For a while I thought I was just being ham-fisted. I have never considered myself a clumsy type yet since moving to the BC wilderness I have been beset by a string of minor accidents and mishaps.
First there was the heavy metalled door I dropped on my unshod foot, which turned my toes blue and swollen. I hobbled and limped around painfully for days while they recovered.
Then there was the time my psychopathic horse (ex-horse – he’s now molesting others) stood on me, rendering me useless for the better part of a week, a supine and grumbling slave to whisky and ibuprofen.
There have also been countless pulled muscles, blood blisters, scrapes and scratches – not that they really count.
And more than a few close shaves. Last year a log-splitter I was handling neatly crushed the end of my gloves – missing my fingers by a precious inch or two.
During raft guiding training I took a particularly nasty tumble as we flipped a raft in a class IV rapid which left me briefly trapped underwater and feeling like a drowned rabbit when I finally emerged.
While on an industrial ATV riders’ course I lost control of a machine with a heavily-weighted trailer on a steep hill but somehow remained upright.
Doing my best to learn from my more egregious mistakes and a surreptitious study of my smarter and fully-digited neighbours in the area, I began to take precautions.
I bought a pair of handsome of Kevlar trousers to use with my chainsaw, helmets for the whitewater raft and lifejackets for the lake.
I began to use safety glasses and ear protectors while operating the brush-cutter and circular saws. I invested in a fine pair of boots with steel toecaps and some heavy-duty leather gloves.
Then last week, during a genteel early afternoon kindling-making session (you take a piece of cedar in one hand and reduce it to small slivers with a sharp utensil held in the other) my axe slipped.
Of course I was wearing neither heavy leather glove nor Kevlar pants nor eyeglasses. The axe, an excellent and sharp implement made in Finland, sliced gracefully into my left hand.
I realized that there was something wrong when my hand began to go numb and the blood started flowing. Terrified I had lost a digit, I scanned the immediate area and then my hand but thankfully all was still in place.
My rigorous first aid training is a weighty asset in the bush but treating oneself amid waves of nausea and lightheadedness is not an ideal scenario.
Thankfully Nick, a guest staying at the ranch with his family, volunteered his assistance and drove me the hour or so to the nearest doctor’s surgery down on the lake.
By late afternoon I was being stitched up by a doctor who spoke to me in Ukrainian and a nurse who professed great admiration for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late iconic Soviet dissident.
Of course there was a brief wave of interest from friends and neighbours when I returned to the ranch bandaged and medicated.
But in a community of loggers, carpenters and industrial mechanics my injuries merited precious little discussion.
“Oh,” said Lynda, our neighbour to the north, clearly underwhelmed, “Dick cut his whole thumb off with an axe.”
Sunny, who lives a mile to the south and once fell 30 feet off a roof and lived to tell the tale, was even less compassionate. “He’s just trying to get out of work,” he told anyone who would listen.
I used to think that covering a war as a news correspondent was one of the more dangerous occupations you could opt for in life. But for all the bullets and shells, most of my friends emerged unscathed.
It’s true that the stresses of the work pushed many to bouts of heavy drinking. The occasional colleague – often, unfortunately, the most talented – was killed or left with a lifelong injury.
But for every war correspondent maimed or scarred there were dozens who came away with little more than disturbed dreams and the vivid but fading memories of a few close calls.
During my decade on the frontlines I escaped serious injury altogether.
The closest I came to losing a limb was probably when a rat bite, sustained during a vodka-drinking session with the Russian special forces in a sauna in Chechnya, turned septic.
By contrast, here in the backcountry, it sometimes seems that every other person has a shortened finger, a badly broken bone or the old whitened scar lines of a metal object through the arm or leg.
Lars, our renewable energy expert who just left yesterday after installing a new well pump for us, told the story of how he skewered his hand with a knife while winter camping.
As he fought to control the spurting blood, he had to ski several miles through the frozen bush to reach the nearest medical help.
Eric, who has hear just this morning, had his third finger crushed when a large rock fell on it.
So, perhaps, on reflection, I am not as accident-prone as I thought.
Living in the wilderness, working with chainsaws, axes, angle grinders and half-fallen trees, I suppose you have to pay your dues.
With this in mind and a heavy dose of fatalism, tomorrow I plan to head out to finish the pile of cedar kindling still waiting to be split. This time, however, I will be wearing one heavy leather glove.
I know this is usually Julius’ slot for rambling on about life in the bush, adventures in the wilderness and anything else that takes his fancy, but for once I’m stealing his thunder for an important announcement: I’d like to tell you about the arrival of the Grizzly Bear Ranch Cookbook.
This book came about mainly thanks to long winters in Alaska. Julius and I have spent the last two winters in Anchorage and with very short days and too much free time on my hands, I decided to start this little project.
There were a few selfish reasons behind it as well. I love to eat and I thought this book would make a nice souvenir for guests and friends who have stayed with us and asked me to share a recipe or two. So, here they are with my apologies to those who never received that email with a recipe for lasagna or cranberry-orange bread.
There have also been a few other inspirations. As mentioned I love to eat and I also love to cook. I don’t consider myself a chef by any means – I don’t have any professional training – but over the years cooking has offered me so much joy that if I’m passionate (in an Estonian, understated way) about anything, then it’s good food.
Sometimes it has come with the price of making Julius not too happy. He has sometimes tried to have a conversation with me while I’m enjoying something delicious on my plate and after few minutes of no luck, the dialogue has turned into a monologue and then there’s a long, awkward silence until my plate is clean. Sorry, Julius.
In my early childhood my granny Sammi was the only person who actually had the patience to have me hanging around the kitchen, covered in eggs and flour. By the age of eight I could bake bread by myself and quite soon managed to bake twist buns and cinnamon rolls. It certainly was a messy affair and I still remember that cleaning the kitchen took me longer than the whole baking process.
Fortunately, that never deterred me from starting all over again the next day and being able actually to cook something from scratch gave me the courage to see the potential of delicious dishes behind very basic ingredients.
People who have been to our house know that we have quite a few cookbooks. These books come to my rescue when I’m running out ideas. Though I don’t follow most recipes step-by-step, they are a major source of inspiration to me. Mark Bittman, Ina Garten, Bobby Flay, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Paula Deen and Alton Brown are just a few favorite authors among many and based on these names you can see that I do watch quite a bit of Food Network Television.
The best baking cookbook I’ve ever used is called King Arthur’s Flour Baking Book – it has a very scientific approach to baking. Books on every possible way of cooking by the Culinary Institute of America have also been a great help in improving my knife skills and cooking vocabulary.
Two years of living in British Columbia have made me appreciate the quality and importance of locally sourced and produced food. Almost all the produce we serve is of British Columbian origin and usually organic. That applies to wine and beer as well.
Great ingredients can be easily turned into great meals and this book is about basic,
good home cooking without any fancy twists. All the ingredients should be available in your local food store and should not break the bank either.
If you would like one of my new cookbooks, you can either drop by at the ranch and pick one up (not easy for a lot of you, I know) or order or download your very own copy online.
Please go to the following link:
and follow the instructions.
Not the pretty white flakes that settle for a moment and then instantly melt leaving just a small glistening trace of their short magical life.
But huge great gobs of the stuff straight from the freezing Heavens, covering the roads in a treacherous six inch deep carpet and smoothing out the sharp edges of the Alaskan landscape.
It may be mid April up here in Anchorage but it seems that the Arctic God of Weather is not bound by the laws that govern the actions of his more southerly cousins.
Even for Alaskans the latest venting of meteorological fury came as a bit of a shock. They were just beginning to put away their studded tyres and stow their snowblowers when the latest blizzard hit.
Back in the mists of time when the first snow arrived (early last November) we had welcomed it, wilderness neophytes that we are. “Isn’t it pretty,” I had said. “Ooooooh. Lovely,” Kristin had cooed.
But now, six months later, we have grown to dread the arrival of the cold, cloying stuff each morning. It sticks to your boots, freezes your bones and follows you wherever you tread.
Ott, a friend visiting from Estonia (Kristin’s mother country), was, however, pleased as punch. Two years ago when he arrived at the ranch in March he had been delighted to find several feet of snow still on the ground.
With barely a moment’s hesitation he had attacked it with gusto, shovelling it with abandon. He worked with a gleam in his eye, like some tireless but happy Nordic giant brought back to life for just such a task.
By the end of Day 3 Ott had created a new world of pathways and roads in our snow-laden garden. Roads led to and from each of the cabins, to the workshop and to the main house. There were even carefully-edged little junctions and what looked like passing lanes.
So this time as Kristin and I ran for the snowblowers Ott happily grabbed for the shovel, stopping only occasionally for a refill of beer to steady the hand.
Kristin, my beloved wife and partner-in-wilderness-crime, is now officially an author. Her first book, a biography of an Estonian philosopher called Nikolai Maim, has just been published.
Part of a series on Estonian thinkers and other notables, it will soon be available in bookshops. As it is written in Estonian, however, you may have to brush up on your northern Finno-Ugric language skills if you want to make the most of it.
For those unfortunates amongst us who don’t read fluently in Estonian, I will keep you updated on a possible English translation. No plans yet is the word from the horse’s mouth.
On the penultimate day of Ott’s visit we decided to take him to the zoo. Although we live almost within spitting distance, we had never been and were keen to see the animals, especially those native to Alaska.
Like most zoos, Anchorage’s is a rather sad and shabby place where the beasts are caged in all-too-small compounds and subjected to gaggles of screaming school chilren.
It was nice to see the wolves, even in their spatially-impoverished surroundings. There were grey and black and beautiful.
But the animal I was most keen to study up close – the wolverine – was, unfortunately, nowhere to be seen. Kristin and I fancied we saw one of these rare weasels during our first year at the ranch while we were hiking up in the high country.
Since then Kristin has decided it was probably a hoary marmot (nothing like a wolverine) but I have stuck stubbornly to my story.
The grizzly bears at the Anchorage Zoo were certainly something to behold. Weighing in at half a tonne each, they had recently woken from hibernation.
But as thrilling as they were physically it was depressing to see them dance and beg for food from the one of the zoo workers.
So next week we finally head back to Canada and our beloved ranch. As we think of the greening garden, the arrival of the spring birds and the awakening of the wildlife the days up here are beginning to drag.
By mid May the temperatures should be well into the twenties and the wildflowers will be beginning to bloom by the roadside.
Bookings for this year are good and I can hardly wait to get my knees dirty and my fingers grimy messing around in the garden again.
Once we get back it will be pretty much non-stop until the end of October. We have bears to spot, mountains to climb and, pending government permission, two wildlife-viewing stands to build.
For those of you planning on visiting us this year, we look forward to welcoming you all. The omens are good, General Winter is finally on the retreat and it promises to be a good one.
I had just arrived in Anchorage for my annual teaching assignment at the University of Alaska and the temperature was twenty-plus degrees below freezing.
I spent the first night at a sleazy motel not far from the airport. The walls were thin, the carpets reeked of old cigarette smoke and daylight seemed to come and go within the blink of an eye.
After months surrounded by the magnificent Selkirk mountains, fast-flowing rivers and gorgeous vistas at our wilderness home in British Columbia, I felt caged, miserable and desperate to get out.
When an apartment became available I jumped at the chance. It was small. It was expensive. It was uncomfortable. It was garishly decorated with the worst of faux Alaskan kitsch.
But I simply couldn’t bear the motel so I took it and handed over an unwisely large fistful of e-dollars through an online payment system to a smooth-talking agent.
The very first night in my new residence I realised I had made a mistake. Not 20 yards from my bedroom windows was a busy highway. Cars, trucks and lorries rumbled along well past midnight.
After months in the wilds where every nocturnal sound means something, this was more than my heightened senses could take.
With Kristin still in Canada, I determined to put a brave face on the discomforts of my new life. It would only, after all, be for four months. The neighbourhood, surely, would make up for it.
When I trotted off to the university on the first day of term, my fellow professors soon put paid to that notion.
“You live where!?” said Ron, a colleague and former public relations man with the Anchorage Police. “But that’s the ghetto. That’s where the Bloods hang out. That’s a bad part of town.” He stretched out the word “bad” making it sound even more sinister than it otherwise would.
Glen, another colleague, was equally unimpressed. “You live up by that Carr’s [supermarket] on 13th? I only go to that area when I’m looking for a really shady bar.”
Fred, the head of department, muttered to me with a furrowed brow: “It wouldn’t look good if the Atwood Chair was knifed on his way home from work.” I could tell he was only half joking.
The next day I took the local bus to work and began to see what my colleagues meant. In Alaska, it seems, only the poor, destitute and clinically insane travel by public transport.
Each day there would be a new collection of misfits and weirdos on Bus No 15. Drunks, bag ladies, down-and-out Natives (Alaska’s indigenous population) and people who argued loudly, usually with themselves.
Heading to the local Carr’s a few days later, I witnessed a fight between two local bums. It was really only screaming and shouting as they were both too drunk to land a punch.
As poor districts went – and I have seen a few in my years trawling round the third world in search of news stories – this one wore its suffering on its sleeve.
Being truly poor anywhere in the world must be tough, but to be in the suffocating grips of penury while living in the richest and most powerful country on earth must be doubly galling.
Each day as I walked to the grungy supermarket (I was carless at the time) I would see the people who had fallen between the cracks of the American dream. I began to feel a quiet empathy for them.
I even developed an absurd sense of pride in my new neighbourhood. When people asked where I lived I would say “Denali and 15th” daring them to respond.
If they didn’t rise to the challenge I sometimes added: “You know, by the Carr’s on 13th. Down in the ‘hood.”
But just as I was settling in, my flirtation with life in the ghetto came to an end. For one, Kristin wired me a chunk of money and my bank balance climbed out of double digits.
Then came two momentous events: the purchase of a fancy Land Cruiser (our plan is to use it to take guests wildlife-viewing back at the ranch) and the arrival of Kristin, a far more sensible and down-to-earth human than I.
As to the former, I couldn’t even park my beautiful new purchase in my adopted part of town. The temptation for the locals to strip it of its exterior paraphernalia would, I am sure, have been overwhelming.
I had visions of bumping into my tough new neighbours at the supermarket with the large gold-coloured emblems that had recently adorned the back of my car hanging around their necks on chains.
Down-heartedly I parked the Toyota elsewhere and continued to take the bus to work.
A week later, and with Kristin now in Alaska and unimpressed by the ghetto, we moved. We found a beautiful little apartment in a gorgeous house in posh southern Anchorage.
Sally, the charming landlady, runs the place as a highly succesful Bed and Breakfast in the summer (if any of you are coming to Anchorage look up www.alaskamangymoose.com) and rents out bits of it in the winter.
We are now living the lives of the privileged American middle class. Each day we drive to the local shopping centre, we drive to work, we drive to the woods, or we simply drive. That’s what middle-class Alaskans do.
Nothing, but nothing, is within walking distance and if the buses do come down this far I bet they run empty, shunned by the well-to-do locals who wouldn’t be seen dead sharing a vehicle with a stranger.
It’s very pleasant here and many days we look out of our windows and see moose walking through the snow. There’s not a poor person in sight and most of the land is marked “Private Property – Keep Out.”
If the temperature is a little chilly we can even start the Toyota from inside our house, saving the inconvenience of those first few minutes with a cold bum.
I can’t pretend that I preferred the apartment on 15th. But I no longer have that note of proud defiance in my voice when I tell someone my address.
My street cred in the eyes of the local toughs, never high, has evaporated altogether.
Last week I dropped by the old apartment on 15th to give back a key to the postbox I had mistakenly taken with me.
As I hurried back to my leather-upholstered 4×4 and pulled away from the curb I found my nose rising a shade as I surveyed my former neighbours.
I couldn’t help but wonder: “How could I ever have lived in a part of town like this? These aren’t my sort of people.”
The transformation from streetwise urban gangsta to the male equivalent of a soccer mum was complete.
For more posts go to www.grizzlybearranch.blogspot.com.
The temperature hovered around minus twenty, and the roads were layered in ice. But even at two in the morning the car rental agent in the bowels of Ted Stevens international airport at Anchorage managed a pearly smile.
Perhaps it had something to do with the financial knife he was holding at my neck.
“Oh, yes Sir, the car you booked is $17.90 a day. Just like it says online. Of course there will be some additional fees. Perhaps a little extra for the insurance. The total for the week: just over $360, Sir.”
Well, call me a financial illiterate, but even at two in the morning that one woke me up. I opened my mouth to protest—and then slowly shut it again. I was too tired to argue.
Back home in British Columbia our trusty blue Dodge pick-up, Bob, had gone to the knacker’s yard after coming a cropper on the road. He was big, comfortable and warm.
My rental at Ted Stevens was small, pokey and frigid. It had been washed and left in the car park so that the doors and the boot were frozen. Only when I hit the highway the next morning did I realise what a thrill this little beast would be to drive. Here, in the Arctic in mid-January, it was wearing summer tyres.
Each time I pushed the gas, the only change was a light on the dashboard display saying: “Poor traction, ice possible.” Really!, I thought.
When we did get moving, it was the brakes that made no difference. Given the mixture of slick snow and ice, the brain on the brakes’ anti-blocking system decided that the appropriate course of action was to do nothing.
I slid across three-lane highways, sailed through stop-signs, and sat uselessly at green lights, wheels spinning under me, as impatient locals pushed up behind.
In another city I might have hoped to share my icy misery with other drivers as we sat at traffic lights and stop-signs. Here in Anchorage all I could see were the exhaust pipes, mudflaps and oversized tyres of oversized trucks, almost all of the tyres with shiny metal studs.
I craned my neck to see the faces of my fellow motorists. When they did look down, there was pity in their eyes, if not disdain. I was going through winter in the driving equivalent of leather-soled brogues, while the rest of the town was wearing crampons.
Back at the ranch, we were running our surviving second car on a bio-diesel blend, recycling all our waste, using compact fluorescent light bulbs and not using chemical fertiliser.
Alaska, its wealth drawn from oil, seemed to live in blissful ignorance of the environment. In my small apartment in Anchorage there was more wattage in the bathroom lighting than in our entire house in BC. Each day, as I heard the same ad on the local radio—”If you gonna buy a car, it oughta be a four b’four”—it seemed to make more and more sense.
And so, finally, the $60-a-day in rental fees still eating away at my pocket, and painfully aware that Bob would have to be replaced, I logged onto the local classified ads.
I found a car to dream of. A perfect vehicle for our summer alpine tours. A perfect car for watching bears in the spring and the autumn. A Toyota Sequoia. A jewel from the crown of the Japanese carmaker.
“Can I see it?” I asked the lady owner excitedly when I got through to her. We made a date for that very afternoon. With her two children nagging in the back seat, I kicked the tyres and drove the car around the parking lot.
Sorry I hadn’t been able to see it yesterday, she said smiling, she had been at Church. It was a shame to sell it, she said, but she wanted to pay for her eldest to go to a Christian school.
I rejoiced inwardly. Surely Christians don’t smoke and spill beer in their cars. Christians don’t cut crashed cars in two and glue them back together.
We came to a provisional deal and that evening she wrote me an e-mail confirming terms. And then she backed out. A better offer. I thought unGodly thoughts about her for the rest of the day.
In the end I bought a Land Cruiser. If the seller was a Christian, he didn’t mention it. A government biologist, he was smart, funny, urbane and political. He was selling the car because he could no longer justify the emissions, he told me unprompted. His family had bought a Highlander Hybrid.
I instantly agreed to buy. Didn’t I want to drive it? he asked. Er, oh yes, maybe. Didn’t I have any questions? I struggled to think before asking lamely: Have you crashed it?
And so, if all goes according to plan, if my biologist comes through, and if Canadian customs grants an import licence, our guests at the ranch this year will be in for a treat—a Land Cruiser with big wide seats and a serious 4×4 system, getting us to the top of our wonderful trails in comfort.
And, after that, in the evenings, a glass or two of wine, Kristin’s incredible dinners, and a sundeck by the river. Assuming, of course, I survive my remaining journeys in the rental.
It came out of the blue and just as we were finally beginning to enjoy the drive. Without warning the rear wheels lost traction and shot violently to one side.
Then our large, heavily-laden pick-up truck slewed onto the opposite side of the road.
I counter-steered as gently as I could, trying to keep the front
wheels straight and, it seemed, for just an instant, that I might
possibly hold the beast.
But, like a fisherman struggling in vain to grip the slipperiest of eels, I lost it again. We hit the kerb, hard, and the truck began to roll.
It rolled violently: onto its roof, back onto its wheels and then on to its roof again. The glass on my side shattered and I felt, or perhaps saw, snow, and then sky, and then more snow.
As the world turned topsy-turvy, everything seemed so wrong: this was one of those things that is only supposed to happen to other people, like the death of someone close or being cheated by one that you love.
I had, like everyone, seen such things often enough: the crushed
metal, shattered glass, blown tyres and leaking fluids that are the hallmarks of a high-speed car crash.
Last year, driving down from Alaska in May to return to our home in British Columbia, I had even come across a lady who had just rolled her car off the road and lay trapped inside.
The outside air temperature was dropping rapidly towards zero and she was clad in little more than a T-shirt. With her body going into shock, hypothermia was threatening to finish her off.
I pulled her out through the shattered windscreen, slowly, tenderly even, ignoring her bloody hands, praying that she didn’t have a spinal injury. The nearest ambulance was more than 90 minutes away.
We drove to Alaska last winter too but I hadn’t been keen on doing the trip again. It was less the danger than the aching muscles and
monotony of a journey that, in winter, takes the best part of a week.
I considered myself, truth be told, a competent and seasoned driver after more than 20 years experience in as many countries, without more than the smallest of knocks to blemish my record.
I had even taken courses – one on combat driving paid for by the
newspaper I used to work for – another that concentrated on maintaining control in icy conditions.
It seemed, in the end however, the only economical way to get Kristin, myself, our two dogs and our belongings to Alaska in time for the start of the spring semester was to take the 2,400 mile slog through the north.
Ironically, some of the worst driving conditions we encountered were close to home. The combination of heavy precipitation and a
temperature around freezing point makes for treacherous permutations.
Sometimes there is slush on top and snow underneath, sometimes water on top and ice underneath.
When the temperature drops below minus 15 or 20, conditions usually improve, the snow and ice become crunchy, squeaky, firmer and less duplicitous.
So as the sun climbed into the sky on the second day of our journey and we reached the southern marches of the north (the part southerners call the north and northerners call the south) the worst seemed to be behind us.
I had been flipping between two- and four-wheel drive for an hour or so – north American transmissions, for the most part, are not designed to run in four-wheel-drive for long periods – but as we pulled outonto a long, straight, rising hill just out of the small town of Quesnel and saw clear tarmac ahead, I disengaged the power to the front wheels and relaxed.
A few moments later we hit a sheet of black ice and began to slide.
In the event, we were nothing if not lucky. The opposite lane was
crowded that morning with heavy lorries heading south, as blithely
unaware of the build-up of ice as we were.
But at the moment we slid across the asphalt and spun violently over the edge, the entire road was thankfully ours. We missed a large signpost planted in the ground on concrete pillars by a few feet.
Later that day the driver of the tow-truck who had hauled our wrecked pick-up off to his scrap yard enumerated the fate of the highway’s dead and wounded on his small patch.
Kristin had a few cuts and bruises on her lower legs from bits and
pieces flying through the cab as we rolled, but I had escaped without even a scratch.
Our two German Shepherds, Masha and Karu, who had been sitting quietly in the back seat (no doggie seatbelts for them) were also unscathed.
When the paramedics had come and gone and the local police had their statements, we blunted the memory of the crash with a good meal and some fine local beer.
The adventure wasn’t quite over, though. Since we couldn’t go on, we had to go back and that meant two days driving on ever-worsening roads in a rented minivan equipped only with summer tyres.
The final eight hours of the trip back to the ranch I don’t think I ever topped 30 miles an hour as signs on the highway flashed up
warnings of more black ice and heavy lorries, seemingly oblivious,
hurtled past us.
An hour or so later the radio reported three of them had collided a few miles up the road. One of the drivers died.
Such are the perils of the British Columbia winter.
For all the snowy beauty and glorious glittering peaks, for all the world-class skiing and idyllic wintry views, the water, ice and snow are also agents of death and terrible injury.
As I write this I am happy to say that I am now safely ensconced in a motel in Anchorage. Tomorrow I begin teaching. This time I came by plane. Discretion, they say, is the better part of valour.
It’s been a week of close calls and minor disasters here in our beautiful little corner of the universe. Just as we thought the learning curve was beginning to flatten out.
Since moving to the ranch nearly two incident-strewn years ago, we have struggled through floods, fought off erosion, cowered under the debris of forest fires and duelled with loved-up stallions.
Meanwhile we have done our level best to set up a small, sustainable business showing off the best of our wilderness and its magnificent bears to travellers looking for something just a little special.
As the grizzly-viewing season came to an end and the last car retreated down our driveway six weeks ago, we perhaps allowed ourselves just a tiny modicum of self-congratulation.
The guests had all come and left happy, we had gone yet another year without the bank foreclosing on our beautiful little property and we were even fairly well prepared for the winter.
By mid-November when the first serious snow began to fall we had chopped, sorted, shifted and laid in our firewood. A not exactly gleaming but nevertheless serviceable snow plough sat in our yard.
All the cabins had been winterized and the summer machinery put away.
We had even planned out, and partially paid for, a three-week trip to Europe – our first together back to the Old Country (well, Old Countries, I suppose) since we left two and a half years ago.
Even our winter was mapped out. The offer extended by Alaska University to teach at their journalism faculty last year, had been renewed and accepted.
For several days we took things easy. We watched movies – a rare treat. We read old copies of the Economist and the New Yorker we had received way back during the busy summer.
We even took our two querulous dogs for long walks in the snow each day, a real luxury and something we would never have dreamed of doing during busier times.
We commented to each other on the beautiful Christmassy scenery. It all seemed so pretty, so easy, so nice. Life was perfect, perhaps a little too perfect. Then, as if on cue, everything went haywire.
It started when I plugged our Land Cruiser’s engine heater (in Canada they have such weird and wonderful devices to stop automotive freezing in extreme sub-zero temperatures) into the main generator.
In the house, as Kristin watched startled, the lights burned bright, far too bright, for a fraction of a second and then our entire convoluted electrical system gave up the ghost.
The calm was now officially over. For an hour I frantically investigated with a spanner in one hand and a voltmeter in the other.
I checked the generator fuses, the main panel, the subpanel and the batteries, but all were fine. By now the long and early hours of winter darkness were fast approaching.
As I mentally ticked off all the different components, a horrible thought dawned on me. I hadn’t, I couldn’t have, blown the inverter – the most expensive and precious part of our electrical system that we had bought only last year at huge expense.
I tested it. I held my breath. It was as dead as a dodo. Now under the gun, and with no power running to the house I carefully unwired the proud but inert piece of machinery.
In its place I wired in the old inverter we had removed last year. True, with this old dinosaur, it would take 10 or 11 hours to recharge our batteries, not four, but at least we would have light and water.
“That was quick,” Kristin said as the lights flickered back to life. I allowed myself a tiny masculine swagger – it’s not every day you get praise from an Estonian, even is she is your wife.
And then, like a series of mini IEDs controlled by some malevolent roadside gnome, our prized electrical appliances began to blow. First the wireless phone went up in smoke. Then the computer router.
As we watched incredulous the satellite television died. I rushed to measure the voltage coming through the plugs. 150 volts! This where a modest 120 should have been. Ahhhh! No wonder the electric mayhem.
When we finally sat down to count the cost we had lost four major appliances – including the brain for Kristin’s shiny exercise bike. Among other things it controlled the level of stamina resistance.
Putting a brave face on the setback, Kristin sat on the stationary bike and gallantly pedalled regardless as if to say: “Don’t worry, darling, I know we live in the bush, I can do without the electrics.”
But as her legs spun ever faster and more erratically even she was finally forced to admit that an exercise bike without a brain was no exercise bike.
Heroic measures were now called for. After some searching I found a renewable energy whizz who could sell me a new inverter. It would cost – such machines are not cheap – but we were firmly over a barrel.
The only snag was that his location, Kelowna, was five hours drive away along mountain roads that had just been given a heavy dousing of snow and freezing rain. And the whizz was leaving for the coast in 36 hours.
Next morning early I departed at dawn leaving a worried looking Kristin on the doorstep. The first section of the road – fairly flat – was, well, bad. More like an ice rink than a highway.
When I reached the mountainous section, a single-lane gravel track 20 miles long, with a drop of several hundred feet into a lake on one side, things just got worse.
It was so slippery that at times all four wheels, each adorned with an expensive new winter tyre, spun crazily.
Then, with a wave of relief, I came across another car. The fact that this ordeal was being shared by a second human being somehow brought immense comfort.
There was also a cunning tactical element to my joy. “I’ll just follow him,” I thought slyly. “If he falls into the lake, I’ll know not to proceed and I’ll turn back.”
But my new-found comrade-of-the-highways, replete with a dog as travelling companion, was showing little inclination to move. So, as I pulled alongside, I beckoned for him to wind down his window.
“Are you ok?” I asked. “Just fine,” answered the man, a local as it turned out, probably in his early fifties.
“Been here long?,” I ventured. “Three or four hours,” came the reply. Still, maddeningly, no clue as to his motives.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I finally demanded to know.
“On this ice,” he said looking at me as if I was a fool. “I’m waiting for someone else to go first.”
So over the mountain we went. Me first. Then him.
At the top of each small slope I selected first gear, four-wheel drive, low ratio. Then I would feel my heart thump through my chest as I slid down the hill with as much control as a spider heading inexorably for the drain.
Each time, as I made it down unscathed, my new friend cautiously followed. My very own plan served up to me with a brazenness that was enfuriating.
I made it to Kelowna and back. I installed the new inverter, replaced the router and fixed the TV. The exercise bike still stands neglected in the corner, but Kristin doesn’t really seem to care.
Outside the snow is falling, the dogs are barking at the shadows and in an hour or so Sunny, our much-loved musical neighbour is coming round for dinner.
As always, the conversation will be earthy in nature, practical in application and, over a bottle of wine or two, the three of us will each tell our own stories of wilderness hardship.
Infused with Dutch courage, we will laugh off the precariousness of our existence in this gorgeous and sometimes immensely inhospitable valley and toast the Gods of Fortune that have kept us here for another year.
Fred, my lawyer and friend, called it shameful self-promotion. I prefer vanity publishing. Or, perhaps, vanity broadcasting. As if this self-indulgent blog was not enough.
Anyway, for those of you who have not had enough of my voice, both in its virtual and recorded form, CBC,
If you’d like to hear how a relatively well-paid close-on-middle-aged newspaper correspondent gave up the security and expense account of a staff job at a major British newspaper and opted for penury in the Canadian bush, this is probably the definitive account.
Click here for more.
This most noble of acquisitions was accelerated by my impatience after many years of horselessness as I hopped from city to war zone to city during my financially productive years.
By the time the snow was off the ground last year I was simply dying to do that most western of things – to go out and find me a fine ol’ stud and gallop him around the fenceline of my new piece of land.
With Henry (still going by his maiden-name Remington in those days) things went more or less badly from the start. A fine horse to look at, he soon showed himself to have a foul temper and a sneaky disposition.
I had barely taken him a couple of times around the exercise ring on a test-ride when, without warning, he began to buck and kick and snort and jump in a malicious attempt to unseat me.
I kicked him in the ribs, yanked on his reins, swore at him a little and stayed firmly seated in the saddle and eventually he settled down to a steady trot.
“Must have been a one-off,” I shouted cheerily to the lady who was trying to sell him, in a strange role-reversal. She smiled uncertainly. Then Henry tried it again.
This time, again without warning, he went sideways, bucked a couple of times and then hopped and jumped first this way then that. Finally he scraped me hard against the fence.
So I bought him. For $2,500. Ill-considered? Definitely. Overpriced? Absolutely. I think the lady who sold him, a hard-nosed horse trainer from down towards the border, couldn’t believe her luck.
On paper, at least, I had the skills to deal with a difficult horse. Both my brother and I were brought up on the joys of equine pursuits in leafy Royal Berkshire.
Between the two of us we fell off dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. I smashed my teeth – I have two now well-worn gold caps to prove it – and knocked myself senseless more than once.
It was a rare day we didn’t both come tumbling from our ponies as we re-enacted a full-contact version of the English Derby in the fields by our house, thrashing at the horses and each other by turn.
Later when my father moved back to
The adrenalin-rich sensation of flying across the turf at 30+ mph on a flared-nostriled animal is difficult to match. I even began to understand why jockeys would risk life and limb for such a buzz.
With my work there was often little chance to ride. But when the opportunity came I never failed to grasp it with both hands.
I rode in
On summer weekends I liked nothing better than to head off with close friends to a small village on the
One time I spent a week riding in the Georgian mountains near
Perhaps that was I bought Henry. Or perhaps it was misplaced machismo. Or perhaps I was just being impetuous, foolhardy or, as the north Americans say, dumb.
I had plenty of time to consider my motives recently as a I lay with my leg in the air, waves of pain washing through me and industrial quantities of whisky and ibuprofen coursing through my veins.
In his defence, I suppose, Henry was only being consistent. He had never made any secret of the fact that he hated being ridden. When a young French lady got on him last year he dumped her in under a minute.
At first when I saddled him up for his first ride of the year he seemed indifferent, even happy to be back at work. When I lunged him, first this way, then that, he trotted and cantered out nicely.
Encouraged, I climbed into the saddle, happily surveying the surroundings from my elevated position. Ah, how good it feels to be back on a horse, I thought.
Then, without warning, and with my feet not yet in the stirrups, Henry reared. I clung on. He went down and then straight up in the air again. This time I lost my balance and fell.
Then, to add injury to insult and as I scrambled to get out of the way of this snorting, rearing monster he brought his back hoof down hard on my lower leg and put his weight on it. Instantly it went numb.
Fear, pain and anger raced through me. “I think it’s broken,” I told Kristin who was looking on with horror. Then I began to chase Henry across the field, whip cracking.
Needless to say the horse outran me. He’d have done that even if I had been on two healthy legs. Kristin just stared on as if I’d lost my senses.
Nearly two weeks later I’m happy to say that, after a few days on a stick (a particularly fine ebony walking stick that was a prescient wedding present from my brother), I’m walking normally again.
My knee and ankle, which took a lot of the weight, are damaged and may take a while longer to heal. My pride longer still.
Finally common sense is beginning to reassert itself. Recklessness may have served me well in my younger years or out in the field with a large newspaper to pay my medical bills.
Here, however, I am as uninsured as any panhandler and the co-owner of a small, unprofitable business that requires lots of physical work and effort and has no time for excuses.
So it seems, on deliberation, Henry will have to go. Cola, our other horse, an aging gent who we were given and kept as a companion for Henry, left this morning for a new home with some friends.
They made the 12 mile trip to their house on foot in a little over four hours. We’re pretty sure he will be loved and treasured.
And Henry? He faces a less certain future. I feel morally constrained from repeating what his previous owner told me – that even teenage girls could ride him safely.
But I’d rather not see him end up as sausages. So – anybody know a good home for this equine eccentric? It’s true he is a little psychopathic but we will give him away to somebody who thinks they can use him.
Next year, when we return from our second annual posting in
As exciting as Henry? Perhaps not. But at least we might be able to ride him.
Whoever said that living in paradise was going to be easy?
The year began with an onslaught of thick, white powder snow that crept up over our sundecks to the lower reaches of the windows and then up, up and up steadily towards the roof.
When that melted – and locals say that even in this notorious snowbelt it was the most they had seen for years – our beautiful turquoise river began an interminable rise until it had all but engulfed our road.
The day before our wedding in June, Highway 31 – the misnamed goat track that runs up our valley – was blocked completely a few miles to the north. It was almost underwater to the south.
Happily our guests ignored the overcautious signs pronouncing the road closed and, veterans of the impossible that many of them are, ploughed on regardless until they reached the ranch.
Perhaps our most serious setback, however, came the very evening of the wedding when several feet of our riverbank, eroded by the swollen waters, collapsed and disappeared into the swirling turmoil below.
Drunk on cider and high on love, that evening we barely noticed.
But during the days to come and after a painstaking examination of the bank that involved lots of leaning and poking at odd angles we realised we were facing a serious erosion problem.
If that wasn’t enough, since the beginning of this month the sun has set out to wreak havoc too. Not to be outdone by the other elements, it beat down on our little ranch for two weeks straight without respite.
This weather is uncommon in the Kootenays region where we live and certainly untypical of our valley where sometimes we have three different types of weather at the same time.
As the sun continued relentlessly, the temperatures rose to record levels. Our little thermometer in the kitchen window peaked at nearly 55 degrees centigrade, more redolent of
Our beautiful luxuriant lawns began to wither, our myriad birds panted with their mouths wide open and our dogs retreated to suffer like baked beached whales under the house, emerging only after sundown.
Even at night we suffered. Our log house usually keeps fairly cool but this time it seems that all its natural arboreal defences capitulated in the face of the relentless solar onslaught.
Just as it seemed things could get no worse the storms arrived.
Not nice cumulonimbus pregnant with precious rain rushed straight from the cooling Pacific but harsh electric storms with gigawatts of lightning and very little moisture.
The forest to the north and south of the ranch began to burn as lightning cut deep into its parched boughs and branches. At one stage, a week ago, we had three fires within five miles and another half a dozen within 20 minutes drive or so.
With the fires, mercifully, came the firefighters and their helicopters. Descending to scoop water from our river into huge buckets they hovered over the smoke like angry wasps from dawn to dusk.
Living as we do, in the bush, we are beyond the remit of the fire brigade and will have to rely on a trusty old Honda water pump to fight the flames should they ever reach our land.
Last weekend we watched enthralled and more than a little worried as smoke billowed apparently out of control on a hillside less than two miles away.
Taking a leaf out of the book of our unflappable neighbours, we remained stoic and, with a couple of stalwart friends, drank vodka late into the night.
Last night the storms returned with a vengeance. All day our high speed wireless internet (we’re not complete Luddites out here in the wilderness) had been flashing warnings.
“Severe thunderstorms. Hail. Take precautions,” the BC weather service ordered. What are they thinking of? I wondered. What is one to do when the mother of all storms is on its way? Nail down the front door? Tie down the dogs?
In the event it was quite an event. First the internet connection went down. Then the picture on the television imploded and the screen went dark. A blanket of lightning enveloped the sky driving away the night.
Then the wind began to howl and the rain and hail arrived. Huge great lumps of it thudded onto our sundeck and the metal roof of the house. The dogs began to howl. We stood enthralled, hearts pounding.
For a moment I wondered about the fate of our horses. I even thought about dashing to the rescue. Kristin looked at me quizzically. I think the same thought struck us both at the same time.
Whatever the hail would do to the horses’ rear ends it would do twice as badly to my head. Like a first world leader faced with an ethically-sound but politically-painful course of action, I retreated.
As I write this all is now back to normal in our little valley. We have had one of those delightful Kootenay days – all fine rain, mysterious banks of mist, gentle sunshine and even a rainbow. The hummingbirds are back in force.
The temperature outside is a respectable 20 degrees and at one point this afternoon we actually had rain at one end of the yard and sun at the other. Delightful.
It’s true that – to coin a phrase – we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Some of the fires are still nibbling away at our forests and the helicopters are still flying. Somebody muttered darkly about a scorcher tomorrow.
This morning I met a man who did venture out in the hail last night and for his pains took a chunk of ice on his shoulder. He told me it hurt like hell.
Now who, I thought to myself smugly, would try a stunt like that when the God of Thunder is tossing boulders around the heavens?