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Afghan Sojourn

Whichever way I look at it, I’m a long way from home, more than a dozen time zones away from our beloved snow-enveloped ranch.

My journey started in late November with a two-day icy drive across British Columbia. The came a side trip to Estonia, another to Hungary, and several weeks of training, briefings and preparations in the UK.

In the last few days there have been a clutch of different flights, each progressively less comfortable, culminating in a beautiful night-time arrival in a distant dusty outpost by military helicopter.

I shouldn’t say exactly where I am, I suppose, but I’ve been told that I can share the fact that it’s somewhere in southern Afghanistan.

Probably best not to mention specifics of the job either, though the work I will be doing here is all perfectly above board.

Suffice it say that I am working on a British government contract as part of the Leviathan preparing to win back southern Afghanistan and hand it over to central government control.

I must admit that my arrival, for all it’s cloak-and-dagger appearance, has been strangely reassuring, a lot less chaotic than my first trip to Afghanistan nearly a decade ago.

That time I flew in from Tajikistan in an ancient Russian Yak 42. It had been riddled with bullets and the holes were patched up with what looked like gum.

The men operating my flight back then were a bunch of chancers from the Northern Alliance, a loose anti-Taliban coalition of mostly Tajiks, led until a few days before by Ahmed Shah Massood, the lion of the Panjshir.

But Massood had been killed by a suicide bomber on the eve of 9/11 and the Northern Alliance, like the plane I was in, was on the verge of break-up.

As we finally touched down in a northern corner of the country on a metal military runway laid by the Soviets, I felt the plane slew sideways.

“We always do it that way,” the Afghan pilot later confided. “The Russians didn’t build the runway straight. They said it was because of the mountains.”

That time I stepped off the plane into a graveyard of hulking Soviet military armour and a gaggle of local children. Later I made it to a guest house that barely deserved the name, for goat and rice.

This time around everything was far more civilised.

I was met by a pleasant northern Irishman and driven in a well-made 4×4 to a smartish compound, replete with power, hot water and some very British tea-making facilities. It even had a telly and the internet.

Of course, after several weeks of silence, you may be wondering how this blog has transformed itself from a gentle account of British Columbian bears and wilderness into a bit of dusty Afghan frontline.

The truth is that the impetus – and it is very much a temporary change – came across my table (well my laptop really) out of the blue.

I hadn’t been looking for a change and had been planning on spending four months in Vancouver this winter with Kristin while she attended chef school, something she had been looking forward to for some time.

But the temptation, when it came, was just too great. The job description too alluring to turn down.

First off I would be working at the busiest coalface of 21st century foreign policy, at the sword’s edge (to mix my metaphors a bit) of the so-called clash of civilisations.

Secondly, it would be a unique chance to get to grips with Pashtun culture and the renowned pashtunwali, a tribal code of honour that has dominated these mountains since time immemorial.

All that combined with a chance to immerse myself in modern counter-insurgency theory and, then, perhaps, jut perhaps, give just a little back to a country, I strongly feel, deserves our best efforts.

It would also be nice, I reflected, to try and do a bit, to take some responsibility, with all the frustrations that would entail, after more than a decade of my life spent chronicling (and sometimes criticising) the efforts of government from the outside.

Kristin, for her part, has been wonderful. From the first moment I told her about the job, she has supported me in my efforts as I made my way through the interview process and training it required.

It was almost as if she understood intuitively that much as I love our life at the ranch, and I really do adore it, I need to tend to my other slightly grittier side, just occasionally.

All those years spent on frontlines around the world left me with something that, try as I might, I can’t quite describe: an itch that occasionally needs scratching, a dormant muscle aching to be flexed.

I am not abandoning the ranch. I will spend all my leave, which is fairly generous, struggling to make amends for my absence.

In the meantime I am trying to learn Pashto (very much still at Chapter 1 Lesson 1 with that) and get my head around the workings of a labyrinthine logistical operation and an alphabet soup of acronyms.

Nor am I yet even at my final destination, a spot of lush valley deep in the southern desert with a wonderfully-chequered recent history.

Today, I am told, might be the day, helicopter flights permitting. But then I was told that yesterday. And the day before that.

In the meantime we have heard from friends at home that last week three and a half feet of snow fell in our little BC valley in just 24 hours. Even by our voluminous standards that is a lot of precipitation.

Today Kristin is wending her way up the snowy passes from Vancouver to pick up Masha and Karu, our two wayward hounds, who have spent the deep winter with our wonderful friends, Mark and Kris, in Meadow Creek. It’s far from clear she will make it through.

So, dear guests and friends, for those of you coming to the ranch this year, I hope to catch up with as many of you as possible. I’m not exactly sure when I will be home – my leave dates have yet to be finalised – but I will be coming and going.

If we miss each other, I will leave you in the extremely capable hands of my wonderful wife, Chef Kristin, and our great wilderness guides.

And when I do make it back to the ranch on leave, and have shaken the fine Afghan dust from my hair, I promise to endeavour to update with the latest from our beautiful remote valley.

Huckleberry bear

Grizzly bear yearling
It’s a far cry from this time two years ago.
 
Back then one of our guests, who had travelled all the way from the UK to see the great Rocky Mountain grizzly bear and was clearly getting frustrated at its elusiveness, wrote in the dust on the back of one our trucks “Wot – no Bears?”
 
Eventually we found the lady a bear or two but it was certainly a time of slim pickings.
 
This year, if anything, has been the diametric opposite. Not since the year we moved in have we seen so many grizzlies, and as each successive group of guests counts up their tally, they are notching up ever new records.
 
The eight delightful guests that went on their way yesterday saw at least 15 different bears during their time here – three blacks and 12 or more grizzlies, many of them cubs.
 
One of the viewings was among our best ever – an encounter with a grizzly bear on foot on one of the corners of our river.
 
Such meetings are what our guides are trained for, but nevertheless coming face-to-face with a grizzly in the bush while on foot is still a relatively rare experience.
 
If that was not enough our guests also saw a grey wolf, an animal we only see two or three times a year.
 
Of course, bear-viewing in the wild is not always quite this easy. On the coast the big commercial operations view bears around man-made spawning channels that are habituated to humans.
 
Each group stands on a platform and can watch and photograph bears that have grown used to their presence over the years.
 
Viewing wild bears in the own natural habitat is a little more challenging.
 
For one, predicting where the bears will feed is far more difficult. Their behaviour is also less easy to anticipate.
 
Our guides are used to meeting bears on foot, in vehicles and even on the raft we use to float down our river, and each encounter requires a different response.
 
The trick to being a bear guide is partly following a set of established protocols, and that you can train for, but it is also interpreting the bear’s body language, and that takes practice.
 
As to the abundance of bears this year, we have speculated much. The smart money argues that last year’s relative famine was the making of this year’s plenty.
 
As bear aficionados and former guests among you know, our bears’ favourite summer food is huckleberries, a sweet purple berry similar and superior to a blueberry. According to one source, a grizzly can eat u to 200,000 of them a day.
 
Last year we had an absolute bumper crop of huckleberries, nurtured by the just the right amount of sun and rain at just the right times.
 
Even after the salmon arrived in our river, many bears chose to remain up high munching on huckleberries that lasted well into the first snows.
 
Those bears that did come down, our treasured Apple among them, were so fat they could barely chase fish or climb fruit trees. Most of them left early for their long winter sleep.
 
Happy and fat, the grizzly mums carried more cubs than usual giving us a plethora of cubs-of-the-year this autumn. And with them, some fantastic viewing.
 
(You can “become a fan” of Grizzly Bear Ranch on Facebook if you would like to see our day-to-day wildlife reports. Click here.)
 
Of course lots of bears this year does not mean lots of bears next. If the bears don’t come down to the river they can prove extremely difficult to see.
 
But a good stock of cubs, each of which will stay with their mum for two to three years, is a great boost for our local grizzly population and suggests, at least, good viewing for years to come.
 
Nothing is sure, as ever, with nature, but we are raising a quiet glass to a healthy grizzly population for some time to come in our small little-known valley.

 

A bear called Apple

We can’t be one hundred percent certain. But we’re pretty sure it’s her. No other bear has quite the same poise, charm or attitude.

Whether she’s strolling along the dirt highway or fishing lazily in the river, she lacks that skittishness that haunts so many grizzlies in an age when they are hunted.

If grizzly bears really are the monarchs of the wilderness, she seems to embody that calm sense of indifferent entitlement like no other forest animal.

We have been watching now for five years.

Our first sighting of Apple, as she later became known, was the autumn before the spring we moved in, only the second time we ever visited the ranch.

As we rounded a corner in a tiny secluded spot, there she was, sitting contentedly in the middle of the road, under the eponymous apple tree she had just plundered.

She had eaten so much, gorging on the sweet autumn apples that still mature every year in the small deserted ghost town, that she could barely stand up.

As Kristin and I sat there entranced, she grunted and scratched, and then simply slouched back down again, as if worn out by the effort of trying to stand.

Since then Apple has revisited the little valley we live in every year.

She often arrives mid or late September and we see her off and on until the end of October when she heads up into the mountains for five month’s sleep.

The guests we have had who know her adore her. More than one has sat gently and wept at the sight of this beautiful wild animal, moving in her own habitat at her own pace.

We know she is a female – they pee in a different way than males do – and we often wondered idly why she never had any cubs.

Grizzly females are often not sexually mature until they are five or more years old, but she seemed a little bigger and older than that, perhaps in her early teens.

One of the great things about Apple, whose image once graced the front of the Wall Street Journal after a friend took a winning photo of her, is that she extremely tolerant and forgiving.

If there was ever a perfect bear to train guides with, she is surely it.

One time I stood watching her with a couple of bear biologists, not 40 feet from where she lay resting. After a few minutes, she raised herself up, turned her back on us and peed ostentatiously.

Then she scratched her back on a branch and began a cowboy step down the slope towards us. We took a few steps back to lat her pass and she calmly went on her way.

Another time I was in the middle of the road when she appeared in the distance and walked straight towards me. She stopped about 100 feet away and, after a few seconds, rotated so she was sideways on.

Then she turned back to face me, before turning the other way, again showing her profile.

I asked a bear biologist what all this meant in grizzly language. Any guesses? She was showing me her bum to demonstrate just how big and formidable she was. As if to say: “I am grizzly bear. A serious grizzly bear. Check out my arse. Respect me!”

The low point in my relationship with Apple, and I very much doubt I play as big a role in her life as she does in mine, came early last October.

One day I was watching her as she slowly walked along the road, my car stationery, engine running. I checked my mirror out of habit and was horrified to see a pick-up tearing towards me.

In a flash I imagined the truck passing me and, unable to see Apple in front of me, smashing straight into her.

Instinctively I hit the gas and drove straight at her, determined to push her off the road so she wouldn’t come to harm.

She looked at me, first unconcerned, then puzzled, and finally angry, before, just as I reached her, she leaped off the road and disappeared into the trees.

I was sorry that, as a person she seemed to trust, I had been so forceful with her, but my reasons, I felt, were sound.

Of course that was not the way she saw it. Then next time I saw her, a day or two later, she stuck up her nose, turned on her heel, and disappeared. I had clearly displeased her. She avoided me for most of the next week.

Last year, when she made her annual visit, she was fatter than we had ever seen her before. So huge was her belly after a record summer of huckleberries that she could barely swim the river.

She disappeared early, clearly gorged out and content to leave the rest of the salmon for other less bears.

Imagine our delight then, when, as we were checking out her favourite habitat this week, we came across a grizzly bear with two small cubs-of-the-year.

First they swam across the end of the lake and the next day we watched as they fished together on the banks of the river.

The behaviour was exactly the same as before: majestic, unhurried, content to bask in the limelight of her adoring audience.

At one point, cubs in tow, she clambered up onto the road before retreating back to the river again.

Of course grizzly bears are incredibly similar to each other and they also change dramatically from one season to the next.

But Apple has two secret identifiers – a small notch in her nose, the result of an old injury and a scar a few inches above her right eye.

Until we can confirm the marks for sure, and we are going to need a really close view of a telephoto lens for that, we aren’t claiming for certain that it is her.

But in our hearts we are pretty sure. The poise, the grace, the attitude. We’ve simply never met another bear like her.

The Ridge

I’d been wanting to walk it for nearly four years.

In a land of gorgeous mountains, rarely-trodden trails and magnificent vistas, The Ridge stands out as a place of unique beauty, something close to alpine perfection.

It is bordered on the west by a blue, blue lake, hundreds of feet deep, and to the east by squatting ice-covered giants.

It’s length comprises 13 miles of rolling alpine valleys that take you past ice-encrusted peaks, pale turquoise tarns, vibrant green meadows and endless magnificent slopes of talus and rock.

Since we first began taking guests into the alpine, we have often headed for the southern end of The Ridge, giving them just a taste of its magnificence and awe-inspiring beauty.

With the fitter and keener we have sometimes climbed a scree slope to enjoy the first of its many panoramic views.

But to walk the whole ridge requires a more vigorous effort. According to a rare guide book that details its course, you need to budget two to four days to walk its length.

The time required means backpacking. Laden with sleeping bags, tents, food, spare socks, cooking equipment and a host of other gear means carrying a 40lb pack.

I had already decided back in the spring that this would a year of exploration.

Living in one of the most beautiful but least-known corners of The New World it was time to fill in some of the blanks on the map, to get to know my own backyard.

Surveying my potbelly and atrophied winter muscles after months of easy living, I determined to get into the shape that I would need to be in if I were to venture beyond the limits of the world I knew.

When I first puffed around the garden when the snow was melting in April both Kristin and the dogs stated at me in disbelief. After half a mile or so I gave up and headed inside to be greeted by gentle mockery.

But as the weeks went by I slowly increased the distance I was running. I invested in some fancy running shoes and a pair of sleek black shorts.

By May I was donning my shiny new gear three or four times a week and trudging up to an hour at a time. On one fine day I even managed a half-marathon, though nearly keeled over in the process.

It was just as well as this year we added a holiday of alpine hiking to our offerings. The guests that took us up on the offer were often fit, sleek and eager to go.

In our first year here I remember being walked off my feet in the mountains by a 75-year-old, who kept turning towards me and bawling: “Come on young man, can’t you go any faster?”

This year I was determined not to be humiliated in the same way. And I managed, just. Anthony and Jane, who came in late July, were fearsome hikers, but kind enough not to dump me by the wayside.

Lisa, who arrived from North Carolina with her delightful boyfriend Jim with more than 30 marathons under her belt and a 50 mile ultra run was also too polite to pass me on the trail.

By the time late August came, then, I was confident that The Ridge, that beautiful beast that had intimidated me for so long, was finally within my grasp.

I wasn’t exactly Olympic material but my skinny legs were shaping up and my heart no longer felt as if it would explode inside me on steep inclines.

The plan was to hike The Ridge to see whether it might be suitable for an overnight hike with guests. If it proved a winner we would work it in to next year’s holiday schedule.

And so, last weekend, with Forest, one of our two fantastic guides, and Karu, the bigger and less intelligent of our two German Shepherds, I set off early.

It was a glorious day. Up in the high country, the snow had gently blanketed the ground and the sun was shining off the clouds in the valleys. Life felt so good I wanted to sing.

Once I hoisted the backpack onto my shoulders and began to climb the first steep hill all my exuberance faded. Forest, annoyingly, was out of sight in less than a minute.

Even though he was carrying the same weight as me (I had measured the packs to make sure we were equally handicapped before setting out) he seemed to have a secret fire in his sinewy legs.

As for me, I was struggling. Charging through an alpine meadow with a daypack on or running around the garden with only an iPod for weight was one thing.

Lugging what felt like a dead horse up a one in two incline was quite another.

Karu the dog, meanwhile, was yelping and squeaking with uncontrolled excitement. This was the land of the hoary marmot and alpine pika, two small mammals he was dying to get his teeth into.

As I struggled up the first hill I knew that even if we took the short route we still had 13 miles to go. Some of it was flat and easy but there were also some brutal hills to climb.

By mid morning it was clear that Forest was not going to let me slacken the pace. Although we had brought our overnight gear, we had already covered one quarter of the trail. By lunchtime we were nearly halfway.

And so, as the sun slowly moved across the sky, I reluctantly agreed to walk the entire ridge that day. I would have paid serious money to avoid the task, but there was no way I was wimping out in front of one of my guides.

Six hours later, my shoulders feeling as if Attila the Hun had ridden his army over them, and my legs buckling erratically, we descended that last scree slope towards home.

We had walked the trail, laden like pack-horses, in just under seven hours. Infuriatingly, Forest still had a spring in his step.

The good news is that The Ridge proved to be everything we hoped it would be. Stunning and remote, it is a gorgeous piece of the alpine, surely one of British Columbia’s finest.

Although we were walking on a weekend in August, the only people we met all day was a small group of locals on horses.

So for next summer we will be offering our returning guests the option of walking The Ridge with us.

To make it nice and comfortable we will take two days over the journey instead of one and pack in all the cooking and camping supplies ahead of time to save having to carry them.

The bad news was that far from using the day we had saved for a well-earned rest, goaded on by Forest, I was off on another trail the very next morning.

That day involved bush-whacking through an overgrown forest, getting stuck on the side of small cliff, legs all a-jittery, and a partial dunking in the river. But that’s another story.

Click here to see more photos of our journey along the ridge, or here if you are interested in our summer holidays for next year.

River Runner

For the first year or two after we moved to our quiet, secluded valley we were content to just sit and watch the beautiful blue-green river flowing at the end of our garden.

Each day it was a different beast, sometimes dark, feisty and turbulent, at others almost translucent and gentle, with just the smallest of whitecaps hinting at the hydraulic pull below.

Of course, human nature being what it is, it wasn’t long before we (or at least I, the male component of this wilderness duo) wanted to do more than just sit and watch.

I needed a more intimate connection with this strange being that was the heart and soul of our new ecosystem, the draw for the salmon, the bears and the wolves.

A few weeks after arriving, I waded the river with my brother, a foolhardy endeavour that could have led to an early drowning.
That clearly was not going to be the best avenue of engagement.

I briefly thought about fishing, but it seemed a shame to try and catch the giant rainbow trout and graceful bull trout, and it is, in any case, strictly illegal to fish our highly-protected river.

So after months of discussion we finally settled on rafting. What an excellent way to enjoy the water, floating the current, peering into the stony depths, battling with the rambunctious rapids.

And for more than three years since, to rave reviews, we have offered our guests a rafting trip down our beautiful river.

Of course there are horses for courses. Some of our visitors have trembled at the merest sight of a riffle while others have paddled the raging white water (well almost raging, it’s only Class 2-3 at its craziest) without breaking even a sweat.

Naturally, to take charge of such an activity, I need training. I got that at the hands of a bunch of fast water cowboys in a 10-day course in southern Alberta that nearly killed me.

Surrounded by twenty-something-year-old kayak enthusiasts, who had been bouncing around in rivers since they could crawl and swam like windmills, I felt like an old donkey forced to train for the Epsom Derby.

I somehow made it through despite an unpleasant few seconds on the bottom of a particularly fast river, caught between the heavy boat and some sharp rocks.

And then I returned to our more modest waterway to introduce our guests to the joys of the water. In the last three years I have probably run the river more than 100 times.

My log book, which in the beginning I meticulously filled out, adding comments, distances, guest names, and even the weather, has long been gathering dust in a corner.

I remember when I first started flying aeroplanes wondering at the old pilots who has long stopped recording their hours and thinking how cavalier they were.

Which is not to say that I no longer enjoy the river. I love it, breathe eat, eat it, drink it. In the winter I crave its wilderness feel, it’s gentle ministrations, its total seclusion.

But other than the first wild run of the year, when I gather a small posse of friends and neighbours and we cut our way down with a chainsaw, it rarely gets my heart racing.

So, though I am hardly ready to hang up my paddle, Forest, one of our excellent wilderness guides, has now taken over some of our river trips. This week he made his first run down the river alone with the guests.

He has made the run several times before, but I have always been there like a clucking mother hen, making tiny course corrections, interfering with his briefings and generally cramping his style.

This week, as Forest made his first solo maiden voyage, I was three hours drive away taking a my Canadian citizenship test. (More about that some other time.)

Needless to say his trip went seamlessly. He safely delivered his charges back to the ranch with barely a few drops of water on them.

With a strong background in kayaking and other water sports, and a wiry and capable physique, I really needn’t have worried.

As for me, I will still be taking many of the rafting trips. It is something I love and miss acutely during the winter months.

But I am also branching into another water sport: kayaking. I have dug out an inflatable kayak I got from a friend several years ago and last weekend tried to run the river in that.

With two friends from Nelson, Chris and Daiva, we set out in our little flotilla mid morning in scorching heat.

They did the proper Canadian thing and, emulating the voyageurs who first came to Upper Canada to buy furs from the Indians, took a two-man canoe. I, less gloriously, bounced down in my blow-up sit-on-top.

We all made it down without tipping. I fought a slow puncture in my kayak with a hand pump and we stopped for a shore picnic about half way down.

But when we came to the rapids, discretion being the better part of valour, we swapped our flimsy craft for the trusty white water raft, the marine equivalent of a Hummer.

What a great day. Next time I may even take my little kayak through the rapids. And Kristin, eschewing the natural caution of her Estonian tribe, has hinted she might join me.

We’re even ordering a doggie life jacket, aiming to make it a family affair. Masha and Karu have had a few preliminary swimming lessons in the river with Kristin.

The day we all make it down the river in one piece will mark our graduation from water newbies to river folk. I’ll keep you posted.

Bluegrass and Cookbooks

We are having a fantastic summer, so far. The weather has been glorious, the guests all great and mercifully the wildfires that have wreaked havoc elsewhere in the province have remained distant.

With several more weeks of sun and wilderness to go, there is not much time for a proper update, but I have a new camera and have been busy taking bits of video and uploading it to facebook.

This week we had a treat when some friends from Vancouver, Nina and Warren, arrived with Kate and Anna, two musicians. As darkness fell over our river we all gathered around the campfire and had our own private bluegrass and Latin music concert.

In other news, Kristin’s latest offering, Grizzly Bear Ranch Cookbook II, is out and on sale for one more week only.

This winter Kristin is heading to Vancouver for four months to go to fancy culinary school where she will study food preparation, wine pairing and other gastronomic sciences under the experts.

So next year, the food we serve should be even better. For my part, I will be faced with the choice of 16 weeks of heavy snow-clearing alone or spending a few lazy weeks in the beautiful west coast city.

It’s going to be a tough decision.

Next summer we have decided that as well as our standard four-night holidays we will offer customised two- to six-night holidays including, for the first time, an overnight hike and a bear day. Kayaking too will be back on the agenda.

Very Best Wishes to you all,

Julius & Kristin

The Power of the Sun

It’s been a quiet dream of ours ever since we moved to the wilderness: to run a truly eco-friendly operation entirely powered by renewable energy.

Of course these days every man and his dog is ostensibly eco-friendly, green-minded or otherwise hitched to the faddish bandwagon of environmental conservation.

I know of glamorous Canadian “eco-lodges” set in pristine wilderness which run huge diesel generators 24 hours a day to meet the demands of their profligate ways.

Indeed, before we came here Kristin and I were environmental middle-of-the-roaders, neither skeptics nor evangelists.

Living in Russia the notion of being an eco-activist would have been about as attractive and unusual as becoming teetotal.

But after moving into our new wilderness domain, we gradually began to became won over to the notion that we should try and preserve our little piece of paradise.

The previous owners’ practice of using harsh chemicals on anything that was living and chucking in the river anything that was dead, seemed wrong and callous.

When the snow finally left we found freezers dumped at the end of the garden and huge piles of discarded batteries and oil filters.

And so fired up on our new-found eco-fervour, we gradually we began to convert our place to a model of green living.

We introduced a serious recycling policy, bought a super-efficient fridge for thousands of dollars and several high-efficiency water heaters.

We put in composting units, low-flush toilets and bought a new fancy rotating clothesline so we didn’t have to use the clothes dryer in the summer.

We even got worms. A few thousand happy red wrigglers live in a plastic box in the kitchen where they eat everything from junk mail to coffee grinds to vegetable scraps. And they don’t even smell.

For all our efforts, however, there remained one outstanding environmental earsore. We still needed our trusty old Kubota generator to produce the power to charge the batteries that ran the lights.

And although it didn’t run 24 hours a day – in the end we were down to two or three – it’s deep tut-tut-tut-tut was still an audible offense to the aims we had set ourselves.

And so, last weekend, we finally bit the eco-bullet and installed eight beautiful new solar panels that will catch the rays of the sun and turn it into bankable electricity.

For four years we have been debating the move. Unlike many European countries, Canada provides little in the way of incentives or rebates for renewable energies.

Financially it didn’t make a huge amount of sense when there were so many other priorities that need attending to.

But we both felt strongly that cutting down on our diesel emissions was a cause worth paying for.

In the grips of a global recession and with the British economy in the doldrums – many of our guests are Brits – this did not seem like an auspicious year for major investments.

But with hot and mostly dry summers it has been so frustrating year after year watching all that energy go to waste.

So we finally brought in Lars, a great guy who runs a renewable energies company in the Okanagan valley and has been coming to the ranch since shortly after we opened.

The year before last he helped us put in a Danish well-pump, and we have also added two efficient new inverters in recent years and made several other minor improvements.

With the help of Sunny, our friend and neighbour, we had the whole new solar system mounted, installed and running in less than a day.

Clearing up took a little longer. Sadly we had to fell three trees that were blocking sunlight from the new panels.

Cutting them down was the easy part. Limbing them with the chainsaw, clearing away the branches and bucking up the trunks took another day or so.

Now, however, as we mark a week since the panels went up, we are kicking ourselves that we didn’t make the move earlier.

All our power usage, from the fridge and freezer to the lights, and the dishwasher to the satellite receiver that brings in our internet signal, is provided by the sun.

Each day Kristin and I watch our power meter like the energy nerds we have become. At night the batteries run down, but by mid afternoon they are back at close to 100 percent.

Of course it helps that BC has been in the grips of a heat wave. The week has seen several temperature records set in the province and the dogs have been panting under the sundeck.

In the winter, when the sun is low and weak, the panels won’t give out the power they are now (power output peaked at around 10kWh on Tuesday for the technical amongst you).

But we use a lot less electricity in the winter and so the yearly patterns work well for us. For heat in the winter, we use wood which we cut up and split ourselves.

So now the only thing outstanding on our energy balance is propane which we use for our high-efficiency water heaters and cooking.

And, of course, petrol. With two large vehicles we are still using a fair amount of that, but we try to keep our cars fairly full when we are guiding which reduces emissions per person.

And when we’re not out with guests we use our battered 20-year-old turbo-diesel Land Cruiser, a resilient beast, covered in dog hair, which just keeps running.

The generator shed, meanwhile, is now in a growing state of neglect. And the tut-tut-tut-tut of the Kubota is becoming a dim memory.

Eco-do-gooders that we are, we are both struggling not to feel just a tiny bit smug.

Pride, so the saying goes, comes before a fall. And in the wilderness, falls can be dramatic. Watch this space.

Hyperactive hummingbirds & battered sheep

The hummingbirds are back, and in greater numbers than ever. Dozens of these tiny animals, weighing just a few grams each, hovering, circling, pouncing, like tiny Soviet helicopter gunships.

Their targets are the two feeders we have hanging in the garden, one by the kitchen window, the other slightly further away.

And during peak hours, usually just before sunset, we can have 30, 40 or more all vying for the sugary nectar they need to sustain their high-energy lifestyles.

When they are exhausted they sit in lines on the fence of the vegetable garden, like commuters at a bus stop, catching their breath, calming their heart-rates, before rejoining the fray at the feeders.

Spring means other changes too. The river, which two months ago was so low that we walked across it, has once more become a rushing, throbbing behemoth.

After a low snow year we expected something milder and more moderate but two weeks of hot weather has brought the snow cascading down from high up the mountains and the water levels have risen dramatically.

For those of you who have been here in the summer or autumn, that calm almost translucent blue water has been transformed into a dark green tumult, snapping at our river bank and heaving down huge broken logs.

Spring, of course, brings with it the bears and this year has been no exception. Last weekend we held our regular bear guide training weekend, when we bring in an outside expert to make sure we are all up to date on the latest in bear biology, ecology and viewing techniques.

While out and about we watched one adult black bear for 20 minutes or so, first from the car, and then on foot, talking through his body language and the signs he was showing us.

This past week, has been a little slow, not helped by grizzly hunters crawling through the backwoods as they set out to fulfil the quotas allocated them by the BC government.

But we saw a total of five or six bears, even though some of them were very wary and skittish. Can’t blame them, I suppose, when every third or fourth car carries a gun with a telescopic sight.

There have been social developments in the valley too.

The most notable is the arrival of about five dozen sheep. Brought in by our neighbour, the redoubtable O’Shea (for those of you familiar with the story, the very same that once hosted the itinerant stallion) they have been doing what sheep do, eating grass.

Unfortunately Stephan has no meadow and so the sheep, clearly with the green stuff drawing them like bears to honey, piled into Sunny’s small and immaculately kept garden, eating everything they came across.

When Sunny discovered them, his habitually calm demeanour evaporated and, failing to scare them away, he took a .22 rifle to them. He missed with the rifle and became so angry that he waded into their midst swinging the gun like a baton.

In the ensuing chaos he managed to whack himself on the head, leaving a deep cut, and tear his hands on the sights of the gun he was holding. The final result: a bloody face, cut hands and one dead sheep.

When the surviving sheep had finally departed, Sunny dragged the deceased over to Stephan’s behind his car and dumped it in his yard, vowing that any more woolly intruders would meet the same fate.

And then he came around to our place, still steaming with anger. After he had calmed down we discussed the situation and agreed that battering a sheep with a rifle but was not going to be a long-term solution.

And so rummaging around in my cupboard I fished out an old paramilitary riot stick that I had half-inched after it was abandoned by a thug in Tbilisi during the Georgian revolution of 2003.

It is a brutal piece of equipment, basically a thick metal pipe, with a rope handle on one end. It was designed to maim and kill anti-government protestors and would certainly do the job against a sheep.

Now I am not one for killing animals, and Sunny too is usually a peaceful man, but needs must and so now Sunny is guarding against a return of the marauding flock with a stout piece of Georgian history in is hand.

Otherwise things have been fairly calm. This spring we concentrated our efforts on properly finishing the Volga cabin, which now has a smart, new wooden floor, upstairs and downstairs, and a new staircase.

We repainted the doors and the balcony which provided our first guests of the season with a ringside seat to watch the beautiful, torrential river.

We also now have the stable finished so, perhaps later in the year, I will be in market for a new horse.

This time I will try and find a calm old nag that won’t subject me to the same humiliations as Henry the psychopath, the grey I used to own.

Wolves and Horses

It’s been the lowest snow year anybody around here can remember. For nearly a month now we have looked onto a green garden where normally there are still huge white mounds skulking in the shadows.

Which, of course, is all good for those long late-winter conversations, when local friends come visiting. There is nothing, after all, quite so inclusive as talking about the weather.

Sometimes, during a visit, one of us might branch off into our own field of interest. The visitor might talk about guns (in which I have little interest) or I might launch into a diatribe about western policy in the Middle East (which they certainly don’t care about).

Anxious not to appear ungracious we usually quickly return to the weather or a rerun of the old favourite: Ford vs. GM vs. Dodge. As in: who makes the best pick-up truck. (In the interests of full disclosure we have a Dodge Ram but I actually think they’re all rubbish.)

This week, however, there was something new. Or at least a new angle on an old theme. Olli, who lives five or six miles away and so is one of our closest neighbours, came hurrying in one morning with a story that had us riveted.

The night before, as he was chain-sawing on his huge rolling piece of wilderness land, and out of reach of the rifle that he keeps in his tractor, he looked up to find himself surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Now wolves are not unusual around here. Although we rarely actually see them, we hear them frequently. Some times we wake to their howling in the pre-dawn darkness. Safely tucked up in bed, I love the sound: primal, powerful and redolent of a time before the settlers came.

In recent months a resident pack of seven or eight has worked its way through the bush in our valley, taking deer and elk.

In one brazen attack, several weeks ago, they apparently seized and killed Tucker, a large and muscled Pyrenees Mountain Dog belonging to Forest, a close friend and one of our guides in the summer.

A few days later I visited Forest one afternoon and the wolves were back, standing on the edge of the clearing and howling to each other. With four small children, as well as sheep and cattle, he was nervous.

Nothing divides the environmentalists and the pro-development gang around here more than the plight and fate of wolves.

One group, the more free-living hippyish types, see them as an icon of the wilderness, fat in times of plenty, scrawny in times of famine, embodying a spirit of freedom and independence than mankind has lost in its rush to regiment.

The other, the rednecks, consider them vermin; crafty, sly, diabolical; a species that should be extirpated from the wild so that farmers and their cattle can sleep undisturbed at night.

Now wolves, according to the statistics I can find, are not particularly dangerous if you are a human, rather than a white-tailed deer or a snowshoe hare.

My best research indicates that only one person has been confirmed killed by wolves in north America in the last 50 years. That attack was a couple of years back in Saskatchewan in northern Canada.

(A couple of weeks ago a lady jogger in Alaska was found dead, also the apparent victim of a wolf attack. I haven’t yet heard confirmation either way.)

Be that as it may the myth of the wolf stalking and taking people from their remote homesteads is a powerful one. But why? Why do they have such a bad reputation?

A few years back, when I was serving as a foreign correspondent in Russia, I began to research for a magazine article on wolves in that country. It soon became clear that our attitudes towards them says more about us as than it does about them.

Wolves, in Russian folklore, often represent the devil. Sometimes their image was engraved into churches to represent sin and temptation and treachery and trickery. To this day many local jurisdictions pay for hunters to kill wolves.

I thought this barbaric until I came to north America where practices are much the same. Until 20-odd years ago the authorities in BC used poison to kill wolves, with the inevitable toxic results for the wilderness.

Presumably all this prejudice has come down to us from our homesteading forefathers who, as they fought for survival on the hardscrabble lands, vilified any animal that made their life more difficult.

If a wolf track was spotted near a dead cow or sheep, it was presumed a lupine interloper must be guilty, regardless of whether it had actually killed the animal or was simply scavenging the carcass.

At the crux of the argument between rural Canadians over wolves, is in fact the debate over man’s place on the land, especially the land that is still wilderness.

For the Old-Timers, and those who claim that legacy, the wilderness was there to be tamed, developed, exploited, logged, hunted and mined. It was a resource to be put at the service of man.

But times have changed and many of those now living in our area are the descendants of back-to-the-land hippy types who moved to the bush half a century ago to be at one with nature.

They espouse a gentler more co-existential approach which, though occasionally air-headed, seeks to counter the hegemony of resource extraction.

It was among these more colourful, fruity types that Kristin and I spent Easter Sunday as they sipped home-made wine and smoked the last of their winter stash of marijuana.

The sun shone down, the grass was green, somebody played a guitar, we chatted and played football with the kids. All in all it was a glorious spring afternoon.

This was definitely the wolf-loving crowd who have little time for traps and snares and poisons and guns.

But perhaps life in the wilderness defies easy analysis, I found myself musing. For those who are just passing through – hunters, campers, snowmobilers, government officials – it is easy to pontificate about what should and should not be.

And with the wolves safely across the river from us – we have never seen or heard them on our side – perhaps it is easy for us armchair wolf-lovers to pronounce them no hazard to humanity.

But then I thought of Forest’s frown as he wondered whether the wolves might possibly ever attack one of his children.

And I looked at Olli’s face and saw the fear that had crept into his existence as the pack circled his horses and his house. A man in his seventies living alone in the wilderness, fearing the dark, moving shadows in the bush. Statistics were of no comfort to him.

The morning after Olli’s encounter with the wolves, they returned again to his 500-acre plot of land. This time they began to surround his horses. One, seemingly a bitch, sat and watched his front door to see if he would make an appearance.

When he did, snapping some quick video footage before he grabbed his gun, they slowly loped off. Two hours later he was sitting at our kitchen table relating the incident, his hands shaking slightly.

A Cold Winter

When we set out for the Old World in the frigid temperatures of an early December morning more than two months, we were as excited as kids on the last day of school term.

With the mercury hovering around 10 below in our little valley and the snow and ice crackled underfoot it felt good to be fleeing the onset of winter and the impending seasonal snowstorms.

Soon, we comforted ourselves, we would be in Europe, basking in more temperate climes. Not exactly the Bahamas, but nevertheless a nirvana of cleared pavements, mornings without shovels and iceless roads.

Of course the main reason we headed off to Europe was not for the weather.

We were keen to catch up with friends, hang out with our families, drink beer in English pubs, walk the banks of the Thames and pig out on the dozens of variety of pork the Magyars serve up.

But fleeing the dark months of snow when we are often engulfed in several feet of the white stuff and it seems that we spend our entire waking lives just shovelling was certainly a bonus.

Imagine our consternation then when we arrived in Europe, jetlagged and worn out by the long series of flights, to find the needle fixed well below zero and the continent in the grips of a deep freeze.

In Hungary we struggled to get to my Dad’s little house in the country through more than a foot of snow and, once there, shivered as the wind howled down at us from the Russian steppes.

Even the UK, that haven of rain and moderation, was blanketed in white, sparking talk of a national emergency, and much of the public transport network had shut down.

At first we responded with our smug “Cold? We have this all the time in Canada” speech. But the temperature kept dropping until it really was cold, even by the standards of the Canucks.

My Mum, who lives among the small folk of west Wales and usually has barely a frosty night in the course of a whole year, was facing temperatures of minus 20, a catastrophe not visited on her village since the English invaded several centuries ago.

In London we watched as office workers came scurrying out of their offices in leather-soled shoes only to slide uncontrollably along the ice-encrusted pavements struggling comically to stay upright.

With the unusual weather, of course, came disruption and delay. The day we left for Hungary our flight from Heathrow was cancelled and we struggled to find an alternative from Gatwick.

Arriving early at the airport we watched as hundreds of easyJet thrill-seekers were told their plane would not be leaving. A riot broke out in the terminal with lots of shouting, swearing and threatening.

What saved us that day was that the flight we had rebooked onto was operated by Malev, the Hungarian airline, and the crew, facing several days holed up in a cheap hotel without their beloved salami or gulyas, were apparently desperate to get home.

In the end I think ours was the last flight out of Gatwick for several days.

All this shivering and discomfort was, however, only a prelude of what was to come. When we arrived in Estonia to visit Kristin’s family the temperature fell below minus 30 and stayed there stubbornly for a week.

In central Russia I heard that they had the highest pressure ever recorded.

I was secretly hoping that the polar temperatures might mean my annual sauna ordeal with Kristin’s family would be postponed for a year.

Not a bit of it. With a wicked gleam in his eye, Kristin’s father, Tiit, stoked the sauna until it was so hot that the roof started to smoulder. When we entered, the tiny wooden cubicle was a searing 122 degrees celsius.

And so began the masochistic ritual of which the Estonians are so fond. Five to 10 minutes in the sauna at 120 degrees followed by a roll in the snow at minus 30. Once, twice, three times, four times and each time I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.

Of course the cold weather wasn’t all bad news. I got to try out a new winter jacket I had bought myself.

And one day, on a visit to the island of Muhu in the Baltic Sea, I went for a three-hour walk with Ott, a friend, on the frozen sea ice, a sublime experience I will always remember.

But it seemed that the whole time we were in Europe we were constantly skirting weather-induced disaster. Once Kristin lost control of the Land Cruiser she was driving on ice and ploughed into a snow bank.

In early February in Budapest, after yet another snowfall, clumps of hard snow and ice began crashing off the buildings onto the pavements making even a walk to the local shop a game of frigid Russian roulette.

We watched as one large clump came down on a car parked outside my flat in Budapest. It shattered the windows and left a large dent in the roof.

After much cursing and moaning the owner had the car towed away and then, parking spots in central Budapest being rare, another driver sneaked in to chance his luck. His car too was flatenned within hours.

Finally, after nearly ten weeks away, and deeply homesick for the peace, quiet and beauty of our lonely valley, we headed back to Canada.

“We will be shovelling snow for at least a week when we get back,” I manfully told my European friends. “Perhaps even two or three.”

Imagine our surprise when, as we circled at the closest regional airport, we looked out the window to see not even a patch of white just the gentle greens of early spring.

When we got home three hours later there was barely a foot of snow where we had expected four or five feet. It took us only half an hour to shovel off our front deck.

In Vancouver, where they are holding the winter Olympics, we watched skiers struggle through slush and rain. The temperature one day was 14 degrees.

“It’s been the warmest winter anyone can remember,” a neighbour told us. “I’ve only used the snowplough once since you left.”

As we settle back in, hundreds of birds singing in the yard, there are large bare patches of green grass and our roofs are all bare. This time last year we could barely see out of our windows.

Maybe next year, then, we won’t bother with the European trip at all. We’ll just stay here and bask in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, friends and treasured guests, it’s shaping up to be a glorious one. We still have few spots left for the spring and summer if you are tempted, and one or two in the autumn, but they are filling quickly.

So why not leave freezing Europe behind, take off your big coats and gloves, fish out your swimming gear and plan a spot in the Canadian tropics.