To “know” a buck is a biblical interpretation of having had sex with it.

His deer-hunting prowess was legendary. Ev’s ability to stay in a favorite birch tree for the entire day, without any nailed boards or portable stand to aid in his comfort, is still spoken about in a tone of wonder and awe. He would wrap an old rope around his waist, tying it to the birch trunk to prevent his falling to the ground, wedge his foot, alternating it through the day with his opposite foot to prevent it from going totally numb, and stay from dawn to dusk. Only at midday would he climb down and eat his leftover breakfast pancake lathered in jelly. Then he’d go back up in the tree. Ev consistently shot deer from the Medusa-limbed birch. The tree is still standing and if you want to find it, Ev would tell you, “Cross the river, head out east, past the Sugar Tit and just north of the Black Forest.”

Every deer camp has a mythical buck that never dies. Generations of young hunters find sleep difficult on the eve of their first hunt simply because that limb-antlered buck keeps weaving its way through the tangle of their dreams. At day’s end, as the hunters returned to the shack, Ev often asked if they had seen ‘High Boy.’ High Boy, named for his towering antlers, was a favorite buck that a local North Shore bachelor used to feed in his deeryard every winter.

The last buck Ev shot was in 1988, when he was 86 years young. When I asked him how far the shot was, he answered, “Oh about a five wood.” Having golfed with Ev some time ago, I translated that he killed the deer from 100 to 150 yards. . . about a five wood.

The man was fit. I recall a story when he had a bit of a heart episode years ago, sometime in his 80s. He was in the hospital and they wanted to do a stress test so they got him on a bicycle. First thing he did was to pedal briskly along. . . backwards. Turns out he had never learned to ride a bike. He was an inveterate hiker. He walked a third of a mile on his morning pilgrimage to the town bakery, post office and grocery store. Until her death he hiked four miles each day to and from Green Acres Nursing home to visit his wife, Dorothy. In the winter he would take the shortcut and snowshoe cross-country. He golfed at least one round nearly every day, spring through fall.

Three years ago, at the age of 94, he goaded one of the upper bunk sloths into joining him in a round of morning calisthenics. During his time in the army as Staff Sergeant Nelson, known by his army buddies as “Snorkie,” Ev would sometimes lead his men with calisthenics.

In recent years Ev’s loss of hearing allowed him to easily disregard the snarl of snoring in the close sleeping quarters of the shack. After one particularly explosive night, one tired hunter wondered, “Maybe we should add another story to the shack to accommodate the snorers.” Ev quickly responded, “Shoot, we have enough stories in here now!”

And while he didn’t hear the detail in words he could make out the cadence and rhyme. Two years ago I had mentioned it was twelve degrees outside. He nodded and replied, “Oh sure a little breeze doesn’t hurt.”

When I told the news of Ev’s death to an older neighbor of ours back home, he exclaimed, “Oh gosh, you don’t say? You know that’s how Irving Anderson died, peaceful like, in his sleep.” I nodded, “I remember. . . Irving was my grandpa.”

Dr. Andrew Weil, world renowned leader in the field of integrative medicine and best selling author, speaks of how we should all ascribe to living a full life, eating right, moving the body, engaging in community, reducing stress. He lectures that we should strive for “compressed morbidity.” Which basically means when you die you don’t linger, you go fast and hopefully easily.

Now as I glanced uphill at the giant cedars in Humility Grove, I wondered how their aging process was going. For years and years, this temple of trees has not openly changed. Stout trees and men like Everett teach me much on how to live and how to die. His oldest son Mike shared, “You know I never knew dad to be angry or say an angry word about anyone.” I’m not sure Ev even knew what the word ‘stress’ meant.

The hefty buck I shot later that morning died quickly. Feeling the usual mix of emotions upon approaching a dead deer, I was mostly grateful for a winter’s worth of prime meat. It had been a privilege to pause among the giants of Humility Grove. And I lived a day long prayer in sitting up in a tree watching the climb and drop of the sun’s arc.

I leaned the rifle against an old birch snag near the dead animal and silently thanked Tip for the use of the gun. I turned and walked slowly over to the buck, knelt down by his head, took off my hat and said aloud “That’s for you Ev.”

Firewood and Lace

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

It’s Halloween and I’m a zombie. . . .and I haven’t even dressed up or applied any pallid make-up. I’m feeling beat after a day of multi-tasking and my little plate of pickled herring and crackers and a cold beer are my own treat.

Nancy and I have been back at Basecamp in Minnesota after leaving the Yukon Outpost, a little over a month ago. Much of our time has been catching up with family and friends, getting settled in cleaning, unpacking and trying to find a garlic press. I suspect we might find it as we ready ourselves to follow the bird migration north, returning to the Yukon, next May.

Perhaps I was punished and transformed to an eventual zombie for languishing in bed in the gray dawning this morning while I enjoyed time reading my current novel. Maybe the fact that I am reading fiction, rather than the usual non-fiction, was enough to send me towards the dead.

Nancy is in the cities staying at a sister’s house so I am tending the fire here at the Basecamp. With daylight coming on, I had a terrible thirst for a cup of coffee, but first I had to earn it by cleaning ashes out of the kitchen stove and then lighting a warming fire. Then I began assembling the components for a big pot of French Canadian split pea soup. While the soup simmered, I sipped strong coffee dusted in the bathroom and swept the kitchen floor.

I was nursing a second cup of coffee while reading a handful of emails when I learned of the death of a friend’s father. I immediately sat down and wrote him a card. This was followed by another sympathy note to another dear one who lost her husband.

Suddenly at midday, the clouds parted and the sun broke out. Rather than run for the shadows in a Dracula sort of way, I scurried from the dirge and headed outdoors. I grabbed my limp, leather gloves and hustled out to the woodshed to split some firewood.

It’s irritating to establish a rhythm of swinging a maul, bisecting a hefty piece of oak and then have the splitting block tip over. Clearly, the stout chunk of wood that I used to set my blocks of oak on had seen its better days, as it is a bit tippy and punky. So my task was interrupted by the need to head to the woods to cut a new stable piece of oak for which to serve up pieces of firewood.

I confess I am easily sidetracked. My wife, Nancy, is often directing a started conversation back to the original source of discussion.

As I fetched the chainsaw and other tools to load in the garden cart, I wondered what it would look like if I had simply assigned one task to this Saturday. What if I made it a mindful Saturday and wallowed in the silence that could be a viable option. What if we all practiced an occasional
‘Zen-turday?’ Somehow the idea of having a single task to perform seemed lovely and indulgent. Why is it that I tend to mark a ‘good day’ by measuring how much I have accomplished? Am I cursed by a Midwest work ethic? Or am I insecure in my accomplishments and need to boost my ego by crossing off those tasks scribbled on a scrap of paper?

In the Yukon splitting wood is much easier than here where we have multiple species of hardwoods. In the Yukon I have two choices of firewood and both are softwoods. Lodgepole pine and spruce. Reading grain prior to delivering the arc of a swinging six-pound maul is not as critical with softwoods as it is when dealing with hardwoods. Yukon friends who make their living in working with wood wince when they hear that we burn mostly oak and some black cherry.

So looking for a new splitting block was like going on a hunt. I was hunting a dead oak that had its growth rings crowding each other making it dense and capable of fending off years of delivering well-aimed splitting maul blows.

I had forgotten how tangled the woods are here in east central Minnesota compared to the boreal Yukon. The pine forest where I cut in the Yukon was mostly clear of underbrush and made for easy walking. Here I had tangling vines of wild grape, hazel brush, young cherry trees, elderberry and multiple saplings of at least half a dozen species of trees. It was like a jungle.

I lost my focus for an hour as I confronted the alien buckthorn. Pursuing yet another task, I trotted back to the house for a strong herbicide and a bucksaw and lopping shears. I sawed the invasive buckthorn trunks, dribbled the toxin on the cut stump and moved on to the next.

In a corner of our woods oak wilt disease provided me with a good selection of splitting blocks. It didn’t take long to locate the perfect one. I found a section of red oak trunk where three large limbs spread out like an upside down tripod. Cutting this junction of three distinct platters of concentric rings was slow but I knew that this oak platter of merging growth rings would stand up to many years of my swinging maul.

I manhandled the newly designated splitting block into the cart and weaved my way through the woods pulling my treasure back to the house. Daylight and my body were fading. I was hungry and tired and the prospects of a cold beer and pickled herring and crackers urged me on.

Inside the house, I added some kindling to the reenergize the kitchen stove.
I glanced to the side and my eyes landed on a lovely lace valence that I was going to hang. And so once again, my intent was thwarted by yet another task. Luckily, hanging the sweet lace valence over the door window took only ten minutes.

So perhaps I should honor Halloween as a ‘renaissance guy.’ A guy who can wax poetic in a sympathy card, split stubborn oak chunks and hang lace curtains all in the span of a day.

Someone’s at the door. Now where is that bag of candy?