No doubt about it. The weather outside is frightful. The National Weather Service is calling for a windchill of -52 in Polebridge, so we’re all hoping that the wind won’t blow. Then it’s only -30.
Still, that’s muscle-cramping, teeth-chattering, car-don’t-start cold. The kind of cold that makes your eyes water, your nose hairs freeze, and your cheeks burn like sparklers. Raw, slicing, bitter cold. Read more
The glass of water on my bedside table hasn’t frozen. Yet. But the evening mist now leaves frosty geometric patterns across the windows; the deck sparkles in the moonlight; Smokey and Bosworth have come close to snuggling; and we store food in the refrigerator if we don’t want it to freeze.
Yes, it’s fall in the North Fork. And who knows what the weather will bring in the coming months, though it’s our topic of discussion most days. Chris has been planning for worst-case scenarios, elaborate schemes where we have to sleep in the Ford and crank the engine every few hours to stay warm. “We’ll pack the cats in their carriers, light a candle, and sleep in our subzero sleeping bags,” he says. Read more
Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment. —Don Corleone, The Godfather: Part III
Here at the yurt there’s always a bane of the day. Mosquitoes, heat, rain, cold, weeds, leaky water pumps, ground squirrels, freaky sounds in the night, car-eating potholes, you name it. The scourge du jour? Grasshoppers. Big and small, neon-green to coffee-bean, they jump, they fly, they eat. And eat. And eat. Read more
Look for the bare necessities,
the simple bare necessities,
Forget about your worries and your strife;
I mean the bare necessities
are Mother Nature’s recipes
that bring the bare necessities of life.
— The Jungle Book
June is typically one of the rainiest months here in the North Fork. Our driveway is a slip-’n-slide; the veggies in the garden, if they’ve survived the frequent frosts and hail, start to yellow and wilt; and Chris and I have to force ourselves to mellow. With no hiking, picnicking, exploring, or outdoor photography, we’re left with nothing to do but the to-do list, and much of that monster typically involves being outdoors. Read more
After four months in Italy, we’ve finally returned to the yurt. If our first trip out to the property is any indicator, reentry into the North Fork atmosphere is going to be bumpy.
The first part of the driveway, which we share with two other landowners, has welcomed the tidy sweep of a plow all winter. Not so for our abandoned stretch. But that’s no problem, we reasoned. We’ve got brand-new all-terrain tires on this beast. Let’s go for it. Compared to the toy cars we’ve been driving since November, the Expedition should be able to move earth if we want it to.
Earth maybe, but not fresh snow on top of old ice.
Eight feet past the hump of plowed snow we managed to summit, we were stucker than stuck. After trying every trick in the book to dislodge us, Chris gave up. “Guess we’re gonna have to get John,” he said. Thankfully, our friend was just up the road constructing a log cabin. “I can help with that,” John said with a broad smile.
Minutes later he appeared with his dually pickup truck, a tow chain, and shovel. As he worked the snow out from around the tires, we told him about our trip and asked how things had been on the North Fork. “Well, we’ve only been back since last week,” he said with a chuckle. “Last year we came back earlier and I asked Joyce, ‘What in the world are we doing back here already?’ It was weeks without sunshine, just day after day of gray.”
In Todi we had the same thing. Much of the time we saw either light fog, thick fog, medium fog, rain, hail, snow, or some combination thereof. There were nice days too, but they were about as common as a cat who doesn’t claw furniture (our welcome-home gift from Smokey and Bosworth was a set of shredded chairs). So we were grateful that on this day the sun was alone in the big sky, making the blanketed fields look like God had dropped a bag of glitter.
“Here ya go.” John handed Chris a thick rusty chain to fix to the Ford. “Try it in reverse first.” John hopped into the dually and hit the gas. Our rig popped back a few inches and then sat right back where it was, stubborn as a mule. John’s wheels spun. Our wheels spun. Then John shoveled more and Chris put it in neutral. Still no purchase.
The men cut the engines, and we all stood around wondering what to try next.
Then, like a waiter after last call, Ed pulled down the drive. “Here’s the man you need,” John said. A full-time North Forker for decades, Ed’s the kind of guy who has all the big-boy toys. He can get you out of a pickle—and tell you just exactly how and why.
“Those are street tires you got on there, John. No wonder.” Up here, nothing happens until you’ve had a nice long chat, and so we commenced catching up, telling stories about Italy, and learning about the Elk Foundation banquet and Ed’s cabin, which he’s building himself. Finally, Ed put his truck where John’s had been and carefully gave it the gas. Presto chango, the Ford was free.
Our stupid mistake righted for the day, we decided we’d better just hike it in. Too bad we’d left the snow skies and snow shoes in the garage back in Whitefish. Our brains just aren’t in North Fork mode yet, where you need to think ahead, be resourceful, and always have your Plan B on standby.
We’ve gotten soft. Running water (hot!), a gas stove and oven, paved roads, wine cheaper than bottled water (really), bidets, and even towel warmers have spoiled us.
“How on earth are you going to transition from an elegant villa to a yurt with no running water and a composting toilet that only sort-of works,” a friend recently asked me.
I’m glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. —Chris G.
Fall is here. The tourists are gone, the saloon is closed, and most of the locals have left for the season. All is quiet on the North Fork—or so it would seem for now.
Old Man Winter is on his way.
Here at the yurt things are in a state of autumnal flux. The aspens are as yellow as butternut squash, and the scrubs beneath them have the tint of pumpkin pie. The fields of tall grass, once the very color of chlorophyll, are now a shade of lightly toasted wheat bread. And the craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, fully revealed for only a few months a year, have once again taken on a sugar-dusting of snow.
The bears, preparing for hibernation later this month, are voracious. Because they need to consume five times their normal food intake before tucking in for the winter, just about anything counts as fuel. We haven’t had a bruin sighting on the property yet, but we have seen their scat and tracks. Which is why I stopped putting fruits and vegetables in the compost pile months ago and Chris scours the grill like he’s Mr. Clean. As the saying goes around here, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” And we aren’t about to be a party to that.
The gray wolves too are on the make now more than ever (an issue controversial both locally and nationally). Our neighbor recently found evidence behind his shed of yet another fawn sacrificed for a canid meal, and just before daybreak the other morning we heard a battle between what seemed to be a moose and a lone wolf. First we heard the hornlike snort of a big animal and then the pounding of hooves not forty yards away. The cats immediately bolted for the windows and we followed fast behind, but none of us could see a thing. It was a new moon and the meadow was as black as a chow’s tongue. Back in bed, the covers up to our chins, we listened helplessly to the plaintive cries of the losing party, its yelps growing further apart yet more pathetic, until mercifully there was silence.
Other overwintering residents of the meadow include the ubiquitous ground squirrels who have left our bocce ball “court” a mogulized mess. We used to see ten to fifteen of them every time we bounced down our hellish, desperately-in-need-of-a-grader driveway. Up on their chubby hind legs one minute and down a dirt hole the next, these critters are, hands down, the fastest I’ve ever seen. But now they’ve vanished, deep beneath the topsoil to escape subzero wind chills and half-starved predators. Nevertheless, it’s likely that at least a few of these feckless rodents, all fattened up for their winter torpor, will fall victim to a raid of the black-gloved red fox we’ve seen trotting down our lane, just like the wolf used to do on his hunting expeditions.
Who can truly know what it is like to survive fall and winter as a plant or animal at latitude 49. Winter will likely bring, at minimum, two to three feet of snow and temperatures well below zero—even forty below. Here daily existence is “played out on the anvil of ice and under the hammer of deprivation,” as Bernd Heinrich points out in Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Nature’s adaptability cannot be underestimated. Take, for instance, the mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), which we saw recently on a hike near Kintla Creek. Amazingly, these insects, who can live for up to ten months, hibernate in hollow trees and survive the winter on fermenting tree sap. Full of fat and protein, they’re also a tasty treat for bears getting ready to hibernate.
As I watch the seasons change, I wonder about the ways in which we humans overwinter. Unlike animals, who must adapt to the conditions, we alter our environment to accommodate our physical limitations. As the thermometer hovers around 50 degrees (inside) and Smokey’s and Bosworth’s fur has begun to thicken, I’ve noticed that Chris and I have stocked up on DVDs, books, games, and slow-cooker recipes. I’ve started knitting a new pair of slippers to felt, and, with the wood stove burning day and night, Chris splits and stacks wood daily. Plus we’ve both stuffed our drawers with high-tech sets of long underwear, socks, mittens, and hats. If nothing else, we have the illusion of being prepared.
Although nowadays many people have the option of fleeing cold climes (as we will do mid-November, having adapted to the realization that running water is more than a luxury midwinter), there is something deeply satisfying about nesting, making things cozy, and finding comfort in quiet hobbies that see us through so many hours of darkness. Not to mention a sense of accomplishment in surviving the coldest, dimmest of seasons, a point of pride for full-time North Forkers, it seems. So, while the squirrels and birds and even butterflies are out there trying to survive another day, I will hibernate in my own way. Curled up by the fire with a cup of hot tea, and a batch of soup in the slow cooker, I will sit in the comfort of my somewhat insulated home and read about the mysteries of the Winter World—while sitting just outside our door is an old man waiting to wreak havoc.
“Oh no, don’t do that,” my mom said when I called to tell her that I’d be staying at the yurt alone for five days.
“I’ll be OK,” I reassured her. “I have plenty of bear spray. But I can’t leave the cats alone. It’s freezing up there at night already.”
“But I’ll be so worried about you. Isn’t Chris worried?”
“No,” I replied, “because there’s nothing to worry about.”
OK, maybe that’s a stretch. I suppose there’s plenty that can go awry out here, it’s true. And maybe Chris was worried about me some, even though that’s not really his nature. But my fears weren’t as much about calamity as boredom. How was I going to occupy myself for nearly ninety waking hours while my co-neopioneer was back in Chicago? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived alone for most of my adult life, so I’m fine with some solitude—just maybe not in the middle of the wilderness, where sometimes the only sound you can hear is the ringing in your ears.
The first twenty-four hours were the most difficult, mainly because of my expectation of idleness and having no one to talk to but the cats. (Yes, I talked to them plenty; no, they didn’t reply.) The specter of isolation reminded me of an article I’d read recently about a woman who’s manned a fire tower in the Scapegoat Wilderness Area for sixteen years, four months at a time. Her only source of company is a dog and a dispatch radio that hums with chatter from lonely watchtower fire spotters. During her first few weeks on the job, she had a difficult time fighting cabin fever (or the “shack-nasties,” as they call it around here). But she soon realized that the only way to escape her dis-ease was to welcome it, to sit with it and let it be. So she tuned out the radio and picked up her journal to write. And then she began to get lost in watching wildlife and just listening to the wind. Accepting her own circadian rhythm was like standing up to the scary monster in a bad dream. Soon she began to feel comforted rather than upended by her freedom and aloneness. The shadow was gone.
At the top of Whitefish Range, just a few miles southwest of the yurt, there’s a fire watchtower called Cyclone Lookout. One time we made the one-hour climb to the 6,000-foot summit in the hopes of meeting Francis. Locals say she’s the young ranger who watches over us from her perch, a 50-foot-tall fort held in place with massive concrete footings and cable as thick as my wrists. If you bring her cookies she’ll invite you up through the trap door for a tour, says a neighbor. But when we called up to her, our hands cupped around our mouths to boost our voices against the wind, she simply yelled hello back and went on about her business. Foolishly, we had neglected to bring cookies. Nonetheless, I suppose it makes sense that once you get used to being alone, it’s the being around others that’s difficult. Yesterday, as I was wandering through our meadows, I looked up to the tower and wondered if Francis could see me, a light-blue dot in the middle of a golden sea of tall common timothy. Here we were, the both of us alone in this expanse of wildness. How was she spending her time? How would I spend mine?
After Chris left for the airport I put together a list of projects, including canning some tomatoes from the farmer’s market, studying Italian, writing a blog post, making chicken and sausage gumbo in the slow cooker, knitting a pair of slippers, catching up on reading, and harvesting the onions from the garden. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps I feared that if I got bored my inner nihilist would emerge from the darkness and engulf me in a suffocating shroud of ennui. I’ve seen it happen to poor Henri the Cat on YouTube (a must-see), and it looks like a dark, somber journey through soul-crushing nothingness.
Surprisingly, after a while I found myself not caring much about my to-do list. I was more interested in sitting on the deck or wandering on foot through our property, where I resonated with everything I could see and feel: the aspen trees shivering with the wind and glittering in the sun; the charred-out pine trees killed by lightning, a reminder of Mother Nature’s power and caprice right in our own backyard; the gray wolf trotting down our lane, always on the make; the sun-crisped meadows that have now turned the very color of the deer who populate it; and the red-tailed hawk that glides between stands of trees in the east, slowly spiraling up air currents and then plunging to the ground to grab a deer mouse for dinner.
Observing nature in such an intense way has made me hyper aware that where there is life there is death, which then supports more life. When I came across our resident wolf’s fully digested meal yesterday, I was deflated to see the bone shards and fur of what was likely the little fawn Chris and I had known since it was barely big enough to stand on its own. How many adjectives are there to describe the cuteness of Bambi? But the wolf has to eat too, and there are just as many adjectives to describe the beauty of such a mysterious predator. It’s disturbing and humbling to think that one can be electrifyingly full of life one moment and a pile of scat on a two-track a few days later; but I do believe that there is purpose—ancient and complex and probably mostly unknown to humans—to how Nature works.
Nothing goes to waste out here. Fallen trees decay and turn into soil, which then houses the ground squirrel, whose scat feeds beetles and maggots and other bugs, who then become energy snacks for the birds, whose own carcasses are eventually devoured by scavengers, who subsequently leave droppings that contain fur, which can later be used to line other birds’ nests, which are couched in the branches of the trees that haven’t yet returned to the soil. And on and on it goes. Concentric circles abound (we’re even living in one), and it’s difficult not to consider one’s own mortality in such an existential puzzle. Some may find it macabre, but I find it reassuring. Having never really known for sure what happens to us after we die, I am happy to let the mystery be. To trust in it, whatever it is. In the meantime, though, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to sit through my discomfort rather than chase it away with mindless distractions. As the saying goes: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Not a bad way to spend five days home alone. I’m sure my mom is much relieved.
Flowers are the earth laughing. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
As the undisputed “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park is grand, with its expansive views, mammoth glaciers, towering Continental Divide, historic lodges, hulking grizzlies, and, of course, big sky. But it’s the little things that make the park and its surrounding areas memorable on a personal level: white-spotted fawns prancing behind their wary mothers, overgrown two-tracks leading to lush hillsides and hidden creeks, dinners with friends at our beloved Northern Lights Saloon, and, of course, for Chris, the cutthroat trout that hang out around these parts.
At this time of year, when you can hear the grasshoppers go click, click, click, it’s time to start fly-fishing in earnest, Chris says. The water is low, the fish are jumping, and you can find Chris standing calf-deep in a stream, happily tying a hopper to his line. This is usually a good time for me to search for the tiny treasures I love most out here: wildflowers. Although we enjoy fishing and hiking together, sometimes we like some one-on-one time with nature (bear spray securely attached to our belts). So, often times when Chris is busy reeling ’em in, I poke around on nearby trails, camera phone in hand, anxious to see what I can catch too.
When I first started collecting mug shots of flowers so that I could identify them later using a guidebook, I had no idea how difficult some species would be to pin down, nor did I expect the amazing stories, funny names (butter-and-eggs?), or homeopathic uses behind many of them. Here are just a few of the many, many gems we’ve found while traipsing around this vast, rugged terrain that is home to such delicate creatures.
(Note: I used Wildflowers of Glacier National Park and Surrounding Areas, by Shannon Fitzpatrick Kimball and Peter Lesica, to identify most of the flowers listed below. If I’ve misidentified something, or you can identify those plants that I could not, please leave a comment. Thanks!)
Like much of the U.S. right now, we are suffering from a brutal heat wave. The highs are twenty degrees above average and we haven’t seen a significant rainfall for over a week (though we did hike in a sleet storm near Logan Pass on July 3). Combine this with the fact that we are in the middle of a meadow, without shade, living in what is essentially a spaceship-shaped solar oven with a big round window on top, and you’ve got something akin to Dante’s seventh circle of hell.
As if the heat weren’t enough, this morning we woke up to an army of mosquitoes looking down on us from the netting surrounding our bed. Too bad we never bothered to unleash the netting from its ties and secure its seams. Even more too bad is that we forgot to shut the roof dome. Just before sunrise, I awoke from a nightmare about fleshy, fin-like protrusions growing out of my arms and legs. How bizarre, I thought. How did my brain even come up with such disturbing imagery? But then I realized my left ankle and toes were burning with incredible, insatiable itch. And my skin was raw where I had unconsciously scratched the little deposits of histamine until they nearly bled.
Unfortunately, I had never heard the telltale high-pitched whining around my face and extremities during the night, the “zzzzzzeeee” which sends the alarm that the bloodsucking, possibly West Nile disease-carrying mosquitoes in their desperate last days of life are in striking distance. That’s because I had put in my spongy purple earplugs to ward against not only the sound of little Bosworth’s nocturnal antics but also the din of logs being sawed right next to my head. Once I removed them, I heard the dive-bombers whizzing around my ears and hair.
Realizing that we had been ambushed by the enemy overnight, I shook Chris awake and then stood up on the bed. Despite my lack of proper battle dress, I declared war. “We’re surrounded. Look at this!,” I said, pointing all around our canopy. “I’m not even sure what they are. They look more like miniature hornets than mosquitoes.” I closed in on one and smacked it as hard as I could, sending a sting through my palms and a jolt to my wrists. Blood splattered over the netting and my hands. “That’s a mosquito, all right,” Chris replied, looking at the kill I presented. “You just haven’t seen them engorged. They’ve been feasting on us all night.” The welts over his neck, legs, and arms proved the point. I looked at my limbs and torso and saw the same. We then engaged in defensive battle against our tiny attackers, taking out as many as we could, the cats looking on as if the gods must be crazy.
After we cleaned up the bloodstained battlefield with Shout, we managed a moment of productivity during the early part of the day. I made pasta from scratch to pair up with leftover New York strip from the Northern Lights Saloon, some fresh-squeezed lemon, minced garlic, parmesan cheese, and a little rainbow Swiss chard from the garden; Chris built steps leading from the deck to the solar shower, making it easier for us to run from the bees after rinsing off. So, we did get something done. But then the heat began to sear us once again, and we were rendered useless.
“Pathetic,” was the word Chris used, but I like to think of our catatonic selves on the floor—enjoying iced water and frozen grapes (thank you, solar-powered SunDanzer refrigerator!) while listening to In the Woods, a mystery set in cool, misty Ireland—as wise. To do anything even remotely resembling physical effort when the temperature is hovering around 100 degrees inside an Easy Bake Oven is foolish. “Heat exhaustion is not an exaggeration. I mean, it’s not unreasonable to assume that one could die out here,” I’ve reasoned with Chris many times.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful out here, but it’s also harsh and we’re in a lifestyle learning curve, not sure of what a day will bring—including our nonhuman neighbors. From the nasty, stinging deerfly to the menacing grizzly whose well-traveled corridor we seem to be living in the middle of, predators are ubiquitous if often unseen. Sometimes, though, you can feel their eyes on you, a notion validated by Chris late one night when he shone our Coleman infrared flashlight on the outlying tall grass and woods and we saw four sets of red eyes shining back at us.
And then there’s the creature Chris saw on the way home from fishing, not an eighth of a mile away from the yurt. He didn’t get a good look, he said, but it was smaller than a bear and bigger than a fox, and not of the deer (or Cervidae) family. That leaves what, we wondered. A mountain lion? House cats are a favored delicacy among this species, which grows large around here, and I have to wonder if they’ve finally caught the scent of Smokey and Bosworth. Lord knows the windows are open at all times, and the litter box and food bowls sit snugly underneath them.
Back in November when we started on this adventure, snow piling up around the windows, I envisioned summertime nestled along the west-side perimeter of Glacier National Park as a bucolic, temperate, peaceful experience. I’d peck out the Great American Novel, or some such thing, while Chris fly-fished one of the only two wild and scenic rivers in the state, right here in our own backyard.
Instead, we’re at war. Us and against them, the bugs and the sun (we’re at tentative peace with the toilet). As I sit in our fort, sort of away from both, what comes to mind is mythologist Joseph Campbell’s theory that in the grand scheme of things our ultimate fate is “to eat and to be eaten.” And I wonder how on earth our forefathers ever made it in such an unforgivable land, with no bug spray, no air-conditioning, no running water, and only life-sustaining manual labor to toil away at everyday. Some succumbed, of course; but think of those who persevered. No doubt faith and dogged determination carried the day, and I feel like we owe our ancestors gratitude and respect. They have inspired us to press on and to refrain from waving the white flag, just one more day.
Well, Readers, it’s been a while since I’ve posted about the topic I’m sure you’re all dying to know more about: the composting toilet. As the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And we’re still here.
If you compost your garden waste or kitchen vegetable scraps, you probably already know that composting is one part science, one part intuition, and one part luck. If you’re dealing with human waste, well, it’s also one part hell. OK, make that four parts. Read more