Christmas to Me: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would continue the story of my favorite Christmas…

The Dogs Arrive at Our Cabin

The Dogs Arrive at Our Cabin

Christmas Eve dawned grey and cold. By mid-morning, snow began falling, giving the landscape an ethereal, “Jack Londonesque” quality. Just before noon, the tableau was complete as two teams of sled dogs appeared from the forest edge. If Santa and his reindeer had appeared on Lark Lake that morning I could not have been more excited. I had wanted to be a musher since I was ten years old – the winter I hitched our yellow lab, Michael, to my toboggan and played “Iditarod” from dawn to dusk on the snow-covered fields that made up our farm. Now, at long last, I had a chance to do the real thing: Ride behind a string of sled dogs in the wilderness of The North.

Our Sled Dogs

Our Sled Dogs

The afternoon was everything I’d hoped for: Flying over the frozen landscape under the expert guidance of our mushers, getting a sense of the skill it takes to manage a team of eight canine athletes. My experience driving horses did little to prepare me for the experience of running dogs. Although the dogs were harnessed and attached to the sled, there were no reins to guide or stop the team. All directions, “gee” for right, “haw” for left, and the all important “whoa,” are spoken by the musher. The dogs have complete control over whether they obey or not, thus making a well-trained team an absolute necessity. Happily, both teams we rode with that day were the picture of obedience and their synchronicity with their drivers was poetry in motion.

Rest Stop on the Trail

Rest Stop on the Trail

After a couple hours of traveling, we stopped for a rest. We were cold and needed hot cocoa to fuel our inner fires, while the dogs were hot (it was, after all fifteen degrees that afternoon) and needed time to rest, drink, and roll merrily in the snow. If I ever had any doubts as to whether or not sled dogs were happy in their work, they were erased that winter’s day. I have never seen dogs with more joie de vie. As soon as our break was over, they were ready to go: Jumping and barking and pulling at the traces so we’d know they were far from ready to go home.

Thanking Our New Friends

Thanking Our New Friends

We returned to the cabin shortly before dusk and thanked the mushers and each of their dogs for giving us the adventure of a lifetime. As they vanished into the woods across the lake and the light from the mushers’ headlamps faded from sight, The Great Silence returned to Lark Lake and Christmas Eve began.

A Toast to Christmas

A Toast to Christmas

Our holiday dinner was simple fare: Hamburger casserole and dinner rolls, accompanied by fine wine, with which we toasted family, the North Woods, and the sacredness of the season.  As we did the dinner dishes, we turned on the short-wave radio and listened to a boys’ choir in Germany, singing carols to celebrate that holiest of eves. One-by-we made our way to the sauna, returning warm, clean, and ready for an evening around the fire. We sat up until midnight, sharing memories of Christmases past until, at last, we blew out the lamps and turned in for the night. Mom and Dad slept on the futon by the stove and David, Kindra, and I slept in the loft, nestled in our sleeping bags, with starlight shining in the windows. Music from a choir in England lulled me to sleep and for the first time in decades, I felt the spirit of Christmas in every fibre of my being. My last thoughts that wondrous night were the words of favorite carol. “O Holy Night…O Night Divine.”

To be continued…

Christmas to Me: Part I

If I had a blog, today I would write about the best Christmas of my life.

All is Calm, All is Bright

All is Calm, All is Bright

Now that Thanksgiving is past, we have begun to enjoy our Christmas traditions, one of which is watching Chevy Chase in “Christmas Vacation.” We saw our old favorite last night and, not for the first time, it occurred to me that only in a Hollywood fiction can I find merriment in that kind of chaotic holiday gathering. In reality, a holiday season like the one on Christmas Vacation would be a waking nightmare: The throngs of guests, the crowded rooms, the clanging music, the clatter of cooking and serving, and the cacophony of screaming kids and barking dogs is more than an introvert like me can bear. It isn’t that such gatherings are innately bad, it’s simply not an experience an introvert can survive.

The good news is: The gods, to whom I am eternally grateful, gave me a family of introverts, so the quiet holidays I love have been less the exception than the rule. In fact, it was in the company of my fellow introverts, that I experienced the best Christmas of my life.

Ojibway Lake

Ojibway Lake

In December 1997 we decided to depart the commercial bombardment of modern life and retreat to the North Woods of Minnesota, for Christmas completely off the grid. We rented a remote cabin, accessible only by snowshoe, dogsled, or cross-country skis. Twenty miles from the town of Ely and four miles from the nearest road, our cabin on Lark Lake was the perfect backdrop for a Christmas with no strings attached. Our only source of power was propane, which fueled the lamps, stove, and refrigerator. We had bottled water to drink and to use in cooking, but wash water had to be dipped from a hole in the foot-thick ice on the lake. We had no plumbing, so an outhouse met those needs, and the wood-fired sauna next to the cabin offered a soul-cleansing way to freshen up at the end of day. No phones, no internet, and no television gave us sanctuary from the barrage of Christmas merchandising while the short-wave radio that sat in the window offered us access to music from around the world.

Crossing Triangle Lake

Crossing Triangle Lake

Our journey began on December 21st, the Winter Solstice. After gathering supplies at  Zup’s grocery store, we drove twenty miles out “The Fernberg” to Ojibway Lake. There we met our host, Steve Lampman, who had his snow-machine ready to take our heavier supplies across the frozen lakes to the cabin. We followed Steve’s tracks 4 miles across Ojibway and Triangle Lakes, to Lark Lake. The winter sun was pale as it shone down on the sheen of ice and snow and all around us was silence, glorious, luminous silence. This was not the quiet of a winter evening at home, this was The Great Silence – the phenomenon naturalist and Ely-resident Sigurd Olson described as, “…more than quiet, something that had no beginning or end, the great primeval hush the land once knew.”  Not only had we left the world behind, we had entered a new world, a place as sacred as the manger on a Christmas long ago.

We walked along in silence, lost in our own thoughts on this mystical place, but as we reached the center of Ojibway, my sister-in-law, Kindra looked down at our icy path and whispered, “We’re walking on water.” We stopped and took in the depth of what Kindra had observed. It was clear that this was going to be no ordinary Christmas.

Lark Lake Cabin

Lark Lake Cabin

As we crossed the last portage, through the woods between Triangle and Lark Lake, we say our cabin, tucked away among the balsam and fir trees. The propane lamps glowed warmly in the gathering dark and the little wood-stove had things warm and toasty inside. The heat of the stove drew out the fragrance of the pine logs that made the walls of the cabin and filled our need for a Christmas tree to celebrate the season. Out on the lake, the sunset turned the snow to pink, then violet before sinking beneath the horizon. Longest Night was upon us and we honored the ancient rituals of the Solstice with good food, good wine, and the love of family. It was a night I wished would never end.

Wolf Track

Wolf Track

Over the next few days, we settled into the Great Silence, our spirits buoyed by the absence of television, ringing telephones, and automobiles speeding along the highway. The only sounds were the wind in the pines and the occasional call of a raven. One afternoon, we heard wolves howling nearby and though a chill ran up my spine, I have never been more thrilled. We had seen the wolves’ huge footprints on the lake that morning, so we knew the pack was nearby and though I sensed a primordial fear of the big predators rise, it was quickly tempered by the exhilaration of walking on the same ground as wild wolves. For one brief moment, I had a connection with the big greys and I was overcome with joy.

To be continued….

The Spring Chicken In Winter

If I had a blog today I would write about the first snowstorm of the season.

Snow Day

Snow Day

It’s snowing. Real, heavy, stick-to-the-ground snow that’s been piling up since late morning, transforming our little valley into a winter jewel. I am glad the snow has come; not only because of its beauty, but because it justifies the three days of back-breaking work we’ve put in preparing for the storm.

November 15 - Frosty Morning

Frosty Morning

I love nothing more than getting ready for foul weather. There is something utterly satisfying about working your knuckles to the bone so your animals will be warm, sheltered, and well-fed with the snow begins to fall. Since I am the main farm-hand these days, I’ve  taken on most of the storm prep myself. I spent one whole day cleaning and bedding the horse-stalls, washing up the bowls in the the indoor automatic waterers and setting up water-heaters in the outdoor troughs. Once that was done, I set up a heater in the cat-room at the barn so Toby and Miranda can enjoy a balmy 60-degree environment and I placed heat-lamps over the chicken roost to protect my hens from frostbitten combs and wattles. I was a little concerned that by evening, I couldn’t walk or straighten my back when bedtime rolled around, but, I rationalized, “I’m just getting warmed up. Surely my muscles will get with the program in a day or two. After all, I’m still in my forties – a spring chicken you might say.”

The Storm Begins

The Storm Begins

Day two gave my “inner chicken” another run for its money. Early in the day, I took the big truck to town and got a load of straw to use for the hens, Edward the rooster, and Ferdinand the duck. Straw is much lighter than hay, but when one’s muscles have been compromised, unloading a pickup full of bales and stacking them in the barn can be a bit of a challenge. Bedding Ed and Ferdie is easy. Their domain is a box-stall at the barn and I had their bachelor pad looking good in minutes, but the hen house is big and it took two big bales to get their house fresh and clean. I cursed my aching back once the bedding was done, but watching my hens scratch for bits of wheat in the golden straw made it all worthwhile. If I could have called it quits at that point, life would have been grand, but, because farm-life takes no prisoners, I still had horse stalls to clean and horses to feed. By bedtime even my toenails hurt and I began to have concerns about that this spring chicken had passed her “sell by” date.

Day Three should have been a cake-walk: Regular chores with a quick detour to clean the silt out of the automatic waterers. The dirt that was clogging the water-flow came from repairs our plumber made to a broken water pipe. No big deal: Just remover the filters and we’re back in business. Not. The filters came out easily, and they were filthy, but when I turned the water back on, nothing happened. The little spigots were as dry as a bone. I got out the repair manual and my heart sank. “If cleaning the filter does not restore full-function to the waterer, remove the bowl, basket, and counterweight; open the control valve and clean thoroughly.” Egads.

Let It Snow

Let It Snow

And so began the six-hour siege. Dad and I disassembled each waterer, removed the control valve, cleaned it and put things back together again. Then we had to calibrate the waterers. This is an inexact process whereby one tinkers with adjustment screws and weight placement until water flows freely but doesn’t overflow the bowl. “Trial-and-error” really doesn’t do this tedious process justice. Not only is it frustrating and time-consuming, it requires the repair-person to stand hunched over for hours, utterly destroying one’s back, legs, and hips. In three days I had gone from spring chicken to stewing hen and a nice, hot soak in a crock pot didn’t sound half-bad. Dad and I crippled through the evening, faced off with chores this morning, and then, about ten o’clock, our labors were rewarded. It began to snow.

The aimless flurries that came first soon turned into a proper storm and I had to hurry to get the horses inside before they got wet. Moisture is not necessarily a problem to horses, but when the low is forecast to be eleven degrees, hypothermia can be a concern, especially for the fine boned and delicate Arabian horses in our herd. I wasn’t thrilled to return to the barn less than an hour after I had left, but once the horses were settled in their stalls, munching hay and drinking their clean, clear water, all my aches and pains seemed a small price to pay.  All across the farm, my babies were tucked in safe and warm while the beautiful snow fell all around. It was a Christmas card ending to a mid-November day.

Good Night Chickens

Good Night Chickens

It is dark now, the only light the soft glow emanating from the barn and hen house. All is calm. All is bright. As for the spring chicken, she is comfortable on the couch, heating pad and hot coffee in tow. Its been a heck of a week, but worth every ache and pain. That’s what love is all about.

Check Out My New Gallery Page

If I had a blog, today I would announce the unveiling of my photo gallery page, featuring the images I have selected for my 90-Day Project: Journey to the Solstice.

The reason I have decided to showcase these photos on their own page is to give me freedom to blog about subjects other than the photo-of-the-day, while sharing my special photographs with all of you at the same time. I’ll be adding one photo to the gallery each day through December 21st, so visit the page often to see what’s new.

To view the gallery, click on “Journey to the Solstice 2014” at the top of the page, then click on any image to get a larger view. Once you are in “slideshow mode” you can exit by pressing the Esc key on your keyboard.

Serendipity

If I had a blog, today I would write about serendipity.

White-Tailed Deer Fawn

White-Tailed Deer Fawn

I have been a nature photographer for more than twenty years and while I do take credit for my technical skill with a camera, many of my best photographs are the result of serendipity. While serendipity can be defined as pure good luck, I have a different theory. I believe this kind of “fortunate happenstance” occurs when I am as one with the world around me. When I am in harmony with nature, something amazing is just around the corner.

This morning I was getting ready to go to town and had gone into the storage room, when twin white-tailed deer fawns emerged from the woods.

White-Tailed Deer Fawn II

White-Tailed Deer Fawn II

Because I carry a camera with me everywhere I go, I had it at the ready and was able to get several photos of these delicate beauties before they vanished back into the forest. It was a much needed pick-me-up after a bit of a creative dry spell. Thank you Brother and Sister White-Tail.

 

Before the Storm

After the Storm

When I took this photograph, I was pleased to catch the colors of sunset on the towering cumulonimbus cloud to our east, but had no idea this little hummer had flown into the photo until I looked at it on my computer later that evening. Thank you Brother Hummingbird.

 

The Gift

The Gift

I took this photograph on a holiday trip to Northern Minnesota in 1997. We rented a small cabin on a remote lake north of Ely and spent a week cross-country skiing, dogsledding, and reveling in the savage beauty of this wild country. My birthday is December 27th and when asked what gift I wanted, I said, “I want a wolf.”  Even though we saw wolf tracks on the frozen lake almost every day, I knew the chances of seeing and photographing on was a one-in-a-million chance. The 27th was our last day at Lark Lake Cabin and our spirits were a little low as we snowshoed the 4-miles back to our car. Then. as we came to the woods on the edge of Triangle Lake, a movement in the brush caught our eye and out of the forest stepped a huge wolf. We froze. He froze. For five minutes he let me take one photo after another before he turned and loped off into the bush. “Happy Birthday,” Mom said. Thank  you Brother Wolf.

Pine Marten

Pine Marten

Almost every year, Mom and I often rent a cabin just outside of Ely, Minnesota for an autumn retreat and every year we talk about what animal we want to see the most. In 2007, I wanted to see a pine marten. These elusive members of the weasel family are fairly common in Northern Minnesota, but they prefer to stay invisible to the human eye. As I wandered down the woodland path to our cabin one evening, I said aloud, “Come Brother Marten, I’m here waiting for you.  Please pay us a visit.”

A few days passed and I had forgotten my invocation. Mom and I were eating breakfast when something big hit the window. We thought it was a raven or even a hawk, but when we looked out, it was the Marten. He was sitting beneath the window, as if to say, “Hello! You wanted me to visit you and now you aren’t even paying attention!” I apologized profusely and was able to take several great pictures of our honored guest before he went his way. Thank you Brother Marten.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Where owls are concerned, one needs a lot of serendipity. Denizens of the night, they are seldom available for photo-ops  and their shy nature generally keeps them just out of reach. This owl, however, was waiting for me one evening as I went out to do chores. I was driving the four-wheeler between the house and dairy-barn that evening and when I passed the hay-barn, there she was: Familiar of Athena, the Barred Owl. I stopped the four-wheeler and slowly, oh so slowly, lifted my camera. Birds like owls and hawks tend to think the lifting motion means a gun, so I’ve learned to move gently in their presence. I took several photos from about 30 yards away, then began to move forward, a little at a time, taking pictures as I drew closer. In the end, I she let me come within about ten feet and when she departed, it was with grace and aplomb, not fear. Thank you Sister Owl.

Experiences like these reinforce my belief that Nature is willing to communicate with us, but only if we come into Her world with respect. When I go into the woods, I am walking into a holy place. If I hope to become part of that sacred world, I must abandon all pride and enter as humbly as a sinner going to confession, “Forgive me Mother and Father, for my people and I have sinned.” If I am sincere, Nature will share Her mysteries, open Her secret doors, and let me stand in the presence of the gods.

 

 

Home

Fledgling Barn Swallows

Fledgling Barn Swallows

If I had a blog, today I would write about home. As I went about my chores yesterday I noticed the purple martins and barn swallows getting ready to start their migration to their winter homes in Central and South America. I will miss their cheerful voices in the barn and along the lane and I wonder if they miss our farm, The Greenwood, during their long journey to the south. What it is like for migratory birds, those who spit their time between two vastly different geographies. Do they consider one place home and the other a sublet? Do they long for one place over the other or does it matter as long as they fulfill their biological destiny? I think about these things not because I am a traveler, but because I am a homebody. I don’t like to uproot my life and flit from one place to another, like a hummingbird sampling the flowers in a garden. I am more like the chickadees and titmice, who stay in one place the whole year-round. I want a permanent place, somewhere I can let my roots grow deep, so deep that I am part of the land and it is part of me.

Mockingbird Hill

Mockingbird Hill

To those who revel in the new and unexplored, we homebodies are something of a mystery. They often assume we are dull, uninspired, and timid members of society. After all, we aren’t circumnavigating the globe or filling our Facebook page with photo albums of France, the Swiss Alps, and Antarctica. So what are we doing with our lives? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you I have discovered a world of adventure waiting just outside my own back door.

Blackberries

Blackberries

I don’t need to climb Everest or plumb the depth of the Marianas Trench to be fulfilled; my days are full trekking through the uncharted landscape of my own little world. I know my 200 acres like the face of a lover: I know the steep hills where dogwood blooms in the springtime, the deep valleys, hidden within the oak-dappled forest, where salamanders live among the rain-damp rocks. I know where to look for morel mushrooms in the spring, where to find blackberries in the summer, and where to collect bittersweet on brisk autumn afternoons. Each hill and valley have a name: Hawk Ridge, Turkey-Trot Pasture, Mockingbird Hill. They are the friends with whom I share my life, my solid ground in a world of ceaseless change.

Ancient Stones

Ancient Stones

Every so often, I’ll find something new: An outcropping of ancient stone, standing in the woods like an idol from a bygone age, or a the remains of an old spring-house, the rusted pipe still flowing with icy water on a summer’s day and I feel an explorer of old, charting unmapped territory, uncovering the stories buried by time. There is always something waiting to surprise me, even on the most common sort of days and I seldom return from my excursions without a new story to tell.

Blue Lobelia

Blue Lobelia

Every so often I question my need for the familiar. I wonder if I’m missing out by staying home. It’s true, I would like to see Paris in the rain and stand in the arc of rocks at Stonehenge, but somehow that isn’t in the cards for me. I wasn’t put here to embrace the world at large, but rather to be the caretaker of one small piece of land. In those moments of doubt, all I have to do is step out on my porch. I hear the wood-thrush’s tremolo from the forest and see the last of summer’s flowers blooming in the glade. The season is turning and there is much to be seen before the coming of frost. The Greenwood is calling and I must go.