In Dog We Trust

After volunteering to help direct  mushers along the race route of the annual Carbon Hill Thirty Mile Sled Dog Race, I wanted to learn more about dog mushing.

So I decided to volunteer to help at the Yukon Quest. The Quest is billed as the “toughest sled dog race in the world.” The Yukon Quest Trail follows historic gold rush and mail delivery dog sled routes from the turn of the 20th Century. Mushers and their teams of dogs will travel for nearly two weeks, racing across some of the last pristine wilderness remaining in North America.

The slightly longer, and more publicized, Iditarod sled dog race is run in Alaska and the Yukon Quest crosses the international boundaries of Canada and the United States. Both of these races are the best known of the long distance dog mushing events in the world.

Over the course of three days leading up to the Valentine’s Day 11 AM start, I had the opportunity to chat with rookie and veteran mushers alike. I asked several veterans which of the two races was toughest. None would commit to one being tougher than the other. All of them agreed that each was tough but in different ways. Here are some of the fragments of our discussions, “Well, the Iditarod is longer but the checkpoints are more frequent.” Another said “The Iditarod rarely has a checkpoint more than ninety miles apart, whereas the Quest has some checkpoints three hundred miles apart.” And a third grunted, “The Quest is generally colder, usually much colder. But then it’s run nearly a month earlier than the Iditarod.”

Ron, a neighbor of ours on the Annie Lake Road, was hosting Jon Little, one of the Alaskan mushers. For Jon, the set up was ideal as Ron’s daughter, a previous Quest musher, had an empty dog yard with houses that Jon could use for his team. And there are miles of ideal mushing trails for Jon to train on during the days leading up to race day.

At the Musher’s Banquet, Ron introduced me to Jon and invited me over to his place the following morning to shoot some photos of Jon and his dogs.

The following morning dawned clear and very cold. It was still and -22°F. Nancy and I bundled and booted up and drove over to Ron’s place. The five minute drive did not even begin to warm the car. Within minutes of our arrival, Jon and his team of fourteen dogs accelerated into the forest. This was his last training run before the race start the following day. With my camera tucked inside my down parka and my hands balled in fists inside my choppers, we hiked down the mushing trail to a point where the team would be passing in the next forty-five minutes.

Besides racing sled dogs, Jon is a writer. The night before, he shared that he is facing a crossroads in his career. With two very young children, mushing takes too much time for an unpredictable income and his writing gig has been hit hard by a withering economy. He admitted that he is facing some very difficult decisions following this year’s race.

After Jon returned from the training run with a newly glaciated mustache and beard, he and his two handlers moved efficiently in the cold as they unhooked and fed the dogs. We hurried, stiffly moving towards the warm house where cups of hot tea were clutched by numb fingers.

Jon had little time to waste. Within an hour of his getting his dogs unhooked and fed a filming crew from Mexico, yes Mexico, showed up to interview and film Jon as he readied his gear and sled for the race. The four men were swaddled in highly regarded, and I might add highly priced, Canada Goose Parkas. Their unseen faces were wrapped in layers of fleece with their handsome south-of-the-border dark eyebrows and eyelashes tipped in frost nodules. Stoically, they filmed Jon, who had changed out of his mushing gear into lighter clothing and his baseball style cap and sunglasses. Clearly this was just another winter day for Jon.

Jon shared how he would pack his sled for the race. It would weigh roughly 150 pounds at the start of the race. Some of the items packed into the sled are a cooker to heat up a dog food mush and melt snow for water, a gallon of fuel, a spare gangline, snowshoes, a sleeping bag, some food for the musher and mostly dog food. He also carried a two-quart homemade insulated thermos. It looked more like a foam and duct taped covered cookie jar with a four-foot length of plastic tube to use as a drinking straw.

I wondered if somewhere he stowed a copy of a small book I spied on a book rack in Whitehorse titled, ‘God is my Musher.’

The interviewer asked Jon about men and women competing against each other in the Quest. Of the twenty-eight starting teams, six of the mushers are women. Jon shared that dog mushing is one of the few sports that men and women can compete equally. “Each gender,” he shared, “has its advantages. Women tend to be lighter in weight therefore less weight for the dogs to pull.” He smiled as he added, “And generally I think that women have better communication rapport with the dogs. On the other hand men have better upper body strength for handling the sled on rough sections of the trail.”

When asked if he had any secret strategy for this quest, Jon smiled wryly and offered, “Well, actually I do.” At this point he hesitated before cautiously adding, “But you have to swear not to tell anyone.” Feeling privileged to hear his words, the film crew and the handful of others all edged forward and nodded our heads or raised our mittened hands.

Jon paused and tentatively continued, “In dog racing there is practically a mantra that you go six-on and six-off. That means run the dogs six hours and rest them six hours. Well, I believe they are fully capable of going more, so I am going to try eight-on and four-off. The key will be to try and get the dogs into a slower tempo in the first few hours. Then I need to be consistent and develop a pattern. If I can do that, I think they will fall into the groove. I will ‘snack ‘em’ (which is slang for give giving the dogs a chunk of frozen meat) frequently, maybe every two hours.” With great admiration Jon said, “Each of these dogs burns 10,000 calories every day during the race.” Smiling he added, “That’s more than Lance Armstrong burns during the Tour de France cycling race.” Jon looked down at his sled, “If I can keep them from going too fast in the first hours of the race and establish this pattern, I think we will do all right.”

After the film crew hurried to the warm and idling SUV, Jon shared that he was concerned about one of his lead dogs not eating the way it should. He would pay close attention to it over the following twelve hours and make a decision to run it or not.


In the predawn darkness I spent five to ten minutes gearing up in layers of silk, wool and down clothing. As I dressed I thought of the simple task of readying myself for a tropical day in Mexico, where in a matter of seconds I can pull on a swim suit, tee shirt and slip into my flip-flops.

The Quest volunteer meeting, fueled by big pots of coffee and trays of doughnuts, was held at 8AM. The gathering took on the flavor of a military operation. The bottom line was to keep the public from the staging area an hour prior to the 11AM race start. Prior to 10 AM, the public could wander wherever they liked. The reality was that the bitter cold would keep the crowds indoors until race time.

I paused to speak with one of the young Alaskan woman mushers who took advantage of the warm headquarters and Quest souvenir shop to tuck her heavily wool clad feet into the over-sized white bunny boots. “It’s good weather for the dogs,” she offered. “But I wouldn’t want it much colder.”
The temperature outside was hovering around -20°F.

As we waddled to our assigned areas, mushers and handlers were crowded around their respective trucks unloading dogs from their straw bedded berths. Musher’s trucks are easy to recognize as they have the names of their respective kennels and primary race sponsors painted on the truck doors or dog box.

One truck pulled a long enclosed trailer that held both equipment and shelves of dogs. The dogs were housed next to each other in cubbies that resembled a coop of chicken-laying boxes. As soon as the trailer door swung open the morning chorus of dogs began. Up and down the street the dogs shared the excitement of the day. I was reminded of the Disney movie of ‘The Lady and the Tramp,’ where the dogs howl messages across the city from dog to dog.

The procedure from truck to truck seemed similar. Get the dogs out of their boxes, onto the ground and clipped to a long chain that is affixed to the front and back of the truck. The lined up dogs each pee, creating a line of steaming pools of urine that melt into the packed snow. Dog handlers dish up their race day breakfast ration. It resembles a warmed-up thin gruel of water with a handful of soggy dried dog food added. Then, the dishes are gathered and the dogs are placed back into their boxes. This is not supermarket dog food, it is the good stuff that is designed to fuel and hydrate these canine athletes.

Then the sleds are taken off the tops of the truck boxes and lowered to the ground for final packing. Empty, these racing sleds weigh less than thirty pounds. New materials and design make these sleds much faster than the old fashioned sled used by Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, as viewed on the television show of the same title that I watched as a kid.

As labeled bags of frozen meat are stowed carefully in the sled, some mushers strip off the bases of their runners to replace them with unrolled coils of plastic runners. Plastic has low friction at all temperatures; it is strong, light, and dog excrement doesn’t adhere. It is easy to attach and fairly durable. Each of the mushers carries sets of spare runners. This will be important when they must cross over the four mountain ranges where exposed rocks might be encountered.

Gang lines, collectively made up of tow lines, tug lines and neck lines, are stretched out in front of the sleds and piles of colorful harnesses and dog booties are readied. Then the handlers begin unloading the dogs from their berths. The dogs seem to know the routine because their yowling, yapping, howling, barking, yipping and bawling creates a collective din that energizes all of us.

One at a time, the dogs are hurried to their position along the tow line and clipped into place. Then each of the dogs four feet is fitted with small colorful dog booties. The booties help protect the feet from ice. Cold snow has a sharper, more crystalline and abrasive nature. Since dogs don’t have sweat glands like us, they rid their body of excess heat by panting or through the bare skin on the pads of their feet. For that reason, it is likely that the musher will remove the dog booties at checkpoints or along the trail if the conditions are good.

Mushers are constantly inspecting their dogs’ feet throughout the race. An old mushing expression says, “As go their feet, so go the dogs” meaning that everything rides on the feet of the dogs and even minor issues will lead to trouble if they are not dealt with quickly and effectively by the musher.

Some teams had their lighter-furred dogs fitted with light wrap-around jackets, fastened around their chests and torsos to prevent frostbite on their tender bellies.

I was mightily impressed at the care of the dogs. In the staging area, Official Quest Race Veterinarians moved from team to team giving them thorough checkups. Each sled starts the race with fourteen dogs. At checkpoints the vets will check the condition of each dog. It is not unusual for dogs to be dropped along the way. Unlike basketball, there are no substitutions allowed. To finish the race, mushers have to have at least six dogs pulling the sled.

A constant huddle of photographers, tape recorders and movie cameras are focusing on Newton Marshall, the ever-smiling musher of the highly popular Jamaican Dog Sled Team. Newton drives a cart pulled by dogs in Jamaica and this is his first Quest. His primary mentor and supplier of dogs for this race is three time Quest winner, Hans Gatt, who is gearing up right next to Marshall. Marshall has been in Canada for weeks prior to this race running dogs. Up to race time I was really hoping his primary sponsor, singer Jimmy Buffet, might show up to help send the Jamaican team northward.

I tried taking photographs, but it was very cold on bare fingers and much of the time I kept my fingers balled into fists deep in my felted wool chopper liners. Looking around I found plenty of arguments to wear real fur. I saw full parkas of lynx and coyote fur and I think every musher wore a parka that was trimmed in a wolf or wolverine ruff.

One hour before the race begins, a loud voice breaks into the cold morning over the public address system. “All unauthorized people must leave the race staging area. Please make your way to the viewing area behind the fences.”
The energy level picks up and the dogs sense it. The dogs raise a cacophony. They clearly know that their release is closing in.

British musher, Mark Sleightholme, has drawn “bib number one,” and must be ready for the countdown that will free him and his fourteen dogs at the eleven AM start. Each racer that followed would leave every three minutes.

Crowds gather outside the fenced in street. All, or at least most, unauthorized folk politely leave the staging area. A bundled man, with a very nice camera hanging around his neck matter-of-factly tells me, “I’m a photographer.” Seeing that he is not wearing a “Zone A” access card I answer, “That’s great, so am I. Great hobby isn’t it?” Shepherding him towards the public viewing area, I tell him, “You will have to shoot your photos from over there.”

Another parka-clad pair show their lanyard and card while declaring, “We are part of a movie crew from the states. . . Colorado.” They are likely here to film Colorado musher Bill Pinkham. Finding that they likewise do not have proper credentials I reply, “Hey! I’m from US as well.” Their smiles and raised eyebrows spoke of relief in finding an ally in this foreign country, the Yukon, that claims is “larger than life.” Clearly, a fellow patriot would look the other way. Hah! On this day, passports and residencies be damned! I am an official volunteer for the Yukon Quest and today my creed is the same as the one custom painted across the hood on musher Jason Mackey’s truck: “In Dog We Trust.”

The pair of Pike’s Peakers looked glum and sulked away like abused dogs when I informed them that until they had the proper credentials I could not allow them entry. I was hitting my stride as a volunteer and it felt good.

I look around and see teams and mushers making last minute adjustments. Small groups of handlers and mushers are conferring, pointing, nodding and hugging. But it is the dog hugging that moves me most. Nearby Colleen Robertia, a rookie musher from Alaska, is pausing to pet and talk to each of her team. Last minute love chats with their dogs. Her team is primarily made up of a rabble of runts, rejects and rescued dogs. I feel like I am violating a sacrosanct act as I pull out my camera to photograph Colleen’s last and longest hug. It is a slender tawny dog that, with her eyes closed in seeming contentment,  leans in against Colleen. The rookie musher kneels in close to the dog and has a few quiet words with her.

Less than fifty paces from the starting line, the Yukon River gave off clouds of fog. Under the starting chute, every time a team lined up to take off, their heavy and excited breathing gave rise to plumes of steamy breath as they waited their turn.

With the dogs pulling, lunging, bawling and so full of energy, it took at least six to eight dog handlers to hold them back as the musher and sometimes a second person stood on the sled brake, cutting grooves in the hard-packed snow as they moved up towards the starting position.

My highlight of the day came when a handler got my attention from my mundane duties of watching for more infiltrating “filmmakers and photographers.” One of the dog handlers, spying my orange mesh volunteer vest yelled over to me, “Hey we could use another handler out here. Want to give us a hand?”

I looked around. I was like a solo penguin standing rigid on the ice pack. He actually did address me! I hurried over.

Amidst the loud chorus of dog noise the handler shouted orders. “Don’t step on the dog’s foot and grab the tow line between the dogs and help us hold the dogs back as we move forward. Watch your feet and balance.”

As the musher released the line that anchored us to his parked truck and lifted his anchoring snow hook, we moved forward in a controlled surge. It felt wonderful to move my limbs and trot. I felt myself warming as I helped restrain the canine tide that was intent on getting on with the chase. Hunched over and hustling with the dogs, I was goosed in my wool-layered rear several times through three layers of clothes by the lunging dog directly behind me. No longer yipping, these dogs were huffing and driving forward. One growled at another and one of the musher’s handlers growled loudly, “Hey! No!” This was no time for dissension. Focus pups. As we leaned back skidding and dancing forward, I reminded myself, ‘Keep your balance Tom. This is no time to trip and go sprawling in this gauntlet of tooth and claw.’ Oh God I can see the headlines in the Yukon News: “Cheechako Handler’s Clumsiness Prevents Musher From Quest Start”

We stopped at the feet of a volunteer whose job was traffic controller. Holding his hands high over his head waving his fingers in a “come on motion,” we moved forward. Abruptly the controller reaches high over his head with the palms of his mitts halting us. We are on deck. The musher fifty meters in front of us is in the gate and I hear the countdown over the speakers that will send him down the trail.

During our pause, I spy one of the lead dogs squatting and taking a dump. The person at the front of the line is grinning and pantomimes back to the musher on the sled that the dog has dropped its goods. The smile and the thumbs up sign tell me this is good news. Is it that excess weight has been dropped and the dog will feel more like running? I certainly know that wonderful feeling.

I was reminded of the similar behavior that a flushing sandpiper or other bird has as it drops its whitewash droppings on the beach as it erratically exits. Quick flight and escape is a good thing.

The big voice emanates from the street side speakers, “Three . . .Two. . . .One. . .Go! See you in Fairbanks!”

And in the next moment we are shuffling to the starting gate. The dogs seem to know it. Suddenly I am overcome with a desire to run with this team. I wish I had a pair of these classy black booties strapped on my feet. I can feel the rhythm of the surge. Oh I want to go with you guys! I want to run 1,000 miles over the frozen Yukon River through the quiet boreal forest under the star-studded skies smeared with the bright streaks of the aurora. Let me join you in climbing mountains, crossing the empty alpine summit of Eagle and feel the rush and fear of a speedy descent.

I want to curl up, along the lonely trail,  on a patch of comforting straw that smells of summer haymows. My inner dogness is aching to run with the pack. Suddenly I think of the news I received just days ago that Taiga, our pet dog and sometimes puller, had been released from his earthen anchor. At thirteen years, his body had finally broken down and he was helped in moving on into the next world. I remembered fitting a large dog harness to his 120-pound frame and having him pull my sled of camping gear on a past winter camping trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota.

In those few seconds that we surged to the start, I could feel his spirit at my side and together we give each other a toothy smile, his long tongue is out and mine is exposed as my mouth opens wide in a grin of exaltation. My adrenaline is kicking in and suddenly I forget my chilled feet.

I am in awe of all the work it has taken this pack of humans and dogs to come to this point to run 1,000 miles on the frozen Yukon River, through the snow covered boreal forest, over four mountains and on to Fairbanks.

I am hardly aware that hundreds of people are intently watching us as we halt the team so that the musher’s sled is poised directly beneath the large yellow banner that announces the Yukon Quest 2009. Finally. We are here. I let go of the rope and turn to get out of the way.

“Thirty seconds!” announces the cadre of loud speakers. The musher finishes some last minute pats and words with several dogs. Before I return to the staging area, I bend down and pat the mottled head of the dog that had nudged me towards the start. “Good luck, safe journey friend” is all I can muster for a pep talk.

The dog pays absolutely no attention to me. The musher and the fourteen other huffing and puffing teammates all have their eyes locked on the end of the aisle lined with hundreds of bundled cheering people.

They stare ahead. There is no other direction.

****Postscript: Jon Little finished third overall.

Tipping Point of Solstice

“Suddenly the night has grown colder. . . God of love preparing to depart.”
•From the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Alexandra Leaving’

It’s 9:00 AM and still pretty dark beyond my kitchen window. As I write this, we are ten days from the solstice and the hours of light are tightening here in north of normal. I’ve never been north of 60° with the winter solstice looming.

As Nancy and I planned for our time in the Yukon, it wasn’t so much the cold or bugs that had me worried. No, it was more so the brief hours of daylight.

Yukoners recommended that we try to get out for at least an hour each day to stave off any effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Whether we are splitting firewood, shoveling snow, skiing or snowshoeing it is important to give ourselves a daily dose of natural daylight to combat potential depression symptoms associated with SAD. Midday is the time to get outside and tend to chores or play.

In the early 20th century, hundreds of miles of telegraph wire were raised through the British Columbia and Yukon wilderness. Some of the remote stations had two operators. It was not unusual, particularly during the dark winter, for the companions to harbor a pronounced dislike for each other. Imprisoned by winter and likely the affects of SAD, personalities often brooded for months.

We are nearing a tipping point for the year. Physically, the northern pole is tipped maximally away from the sun. In less than two weeks we will march towards spring as the minutes of daylight begin to out compete the minutes of darkness. However there is deception at play. Though the daylight increases, in northerly latitudes we can expect the coldest weather in the coming month or two.

Up here, I am more aware of the shift of seasons. And anything that creates a keener sense of awareness is a good thing. For example, photographer mentors of mine have always told me to put the camera away at midday. The sun is too bright and intense. Sunlight at both ends of the day must shine make through more atmosphere and is not so harsh. Consequently, you tend to get more dramatic photos.

I am finding that same low-angled sunlight is perfect for shooting photos at high noon. Perhaps I should say at “low noon.” At midday, the sun is barely scraping over the treetops and then almost as quickly it arcs towards the horizon again. It has an eerie aspect about it, not unlike the light given off when there is a partial solar eclipse.

The winter solstice, that moment when daylight is most minimal, the word solstice literally means, “sun standing still.” On the backside of the winter solstice we witness the sun returning to it’s annual march northward.

Author Lewis Mumford, historian and noted for his work on urban architecture, wrote, “Without fullness of experience, length of days is nothing. . . .” Those words seem especially poignant for me right now. While some would say we are approaching the death or the end of a calendar year. I would argue that it is only a segment of the arc that makes a complete circle. The seasons are not linear, like a calendar. Instead, they are cyclical.

It has been said, that among early Americans (aborigines), the short days of winter inspired annual bouts of storytelling. For many tribes, animals symbolized various segments of life. For instance, the black bear was a sign of introspection. The bear disappeared in winter and became dormant to . . . think about things. And so it is with me, as the tipping point nears I find myself thinking more about things. Things like slopes of party-colored flowers, the wash of warm sun on my face in early May and going barefoot outdoors.

Ironically I find it comforting to know that we are tipping towards January. And January towards February and so on, until my mukluks and wool sox are pulled off and my pallid feet venture outdoors.

The Long Drop

Yesterday I flushed our toilet for the first time since early June. It still works. It’s currents still swirl in a lovely clockwise motion.

You might wonder if we have been inflicted with some serious bowel or bladder obstructions, but the real issue is location . . .location . . .location. Here, at our Outpost in the Yukon Territory, Nancy and I live fifty seven steps from an art gallery, a library, a quiet seat in the park, a meditation center, a local think tank, a wildlife refuge and . . . a long drop.

My description of nearby community assets, might conjure images of a small mall with its multitude of joined offerings but I am pleased to report that each of the amenities noted is found under one 5×5 foot roof.

It was only early last spring that I learned from direct experience that a “long drop” is the South African title for an outhouse or biffy.

Culturally and socially, we Westerners tend to hide anything to do with human waste. But I would argue that we should take such a sacred moment and make it more enjoyable. So with that credo in mind we have created a multi-use long drop.

Most of the outhouse furnishings have been provided by the local Mt. Lorne dump, located about four miles from our place. You see up here, they not only have a dump to leave your garbage but an incredibly all-encompassing recycling center at the same location so that in fact the end result is very little garbage is sent to a landfill.

We have grown quite fond of going to the dump. It is a great place to meet new people as you browse through the “share shacks.” This is similar to the websites that advertise “Freecycling” in most metropolitan areas. This is a wonderful service that helps folks give away stuff they no longer want or need. And in so it helps reduce the buying of more “stuff.”

One open fronted shack contains clothes that have provided us with thick colorful wool sweaters, good slippers, fleece pajamas (like new), mint green jeans and even sassy sandals and tough work boots.

The other, similarly open fronted shack is my favorite. It has provided me with a first edition mint copy of Thomas Friedman’s book The Earth is Flat and some very nice biology textbooks and stacks of magazines. Here we also found a nearly new bread machine that has been cranking out fresh bread on a weekly basis. We found nice juice glasses, beer mugs, a knife block and other kitchen necessities. This is the shack that we have given the outhouse a makeover that has transformed it into the aforementioned destinations.

As you nestle down on the pink, inch and a half thick foam insulation outhouse seat, you can look at artwork that surrounds you. There is a North of 60° still life scene of a once-fortified Yukon Jack bottle, which proudly claims to be the “black sheep of Canadian liquors.” It’s now a vase. Two inches of solid ice in the bottom of the bottle tightly grip the still-bright, but wilted purple fireweed blossoms.

Hanging behind the sitter, (note the proper use of the word), there are garlands of plastic green grape vines and several bright yellow sunflowers. With recent mornings dipping below 0° F, the plastic botanical conservatory-look helps make the experience more pleasant, almost summery.

A platter-sized plaster seashell also takes us to tropical thoughts. But then the print of an artist’s rendition of a cold blue shadows falling over snowdrifts reminds us not to dally. Behind the seat is a rusted old hunting knife and equally rusty wire cutters that were kicked out of the dirt nearby.

If you don’t want to watch the comings and goings of red squirrels, boreal chickadees or whisky jacks (gray jays), close the curtain and consider the reading material. The stack literature sits next to your right buttock. Magazines include: Natural History, a couple of thirty year old Mother Earth News, a book on Animal Behavior and of course, an old pocket book of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic, The Martian Chronicles. Which incidentally he offers the following philosopher’s quote in the beginning of the book: “It is good to renew one’s wonder.” And this is a lovely place to do just that.

Next to your left cheek is the all-important toilet paper. It is housed in another dump find. Kept from the incisors of mice and squirrels, the roll of paper is kept inside an old plastic floppy disk case. With its smoky clear plastic cover you can find it easily. Behind the case is a large, porcelain cookie jar. The handle of the lid is shaped like a dog biscuit so I suspect it is truly a dog biscuit jar. It easily holds two extra rolls of toilet paper and is mouse-proof.

A single moose antler is propped in the corner. Above the antler is a found dried branch with a pleasing shape. In the opposite corner, just off your left knee, is a five-gallon bucket of wood ash to occasionally sprinkle down the long drop.

The two dried corn cobs that sit so lonely in a little metal basket, not only mementos of the Midwest, but they are clear reminders of just how rough things could be if the toilet paper runs out.

So if you choose to visit us for cultural enlightenment, simply walk out past the garage. Pass the column of balanced boulders and stones, called an “” by the Innuit and look for the quaint hut with a sign on the outside that reads: “Dog Mushing Area – Please Slow Down.”

Step in, enjoy the array of community assits and leave a donation. You will feel so much better.

Looking for Sourdough

So here I am at the brink of my first winter in the Yukon. Though it is only October, we have flirted with single digit thermometer readings, had a couple of light snows and had Thanksgiving. No turkey at this table. . .no siree. . .we had a black bear standing roast complemented with a platter of spruce and ruffed grouse breasts in a wonderful thick gravy and two slices of pie. After losing about 15 pounds over the first six months here, I am on a mission to consume calorie to better cope with the harshest of seasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singing Like Tom Waits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tonight the first of three scheduled presidential debates takes place. I suspect millions of people will have their televisions tuned in and rightfully so. With the shaky economy and the bailout taking center stage over the past few days there is good reason to watch the two, or perhaps one candidate(s) address their stance on various issues.

I cannot watch and I confess to a little pouting on that matter. Since we left Minnesota early last May I have not watched any television.

For the time being we have deliberately chosen not to have one in the Yukon. Besides the only way we could pick up any channels would be to activate the roof bound satellite dish that came with the purchase of the Outpost (our Yukon home) back in 2001. For now it makes a reasonable bird perch, though it is hardly befitting the image of a log structure  on the edge of a roiling river.

No television means more time for Nancy and I to spend outdoors paddling a canoe, bagging another peak, picking berries or negotiating trails on mountain bikes. There is more time for reading, shared intimate conversation, and consequently. . . pay attention couch potatoes. . . more lovemaking. More time to perform household duties, such as fetching firewood, splitting it and stacking it, without the stress of other tasks such as catching the six o’clock news, which incidentally only makes you feel more stressed, depressed or paranoid. But then after the news you can mentally escape the reign of paranoia and enter the fantasy world of becoming a superstar by watching “Something Idol” or “Fear Factor.”

Up here, north of ordinary, I can experience fear factor without commercials. Let me tell you about two Yukon episodes of fear factor. Both events left me thankful for my DNA connection to cats and their multiple lives.

The first brush with disaster happened when I was training for the Kuane Chilkat International Bike Relay last spring. The bike relay is a 150 mile or so bike race from Haines Junction in the Yukon to Haines, Alaska. I was on a team of four riders and each of us had to ride two legs of the relay. My legs are the dreaded third and fourth legs that include some gnarly mountain climbs. The website description of these legs provided the prod to get me out on the road to train. Knowing I had barely a month to fine tune myself I decided to train on a relatively hilly section of the Klondike Highway not far from the Outpost.

It was my first ride since getting up here and was disappointed to find the highway a bit rough with no paved shoulders. Hopefully courteous driving habits are part of the norm on this highway. As I rode, I was enthralled by the snow-covered mountains while closely watching the forested edges along the highway for spring grizzly and black bears that might be grazing on early growth of succulent roadside plants. Being new to the area and very bear aware I did not want to be a succulent roadside snack.

The uphill climbs painfully reminded me that I had been on my bike only once in over a week and a half since we had made the trek up the Alaska Highway after leaving Minnesota. I relished the downhill glides. . .until one long hill. As I descended, picking up speed, I detected a slight wobble in the front wheel. The tremors grew quickly in intensity and suddenly the wobble became seismic and it was all I could do to hold the violently shaking handle bars while trying to frantically, yet evenly, apply the brakes. I remember clearly thinking, “This is it, I’m going down!!” Fighting off images of my daughters, Nancy and mother I wondered if I should edge over onto the narrow strip of gravel shoulder that flanked a deep ditch that in itself nudged the granite base of a mountain. My mind raced wondering where to lay the bike down causing the least amount of injury. Still wobbling violently moving over a better part of the highway lane, I could hear a car coming up behind me. “Oh please!” I mentally pleaded, “ Slow your car down and allow me to hog the lane in my out of control re-entry.”

Somehow I managed to stay upright and come to a stop. A wide-eyed and alarmed woman driver slowly passed me in her Honda and gave me that look that plainly asks, “Are you okay?” My fake smile urged her on.

I was only about eight miles into my ride but I was so rattled that I decided to head home for a shot of Yukon Jack. On the return ride I tensed up with each drop of the road, no matter how slight. And all I could think of was the
Race website that describes my two legs of the race. “The leg starts on a long, fast and potentially dangerous downhill to Million Dollar Falls.”
Now I was really intimidated.

Within the week, after toting the bicycle to a bike repair shop, I learned that the front spokes had been knocked out of alignment when the bike was strapped to a bike rack behind the truck on the bouncy 2500 mile ride to the Yukon. I was also given some tips from the repair “dude” and from a bike racer in the states about how to more comfortably deal with fast down hills.

The June race and came and went and I managed to survive wobble-free. . .though I didn’t have the courage to let the bike go all out on the down hills. Brakes are a good thing.

The other dance with fear took place on our two and a half week canoe trip down the Wind River through the Wernecke Mountains in the northern Yukon. The river races through spectacular mountains and is very remote and required a floatplane to get us to the headwaters. Six of us paddled our way down for about a week when we had a camp visitor. . .a big, very blonde grizzly bear.

As the dominant and most numerous species of mammal on the planet, humans have little to fear in our casual walk through the typical North American life. But here is an animal that sometimes preys on our kind and this one was ambling down a sharp ridge right towards our camp. In this part of the world, no animal accelerates ones heart rate like a grizzly bear.

The six of us immediately stood up from our tasks of preparing pita pizzas for supper and formed a football huddle of sorts. We were using the same strategy the musk ox uses, another northern mammal, when confronted with danger. They position themselves into a circle, shoulder to shoulder to face the threat.

The bear positioned uphill and therefore looking even bigger, paused and lifted its massive head and scented the air. “Could it smell the grated cheese?” Thankfully the wind was blowing cheddar essences away from the bear and us. The bear began slowly coming down the hill snuffling up bearberries as it moved.

We moved slowly and deliberately away from the pizza fixings and edging towards our tents to gather up two more cans of bear spray. We now had three cans of the pepper spray propellant and all were in the ready state. With three cans of this eye-watering, foul-tasting, mouth-burning, vomit- inducing substance we could, in unity, create an ominous orange cumulus cloud of clout.

The bear kept coming. At 35 yards from us and 10 yards from our Whelen tarp, the bear hesitated. Was this the calm before the storm? Suddenly a sharp gust of wind snapped a loose corner of the tarp emitting a sound unlike that of someone snapping a towel at ones rear. The bear was clearly startled and it turned and walked away, never looking back once.

We remained in our huddle for some time but found it awkward to cook supper in such a tangle of limbs. Later, after a quick downpour, the sun burst out in the evening light and a spectacular double rainbow was birthed practically in our camp. It was so utterly other worldly that Kurt, one of our crew, declared, “Maybe the bear killed and ate us and this is heaven!”

Those moments of fear have only served as piquant reminders of the miracle of being alive. I suspect, and oddly enough almost hope, that there will be more brushes with fear.

And without television I have learned to embrace the abundance of options to live largely. And in doing so I have come to realize how small I am.

Go ahead turn your televisions on and let me know how the debates went and I’ll tell you about a new color of red I discovered in a parade of color-crazy northern lights.

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


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.


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.
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:
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.

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