Saturday, 30 April 2011

Northern Impressions 2009 - far above the arctic circle with Diana Earth

Northern Impressions

My seven days in the arctic during the spring of 2009, seeing Yellowknife and Inuvik, driving the ice road over the Mackenzie River and standing at the edge of the North American continent in Tuktoyaktuk now seem surreal.

In the past, getting around Canada, one of the world’s most gigantic countries, required almost limitless courage, great resourcefulness, hard-to-get provisions and often a crazy optimism.  Now, you simply plunk your gear onto the baggage belt, walk up a ramp and squeeze yourself into a seat on a small jet.

No matter where in this vast land we live, most Canadians now are like me- accustomed to a soft life.  Whatever culture they belong to, the young people of Inuvik, far above the Arctic Circle, listen to I-Pods and watch television just like the temperate zone kids do. Some of their elders are worried. It bothers one of them who spoke to me that if the power went off in Inuvik, those who know how to work with the land and the cold will get along just fine, but few of the young people will be among them.

I suspect that, other than a handful of hunters and ‘bush rats’, most people here in the lower latitudes have no outdoor survival skills at all.  However, conditions in the temperate zone aren’t quite as challenging.

April in Inuvik is a world of metre-deep snow and a balmy minus nine degrees Celsius in the sunshine. At night, or when the wind returns, temperatures can drop sharply again into the minus twenties or lower. In April, most people are still wearing parkas with fur-trimmed hoods.

The world of internet and gizmos has arrived in the arctic, and just like kids here, the young people take for granted heat, light and electronic toys that are perpetually ready with a click. They eat chips and candy along with the ‘country food’ that includes moose and caribou and fish, and instead of ATV’s and dirt bikes, the young men often roar around on huge and powerful snow machines.  Those machines are the sex and status symbols, but also the work horses, of the North. 

If you’re sensitive about fur-bearing animals, you’d better avoid visiting the land in which modern-day comfort, even out-for-the-day survival, can still depend upon the fur that’s harvested from almost every animal that moves across the arctic. Over the centuries, fur-bearing animals have kept human beings warm, fed and alive. Today, the animals continue to be important. Not everyone in the north eats ‘country food’, but almost every resident you’ll meet has garments made from or trimmed in fur. For certain situations and uses, humans have not yet invented materials as functionally perfect as fur.

Moose hide is tough enough, when properly processed, to make footwear. Cariboo hide can be soft enough for clothes. Wolf fur, turned so that the wind runs with the hair, is perfect for heavy mitts to protect the hands on the handlebars of both dog sleds and snowmobiles from freezing and becoming useless.  Muskrat is fluffy and keeps the wind out of the cuffs of smoother mitts, made from the wind and water-resistant fur of seals. Snowshoe hares provide soft, fine fur, and the woolly undercoat of musk ox is great for lining the inside of mitts and clothing.

I’m glad I didn’t wait until summer months to visit the north.
I would have missed the chance to drive on the ice road that’s been scraped across the mighty Mackenzie River, all the way from Inuvik to remote Tuktoyaktuk - affectionately known as 'Tuk" on
the edge of the Beaufort Sea.
I would have missed the sun shining through a snowstorm, and the arrival of the North's long days of light that stretched far into the pink and gold evening. I would have missed the experience of driving a team of dogs over the fingers and bays of a frozen lake and into the snowy forest on the delta. If I’d been there in warm months, I’d be walking, and wearing a bug jacket.

The arctic in April was sunny much of the time, often with gently blowing snow. People of all cultures were smiling and friendly. Now and then the wind blew down from the frozen Beaufort Sea and bit hard, reminding me of how small, weak and unskilled I am. Yet, when I stood on a set of sled runners and drove a jubilant dog team over a frozen river, across a snowy meadow and into the forest, I felt, however briefly, as though I belonged.


The Friendship of Dogs, by Diana Earth

“We’re not dog people,” a friend of a friend told me on the weekend.
“We don’t let dogs into our house. Not our kids’ dogs, our friends’ dogs, any dogs.”

Numerous thoughts went through my head. She’d called to ask me if I thought a mutual friend would be unhappy if her new dog wasn’t invited to accompany them when she came to their home for dinner. The invitee was traveling, and the dog was with her. The little dog would have to stay outside on the porch or in the car while the human friends were visiting together. 

“Love me, love my dog”, came to mind. I understand it as an expression of the angst between friends when one is a ‘dog person’ and the other is not.  We dog people can’t demand that others feel the way we do, and though it’s often the fault of their humans, I myself do not enjoy ill-mannered dogs.

I see the old ‘…love my dog’ phrase as a plea to recognise what can be an important relationship. My husband and I haven’t kept dogs to lock up or leave for days at a time in the yard alone. I have a dog so that my life is graced by his companionship and his ‘otherness.’

Dogs have been an important part of my life since I was ten years old. According to US author Temple Grandin, it was the dogs who first sought out people, thousands of years ago.

Among the intriguing things Grandin brings up in her book Animals in Translation are the changes that have been detected in the brains of both human beings and canines since they started hanging out with one another. After we’d all been together for a couple of thousand years, sections of the brains of both people and dogs became smaller. Humans lost a good portion of the brain that works with smell, and dogs shrank down part of the brain that organizes hunting.

The theory is that dogs no longer had to be so self-sufficient and organized, since humans were willing to share some of their food. Humans didn’t need to have a keen sense of smell because their dog friends had such great noses, and they’d learned to read the body language of the dogs to detect much of what was going on around them.

When observed carefully, dogs of all breeds relay information to their humans every moment they are outside together.  If the human is tuned in to the behaviours of the dog, there’s a wealth of information available.

We regularly read of dogs finding bodies, tracking criminals, helping to find people in need of rescue and assisting human hunting activities. Dogs can find drugs in a suitcase and disease in a human. Dogs can tell when someone is about to have a seizure, or fall into a diabetic coma.  Canine ears are many times keener than our own, but it’s the dog’s nose that truly monitors the surrounding environment. Through its nose, a dog can tell you about things that happened on the trail not only today, but often yesterday and beyond last week.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that meeting the needs of our dogs often results in meeting needs of my own...

After a busier than usual week, I was bone tired on Sunday evening. It was tempting to sit on our comfortable sofa and watch some TV, but the dog had been left behind several times over the past days so I was moved to take him out.

Like all dogs, Solo was delighted to get out the door and turn on his senses. As he cast his nose down, I raised my eyes and saw thousands of stars. As we walked up the street, I was again treated to a celestial display I’d have missed had I stayed inside. The cool night air kissed my skin. My sluggish body gradually shifted gears from a stiff walk to a smoother gait. I’d had both dessert and wine; this walk would help dispose of a few calories.

Dog walkers are out under the stars, in the morning light, out in the rain and snow. We see things others miss, because our canine friends show them to us. We discover a hidden trail through snow or overgrown foliage to get the safest footing. We breath fresh air and exercise regularly because another being who cares about us is close.

The friendship between human beings and canines isn’t always smooth sailing, but I feel as a species, we were blessed when dogs first approached our fires.

- 30 -

Lands without buildings, by Diana Earth

I don’t remember how old I was when the land first spoke to me. I was an apartment-dwelling city child, attracted as a toddler to bugs or kitties walking along the sidewalk, dogs on leashes across the street or in the park and cheeky squirrels called down from Stanley Park trees.

As a little girl, I was interested in people and other breathing, moving creatures. The water, land and rocks were slow to gain my interest. I think it was rocks that caught me first- something of the earth that a single person, even a small person, could carry away.  And I remember sniffing a sprig of a velvety little weed that smelled like camomile, plucked from a crack in the sidewalk.

It may have been my grandmother’s husband Ron who first drew my attention to the trees. I remember feeling elated as a child by the breeze and the sun on a lovely day, but only because those elements touched my skin and made me feel energized, jubilant.

Gradually, I became more aware of the background that living things moved against and within, but I don’t recall feeling any particular sense of awe, respect or affection. I don’t recall the first time the sky and the wind captured my eye and touched me, or when I began to appreciate the elegance and intricacy with which the world is interconnected.

That appreciation seems to have come in my teen years. It crept up on me slowly as I searched for lonely places in which to allow a high-energy dog to run free.

In the city we’d walk for hours in the quest. There was a sense of a secret victory in discovering places others had seemingly passed by. One day, walking along railway tracks in the midst of a neglected, litter-strewn industrial area next to the Fraser River, I discovered a lush green pasture containing a herd of gleaming, contented dairy cattle. Back then, the garbage didn’t bother me so much. Back then, so close to traffic, pavement and scrap metal, I was delighted to find this hidden pastoral scene. Whenever I entered a quiet area of long-forgotten gardens near crumbled home sites, or a trail among the trees, I felt an undefined gladness.

When I was sixteen, my family moved away from the city and into the suburbs. There were undeveloped areas and forest nearby, and explorations resumed when I bought a small horse.

It may have been during the next two years I was seriously done in. One sunny day, I rode on the little white horse up the power line cut to a bench above the Lougheed Highway near what was then a modestly populated section of Coquitlam. On that ridge, surrounded by delicate young trees and hundreds of wildflowers, with a host of blue-tinged mountains on the horizon, my dog, horse and I were a blissful trio, each of us unusually calm.

From that day, there has been a series of magical hours that steeped my soul in both wonder and appreciation for the skies, waters and natural lands that remain.

We who enjoy the company of horses and dogs are often united in a deep passion for the natural lands. There are others, without animal companions but with similar spirits: paddlers, fly-fishers, photographers, hikers, scuba divers, some hunters.  Most of us find that when we stop and stay awhile, the natural world seeps gently into our beings.

When we move quietly through the water, and examine the beaches and banks of lakes, streams and sea, we are affected. When we stand beneath the night sky, or out in the light on a wind-swept ridge, we are affected. When we walk among the trees along a trail through the forest, or among wildflowers in a natural meadow, our souls take a quiet drink.

I am a fortunate woman. I’ve lived in and at the edge of Vancouver, on Vancouver Island, in the Okanagan Valley and now in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. I’ve been to the Arctic in early spring, and enjoyed natural areas in several other regions. Though chunks of it regularly vanish, I feel privileged to have been close to plenty of  ‘super- natural’.

My fervent hope is that plenty of it remains, and that I may someday savour it with little children of the future.

Talking about clothes, equipment and practices for exploring natural areas

Let’s talk about the weather.

Trivial for a coffee break subject in the office, maybe. A trivial subject for those planning a hike outside? Never. Weather is always worth planning for, especially when you're in the mountains, where it can change very quickly.

Even before you take into account the season and today’s weather conditions, your physical comfort and safety outside depends on several things. These include what you’re wearing, whether you’re hydrated and properly fed and whether or not you’re tired.

Some wise people say ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather- only the wrong clothes.’

Those of you who are experienced outdoors people already know how important it is to be prepared for whatever conditions you may encounter outside, especially if you’re planning to be out the entire day, or for several days.

Those of you who’ve spent many days and perhaps nights in natural areas far from the usual shelter and amenities of our civilization know that temperatures can plunge as soon as the sun goes down. You also know that moisture and wind- or the lack of these -  can change everything when you’re out on the trail, even if you’re out for just a few hours.

It doesn’t take long to get hypothermia when a human body gets too cold, and hot summer weather can cause just as much trouble if a body gets heat stroke. Both conditions often have subtle symptoms at the outset, and both can kill you. Most of us are fortunate. Chattering teeth and the shivering of hypothermia or the deeply flushed face of heat stress are noticed by our companions, and we receive treatment before becoming seriously ill.

The fact that companions can observe and take care of one another is another of the reasons that my little book, Guide to the Wild Side of Your Neighbourhood in the Okanagan Valley, often advises readers to ‘TAF’-  take or tell a friend-  when you’re heading out on the trail. Many experienced people advise companionship to keep safe while hiking. A few times, I’ve ignored that advice and found myself alone, just out of cell phone range on a seldom-used trail, wondering what I’d do if I fell and sprained my ankle.

When I was a child, my family went to parks and beaches near our city, but we didn’t go hiking. I didn’t begin to truly explore natural areas until I was an adult. I was fortunate to marry a man who knew to prepare a rookie for overnight hikes as well as for cold, rain and snow. For our first expedition, Russ saw to it that I hiked in boots that were comfortable, carried extra socks, dressed in layers of insulating, wind and water-resistant fabrics, avoided cottons in the cold, and had a full tummy.

Later, I learned more simply by getting outside often. I also consulted experienced outdoors people and friends. I took an inspiring Wilderness First Aid course with Penticton’s Jim Ongena. Over and over again, lessons are absorbed.

Here are a few of my tips for the not-quite-initiated or the forgetful among us :

If you wear cotton clothing, know that once it gets wet it will be heavy and will remain wet in all but warm and windy conditions. Blue-jeans should be left at home if there’s a possibility you’ll get wet, even if you have an insulating layer underneath them.

Whatever you start out wearing, even spring and summer weather can catch hikers off guard. Long grasses can wet down your boots and pants and chill you as soon as the sun goes down or the wind comes up. Take along some water-resistant pants to slip over your first layer. If you don’t need them, at least they’re compact and lightweight to carry. Gaiters keep your lower legs dry and scratch-free in brushy areas. Take a rain hat, too.

Unless you’re absolutely positive there’s nothing wet in the weather forecast for the time you plan to be out, take along a little plastic poncho or other rain jacket, just in case. Remember the dew- moisture can come from below as well as above, and it’s nice to be able to sit down somewhere to rest or snack without getting wet.

Take along extra socks. It’s a great comfort to put on dry socks – made of wool or a synthetic knit – when your first pair is wet. Even if your hiking boots are soaked, fresh dry socks feel great. These little extras will fit nicely in a small waist or backpack, and the jacket can hang from your belt.

Take a snack and water. Even if you’re planning a short hike of an hour or two, take along some nuts, a chunk of bread or a snack bar, just in case. If you happen to take an unexpected detour, you’ll at least have a bit of food energy. And some people think I’m crazy, but there are days I’ve taken an umbrella along on a hike, more often for shelter from hot sun than rain.

That brings me to another, rather important lesson. It’s a good idea to know where you’re going.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but getting lost is remarkably easy, especially when there’s mist or fog. The nicest way to avoid being lost is to hike with someone who knows the trail you’re exploring.

In the absence of solid orientation skills, I have had to rely on patient guides, touring with a group, the occasional map, and a few tricks. To help keep on your intended route, make careful note of landmarks, and mark any turns you take with flagging tape (that you’ll collect back later) or a carefully placed stick or rock. Another is to remember to stop and look behind you every so often, to note the way the trail looks as you’ll be facing it on the way back.

My final bit of advice today is: almost every day of the year is a good one to go out. Of the year’s 360 days, I stay in maybe ten. The winds are usually gentle here. Rarely do winter temperatures get seriously cold, rarely does wet stuff come from the sky for a prolonged time. Thunder and lightning are novelties. The sometimes-dangerous summer heat can be avoided by hiking in the early morning or in the cool of the evening. Even if it’s raining when you start out, the sky usually brightens and your hike will be a pleasure.

Do a little planning before you go, and savour the wild side.      -30-

Being Out There

Standing in an ‘empty’ lot

What’s ‘scrub’?  What’s ‘bush’, or ‘wasteland’?

We have many names for certain lands that we see from a distance, drive past, or have no attachment to. Land that’s far from our homes might be referred to as ‘the boonies.’ Municipal property with no building on it is referred to as a ‘vacant’ or ‘empty’ lot. In truth, that lot is only empty if it’s been completely paved over. Otherwise, even the plainest piece of dirt is filled with populations and activity.

Hunters and some professionals who work in natural areas sometimes refer to wild land as
‘The Resource’. It’s one of many phrases that neutralize our biological and emotional associations with natural areas. Some builders and developers who intend to alter natural land that’s never been built on before refer to the process they’re contemplating as ‘greenfield development’.

There’s great meaning in certain words. The seemingly casual words people choose to describe land they care about can influence the opinions of others. Humans care about land for very different reasons. The way some people label certain properties can reveal which values they’re placing on certain sections.

When land is labelled as ‘scrub,’ there’s an implication that it’s next to worthless in its current state. People use that name when they want others to agree the land isn’t being used as it should be, when they wish to convince others that its current use, whether natural or disturbed, is a mistake. The term ‘wasteland’ carries a similar, stronger message.

Over recent decades, human attachments to our own inventions have been forged so strongly, people have fewer reasons to feel any emotion over  ‘unused’ land.  Not only have most of us failed to learn how to fish, make a shelter or light a fire, but many have also forgotten to visit the natural landscape long or often enough to form any kind of meaningful relationship.

I know I’m not alone in revering a section of land that has a life of its own. There are many of us. We are people who long during the work-week to stand on ridges, walk among tall trees, hike across flower-strewn meadows.

There are many people who do stop and listen at the edge of a creek, who savour both the sound and the visual treat of sunlight sparkling over the swirling water. Some of us are curious about the sights we’ll see around the next turn in the trail. Others simply need to be away from home for awhile, to walk into places where they can escape pavement and thousands of cars, where they’ll hear birds or frogs more often than machines.

There are many who know that truly ‘barren’ land is a rarity, usually a result of human interference with that land through contamination, erosion, intense use or artificial excavations.
To the uninitiated eye, a stretch of desert can appear to be dead, dry and too quiet. The truth is, desert land is rich and busy, populated by specially adapted creatures and plants that aren’t always easy to see. The truth is, most ‘vacant’ lots, even in the deepest inner city, are anything but unoccupied.

Many children know this: almost every square metre of the earth’s crust that doesn’t have part of a building standing on it is home to a bug- or a community of bugs - as well as a few squigglies. Rocks often have lichens and moss living on them. There are minute plants and flowers that poke their way through cement, gravel and asphalt. Trees support a wide variety of fungi, birds, bats, bugs and even other trees- friend or foe peers who may shelter them from storms on one hand, compete for sunlight and nutrition on the other.

If more people went less often into shopping malls or their media rooms and more often into the ‘boonies’, if more of us walked on our own two feet into building-free zones, maybe we’d enjoy the natural places more. And maybe we’d be more likely to ask politicians to ensure there’s enough of our natural heritage left for every neighbourhood to be able to access and enjoy.

Though it’s hard for some people to consider exploration, contemplation and watching birds and animals moving in and out of the dappled light as worthwhile occupations, we have to take the time to go away from buildings, roads and traffic..

For me, being on the trail is an alternative form of prayer and meditation. I spend roughly the same amount of time outside in a month as others spend exercising on metal gym equipment. I pay little – a bit of fuel if I drive to the trailhead, the long-term depreciation on footwear and jackets -  to go out onto the trails.

Other than my respect, when I’m outside I give the land nothing. The Resource, however, is generous: the meadows, ridges and forest share their aural and visual riches in scent, sound, texture and movement.

I’ve watched coyotes floating through the trees, and spotted a regal moose disguising herself among the shrubs. I’ve seen a company of young deer, single-filing through a copse of white-barked Aspens, and traced the subtle tracks of a lynx over the snow. I’ve admired the liquid, lovely eyes of a snowshoe hare, stilling himself as my dog went sniffing by. I’ve heard the cry of the Red-tailed Hawk, watched Osprey soaring over the lake, and laughed at turtles stacked up in the reeds. 

Book yourself some time for your own natural escape, and you too can enjoy a little eco-savouring experience.