An Ode To The Northern Wood

It was a bluebird day.

+1C.

There was no need for long johns or puffy jackets. Or toques. Or mitts.

We had no destination in mind, only to saunter the day inside the boreal woods.

Our eyes strained against the glare of sunlight on snow. We cursed forgetting sunglasses.

We were excited for the fresh snowfall.

Sure, it’s tougher hiking but fresh snow makes new wildlife tracks crisp. And there were so many out in the woods beyond our cabin: moose, mule deer, grouse, red squirrel, chipmunk, mouse (unknown species), wolf, coyote, red fox, lynx.

We traced the path of grouse and snowshoe hare wandering from rosehip bush to rosehip bush, seeking berries still lingering. We admired lynx tracks meandering through a poplar grove, envious of their snowshoe paws keeping them afloat in the deep snow.

The fresh snowfall revealed a wolf came out of the woods and crossed the frozen lake to circle a beaver lodge before trotting over to investigate the length of the beaver dam.

A red squirrel’s hole opening into the subnivean zone intrigued me. I long to know how it would be to travel between earth and snow.

We also watched black-capped chickadees peeling bark away in search of grub, listened to a three-toed woodpecker rapping on a tree.

We found several muskrat pushups.

And the first pussy willows of spring.

The balsam poplars are beginning to bud. I pinched a bud and then gave it a sniff. Inside a poplar bud is the familiar scent of spring. When the leaves finally begin to burst forth the winds will be thick with the familiar scent.

The same can be said for pasture sage. But that plant is still only melting out from under the snow. We have to wait a little while yet before she emerges.

We are also eager to find the first of the prairie crocuses. To see the first black-bellied plover of spring.

My happiness lies in a quiet, slow, simple life nestled in nature.

The stillness of the woods still draped in winter and mountains I’ve come to know slowly over twenty years this is home. Not some structure with four walls but this sense of belonging to a landscape. I don’t need much for a place to lay my head as long as I can step out the front door and into the wild.

Undoubtedly, I am fortunate to be spending these days in a cabin in the Yukon woods. My neighbours are arctic ground squirrels and the mule deer. Trails splinter off in all directions behind our home, trails leading to lakes, to hilltops and mountain peaks where wolves and coyotes, lynx and moose roam.

Our Two-Week Self-Isolation Cabin On The Tagish River

We might not have running water in our cabin but we have plenty of books and podcasts. The crib board has seen quite a bit of use. And we’ve got tunes.

The alcohol won’t stretch out the entire 14 days but the oatmeal cookies will see us through.

We’ve got vegan sausages cooking on the fire, plus tequila for sipping and marshmallows for dessert.

Internet is a fifteen-minute walk away so we are very much living in the moment, in the boreal forest of southern Yukon.

The river flows outside our window, mountains loom beyond. We do not tire of the views as light and shadows shift each moment. No moment is alike. Hopes for glimpses of the northern lights make every midnight run to the outhouse hopeful, despite -20C temperatures.

I cherish this simple life. This quiet time. Sure, I’d rather be backpacking but I have my health and a warm place to shelter. I am lucky.

The Yukon makes it easy to self-isolate. It’s easy to stay at home when its -20C outside.

Below are some observations and thoughts from our days spent in isolation.

Today in the neighbourhood, March 26

A family of four river otters are playing on the ice. A pair of common mergansers are fishing nearby. A pair of ravens are collecting sticks for a nest. A flock of common redpolls are providing the evening’s music. And just as I write this, twenty male common goldeneyes arrive, a single male bufflehead among them.

We must stay away from our human friends but we are still in the company of old friends, the red squirrels, the grey jays, the American dippers.

I have always been able to entertain myself and delight in the subtleties of the outside world. I don’t always need to be hiking, paddling, skiing to enjoy the outdoors. Simply sitting outside is enough for my soul.

Today in the neighbourhood, March 30

Watched a coyote trotting across the frozen river, skirting the open leads, making two trumpeter swans swimming around nervous. And there were ravens having sips of fine Tagish River water, collecting twigs for nests and croaking at us for no apparent reason as they fly by. To live in the northern woods is to be in the company of the wise, curious, mischievous raven. A small herd of eight woodland caribou are feeding in the woods near our cabin, just a fifteen-minute walk down a wooded trail. I adore caribou. Seeing them always makes me smile.

Self-isolation, despite not having Internet or television, in the Yukon is no trial for us when wilderness exists outside the front door.

Today in the neighbourhood, April 7

Today is our last day in self-isolation, our last day at our friends cabin in Tagish. It makes us sad to leave. It’s been delightful to watch spring slowly move in, to watch the migrating birds return, to observe the local wildlife. Today on our hike we ran into the caribou again. We kept our distance so as not to disturb them. We also came across a female moose who seemed fairly unconcerned by our presence. She just continued feeding in the willow thicket. Woodpeckers were rapping on trees and the white-winged crossbills, common redpolls and black-capped chickadees were singing up a storm in the woods.

I will miss the sunrises and watching life along the river. I may have been in isolation but I was not alone. The fourteen days went by too swiftly.

 

2019 NWT Paddling Trip Recap

This summer we traveled into one of Canada’s newest national parks, Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. It is a wilderness not accessible by road and because of this some have questioned its value as a national park due to its lack of accessibility.

It’s true. It’s a tough place to reach. Not many will see this place or travel in it but it is a remarkable wild place, home to muskoxen, moose, black and grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine and so many birds.

It deserves protection regardless of whether it is accessible to people or not.

Our 12-week paddling trip was shortened to just six weeks due to several factors, mostly thanks to lupus kicking my ass and the lakes on the Barrens still being frozen in mid-July, both of which are very effective in stalling the forward momentum of a canoe.

The fatigue that accompanies lupus and the persistent ache of joints made this trip, already challenging enough, only tougher. Exhaustion trailed me all summer. It is a frustrating, maddening symptom of lupus. This is not your normal, just paddled 12 hours and now I’m tired kind of exhaustion. This is a tiredness indescribable. When it hits, there is not enough coffee or energy drink to combat it. When it overwhelms I tend to simply plop over and pass out, wherever I happen to be.

Not wanting to push on and risk a full-on flare, which can take months to settle down again, we cut our trip short.

Despite the challenges, oh, what an adventure we had. We spoke only with a half dozen people in six weeks but had the constant company of arctic terns. We wandered among herds of muskoxen, shared beaches with black and grizzly bears, found shorebird nests and lived and traveled across a remote landscape for six wild weeks.

Those Magical Places

When John and I need to sit in the woods alone, to flee from the crowds, to contemplate our life, to make a big decision, this is where we come.

The small lake is a joy to paddle early in the morning and evening, when the beavers are busy working on their lodge, repairing a dam, chopping down trees.

The mountains in the distance are a long hike but are home to caribou and grizzly.

Our campsite is tucked beneath pine trees with a family of grey jays and kingfishers to keep us company.

This place has such a feeling of calm and peace. Even when it’s storming or snowing this place makes us happy.

The Grizzly On The Big Salmon River

The experts say never to run from a bear, running provokes a chase instinct in bears.

This is true, which we discovered along the Big Salmon River, a small winding tributary of the Yukon River. It is a fun, swift and narrow river with a few sweepers but little else to really worry about.

This hard fast rule for bear encounters, don’t run, is fine when on foot but what are paddlers to do on a swift river? We paddled around a corner to meet a young grizzly just hauling himself out of the river. The river pushed us past him, nearly under his now and instantly the bear took off along the bank, running after us.

We feel confident in traveling bear country. We’ve read the literature on bear safety. In twenty years we have met many grizzlies. In some summers we have met more than a dozen girzzlies in the backcountry. Usually they run from us, some watch us, others ignore us. A few have bluffed charged. This was the first to chase us. And it was at this moment we discovered we didn’t know what the protocol was to stop a charge. Is it the same as a bluff charge, hold your ground? John and I were both hesitant to stop paddling, a grizzly at our heels.

So we kept on paddling.

And the grizzly kept on following.

Three times the grizzly entered the water, began swimming towards us. We yelled at him, slapped paddles on the water. Each time the grizzly returned to shore and continued his pursuit on land. We paddled on until losing sight of the grizzly.

And we kept on paddling.

At the time of our meeting, we had been scanning the shore for a place to camp. Now we had no intention of camping any time soon. When we finally did camp, three hours later, we were hesitant, jumpy. A three-hour paddle for us is no distance for a grizzly to travel.

We did not sleep well that evening.

Aside from this one exciting moment, the Big Salmon River was a beautiful and peaceful trip, with quiet lakes, sandy beaches and forests filled with cloudberries.

Into The Mountains

I need wild places to wander into, wilderness where I can meet a porcupine, snow buntings, moose, coyote. I live a simple life so I can have these moments in the wild.

Spring has sprung early in southern Yukon. We scrambled up and across a ridge today which normally is still snow covered at Easter, three weeks later. And not only did we have few snowy patches to contend with, we found prairie crocuses just about ready to bloom. We definitely enjoyed the unseasonably warm +10C weather with an all day mountain adventure.

Our hike began and ended bushwhacking through spruce and poplar forest. I love wandering through a naked poplar forest, though I’m not entirely sure why. Their arms stretching up to the blue sky is just pretty. We spooked a snowshoe hare from its nest tucked beneath brush and found a porcupine den. There is no trail where we were hiking which usually means we will see plenty of wildlife and/or signs of them. This hike was no different.

The scramble into the alpine was tough, steep but worth the effort. We saw a few spruce grouse, half a dozen willow ptarmigan and lots of Dall sheep poop. And, near the summit we detoured to a ridge following lynx tracks. Near the end of our day we also spotted a moose and a coyote. It was a great ending to a sublime day in the mountains.

“Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home – not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colours. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and the places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.” Ellen Meloy

Back In The Cold Embrace Of The Yukon Winter

It is a difficult transition, to reach the end of an adventure and return to work. After eight months of sauntering and wandering, it is time to work and save our pennies for the next adventure, just four months away.

It is cold and dark this time of year. The nights seem to stretch on, unending. A typical 9 to 5 job means arriving to work in the dark, missing the stunning 10:30am sunrises over the surrounding hills. The sun sets long before the workday ends. The sun holds little warmth. But the woods are charming to stroll in. The chickadees sing, the red squirrels sit in the sun atop their midden. While we fight to keep our hands warm on late night walks the northern lights dance – flickers of green and crimson and violet above us. A coyote might pass by while the rest of the forest remains silent.

We sport frosted eyelashes, rosy cheeks and runny noses. -35C nips at exposed skin. The dry snow crunches and squeaks under each footfall. The forests are silent, no fresh tracks but our own in the snow. Ursus major, the Big Dipper, the North Star, they all shimmer on clear night. The northern lights dance.

We may no longer be in the warm embrace of the Utah or California desert but we have frosty forests and northern lights to embrace.

 

Sailing Days

We have been wandering around Vancouver Island for two weeks now and it is hard not to look back on the days we sailed here. Ten years ago John and I spent a year and a half sailing around the Gulf Islands and Desolation Sound on a 26-foot sailboat (and living on).

We were, and still are, impetuous. Reckless.

That’s how we ended up in Victoria, BC in early June, purchasing a sailboat when our plans had been to spend the month backpacking in Kluane National Park. Instead of wandering mountains we quite suddenly were the proud owners of a 1975 Contessa 26.

It was an enormous learning curve. Living and adventuring in the Yukon we are at ease in the backcountry hiking, paddling, skiing. We are confident and capable there.

But sailing?

It was difficult to see beyond the basic fact that I’m terrified of the water and John can’t swim.

Oh, and yes, we didn’t really know how to sail. Continue reading “Sailing Days”

In Between The Rains We Played In Atlin

Heat waves and periods of intense rain sums up the month of July. Having the summer off means we can decide when and where to go, depending on where the nicest weather lies. We had plans to spend a couple of weeks exploring Mount Edziza but wildfires in Northern BC forced us to look elsewhere.

At the beginning of the month we returned to Atlin Lake, spending a week paddling and hiking a provincial park does not get enough attention considering how beautiful it is and how fun the paddling is – if you remember to choose your weather. Wolves, grizzlies and mountain goats can be spotted, islands with baby gulls and arctic terns and protective adults occupy all the rocky islands. And of course there are mountains like Cathedral and Llewellyn Glacier to admire. Even though we spent nearly two weeks last summer paddling here we were just as enthralled and enchanted with this place this time around. We explored new bays, new inlets, met a black wolf, camped beside a bee’s nest.

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