Friday, December 22, 2006

Begin with a Story. Happy Holidays!

I'm going to take a break from the blogging world for the holidays, but before I do, I'll leave you with a story from the north. It's my version of a commonly heard tale about children, adversity, courage and helping each other. Be back in January!

Alaraluk knew he couldn’t go. He should have gone a month ago and now it was too late. He was weak and cold and knew he probably wouldn’t live out the winter. The grand-children, Paca and Asita would have to go and they would have to go soon if the little family was to survive to see the summer. He looked over at his daughter. She knew what he was thinking and he knew her answer. The children, 11 and 9 were too young to make the trip by themselves.
“There’s no other way, daughter...”
She didn’t answer. They had had this conversation several times already and it led nowhere. Instead she sighed and pretended to continue repairing the skin boot she held in her hand. He knew it was too dark to be sewing, but he said nothing.
“Paca! You will take the snow shovel and the two dogs. You and you sister will have to make the trip to the cache on Kikitarjjuak where we buried the bearded seal last summer. You remember the place...”
Paca didn’t say anything, but his grandfather saw his face brighten slightly and his eyebrows raise.
“Take Asita with you, to help carry the meat home. It should take two days each way if you hurry and the weather stays calm. The kamotik is too big for only two dogs to pull, so take two seal skins and use them to make sleds to pull the meat home on. Don’t let the dogs eat their traces or their harnasses. You must be careful.”
Again Paca said nothing, but his grandfather knew he understood and that he welcomed the responsibility being placed upon him. Both he and Asita looked at their mother, but seeing nothing in her face they could read, they knew the decision had been made. Slowly they began to dress in their outdoor fur clothing.
Once on their way, Paca felt better. It was sad to leave their family back in the snow house, but he knew his grandfather was right. They needed this meat if they were to live. The hunting had not gone well after their father had been drowned in his kayak walrus hunting that summer. Their grandfather had been lucky to kill a few seals at breathing holes during the winter, but recently he had been caughing up blood. He hadn’t found the strength to even go outside for a week now. There was nothing left to eat, not even scaps. These seals were all that was left, but would keep them going until the Spring hunt returned with the coming of the sun.
The two children trudged along the shore beside the tide barrier with its jumble of slippery snow-covered ice blocks. On their left the snow covered sea ice stretched towards the southern horizon. They watched, as they made their way along, the sun’s rays brightened the southern sky, but within a short time it began to get dark again and they both walked on in the pale greyness. Asita was thirsty and stopped to retrieve a bladder from under her parka. It had contained snow, but the warmth of her body had turned it to water. Drinking quickly, she packed new snow down its opening, tightened the skin line around the stopper and slipped it under her parka again. Up ahead, she noticed Paca had also stopped to drink, too proud to let her see him. She ran to catch up and they both walked on silently.
After several hours, Paca announced they would have to make their way through the ice barrier and head out over the sea ice to Kikitarjjuk. This was a shortcut which would save them time and Asita agreed. Besides, she pointed out, they could find a place to sleep on the sea ice and that would be warmer than on the land where it was always cold. A few miles out from the barrier, they came to an ice ridge where snow had blown into long drifts. Not having a snow knife, they couldn’t cut snow blocks to make a house, but using their hands and the shovel, they dug a tunnel into one of the drifts big enough for both of them and the two dogs. They used the seal skins to lie on and, tired from the long walk, both were soon asleep.
The next morning Paca peered out and was pleased to see it was still calm and clear. Soon both the children were on their way again, each holding onto the trace of a dog as they made their way across the undulating snowdrifts that covered the sea ice. Ahead lay the almost-island of Kikitarjjuak with its cliff side facing them. The seal meat cache lay on the south facing slope and was identified with a pile of rocks. They reached the spot just as the sun made its daily showing aroun noon time, a bright purple blaze on the horizon far out over the sea ice to the south. Asita was the first to spot the pile of rocks making the cache. Together they began digging with the snow shovel, but it was hard work. Both the hard, wind-blown snow and the frozen rocks covering the meat made their task difficult, but in a few hours, the meat was uncovered and wrapped in the seal-skins ready for the long pull back to their waiting family.
“We’ll stay here tonight, Asita. Then we’ll be fresh for our trip home.” Asita agreed. There was no possibility of going as far as their snow caves from the previous night. It was too far and they were simply too tired. It was better to stay here and leave in the morning. Once again, they made a snow cave and bringing the dogs inside, they were all soon fast asleep.
The next day, it was foggy, much to their surprise for that was unusual in the area. A breeze coming from the west was bringing it to them. That meant they would be facing into it on the return trip, but there was nothing much they could do about it. Using his knife, Paca cut small slits in the leading edge of the skins so the dog traces could be tied to them. At first the dogs kept turning back to smell the meat as they too were hungry, but the two children kept prodding them onwards. By mid-day they passed the ice ridge where they had spent the first night. The fog, if anything, had got thicker during the morning and as they walked along it became harder to find to find their footsteps. Paca made note of the direction of the snow drifts and whenever their tracks disappeared, he used the drifts to avoid losing their way.
About mid afternoon Paca noticed the dogs acting strangely. They would stop repeatedly and sniff the air. Both of the children found it difficult to get the dogs moving again. What was it?
Finally just when they were too tired to continue they came to the ice barrier.
“Let’s stay the night here. We’ll be home when the sun comes up in the morning.”
So once more, the children dug a snow tunnel, but this time they left the dogs outside and brought the meat into the tunnel with them. Paca and Asita both removed the harnasses from the two dogs and brought them into the tunnel where they could not get eaten by the hungry dogs. Paca carved off two chunks of meat and fed the dogs, hoping that would keep them nearby until they were ready to leave the next day.
It was the sudden low growls of the two dogs that woke the children sometime during the night. Paca peered out, but it was still foggy and he could see nothing. Both dogs had left and from their sounds, he could hear them off to the right of their snow tunnel along the ice barrier somewhere. He got out and made his way towards the dogs, which were now snarling excitedly and rushing around. Although he could see nothing in the dark and the fog, Paca instinctively knew it must be a bear. He quickly returned and warned Asita.
“We must hurry. The dogs will keep the bear busy while we escape.”
The children tied the traces to the seal skin and began making their way through the ice barrier. It was hard work as their loads kept getting caught in the blocks of jumbled ice and their weight alone caused them great diffuculty. Both their minds were on the bear and, when they could, they peered into the fog for signs of it. At times, they had to work together to pull each sausage shaped roll of meat up and over some of the bigger blocks. Finally they were through the worst of the barrier and they headed along the shoreline where the going was easier. Neither had seen anything of the bear, but now and then they heard the dogs yelping, probable from just outside the ice barrier.
As they made their way along the shore towards home, one of the dogs came suddenly out of the fog and limped passed them. Asita, who was closest, tried to grab it as it passed them, but the dog shied and with a low growl, limped out of reach and disappeared again into the fog up ahead.
“It’s hurt, Paca. Where’s the other one? And where’s the bear...?” She looked at Paca, but knew he didn’t have any answers either. With the wind blowing from them to the bear, they both knew it would be following them unless the dogs had somehow managed to scare it off or injure it. They both knew that wasn’t very likely, especially now one of the dogs was injured.
“We’d better keep moving. We’re not too far from home now...” They both tugged at their loads and moved along as fast as they could. Within a few minutes, the second dog came up from behind them and made a wide circle before once again disappearing into the fog behind them. Almost at the same instant, it began snapping and howling. It was clear the bear must be very close, perhaps just a few meters back in the fog behind them.
“Leave your meat, Asita and help me pull mine! Maybe the bear will stay here and eat while we rush home!”
Both children grabbed hold of the single line attached to the roll of meat and hurried ahead as fast as they could. In the fog it was impossible to tell exactly where they were, but Paca thought he was starting to see familiar shapes in the snow as they made their way to the snow house somewhere up ahead. Behind them they could hear the dog charging at the bear, but the sounds were still too close and they didn’t seem to be coming from the spot they had abandoned the seal meat. Paca was afraid to turn around to have a look, but every moment he expected to feel the bear tearing at his back.
From up ahead, another dog began yelping. “What’s happening” Are there two bears? Did we get turned around in our fear?” Paca and Asita stopped for a moment to collect themselves. He noticed for the first time that Asita still had the shovel with her and he grapped it from her hands. He was about to throw it away as useless when the bear came out of the fog. It was only a few meters away. Turning to Asita he yelled, “Run! Get Grandfather!” The bear stopped, it’s head swinging slowly from side to side. The dog leaped on its back, but with a shrug of its shoulder, the bear threw the dog off and turned to swat it with its huge paw, a move that would have killed the dog instantly. Without thinking, Paca swung the snow shovel at the bear’s head. As it struck, he was amazed at how solid it seemed. The bear suddenly jumped around, its back to Paca and it padded off into the fog so only a vague outline remained.
Paca, still holding onto the shovel, turned and ran after his sister. He wondered where the bear had gone. Was it coming up behind him again? What was the dog doing? It had become suddenly silent, but he was sure the bear had not hit it. Paca was still running when he came to the komatik. He was home, but where was Asita? Running quickly around the snow house to the side where the door was, Paca came face to face with his grandfather. The old man was staggering on his feet with only his snowpants on. He was naked from the waist up. In his hands he carried a harpoon. Without seeming to hear or see Paca, old Alaraluk shuffled out into the fog singing an ancient Ai-Ai-Ai chant and intending to kill the bear with just his old seal harpoon. Paca ran after him, but after a few meters, he realized the bear had left. The two dogs had gone suddenly quiet and one was lying beside the kamotik licking its wounds. Paca went with his grandfather back along the tracks he and his sister had just made. As he walked along, old Alaraluk began to come alive and started to talk rapidly, pointing to the huge tracks the bear had left in the snow and lunging here and there at the fog with his harpoon as if the bear was still around. When they came to the untouched rolled up seal meat, he only looked at Paca and said, “Help me bring in this meat before the bear comes back. Good hunters don’t leave meat out for bait when there are hungry people at home.”

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Prime Real States of Being

The news these days is full of stories detailing the lack of snow, the wild and windy weather. The doomsayers blame it on 'global warming' which is looking more and more likely to be at least part of the cause. Certainly my friends in arctic Canada tell me the weather is no longer what it used to be when they were young.

This all leads me to think of a special place where I once spent a week. It's on Baffin Island. I was there with a few others to hunt caribou. Having spent the previous few months eating mostly seal meat, we were interested in having a taste of caribou for a change. The other reason for the trip was to collect caribou skins for making winter clothing for everyone. The trip was made in mid August in order to obtain the furs at the time between the summer shedding of the long winter's hair and the growth of new winter hair. Other things were collected as well including antlers to be used to make various items such as dog team harness toggles, and the long leg sinew used for sewing clothes and lashing kayaks together (at least in the days when people made kayaks in the area, something now nearly forgotten).

The upper picture was one of the campsites we made during the trip. It remains a favourite for obvious reasons. If global warming ever comes to the point that moving to Baffin Island becomes a serious consideration, this is where I'd thinking of living. It's on a convoluted inlet off the sea, is well supplied with game, fish and berries. The lower picture shows the backyard and the small stream which leads into the hills. The stream is actually fed by one of the few remaining ice caps on Baffin, something important as it will assure me of a water supply sufficient to last me out of this terrestrial journey and into the next.

When we arrived back in the community we piled the 30 odd caribou carcasses on the beach. Word of our arrival spread rapidly and soon a crowd gathered where I witnessed an extraordinary thing. Caribou meat disappeared into every home in the community as the hunter we'd accompanied literally fed a village. We got a rump roast for our efforts. I was shocked at first until it slowly dawned on me, that this was what the art of giving was all about. It went on all year long, and provided one with self-esteem and honour. Giving. Helping others. Being good friends. Makes one think, doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Take-Out Food

Hopefully the last thing most serious kayakers - or anyone else, for that matter - are thinking about as we paddle into the Holiday Season is take out food! Holiday diners ought - in my opinion - to be either home cooked with a gang of friendly, happy people in a large country kitchen, or eaten out in a hearty restaurant where good cheer prevails.

However, I thought you'd like to know that 'take-out food' has long existed in North America, long before it became 'Fast Food'. This picture is an example of it. At first glance one might get the idea that a murder is about to happen as the guy in the rear stabs the fellow in the front of the dog sled, thus settling a long standing feud between their families. Alas, the plot is much less thick. The guy with the knife is standing over the food box, an essential item carried on any hunting trip. He is preparing tea, on the run. The knife is probably for spreading butter on the bannock, a bread-like food, made from flour, lard, baking powder and water, all cooked up in a frying pan. The Inuit are very fond of tea, boiled up hard with lots of sugar and either some bannock or a rock-hard biscuit or two.

In spite of its name, the box doesn't actually have much in the way of food in it. Usually it contains a stove of some sort, pots and a skillet, some butter, tea and, naturally, lots of sugar. Taking a lot of food with one hunting is to beg for bad luck. Better to take nothing. A hungry stomach is marvelous for sharpening one's hunting drive and steadying one's aim.

Think about getting up from your Holiday Dinner just a wee bit hungry. You'll paddle just a bit more easily on your Boxing Day outing round the bay. And why not stop for some sugary tea and bannock along the way like the Inumariit do!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas In The Arctic - 2

The first year I was a teacher, I worked in the small community of Kangirsuk on the west coast of Ungava Bay in northern Québec. There were about 200 Inuit there at the time and a handful of people like me from southern Canada. When Christmas came around we did many of the usual things at school including putting on a little play with the birth of Jesus as the theme. Everything was going along well until we came to the scene when 'Joseph' had to come out of the 'igloo' to welcome the Wise Men. He panicked and wouldn't come out. 'Mary' pleaded with him, the Wise Men each looked in the 'igloo' and begged, but nothing would bring him out. Finally, totally improvising at this point, 'Mary' went in and got the baby 'Jesus' and brought him out for all to see. No way was 'Joseph' coming out however.

The play stumbled from scene to scene from then on, the kids totally making everything up, everything except the ending, which eluded them totally. That finally came about when 'Joseph' finally exited the 'igloo', waved at the audience and walked off the stage. The other actors taking 'Joseph's' lead turned and bowed and left the stage as well. The audience cheered! 'Joseph' made a bee-line for the toilet...

The next evening a community feast and dance was planned in the same room in the school, but the furnace had stopped during the night and the heating pipes had frozen solid. It was decided to hold the dance anyway, in spite of the cold and lack of heat. During the evening, the heat created by the dancers caused the pipes to thaw, the overhead pipes began dripping as the icicles on them melted. The heating system pumps finally began to operate, warming up the school even more. It was the first time I'd ever thought to thaw out a frozen building by holding a dance, but to this day, I think the people of Kangirsuk are the hottest step-dancers on the planet!

Walking in the snow-filled woods the other day brought this story back to me. Today the woods are empty of snow and looking a bit embarrassed. Perhaps they're 'Joseph's' woods! Not a flake of snow in sight and not much in the forecast during the rest of the week either...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas In The Arctic - 1

Michael Kusugak, who grew up in Repulse Bay on the west coast of Hudson Bay, wrote a great story back in the 1990's about a Christmas when he was young. A single engined Norseman aircraft stopped to refuel and the pilot decided to lighten his load for some reason. He off-loaded six "spindly" fir trees and dumped them in the snow and then once he'd finished re-fueling the plane he took off.

At Christmas, one of the boys got a ball as a gift from the Hudson's Bay Store manager. After tossing it around for a while, he and his friends tired of it until someone suggested they play baseball. This idea fell rather flat as no one had a bat and there was little wood in the tiny settlement at that time to use for one. Then they remembered the trees the pilot had left! In no time, one of the trees was dug out of the snow, its branches chopped off and a baseball bat made from the trunk. The new sport of baseball was an instant hit. During the year, all six trees eventually became baseball bats as the old ones wore out or got lost.

A few years ago an Inuit family from Repulse Bay spent the winter near me and I had one of the children in my class. He was too young to remember the days of making baseball bats from Christmas trees, but he had been befriended by Victoria Jason, the lady who paddled her kayak through the Northwest Passage and wrote about it in 'Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak'. So it turned out we had a friend in common as I had met and corresponded with Victoria for several years before she died. She was just the kind of person who would have loved to play Christmas tree baseball with the Inuit children she met along her way.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Once More, Tasmania

I recently posted on Andrew MaAuley's return to Tasmania due to the unexpected chill of the waters he was travelling through. Realising he was risking his life and the success of the trip, he wisely and bravely returned to try again another day (Try going through that process on your next expedition!).

Since then I have found an interesting water temperature map published by an outfit in Australia called CSIRO which charts such things. These maps are regularly published from data provided by satellite and floating buoys and are quite interesting. Have a look at the picture and you'll see that swirls of cold souther ocean water were pushing into the area the day that Andrew paddled out to sea. I gather he was expecting the warmer water - the greens, yellows and reds on the map - from the north would prevail during his crossing. Hopefully the next expedition in January will benefit from warmer climes.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Warm Weather Thinking

It set record warm weather temperatures here yesterday. My little thermometer was registering 10°C yesterday as I paddled around my usual circuit on the lake. Oddly enough, the water temperature, at the surface at least, was the same 10°C. I had expected it to be a lot colder, much closer to the freezing point. Has the week of mild temperatures warmed the water up that much? A few years ago the lake stayed open all winter. Will it remain so again this winter?

As I paddled I began to think about kayaking magasines going digital. To my knowledge, the major ones have not made that move as yet. I have been a subscriber to Popular Science magasine since the early 1970's and recently switched my subscription to their new digital version. Perhaps it will end some household clutter as well as save the odd tree here and there so my children will be able to build swings for their children someday (not to mention SOF qajait!). Hopefully the online version of Popular Science will provide all the satisfaction of the paper copy. Time will tell.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Way, Way Off Topic

Ever since I somehow managed to pull off a 90% score in a physics exam in high school - the first and last respectable mark I ever received in the subject - I have had a lingering interest in the discipline. It seemed to contain the hope of miracles!

A few years ago I discovered an American physicist named Richard Feynman. He'd written a book titled, 'Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman?' Here was a brilliant man, a Nobel prize winner with a sense of the absurd, a bongo player and he became an instant hero in my mind. Sadly, he died of cancer some years ago and no doubt now shares a beer with God himself as they work out our futures and play with all the other universes they've got running out there somewhere.

Today, I pick up and read anything with Feynman's name attached to it no matter how vague the connection. The world of physics still fascinates me. Recently I've been reading about the four fundamental forces of Nature, an idea that he worked on and that still puzzles physicists. Two of these forces are obvious to all of us: gravity and electro-magnetism. The other two operate at the sub-atomic level and most of us don't have much experience with them unless you've been in a nuclear explosion recently. The puzzle is not so much over the existence of the forces themselves, but rather how they relate to each other and how to express that in a useful and meaningful way.

The incredible thing about these forces is that they seem to operate in a balanced system with each other - or at least this what recent theories are saying. There is even a idea called 'String Theory' which suggests that all these forces are actually the same thing, just expressed in different ways, much like calm lake water and storm tossed seas, plunging shore waves and driving rain all being expressions of water in various states of being. Regardless of what theory is correct, the point I'm getting to is this: change the strength of just one of these forces by as little as 1% and the universe as we know it changes completely! Your beautiful kayak which has taken you safely for 1000's of kilometers could suddenly weigh as much as the Earth! Or as light as a wink...

Who would have guessed that we live is such a precarious place, yet we do so happily, with hope in our hearts and paddles in our hands.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I didn't realise it was a nice day until I took our dog Moss up into the hills on a walk. We suddenly walked out of the mist into a crystal blue sky. I'd been under the impression it was another lousy day! I headed out to my new put-in immediately after we returned. It's on a riverbank where it doesn't freeze over in the winter so I should be spared the trouble of scambling over thin ice in January.

Out on the lake it was still misty, but dead calm. I had only the loons for company as I paddled my customary route. I was actually surprised by the number of loons on the water. I counted six pairs and three solitary birds, more than I've seen in a long while.

I paddled around until the sun began to set a couple of hours later, then headed back to the river. Half way back, a breeze filled in and quickly became quite brisk, building half-meter waves within a few minutes. Surprising how rapidly weather can change.

Again, I was all alone on the lake. A single car slowed down and someone honked and then waved as if they knew me, but I couldn't tell who it was at the distance. I guess I'm known as the only one out paddling these days. If not for him, the whole planet seemed to be mine alone.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I Know, I Know, I Want To Get Out Too!

The weather just hasn't been very inspiring recently, so the boats are under cover. Tomorrow looks lousy again, but I may have to go for a paddle anyway. I'm getting antsy...

Besides my Mother's medical rounds are done until January. She's over 90 and has been dealing with failing eyesight recently. I'm her taxi these days. It's a pleasure helping her. I'm so grateful for her getting me onto the planet in the first place. It's really been a terrific place to spend one's life! Thanks Mom!

In the picture are two composite kayaks, a QCC 600x I bought to paddle around Mantoulin Island because I was afraid that the yellow Boreal Design Alvik boat, which I took to Igloolik, would not keep up with a faster CD Solstice GTS which was also going on that trip. The black qajaq is the first skin-on-frame I built after listening to Maligiaq go on about skin boats while he stayed with me. The frame for the second is in the workshop waiting patiently for it's new cover... The blue boat is a Phil Bolger designed sailing dory I built years ago when my son was a baby and I discovered a person is supposed to "plant a tree, raise a child and build a boat" while on the planet Earth. I've done them all and then some others besides. I have no idea what the rest of the junk in the shed is, but I know my wife wants it gone. Gone? What if I need something?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Gathering of the Rooks

When I taught school, I'd often read Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' to the class at this time of year. Susan Cooper is a children's author whose stories created "... the kind of sweeping conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of all great fantasy." (to quote off the dust cover). The beginning of the story set on Midwinter's Day, the Solstice, tells of the gathering of rooks, of the growing presence of evil that the hero, an 11 year old boy named Will, must dispell. It's a tale full of mystery and magic, old English folk myths and ancient doings, King Arthur and so on. The perfect book to put magic into the season without the usual Christmas stuff they knew already.

So the other day to see these crows in a tree outside the house, I was reminded to read the story once again, this time to myself and for myself. The two crows are actually a threesome which frequents our home each day checking on us and we on them. The third member of the group always sits apart from his/her pals, I'm not sure why. I have a great affection for crows and their raven cousins for some reason. I'm always reading things into their behaviour as if somehow they will tell me the magic things they must have told Susan Cooper many years ago. I'm ever hopeful, especially as we near the Winter Solstice...

Saturday, December 9, 2006

First Ski!

A dull day of skiing is better than not skiing at all. With the recent dumping of snow, I got out for a cross-country ski today, right off the front porch and up into the hills. It was heavily overcast with a promise in the clouds of more snow to come, so it looks like my second passion is about to begin in earnest. I can't wait. The nice thing about skiing is its seasonal nature, fitting perfectly into the slot when the business of kayaking becomes more and more problematic as getting to and from the various put-in spots I use is fraught with icy hazards and fewer people are inclined to join me.

I'll be keeping the kayak saddles on the car roof for a bit longer as the temperature swings back and forth between 'good-for-kayaking' and 'good-for-skiing'. That way I can be off for a paddle without the hassle of re-mounting the saddles. In the next few weeks they'll come off for good as the local lakes freeze completely over. Then they'll go back on for my winter warm weather trip in the new year. Last year I spent a month in Florida. Who knows where I'll end up this year, but part of it will be exploring the Florida Water Trail that's rapidly becoming a reality, enabling one to paddle the whole coast with relative ease.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Return to Tasmania

Andrew McAuley is our neighbour down the road where we get our maple syrup each spring, four gallons of it. Good fellow, good syrup! He shares his name with another Andrew McAuley who recently left the east coast of Tasmania in an attempt to paddle to New Zealand, about two weeks away by kayak. His story is a remarkable one which most of us can only stare at and shake our heads. It's like climbing a horizontal Everest.

After paddling 80 km out from shore he realised he was in trouble. All the months of prep and planning suddenly halted due to the unanticipated cold water in was travelling through. He wisely turned around and is now back in Tasmania where, no doubt, he will solve the cold water problem and set out once again.

You can read a very interesting and detailed account of this trip by visiting Laurie Ford's site. Just click on her name for the link.

Just makes me shudder. Steaming hot coffee with a touch of brandy, some pancakes and lots of warm syrup seem in order, so I'll cut this post short!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Happy Dogs & Solving Problems

Dave Silbs talks about making amends when things go wrong in our lives. There are often several ways of doing this. Most of them work. All are worth trying at least once as long as you're sincerely interested in making things better rather than worse.

My two photos today show how Inuit solve the age old problem of tangled traces. Eastern Canadian Inuit run their dogs in a 'fan hitch' unlike Alaskan people, who being in areas with trees, find running dogs strung out along a central line more convenient. The problem inherent in a 'fan hitch' is having to untangle the traces every now and then because the dogs are constantly changing places for various reasons.

In the top picture, the problem is solved by stopping the sled - probably brewing up some tea - and untangling the traces. Each line is detached from the short single line attached to the sled, untangled and re-attached. Once the tea is finished, the sled is ready to go again.

In the lower picture, the traces are untangled on the go. The sled driver pulls in all the traces close to the sled and temporarily ties them off. As the dogs continue running, the driver then untangles the traces and re-attaches them when they've been sorted out. He then lets the traces out to their normal full length at 20 feet or so. Problem solved!

So, if you've got a problem, it's comforting to know that there may be several ways of solving it. Just keep in mind that doing nothing will only make things worse. Keep your dogs happy, and they'll feed you forever! Ignore them, and they may eat you!

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Sled Dogs and Language

When I first went out seal hunting using dogs and a 'komatik' as the sled is called, it was a thrilling experience. I was finally in the arctic and going on a seal hunt with Inuit people. It was a long held dream of mine, come to life. My first surprise was learning how fast the dogs could trot along. As we would jump off now and then and run along side the sled to warm up, I found the dogs kept a healthy jogging pace, about 7 mph. In the snow with heavy boots on, one quickly warmed up and dropped back on the sled. Before long however, you were back up for another run. It took me a while before I adopted the local fatty seal meat diet which allowed me to stay warmer, longer.

As I didn't know how to speak or understand any Inuktitut at first, conversing was difficult. The guy I was with that first outing spoke no English and in answer to my many questions kept saying what seemed to be "Oh my...". I was worried we were having some kind of trouble and for the longest while I was quite worried. When nothing life threatening seemed to happen, I realised he must be saying something else., but what? Eventually, as my command of the language improved a bit, I discovered he was trying to tell me he didn't understand my questions, so couldn't answer.

The expression he used was 'Aoumi' which itself is an interesting word. It's an expression which has several subtile meanings beyond, 'I don't know.'. It can also be used to mean 'Don't bother me with that now' or 'I know, but I'm not telling you' or 'I can't really say, even though I do know the answer'. It is a word used when you don't wish someone to know something, but don't wish to give offense by not saying exactly what you know. Politeness requires you don't keep prodding for the answer. You aren't supposed to know, so drop the question. Not openly offending someone was very important in Inuit culture when people often lived in close quarters for months and survival required people to get along with each other even when serious hatreds might have existed hidden away. Language can tell you so much about a people, especially if you look at the words being used and see how expression are formed.

They had a lot to teach me, as you can imagine!

Monday, December 4, 2006


I guess the news is just about out. Someone we all know is HOT to paddle a kayak around Cuba and I have an idea we will not be surprised to learn who it - or they - are. I don't think it has ever been done, so the temptation to be 'first' is burning a hole in a few brains. However, the real question is, should people we know be planning this trip at all? I used to think so, but I'm wavering...

A couple of years ago a friend and I were at an outdoor show doing the usual oohing and aahing that one does at these shows. We stopped at the Cuban Tourist booth. As we discussed our possible plans with the Cubans, it became obvious that there would be problems quite different from paddling in many parts of the world. First there would be permit difficulties of all kinds. We'd need 'tourist visas' which were only good for a few months, but could possibly be renewed for up to six months. We wondered how long the trip would take. Would six months be enough? Would we be forced to stop, leave Cuba and re-apply for new visas to complete the trip? Were there ways around this regulation? There were other problems such as part of the Cuban coastline was presently closed to tourists. We were told we'd have to get special permission to travel on these sections. There was also the American base in Quantanamo Bay. More permits...

The most interesting 'obstacle' was that we'd probably be required to take a Cuban paddler along with us, much like those paddling the Kamchatska coast were required to do. And much like that case, we wondered where we would be able to find a capable Cuban paddler in a country too poor to support a decent lunch, let alone much of a paddling community.

The recent 'scent' I've been getting of a Cuban Challenge brings all this back to mind and I've come to a new decision: I won't join the expedition after all. It seems to me that we 'rich' Gringos are not the people who ought to be the first to paddle around Cuba. That honour ought to be a Cuban's. I'd be more interested in going to Cuba to help some local people train and put a team together so they could make the trip. I'd be prepared to do many things to see young Cubans discover the sport we love and to raise the level of awareness in their country for international sport and the kayaking community. But I won't be going around just to be first. Maybe second or third..., but not first. That cup belongs to a Cuban.

For a glimpse of what this trip might be like, check out this link: Cuba: A dry Run from Outdoor Magasine.

Meanwhile, my kayak needs the snow cleared off it if I'm going anywhere!

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Well, It Was Nice When I Left...

I was sitting in the den scanning memories, when the sun burst into the room. Sun? That means paddling where I live. I checked the temperature: 2.5°C That's a go! I loaded the boat and headed to my late season put-in. On arrival I noticed the clouds were moving in quickly...

I headed under the bridges and down the river for a ways. Looks like it's just the ducks and me on the water today. That's okay, I don't mind. Why should I? I turned around and headed back onto the lake. The wind was picking up. Hundreds of geese swirled high in the sky, uncertain to land now that I was out there messing with their landing flight patterns. The clapotis off the park wall was fun. I passed through it and headed up the lake. It was definitely getting windier and the waves were building. A few started breaking further up the lake. I headed towards them.

Wow! It's getting fun! But it looks like picture-taking is over for the day. The light's going, the boats jumping too much and I'd better get back to the put-in because I forgot to pack my light after changing the batteries yesterday. Great day on the water. Think I'll go out again!

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Arctic Time Machine

We had snow today. Not lots, but the driving wind sent the flakes howling past horizontally making it an ideal day to work on one of my pet projects. I have hundred's of slide format photographs taken in the 1960's and 1970's of the life I led in Canada's arctic. The project involves slowly scanning them into digital format so I can have a second copy, but also to try and preserve a record of a way of life which no longer exists. When I'm done, I'll burn them onto a CD and send them to the Igloolik Research Station library for all to see.

The man in this picture is Kamanik. The picture was taken in Igloolik just about this time of year. It's noon and light enough to be outside doing things. It's probably about -35°C or so. Not too cold for someone used to it. He's getting his dogs ready to harness to his sled so he can head out to a meat cache we had buried during a hunting trip the previous summer. The meat will serve both dogs and family for a few weeks until he heads out once again. He'll be gone for two or three days depending on the weather. He'd never take me out in the winter as I didn't have a full double suit of caribou skin clothing. Without such a suit of clothes to keep me warm regardless of the weather, I'd just be a burden to him on the trail.

Today, Kamanik still lives in Igloolik. The last time I saw him, he drove a taxi van around town. His dog sled days are gone, probably for good. I tried to get him out in my kayak, but he declined. He has a big 30 foot fishing boat with an inboard diesel engine which serves his purposes far better.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

See and Be Seen

Now that the days are so much shorter than they were in the summer, it isn't unusual to find myself paddling back to the put-in at dusk or even in the dark. While I carry a light in my PFD and I'm almost always the only boat on the water at this time of year, it's always healthy to be as visible as possible. With that in mind, I recently came across an item which helps me stand right out on the water.

I'm talking about line which has a built-in reflective material woven into itself. It makes ideal decklines for a kayak. It's available in several colours and under a number of brand names, but mine is called 'Niteline'. 'Glow Cord' is another brand I've seen on-line, but not in local outfitting stores. It's relatively expensive at about $5.00 Cdn a meter, but well worth the extra visibility it provides on the water. I bought the 4 mm line, but I gather it comes in various widths depending on your needs. Removing my old decklines fore and aft, I replaced them with the new line (BTW, having a helper work with you to get the line sufficiently tight is highly recommended). Voila, instant kayak outline. It looks really cool in the water.

Next time you're out on the water in the dark and see some kayak shaped string floating by, say hello. It might be a lost kayaker looking for the put-in!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How to Keep Your Boat!

Returning from a paddling trip into the USA the other day, I got asked a bunch of questions by the Canadian Customs Agent for which I had no ready answers. Basically I was asked when and where I had bought my kayak, how I had imported it and whether all the relevant taxes had been paid on it. I did my best to explain the details of the kayak's purchase and importation and, somewhat reluctantly, he let back me into Canada with my kayak. It was a wake-up call. I needed to get some documentation to avoid this happening again. I want to keep my kayak!

The next day I returned to the Canadian Customs office and completed the little green card you see (poorly reproduced) in the picture on the left. This card, form #Y38, certifies that the kayak was properly imported, taxes were paid and so on. As long as I have this card, I ought to enjoy hassle-free border crossings...

Actually, I got lucky. I entered the Customs office to find a friend of mine behind the desk. He knows me and my boat so got me my card without much fuss. Without him, I would have had to provide the bill of sale, paper work from the Customs Broker and so on. Another break I got was having an alarm begin ringing while we were getting the card filled in. My friend, stamped the card, signed it and told me to fill out the rest on my own. "This is your boat, eh Mike?" he yelled as he rushed off to see what had caused the alarm.

I completed the card and drove off into a nearby field to let the 25 illegals out of the rear hatch and then headed down for another load.

I'm just kidding about that last part, but if you plan to cross the US-Canadian border at any point, I recommend having solid documentation for your boat and any other valuables if you intend on keeping them!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Petition Hill

Anyone who has been to St John's, Newfoundland will be very familiar with this view of Signal Hill, It's a national treasure for several reasons. It has been used for signaling as far back as the 18th century when flags were flown to warn ships of weather and other sea hazards. A tower known as Cabot Tower was built on it to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's visit to the area in 1497. More recently, Marconi used the hill to receive his Morse code radio signal from Cornwall, England in 1901.

Remarkably, the hill and surrounding lands have remained close to their natural state all these years in spite of being within easy walking distance from the city of St John's. This Fall, that began to change when a 'benefactor' took it upon himself to 'improve' a natural fen located on the hill. This was done with little or no consultation and without obtaining the usual permits. Obviously this is no way to proceed in a democratic, modern society and a number of people in St John's want the work halted until a proper environmental plan can be drawn up. So far, they have not be successful.

This may not seem important to kayakers, but it is. Whenever someone or some group decide to 'improve' a natural setting, kayakers who seek wilderness paddling lose a place we think of as sacred. The more wilderness we lose, the more we reduce our ability to save our world and by extension, ourselves. The fewer natural places we have in which to paddle. Remember, Thoreau's famous line, "In wildness is the salvation of the world", was not an idle thought, but the very essence of our paddling experience.

You can join the growing list of petitioners asking that work be halted on Signal Hill by clicking here. Remember, it may take many tiny drops to fill a bucket, but when it overflows, people take notice!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Stacks and Caves

Stacks and caves are the stuff of ocean kayaking as we all know either from being there or from watching videos and slide-show presentations. If you only paddle inland waters, your chances of entering a cave or slipping between shore and stack are few and far between. I was excited to find a chance to do both a few weeks ago when I paddled with my 'Frost-biter' friends. In the photo above, Val Rice of New York state enters the cave mouth. It was easily big enough for the both of us.

This picture shows one of a series of stacks - actually huge pieces of the adjoining cliff which had fallen away and not real stacks attached to the bedrock like you find elsewhere, especially along ocean shorelines.

One of the extras about stacks and caves in fresh water venues however, is the possibility of meeting up with lake monsters like 'Champ'... We got away with our foolish exploits this time without angering anything bigger than we were!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Genii at Play in the Theater of the Bishop

I went to a concert last night at Bishop's University. The draw was to see Harry Manx, a blues slide guitar player with a world wide sound. I'd heard him on his recordings before, but had never seen him live. He began the set and I knew at once he was a genius. Cool, wry, humourous with a growl to his voice I really liked. Then he got up and walked off-stage Michael Kaeshammer, a 25 year old piano player, came on next and sat down at the piano. I'd never heard of him before, but as he began his set of boogie/jazz pieces, I realised he was a genius as well. His virtuosity and humour was amazing. Someone entered the hall late. He stopped and asked if she could find her seat or needed help. He then said he's begin the piece he had started at the beginning, just for her. Then, finished his 4th piece, he got up and walked off stage.

The lights came on. Intermission after only 7 pieces of music...? What's with that?

When we re-entered the hall after the break, both musicians were on-stage. It was two genii at play. I was totally blown away by the music, by their ambiance and their ability to play off and with each other, at their constant interplay and musical jabs and winks. As an example of Harry's humour, he suddenly got serious and confided in the audience that he had recently signed a 3 CD deal with Columbia Records. The audience expressed their delight, obviously pleased that there would be more recordings coming our way soon. Then Harry announced the deal had only cost him $ 0.99 if he buys 3 more CDs during the coming year... He totally caught us off guard! They played forever, "We've nowhere else to go and nothing else to do..." Harry said. They played seven encore calls. It was an amazing evening. See them if you possibly can!

Oh, Harry was born on the Isle of Man, the site of a recent kayaking event. That's the tie-in to the blog, not to mention the guitar aspect.

Photo from:

Ilatsiak Reaches Episode 24!

Did you know I have a 'sister blog' called Canadian Ctories? The current story I've been writing and posting is called 'Ilatsiak'. It is a tale set in the central Canadian arctic at the time of Sir John Franklin's voyage in the mid 1800's. I posted the latest episode today. If you're interested in the last Franklin voyage, where 127 men and two naval ships mysteriously disappeared into the arctic winter gales, never to be seen again, then this story might interest you. It ties historical fact with a bit of fiction and will provide you with a surprise ending... Enjoy!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Another day, another paddle in paradise.

Another in a sudden string of glorious days to be out on the water. Temperature was around 5°C, but sunny with a rising wind to make it interesting on the run back to the put-in.

I put-in at the public beach as I no longer keep my boat in the boathouse for fear it gets snowed in. Can't have that and paddle too!

Heading up the western shoreline, I was impressed by the con-trails (I think that's what they call them) of 7 aircraft overhead. They all seemed to be heading towards Plattsburg, NY in the USA which makes me wonder if they're not military craft coming back from Germany for the weekend.

Tucking around the point, I stopped for lunch out of the rising wind. Someone conveniently placed a couple of posts in the water just off the beach for me to tie up to while I ate. I love kind people! After eating, it looked like I'd have a slog getting home. Oh, goodie!

I am constantly amazed by nature. Here a tree clings to the waterline below a cliff. How can it possibly live like that? When I see something like that I realise how tough nature wants us to be if we're to live on this planet. It's a wonderful lesson to learn. Be tough, be brave, help others be the same.

Heading back home after a great day, refreshed, renewed, a little bit tougher and braver than before.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Think I'll Go Paddling...

I might never come back. It's just too nice...

My balance brace in a 'NBK' built by Doug Dillon. Photo by Val Dillon

I guess I should at least wave good-bye...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Blending In

I walked our dog Moss this morning. I liked the way he blended into the landscape. That is, except for his garish hunting jacket. It made me think about my paddling style and how I like to quietly go exploring. I don't like lavish trips with loads of publicity, sponsors and media interviews. Let other people splash their hi-tec paddles and show off their fancy boats. I like the freedom and independence of doing things for myself.

A new sea kayak expedition is being planned for Newfoundland this coming summer. They will be well sponsored by various companies who will supply boats and other gear as is the way these days. I suppose that helps reduce costs and makes a big expedition affordable. It's a bit like the picture of Moss above. He only gets to have a walk during hunting season if he wears his jacket. Like Moss, if that's the only way one can get to go, alright, but it isn't what I think of as kayaking for pleasure. I enjoy the feeling that my paddling trips are all mine, planned and equiped and carried out by me and my partners, if any. No one needs to give me anything, I don't go begging for fancy equipment. When the trip is done and I'm back home, no one will be asking for any favours because I was given something and now they want some pay-back. My freedom to paddle is too precious to sign it away to anyone.

It means my trips are perhaps reduced in scope and not as well equiped, but the satisfaction of knowing I did it with my own two hands gives me great pleasure. I hate feeling beholden to others. When I walk up the beach and shake the hand of a local resident I know we are equals, both there because of our own efforts and not a bunch of freebies.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


In a way, a whole new paddling season begins once the snow arrives. So far we have only had a 'dusting' of the stuff, but that will soon change. It means driving to the put-in will become a challenge, depending on how well the roads have been cleared. Changing into paddling gear will need to be well rehearsed with everything close at hand in order to avoid getting too chilled. The launch itself will eventually involve a turtle-walk over the ice before breaking through into liquid water. Returning will present other problems, as well getting the slippery, ice-coated boat into the roof cradles.

I went over to have a look at Lake Massawippi today, first clearing the newly fallen snow off the car windows. I stopped along the way to have a look at one of the nearby Christmas tree plantations. I noticed last week that they're beginning to ship this year's trees off to markets around the world.

Peeking past the cottage, the water looked blue and inviting despite the -2°C temperature. I'd better get out there and paddle! There's only another month of kayaking until the lake becomes too difficult to get out on with only a small area in the middle remaining unfrozen.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Oh Sweet Revenge!

The haunting continues! In an almost perverse twist of fate, Jean-François Pouliot has titled his new film 'The Little Book of Revenge'! What's with this? Readers may recall my post of several weeks ago about the disappearance and ill luck which followed me in the wake of watching the DVD version of Pouliot's previous film 'La Grande Séduction'. Well, this is his next black comedy and I'm almost afraid to read the title, let alone view the film.

I didn't think I was the kind of person who would serve anyone a big platter of revenge brownies, but I suppose, I'd be less than human not to think about the possibilities. Revenge is said to be 'sweet' if not exactly nutritious. I'd dearly love to extract a few pounds of flesh for the wrongs done me, but if the truth be told, I'm too lazy to bother. And I'd probably burn them anyway.

I think I'm better off to take Wenley's advice and become a Bond, James Bond fan and head out to see the new 'Casino Royale' film. At least it deals with the known world and not the haunting of my soul! So take my advice, as good as this "Revenge" film probably is, avoid it if you're a paddler, especially the DVD version when it comes out!

There, I got the 'kayaking' theme in there. I knew I could do it!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Lake Champlain Weekend Paddle

Saturday the main body of Lake Champlain was being swept by cold north winds. These blew down the length of the lake producing large breaking waves which looked distinctly nasty. We decided to paddle the Lamoille River instead and put in from a little Cul de Sac north of the first bridge. This was an easy carry down to the water where a tiny sand beach lay.

Now and then brisk winds help to push us up the river faster than the current could work to push us downstream. The banks varied back and forth from cliffs, to corn fields and open woods.

After an hour of paddling we came to the dam where we played in the current. The shallow water prevented us from reaching the dam itself, but we enjoyed playing in the eddies and being swept into the currents.

After lunch just below the dam, we returned to the put-in and then continued past it downstream to the river's mouth. However before doing that a bit of kayaking humour was staged by threading one of the boats through a tree along the river's edge. I guess some people will do anything to try and get on the back page of SeaKayaker magasine!

On the way downstream, we played tag with some Great Blue Herons and saw deer in the woods. At the mouth itself was a turtle sanctuary where landings during the summer is prohibited. After playing again in the windy conditions out on the lake, we returned upstream to the put-in. In all, we spent four hours in our kayaks on a day when most people stayed indoors out of the cold, wet and eventually, the rain, which began just as we loaded up our boats on our roof racks. Perfect timing.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Before the Rains Come

The winds blew out the power last night so we all woke up late. During breakfast we realised that the outside temperature was almost higher than it was inside! Normally we expect mid November to be in the area of 5°C. It was 18°C when we were having breakfast. The winds were still high, with scudding clouds under a pale blue sky. Clearly it was time for a walk on our east ridge behind the house, before the rains came.

My daughter chose to take 'Maggie', our pony we'd taken to help out a friend who'd lost their barn. We still have her, years later and now own her. We headed up past what some in our family call the 'Pond', but which is obviously my 'Rolling Practice Pool'. From there, we cut through the fence line into our neighbours corn field. From a distance my wife signaled the dog to head towards the next break into a hay field. We wondered whether either of our neighbours worried about out 'grooming' the cut so we could ride and ski more easily. We decided they probably didn't mind. They've never said anything and we had made an arrangement with the mother of the present owner years ago. In the country, these agreements quite commonly last for generations.

Next we passed the 'Dinosaur Nest', a large pile of rocks cleared years ago from the hay field where my children used to play. They had hollowed out a depression on the top of the pile to create the nest when they were young and the name stuck, as names will when you live in a place for any length of time. My wife asked if I'd seen the letter to the editor in the local papper written by someone named 'Pix Butt'. I had. I guess the editor either missed it, or has a decent sense of humour. Names!

We continued walking and soon crossed over into the next field and admired the view before heading into the woods beyond. All of us dressed for hunting season, even the dog.

Clouds were building overhead and rain squalls appeared against the western horizon. It was time to head home for lunch. As we put 'Maggie' in the barn, the rain began. I headed down to the house to click on the propane fired 'wood stove'. It was time to think of something to put up on my blog today.