Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Winter Day

Yesterday I went x-country skiing. Fresh snow had fallen the day before on old hard-packed snow, and I was eager to ski on the snowmobile trails through the forest. The sun was bright, the sky an intense blue, and the temperature only -2C - quite warm for this time of year. The trail I choose was packed by a snowmobile, yet the snow was soft and as I skimmed along, it whispered beneath my skis.

Fresh wolf tracks were pressed into the snowmobile tracks, and I followed them as the trail descended gradually, twisting through the forest. In three minutes I was past the last turn and onto flat ground and soon reached a large abandoned gravel pit.

I was a half mile from the Alaska Highway and the centre of Watson Lake town, but the only sounds I heard were from my skis and surroundings. The wind shook bushy tops of spruce and pine and snow cascaded down the trees. Two gray jays fluttered across the sky. A pine grosbeak called from the forest. Ravens flew on their air path from the garbage dump to the sewage lagoon, and at times circled downward to check on this creature on the trail.

The gravel pit opened up before me and snowmobile tracks led off in numerous directions. Do I ski an hour longer down to the Liard River? Do I go upward on a snow covered road to circle back to my pickup? Or do I continue through the gravel pit where the wolf had gone? I follow the wolf tracks.

Other animals had left signs of passage. Snow hare prints were in the soft snow and disappeared into willows and brush. Tiny paw prints stopped where long feather marks were spread out on each side of the snowmobile tracks.  An owl had found a meal.

The open gravel pit allowed me a wide view of the sky and landscape. Clouds floated lazily through the blue expanse, often changing shape from elongated pools to swirls and spirals created by a master artist on a canvas. Sun rays dressed poplar and birch trees and spread as fingers across snow covered side hills.

As the sun lowered, the sky and clouds turned purple, rose and deep orange. Time to leave the wolf tracks and return to my pick up. A squeaky chirp from the forest stopped me and I 'cheed cheed' back to the boreal chickadee. It chirped back. We continued the conversation until the wind shook the trees and the bird flew away.

When people ask me how I deal with northern winter cold and darkness, I smile and remember a day such as this, and reply, "Oh, I survive."

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Boss Squirrel

I have holes and tunnels in my yard. Mind you, there's two feet of snow on the ground, and the holes and tunnels are in the snow, made by the Boss Squirrel of the front yard.  When I watch the birds at the feeders, there is Boss Squirrel with his head poking above the snow for a look around. His head disappears and seconds later, he reappears farther down the lawn. He rushes to the trees and runs up the branches - here and there - chasing the birds from the trees and feeders. More birds are arriving every day, more birds spread out in 10 trees, but Boss Squirrel is persistent.

Even the large Common Ravens don't escape Boss Squirrel's wrath. As they feed on the fallen sunflower seeds, they hop into the air to escape this crazy creature running amok in their midst and escaping into the brush or up a tree. From the tree, Boss Squirrel will jump down into the flock of ravens, making them scatter. Eventually, the ravens leave to eat in quieter surroundings such as the garbage dump or grocery store parking lot.

Boss Squirrel has a difficult life. On the house roof,  I blocked the narrow space between two roof lines where Boss Squirrel was squeezing through to cache his pine cones.  Our truck repair centre cleaned out his huge nest that he had built behind the glove compartment by crawling through the truck engine. I took away the small towel that he had pulled out from under the garage door (that was filling a space caused by ground imbalance) and was tearing apart for bedding. Some of his holes in the snowbanks along the driveway were covered when I shoveled snow. Once, he barely escaped me stepping on him when I stepped off the snow path through the lawn. His squeak and rapid movement warned me to tread carefully.

There's Boss Squirrel now, eating on the sunflower seeds that I scattered far down the driveway. Closer to the house, also eating on sunflower seeds, are two juncos and a common red poll. Oh, no - Boss Squirrel sees them and he's charging over twenty feet to scatter the birds. He settles down to eat the seed, content that he's the boss of the front yard.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


I love birdwatching. It's a new hobby developed since I retired and moved to our current house in April 2007.  The first winter, I threw out some black oil sunflower seeds and before I knew it I had these robin size birds with red on their heads and chests (Pine Grosbeaks), and smaller birds with red tops and pinkish red streaks on their breasts (Common Redpolls). Then the black cap chickadees and gray jays arrived. That was easy.

Once I knew my winter birds I moved onto the sparrows in the spring. As numerous birds hopped around the yard, I frantically scribbled notes and took photos.  But that yellow bird flittering through the trees wasn't in the sparrow section of my bird guide. Finally found it - in the warbler section. Time to learn about warblers. There are so many pages showing warblers....

Fortunately, there is a bird observatory station in my town and each spring and fall the station nets and bands birds. I volunteered to help and I learned how to take the birds out of the nets without injuring them. I could actually hold the bird and feel the softness and warmth of its body and its tiny heart beating in its chest.

Now my seasons are marked by the bird migration. Spring starts April 23 when the station opens and the nets are put up to band for the spring migration. We may be walking with snowshoes on two feet of frozen snow around the nets, but by golly, it is spring! The pond at the station is still covered by ice, but it's spring!

The bird station opened on July 23 for the fall migration. In my garden, the vegetables are still growing, the tomatoes are green, and many flowers haven't blossomed, but the fall migration has started!  Time to band the parents and juveniles moving south. Birds arrive in my yard with their juveniles and the air is filled with the constant chirping of young wanting to be fed . The pine siskins are flocking in larger groups and invading birch trees to dangle from the catkins as they eat the seed. Waterfowl are arriving on the small lake nearby to rest and feed on their journey south. Birds are moulting and ravens fly overhead missing feathers on their wings and tail.

Bird watching has made me observe nature more closely: the tiny flies that hover around leaves where the ruby crowned kinglet catches and eats them; the tiny squeak that tells me I've surprised a boreal chickadee in the trees; a rustling sound in the brush where a fox sparrow is hopping and pushing leaves with its toes as it lands. Bird watching makes me stop, listen, watch, relax and feel nature.

May we all have a hobby that gives us well-being.

Common Redpoll landing

Friday, 15 April 2011

Moose Excitement

This past Sunday, on a sunny day, my husband and I drove up the Robert Campell Highway which runs north from the Alaska Highway. Just a short drive, 30 kms - past lakes and ponds that slept under deep snow blankets, past swamps where pussy willows decorated the willow branches, past where I saw the great grey owl alongside the road last November, past Tom Creek where small pools of flowing water surrounded by ice glittered in the sunshine.  Nine snow buntings burst into the air from a patch of open ground, swirled as a flock a few feet above ground and landed farther up the road to start the search again for fallen seeds hidden amongst the dead grass.

We followed the ribbon of pavement that lay between wide snow-filled ditches that stretched to the edge of the forest. A quiet drive:  no traffic, no more birds flocking upwards, no foxes walking on the frozen snow in search of mice; then we saw the moose.

At the 24 km mark of the highway, an old gravel pit sits on the side of the highway and at the far edge of this clearing is an opening that signals the start of an old road that leads into a logging site, now abandoned. Willows and brush have narrowed the road to become a trail used by animals, and in winter, we see tracks in the snow from the old road, through the clearing and onto the highway.  As we drove by the clearing, I looked back to peek at the trail and to my surprise, moose were standing at the far edge of the clearing having stopped to watch the vehicle noise they heard on the highway.

"Stop, stop. There's moose there."

My husband backs up the truck and I grab the binoculars. "There's three moose standing there."

As Barry looked through the binoculars, I slowly, quietly left the truck and took photos from the highway. The moose ran into the forest and disappeared. We drove up the highway to our turn-around point, and on our way back, we slowed at the gravel pit to see if the moose were there. No moose; no fresh tracks . We drove onward, and after two kms and seeing no tracks coming out of the ditch, I had resigned myself to not seeing the moose.  We rounded a bend, and there they were. All three of them in the ditch heading for the highway. The moose stopped when they saw us, and we stopped to watch from a distance and take more photos. They seemed frozen in the snow. The spell was broken when a vehicle came toward us, and the moose rushed back into the forest. We saw them bunched together in the trees, but they seemed unwilling to move while we watched them, so we drove away.

This was the first time we'd seen three moose together, and the sighting was unexpected, which made the moment more exciting.  I feel the same excitment when an unexpected twist happens in my story, and I'm on an adventure unforseen.  One of the reasons why I keep writing.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tempermental Characters

My characters are bothering me again - so demanding!

Here I am writing a great emotional scene between my two ladies and in the middle of it, Shayla, stops co-operating and looks at me.

"I do not wring my hands. I'm not the type of person to do that.  And I don't cry. I may sniff a bit or wipe my eyes, but I do not cry. Nadie does all that." She raises her chin at me and I know she's in one of her stubborn moods. Perhaps not a good time to remind her that I've seen a few tears on her cheeks, or that Kris held her in his arms while she had a good cry.

Okay, okay. You're right, Shayla.

Nadua frowns at her cousin; then looks at me. "Don't make me wring my hands. I'm not that weak. I may be more patient and sensitive than Shay, but that doesn't make me weak. I have inner strength."

I'll be true to you, Nadua.

Another woman's voice floats into the conversation. "Why are you so sensitive to them? I want you to fix my character. You're making me look shallow."

Lady Louisa, you're not even in this scene.

"I'm not in any scene. I don't even appear in your first novel, so I can't even defend myself from what Kristjan is thinking about me."

Too bad. Get over it.

"Lady Louisa?" Shayla's green eyes narrow. "Kris didn't tell me he was engaged to Lady Louisa. Where is he? I need to talk with him."

He's not in this scene. You'll talk with him in the next chapter.

"I want to see him, now." Shayla stamps her foot.

Stop hijacking the story, Shayla, or I'll make you wring your hands. 

I click on Save, and sit back in my chair. Ah, peace and quiet.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Caribou in Winter

Starting in October, the caribou move from their summer mountain range to their winter range around the community of Watson Lake, Yukon. We see them on the highways as they eat the salt that's mixed with the sand spread on the highways during the winter. When vehicles come along the highway, the caribou usually dash into the ditches and trees; most often they'll return right away to keep eating salt. At times, when driving along the highways, if you look carefully into the forest, you may see grazing amongst the trees, caribou cleverly disguised in the same white and brown tones as the snow and trees. Or you may see caribou crossing a frozen snow-packed lake in single file. This winter while skiing on a trail a few kilometers from the highway, I saw fresh caribou tracks in the snowmobile tracks, so I knew they could be near. A warm breeze was softening snow mounds on the tall spruce and pine trees, and around me snow was cascading to the ground bouncing off branches as it fell. The cracking sounds reminded me of caribou walking through the dry bush in the fall, and I would stop, listen and look in hopes of seeing the animals, but nothing. When I did see a caribou, it was walking through deep snow in the forest 50 feet from the trail. The animal had seen me before I saw it, and it was walking quickly through the snow to reach a second animal that I spied through the trees. The two of them rushed away from me - not making any sounds - silent ghosts of the forest.