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General Winter’s last stand

Just when we thought the winter was finally well and truly over last week the skies opened and the snow began to tumble out with a vengeance.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

From Skid Row to the Suburbs


I admit it was an impetuous and poorly-judged decision.

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.

Flirting with the Alaskan car market

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.

Topsy-turvy mishaps

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.

Ice Patches and Inverters

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.

Grizzly Airwaves

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, Canada‘s state radio station, recently interviewed me about my transition from (mostly) frontline journalist to (occasional) grizzly bear guide.

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.

Bucking broncos and wounded pride


Buying Henry the Horse was one of the first things I did when I got to British Columbia. I simply couldn’t be the owner of a ranch and a self-respecting frontiersman without my very own steed.

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 Hungary and began to keep racehorses we both rode them out. The thrill of feeling one of those athletes accelerate from a jump start to a full gallop in just a few paces is not one easily forgotten.

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.

In Afghanistan after 9/11 I covered the frontlines on a local warlord’s horse for several weeks. I mercilessly mocked colleagues who were less horsey than I, laughing at their fear and their awkwardness.

I rode in Russia when on a journalistic swing through the Siberian mountains. I was, as I remember, the only of our distinguished party who could still mount a horse and stay on after of day of vodka.

On summer weekends I liked nothing better than to head off with close friends to a small village on the Volga where we would sauna, swim, fish and ride for hours along the riverbanks.

One time I spent a week riding in the Georgian mountains near Chechnya. I was 10,000 feet above the plains with only a Russian-speaking cowboy and the local bears for company.

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 Alaska, we may even get another horse. This time, I promise, it will be calm, manageable and without vices.

As exciting as Henry? Perhaps not. But at least we might be able to ride him.

Heatwaves and Hailstones

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 Baghdad than British Columbia.

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?

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A wedding by the river

It was, in the end, a notable event on the social calendar of our small, quiet valley.

Journalists and cowboys, farmers and photographers, crooners, lawyers, professors, biologists, bikers, loggers, carpenters and former soldiers all came together earlier this month as Kristin and I got married at the end of our garden.

For those of you who are followers of this blog – and I claim no grand or great readership – my apologies for the tardiness of this posting. We have simply been overwhelmed with preparation, the event itself and the inevitable clean-up.

Seducing our family and friends all the way to our remote valley from their homes in Europe and beyond, we offered the promise of a wedding that would last a week or more. And it did. The first guests arrived at the end of May and the last to leave pulled out of our driveway only a week ago.

The Estonians were a force to be reckoned with. They set up camp on the northern marches of our land, drank prodigiously and shoveled down huge quantities of roast pig.

The Hungarians, who arrived by camper van, took the southern flank and distinguished themselves by conjuring up a goulash for 30 (actually it was a porkolt for those of you who are experts in the cuisine of the Magyars) and some mighty fine folk dancing on the big night.

Many more, and we live in a valley with an eclectic mix of characters, came from just a few miles down the road.

All were greeted at the gate by two former British Guards officers – one from the Grenadiers, the other from the Irish (my brother) – resplendent in Chechen headgear and Yugoslav Chetnik-style attire.

They carried the necessary accessories and a handsome bottle of Polish vodka with which to greet the guests.

At the appointed hour we all gathered by the river. Patricia, a friend from Winnipeg, read the short ritual – although I’m not sure who heard it over the raging river – and we made our vows.

At the moment of greatest solemnity we were joined by Masha, one of our young German Shepherds, who insisted on cozying up to the new union.

Then the party began. Hank, a self-styled cowboy from nearby Meadow Creek, let loose with superior country rap accompanied by a mouth organ. Great songs that strongly featured cows, pigs and waggons.

Sunny, our neighbour, advisor on all matters wood and good friend, crooned some beautiful old love ballads. Warren from Vancouver fetched his guitar from his camper van and joined in.

His wife Nina donned a brightly-coloured gipsy skirt and cowboy boots and danced a few rounds with Dibble, our neighbour to the north, until he collapsed, the worse for drink.

The champagne, cider and wine was joined by a large piglet, which had been carefully roasted on a spit since daybreak. The Estonians began to drink. The Hungarians began to dance.

In true Kootenays style the forgiving guests overlooked the organisational flaws – and there were a few – and the party flowed right along.

Not least of those flaws was the fact that we didn’t really get married that day. Not officially anyway. In all the rush and excitement we forgot the one bit of paperwork required by the province of BC.

It took a Monday afternoon trip to Nelson, our nearest town at two hours away, and a visit to a marriage registrar to patch that one up.

Another disaster was averted early on Saturday morning when we dispatched Thomas Dworzak, an old friend with a fast car, to pick up the wedding cake which we had ordered but forgotten about. It was a return trip of four hours but he made it in time.

On days before and after the wedding we had more great times – walks among our sleepy giant cedars with bellies full of cider, hikes down half-forgotten mountain trails past roaring brooks, boating on sunny Trout Lake, exotic food, lots of fine wine and singing.

With the wedding behind us – our spring/summer season is now underway. Earlier this week we took out our first mountain tour. With Tim and June we went way up to the snowline where the wildflowers are beginning to bloom.

Penny and Sid from San Diego have also been exploring with us this week.

One of the big changes at the ranch is a major renovation of the Eco-cabin which now has its own environmentally-friendly bathroom, a beautiful new interior, a sundeck and a huge window looking onto the river.

For those of you at the wedding – thank you for making the effort to come all this way. It made for a wonderful occasion that Kristin and I will never forget.

And those of you didn’t – we hope to see you soon. The sun is shining, the bears are out, the river is running blue and it promises to be a gorgeous year here at Grizzly Bear Ranch.

More Moosery

Living as we do deep in the Canadian wilderness, we thought that – at least when it came to local wildlife – we had seen it all.

We found a deer in our garage one morning, a black bear staring at us from just outside the kitchen window and had a grizzly mum with three cubs traipse along the river at the bottom of our garden.

From the bird kingdom we’ve had blue jays, humming birds, ospreys and eagles. Once a whole extended family of Canada geese took over the yard for a week leaving industrial quantities of bird turd behind.

But, as it turned out, we had to move to the city to get our first real-life wild-animal run-in.

Ever since we arrived in Anchorage a month or so ago we’ve been amazed by the brazen cheek of the local moose population.

These pea-brained animals, each weighing several hundred kilos (the Alaskan Moose is the biggest in the world), seem to run rampage through the largest city of The Last Frontier.

Many mornings as I walk to work, braving sub-zero temperatures, howling winds and all togged up in my Russian military sheepskin and Siberian fur hat, I come head to head with one particularly stubborn individual.

The path I and he like to walk is clear and the snow surrounding it high and neither of us want to vacate the centre line. So far we have passed each other without incident.

I’ve been asking around, however, and it seems I have been a trifle blasé in my dealings with this ill-tempered ungulate.

A lady at the university recounted how she had watched helplessly as another woman was charged by a moose, barely escaping with her life when she dived into the car of a passing motorist.

Another man at the university was not so lucky – he was stamped to death on his way between classrooms.

On an average day the campus police seem to spend much of their time chasing up moose alerts from terrified and newly-arrived students from The Outside, as it is known in Alaska.

When we take the dogs out to blow off some steam in the frigid Alaska winter we often have to detour around stubborn and bolshy looking animals who block the path.

But nothing quite prepared us for the arrival of one strapping young moose in our postage-stamp sized back garden last week.

It all happened when I was away at university and Kristin was working on finishing her book. We had watched nonchalantly for a couple of days as the fine fellow de-twigged the next-door neighour’s trees.

He took each ice-encrusted branch into his huge, furry mouth and chewed and stripped with relish.

Then one day the moose simply stepped over the fence. Masha, the smaller of our two German Shepherds, was having none of it. The hair on her neck stood up and she began to bark ferociously and advance on the enormous beast. It was like a mouse challenging a lion.

Kristin ran to the gate to try and rescue the brainless hound but by now the Moose had got the hump and was chasing both dogs around the garden.

One clip from his formidable front hooves and it could all have been curtains for our brave and faithful canines.

Eventually the Moose got fed up. Unhurriedly, almost elegantly, he stepped over the four-foot-high fence to the next house along leaving our terrified hounds shocked and shivering.

We’ve learnt our lesson.

This huge northern animal may look like a sleepy, peaceable giant but when its blood is up it turns into the rhinoceros of the tundra.

On the scale of such things, it seems, a grizzly at the end of the yard is small fry. The danger won’t pass we’re told until the snow has gone. But by then, I hope, we’ll be safely back in our Canadian wilderness.

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