Deer Spirits and Ravens

 

How do you find death?

 

Moments ago,

 a young buck, at the edge of flight, nervously paused.

Suddenly his gaze met mine.

And quickly, before his stare changed my mind,

I froze my breath and squeezed the trigger.

And in an instant, I took its life.

 

The collapse was quick.

A loud invasive retort shattered the quiet boreal sunrise.

In an instant the deer’s path ended.

I had winter meat secured.

 

Quietly, I approach the dead deer.

Though I am not new to this act of killing

I am shocked at how abruptly death pushes beauty aside.

The deer’s unblinking eye reflects my image as I kneel and 

rest my hand on its once strong neck and whisper a quiet apology

followed by a stronger-voiced thanks.

 

Overhead, the cadence of muffled, black wing beats

pull my gaze skyward up through the latticework of birch and spruce.

A raven twists in flight as only ravens can.

And for a moment the gaze of the hunter and scavenger meet.

Is this a deliverance of condolences on the raven’s wing beats?

Does the passing raven in its undertaker plumage, carry away the buck’s heartbeat?

 

Yet, it was the unfamiliar corvid call, not the lazy flight that gave me pause.

This was no perfunctory deep-throated croak.

Nor was it a liquid gurgle or rattling staccato.

The foreign call, easily heard, was a more tamed and measured outburst.

A funeral rite perhaps?

Or maybe your notes are simply a careful raven pronouncement of found-food?

 

Watching the bird fly out of sight, I asked the black bearded minstrel,

How do you find death?

So quickly?

I know you perch at the head of the avian class but

your brisk arrival begs astonishment.

 

Was it the explosive rifle that called you to breakfast on this chilly morning?

Did you scent the freshly dead on boreal updrafts?

Perhaps your keen vision picks up images unseen by my feeble-eyed genus?

That’s it; I’m sure.

You must have glimpsed the unbridled spirit of the deer as it bounded ethereally

into  the thickets of November clouds.

 

Patience black one. I’ll be gone shortly.

Let me unzip and release this deer’s furnace and heat.

These spilled hot, wet organs and globs of creamy fat will be your prizes.

The red heart and liver are mine and will fry nicely with big-yolked eggs.

You can perch alert, as I lean,

pulling my hefty prize towards a distant kitchen.

And finally, comforted that I am safely distant,

you can slip in and taste the promise of another tomorrow.

 

And if death remains distant for both of us,

it is likely I will return next November.

Called to this knob of spruce and birch, with the rifle cradled in my arm,

I will slowly climb into my spruce perch.

Here, I can turn my head hard left into a cold apricot sunrise

and wait for the whisper of deer steps.

 And with luck, I might know the privilege of

bearing witness of your odd, woeful lament.

 

 

-tom anderson  nov. 23, 2012

Deer Shack Faces a Real Text

 

“Doesn’t an old thing know when a new thing comes?

         -Spender, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Seventy-two years ago, the old deer shack was built. One of the builders is still alive but otherwise change has been an absolute.

The beloved deer shack resides far from modern conveniences somewhere in the northeastern arrowhead region of Minnesota.  Returning there each November is like pilgrimage to a hunter-gatherer spa. It is a library of sorts steeped in rich oral history, humor, hunting tips and mistakes and even memoirs. Soaked into the uninsulated plank walls are years and years of spoken stories. Some, like a tight pine knot, will remain fixed and never be loosened again. And others are repeated annually like a familiar squeak in the floor. Mostly the shack hearkens to a time when things were simpler and quieter.

Chores practiced seventy-two years ago are still carried out today. The rusted rod from a stove pipe damper serves as a door closure and lock is pulled from the door hasp. And the screech of the ancient door pulled open rouses our spirits like a child’s Christmas Eve. There are buckets of water to fetch up the winding trail through the alders from the river’s edge. The pair of old wooden benches are placed on each side of the handmade wooden table with the checkerboard carved on it’s top.

The lantern is hung high from the S-shaped wire and candles are fitted into the necks of old bottles on the table. Firewood is carried in and stacked against the wall in the corner.  Kindling is split and a fire is laid in the old wood burning stove welded from 1/4inch thick, eighteen inch wide piece of pipeline. A match is struck and steered to the edge of a scrap of frayed birch bark. With a sputter and crackle, the fire leaps and we are formally returned to a sacred place where for a few November days each year men become boys.

To experience such quietude far from any televisions, radios, telephones, humming appliances and highways in the 21st century is a rare privilege.

With the passing of each year it is becoming more and more difficult to avoid the prattle of modern conveniences. Alas, in recent years, even the primitive shack has become tainted with modernity.  With the advent of pocket-sized cell phones, the unrefined essence of the shack is threatened.

A year ago, 2011 my wife Nancy, and I succumbed to family pressure and bought our first cell phone. We did not buy any phone plan. Instead, we bought the most basic model where you simply purchase minutes. I still hardly know how to use it and I have no fervent desire to read the manual. And to this day it is usually tucked in a kitchen drawer with the phone books. I confess I love my slender laptop computer but for me, a cell phone, while sometimes a convenient aid, is mostly an obtrusive technological mosquito that is largely pesky.

I have feelings about where and when cell phones should be used. For safety reasons, I don’t think they should ever be used ever while driving a vehicle. And I find it rude when I’m having a live conversation with someone and then they take a phone call interrupting our chat. And its simply wrong to be standing at a urinal next to a guy in a public restroom and he is absorbed in his texting.

And then there is the addictive nature of texting. I lost my texting virginity less than a week ago, when I sent my very first text on a friend’s phone. Oh it was indeed a bit magical, but when finished there were no fireworks or post-texting bliss.

But for the first time, texting reared its invasive head at the deer shack. Suddenly our brotherhood conversations were diminished when one of the guys had his head bowed, as if in prayer, over his texting machine.

A year ago I received an email message from my oldest daughter that included a foreign word typed in before her closing. I likely frowned in puzzlement when I read:  “LOL!”  But then I smiled because I thought, of course, “Lots of Love!” It was a day or so later that I learned this was part of a texting lexicon and that the true translation was “laughing out loud.” And now I have come to learn that there is a newly evolved short-cut language. In a society that is intent on hurrying to nowhere, it is no surprise that we make up a code that hurries a conversation.

So it seems that I am clearly out of touch. I am a flaming romantic who pines for the old ways. I often wish I could be a mountain man of the 19th century roaming the western wilderness on a savvy mule loaded with fur and only a little gear. What would noteworthy mountain men like Jedidiah Smith, Jim Bridger or John Colter, think of such nonsense.

As a rebellious act, I responded to some news with an email to my adult daughters and their husbands with my own mountain man texting.

I typed “WIT!” and then, with a nasty smirk, I sent it. It didn’t take long to get a reply inquiring a translation. I feigned surprise at their ignorance in not knowing that it meant. You could hear their moans when I told them it meant “What in tarnation!”

I can’t wait to send them another mountain man texting message.  When they ask for directions my response will be: “RHTY” Or “Reckon halfway to yonder.” Or try this one when you have to sign off because you need to eat: TCTH. It translates to: “This child’s got a turrible hunger!” In fact I might have to publish an e-book on this language that marries the old with the new.

After our stint at the deer shack, I found the courage to cast out a motion to ban phone texting inside the deer shack. And yes, I sent the motion to the floor via email.

I suggested that if necessary, texting folks can step outside the old deer shack and huddle pathetically in small groups like praying monks. Or they can go sit in a pick up cab like a grounded thirteen-year-old kid. But inside the deer shack I want real conversation, live joke telling, the hiss of a lantern and the crackling of a stove fire. I am adamantly lobbying for the observation age rather than the information age.

Imagine if hunters did away with another information gathering money-gouger, the trail camera. Instead, they might use powers of actual observation and hone their skills in reading deer sign as found in real time under the open air. Imagine if folks didn’t find it necessary to text each other about what they just ate. And do I really have to know that a buddy is up in their tree stand and just saw a weasel? Sure I want to know but let’s pull our chairs close to the wood stove later and spill out days stories.

Within hours, there were responses to my appeal. “Why we don’t simply go back to sleeping on straw ticks in the deer shack?”  Or, “Let’s get rid of all the synthetic active wear clothing and go back to wool.” Hmmmmm. . .well not an altogether bad idea.

Of course it all comes down to choices. How much change do we accept? I started to think further on the issue. That means that rather than hang a lightweight portable deer stand, we have to find a tree with appropriate limbs to climb and then sit on or uncomfortably stand on. And forget those handwarmer packets that contain a mixture of iron powder, charcoal, salt, sawdust and vermiculite and miraculously generate heat when exposed to oxygen. Yikes! I might have to make exceptions with those conveniences we embrace.

Based on the response thus far, I’ve not yet received a second motion to bring the vote to the old plank floor.

WIT?!

To Lay or Not to Lay

Standing nervously before my college classmates I had tried my best to look cool.  I took in a deep breath before delivering the opening line of my speech. With half a dozen lovely females in the class, I could not stumble. I had to appear confident and suave. I wanted them to see that there was more to this shy Lutheran.

I glanced at the Speech class professor for the nod that showed he was ready.  It was important to have a moment of dramatic silence before speaking. That moment of muteness can be powerful in drawing attention.   Mustering my best Shakespearean voice, I broke the quiet with my pronouncement, “To lay, or not to lay. That is the question.”

Perhaps some clarity is needed at this point. In those years, it was not uncommon to hear braggadocio from the “cool guys” about their sexual conquests. These Don Juans would boast about “getting laid”, which implied that they had sexual intercourse. Or they would tout a particular girl as a “good lay.” As the reader will see in a matter of sentences, I was not one of these unfeeling, objectifying chauvinists.

After my opening sentence, I paused to see how my brilliant sexual innuendo had landed. Some classmates were smiling; I was almost ambushed by the sensual smile of a long blonde haired girl; the one who fit perfectly into a  cool pair of patched bell bottomed pants. Others, in the class, were leaning forward and a few touched pencils to their mouths waiting to hear more. And best of all, the professor tipped his head ever so slightly to the side and showed me a slight smile. He clearly wanted to hear more. The hook was set!

I suspect the class was eager for tales of ribald sexual adventures. Little did they know that in my case there no such stories. Why there weren’t even any misadventures to share. Unknown to all my family and friends was the fact that here I was living during the early 1970s, a curious and silent supporter of the recent sexual revolution and I was a flaming 20 year old virgin!

Instead, I followed the charge of the assignment and delivered a discourse that was supposed to objectively address opposing sides of a controversial subject. Fully aware of the need to grab the attention of an audience I was particularly pleased with my catchy opening line. From there I went on to present arguments for and against the building, or laying, of the proposed 800 mile Trans Alaska pipeline from the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska.

The reason to share this story is that I recently received an email from my on-line Writer’s Digest newsletter that included a writer’s tip on the proper usage of “lay” and “laid.”

Clearly I had correctly used the word “lay” on that memorable spring day when I delivered my pipeline speech. I had pirated and altered the famous line delivered in Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy, Hamlet. And certainly anyone labeled a bard would get it right.

But there have been many times since then that I have gnashed my teeth and grabbed fistfuls of my hair wondering if I should insert lie, lay, lain or layed, in a piece of creative writing.

When I was a naturalist, one of the volunteers, Dorothy, would gently correct me if I had used the wrong word during one of my class programs. Dorothy was a retired English teacher and she laid out the rules very clearly. “Lay is the past tense of lie in the present tense. Laid is the past tense of lay in the present tense.” And then, noting my blank expression and being  a good teacher, she would always give me the same example.

“You need to lie down today, yesterday you lay down, in the past you have lain down. Today you lay the hammer on the bench, yesterday you laid the hammer on the bench. In the past you have laid the hammer on the bench.

Confusing isn’t it? The only way to really get it right is to memorize it. But I find memorizing grammatical rules boring beyond boring. So beneath my computer screen I keep a little handwritten scrap of paper with scribbled rules that I often refer to.

And for you nosey, lecherous readers. . .my bold opening question delivered on that lovely spring day in my speech class did bag me a B+.  The rest of the class, particularly the bevy of lovely young ladies continued the polite relationship of smiles-only.

(Sigh)

I Got Color!



Three summers ago, friend Charlie and his Lady Elaine stopped by our Yukon Outpost in late September. They had packed up their gear from their Anchorage, Alaska summer post and headed south down the Alaska Highway. Our Outpost is two good days of driving from Anchorage and they had stopped to rest and wait for us to get out stuff together and the Outpost zipped up so we could join in a two-vehicle caravan  down the Alaska Highway.

As I busied myself packing boxes and carrying them to the truck, Charlie dug into their packed Subaru until he came up with a pair of official tin pans to use for panning gold. He was aghast, that over the span of eighteen months of living in the Yukon, that I hadn’t even tried panning for gold from the rocky and gravel stretches of the river.

The Watson River passes less than 20 steps from our Outpost. While I had not put any effort into looking for gold, I had garnered other river riches. We pulled thousands of gallons of sweet tasting water from its waters. Some folks drive their trucks to the bridge upriver from us and pump water into holding tanks to take home. I remember approaching them and asking, “Why this water?” The reverent reply was a simple, “It’s magic.” I’ll go with that.  So I am twice blessed by drinking and bathing in this water as it saves me about $120 per delivery of water from Glacier Water out of Whitehorse. I might spend slightly more in changing my water filters more frequently but I’ve learned that I can pump the cleanest of water by simply putting the intake into a submerged five-gallon bucket.

Every day, during the ice-free seasons we basked in the constant lively music of the rapids. Some would argue that a third treasure we have secured is that our well-being has been mightily improved living in such close proximity to the floods of negative ions. I need to look into that claim.

These riches are unknown to my tax accountant.  Imagine the fiscal hassles that would arise if I started pulling gold from the river. Taxes are one thing, but I’m a non-resident, an alien living in Canada and I suspect I would have to hire a cadre of lawyers and accountants to deal with the ball and chain of found gold.

Nearly a century ago the Whitehorse newspaper carried a headline that read something like, “Gold Found on the Watson River!” Then back some thirty years ago, Mt.Skukum Mine started extracting gold from their mine about 35 miles down at the end of the dead end of the road, the Annie Lake Road, the same road we use to get to get to our place. Over the course of three decades of roller coasting gold prices, the mine has been in operation on an on-again, off-again pattern.

Charlie frowned and left me to my packing and he headed to the river’s edge with his gold pan. Fifteen minutes hadn’t passed and I heard an excited Charlie throw open the door and yell, “Tom! Tom!Hurry up! I’ve got color!” Now he was not talking about the Indian summer tan he was working on, no, he was using the old gold panning parlance that simply means that he has some shine in the bottom of his pan.


Charlie has been a working colleague and dear friend for over thirty years so I know him very well. And I know he has a keen propensity to embellish. But my packing was forgotten and I joined the mini-gold stampede. Actually we made our way across the river and set up panning in a sandy backwater where floodwaters swirl in a massive eddy. In the fall the eddy has long disappeared and the waters have dropped leaving a bench of deposited sand and gravel.  I felt fairly smug for having evaluated water hydrology and sediment deposition to stake our claim here. Our informal staking involved setting folding chairs over our panning spots. I brought a book just in case it got slow. Charlie was on fire. I admired his determination as he picked out tiny gold grains from the sand with a tweezers and placed them carefully in one of his old pill bottles.

Two hours passed.  Charlie made the call to pull stakes. I had nearly finished two chapters of my book. It was time to cross back across the river to the Outpost and fetch another more reliably secured Yukon product – a bottle of Yukon Brewery Lead Dog Ale. I peered into the bottom of Charlie’s pharmaceutical gold poke to check out his plunder. He sighed, “I might have enough to buy a Big Mac.” Like I said he embellishes.

In the last two weeks we decided to make one more mountain trek before we headed south for home in Minnesota. It took us nearly eight hours to ascend and descend Mt. Perkins. On the way up were in short sleeves walking beneath a gilded ceiling of aspen and willow. The glow around us made the climb easier as it distracted us from our increased rates of breathing and hearts beating.  Perkins has a deceptive manner in that it has a half dozen false summits. So as you climb, you think you are seeing the top and the goal of your hike. But, no, as you crest each rise you discover there are more summits above. By the time we got to the third summit from the top, we had put on additional layers and were wading through stretches of snow. Finally we got to the top and though the blasts of cold winds provoked me into tugging a pair of gloves on and hurried me to take photos and leave. Before leaving the top, I peered over the rocky edge and spied several flows of real gold. Far below me, a thin stream of golden willow leaves followed the track of an avalanche chute before spilling out at the base of the mountain in a bright run out of a golden fan.

When winter’s snows are loosened on a mountain they often spill down between rock ridges. By the time these snow trains reach the treeline, they easily whisk away trees and vegetation. In the spring these treeless areas catch sunlight and encourage new vegetation and these areas often attract wildlife like sheep, moose and grizzly bears, which like to feed on the vegetation.

Two days after that rigorous climb, we pulled away from the Outpost to begin the long drive home. Another summer passed without me wetting my gold panning receptacle. But on this trip we marveled at the gilded mountainsides.  We have made this fall migration three times now and while not statistically valid, I would vouch that if you want to hit spellbinding sunny autumn golden colors with washes of plum alpine groundcover, you need to pan on the last week of September. Or would that be “plan” on the last week of September?

There’s gold, it’s haunting and haunting;

It’s luring me on a of old;

Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting

So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, borad land ‘way up yonder,

It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

-from the Spell of the Yukon by Robert Service

Who Runs Coal Lake?

 

Our bike brakes squealed. Nancy and I stopped next to the overly large pile of bear shit.

There is something perversely thrilling about messing around in country where there are critters that can eat you.

The pile of bear droppings were the first of several piles we passed on another adventure on the Alligator Lake road. They all were fairly fresh.

Without a television in the Yukon, Nancy and I have to create our own adventure channel.  On this day it meant packing lunches, water bottles and cans of bear spray for a mountain bike trek.

Even though the locals call it the Alligator Lake road, it is not really a road. There are a couple of rusted vehicle remains pushed into the bush alongside the trail. Foolish folks who chose to drive the dozen or so miles back to the remote Alligator Lake left behind these artifacts.   The jewel of a lake nestles in a phalanx of mountains. It is named for the nearby gator-shaped Alligator Mountain.  Dall sheep and caribou look down on its waters. Earlier this summer a friend cycled back to camp overnight and had three wolverines pass closely as they loped through their home range.

The road is really an overused, eroded quad (ATV) trail.  It has sections of softball-sized rocks, deep mudholes the color of last week’s coffee, sand that sucks your tires out of sight, and exposed lengths of spruce roots that rattle your teeth as the bike flies over them. Oh and you also have to cross a numbingly cold Two Horse Creek that demands you get off your bike and wade.  A day pedaling on the Alligator Lake road is guaranteed to loosen up your joints, shake your insides, demand keen reflexes, work your lungs and heart and give you a surge of adrenaline.

Our adrenaline factor spiked when we pedaled past several heaps of bear shit.

We examined the first tar black pile, shiny with mossberries. The size of the pile made it clear that it was grizzly and not black bear.

Mossberries, more commonly known as crowberries, are profuse this year. This is good news for bear and human berry pickers.  The low matted shrub, common in tundra and rocky soils, is said to be the most popular wild fruit among the Inuit. Two nights ago I had a fine piece of white frosted cake laced with mossberries.

These berries are full of fiber and tiny seeds. Consequently, the fruit makes its way through a bear’s long digestive system and are left in telltale piles of waste. And no, there were no bear bells, no shreds of clothing in the feces, just the shards of hundreds of mossberries.

The grizzly is an iconic feature of the Yukon and Alaska wilderness. Along the Alaskan coast, grizzlies are known as brown bears and feed heavily on salmon. With this high protein diet, the grizzlies living there are over-sized. The diet of interior grizzlies, like those in the Yukon, can be up to 90 percent plant material.

It’s the other ten percent of their diet that makes me nervous.

I know I need to be bear aware and as I travel and camp in bear country. Statistically, I am more likely to be struck by a bolt of lightening that be attacked by a bear.  But I still know I should hike or bike in groups, make noise to avoid surprising a bear and stay at least one hundred yards from a bear. Further is better.

Passing piles of fresh bear scat gives me sharp focus. Nancy and I simultaneously pedaled and sang or loudly chatted, not an easy task on an uphill stretch. Making noise is probably the best bear deterrent there is. Let the bears know that you are coming and they generally will bid a hasty retreat. As a habit, they don’t go around looking for conflict.

When we stopped to have a much-needed lunch, only a mile or so from Alligator Lake, we were surprised to see two quads drop down a steep pitch towards us. They slowed, pulled up next to us and turned off their machines. The first fellow pulled off his helmet and asked if we were okay. I noticed the rifle scabbard fastened just ahead of his handlebars.

We must have looked like a bad accident as they drove up. We were sprawled on the hillside, resting and eating and the bikes were lying next to us.

We affirmed that we were okay. After commending us on our workout to get back into this rugged country, he asked if we had seen any wildlife. Other than a pair of spruce grouse and a few dashing red squirrels, we had seen nothing. “Oh,” I added.  “We did pass a few big piles of fairly fresh bear droppings.”

Looking far off to his left and pointing, the middle-aged man said, “Yeah, there is a big old grizzly that runs the Coal Lake area.” Coal Lake is not more than a ten- minute bear trot east of Alligator Lake.

After a few minutes of friendly chatter, the two motorists fired up their quads and drove away. I watched the cased rifle disappear and glanced down at the can of bear spray tucked into the easily accessible side pocket of my pack. A recent study in Alaska shows that statistically bear spray is more effective than firearms when defending oneself from a bear attack.  But for the spray to be effective, the bear has to be no more than twenty feet. http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/grizzly/bear%20spray.pdf

What did the quad driver mean by his choice of the verb, “runs?” Did he mean that the bear runs through the Coal Lake area or does he run, as in manage, the Coal Lake area? And if he is he manager of this domain, is he a friendly manager?

We finished our sandwiches and noted the late afternoon sun. We would be negotiating the hazards of Alligator Lake Road in the dark if we didn’t start back soon. Neither of us said a word about what was really driving our decision. We didn’t want to bump into the back end of a certain grizzly that runs the mossberry route.

*Note: the photo used with this blog entry is one of a black bear hind foot. . . also from the Alligator Lake Road. The tire tread is from my mtn bike “bush pony.”

 

Enduring Features

 

The trip to the Tombstone Mountains has been on our “Yukon bucket-list” for a couple of years. Less than an hour after bumping our way down the notorious Dempster Highway we passed the sign welcoming us to Tombstone Territorial Park. (Note: The Dempster is Canada’s one and only all-weather highway that crosses the Arctic Circle. It  is a 640 mile long gravel road that ends near the edge of where North America and the Arctic Ocean meet.)

Other than one trail that limits the number of backpackers, Tombstone Park allows visitors to hike anywhere.  But, once out there, you are on your own. Our first stop was at the  park Interpretive Center to make inquiries about a challenging hike.

The uniformed young woman who helped us was a short, strong, park ranger who looked part warrior and part bike gang member with her nose ring and stubby dredlocks. We made it clear that we liked to get off the beaten trail where we would not likely see people. I saw the flicker of her eyes as she quickly scanned both of us. It was a measuring up type of glance. I don’t know if it was my faded orange, multi-pocketed pants, patched in three loci with silver duct tape or if it was our well-worn hiking boots that prompted her to unfold a topo map and boldly stab a finger on a mountain and series of ridges that she was not familiar with.

“You might try Mt. Boyle,” the park warrior said.  Pausing, she added, “I have not hiked it but it looks interesting and accessible. “But if you climb it,” she smiled,”  you have to stop back here and report to me what you found.” We leaned over the “office use only” topo map, memorized landmarks and headed north on the Dempster Highway to check it out.

We passed critical landmarks and finally slowed to a stop to pull out the binocs to assess the mountain and the shoulders of ridges that might provide us reasonable access. We decided to fix supper here and watch the magic of light play over the mountains. Even though it was mid-August, the slopes around us were already blushing with reds and glowing in golds. We guessed that we were only two weeks from full-on autumnal foliage fireworks.

Up early the next day, we packed water bottles and lunch for refueling ourselves. We  hoped to refill our water bottle as needed from  snowmelt freshets. As usual, in accessing a particular peak, the most frustrating and onerous aspect is the first section of the trek. We had to cross a quarter mile of very soft tundra that was punctuated with countless grass hummocks. With all the high stepping, our thighs were getting more of a warmup than we wanted and we hadn’t begun to climb yet.

We approached a sinuos, thick growth of tall willow. Serpentine stretches of willows usually indicate a stream, so talking loudly to announce our presence to any potential bears, we ducked and wove through the cover.  With a moderate leap, we were across soon out of the willow.

Now we were gaining elevation and the hummocks were behind us and all we had to push through now was a scrabbly hillside of buck brush. Buck brush is the local name  for dwarf birch (Betula nana). These edgey shrubs can grow nearly to my shoulders, but are usually below my waist   a perfect tripping height. Many folks scorn this transition shrub.  It is an apt  gatekeeper for accessing the alpine, but its great escape cover for ptarmigan and other small dwellers of these parts. The foliage of these restraining shrubs tried to hold us back. There fall red colors were not enough to give us pause.

There is a victory of sorts and certainly a surge of well-being when the dwarf birch grows scarcer and scarcer and finally you spy more ground hugging lichens and alpine flora underfoot. Now our greatest barrier became  gravity itself.  The topography here is took on a greater grade of elevation and the bantor between the two of us mostly disappeared with the buckbrush. Talking became laborious and discussion was relegated to short sentences broken by the steady rhythm of louder breathes.

I think of this part of the climb as walking meditation. Concentrate on the breathing. . . big, slow breaths. Occasionally I lifted my gaze to be sure I was picking the most efficient and risk-free route. Nancy claims I am good at this. I find comfort in that honor and feel self important in leading the way.

As I hike upwards I imagined my lungs, heart and leg muscles all working in perfect harmony. It’s moments like this that render me humbled at the marvel of such synchronicity.

Higher we trudged and finally we found a false summit. It’s semi-flat bench offered us a chance to shed our packs, pull out water bottles and a tidbit to eat. The chilled wind urged us to pick up the climb again. Now the column of ragged rock at Boyle’s summit could finally be discerned. At the third false summit, we sat down behind a fold, out of the wind, put on windbreakers and ate our lunch.

We checked in with each other to see how we are feeling. Good. After twenty minutes of lunching and resting, we looked ahead at the route and agreed on it before hoisting the packs again.

The last pitch was a bit dicey but there were enough good footholds and handholds to make our way up to the tip of Boyle. The top was a grass covered pate that was actually large enough to park a car.  Scattered piles of dried Dall sheep droppings gave proof that this was indeed a spot worthy of a lookout.

Here, at the top, the burning pain in the climbing leg muscles and the associated racing heart and big breathing were forgotten.  I almost always feel a giddiness and ecstatic euphoria all rolled into one burst of well-being. My God! Why from up here I can see half way to yonder!  I felt as if I was the pin on which a compass needle balances. And the air, made from the tiny breaths of stoic alpine flora tasted unbelievable! Perches like this, high above the world, with absolutely no human sign in sight, are the kinds of spots that poet Walt Whitman wrote about in his book Leaves of Grass.

 “I inhale great draught of space…

the east and west are mine…

and the north and south are mine…I

am grandeur than I thought…

I did not know I held so much goodness. ”

During our entire trek we discovered no signs of humans.  Not one ATV track in sight. No cell towers and from the top even the Dempster is but a far distant thread.   The only tracks we saw on the climb were moose, Dall sheep, caribou (Hart River herd), and a recent grizzly excavation on an arctic ground squirrel den.

Words are pathetically  inadequate in trying to portray this epic and majestic landscape. In fact with the passing of overhead clouds, the here-and-go sunlight creates a constantly changing kaleidoscope of color and texture. I swear this country could  move the most cold hearted to tears of joy. My happiness index is rarely higher than when I am in the company of summit serenity.

Here, the interplay of sun, wind, water, snow and ice has sculpted mountains and valleys. Diverse habitats from low to high country, from mountain lake to alpine pond, from  meltwater freshet to  rushing river, all give rise to an array of astonishing diversity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) <http://y2y.net/> works to create and maintain an interconnected series of parks and wildlife corridors that allow both people and animals to thrive across an international landscape.

In a recent report they mention “enduring features.” The report says, “This includes landforms, bedrock and surface geology, and water bodies—together called “enduring features”. These features are the base upon which Earth’s living skin develops, and where plants and animals grow and evolve.”  I like that marriage of two words. . .endearing features.  These are features that forge emotional bookmarks in my head; those memories that I’m confident of carrying in my pack of life.

After nearly eight hours of climbing and descending we made it back to camp satiated with Mt. Boyle’s offerings. And two days later we returned to the Tombstone Park Interpretive Center where we delightedly shared our findings with an equally delighted mountain warrior wearing dredlocks.

A Northerly Road Trip

After a recent road trip into Alaska and points north in the Yukon, we can now claim to have driven the whole length of the Alaska Highway.

Arguably the greatest feat of road building in the history of the world happened in 1942. In less than nine months, US Army troops and United States and Canadian civilian contractors scraped, filled and constructed 1,422 miles of a road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Big Delta, Alaska. Many residents of this remote land thought at the time that such a project was impossible.

Besides being the primary conduit that carries necessary goods and supplies up the highway, it also funnels tens of thousands of tourists to the “last frontier” of Alaska.

More than half a century has passed since the Alaska Highway was built and few arterial roads, particularly in the Yukon and Alaska, have been built off the main highway.

Alaska and the Yukon are mostly roadless. There are just over 12,000 miles of public road in Alaska and less than 3,500 miles in the Yukon. There is one public road, the Haines Highway, between our Yukon home and the Pacific Ocean to the west. That span is filled with mountains, alpine, lakes and spruced river valleys.

I know this because I talked to a grizzled fellow who hiked from our road to the Haines Highway during a three-week stroll in the middle of winter.

Looking like he was sired by a grizzly bear, he added that the jaunt is far easier in the winter because you can go more direct by walking over frozen rivers and lakes.

If I were to trek east across the continent towards the saltwater of Hudson’s Bay, I would cross three to five public roads. That means that between thoroughfares there is a whole lot of wild boreal land latticed with myriads of ponds, lakes and flowages. But somehow I wouldn’t doubt that the old grizzled Yukoner has made that stroll.

Winter traveling through the north is serious business.  I mean traveling in the real north, not the mild and mannered “up north” of my home state, Minnesota. Winter cuts wheat from the chaff.

Nancy and I drove up the Alaska Highway a few years ago early in the month of January. We had flown down to Minnesota for Christmas and were driving our Prius back north to the Yukon.

Prior to leaving the Yukon for the holidays, we sought advice from our born-in-the Yukon neighbor who was a truck driver. He regularly made long runs on the Alaska Highway at all times of the year. He didn’t pontificate. In all seriousness he barked, “Don’t be a cowboy.” I think that meant don’t take any chances. The remote highway can team up with the elements of nature and kill you.

When we left Minnesota that January morning it was -24°F. And with a stout NW wind, I didn’t want to calculate the wind chill. Two, winter-weight down sleeping bags, holiday presents to each other, took up much of the hatchback. We had no problems. In Canada it’s relatively easy finding a motel with outside outlets to plug our cars oil pan heater into.

When we pulled out of the motel the next morning, in the day’s late dawning, the car creaked and thunked frigidly  onto the Trans Canada Highway. The dash lights failed to work in the cold. It was midmorning, somewhere in Saskatchewan, that they flickered and finally flashed on.

We were nearing Alberta when we spied a massive front, bearing a strong Chinook, warming ocean winds hurtling easterly, over the Canadian Rockies and spilling down onto the Canadian prairie.  The giant warming front drove back the cold temperatures and offered us a leap into unseasonably tropical temperatures. That night, in Edmonton, slush was the norm. With the thermometer rising above freezing there was no need to pull out the extension chord to plug the car into an outside outlet.

A day later found us officially on the Alaska Highway under tepid January temperatures. An axiom for successfully traveling the highway at any time of the year is to fill you vehicle whenever you can as services can be few and far between.

Traffic is never really heavy on the Alaska Highway and in the winter we experienced no RVs whatsoever. Actually we experienced hardly any traffic other than a few 18-wheelers and the random car. Summer use is dropping. It could be that folks are hard pressed to make such a trip. Or it could be that fuel costs are simply making the trip too pricey.

After World War II, Canada took over ownership of the highway.  And over the next forty years the entire span was paved. Prior to the completion of a smooth surface, it was not unusual for a traveler to have multiple spare tires and gas cans strapped to the cars roof or back bumper.

It seem like you are witnessing an old newsreel of the Alaska Highway when you still witness cars loaded with tires and extra fuel. Are they paranoid or have they not updated Milepost?  There is no better mile-by-mile travel guide than the most recently Milepost.

Now having said that it is sad to see the increasing number of old service station-café units overgrown with weeds and aspen trees, like cages, growing  around the gas pumps. At one stilled roadside station, I found an old sign laying on the ground half covered with fallen leaves and spruce needles. The other half was covered in splashes of lichens. Brushing away some leaves I was able to read the hand painted declaration: “Best Rhubarb Pie.”

Every year that we point our car up this grand highway, it seems like we discover another business gone silent. The proverbial sheet of plywood leaning against a saw horse or barrel bears the boldly painted word, usually in white,  “Closed.” Perhaps, one of these years we will have no choice but to join the traveling self-service units and be forced to tote extra treads and gas cans.

And while there is a kind of poetic justice in watching the boreal wilderness reclaim itself, I would sure miss the rhubarb pie.

RED-LINING A BIRTHDAY

 

So turning 61 is no big deal. The big “six-oh-oh” is now ancient history and I’m beginning to find that I am quietly celebrating the turning of each decade with more gratitude and anxiousness.

This year found us camping on the outskirts of Atlin, British Columbia awaiting the official kick-off of the annual Atlin Music Festival. But we had hours to fill before the first musical notes would emanate from the big tent.

After a skillet of eggy-vegetable breakfast was washed down with copious amounts of Midnight Sun roasted coffee, we laid out our “younger next year” workout for my birthday.

Younger Next Year <www.youngernextyear.com/> is an excellent book for any middle-aged or older persons. Basically it argues that you can dial back our biological clock. It looks at the latest research on aging and then offers a blueprint for men and women 50 or older to live like 50 year olds until you are well into your eighties.   In the book the authors argue that basically your job for the rest of your life is to move your body somewhat vigorously for at least 45 minutes each day.

Nancy and I loaded our two-wheeled “bush ponies” up on the bike rack, next to Hugh and Cheryl’s canoe.  (We love our new Trek mountain bikes. . . with the 29-inch wheels. Thanks CyclovaXC!!  <www.cyclovaxo.com>.

Hugh and Cheryl were going to paddle and explore Surprise Lake, while Nancy and I were going to pedal into the Ruby Creek area. The plan was to bike until mid-afternoon and then either meet them or we would bike the twelve or so miles back to the campground.

We got on our bikes and headed up and around Surprise Lake with a gradual climb on the gravel road. Then we came to a rugged, single-lane mining road that runs parallel to Ruby Creek. It eventually leads to a molybdenum mine. Almost immediately we began climbing a series of pitches. There were several that had us breathing oh-so-big.

Poet, Walt Whitman would have enthusiastically sang out that we were “inhaling great drafts of space,” . . .in this case, great drafts of oxygen.  While our lungs were mightily inhaling our thighs were on fire as they strained to keep the pedaling cadence that allowed us to purchase the hill. Oh it hurt so good!

The percussion of our accelerated heart rates was drumming loudly in our ears and our breaths were pulling in huge waves of fresh mountain air and releasing equally loud carbon tainted exhalations.

We would face a steep climb only to have a brief respite as we reached what we perceived as level ground. Then we would gasp one or two-word sentences to each other. A hilltop exchange might go as following: “Damn!” Then take in a big gulp of air quickly followed with a gushing exhale “Tough!”

After our fourth steep pitch we paused longer, choking down some water. I was losing my enthusiasm for this idea of getting younger next year but we both decided to push on for one more and see if the road would give us an easier grade to the head of the creek valley. We were now at an elevation that was moving us beyond the tree line. Willow and dwarf birch or “buck brush” was dominating the rough roadside.

We were also encountering more frequent piles of bear shit. On the mining road. Clearly they used this lane for easier access to the high country. Both of us had containers of bear spray in our packs but I couldn’t help wonder if my heart rate wasn’t additionally accelerated.

We both were now in the red-line zone of our heart rate. Red-lining is a zone where car racers know they are flirting with working their race machine too hard. To run too long in this zone is flirting with blowing an engine. I did not want to blow my “engine” on my birthday.

For humans, red-lining your heart zone is making it work at a level that is 90 to 100% of your maximum heart rate. You simply cannot go any higher and it is impossible to stay in this zone for more than a few minutes.  Normally one should consult with a doctor about working your heart at such a high rate.  Not possible for any consultations with the nearest hospital more than a two-hour drive in a car.

Generally, and I use the word loosely, another attribute in aging is an acquired wisdom. And so it was, on the fourth or fifth steep pitch, that my brain overrode all other systems and told me to stop. Now!

Gravity and good bike brakes are a wonderful thing. And in short order, I understood this getting younger idea. The Ruby Creek valley was filled with tandem hoots of unabashed delight as we wove our way down the switchbacks.

 

 

 

Foraging for Twinflower

While the river noise relaxes me, it is the collecting of plants, particularly twinflowers that puts me in a high state of contentment.

I love the little pair of pink blooms that make up this boreal dweller twinflower. Connected by threadlike stolons, or runners, many twinflowers are joined together. And the mat of small green rounded leaves that cluster above the perennial runners are nearly as appealing to me as the flower.

When mats of these delicate flowers emerge, I can’t help but think of Carl Linnaeus, the charismatic Swede of the 18th century who not only was a grand promoter but he had the brainstorm of classifying flora and fauna, giving them a Latin title composed of a genus and species name. This tool, referred to as binomial nomenclature, offered a straightforward way that botanists around the world could understand.

Linnaeus assigned over 8,000 plants and animals with their scientific, or Latin, names. He named one, a favorite, after himself. That was twinflower or Linnea borealis. (Linnea “Linnaeus” and borealis “of the north”)

Some people might consider me greedy, not unlike the red squirrels that frequent these same forests.  The sassy rodent stashes pine and spruce cones for winter sustenance and I collect pressed twinflowers for creative sustenance. I always keep a stash of dried delicate botanical specimens on hand for making wedding, greeting, or birthday cards. I am also partial to small burr oak leaves and the intense blue of alpine forget-me-nots.

However, I am ethical in my collecting. I never take many flowers or leaves from one spot. And if I find only one or even a handful, I will pass them up and wish them well for healthy propagation.

Less than 10 minutes from the Outpost there is an old aboriginal trail that I sometimes hike or pedal with my mountain bike. There is a piece of fairly open forest, composed of lodgepole pine and spruce. There is very little understory here. Hugging the ground are lovely patches of ashen and green-hued lichens interspersed with abundant lingonberries that will warrant my attention in a little over a month when we take to the woods, pails in hand to garner the scarlet, tart fruits.

Most Yukoners and Alaskans call these circumpolar treats “cranberries.” So desirable are these treasure that the local organic bakery will pay pickers $15 per pound to enhance muffins and breads.

But today it is the mats of twinflower and bastard toadflax that hold my attention. You might wonder how something so delicate and freshly pink can keep company with the likes of a plant called “bastard toadflax.”

Surely, the proper Sir Linnaeus frowned at such a degrading common name. So he ignored the back alley name and gave it a more graceful scientific name; Comandra umbellata. Why such a title is fun to sing out! Comandra umbellate! Co. .MAN. .dra   umbel. .LATA!!

Maybe it gets the common name “bastard” because it is a semi-parasitic plant and it is able to absorb water and nutrients from the roots of neighboring plants. Simply put it robs; consequently it must be a bastard. There is no lilting song when you hiss “bastard toadflax!”

Both twinflower and bastard toadflax spread through seeds and vegetatively or through thier roots. A single clone of each species can cover a wide area and flourish for years.

I leaned my “two-wheeled “bush pony” against a pine and carefully sat on the ground so as to minimize flattening any twinflowers. And I began to excise flowers from the hordes. At one point I lay my head on the ground to get the perspective of the red squirrel that was clearly and loudly upset with my presence.  Each twinflower’s threadlike stem is “y-shaped.” From each branch of the “y” dangles a small pink flower that looks like a tiny tapered Victorian lampshade.  I was spellbound peering through the wee forest of tiny pink delicacies.

After a half hour of moving from patch to patch of twinflower, I carefully filled each of my blotter pages in my small plant press with tiny flowers. I carefully packed the press into my daypack next to the bear spray, retrieved my bike.

As I pedaled through the pines and spruce, towards home, I noticed multitudes of twinflower blooms flanking the old trail. It seemed that in my collecting them I was now super aware of their ubiquitous presence.  It was as if I was a two-wheeled float in a parade and the unlikely partners, the pink and bastard bystanders were mutely at attention as I passed. While in the background from beneath the pines was the pregnant pause of ripening cranberries and the unseen scolding of a territorial red squirrel.

 

 

 

 

What the World Needs

 

We had barely turned down the dead end 60-mile road that leads to the northern British Columbia community of Atlin, when we encountered a solitary grizzly grazing on lush July vegetation in the roadside ditch.

We were on our way to the annual three-day Atlin Music Festival. http://www.atlinfestival.ca/ This music fest is less than ten years old but it has become a favorite destination for both musicians and festival attendees. In fact the site is so spectacularly beautiful that some performers have  requested an invitation to participate. This year’s slate of musicians and storytellers included artists from the Yukon, Cape Breton Island, Manitoba, British Columbia, Sweden, New Zealand, Senegal and the United States.

We met friends Hugh and Cheryl at the Pine Creek campground.  The quiet campground is located two miles from the music fest making it an easy bike ride on our mountain bikes. Most of the 1000-plus attendees camp in the old mining town at the edge of the festival.

Besides the amazing music, I loved the gathering of people. Smiles came easy. Children roamed around like small packs of playful fox pups. And most amazing is that they were often alone, without their parents. However, the community of folks here are clearly caring and quick to tend to any young mishaps.

And those human-cubs that were barely able to run, quickly joined those who could as they hopped, spun, stumbled , flew with outspread arms, and dashed back and forth in front of performing bands. There were numerous collisions that result in staggering tearful dashes back to mom or dad. A quick hug and words of comfort always performed healing miracles and the youngster was quickly pulled back into the vortex of little people energy.

The sand pit, about the size of a two stall garage, was littered with colorful plastic shovels, rakes, sifters and pails.It attracted the kids like no candy store could. Once, as I walked by the hump of sand, I paused to watch the kids. There were  thirteen wee ones totally engrossed in their efforts. Most amazing is that each was working alone. Each was fully immersed with their imagination in carving, excavating, building or burying. I wanted to crawl into every one of their brains and listen in to the process.

As a species, we humans have an affinity to gather in tribes rather than keep company with loneliness.  Like iron filings jumping towards a magnet, we tend to merge towards song, dance and food. The Atlin festival provided these critical elements in spades.

Jonathan Byrd*, a highly regarded and awarded songwriter and flat-picking guitarist from North Carolina, repeated a stanza from his song, The Ballad of Larry, “Loneliness is poverty.”

Looking around to the sea of warmth, I felt like a rich man.

Swede-gone-Canadian, Sarah MacDougall, http://sarahmacdougall.com/ who has spent the last few months living in the Yukon, repeatedly pleaded, almost wailed, during the singing of her hit Ramblin’, “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Clearly a crowd favorite, she was in no way alone anymore.

Nationally regarded and Yukon-born storyteller, Ivan Coyote told tales that clogged my throat with a wagon train of lumps and blurred my eyes with a surprising surge of tears. She wove tales of loneliness in her growing up and realizing that she was more boy than girl but that she had no choice but to follow and honor her sexuality by boldly and mightily declaring her being a lesbian.

If you were lonely at the Atlin Music Festival it was due to your own sinking spirits.

The festival ended Sunday evening. It didn’t take long for caravans of tired attendees to begin the drive back down the dead end road. I suspect the earlier spied grizz was dining no where near the road on this busy evening.

Suddenly we found all the campsites . . . well . . . a little bit lonely. Nancy and I chose to spend another night so we could have more time with Hugh and Cheryl before they pulled out for the long drive south to their Canmore, Alberta home. After good byes and hugs were exchanged we hoisted our daypacks, loaded with snacks, water and extra clothes, for the hike up Monarch Mountain.

We climbed and climbed, as did our heart rates. Soon we were beyond any vestiges of aspen and into the sub-alpine fir. Climbing higher, out of the fir, we  finally we found the party-colored slopes of alpine. Carefully we stepped around carpets of stoic, stunted and showy flowers. The views in all directions elicited gasps and croons. Here we could see miles and miles of the long Atlin Lake. We spied a white horizon of icefields high in the Coastal Range Mountains.

 

After a picnic lunch, in a wind-sheltered draw where we kept company with the sky-blue blooms of alpine forget-me-not, we reluctantly turned around and began our trek back.  As we crossed the summit alpine we nearly stepped on a female blue grouse. She didn’t feign injury to lure us from any nearby nest or young so she was clearly not alarmed.

I considered pausing to photograph the bird that stood on a smooth rock less than ten feet from us. Nancy whispered, “She’s not a very impressive bird is she?” She was right so we moved on to let her be unphotographed.

We climbed a knoll and were dropping down when we spied a male blue grouse.We stopped to watch the unalarmed bird. These game birds are the second largest grouse species in North America. A Yukon friend always liked to hike up into the bird’s haunts in the sub-alpine fir groves  in late September to secure his favorite Canadian thanksgiving table fare of two plump blue grouse.

The solitary male grouse seemed totally oblivious to us. We grew new smiles when the bird paused, raised his fanlike tail, inflated his bare throat patches and provided us with another Atlin music number.  He elicited a few “booms,” that sounded like a slow series of deep-throated hums.

 He paraded by, not twenty feet from us. His bright orange eyebrows belonged to a Mardi Gras parade. When not hooting, he busied himself by pecking cream-white mountain avens petals off the stunted plants. I eased the camera out and slowly slid on my rear downhill to get closer. I did not make eye contact. Perhaps he thought I was a grazing Dall sheep or caribou.

We listened to his low crooning booms; his own rendition of “I don’t want to be alone anymore.” Maybe, just maybe, on the other side of the flower festooned knob, there was a female grouse that was on her way to the Atlin Alpine Music Festival.

 

*Note: Jonathan Byrd was a major favorite of mine and I highly recommend going to his website http://americanaagency.com/Jonathan_Byrd.html to listen to a sample of his work and check out his tour schedule. He will be in Minnesota in November.

 

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