Driving home along the deserted South Klondike Highway at 9.30 last night I felt the ‘otherness’ of The Yukon for the first time this trip. A copper sun, with another hour to go before slipping below the horizon, was pumping out a steady, liquid light behind me, transforming the mountains, lakes and trees into a creamy geometry of angle and colour. Something about the sheer spaciousness and rough, casual grandeur seeps into the mind and the senses. Suddenly I knew where I was. It was like waking up elated from a happy dream, waking up and knowing that you are going to be spending time that day with someone you love. Like finding a key, a password, a PIN number to something that you need.
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I was driving back from a talk in the Whitehorse Library. Subject: how to deal with encounters with bears. I have come across both grizzlies and black bears on previous trips and the overwhelming wisdom is that bears do not seek confrontation. If you don’t crowd them, stay calm and back off they will avoid you. But there is such a thing as bad luck: surprising one, appearing a threat to cubs, or meeting a rare predatory bear. The talk was based around a booklet produced by the current experts in the field. The key finding from all reports and research is that you have to distinguish between “defensive attacks” and “aggressive attacks”. The former are warnings characterised by fake charges, drooling, huffing and pawing the ground (sounds like your average Millwall fan); the latter are silent and deadly rushes, sometimes after a period of stalking (sounds like your average Millwall fan). So, I do carry bear spray and I also carry a special cell phone with a hot line to an aircraft carrier off the Alaskan coast…though on second thoughts, there could be an issue with ‘friendly fire’…
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Of course, bears are really one of the sheer joys of appreciating this terrain. This afternoon I went for a long walk along the seemingly endless Annie Lake Road, which takes you deep into the area between the Grey Range and the Red Range. I read by a creek for a while and a Grey Wolf, mangy but bigger than any I saw in 2007, came to drink a couple of hundred yards upstream. It clocked me but had a nonchalant slurp and disappeared into the bush. On my way back to the car I found a loose-bowelled braid of fresh bear scat where none had been half an hour earlier. I’m sure the bear saw me, but I did not see the bear.
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When I got in I could not resist checking on the election result. If I can summon up a trace of enthusiasm I might comment on the politics some time, but the main aspect that has been reported here is the Gordon Brown ‘still miked up gaffe’. His reference to a “bigoted woman” reached my ears from the fuzzy radio reception as him muttering something about a “big-titted woman”. I know that New Labour has sold out to the populist agenda but that seemed pushing it a bit too far…
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A short story: Raven decided that the birds of the forests needed some variety after centuries of living among the spruce and lodgepole pine of the boreal lands. This decision was partly his own idea, and partly the result of requests from the smaller birds. They wanted more food and shelter, and they also wanted sweet music to brighten their lives.
So Raven created the family of Birch trees, the Trembling Aspen, the willows, the poplars and the cottonwoods. Raven instructed the spirits of the shadows in the forests to pay special attention to the bark of the Birch and the Aspen. When these trees grow to about the height of an adult woman or man, the spirits move among them and bind their trunks very tightly with horizontal bands of a special fibrous, sticky tape. This tape is sometimes a milky grey, sometimes a creamy white. The trees continue to grow quickly, but the tightness of the banded taping forces them upwards rather than outwards.
To escape the firm grip of the tape, the fully grown Birch has developed a way of shrinking its trunk, allowing the bite of the bark to peel away. Sometimes the Birch even shucks whole bands of bark-tape. This allows all sorts of small birds to nest and to feed on the abundant insect life that flourishes up and down the trunk.
The Aspen, however, has learned to live with Raven’s orders by forcing its trunk out to fuse with the constraining bark in a hard, smooth union. As the tree grows, this process causes small splits and scars, making the tree shake gently with each release of tension. This causes the beautiful music of the Aspen leaves that entertains the birds even on a calm, windless day.
Each Spring the birds of the forest celebrate Raven’s ingenuity and wisdom.
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I have sorted out a problem with my camera’s memory card and have put up a few photos on my flickr site (www.flickr.com/photos/tedeames). I do like taking photos, and then enjoying them later, but often I’d rather just appreciate a moment rather than hassle around trying to get the perfect picture. I consciously chose wordpress for this blog as it is text only…gimme the words! Maybe cameras are just too darn good these days, there’s less and less challenge (unless you are a pro like Jack, where the rise in amateur standards poses a different set of challenges).
It’s interesting that the word “capture” has come to be so closely associated with our efforts to record an essence of a moment, whether in images or in words. I want connection without possession.
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The downturn in the sparrow population in Britain has been fast and distressing, though they seem to have rallied a little. In contrast each day sees huge numbers of several sub-varieties arriving here for the Yukon Spring: Tree Sparrows with bright orange caps; Chipping Sparrows (long recitations like cicadas); Savannah Sparrows (like small thrushes with cycling helmets); Fox Sparrows with white bibs; White-Crowned Sparrows (badger-striped heads).
And they all love grubbing on the ground, rooting noisily for seeds and insects. Instead of looking up you have to look down – and there are scores of them, out-squirrelling the squirrels among the thick brush. They don’t seem too worried about any predators, which is sad for me as I would love to see a lynx. They are around apparently, but the sparrows have obviously got their own little cans of lynx spray under their wings. But I bet they don’t go to talks in libraries.
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This week I have been too excited to be here to get down to much writing on the two docs I have brought across an ocean and a continent to work on, and the early morning snows of the first 2 days have been replaced by beautiful, warm, long days…but it’s all grist to some inner mill, at least that’s my excuse.
Do send in comments, and feel free to pass on the address if you know someone who might be interested.