Walking to the Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We flushed flocks of ptarmigan, wearing summer browns and winged in winter white, that seemed to prefer to congregate in the riverside willows.

After spying a pair of peregrine falcons coursing over the creek valley we understood that the water-loving willows provide a screen from raptor threats to the ptarmigan.

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

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

The Hardy Garden

I was startled by a noise at the window. I set the Yukon News down and leaned back in my chair for a better look. A red squirrel was frantically scratching at the window. It seemed intent on trying to get in or at wrestling with its reflected image. Or was it trying to simply get my attention, just as Lassie would bark messages to Timmy about the neighbor being in trouble? After a few seconds of window scratching the squirrel ran off. I looked out the window to see where it ran and it was then that I spied movement in my row of sweet peas.

It was the unmistakable rapid chewing of its small jaws and the large eyes set on the side of its head that betrayed the rodent thief. It was a ground squirrel, an arctic ground squirrel, otherwise known by local Yukoners as a gopher.

For years, I have exercised my ancestral programming and planted a garden. However it seems that wherever I try to plant a garden I am cursed by marauding gophers. In Minnesota my annual battle is with pocket gophers. Two Septembers ago, my total potato harvest was measured in servings rather than bushels and was consumed by Nancy and I during one special supper.

Up here, north of 60 degrees latitude, the greater nemesis has been geography. The garden sits only 10 paces from the river. This initially seemed a good thing as I could easily water the crop of produce.

A seasoned local gardener had a different spin on the river’s relationship to the garden. She told me that the cold mountain water river that passes close to my garden acts like a big air conditioner. This would be a good thing if I lived in a sweltering environment, but in a land that has frost records for each of the twelve calendar months, I might be better off converting the garden into a hockey rink.

When we arrived in May I spaded up the garden and deliberated which vegetables to plant. I queried the gardeners in the area and knowing that the summer days are rich in sunlight, but cooler in temperature, I settled for cool weather crops such as lettuces, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, kale, sweet peas, onions and potatoes. Envisioning cabbages the size of basketballs, bushels of fist-sized spuds, bouquets of crispy lettuce and spinach I rested after the planting and eagerly awaited the gardens greening.

My confidence wavered a bit on June 9th when we received about five inches of snow. Then two weeks later, when sunlight falls nearly 20 hours here, I was chatting with one of the better gardeners in the river valley. She commented, “You know your place is known for being one of the coldest spots along the river. It always freezes early down there.” A
meteorological axiom is that cold air always settles in the low areas first.

My spirits sank even further when I spied my neighbor, just uphill from us (as in higher and away from the cold river) placing hoops of clear plastic over every row of her garden . . .and keeping them there all summer long. We learned that it’s not unusual for a frost to sneak in during any of the summer months.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when my sixteen or so spud plants all, each a robust four inches tall, froze in the first week of August. Most everything else looks like it quit growing by the second week of June. I have a bonsai vegetable garden.

The only planted produce I have tasted thus far was when I plucked a nickel-sized spinach leaf as I weeded the garden. It sweetness elicited a sigh of satisfaction. Little did I realize that the remaining spinach leaves would reach maturation at the same coin size. And now it is too late to have even a tiny “Barbie meal” of spinach as the cute little plants have bolted and yellowed.

One of the primary garden “weeds” has been fireweed, which is the official wildflower of the Yukon. Which ironically is what Nancy has been delighted to pluck from the garden in its early growth to augment salads and stir fry meals. It seems we would have been better off letting the land grow what it grows best and harvest its offering.

I am eagerly awaiting the upcoming celebratory meal that will include our five heads of broccoli that have managed to survive the rigors of summer along the river. Each head measures less than two inches across and is comprised of a single broccoli floret. Count them. . .five.

Additionally, the fact that this summer has been much cooler and wetter than the average Yukon summer and even without rodent raids, I am looking at more visits to the grocery store produce area. And once again, though I am well beyond the home range of pocket gophers, I am reminded of the rigors of putting up my own food.

Now, I rush to the window every so often to catch a glimpse of the ground squirrel that is intent on converting my peas into winter fat. This little guy is the champion hibernator in North America, as it will soon shut down its system for seven months before it emerges blinking in the spring sunshine next year.

It’s likely it will spy a stubborn two-legged building a greenhouse directly over the bonsai garden site.

Imagine the likes of fist-sized spuds, basketball cabbages and armfuls of leafy spinach and . .

River Intimacy

“What’s your story?” It’s a common and intriguing greeting that one often encounters here in the Yukon. It’s far more engaging than the customary “What do you do?” exchange that I was used to hearing in Minnesota. It shows a genuine interest in who I am rather than assessing my stature by my occupation.

Upon arising each day, I slowly pull on my morning clothes and equally slowly leave the house. Rounding the corner of the house I can easily hear the river. It never sleeps or rests. Perhaps in winter it will slow as the edges of its flow freeze to a stop. I am drawn to the river both for its note of reveille and for its startling wake up wash.

In my worn, duct-taped slippers, I step carefully onto the two water-sculpted boulders that have become familiar steps. Crouching over the clear river, I cup its chilly waters in my hands. Three times, always three times, I splash the arrested river onto my face to wash away the night. The only towel I use is the morning air. I like the lingering freshness. And suddenly all seems right.

This is the beginning of a daily ritual that will continue as I head back into the kitchen and brew a pot of coffee from river water toted up to the house.

Two days ago, Nancy and I loosely tied three bunches of dried spruce logs together just up stream a couple of hundred yards from our house. One at a time, we guided the rafts of firewood, lining the logs as if we were lining a canoe around a rapids, over the fast flow to the dock, next to the morning face washing boulder. At the end of their short float we pulled mightily to spin them into an eddy where we could untie them and hoist them onto the bank. Though we were wet to our thighs, it was fun and challenging. It felt good to do the work and know that we had gathered several days worth of winter heat without having to use any gasoline to transport or cut them.. I had hand cut them with a 36-inch bow saw before Nancy and I lugged them to the river’s edge. I could have used my chain saw but why not combine a workout with near silence.

At day’s end, like others where sweat and dirt were involved, I hung our portable solar shower in the sunshine against the log wall of the house. The shower bag is made of heavy plastic. It is clear on one side and black on the other to better absorb the sun’s heat and heat up the river water. I laid the bag out in the full sun earlier in the day. Now the water was hot and this day will end the same way it began with a baptism of river water. Only this time the water will linger and soothe me rather than briskly wake me.

We wash and rinse our dishes in a pair of plastic basins set in the stainless steel sink. We sometimes wash dishes twice a day, but often only once. And when we are finished we carry the dishwater outdoors and cast it over the garden or a dry piece of lawn. In doing so we lessen the frequency that the septic cleaning truck will have to come and suck out our holding tank. Not only will this save us money, but also it will hasten the process of returning the water to the perpetual water cycle where it will return, as rain and snow, refreshed, clean and available.

Becoming intimate with a place begins with engaging fully and becoming more sensorial with it. Research has shown that our brain’s amygdala, responsible for our emotional and social responses and memories, will better lock in to moments if we can do so with multiple stimuli. I feel the chill and softness of the river’s water, I hear its lively rushing over the rocks, I am mesmerized by its hypnotic dance and the sweet taste carries a winter’s freshness. Each impression creates a steppingstone for an indelible memory.

Living next to a river has made me become more fully engaged with water. Though my body is made up of nearly 70% water, I, like most people, take it for granted. Though I might read dire warnings by global scientists and hydrologists of increased human strife due to the lack of potable freshwater for millions and millions of people, I confess that I don’t linger over such proclamations when I can simply turn a faucet on or step outside to pause besides a tireless river of clear, wonderful water.

If in fact I am mostly water, couldn’t I argue that my relationship with water tells me about my relationship with myself? Simple. Treat the water well and it will reciprocate and treat me well.

I am adequately buffered from thirst and rich in freshwater. Intellectually I know that water is a finite resource. We cannot make any more water. No matter if the human population of the planet was one million or six and a half billion, the earth has always had this much water. And hydrologists are predicting that the demand for fresh water will likely double in approximately thirty years.

Recently we returned from a two and a half week canoe trip on the Wind River in the northern Yukon. I have never traveled on such a transparent or fast river. It seemed as if we floated over a kaleidoscope of the most colorful and patterned stones. At one point, during a riverside lunch, Kurt, a dear artist friend, was gazing out at the river. He could not put his finger on the color of the river as the current and sky’s reflection made a mockery of any one-color scheme. Finally he quietly said, “It’s the color of clear.”

I like that gauzy definition. It was perfect in that it is impossible to define anything so changeable as a rushing river whose flow can be altered by a paddle stroke, a shifting boulder, a tipping tree or a blue sky suddenly tippled with advancing rain clouds.

The water clarity of the flow that passes our house in the Watson River, is very clear in late summer after the spring runoff carries away the annual load of runoff sediments. Not surprising, that very clarity has made me more aware of my intimate relationship with water. Consequently, I am more keenly aware of my personal relationship with water.

I am practicing using my own personal “water filter” in making everyday purchases in my own life. When shopping, we use a number of factors in making our final choice. We “filter” out price factors, contents used, appearance and so on. Regarding water, we should ask ourselves, “How was water used in the production of this product?” Or if we don’t know the water story, we should begin to learn it and apply that knowledge in our life. Sometimes the water story will make my choice easier.

Change is never easy and it is particularly less likely to happen in our daily lives if our health or wallet’s girth is not threatened. In regarding water quality and consumption habits it might be easier to change if you look at a child, yours or someone else’s and wonder what their relationship with water might be. Try looking into a mirror or better yet into a still pool of water and asking your reflection, “What’s your story. . .what’s your water story?

I need to go watch the river; its mesmerizing to watch the late afternoon light on it.

North of Normal

PRELUDE

Okay, okay. . . it has been over two months since we left Minnesota, bound for the Yukon Territory. Nor have I submitted a blog entry since I left my native land. No longer can I claim the lack of writing was because we were without power for a while (which is true), nor can I claim it was due to the lack of a modem, which was also true as it was somewhere between us and Yellowknife due to our being given an incorrect postal address.

And yes, it did take a week to amble the 2517 miles from our Base Camp in North Branch to our Outpost in the Yukon. One doesn’t hurry up the Alaska Highway, or at least you shouldn’t. Our northerly progress was stalled at the border crossing for 2.5 hours while we participated in  fretful waiting, questioning, searching and stamping. During the journay we managed to tally about 80 species of birds on our migration into spring. We shared stares of wonderment with elk, deer, caribou, bison, coyotes, foxes and moose on the drive towards eternal summer.

I can also blame my lack of keyboard pecking to the long eighteen- hour sunlit days. We are far too busy outdoors to mess around with computers. After all, we are on, what the locals call “Yukon Time.” To properly engage in this time zone one should disregard schedules and simply hang loose. I don’t know if it’s the adopting of that attitude or the fact that I am vigorously moving my body outdoors, but my heart rate has slowed and my girth has melted. I am down to the last belt hole before I have to take an awl and bore another.

Clearly the land up here is on “Yukon Time” with no regard to normal schedules. This was clearly pointed out to us on June 9th when we awoke to 4-6 inches of fresh falling snow. My cherry tomato plant has never recovered but the spinach, peas and lettuces are thriving. Like them, I am a cool weather being and am thriving in this land north of normal.

NORTH OF NORMAL

My right brain is too out of shape to come up with such a clever title as noted above. I stole it from a Yukon slogan intended to entice tourists to visit. It seems however that there is indeed something in the air or water that stirs your soul up here and demands you to engage in that “one, wild and precious life” that poet Mary Oliver so eloquently writes about in her poem Summer Day. “I think a precious and wild life should rarely wallow in normalcy.”

As a one-time-professional naturalist and now just an amateur one, I take pride in my powers of observation. Visual or sensual clues in deciphering the immediate, past or even future are scattered across our respective paths.

Among the first clues assuring me that I had indeed landed “north of normal” were a couple of ads in the classified section of the Yukon News newspaper.
WANTED
Photos of Yukon clowns – in action. Please email . . . .

What a rarity, local clowns in action! Precious. Now I can’t help but wonder if contemporary clowns have evolved from Yukon clowns where red noses are perfectly normal.

The second ad read:
WANTED
UFO Sightings.
If you have a UFO experience, call UFOBC&YT toll free 1-866-878-6511 and leave your name and number. We will get back to you.

The second ad really excited me because up here we are officially considered “aliens” and this might be a fellow alien trying to make contact with comrades! I have never been an alien before and I must confess that thus far I am basking in that title. You can’t begin to know how freeing it is to walk up to a high wild vista and shout unabashedly, “I am an alien!”

During the famous Klondike gold rush period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newcomers to the Yukon were referred to as “cheechakos.” It’s not an insulting title; it simply means that you are a tenderfoot or “newbie.”

The word “cheechako” is imported from a trade language that evolved when Chinook Indians from the Pacific Northwest and white traders interfaced. The label “cheechako” is retired when the newcomer passes one winter in the north. Then you could proudly wear the esteemed title of “sourdough.”

This is a land that demands big breathing. The landscape is littered with vistas and to get there you must climb. In climbing the body requires more oxygen and big breathing accompanies your hike to the summit. Once you get reach the apex the view alone usually inspires additional big breaths.

Last week we encountered 4 natives whose very sighting initiated big breathing. Over the course of five days we encountered four grizzly bears. Admittedly, thee of them were viewed from the protective hull of our truck.
The other one was watched through binoculars. It pawed, foraging for food, through a wrack line of seaweed about 250 yards from us. We were pleased that it never spotted us. You never know how terrifying it can be for a native to see a trio of aliens. (my wife Nancy, her sister Jane and myself).

Recently I was conflicted when I read an article in the Toronto Globe Mail newspaper about the negative impact of more and more aliens moving north. And to add to that accusation, there is a Yukon booklet intended to help people become aware of nasty aliens. I was relieved not to find an image of my face, in the full color booklet. Instead I was directed to images of plants that have set their roots in more northerly climes due to global climate change. Of the forty-four most persistent invasive plants, white sweetclover and perennial sow-thistle are among the worst invaders. Back in Minnesota these two don’t even warrant any concern as they are considered normal and almost native. Both by the way are aliens from Europe.

Apparently around the world there is an invasion of southerly species of flora and fauna into more northerly latitudes. No surprise when one considers that NASA climatologists are forecasting that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer in the next ten years or less.

Though my skin color is darkening into a shade of brown rather than alien- green, I am nonetheless an alien and I have to accept that. Unlike the more famous movie star alien, “E.T.” who desperately tried to return home, I choose to remain and let the yeast of winter activate my rise to “sourdough.”

And though I hope to shed my “cheechakoness,” I will remain an alien. . .an alien sourdough that strives to interface with this northerly landscape in a way that steps gently, while breathing big.

Becoming Spring

Today, in our yard, the scattered juncos seem to feed in the grasses with greater fervor than in mid-January when the below-zero temperatures should have inspired a rush of tireless foraging.

Tireless. It is a trait that I have tried on recently. You see like the juncos, Nancy and I will soon join the northerly migration. Though I would rather depend on fat reserves, our journey will be measured in dollars and cents, actually mostly dollars, as we pump gasoline into our 8-cylinder truck as we begin a 2,500 journey to our log home on the Watson River, 34 miles south of the territorial capital, Whitehorse.

The truck will be engorged with Yukon congruent playthings and adornments. Summer and mostly fall and winter clothes are part of the cargo. Layers and layers of wool take up room, but we want to be ready. Why wouldn’t we each pack half a dozen pair of thick wool sox?

There is a box of favorite cooking accoutrements and tools, a heavy mechanical tool box, splitting mauls and a chain saw.

We also have spiritual cargo. There are musical instruments, skis, ski poles, snowshoes, bicycles (We have chosen to wear our indulgence proudly in that we are toting a pair of scarred mountain bikes and a pair of sleek road bikes.), tents, paddles, an assortment of colorful packs, some waterproof and others not, and a pair of backpacks will match our hiking boots. For the walls we have a couple of old framed sporting prints and a larger John Clymer print that is Yukon appropriate. And of course we hope to slide the big Yukon map that is mounted on foam core into the truck.

Two boxes of books, mostly Yukon related or natural history reference material, have made the cut for me. I had secretly tucked two additional boxes of books in the truck, but Nancy discovered them when she was frantically trying to find room for her clothes.  Sheepishly, I agreed to consolidate the four boxes of books into two. I wanted more but agreed that the Whitehorse library and the computer could serve as nodes of learning.

Two laptop computers and one desk top with added speakers that will serve multiple roles as our CD and DVD player have made the cut.

What hasn’t made the cut? Basically furniture. We have chosen to bring a small oak table (with legs removed) and a cedar bench that can work indoors or outdoors. The bench might be cut if it prohibits the packing of other priority gear. Our super favorite mattress might make the cut. While my big bull buffalo robe will not make it.

The packing list is opulent, downright decadent, when I think of my great-great grandparents and their children leaving Småland, Sweden in the mid 1880s for the new world. They likely crossed an ocean with a single trunk or two filled with the barest of necessities.

Why should we uproot ourselves? I like to think it is the work of latent genes that remind us that we are of a lineage of nomads. I want to see part of the route that the earliest North American tourists took when they hiked across the Bering Strait. Recent evidence has backed that period to some 30-50,000 years ago.

Like a compass needle that locks its direction to magnetic north, I have a similar urge to face that direction. But there is more than a homing instinct that pulls me north.

For once I want to be a sign of spring, a phenological note penciled in a calendar.

MAY 12: “Tom and Nancy heading north.”

Undertaking the odyssey of a migration is usually a dangerous and risky undertaking. There must be benefits to subject one to such dangers. Let me share a few of the reasons we will follow the swans and the budding of aspen.

Why go to the Yukon?

• Thus far there seems to be no urban sprawl in the Yukon. The human population there has actually decreased in the last 100 years. I find comfort in going to a jurisdiction that has experienced a significant drop in human population since 1900.

Today roughly 32,000 folks live in the Yukon Territory; an area that one could fit the states of California, Maryland. West Virginia, the District of Columbia and still have a few square miles to boot.

•I like the idea of living in a land where there are far more big wild critters than humans. There are roughly 185,000 caribou, 65,000 moose, 10,000 black bears, 6,300 grizzly bears, and 4,500 wolves. And there are also a few thousand mountain sheep and goats living in the Yukon.

•I want to find a decent winter like those of my youth. You know the type where I can count on good snow, no January slush and a good cold spell once in a while to remind us how puny we really are.

• I like the idea of picking my own fresh lingonberries rather than pay top dollar for a can of the Swedish imported berries. After all, they are the same species.

•I want to avoid an overdose of political pollution with the saga of the 2008 election year. An added benefit we will reduce the likelihood of dangers of frequent mudslides from excessive mudslinging.

•To avoid the glut of corn being planted for the production of ethanol.
This means that there will be even more Atrazine, the most common herbicide, spread over the fields resulting in even more Atrazine in our waterways. They don’t grow corn in the Yukon.

•Ticks are almost non-existent.

•Sultry humid days are as rare as ticks.

• I want to grow bushels of organic potatoes (and other oversize cool weather crops such as broccoli, kale and cabbage) without having to think of battling pocket gophers and potato beetles. The Yukon is a foreign land to these beasts.

•The summer days are very long giving more time to paddle rivers and climb mountains. Conversely, the winter days are short and nights long. Some would call this season of brief daylight dismal. I believe it will encourage more potluck gatherings, novels read, music played and lovemaking.

•Art and creativity are highly valued products in the Yukon. There are more artisans per capita in the Yukon than found in any other Canadian province or territory.

• I’m an unabashed romantic. I want to live as an adjective rather than a noun. I want to know how the Yukon inspired Jack London to write:

“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

I want to feel the winter as Robert Service did when he penned his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, particularly the line:
“Talk of your cold, through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”
I will paddle, hike and explore hoping to discover the language of romance.

•The only highway congestion happens in downtown Whitehorse when the tourists occasionally jam the streets in the summer. After all the Alaska Highway passes through Whitehorse. There are only two maintained public roads west of our Yukon home. . .until you hit the Pacific Ocean. And to the east there are four or five maintained public roads until you splash into Hudson Bay. That means there is a fair amount of ground to hike and paddle without having to cross any barbed wire fences or worry about posted land.

•How can you not want to go where the dollar is graced with the Minnesota state bird: the common loon. And the five-dollar bill has a gorgeous belted kingfisher. Seems their values are right.

•We want to study the Canadian health care system for us. It is clearly better than the USA system or lack of a system. In Canada, not only are prescription drugs far cheaper but the average life expectancy is 80.22 while in the U.S. it is 77.85. I will try to stay clear of he meds and earn the years.

•I want to try living in a land that has wind-blown peaks for me to explore. Where I can climb and feel my heart fill my chest with a workout. Where I might bump into more sure-footed climbers like dall sheep or mountain
goats and finally gain a summit and gaze out at the topography of infinity where the horizon will not be cluttered with power lines or cell towers.

•It will be much safer than the Yukon. While there are grizzly bears in our neighborhood, I’m less likely to encounter a stressed out human, the most dangerous of all animals.

•Besides, the bite of the winter cold or the threat of a grizz’ bite will keep me far more alert and observant and in doing so I will hopefully feel more alive.

• I simply need to rejuvenate in a land that is so utterly wild where I won’t feel out of place because I don’t own a cell phone.

•I love maple trees so consequently I think the Canadian flag is stunning.

•When I step out at our rural home in Minnesota, I get to hear the white noise of distant traffic, some 4 miles away, on the freeway heading to the cities. The white noise I have to deal with in the Yukon will be a rushing river located twenty or so paces from the house.

•Here the starlit nights are becoming more and more difficult to see since the excessive lighting of the cities is easily visible and even my hometown of North Branch, only 7 miles away sends up far too much sky busting light. In the Yukon the stars will have to compete with long summer sunsets and winter northern lights.

•And who wouldn’t want to live in a territory (Yukon) where the origin of its native name, Yuchoo means “the greatest river.”

• And Huck Finn, one of my favorites, perhaps said it best to his chum Tom Sawyer:

“I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Polly’s tryin’ to civilise me. I’ve tried it , and it don’t work.”

An Out of Place Red Squirrel

At first light there was an audible scuffle heard outside by the bird feeder. Cardinals are the usual first shift at the bird feeder. However, this over-sized finch cannot dislodge the cover to the galvanized garbage can that houses the fatty riches of sunflower seeds. The storage can, next to our deck, sits only twelve feet from the bird feeder.

Suddenly a red squirrel popped out of the can, leaped onto our deck, climbed a two-foot tall terracotta urn and disappeared into the three-inch opening. Obviously not only was this rust-colored rodent disturbing the peace in jostling garbage can covers, but I busted this squirrel. . . caught in the act of relocating the stolen goods. Out of sight only for a moment, it reappeared and in a flash it was back in the garbage can for another mouthful of seeds.
This little expert in storing food, which incidentally is a rather uncommon survival strategy among mammals, was creating a clever midden of seed right in front of our eyes.

Enough is enough. I flew out the back door, wearing flannel pajamas and mukluks and ran around the side of house hoping to terrify the duo of red squirrels. As I came around the corner, one squirrel took to the treetops and tight-roped its way very rapidly to freedom. I caught a glimpse of the other squirrel dash to the pottery urn and disappear into the safety of its darkness. Without hesitation, I scooped up an empty plastic pickled herring bucket that was sitting on the deck and clamped it over the opening of the squirrel’s hideout.

“Got you, you little pugnacious and pompous blush-colored rodent-fink,” I triumphantly shouted, “I’ve got you now!” I picked up the tall container and held it victoriously over my head in celebrating in my own Wimbledon winning stance. I jigged on the deck hoping Nancy was admiring her heroic man and his efforts at keeping yet another rodent insurgent from our little home in the woods.

After my momentary showboating, I stopped. Now what do I do? I really didn’t want to kill this sassy squirrel but I did want to teach it a lesson that it should not mess with our seeds.

I wondered if the miasma of any lingering herring juice impregnated in the bucket might create enough misery for the squirrel. Gleefully, I thought of a just punishment. I would take this squirrel in a jug for a little walk and relocate it to a new site. Yes that was it a site not familiar for these forest dwellers.

Most of my encounters with these hyper little squirrels tend to take place in the northern mixed stands of hardwoods and mixed conifers where I hunt deer every November. No matter how quiet or still I sit, these wide-eyed, sprightly squirrels almost always figure me out and then loudly chirr a staccato of barks and spits at me. I am convinced that they are swearing mightily at me. Up and down the tree, the squirrel moves in lightening jerks. This can go on for some time and I suspect that the outburst is recognizable by every deer in the area as some sort of warning.

Finally this little squirrel was going to pay for my pent up frustration for not only seed thievery but for previous loud deer warnings. Yes, this poor little marauder and thief was going to pay.

I hoisted the jug up on my shoulder and headed north, past the two woodsheds and out into the open snow covered field. I walked almost to the gravel township road, not caring what any motorists might think of a hatless bare handed, pajama-clad, smirking man trudging through the snow with a pottery urn, capped with a pickled herring bucket, on his shoulder.

Finally, when I was within a one hundred feet of the road and a forty-acre corn stubble field, I stopped, looked around and feeling satisfied I set the urn down. This would do fine. I would release the squirrel here and watch its next move. This species, hudsonicus, speaks of the forest. It is not a prairie or savanna dweller. How would it react in such a treeless expanse?

Carefully I laid the vase on its side and took the herring bucket away. The squirrel refused to come out. So after covering it with snow, except for the opening, to hide it from passing car traffic, I headed back to the house and stopped a hundred yards away to watch. Nothing. Not even a little curious peek. Shivering in my PJs, I retreated back to our warm house. The eventual pattern of the squirrel’s tracks would have to unfold the tale of the squirrel.

A couple hours later, Nancy and I were driving out the driveway to do an errand. I looked out in the field. There I spied the rufous rodent sitting upright about 15 feet from the vase. I stopped the car on the road and the little fellow immediately retreated. . .back into the sanctity of the vase! I wondered if this little guy had grown fond of its prairie clay igloo. So in a few minutes, I am going to take old Taiga for his walk and check out the story left in the fine print of its spoor. Or I might find it still out there unwilling to make the wide-open crossing to the woods. There are a couple of local red-tailed hawks that would find the squirrel tasty.

It was after dark when we returned home and I wondered if the perky little fellow was still in the clay prison. Was it sleeping contently in a bed of sunflower seeds? Perhaps it was frozen, curled in a ball of fur.

The thought of unjust squirrel torture kept sleep at bay. Sleep did not come easy.  I wrestled with the bedcovers most of the night.

The next morning I dressed and booted and headed out to see if I could find a story of a great escape. The story was clear. The little fellow’s trail showed that it had chosen the woods east of the field as its destination. There would be no slow evolution towards a prairie dwelling squirrel. Besides, for that to happen there would have to be another hapless squirrel of the opposite sex.

The tracks showed that the squirrel had made forays out from the vase, no further than10-20 yards. The spoor resembled spokes spreading out from the hub of a wheel. Finally, it was clear that the squirrel began by running for the oak woods that lies about 75 yards from the vase. The impressions were notable leaps betraying a fast dash to the oaken cover. There was no dilly-dallying here. Finally when the squirrel was within twenty yards or so of the woods, the pattern was more so the traditional hopping pattern of an easily foraging squirrel.

Since that day I have only seen one red squirrel. Waves of gray squirrels look for dropped seed and look longingly at the feeder above them. They cannot figure out how to negotiate the piece of stove pipe that hangs directly below the bird feeder perched on top of a pole. Cautious as a swamp buck, I spot a slightly heavier fox squirrel sneaking towards the feeding area. But only one red squirrel is spotted. But since I cannot tell individual red squirrels apart, since they all look alike, I don’t know if this is “Freedom” or “Urny.”

I’ve got to remember to retrieve the pickled herring bucket from out in the field. Even in these parts, where herring is part of nearly everyone’s winter, the red looks out of place in a prairie.

Baking Below Zero with Sol

It’s mid January and supposedly the coldest day of this winter. We have around minus 12 but hey, it’s January and it’s about time we had an honorable winter day. I’m heading out to the south side of the woods to the oven to bake a pan of chocolate chip bars.

Carrying the eleven-pound, suitcase-sized oven along the sinuous, packed trail, about a block and a half through the woods, I reach the edge of the old open field. Here the world is bright in sunshine and it is here that I set the solar oven down. I clip on the reflector that resembles an awkward funnel to better direct the sunlight to the cooking chamber. I aim  the oven south, slightly right, or west of the sun. Though the sun is not high at this time of the year it still blasts out the same energy it would on a hot July day. It’s that energy that I am going to call on to do some emissions-free baking.

One could argue that I have no emissions spewing from my house when I turn on the electric oven. The problem is that it requires electricity and if you live in Minnesota, that likely means electricity generated from coal.

No matter what the advertisements say about “clean coal,” there ain’t no such thing yet. Sure it’s a dream and we can hope that there will soon be a way to sequester the carbon released from this fossil fuel, but for now it contributes mightily to greenhouse gases. Not to mention that coal is a nasty purveyor of mercury and all one has to do is read the Minnesota Fish Advisory to learn that this is one nasty toxin.

I have intentionally chosen this frigid day to initiate my new solar oven. Why not choose to bake outdoors on a day where the snow squeaks loudly and bundled folks hurry from car to warm shelter? I have been told that the oven works well in winter so why not try it.

The enclosed solar oven is no more than a uniquely shaped molded plastic box that is covered with a transparent double-filmed cover. The inside is black, as are the cooking pots, to absorb the sunlight. I attached a collar of sorts, which resembles a ring of foil flanges that help reflect more sunlight into the box. Inside next to the pot holding the sweet dessert, I have placed the oven thermometer that comes with the oven.

Think of the solar oven like your car parked out in the sunlight on a hot August day. With your doors and windows closed the temperature inside your car can reach 180ºF. A benefit of using the solar oven there is no need to add water, therefore flavors and nutrients are retained better than conventional cooking.

At 11:15 AM I set the oven in place and hurried back to the house to warm up.

Exactly one hour later, just past noon, with the air temperature still below zero, I bundle up again and trek out to the oven. (It’s actually colder due to the wind chill inspired by a northwest breeze.) At noon, on a clear day, such as this one, the sun, some 93,000,000 miles away delivers about 1,000 watts. Though it is considered a middle-aged dwarf star, one of approximately 400 billion stars in our home, Milky Way galaxy, it can deliver 1,000 watts per square meter on a clear day! This is amazing. I can’t help but think what if we put a fraction of the money we have spent on the war in Iraq in research and development for solar and wind technology. Would the quality of life for humans around the world be better or worse?

One-third of the earth’s human population must do their cooking over open fires. The job of gathering firewood not only contributes to deforestation in many areas but it requires hours and hours of work. Most of the time this work is done by the women and sometimes up to seven hours of their day is devoted to scrounging for firewood to cook meals for their family.

In one hour the oven temperature has climbed to 250ºF! I shift the oven slightly west to stay on pace with the westerly route of the sun and hustle back to the house again.

I don’t go out until 2:15 PM and the oven temperature still reads 250ºF. I am curious about the progress so I crouch in the snow, remove the reflector and unsnap the cover. I am surprised at the heat that is released and pleased at the aroma of the baking treat. Not wanting to cool things down, I immediately cover the oven back up but not before I remove the cover to the kettle that I am using for baking. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but I tell myself that this will help put a slight crust on top of the bars.

The smell of chocolate chip morsels hangs and as I head back to the house for a third time, I can’t help but wonder if the smell might attract a host of squirrels, coyotes, crows and other neighborhood residents. The image of them encircling the oven hatches a grin under the wool scarf that wraps my face.

The sun is in its last hour giving the world a golden-yellow cast. It’s time to fetch the baked dessert. I hurry out to the field where dark blue shadows are starting to stretch across it. I remove the reflector, fold it up and pick up the oven and encased treat.

I am pleased with the result. And I know that when Nancy gets home later, she will be tickled by both the sweet treat and the fact that it required only sunlight.

I am in awe of what is possible.

(For more information on solar ovens and the Solar Oven Society go to <>
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Hard Times and Good Times in North Dakota

“There’s a house on my block
That’s abandoned and cold
Folks moved out of it a
Long time ago
And they took all their things
And they never came back”

-“House Where Nobody Lives” by Tom Waits

Southeast of Noonan, North Dakota, a handful of miles from Saskatchewan and Montana, there are an increasing number of farm homes that are shards of a previous society. They haven’t seen a coat of paint in decades and the tall grasses around them hide rusted hulks of farm implements. Most are without panes of glass and some are without doors.

At one place a great horned owl had taken up residence in the south- facing upstairs window. It is doubtful that the cottontail, venturing out at twilight, whose spoor laced the feral lilac hedge, can even see the raptor that watches from the former bedroom.

What might be described as hard times have suddenly become good times for the horned owl.

At another place, near a thick patch of what the locals call “buck brush,” we discovered two gravestones leaning in the tall, dry grasses. One simply said, “Our Beloved Baby, Born 1909, Died 1911.” Hard times one might say, but sunsets come and go and no one laments their passing. But like all babies, this one was “beloved,” and that alone gave rise to my lingering while the wind, oh the constant wind, gave the yellowed grasses their last dance before the coming of winter’s snows.

In this landscape of stubbled wheat and barley fields, the empty and sullen homes are testaments of former times. Without the plow and scythe these homesteads become woodland islands. The tireless winds favor limber stemmed bushes over taller trees. However, here and there are tall cottonwoods climbing into the big Dakota sky. These have become pulpits of sorts for the red-tailed hawk. Without the occasional fire to keep the woody ones at bay, even the potential of a prairie-takeover is unlikely.

Many of the farmsteads were showplaces in their time. The kind where the black and white daguerreotype images show the family standing outside, with the women, dressed in their humble finery, sitting in the dining room chairs. The men looking awkward dressed in their Sunday best, stand stoically behind. They don’t smile. Did they already know that in the coming years only the house would remain?

I cautiously entered a home relic that bore two levels and an attic. I stepped across the sagging floor from the old kitchen into the living room. An upright piano slumped against the crumbling, plaster wall. I stood in front of it and wondered about its life as a household merrymaker.

“Oh! Susanna, don’t you cry for me;
I come from Alabama, with my banjo on my knee.”

Or was it a Sunday hymnist?

“I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.”

Perhaps the piano was a cheerful Christmas caroler?

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to sleigh in a one horse open sleigh!”.

Or a dirgemaker after the death of a beloved child.

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee”

Why, I wondered, would a family leave so suddenly as to abandon a piano? Like the attraction and security of a Paleolithic campfire, the piano was the focal point for many human gatherings. The piano could have provided an escape from the tireless moan of the ever-present winds.

The decrepit keyboard was covered in dust and debris. Most of the ivory coverings from the keys were gone and the C chord was frozen, as if depressed by a phantom hand. No longer was this a lively home, as its soul, born from the folks it sheltered, has long departed.

Above the piano, a slab of plaster hung precariously, held to the wall only by the glues of wallpaper. The hanging plaster exposed the ribs of old lathe, the foundation for the plaster man to finish the new, smooth wall. The layers of wallpaper fluttered  resembling a tattered book with four pages of various patterns and hues. I wondered if the family changed the wallpaper to deal with the monotonous landscape outside their windows.

When one of the floorboards creaked below my weight, I retreated, leaving many story-echoes unfound.

The conversion of old homesteads to patches of unkempt shrubs and grasses is a clear reminder of the resiliency of wild places. The genius of this land favors craggy plums, buck brush and Indian grass.

The old houses will melt into the landscape, and host a new group of music makers, like meadowlarks and bobolinks. The forced geometry of crop rows and right-angled farmhouses gives way to the wonderful chaos of unrestrained nature. And for countless other species this is indeed the good times.

(Written: Nov. 25, 2007

Push the Pole

The dry summer was good for something. Water levels had dropped and a slough three miles northwest of our place has unlocked the dormancy of muck bound seeds. The wild rice had returned. I had almost forgotten that it once grew there.

Nancy settled on her knees in the section of the canoe directly in front of me. I stood in front of the stern seat with a long push pole. With each push, Nancy would reach out with an old shortened broomstick and gather in as many tall rice stems as she could so that the seed heads were right over the empty canoe. Then with her other hand and a similar cut broom stick, she would gently beat the stems. It was reassuring hearing the first soft patter of wild rice grains fall into the canoe.

If you drove by on the distant county road, you would think someone was poling an unseen something across a field of golden prairie grasses.

When faced with a physical task, particularly if an action is repeated over and over, it is not unusual to break into a light song to help break the monotony. The real pros at this were the gandy dancers. These teams of African-American laborers repaired and lay rails for the southern railroads. They used songs and chants to help with the work. Not only did it help with their work but they were able to deliver a sort of code speak to each other while their foreman had no clue what they were singing about.

So while Nancy practiced the gentle percussion of sweeping the sticks over the rice stalks to loosen the grains, I kept the canoe moving forward with the help of my three word song.

“Push the pole.”

This was Nancy’s initiation into the ancient practice of gathering wild rice. I had not gathered rice for over 25 years. After getting our harvesting license at the local hardware, we drove to the slough of wild rice and were delighted to know that we had it to ourselves.

We hadn’t pushed through twenty feet of the thick stand, when we both were a bit alarmed with the sudden rush of wings all around us. A big flock of blackbirds swarmed en masse, swirled over the slough, and like a drawn out teardrop suddenly dropped into the rice along the opposite shore. We were not going to shake them from this staging area when such a rich source of rice carbohydrates lay before them.

“Push the pole.”

Slowly we passed upraised lily pad leaves extended slightly above the water surface. Each one of the bowl-shaped green pads held handfuls of empty rice hulls. It was almost as if the blackbirds placed the rice remains in their own composting receptacle.

In short order we flushed a gangly legged sora rail. Then another and another. These unlikely water birds are poor flyers with their rather short and stubby wings. They jump reluctantly in the air, scrabbling at the air with not very graceful wingbeats and then equally ungraceful, they plop a short distance away back into the thicket of rice. As water birds they don’t even have webbed feet. Instead this seeming misfit of a bird has long toes that spread its weight out when it walk on vegetation floating on the shallow waters. Their “Jesus feet” give them the appearance of walking on water.

I wonder if these ungainly looking birds migrate at night only because of embarrassment at their flying skills and silly looking toes.

“Push the pole.”

Over fifty mallards and a sprinkling of wood ducks flushed noisily from feeding in the rice. And twice we pushed up large great blue herons from the rice.

Cut rice stems above the water betrayed the workings of muskrat incisors and soon we found beautifully golden-strawed muskrat houses being constructed amidst the monotonous field of wild rice.

Push the pole.

I paused to wipe the sweat from my brow and let the slight north breeze cool me off. No calendar is needed to tell of summer’s passing. It was here in the falling of rice grains, the rising of muskrat houses, the gathering of blackbird and duck flocks.

Just then a monarch butterfly coasted by us, moving southward, bound for a shrinking mountain forest in Mexico. The butterfly is oblivious to the wild rice. Its fuel is not found here. Its nourishment lies in ditches buttered in goldenrods. I whispered “buen suerte amigo” or “good luck friend” and pushed the pole.

Garden Insurgents

Every few years a word rises up and takes its place at the front of everyday banter. As a kid there was “fink.” Later it was “groovy, far out, stoked.” The current administration has delivered “insurgent.” Even though the word has been around since before Daniel Webster’s dictionary project, “insurgent” has suddenly become a resident in daily conversations.
For a beautiful Saturday morning, “insurgent” seems too violent a word to give much time. But minutes ago I prevented an insurgent pocket gopher from doing further damage to the rows of potatoes that I have been tending. I had set the trap last night in the unseen tunnel works that snaked beneath my Yukon Gold spuds. Yet how is that my success felt so yucky?
As I set the trap yesterday, I recalled all my youthful trapping experience and knowledge. As I scooped handfuls of dirt to widen the gopher tunnel I was mumbling curses at the garden insurgent. I recalled that midsummer gophers are more difficult to catch than in spring and fall. I also recalled how I have had years where half of my potato crop was consumed or carved by gopher incisors. Recalling those feeble harvests only made me more determined.
I slowly walked up to the house in the sunlight feeling a genuine remorse for the dead gopher. This was an innocent animal that was simply doing what it was programmed to do: feed on roots of plants. I had inadvertently provided it with a bountiful spread of growing potato tubers. The gopher was only guilty of . . . . being a gopher.
Why is it that I have absolutely no remorse for yanking young tender insurgent stems of lambs quarters or ragweed from their nursery soils that infiltrate my rows of vegetables?  Or how is that I shed no tears when I crush a potato beetle between my fingers and then spray my plants with an organic treatment of Bacillus concentrate in order to kill scores of baby beetle larvae?
My surge in tending the garden has resulted in scores of deaths and ultimately my own nourishment will be assured by the killing of crops. In my act of picking beans or peas, am I not aborting future lives? Where are the billboards with smiling peas stating, “Do you know that when I was 4 days old I was a baby pea?”
I suspect my mourning the death of the insurgent rodent might have something to do with our mammalian bond to gophers. It has soft fur, tiny, beady eyes and ears and even incisors. These are characteristics that befit the canine and feline pets we snuggle and cuddle. Perhaps the violent act of murder is too close to my own hominid lineage. And if the gopher killing was so easy it becomes clearer how easy it is to kill a label, such as an insurgent.

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