When I was 7 we acquired our first television set and, by watching the forecasts, I discovered for the first time that weather could be different from one place to another. Until that moment I had assumed that sun in my home town meant sun everywhere, that when it was cloudy and rainy (my childhood Shropshire had its share) then the rest of the country and probably the world was similarly afflicted. I remember gazing at the symbol laden charts on the screen with something akin to ‘satori’, my own little metaphysical enlightenment.
For some reason a trace of my innocent ignorance has persisted in a failure to understand how a windstorm works, and why it only affects certain areas. How come I can be battling gale force gusts on one ridge whilst the trees on the next ridge remain undisturbed? Why does the air suddenly whip up and buffet in one place, then die down and move off somewhere else nearby? Ok, I’m sure that there are good solid scientific explanations, but I’m more interested in the capricious sensuality of it all.
The other day I experienced a rare happy example of a perfect windstorm. On a high ridge-line I enjoyed one of those cleansing moments when you stand up, lean into the gale and feel your face rubberising and jelly-wobbling like one of those film clips of someone going through g-force in a jet plane. Cobwebs scud off over the hills and far away.
Below me a vast bowl of Yukon forest, white spruce, lodgepole pine and aspen, was moving in symmetrical, graceful surge upon surge. The crowns of the trees over a swathe of maybe 20 square miles were doing their own, very disciplined, Mexican wave. No pockets of calm or patches of extra mayhem, just broad lines of regularly spaced, soothing undulations.
Lower down, within the forest itself, I also caught the audio effect. Sound waves beginning with a far away whisper, rising with pleasing harmony to a symphonic overhead crescendo, tailing off again to a soft fade out in the outer limits of the valley. It reminded me of an evening stretched out on a cliff in Sutherland, in north-west Scotland, watching endless clean lines of white-horse waves smoothing the bay below…and feeling the throb and tremor travel up through the rock deep into my torso.
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It’s not exactly a weather thing, but one of the true delights of North (and Yukon is a prime spot) is the chance to see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. In another facet of my natural world ignorance, I had not realised that the stunningly beautiful displays are there all year round…it’s just that you can’t see them when the conditions aren’t right. The high energy clouds of ion particles that the sun produces clash with gases above the Earth’s surface all year round. But you need clear skies and very dark skies.
So I look wistfully up into the May sky at night, but with no aurora. It is just too light now, even after the sun has gone below the horizon. All sorts of amazing, gob-smacking electro-magnetic activity is going on up there…but I can’t see it. There is learning in this I feel. The time, the place, and the persons. The timetheplaceandthepersons.
And going to an Imax cinema to see it must be the ersatz equivalent of seeing your god through illusory acid-goggles.
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Hummingbirds are not as common here as in southern BC, but I was nearly molested by one yesterday. Out of the various kinds, it is the Rufous Hummingbird that somehow makes its whirring way up here from Southern California, or even Mexico.
I like to go out onto the sunny upstairs deck early in the morning to exercise, to breathe, and to read the happy alignments of trees and mountains that create the energy in this place. As I stretched yesterday morning, my bright red t-shirt, in particular the small yellow logo on the chest, was visited by a hummingbird. It came zinging out of the woods like a manic maniac kamikaze and did a cartoon screech to a halt in mid-air right by the double HH of Helly Hansen’s finest.
They are quite scary in the moment. This one’s so-called, self-styled “hum” sounded more like the noise we used to make as kids when we stuck a card in the spokes of our bike wheels and sped off down a steep hill.
For one delicate nano-second Rufus (gorgeous red neck and rusted back with green highlights) freeze-framed with his hypodermic beak a centimetre from my left nipple.
It is surprising, not to say shocking, how many images your fevered mind can fit into a nano-second: is it some huge grotesque insect…?…no it’s a mind-numbingly beautiful hummingbird…how can it fly so fast…how can it hover so unerringly…?…what a horrible noise it’s making…this is sort of scary and ecstatic at the same time…wow, I remember that film where people were putting little clothes pegs on each other’s nipples! (was that The Sound of Music…!?)…will it, won’t it…shit, it’s gone…!
Hummers fly with an intensity of purpose that is almost violent, and this one was no exception. They make swallows and swifts look like desultory delta sloths. Tilt a raptor’s sudden dive onto a vertical plane and you have an approximation of the hummer’s speed and crossbow bolt single-mindedness.
All I could do was shout as its clickety-fluttery whirr faded into the forest.
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Yukon’s only coastline is in the very far north, where the wilderness of Ivvavik National Park and a series of big rivers flow into the Beaufort Sea around Qikiqtaruk (formerly Herschel Island). However, it is easy to get to the wondrous Pacific North-West coast of Alaska from Whitehorse and environs.
Last Sunday I joined an Outdoors Club group hike from Skagway to a small rocky bay called Sturgill’s Landing. The drive over the White Pass in the south-west corner of Yukon is a series of breath-catching vistas. You are also forced to wonder again about the sheer drive and questionably directed energy, the positive-negative desire, of the Gold Rush pioneers who toted huge loads across these impossible landscapes. Gazing stoically out from the wealth of old photos these men look like the straggly bearded cousins of modern mojaheddin jihadis.
Prior to the gold and mineral exploitation waves, the richest pillage of resources came from the British, American and Russian fever for sea-otter pelts. The first European explorers and merchant ships found a huge supply of sea-otters, highly prized for the unequalled quality of their fur. In a shockingly short space of time, by their own efforts and by economic and miltary co-option of the coastal First Nations, the Brits and Russians virtually made the sea-otter extinct. Only recently in species terms has the sea-otter population rallied.
At Sturgill’s Landing we were privileged to be checked out by a posse of four sea-otters. They are surprisingly big creatures compared to the Scottish ones, almost like small seals. They made a deliberate pass close to the shore, performing a series of aqua-gymnastic routines for us in dazzling sunlight against a remote fjord backdrop. They then cruised round to wriggle the rocks at a safe remove on the other side of a chattery creek outflow.
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Some snippets in response to various emails:
- Yes, I have certainly broken my cinnamon bun fast. The Chocolate Claim in Whitehorse does a large sticky beast with spreadable butter icing.
- Yes, there are lots of butterflies emerging just now: Boreal Spring Azures, Brushfoots, Clouded Sulphurs, and best of all, Tiger Swallowtails are all around here. As I head north I’d love to see the nicely gender-named Christina Sulphur and Melissa Arctic. I did see Melissa Arctic out on the tundra last time I was here, but that’s another story.
- I have now read Anne Michaels’ follow up to the very brilliant Fugitive Pieces. It is called The Winter Vault and I found it, sad to say, almost unreadable. I persevered and finished it, but it sinks under the weight of its research and is confusingly structured, full of precious dialogue between oh-so-serious lovers. A much better Canadian writer experience has been reading Rohinton Mistry’s short stories – witty and moving.
- The tale of Raven Has Fun with Conceptual Art will appear in a future blog. And Conceptual Art refers to the contemporary art movement that has dominated the market for the last 30 years……it has nothing to do with Conceptual Art, the nickname of Arthur Bumstead, the barman in Dodge City who used to stifle saloon brawls in advance by asking angry drinkers to contemplate what the universe would consist of if physical matter did not exist. That’s another story too.