Good Thursday

A singular beauty is the wild landscape bathed in a fresh snow. A still higher gamut is that landscape awash in quietude.

I found the truck sitting in and under several inches of clean, new, powdery snow Thursday morning—a surprise to the handful of us staying at the Northern Rockies Lodge near Muncho Lake in British Colombia. Forecasters told us the snow was finished before we went to bed. I delighted in their error.

When the dining room opened at 7:00 I was the lone guest. Others opted for an earlier start and, as I sipped my tea, I was wondered if I should have done the same. With this much snow on the road, traveling would surely be slow. The previously anticipated seven-and-a-half hour drive north to Teslin was likely to be more like nine or ten hours in these conditions.

_3185298-003.jpg

I sped through my eggs and bacon, cleaned the snow off the truck, filled the tank, shifted into four wheel drive, and pulled onto the Alaska Highway heading north. The road was out of sight under the deep snow but, with the sun low, the roadway was distinguishable by shadows cast by the sharp edges formed where plow blades ended.

Easing my way through the gears, I was pleased to hear the snow compressing beneath my tires, and to feel the truck sure beneath me. The speed limit was 100 km/h and I was surprised to have reached that speed and be cruising comfortably in sixth gear in short order.

I stopped on a long stretch where visibility was good in both directions, shut down my iron horse, and stepped outside. A singular beauty is the wild landscape bathed in a fresh snow. A still higher gamut is that landscape awash in quietude.

_3185301-001Crop.jpg

The boughs of Douglas firs heavy with snow, mountains steep, jagged, and white outlined by gray clouds on the horizon, whispy white clouds above, a Nissan truck, and a single yellow sign warning me to beware of bison in the road completed the scene. I wished the truck removed from the scene, but not bearing the coat of a bison, that wish passed quickly. As I stood silently breathing it in, the first sun caught the tip of a peak to the west, turning it salmon. I watched as the color slowly seeped down the slope—the higher gamut of beauty expanding. In the far distance, a plume of snow signaled the approach of a vehicle. Time to go.

A few miles farther, the forewarned bison appeared in the form of a calf following her mother in the road from the right. I stopped well shy of the pair and watched them pass. In the deeper snow off the road, they plunged their giant heads into the snow for whatever browse they sniffed out. Another—a larger one—stood beyond them doing the same, while yet a fourth lounged comfortably in the snow nearby. Later in the morning, caribou, less tolerant of carbon-spewing steeds, appeared and disappeared along my drive, not interested in posing for photos.

_3185358-001.jpg

So many places I wanted to stop, set up the tripod, try to capture the scene, but without shoulder, or straightaways long enough to feel comfortable blocking the road, I didn’t dare stop. Truckers delivering goods to remote towns do not care to slow for photographers, nor would they have time to stop should they find me around a bend in the snow. To be safe, I had to keep moving. Perhaps it is best, as I certainly haven’t the photographic skills to freeze the beauty of that landscape in a way fully appreciable by another. I think this might be the nature of such a singular beauty. To possess such a moment is to hold in my hand a non-transferrable deed. Another might smell a whiff of my supper, but I can no more offer them a taste than can I can find a suitable simile to express what they are missing.

My phone had not worked since entering Canada, and ever since the radio lost all waves the day before, I did not try to find a station. I was pleased with both absences. To enter into this scene either song or speech would have been to contaminate it.

There was one great disappointment in the day, coming six-and-a-half hours into my drive when I reached my destination: Nisutlin Trading Post. I wanted to turn around and drive back to Muncho Lake, experience it from a new perspective, then do it again the next morning, but I had reservations ahead and a ferry to catch in Skagway on Friday.

The flip side of the disappointment came in the opportunity before me. I was early and full of images, ideas, and words. For a week-and-a-half I had traveled with two beers in a cooler in the back of the truck. Tonight, I would open one of them and spend a few hours writing and processing photos—remembering, relishing, reminiscing, trying to do my experience justice.

After checking in and unloading the truck into my room, I took a few minutes to check email and let the world on Facebook know I was alive. Wrapping up that task, I realized my computer battery was low. I would pull my power cord out of my bag and charge up the laptop while I showered, then head to the one restaurant in the blip on the radar that is Teslin for dinner and writing time. Later, I would continue my writing over a beer In my room.

Any other time, what happened next might have upset me, might have really pissed me off. Not today, not this singular day. Flip the apple cart, spill the milk, pick your metaphor. I would not be shaken by the discovery that my power cord was not in my bag, nor on the floor, in the truck, or the parking lot. My computer would soon die, and I had no way to recharge it.

As a result, over supper that evening, I had the great fortune of writing with fountain pen on paper. I suspect the other diners wondered what it was a man dining alone in the corner, writing with an olde fashioned pen, could possibly be smiling so broadly about as they did their thumb calisthenics with their devices. Had they asked, I would have tried to tell them, but they did not.

Back in the room, the mandolin came out and I played, and I sang, until my fingers were sore from their workout, then I wrote some more. My two beers never emerged from the cooler, not due to any decision, but rather the result of a contentment leaving me no reason to think about it.

The next day, I found out my white power cord had fallen out of my bag in the parking lot at Northern Rockies Lodge and landed silently in nearly a foot of white snow where it was later plowed into pieces by a good man on a Bobcat doing an important job. When I asked the man on the other end of the phone if it would be worth mailing it to me and repairing it, he replied with a chuckle, “Oh, hell no. The wires are okay, but that cube in the middle is toast.”

Earlier that morning, with a full moon setting on the mountains before me, I drove to Whitehorse, YT in search of a new cord only to find the only store carrying them dark and lifeless, with a sign on the door saying “Closed for Good Friday.” I smiled and thought, No, you got it wrong. The good day was yesterday: Good Thursday. But I had a sneaking suspicion Friday was gonna be pretty good, too.

The Left Wing of a Chickadee

There is much to love about the snow–tracks to follow across a clean landscape, the crisp cold that comes with the season, the romance of a day free from work to sip something hot and read a book… But it is the quiet that is most appealing to me. And there is no better time for quiet than early morning darkness. I miss these things when not on the farm but fortunately, this Saturday morning, I am on the farm!

I was thinking of these two things–quiet and darkness–at 6:00 this morning, as I awaited, ironically, first light that would not come for another hour. Some mornings I will set out before light, but not today. On this morning, I wanted light. After missing so much activity during the dark hours, I relish a fresh coat of snow to reveal the movements of deer, fox, possum, raccoon, and whomever else is making the rounds while I sleep.

When 7:00 came, and the light was just beginning to emerge, I turned on the radio to keep me company as I chose my layers for a chilly morning. Before long, I was back in bed, half dressed, and sitting up, listening. I should have known better than to trust NPR at that hour on a Saturday. The Living On Earth broadcast always finds a way to pique my interest, but this morning they seemed to be listening in on my very thoughts when they began a segment on darkness. And this as I watched the morning creep softly through the trees to the farm through my bedroom window.

Things were neither dark nor quiet when finally I set out around 8:00, first to the mailbox, then around the perimeter of the property. Overnight, a strong wind had swept in on the heels of the storm that blanketed us in snow, and frozen trees bowed and creaked under it’s force. Hands buried in the pockets of my down sweater, a cup of coffee and a pancake were sounding better and better, and I cut around the near side of the pond to shorten my route.

A handful of small birds fled to the shadows beneath the pussy willow where I had no chance of making their acquaintance. A less timid chickadee crossed my path, landing briefly in the maple tree, before moving on to the vineyard. As she took flight, another movement in the tree caught my eye. Clearly not a bird, but the size of a chickadee, something fluttered in the wind. My only thought was that a piece of plastic must have snagged on a twig as it made its way to the Pacific Ocean where, as I understand it, plastic bags choose to retire.

Exposing my hands to the cold, I lifted the camera to my eye for a closer look. I was right about three things: it was the size of a chickadee, it was snagged on a twig, and it was fluttering. It was not plastic. A chickadee had somehow managed to get a primary flight feather stuck between two small twigs and had bent the shaft nearly to the point of breaking. Wing outstretched, the little bird was struggling to free itself, and clearly nervous about the attention I was giving her.

DSC_0812

I snapped a couple of quick photos without taking the time to think about exposure or composition, then ran to the house for gloves and a ladder. With that, I should be able to reach a large limb below the chickadee, and from their, I should be able to free her. Not knowing the extend of damage to her wing, or whether or not she would be able to fly, I grabbed a second scarf to wrap her in, in case I needed to take her back to the house with me, then ran, ladder in hand, back to the maple.

As I approached, a chickadee took flight from a limb ten feet from the stuck bird. I wondered if this was a companion come back to check on her, but further investigation suggested that it might have been the stuck bird, herself, as there was no sign of bird or feather where she had been entrapped. Relieved, I returned the ladder and continued my walk.

DSC_0814The thermometer on the barn read 20 degrees, and snow was blowing in my face as I made my way along the creek. In the woods, cardinals stood out against a stark backdrop. A thrush flushed downstream and I tucked into the lee of a large poplar to wait for it to move again. My focus on the smaller bird, left me completely unaware of a much larger bird between us, and I startled when the red-shouldered hawk took off from the near bank of the creek and escaped past me by only a few feet. I tried to settle in and wait for the thrush to move, but the woods-bending wind swirling around the tree suggested I move on.

As I had been all along, I scanned the snow for tracks, but between the heavy wind and the lightness of the snow, whomever was about in the darkness had left no discernible evidence for me to follow, so I headed for the house and pancakes.

I suspect the snow will still be around tomorrow morning, and with any luck perhaps the wind will have moved on. If so, perhaps I will not turn on the radio, will get out a little earlier, and will enjoy some dark quiet Sunday morning. As for the rest of this morning, I plan on a cup of coffee, a pancake, and some feeder watching–keeping my eye out for a certain little chickadee with an odd left wing who will have no idea of my plan to save her.