Review: Kinds of Winter

Bush pilot, guide, dog musher—Dave Olesen documents what it takes to survive the north in “Kinds of Winter.” A Review by Dick Dorworth

KINDS OF WINTER: Four solo journeys by dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
By Dave Olesen
Wilfrid Laurier University Press$19.99

olesenDave Olesen is a thoughtful, articulate adventurer who closely notes the details of an extraordinary existence in which the mundane chores of daily life entail severe consequences for inattention, keeps track of his experiences and observations in journals which he turns into books to share with fortunate readers. His latest book “Kinds of Winter” is, to sum up, beautiful. Olesen lives with his wife and two children, forty three huskies and a ninety year old Danish sailboat on a remote homestead by Great Slave Lake next to the Hoarfrost River in Canada’s Northwest Territories where average winter nighttime temperatures are below -20F and there are five hours of daylight in December.

Olesen works as a bush pilot and guide, and, for 15 years, he was a competitive dog musher, finishing the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled dog Race eight times. That’s a long way from the small Illinois town where he grew up, but in 1987, armed with B.A. degree in Humanities and Northern Studies, he fled to the north to pursue a life that inspired Gary Snyder to write of Olesen: “I salute this man and his passion, and his family for giving him space to explore it. An old Inupiaq Eskimo once said to me as I set out in a canoe on a September river, ‘Don’t have any adventures.’”

But the daily challenges of life at Olesen’s home are a backdrop and nutritious foundation for the kinds of winter he seeks and discovers when he and his teams of sled dogs really do go looking for adventure. He explains it thus: “Once a year for four consecutive winters I hooked up a team of dogs and set out on long trips away from our homeland, traveling toward one of the cardinal points of the compass: south in 2002, east in 2003, north in 2004, and finally west in 2005. Having gone out, I turned home again. It was as simple as that.” Yes, as simple as a man alone with his team of dogs going south for 155 miles, east 380 miles, north 210 miles and west 520 miles through the kinds of winter that keep the Northwest Territories sparsely populated.

The adventure alone makes “Kinds of Winter” worth the read, but Olesen is no chest-thumping conqueror of the extreme compiling a resume of achievement for the reader to admire. Olesen, like his literary/spiritual predecessors Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey and Snyder is reminding himself and the reader of Muir’s admonition: “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

DSC_1891 - Version 2-colourEvery human being can, with a bit of intentional effort and spirit of adventure, break clear away, once in awhile, and wash the spirit clean. But there are very few who do so who also have the literary skills and discipline combined with the human and environmental insight to realize and write: “Time. It is all nice and fuzzy that: ‘Go out in the wilderness and just let Time flow’ or ‘let Time have no meaning’ stuff, but in traveling between supply caches, or climbing a mountain, or paddling a long river in a short summer, Time takes on fundamental importance—it cannot be ignored. It is the approach of dusk at day’s end, the looming onset of winter in mid-September, the final sack of feed rationed out to a hungry team. Like it or not, folks, the clock is ticking, even ‘way out here’ in la-la land, Today, though, sitting just 75 miles from home, I am long on time. I can rest, and walk, and watch the day go by. Muir and Thoreau would be happy for me.”

We should all be happy for Dave Olesen who has the skills, discipline and insight to make every reader happy he and she took the time from the ticking clock to read “Kinds of Winter.”         —Dick Dorworth

Postcard: Tenmile Range, CO

When you live in a place where the wind screams across the high alpine almost nonstop for six months, you learn to carpe any diem when said wind is forecast to be light. Such was the case this week, when a sizable storm was followed by three days of unseasonable calm. It was hard to convince ourselves to go home on the day these turns were made.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Postcard: Ken’s Cabin, Boreas Pass, CO

In the midst of winter’s rigor (wake, eat, ski, work, eat, sleep), a quick jaunt up to a backcountry hut can reset even the most frenzied of us. This is part of the allure of undertaking hutmaster duties for the Summit Huts Association (the escape ranks just above stirring other people’s poop). I do a handful of shifts each season, and try to spend the night whenever possible. Last week, after completing my chores, I only had time to duck into Ken’s Cabin for tea before returning the way I came, back down the mountain to civilization.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Back to Fundamentals

Middle of February. I have an 8:30 a.m. appointment in Albany to have the car serviced. It’s over an hour’s drive away. Need to get an early start. That means a pre-dawn, subzero walk with the collie through snowy woods.

We head off down the snowshoe trail. He runs ahead, barking into the dark. He wears a bell so I can keep track of his whereabouts. As often happens, he disappears for a time on the far side of Paradise Hill. Who knows what he might be getting into. The snow back there is a couple feet deep. At this hour, things appear dim and gentian-blue. I stop at the edge of a spruce grove and listen. I hear no bell.

So I call the collie’s name. Silence. I call again. Silence. I wait. From high in one of the spruces, a barred owl gives a hoot. I call the collie’s name again. The owl gives another hoot. Silence returns. Time passes but not the silence. I am starting to worry about my appointment. I don’t like being late for appointments. But lo! Out of the gentian blue comes the familiar tink-tink-tink of an approaching bell. Then the collie appears. I give him cheese and we head home.

Back inside the house, I remove copious clumps of snow and ice from between the pads of his feet. He assists by licking my hand. Now I notice a certain smell coming off him—rank, gamey, feculent. Once again, it would seem, he has gotten into something fundamental. No time now to give him a bath. If I leave at once I can still make that car appointment. So I head out the door. The collie barks his displeasure at being left home alone. He barks and he barks and he barks. I can hear it from all the way up at the barn.

In dark cerulean cold, the car starts only grudgingly. I drive off. It takes a long time before the car’s heater has any effect. I am halfway to Albany before I become aware of a certain fragrance, now coming off me. Talk about regrettable transfer effects. I’ve had a lot of wild ideas in my life, but I’ve never smelled like one before.

I arrive at Albany in time for the car appointment. Everybody there keeps a polite distance. For some reason, service today is particularly speedy. I’m out of there in no time. I drive back home to the Catskills listening to some Loudon Wainwright. Upon my arrival, the collie barks with joy. Till he is led to the tub. Then it’s my turn.

Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park

Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park

Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional.

By Brooke Williams

Three camper-backed trucks are parked a the exhibit turn out off of north-running Highway 385 in Big Bend, National Park, which seems strange. We thought no one was here. It is late January. We’ve seen no blooming plants and very few birds in our two gentle days. The trucks are empty and no one is standing at the interpretive sign. The truck’s occupants must be out hiking as this pull out is, according to the guidebook, the parking area for the Dog Canyon Hike.

Dog Canyon can be seen on the horizon… a deep crack (a cut, a scar, a fissure, anything but a canyon!) as if the time-eaten rock forming the horizon had been bent too far—beyond its breaking point. Dog Lake will no longer be the name of this place. I will call it Dog Gash.

Three people, I’m sure belonging to those campers, appear in the distance. By the time we’ve pulled and filled our packs the hikers are near enough for us to see that they are older, fit, and—by the way they move and their hiking poles, lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and big-brimmed hats—comfortable with this desert, these distances.

We’ve been talking to everyone and everyone seems comfortable talking to us. It’s as if we all share three things: we’re not from here; this desert has lured us here; we’re not sure exactly why.

By hearing ourselves speak to one another we might hear clues coming out of us.

Five of us gather where their hike ends and ours begins. The two women are open and friendly, energetic with the glow from a six mile walk in perfect weather. The man is serious. We find out quickly that they are volunteers for the Park Service—living in their campers, they answer questions at information desks, pick up trash, sell guidebooks, maps, and tee-shirts, and issue permits at the Visitor Center’s that seem to have been carved into this desert.

The serious man is all business.

Do you have water?

Yes.

How much?

3 three quarts.

Food?

Yes. That too.

Although I pride myself in the comfort I feel wandering in the desert, I consider it bad luck to ignore another’s warning.

You know it’s four hours?

No, I lie. Thank you.

Of the packs, his is the largest and I wonder about a gun.

We all smile. Terry and I turn toward the gash in the horizon and begin.

A grey, hard-panned surface spreads in every direction. I’m wondering if we find our own way across the desert expanse to Dog Gash when a footpath appears through a small patch of dried plants, suggesting a trail. Or at least a route. I prefer routes to trails.  Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional. Routes are prompts for our own creative wanderings. Seductions. In some cases, routes provide security, comfort when needed. Routes are suggestions. The Dog Gash ‘trail’ is really a route.

Brooke on Trail (BEST)Some routes are marked by cairns, and cairns have been ‘built’ along the route to Dog Gash. I use the word, ‘built’ loosely, because these cairns are nothing more than piles of stones.

I like the art of stacking stones and where better to practice my art than here, where the cairns—whatever they might once have been—need significant work.

The stones are perfect, some long, all of them with angles surfaces, which with the right touch and patience, I’m able to turn random piles into statues.

I follow one to the next, stopping, kneeling on the hard desert, creating structure from chaos.

After reforming three cairns, I move along the route into a vast field of creosote. These plants define this desert. They can be shoulder-high or shorter than one’s knees, and evenly spaced or random as if dropped from high in the sky. All of which depends on the source of water from which they draw. Creosote roots exude a toxic substance which keeps other plants at bay, from competing for valuable moisture. It is these distances these brilliant plants have created between themselves through which I follow the route, cairn to cairn. Creosote exudes the “scent of the desert” which I breathe in knowing that I am much better having done so.

Terry has moved on out of sight. Looking down, I notice that my path is sidewalk smooth and I stop to shed my shoes and socks. In the months since I walked barefooted outdoors, I’ve missed it. My feet are white and tender and marked by creases left by my socks. I’ve read about the benefits of walking barefooted—the chemical exchange of important ions; the massaging of points on one’s feet which are connected to our various organs. I don’t need to believe any of that to know that walking barefooted makes me happy. I stuff my shoes and socks in my pack, take three glorious steps, calculating: If walking barefooted feels this good, walking naked will be that times ten. Or twenty. I look around to be sure I’m alone, as I would feel sorry for anyone accidently seeing what six decades of time and distance can do to a body.

Dressed in my floppy hat, I move like liquid across the desert. I stop to re-build six cairns. The February sun is perfect, its beams hitting my pale body at such a low angle they’re deflected rather than absorbed. Pinching my skin, I find no redness. The route, which has been straight and directly east, turns south and winds between creosote which grow closer together here, suggesting they share more abundant water. The trail roughens and the small stones and sharp sticks require more of my attention. It turns sharply west and becomes tube-like as it drops into the large wash through which water running over the eons has created Dog Gash. Terry is there, waiting.

She laughs briefly at my naked state and we walk toward the gash which becomes a portal between two worlds. There are many rocks, which although rounded from ten thousand floods, are too much for my just-born feet.

Now with shoes (no socks) I follow her toward the Gash. We stop in bank shade to eat and drink and glimpse a small bird on a dead branch.  A wren, its white eyebrow telling us it’s Bewick’s and not  Rock Wren or Canyon Wren. Two insects buzz around us and across the wash a brilliant orange butterfly surfs an invisible breeze. Terry makes notes in her journal and I get up and move.

As I enter the gash the air thickens, compressed by the rock walls rising high above the dry wash on both sides. The gash is filled with shade and the cool air charges my skin. I wander along in a trance, wondering how I would explain this place to someone from another planet or Omaha.

stone in handA million stones of different sizes and colors and shapes pave the creek bed. I pick up those with the most unique shapes and notice they are all the same color—a pink shade of white, not grey or beige. What could shape have to do with color? Two ravens croak high in the cliffs where a cloud casts a boat-like shadow.

Terry joins me where I’m sitting on a sandy bench looking out over it all. We don’t say much, but watch time pass slowly in front of us as if it has taken on form and color.

Chilled, we get up and move back through the gash, sensing that the end to this short day is closer than we think.

Terry’s shoes come off when the trail smoothes. We walk slowly, nowhere else to be, two miles to go. I work on three more cairns. Terry follows a small brown bird. A large beetle recently crossed our path, I can tell by its tracks.

The sun melts on the horizon, spreading bright color along it. I stop to put on my clothes, which feel like they belong to someone else.

Looking north, in the fading sunlight, I can see where a massive chunk of rock has fallen from a cliff, and smashed into white powder on the dark talus slope below. I swear that it happened today, while we were in Dog Gash. I’ll find out later the rock fell in 1987.

The shadows grow as we move through the creosote. Tomorrow, we’ll head south toward the Rio Grand. We’ll see Mexico across the river and the creosote will be starting to bloom there, as the spring will be further along. I’ll wonder if I’ll be older there—further along—and  long for Dog Gash where I can be young again.

Postcard: World Championships, Beaver Creek, CO

Every two years, the alpine ski racing universe takes over a mountain and crowns 10 world champions in a fortnight. This year, said universe took over Beaver Creek in Colorado’s Vail Valley, the first time in 16 years the worlds have taken place on American snow. Say what you will about U.S. racing fans — how they only care during big events or don’t really understand the nuances — but they have shown up like there was free ice cream to be had. The stands have been packed every day, albeit with plenty of international flavor mixed in, and the action has featured both near-misses (see: Miller, Bode) and brilliance (see: the country of Austria and Maze, Tina). Also, when you win, they project your name onto the side of Vail Mountain overnight.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

The Story of My Heart: Brooke Williams speaks with 19th century nature-mystic Richard Jefferies

Last February, winter eased its chokehold on the high desert. The sun was warm enough for both mud and sweat, and I sat on our south-facing deck, eating a carrot and squinting while the desert quiet hummed like a huge and distant insect. I had been working for months to make personal sense of a book published in 1883—The Story of My Heart—and a man, Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), the 19th century Nature-mystic who wrote it.

My wife Terry Tempest Williams and I discovered the book years ago in the far corner of a dusty bookshop on an island in Maine. We read it out loud to each other, proposed to a publisher that it be re-issued, and traveled to England to walk on the ground that inspired it. I was near the end of 18,000 “after words” that would become my contribution. I’m not sure when, during the course of this process, I became obsessed. That bright day on that deck, I felt my obsession turn to frustration.

I knew Jefferies was out there—from strange insights I’d had since finding his book, from “visits” I can neither explain nor justify. I’d read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, The Dominion of the Day, which comforted me with the matter-of-fact description of the role of the dead in encouraging the living to “keep the story going” into the future. I had the strong sense that Jefferies had picked me to complete his unfinished business.

“Why me, Richard Jefferies?”

I was tired and needed a day off from poring over his florid but densely beautiful prose, which I was sure held clues to our modern situation. I’d asked this question many times as I struggled to capture the meaning I knew hid in those old pages. I needed to know this. I needed to know many things.

“Why me, Richard Jefferies?” I asked out loud as a breeze swirled in front of me.

jefferiesThis time he answered.

“If the eye is always watching, and the mind on the alert, ultimately chance supplies the solution.”
I clearly heard those words which had become familiar during the two dozen times I’d read The Story of My Heart. I’d begun to rationalize: Obviously, I’m so close to this book that its words are now stored in my unconscious ready to use when I need them. But then I heard, “You seemed ready when you found it on that bookshelf. I had been waiting for a long time.”

This was the opening I’d waited for. I seemed to have discovered the portal between life and death. Not wanting to waste the opportunity to interview Jefferies, I jumped right in.

You’re dead…?
Such a limited, term, “death.”

Because?
You moderns talk about it, but you give no real credence to the immortal “soul.” You say you know the soul leaves the body at death, but you ignore the “souls” of your dead when you have much to learn from them.

Why have you come back now?
Come back? I haven’t been gone.

What do we need to know?
You think you’re special and you are—never in history have humans knowingly contributed to that which threatens to destroy them. But you can change.

One day as I moved up the sweet short turf near my home, my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling at every step; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant. I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I felt the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up: through the grass, there came an influence as I could feel the great earth speaking to my soul.

Your point is….?
You people pave everything. Or drill it or dig it for the carbon fueling your lives. The great earth cannot be heard through pavement, over the drilling and digging.

We are working to protect wild place from paving and drilling.
You speak of saving these wild places as a reminder of the past brilliance of our evolution or because they are havens for other species. This is true, but limited. You save these wild places because they will save you. The great earth is speaking about all that is at stake for the future of humans. Those who profit from paving and drilling do not know this. Not only do they refuse to hear what the great earth says, but also profit from silencing the great earth.

We do our best.
That is only part of it. Your people are strong and brave and capable of finding your way to the far corners of the Earth—no matter the season, no matter how extreme. This is admirable. But the earth-knowledge you need to save yourselves comes up through your feet anywhere that is wild, anywhere the natural system continues to function. You need only to slow down. You need only to open. This is how you evolve. You need to evolve.

How much time do we have?
Time is not what you think. Then the air around me grew quiet, and so did Richard Jefferies.

TSOMH–Interview by Brooke Williams. The re-release of Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart (torreyhouse.com), first published in 1883, features essays by Brooke Williams and an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams.