Outside it’s snowing heavily – the second great snowfall we’ve had in a week.
Inside it’s warm and bright. There’s wine, and the wood stove smells sweet and familiar, like my grandparents’ kitchen. It dries our boots and mittens, and keeps Sage the Dog warm.
Ingi and I sit on separate couches. He reads, I write, the 70s station playing in the background. He sighs, I tap my toes. It’s a waiting game we’re playing now. Tomorrow’s the day we’re booked to fly to the trapline, and we’re both itching to go, both wondering if we’ll be able to make it through the snow. I silently cross my fingers we won’t have to postpone our flight out.
The power flickers on and off – snow, bending the trees, touching the power lines.
I’ve been waiting for this particular adventure for ten months or a lifetime. Ingi has spent two months each autumn at Tulabi for almost as many years as I’ve been alive, but I know he’s never experienced it quite like this. It will be new for both of us. I say I’ll keep an open mind – I have no expectations. He says he wants to recapture some memories.
The last eight days have been some of the happiest I’ve ever had – a combination of contentedly waiting out the snow and visiting with people I liked instantaneously. Playfulness, laughter, snowball fights, long hugs – an opportunity to develop friendships I already value, relationships I have this gut feeling will last. So much to be grateful for, right here, now, and that’s just the beginning.
This could be the last chance I have to post here for two months – Fraser, Ingi’s son and my friend, teased through the phone that I was letting him down. Ingi added, shortly after, “I know what, you could disappoint my sister, Elke, too, by not posting for two months,” smiling, not meeting my eye.
A week has already changed my life. I can’t imagine what two months is going to do. Stay tuned – I can’t wait to share stories from the trapline.
The agreement when I first met Ingi was a three-day minimum interview, and there had to be a dialogue.
I spent a week on the lake in May. Ingi told everyone around that a journalist was coming to take pictures of the Investment of a Lifetime – a publicly funded outhouse (seriously) at Neso Lake. On a snowy day in May, I photographed the knocking down of an old outhouse at camp, and the bringing in of a new one.
Some time over the summer, the three day requirement for an interview turned into a three month requirement, again with dialogue. Three months started three days ago, and it’s already moving past us too quickly. Time does a funny thing when Ingi and I chat, and an hour can seem like two minutes.
Yesterday it snowed, and not just a fall sprinkling that melts as it hits the ground. It came down in heavy, whirling flakes and stayed where it landed. With the wood stove burning and grey light filtering through the window, Ingi stretched out on the couch in preparation for a quick interview – one of many to come, in the form of our daily banter, I know.
“I think I’ll just lay down here,” he said, his toes touching the end of the couch closest to me.
If you get to know Ingi, I think you’ll like him. Allow me to introduce you.
Q: Tell me about yourself.
A: I sit in an outhouse with a door wide open (note: this isn’t entirely true. He hasn’t sat with the door open since I’ve arrived, to my great relief) – especially so in autumn and spring when the geese are flying. I drink whiskey. Sometimes I walk with joy, sometimes I walk with pain. I’m fit, tanned and strong (note: Ingi unconsciously flexes his arms as he says this).
Q: What do you value?
A: Beauty more than money. Even squirrels gather cones for the coming year. We all need to survive, but sometimes we pursue more cones, more money, and forget to live life. I choose beauty and I choose life.
Q: What do you do in your downtime?
A: The things that bring warmth and purpose. It can be walking, paddling, laying on a hammock, reading, writing, repairing a cabin. I get confused between work and play, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Q: How did you end up here, at Neso Lake?
A: Philip Bashnick – I met him through my dad and uncle in 1974 for the first time in a little old blue cabin (note: the cabin is still standing across the highway from Neso Lake, down a short path through the woods). There were squirrels climbing on his pants and peanuts on his shoulders – not just one, but several squirrels. [My dad and uncle and I] were living in tent camps all over the north, getting dropped off with ski planes and float planes, cutting grid lines, staking claims, and swinging the axe all day long.
I got to trap with Phil in 1978 – spring beaver trapping – and then I got to trap here full time in 1979 with the dog team. For 13 years I had dogs. Boyhood dreams, that’s what brought me to the area. Closer to boyhood dreams. I had a passionate boyhood dream to have a little cabin in the woods.
Q: Where did the dream come from?
A: Books, school. I’m a high school dropout. I took the stunned math course on purpose. I was good at math, I could finish early, and I would over and over draw this little log cabin with the snow falling, the cabin snug and warm, the smoke rising, an axe in a stump.
(Note: At this point I said it’s funny how closely the cabin at Neso Lake resembles Ingi’s drawing. He told me, “Go look outside at it, right now. Do you see it?” And there it was – not just the cabin, but the snowflakes falling around it.)
Q: What’s the highest education you have?
A: I’m not done yet, but I’m getting more educated with you here, too. I have grade 10. Now I have a question for you. Who learns more – someone who reads a university textbook but only reads the teeny, teeny portions within the $100 textbook so as to merely and better pass the test, passes the test, and then moves up the hierarchy of education, just to climb up the academic ladder of success – greater money, and ease of life – or someone who has the same textbook, finds it in the garbage or for two dollars at a garage sale, and reads it cover to cover and discusses it passionately?
Q: How did you come to have the trapline you work now?
A: I yearned for a wild and pristine land with no roads. I knew the old trapper there before me, Albert Jordan. I met him over the years, actually back in 1978. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. No roads, no winter roads, just little trails through the boreal forest. Woodland caribou, unmolested; no park wardens required for them to maintain their living status as free creatures. I fell in love with it. And so, Albert, by then when I took over, he was 77 years old. In 1991 I took over. I think he was pleased. I think he was, because he wanted someone who would take care and love the place. I think we all do.
Q: What do you enjoy about trapping?
A: It’s a reason to keep me on the land. Walking, padding. It’s a reason of intimacy. As cruel as it might sound to be – harvesting animals – it’s a reason to be on the land. It’s an industry by and large for the very wealthy, who can afford fur coats. At the same time, it provides jobs for the not so filthy rich, who want to travel the land – the Indian Peoples, others.
The years have changed, since 1983, the general collapse of the fur trade. Cultures have changed. We’ve become more entitled, and, can I say lazy? I think they dance hand in hand, entitlement and growing easy. I think they dance together. That’s our quandary, being human.
The fur trade, it had rich experiences for the individuals – it gave them a reason to be out, a purpose; walking, staying fit, sleeping under the stars, intimacy with the land. A relationship with the land to guard ourselves from a relationship with greed. I think it has a purpose that’s always going to be there. The more the lands are developed, the more progress that comes, the more it will crush our combined spirit. When the last rock is blasted for the last ounce of gold and the last water is dammed, we will find emptiness. I think there’s room for wild places. I think that’s a part of what you want to see, as well.
My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, and I’m leaving with a full heart and an excited spirit, with snickerdoodles, peaches and jam my friend Jax made (check out her blog and thank me later), boozy cherries and pickled carrots from another friend, three crystals and a smudge stick from a good soul, and the most beautiful homemade traveller’s notebook from one of my favourite hiking buddies by my side. These people all understand different aspects of the adventure I’m embarking on, and I’m reminded again and again how lucky I am to have them in my life. They get it.
Speaking of getting it, there are several questions I’ve received over and over for weeks. Some of them are simple, some of them are tough to answer, and some of them I just don’t have answers for. In case you’ve been wondering…
Where’s the trapline?
It’s hard to explain exactly where it is because there are no roads that lead to it. I’ve come to realize in the last few months how often I’ll explain a location by it’s highway mileage from somewhere else. The best way to explain it is it’s 80-ish air miles from both Flin Flon and Thompson, and about 25 air miles from Snow Lake, Manitoba.
What will you be trapping?
Squirrels, muskrat, weasel, otter, beaver – the list is likely longer, but those are the ones I know of for sure. I’ve been told I’ll start by skinning squirrels, and once I get good enough at that, I can move on to the next thing…
Don’t you think it will hurt your soul?
I can’t answer that, because I don’t know. I’ve never had an experience like this before, and I’m entering it with an open mind. I had a great chat with an outdoorsman in my community a few weeks ago, and he told me about the internal conflict he faced when he first began hunting. His lasting message, in my mind, was that when humans are in the forest, they are a part of the forest. Nothing in the forest dies of old age – everything is taken by its natural predators.
How do you shower?
There’s a bag shower in one of the outbuildings. Water is hauled 50 feet from the lake, heated on a woodstove, and dumped into the bag, which is hoisted into the air with a rope. The water runs down into a bathtub with a hose attached to it which drains out of the cabin. I feel there will be a detailed and spirited post about the shower process when I return.
What are your intentions for yourself while you’re in the bush?
I’m doing my very best to enter this experience with no expectations. With that being said, I plan on reflecting on where my life is at and evaluating what stays and what goes, in every sense. That’s probably my most prominent intention. Along with the work on the trapline and at camp I’ll be taking part in, I’ll be devoting time to writing and photography, but also reading, meditation and yoga.
What inspired you to do this in the first place?
The short answer is: The opportunity presented itself and I jumped at it.
I’m an outdoorsy girl. In most of my spare time I’m hiking, backpacking, camping, paddling, or just sitting outside thinking my thoughts and enjoying the view.
I’m a lover of nature and a lover of stories, and when I learned about the trapline last December, I was fascinated by the concept of it. I thought that the activity was long in the past, and it was news to me traplines still exist (in fact, yesterday I was told there are people in my neck of the woods who are actively hoping to be bestowed a trapline).
I wanted the opportunity to experience the lifestyle, and understand first-hand our relationship with the land, and I wanted some time to get away and breathe and reflect on where my life is at.
I was invited to come for the fall in the spring, but at the time it didn’t look feasible in any way. Then circumstances changed – as they are apt to do to make what is supposed to happen, happen – and I find myself driving – maybe right now, as you’re reading this – north and east for the fall.
Every moment spent fighting is a moment you could spend loving, every day spent working a job you abhor is one you could spend cultivating your passion, and for every swipe of your phone’s touchscreen and immersion into a virtual reality, you miss the good stuff happening here in the real world, as I was reminded this afternoon by this essay by Andrew Sullivan. All fears, doubts and excuses aside, it’s the truth.
Yes, everything is a tradeoff, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the life that’s unfolding in front of me.
As a journalist, I spend a lot – I mean a LOT – of time scouring the internet, connecting to others via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and text, compiling information, putting it out there and then obsessively checking to see how many people it has reached, who has liked it, and whether there is any thoughtful commentary on what I’ve written.
At first I ate it all up, loving the process of it, loving the gratification I received when my work was recognized and appreciated, loving the knowledge that something I had done had touched someone else, affected them.
But something changed – maybe a realization that I became a writer to share human stories with human beings, not to watch the numbers – and keeping up with how many people have given whatever I put out there the disembodied thumbs-up of approval just doesn’t seem to matter.
Because everything in life is a tradeoff, and the time I spend seeking out virtual approval in any area of my online existence could be spent face-to-face with a good friend. Or puddle jumping. Or lying in a pile of yellow leaves, grinning, breathing in that leafy smell. All things I make a habit of (come on, imagine me in the leaves – you know that’s something I do). All things I enjoy. All things that trump watching my internet popularity fluctuate as it inevitably will.
These days I just want to be immersed in real life, in my own world, experiencing all the tangible things that are there for me to experience. I don’t want to give up the sense of connection social media gives me with friends and family across the country and the world, but I want to spend more time being present – and not ‘sitting beside you but looking at my phone’ present. Actual, eye-contact, real, intense, deep-connection-with-whatever-is-in-front-of-me present.
And as much as I want that deep connection with other people and the world around me, maybe I want it with myself, too. Maybe that’s what I’m searching for.
Ingi has asked me over and over how I’ll fare in the solitude of the woods for two months.
“You, the social butterfly!” he exclaims, half matter-of-fact, half disdainful, like he might be envious but doesn’t want it to show. “How do you think you’ll cope? How will you do without your Facebook and e-mail?”
The truth is, I don’t know. I love people. I love connecting. And I LOVE laughing. I thrive off a balance of happy company and alone time devoid of obligations. But I want to try the relative quiet of the forest. I want to revel in it. I want to see if my other senses become heightened – if I really see more, really hear my own thoughts.
There are less than two weeks until I leave, now, and the closer that day comes, the busier and more distracted I seem to get. If everything in life is a tradeoff, for now I’ll be the first to take the quiet over the chaos.
Autumn comes differently in different places, bringing a uniform rush of change that is palpable in the trees and in the people. It hangs in the air, first a confused urgency, then settling into a resigned complacency, so subtle you might forget it was ever there in the first place.
Each year as the trees begin to change and the cool winds begin to blow, there’s an adrenaline that courses through me for days, weeks, urging me to do something, to take a leap, to turn a corner I can’t come back from. It’s a delightful and uncomfortable feeling. It’s animalistic. Sometimes it leaves me wondering what I am.
I think this year I’ll find out.
It’s a mere 16 days until I leave town, and just 26 until I fly north in a Cessna out of Snow Lake, Manitoba. Word travels quickly, and in the coffee shop in the morning, friends, acquaintances, people I know by face and not name wish me well, drill me with questions, tell me, “You’re either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid,” – that one’s my favourite – look at me, assessing, and tell me they’re glad I’m coming back.
It’s a family I’ve made here, too. Or maybe it’s made me.
Friends, the close ones, want a piece of time, a memorable moment, something to last a bit. I’m familiar with the feeling – it’s utterly human, and I feel it when I know deep down it’ll be the last time I spend with someone I care for for a long time. I’m happy to have that moment, and share it.
Earlier this week I sat around a kitchen table with good, good people, close friends, part of my extended family. We ate and drank and played Scrabble, which I was elated to lose (not to brag, but it’s hard to find people who can give me a run for my money at Scrabble).
This morning I sipped coffee with a good, good person and told him how grateful l am to know such wonderful people here. He said, “You take good people wherever you can find them.”
Tonight I had supper and laughed and laughed with some of my favourite people on the planet.
When I think about the people I know here – the ones in my immediate circle, the acquaintances, the people I look up to, the ones I’m inspired by from afar – I feel so, so lucky that I ended up in this little town, in this awesome, quirky, flawed, wonderful, unique community. It’s as good of a place as I’ve ever had to call home for a while.
I’ve never spent two months in solitude before. I don’t know if I’ll miss these moments, the witty jokes, the banter, the boisterous laughter, the friendly punch in the shoulder. But I’m glad I have them locked away, the happiest memories, because I know three months isn’t a long time, and I’ll be back – I’ll always be back – but a change is going to come.
We met on Christmas morning in a duplex living room filled with families – and friends that are like family – coloured lights a-twinkling, bright light pouring through the windows, the joyful kind of Christmas every soul who is separated from their relatives by vast distances hopes to have but rarely does. It was one of the most special things I’ve ever experienced.
The whole clan was decked out in plaid onesies, gifted to us by favourite neighbours.
“Here. Go put this on,” they gruffly shoved the bag into my hands and pushed me out the door.
Ingi introduced himself by his first name only – as, I’ve learned, is typical of him. I thought it might not be his real name. I thought, in fact, he might not be entirely of sound mind. His hair was thinning, short on the top but long in the back, and he held one of his granddaughters out in front of him in a box, slowly moving her around as if she were in command of a hovercraft. He spoke of an ‘investment of a lifetime’ – an outhouse on his property that one could hold a lifetime share in for 35 cents. Of course, by the end of the visit, I handed him a quarter and a dime.
At supper he told stories and I peppered him with questions, always wanting to know more, always challenging. The conversation became so intense at one point that his son walked over smiling, put two beers down in front of us and wordlessly walked away. Ingi said he was a letter writer and I said real mail is one of my favourite things in the whole world, and so we became pen pals.
The letters came and I read about the comings and goings of all things – people, plants, animals, birds, Sage the Dog, the snow, the skies – on a lake outside Flin Flon, Manitoba. It wasn’t long before I wanted to see it for myself, as I am apt to want, and I was graciously hosted for a week in early May.
I might well have stayed forever – or at least as long as I’d stay anywhere else.
Everyone I met was warm. Welcoming. Kind. Genuine in whoever they were. And the land? Rocks, trees, and water – my favourite kind of land. A paddler’s dream, and consisting of enough walking trails to keep me happy.
On the second day Ingi said if he’d ever had a daughter, he’d want her to be someone who loved to walk and paddle and be outdoors. He asked if he could adopt me. Now, this may seem strange – even outrageous, like Ingi – but the truth is, I have adopted family all over the country, and homes on the ocean, in the mountains, on the prairies and in between. I’m the luckiest, that way. My mom, who is one of the kindest, wisest people I know, once told me that we can make our own families wherever we go with kind people we meet where we are, and I’ve taken that to heart in my travels. I smiled and agreed.
A few days later on a smoky, sunny morning, Ingi and I flew to the trapline, about 25 air miles north of Snow Lake, Manitoba. The sky was red for most of the flight, reflected off a thousand little lakes below. We made our way in the Murphy Rebel further and further away from the signs of industry, of human life carrying on. Upon landing, we put a boat in the water and headed down a river to some rapids, then headed back and sat on a bench with a mint tea. It was quiet. So, so quiet.
I might as well have stayed forever – or at least as long as I’d stay anywhere else.
Ingi talks of a mentor of sorts – ‘the old trapper’ he calls him, though I’m pretty sure his name was actually Albert. I wonder if one day I’ll tell someone else, someone younger with the same yearning to know the land as I have about ‘the old trapper,’ Ingi, who could hold a drink in one hand, spin an axe in the air with the other, sneeze, catch it, and cut a piece of wood, and who simply, desperately wanted the land to be safe.
I’m counting down the days until I can get back, and see the trapline through the lens of a new season.
There’s a man – middle aged by common standards – living on the land of the Canadian Shield in northern Manitoba who says he chooses to live outrageously.
Spend half an hour with him at a camp that’s worth $47 million to him but significantly less to society, or in a boat labeled ‘G.E.C.’ (Good Enough Construction), on a walking trail or in a home-built Murphy Rebel float plane, and you won’t be able to doubt his claim.
The statements he makes, the questions he asks, his very story – for all intents and purposes, they’re outrageous. But underneath words that will make you scoff, laugh or scratch your head, there’s a quiet, haunting truth.
When I told him my plan, he said I must be more outrageous than he is, because I’m leaving my job, my friends, the mountains I love and the monotonous yet comforting stability of civilization for three months to follow him around on a remote, fly-in trapline, two old Canon Rebels and a notebook in tow. I’ll document a once popular and now fading way of life. I’ll document a love story for the land, brimming with humanity. Maybe they’ll have an effect, reach a little further than my immediate circle.
It’s not outrageous, really, my plan to head to a place where there are no roads and no people for miles and miles. I’m dependable in some ways, but I’m dependable in my fickleness as well. I’ve lived in the northeastern foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in a town I love, working a dream job with some of the best people I know for the last year and eight months. For someone who has moved more than 20 times in her 27 years on this planet, the time spent here in this small Alberta town signals remarkable staying power. But it’s not unlike me to be grasped by a place, by a story, and to have this need to chase it until it runs out. And it’s not unlike me to head into the bush and stay there for as long as I can.
I had planned on heading to the trapline not this year, but next. But life throws curveballs every once in a while. It’s full of surprises, and nothing ever stays the same. So I find myself a month away from this new adventure, a list of questions the length of my arm, and a child-like excitement growing in me by the day