Chapter 4: Hay River, NWT, Day 1

I arrived at Hay River only to find a connection to another northern destination I visited not too long ago.

The next leg of my journey unexpectedly closed a loop on a trip I took to Baffin Island in 2015. The 2-hour run from 60th Parallel Territorial Park to Hay River made for a short driving day and an opportunity to explore. At Hay River, I found a place connected by water to the remote lands I trekked not too long ago.

Watercolor map of the route from the 60th Parallel to Hay River. Background is bright green and waters are washes of blue.
The short run from the 60th Parallel to Hay River takes you past wetlands and forests.

I do appreciate journeys alone to explore and reflect. But when I spend too much time submerged in memories, I feel like an Inuit orhpan standing on cracked arctic ice above waters full of lurking beings with dubious intent. The Qalupalik might crawl out of the water, shove me into its amauti, and slip back under the ice. I might fall into the cold, dark sea and get tangled in Nuliajuk’s hair forever.

So it is nice to come up for air once in awhile. Mystified? Check videos at the end of this story.


I traveled to the 60th Parallel and Hay River via the MacKenzie Highway. Highway construction was started in the late 1930’s, delayed by World War II, and continued after the war ended. The road reached Hay River in 1949.

There are few roads in this area, but they are invaluable for residents and resource extraction. Road building is an adventure here: bridges must span wild rivers to replace ferries and ice roads, and fuel for construction equipment is expensive.

Along the roadside varicolored wetlands increased in forest breaks. Some areas looked like muskeg with scrawny aspens and stunted spruce leaning precariously over treacherously soggy ground. I saw tamarack turning yellow along the roadside. Beaver dams were large, and if this eagle is any clue, good hunting grounds.

A bald eagle sits on top of the dome of a beaver lodge, made of mud and sticks.
An eagle hunts atop a massive beaver dam in a flooded wetland.

At one point, I saw an animal walking the roadside, and as I came upon it, a person. A woman in full bush gear and mosquito netting was walking a cow. I thought I might have been on the road way too long for sanity, but I discovered the source of this apparent mirage later that day.


Hay River’s history is about resource extraction small and large. The first peoples to occupy the area after the last Ice Age would have come for fish, game, and birds, following the rivers and portaging around falls.

Today, the economy of the Northwest Territories is founded on mining. NWT is rich in diamonds and mineral resources. When I stop at the Hay River Visitor Center and buy gifts a few days later, my bounty is packed into a DeBeers Diamonds reusable bag.

A display of "Our Northern Mines", including a map and photos from each mine.
List of active mines NWT mines from NWT and Nunavut Mining Chamber of Commerce.

Hay River also sees the sealift set off with food and supplies- including furniture and cars- from the Mackenzie River to coastal villages.

I learned that the sealift that serves Baffin Island starts at Hay River. Sealift operations are a lifeline for remote communities, as I saw in 2015. When lingering pack ice prevented the ships from accessing these communities, the federal government set up an emergency ice-breaking operation. The villages were running out of rations and fuel and would have been in trouble if winter set in early.

  • View from a low-flying plane of a sea covered in a mosaic of ice fragments, with a large, rectangular iceberg floating on top.
  • A long, dark blue tanker puffs smoke, with ice chunks across the waterway in front. A mountain disappears into fog behind it.
  • Large white cylindrical tanks rise above the shore where boats are tied at a harbor.

The government of Northwest Territories took over an insolvent sealift operation in 2016, not without some controversy among private marine transport companies. But realiable service is critical since subsistence hunting and fishing is no longer an option for survival.

The NWT government has ambitious goals to increase tourism as an economic contributor. The “Tourism 2020” goal is to increase awareness of the area as a destination and raise tourism income to $207 million/year. The Northwest Territories has a more active tourism campaign with “Spectacular NWT” than my own state does!

Winter has been a big sell for Yellowknife as a destination to see the aurora borealis (northern lights). Locals tell me that plane loads of people arrive from Japan all winter, and hotels are full.

For people like me, wildlife and nature nuts, the ground and forest of NWT holds as many suprises as the night sky, and guess what? There is an autumn aurora season, when summer visitors are gone, and the winter tourists are still at home packing.


I arrived after my short drive on a Saturday, with time and options for activities. I checked in early to the wonderful Hay River Territorial Park campground. This campground had actual campers, many in RV’s. Some looked like seasonal residents. The campground is tidy, with a central, heated washroom/shower room and a laundry. There are more amenities, but the campground manager encouraged me to skip setting up my tent and take advantage of events in Hay River.

An elegant sign installation marks Great Slave Lake Beach at Hay River Territorial Park. A boardwalk runs past the blue sign mounts, leading to the water in the distance.
The Hay River Territorial Campground sits by the Great Slave Lake, with boardwalks, beach walks, and northern lights to be experienced.

First I stopped at the Fisherman’s Wharf for a plate of beer-battered whitefish and chips. It was the last day of the season for the Saturday market, which I had marked at home as a must-do. There were a few vendors for arts and goods, and several for fish and chips. I will bet the wharf is jammed during the summer.

A sign on the side of a metal shed advertises the Saturday Market at Fisherman's Wharf.

I ordered and chatted with the women cooking the fish. Whitefish were declining in the rivers and lakes, they said, and they were not sure about the effects of development and mining on water quality and fish. But fishing was their livelihood in season, and they would continue on until they couldn’t. I could go fishing with an outfitter if I had time, they told me. Maybe next time; this time I would just indulge in their catch.

On top of a table with paper taped on top sits a full plate of beer-battered fish and chips with a healthy dollop of tartar sauce.
Beer battered whitefish is a specialty at the seasonal Saturday market in Hay River. The tartar sauce is for the more mundane fries- the fish was delicious with batter and a light sprinkling of salt.

I ate my fish and chips at a table in the sun and watched a young girl chase seagulls. The day was cool and clear, with the thin fall sun lighting up the boat planters.

I reached Hay River Territorial Park and Fisherman’s Wharf across a bridge that connects New Town with Old Town (maps located here). Old Town, exposed to the surrounding waters, was submerged by the Great Flood of 1963. The entire population was evacuated as ice jams that had held back spring meltwater burst and crushed the town.

View of Old Town in the 1963 flood, from the NWT Archives.

NWT Archives/Bobby Porritt fonds/N-1987-016: 0007

The New Town area was built so that people could move back to safer ground. But some returned to Old Town and stayed on Vale Island, accessible only by boat and winter road. Driving through old town, you can reach the abrupt and unassuming end of the Mackenzie Highway in Hay River. Along the way there is unmarked access to a serene, driftwood-strewn beach where you can sit and gaze across the Great Slave Lake.

A black and white sign marks a graded brown dirt area. The sign says "Temporary Road: use at own risk".

After lunch, I stopped at the Hay River Museum, around the corner from the wharf. I am a huge fan of community museums, and this one did not disappoint. You will never see a place in three dimensions until you will view donated collections listening to stories told by a local volunteer docent.

Entrance to the Hay River Heritage Center, showing a white painted wood ramp for accessibility, white siding, and red lettering.

What popped out as I was coming in was a round wooden sign that said, “ZOO”. The gentleman behind the counter started to laugh when I pointed at it and raised my eyebrows.

“That sign has a story,” he said. It came from one of the oldest buildings in Hay River, a complex of restaurants, hotel, bar, general store, post office, and even pharmacy. The Zoo held a lot of memories but not much structure after 70 years of subarctic weather and heavy use. Apparently people were upset by the loss of the dilapidated complex and felt it should have historic designation. One man got drunk and stole the sign, convinced it would be destroyed. The next day, hung over and embarrassed, he gave it up and here it sits on the porch at the Heritage Center.

If things were different – say, if the buildings did not appear to have survived a riot and look like they could fall down in a stiff breeze – maybe an effort could be made to save them.

Paul Bickford, Hay River Hub, July 2, 2019
A round barrel with carved wooden letters in light grey fixed to the bottom. The letters spell out "zoo".
This sign once welcomed people to a tumble-down complex that still holds memories for people as a social and retail core.

My host was a retired tug captain who plied the Canadian Arctic his entire career. He thought it might be nice to live somewhere warm, so he bought a retirement home in Arizona in a development full of retirees. He hated it so much that he sold the house at a loss and came back to Hay River. “I liked the warm weather in winter,” he said, “but that was about it.”

The museum traced the town’s history from a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post to a hub of commercial fishing and finally, a center for shipping and second home to men working the mines. As always, there was a suitcase with gas mask from World War I. There is always a gas mask, a reminder of why international diplomacy is preferable to war.

Ancient fossils were the most surprising find to me. It was starting to dawn on me that I missed something very important when I researched this trip.

  • A booth wall and display case show gear and furs, along with photos, maps, and newspaper articles.
  • A grey/white skull sits atop a wooden display case. View is down on the skull.
  • A very large trout with its mouth agape is mounted on a wooden plaque.
  • A red suitcase contains a "chemox oxygen breathing apparatus" in case of mustard gas attack.
  • Wooden shelves hold minerals and fossils with little cards and sheets describing

The exhibits included a display about indigneous peoples of the area, along with various sashes of the Métis. I got one burning question answered: the origin of the lake’s name. Apparently the Dene people settled in this area were known as the “Slavey people” by the Cree. This is reported to be wishful thinking by the Cree, who enslaved their enemies. Great and Lesser Slave Lakes are named after the Dene.

A simple map of the Northwest Territories showing Dene territory, with divisions for each group of Dene.
Map of historic Dene Territory. These nomadic people harvested game and fish and traveled light.

The museum had clothing donations that likely will inspire some faux-outdoor collection on a runway at some point. If these models could move, they would take selfies and declare themselves Instagram influencers. Because… attitude. And style.

On the wall hung a ceremonial parka designed for the Hay River Centennial Choir. The Centennial Choir heralded 100 years since Queen Victoria ceded “Rupert’s Land” and the “North-West Territories” to Canada. The choir recorded an album, “North of Sixty”, to commemorate the centennial.

  • A white parka like jacket hangs on a wall. The jacket has a fur collar, three stripes across the bottom and lower sleeves, two whales swimming toward each other, and symbolic patches.
  • A simple map shows the land claims in Northern North America of 1867-70
  • A black and white image has information about the choir and recording at the right, and a collage of pictures of indigenous peoples and lands at the left.

My host gave me a collection of photos of the Inuit. “We ran out of the photo collections for the Dene and Cree,” he said. “I hope that’s okay.” I told him I had traveled to Nunavut and that was just fine. He talked of remote villages he visited there as a tug captain based in Hay River. “It was a good job,” he said.

I gather retirement still doesn’t sit well with him. I wonder if it will be the same for me, or maybe I’ll just wander small, remote towns and community museums until I pass on.


My last stop was the Hay River Trade Show, recommended by my new friend at the Museum. The trade show has two components, a community festival and a commercial hall. I paid $2 to visit and dropped into the community room first. There, awards for produce, arts, and crafts sat proudly on tables. Artists and crafts people sold their wares at other tables, and I found an interesting poster on the Northern Farm Training Institute– owner of that cow I saw walking on the roadside.

  • A poster display tells about the Northern Farm Training Institute.
  • A poster with information and pictures sits on a table, with a cucumber and peppers and handouts sitting on the table.
  • A dark green and purple cabbage sits on a plate with a red award ribbon below.
  • Two beaded earrings are pinned to a card with an award ribbon lying underneath.

In the commercial section, shiny trucks and fancy ATV’s were parked around the room. Outdoor clothing hung on racks. I found a wildlife photographer and bought some cards from him, then stopped at the NWT government table. The helpful NWT employee talked me through economy, fishing, and tourism, and gave me a coffee cup, lens cloth, and fish recipe book.

The NWT government does a stunning job promoting the region. My state is wishy washy about this as everything else. We just assume people will flock here. As our largest company stumbles on an oversized airplane that couldn’t, I wonder if we should take a cue from NWT.

A buff colored suede handbag features an intricate floral beadwork pattern on a red felt background.
The Northwest Territories promotes amazing arts and cultural events throughout the region.

Finally, I returned to camp and set up for the night. I was unusually tired, but determined to get up for the aurora, which would be visible after 11:00 p.m. I put my camera in the car, set up for the night sky, and turned in after a cup of cocoa.

On the way back from the bathhouse, I glanced at the mowed play area and saw a fox. It was jaunty and comfortable, play-pouncing and then rolling in the grass. I dashed back for my camera but it vanished into the forest before I returned.

A black-legged red fox heads across a gravel path winding past forest.
The campground foxes were to become part of my Hay River adventure over the next couple of days.

I needn’t have worried about setting an alarm to get up. I had seen a trendy young couple in chic outdoor wear head for the beach with a tripod, camera, and bottle wine before dark. About 11 pm, their car alarm started going off. They weren’t there to turn it off, and grumpy voices started drifting from sites near and far. Finally, a man arrived, did something magical, and the alarm made a sound like a dying duck before falling silent.

I ddin’t dare try to get my camera from my car. What if I set off the panic button on my fob? I walked to the beach in the dark and watched the aurora shimmer across the water. Headlamps on the beach marked photographers. I wondered if I should chance getting my camera and tripod out. But it was cold and I felt heavy and tired. I headed back to camp.

Near the tent, two foxes darted by me, then paused and looked at me. Lithe and curious, they looped around my legs. One sat down, facing me. I faltered, puzzled and unsure what exactly to do, if anything. I wondered if people feeding them. They must have decided I wasn’t worthy, and skimmed across the road into the next camp.

I turned in with the grim feeling that I might be falling sick again.

Below you will find the Inuit stories I referenced above. Enjoy!

The story of Qalupalik, the sea being that kidnaps wayward children.
A beautiful spoken version of the legend of Nuliajuk (Sedna). Nuliajuk’s hair is visible waving in the undercurrent. When she becomes angry, she hides the sea mammals in her hair and roils the water. A shaman must go to visit her and comb out her hair, which she can’t do without fingers.

Chapter 2: Blue River to Grand Prairie

Following the shore of an ancient seaway, I finally felt gone.

I no longer apologize for being a horse of a different color. You try to pass when you’re younger, but eventually, you have to come clean and just be yourself. One former friend hauled off on me in the fjordlands of New Zealand, demanding to know why I couldn’t just paddle a kayak like everyone else. Why did I have to ponder the history of boating and the physics of wind and waves meeting hull shape?

Even a few years ago, a project manager asked me in genuine curiosity, “Why don’t you just sit on a nice beach? Just relax? Why do you go to these places and do these things?”

A small blue tent sits on a ledge below a sweeping orange wall streaked with brown.
Here is why I go to these places. Camping in Harris Wash, Escalante National Monument.

I have realized road tripping is my beach time. It’s an old habit from the days I rode a school bus 35 miles from Grand Portage to Grand Marais along Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. We moved there from Chicago when I was too old to fit in. Reading and doing homework made me a target of ridicule, but tuning out and daydreaming did not. So I rode each way every day gazing out the window, faraway on an imagined adventure.

I road trip to relax today, stopping at places that help me piece together a picture of the world. I am not thinking about relationships or careers; I’m weaving a tapestry. I’ve road tripped mostly in the U.S., but also Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, France, and New Zealand.

On the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, we ditched our rent-a -wreck and walked the beach to our destination, watching scarlet macaws on the way, while our packs took a more sustainable ride.

I won’t apologize for my personality anymore, but I am swallowing a heavy dose of catholic guilt as climate change gathers like thunderclouds. I drove a fossil fuel burning car thousands of miles, sailing past oil derricks and active gas pads, as Greta Thunberg sailed to the U.S. to share young people’s frustration with our inaction.

Abandoned oil derricks and wells are an increasing problem for landowners and the environment in Alberta. This derrick was fenced off with stark warnings about the potential for death due to hydrogen sulfide gas emissions.

The fact is, I would not be taking that trip in an electric vehicle without more infrastructure. There are charging stations in Alberta, including one in High Level. But there are none in Northwest Territories. And a bus to where I was going? Nope.

If a hybrid or EV broke down, I’m not sure if any of the few service stations along the way could fix it. Not going there is really the only carbon-saving option right now. Not traveling far may be our only option in the future, as it was in the past.

I carried tools, spare vehicle fluids, and gear to weather a break down in a place where help could be a long time coming.

On my second driving day, I needed to get from Blue River, BC to Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, west of Grand Prairie. I intended to be efficient driving so that I could visit the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum before setting up camp. Fill up the tank, stop for lunch, stretch legs as needed, but keep moving.As usual, that was wishful thinking.

I drove across the outcome of the Laramide Orogeny- uplifted mountains- to reach the prairie. My goal was Wembley, Alberta, where the Philip Currie Dinosaur Museum sits, close to my camp.

I guess I would be more subject to highway hypnosis if I were less distracted along the way. Something catches my eye and I’m out of the car investigating. The dramatic uplift in Jasper National Park caught me first. I camped there a couple years ago and hiked the park, a geologic preview of my current trips.

If you stare hard enough at the rock faces in Jasper National Park, you can see them bend and move.

As you drive from West to east, you trace the fallout from subduction events that lifted the Rocky Mountains and drained an ancient tropical seaway. The warm, swampy wetlands and estuaries yield coal today; gas and oil come from ancient marine reefs.

Without polar ice caps, sea levels rose and and a seaway ebbed and flowed across North America for tens of millions of years. USGS, Public domain, from Wikipedia
The rise of the Rocky Mountains sent massive amounts of sediment flowing into the seaway and along with a cooling climate, helped drain the ancient waterway.

I stopped in Hinton, Alberta to fuel up and stop at Freson Bros. for groceries. On a trip to Jasper and other Alberta sites, I stayed at the Hinton KOA and found Freson, passing by the big chain stores. It is a great place to shop, featuring Alberta products throughout the store. Then there this great mascot outside to greet you. This time, I stocked up on salad fixings and even found smoked salmon, something I couldn’t make this year because our salmon run never happened.

Can’t miss him- the big grizz outside Freson Bros in Hinman, Alberta, standing on his hind legs and apparently waving hi.

After my grocery stop, I turned north on the scenic Alaska Highway, running somewhere along the shores of the ancient seaway. I didn’t do any better making up time because I started seeing wildlife signs- for caribou! I’ve never seen caribou before, and wasn’t super hopeful they would be wandering the road in the middle of a nice fall day.

Highway 40 is unfortunately the road with highest caribou mortality in Alberta.

I found information at a pullout by the Big Berland Provincial Recreation Area. This lovely area has camping among spruce and aspen along the Berland River, close to Willmore Wilderness Park. Anglers fish the Berland. This is definitely a place I want to go to in the future.

Caribou do migrate through this area, but in a different season. I caught up with more information when I reached the Grand Cache Tourism and Interpretive Centre. This is where I started to really get into the trip, greeted outside by a sculpture created by inmates at the Grand Cache Institution.

There was information about the Caribou Patrol, which is trying to reduce caribou deaths on Highway 40, and about caribou biology. I started thinking a stop at Big Berland would be good to add to a return visit to Blue River and Jasper; maybe I would see caribou for the first time.

The significance of the Grand Cache/Grand Prairie area in my journey is best summed up in this video about the area’s ancient secrets. It includes scenes from the Philip J. Currie Museum, where I was headed.

I made it to the Currie Museum in time to peruse the exhibits and pick up a few gifts (T. rex earrings for me) before it closed for the evening. The Currie Museum has great dioramas and even video (some of them a little gruesome, complete with screaming prey dying off screen). The museum is highly interactive, and staff are super friendly. The person who manned the reception desk and gift shop laughed when I told her the story of the Milk River dino that needed a hat to stop scaring kids.

As you walk through the Currie Dinosaur Museum, you can hear thunder warning of the catastrophic flood that washed a herd of Pachyrhinosaurus into an area that is now the Pipestone Canyon bonebed.

“Oh, we had that when we opened,” she said. “We used to have animatronic dinosaurs on each side of the door. You would enter, and one would turn its head to look at you. Then the other would scream. Yeah, that didn’t last.”

But the best part for me- well, I got to touch a real fossil. I have found the last couple of years that I can be totally happy just sitting in the presence of fossils, trying to grasp vast time and imagine bones articulated, covered in tissue, and moving a live animal through the landscape. I’m good with the screaming.

Then it was time to head to nearby Saskatoon Island Provincial Park to find a campsite.

Saskatoon Island has a walk-in tent camping area right by the lake. I felt like Goldilocks wandering through to find the best site. I was the only one in that section. I found a nice little private site, set up, and had a quick dinner before checking out the trails. I found waxwings, deer, a rabbit, ducks. I heard kingfishers somewhere. I did not find one of the moose they warn you about that evening. No, it wasn’t until I tried to sneak down to the water after dark to see if the aurora was out that I had stepped into the path of a moose. Fortunately, it let me scramble back up the path to my tent.

The trip was settling in now. Maybe setting up the tent made it real. Or the first museum visit. I had that “really away” feeling- finally.

  • A yellow tent is set up on the grass by a brick red picnic table with stuff on it.

Chapter 1: Snohomish to Blue River

Hitting the road with a little extra baggage and an unwanted passenger.

Important notes: This is installment #2 about a road trip to Wood Buffalo National Park and back. The straight up tourist info stuff will be posted here . This is the story stuff.

And some names are changed to protect the guilty.

Watercolor map showing Snohomish WA and Blue River Campground, with my driving route shown as a blue line.
The drive from my home to Blue River, BC is short enough to make it a destination for a long weekend trip.

It’s a short run to the Canadian border from my house if I head straight north. I avoid the Peace Arch crossing unless I am going bird watching in Delta. It’s too busy, with uncharacteristically unfriendly border guards. This time, I sailed through the border at Sumas.

Uncomplicated border crossings are one blessing of becoming a boring middle aged woman. I had far more trouble when I was younger and likely to be the target of drug dealers (“can you carry this bag over the border for me” is a real question I’ve heard). The younger guards make half-hearted attempts to snare you with questions about how a dinosaur dig is run or the actual location of Wood Buffalo National Park. When you blather on with happy paleontology chatter or your driving route to Northwest Territories, complete with scenic stops, they wave you through without examining your car full of gear. I won’t be abusing this privilege any time soon because I know they keep records.

You know you are in wild British Columbia when you reach overpasses like this one.

Blue River was the first stop on my drive to Northwest Territories. I selected it as a potential short trip destination. This small town is short day’s beautiful drive from my home, and definitely worthy of a longer return trip. While it was a stopover on this trip, it is an outdoor recreation destination. Summer offers hiking and paddling, river ecotours for wildlife viewing. Winter offers cross-country skiing and snow-sledding.

View of a smooth rock face sweeping above the
The drive to Blue River included sweeping mountain views along the way.

Blue River wasn’t a town when indigenous peoples would have cherished the area for the abundance of wildlife- and likely fish- at the confluence of the North Thompson and (of course) Blue Rivers. It became a hub for fur trading and later, the railroad. In the 1940’s, interred Japanese Canadians were put to work building the Yellowhead Highway that forms part of the Trans-Canada transportation system. Blue River is supported by logging, transportation, and tourism.

I didn’t have time to do much at Blue River besides survey the area for future trips. I drove and walked to chart out what I would do on a long weekend holiday sometime next year. Evening and rain were falling.

Right before turning in, I walked out of the campground to find an eerie protest scene. I know the story- indigenous peoples among others (including my state) are protesting an expensive boondogle of a project to parallel an existing crude-and refined-oil pipeline and extend it to the coast. Once a private project by Kinder-Morgan, the controversial project was taken over by the Canadian government to the tune of billions in taxpayer funds.

Image of a road blocked by an SUV and signs that say "unceded SECWEPEMC territory" and "man camps=violence against women".

The protest at Blue River focused on indigenous rights and man camps. Temporary concentrations of workers across oil country has resulted in short-lived population booms at dubious camps that attract a broad range of sins, just like early pioneer towns. Or some college fraternities. Bad things can happen, especially to indigenous women.

I photographed the red dresses hanging in the forest and the protest signs as the night fell. I heard voices but saw no one. I realized standing there in the rain that I couldn’t be too judgy about Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, having driven there in a fossil-fuel driven vehicle built of mined and manufactured materials. At what cost?

I had chosen family-friendly Blue River Campground as my stopover. It was casual and inexpensive, with a shower room for campers. I rented a small camping cabin instead of setting up my tent. Cheap and convenient.

And very necessary since I really was not well.

A driveway runs between cabin buildings, with a forest behind and a mountain towering over the scene.
Blue River Campground, in the valley below some beautiful British Columbia Mountain landscape, before the rain started falling.

I bought my house 19 years ago from a couple notorious for their drinking. She was a mean drunk; he was violent. They drank every day in the short time I knew them. Morning started with coffee, then beer. Mixed drinks appeared by midday, straight hard liquor by mid-afternoon. She lathered family and neighbors with insults and profanities. He muttered and swore, occasionally whirling red-faced on anyone he imagined might be Viet Cong.

I learned this only after signing the agreement to let them rent for thirty days. They said they needed time to pack up a quarter century of belongings and memories. She showed me a closet full of frothy finery and photographs from her days riding costume class in Arabian horse shows. The house was filled with hearts and flowers, the yard littered with garden gnomes and homey plaques, perhaps to counter her poisonous malice toward all of humanity.

Costume class: a modern rendition of a long tradition that requires a trained horse and skillful rider. From Wikimedia Commons, Montanabw [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The barn was full of clutter except for a corner of the hay loft where armchairs and tables offered a place to watch the sun set over the river from an incongruous picture window. I cleaned out piles of cigarette butts and used hypodermic needles lining the rafters above. An addict’s man cave.

I moved two containers of debris and bad memories from the barn after the previous owners left.

I feared Kevin the most during the week before they threw a boozy moving party for friends and left early. In that time, I was caring for one of my horses and building paddocks for the rest of the herd to move in. If Kevin wandered by in the afternoon and sensed a threat, he would whirl on me, roaring incomprehensibly…then slur an apology and stumble away, eyelids sagging and red.

It was a good thing I did not know about the hot tub incident then. My now-beloved neighbor told me how Kevin shot a man in a drunken rage. He imagined the man was flirting with his mean wife at a liquor-fueled hot tub party. The man’s back took the bullet; the hot tub was intact. The victim was airlifted to our Harborview trauma center by helicopter from the back pasture. Kevin did 3 years in jail. The victim never walked again. Kevin was out now, and they were leaving the house and the memories behind.

My homestead is a more peaceful place now. And I have good reason to need that peace.

My immune system is Kevin. I live with a belligerent, paranoid, twitchy drunk within. My Kevin has a nemesis, too: not the Viet Cong, but Gram-positive bacteria that sneak in via skin wounds. When Kevin sees them he blows up, throwing glasses and tables and chairs. If it gets too bad, he whirls on me as the enemy and comes out swinging.

The only way to stop the chaos is to coldcock Kevin, dropping him flat until he sobers up. It’s only been once that Kevin really blew it, 13 years ago. This year, I blew it.

On a late-May trip to Alberta detoured by rain, wind, and snow, I didn’t think too much about bugs. I had only one nice weather day, during a visit to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. There were a few mosquitoes. Days later, when my shoulder stung on a hike in Waterton National Park, I assumed my camera and backpack straps were chafing. That raised bump I could feel? Probably a blood blister.

Horse petroglyph, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a World Heritage site in Alberta.

It was only when I arrived back home a week later that I looked closer. The blood blister seemed to be moored only on one side, so I pulled- and pulled it off. In true horror movie style, the legs of a bloated, long-embedded tick wiggled at me in protest.

A car driving on a winding, slick road in mist and fog brakes.
Note to self: even if your whole vacation has weather like this, do a tick check every single day. Here, driving through the National Bison Range in Charlo, MT.

The pathogen had already worked its way from the tick’s mouth parts under my skin, but the urgent care doctor mistook infection for bruising and decided to be conservative about prescribing antibiotics. The next day, angry red streaks raced toward the lymph nodes in my armpit. Kevin looked up from a long, sober slumber.

By the time the infection was under control, Kevin was out of it and coming for me. On the worst night, I drove home from work exhausted, feverish, and in crippling pain. I had left the door unlocked and ajar that morning, knowing I wouldn’t have the strength to turn the key in the lock and twist the knob. I pushed the front door open with my shoulder, shuffled to the couch, and laid down fully clothed for the night. I was too weak to fix dinner, take a shower, climb the stairs to my bedroom. I lay there breathing, listening to the air rasp back and forth across my throat, wondering if I would wake up the next morning.

The only home I have ever owned has been a sanctuary for me through some trying times.

I did, and decided to take control and break some rules. I broke into emergency travel meds and called my doc to demand reinforcements. Within hours, Kevin was down for the count, sullen and subdued. Two weeks later, he had retreated back to the addict’s man cave.

But the bacterium was still there. Pathogens are talented at hiding in systems built to expel them. They lurk in lungs that should cough them out, settle in pooling urine that should flush them, swim among our intestinal flora and suddenly stage a coup. They shield themselves with biofilms or spore coats, sometimes hiding under lesions we build to wall them off. This one settled somewhere south of my kidneys.

When two rounds of antibiotics failed to prevail, we cultured to identify the enemy. The day before I left on this trip, my doc called me as I sat among train commuters traveling home from work. She sounded befuddled, said it was a really odd one. Notoriously drug-resistant. I couldn’t ask for more detail with everyone looking at me. Train riders abhor medical discussions, and it would be too late to call once I got home. She would post lab results and send me with a drug and a back up.

I asked the obvious- should I really travel into the hinterlands? She thought maybe yes, and she had spent years serving remote villages in Alaska. She should know, right? She was going on vacation, too. “I’ll see you when I get back, Miss Monica,” she said.


In my simple little camping cabin at Blue River, I curled up shivering in winter weight clothing and a puffy sleeping bag. The cabin’s portable heater blew hot air full bore as the rain fell outside. I fell asleep and dreamt of red dresses flowing languidly in a chilly breeze among the dark trees in a damp forest.

I had made it. I got myself on the road and was leaving the cocoon of home. I was on my way.

Finding solid ground in Saskatchewan

Sometimes, being a runaway and accepting the kindness of strangers brings you home again.

Filmstrip0001You look up from your breakfast cereal as a 7-year old and your mother tells you you’re a helium balloon.

“You will always need a hand to hold that balloon string,” she says. “Or you’ll just drift away on the breeze.”

My mother knew early on that I would never really be settled. To make it in this rigid world, I would need ties to something solid.  When her steady hand vaporized in a terrible accident, I knew those ties wouldn’t likely be human anymore. I made it on my own, and settled in with what I could live with:  horses, dogs, wildlife, career.

On left are the first horses of my life, strolling through small town Midwest like you do. On right is the last horse, when he and my nephew were about the same age.

I earned my way and gave back a lot of volunteer time. I traveled, learned new outdoor sports, and almost bit the dust a few times. When my first career betrayed me, I found a new one to support my home, hobbies, and animal companions.

Then slowly, I lost one animal after another to age and illness.  After awhile I didn’t replace them; it was tiring being the Noble Queen of Death. Twenty years after he arrived, my last horse died in agony at my feet this spring. I watched him chained up into a truck bed and hauled away. Now it’s just me, the wildlife, my doubts, and my job.

After Larkey died, my unmoored balloon went adrift. The first week, I donned my barn clothes by habit every morning, but there was no one to feed. I didn’t go out to his paddock when I got home from work. There was no one to turn in, and nothing but signs of struggle there.

I was wracked with guilt about the ten thousand lost moments when I could have done something better for him after his brother died. All the times I worked too long, rushed chores, and left him to eat dinner alone. Sometimes I left him alone for my travels.

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I spent the whole first summer at my new house cleaning out and repairing the barn. It is nothing fancy, but I am very blessed as a once poor kid to have a home of my own.

I tried to reimagine the barn. I planted flowers in his feed bins. I left the doors open day and night because closed, it looked like a tomb that might trap him if he ever decided to come back.

LarkeyFlowers07012018Still, nightmares drove me sleepwalking to feed ghosts in the barn. Reassuring daily routines ended. I had failed Larkey. I failed all of them. Everyone and everything.

Before I drove myself crazy, I did what comes naturally: pack up and go. I’m guessing most folks don’t take two back-to-back 1000- mile road trips to Saskatchewan just to get away. But that first drive in June meant hours to daydream, the ghosts disappearing in between the highway lines flowing past the rearview mirror.

IMG_3672And Saskatchewan welcomes wandering souls looking to lose themselves to endless sky and mysterious lands. The northern reach of the Great Plains, southern Saskatchewan is scoured by ancient glacial floods and swept constantly by wind. Where the land is not broken for crops, dinosaurs sleep in shallow soil beneath the bones of bison and the stones of tipi camps.

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I could live there. Frenchman Valley, Grasslands National Park, rainbow after a storm.

On a few high plateaus, forests cluster against potential invasion by the surrounding plain. The Frenchman River bends upon itself in a tight ribbon, winding through dry country on its way to meet the Milk and the Missouri.

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A thousand miles from my house, the Frenchman River winds through a windswept, peaceful landscape.

After storms roll over the land, emerging sunlight light illuminates the rivulets of long-evaporated torrents. After the wind and lightning, sometimes stinging hail, you can step into the low sun and let grief rise on the wind and draw into the retreating clouds.

EastBlockStormLest you think I wallow in drama, know that I am damn good at putting on a face and going through the motions. I made it through college finals two weeks after my mother was killed. I lent a shoulder and an ear to anyone who needed it when a friend shot herself. I’m a pro. I don’t cry.

And I know how to occupy myself while the worst of the hurt fades.

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Need perspective on how trivial your life and cares are? Hold a 65+ million year old fossil.

So it made perfect sense to return to Saskatchewan when a budding Parks Canada paleontologist told me that Grasslands National Park hosts a fossil hunting week in August.  Hunt for dinosaur fossils? Sure, never done that. Never met a live paleontologist.  Hang with the visitors and locals who come for barbecue and music on Saturday? Perfect. I could have fun playing science tourist, put on a face, and forget.

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Familiar beefy butts of ranching horses.

Then my mask got knocked a little sideways when the horses started arriving for the Saturday wagon rides.  These are tourist rides. Not long rides, but long enough to make you wonder how the backs of westward-bound pioneers did not break as their wagons rumbled across on the prairie. At the turnaround point, a young interpreter gives a short talk about grasslands. Other local folk bring their horses and ride along.

A rancher with one arm packed in a sling rode a white horse. No, they don’t need shoes here, she answered.  It’s dry enough that their feet don’t go soft and sag, get bruised by rocks and then abcess. And shoes would be terrible fire hazard, with metal spraying sparks from rocks. Of course, I said. She knew what rain rot is, and why our West Coast horses wear blankets when the skies cry all winter.

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Left to right, a Clydesdale, Percheron, the dun horse, and a good ol’ fashioned bay Quarterhorse. Oh, and really uncomfortable people on a wagon.  There is a reason pioneers were often seen walking beside wagons.

Then there was the dun horse.  I know what dun is: a gene that dilutes the hair color but leaves a pattern of dark hair in a dorsal stripe and ear tips. Tail and legs can be dark, with a “primitive” zebra pattern on the lower legs. I know this from books, but I’d never met one. It’s a different color, subtle, maybe not flashy enough for some of the more chrome-conscious horse folks I’ve known.

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The dun horse on right- you can see the leg striping.  I forgot to ask why everyone cuts tails short- we spend a lot of time and money on tail bags to make them long. Lots of folks here talked about riding rodeo, where long tails could be a problem.

I asked Mr. Norris if he was raising his horses, but no, he said they were bought. The family had given up on horses and used ATVs. He still rode. He asked me if I had horses.

“No, lost the last one. Likely bad colic, couldn’t do anything by the time I found him. You know how it goes.” I looked away at the hills.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

We got back from the short, joint-wracking ride with time to spare before the barbecue. I sat on the porch of my rental tent cabin and watched the wagons and riders leave again. After they returned, a jackrabbit thought triggered me to grab my camera and go down to the gathering place.  I found Mr. Norris and his dun horse.

“Do you mind if I take a photo or two of your horse?” I asked. “I do some art, and I’d like to sketch your horse.  I’ve never seen a dun before.”

I couldn’t tell him I lacked the heart to put my own to paper or canvas.

He helped me get the horse’s attention, because a horse will always back its ears up and lay them flat when it sees a camera.  They’re not like kids today, who spring into a pose when a lens appears. It’s beneath horses to clown for cameras.

Then Mr. Norris handed me a rein and just said, “Here, hang on to this.” He walked away.

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Study of the patient and helpful dun horse.

I wouldn’t get on someone else’s horse unless expressly invited, but I wondered anyway. Instead, I did post duty and held the horse, carrying out what even the most outwardly polite, well trained horse appreciates: ear scratching.

“Getting on that widow maker?” asked a wagon driver.

I smiled and rubbed the horse’s neck, watching for the eyelid droop that signals a polite horse is grateful.

When Mr. Norris came back, I handed the reins back and thanked him.

He swung up into the saddle for the next ride along and said, “You know what Winston Churchill said, right? The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Or in your case, a woman.”

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You can see the park fire danger sign behind these Percherons- level at “extreme”. There is a reason these big guys aren’t wearing shoes!

And it finally stopped. The bleeding inside, the catholic guilt. Something closed up, something quieted down. Without meaning to, Mr. Norris and his dun horse rode off with my ghosts and buried them somewhere in the sunburnt grass, the dusty ancient floodway, lying out there with the dinosaurs and the bison bones.

I went to the barbecue, and sat peaceful for the paleontology talk and music by local folk. It was like being back in small town Midwest again, only with science.

When I drove into my yard a few days later, the barn stood peeling in the sun. It was just a messy, neglected building needing painting and a good cleanout. Barn swallows, garter snakes, and bats ruled it all summer. Mud nests bulged from rafters. Occasional domes of guano ate at the concrete aggregate in the aisle. Feathers drifted in puffs of breeze.

Dusty water buckets and empty brush bins leaned unsteady in crooked stacks. The tarps still laid balled up on the floor from that last numb run to the dump with blankets and halters.

BarnSnakes

It was just a barn again. Labor Day was coming. I could start cleaning it then.

I closed the doors.

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Road tripping

Road trips are my salvation.

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May 2017- The road trip is my salvation.  I live a typical West Coast life, with long work days peppered by emails or filled with meetings.  Every day I commute for a long time on a slow train, having long ago tuned out the automatic announcements about feet on the seats and unattended packages.  There is always something undone at work or at home.

Driving a big, lonely interstate across three states means a chance to unwind in the continuim of big scenery winding by. I can mull over my life, let the daily chores go, shed the herky jerky of everyday life.

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We need more of these:  Animals’ Bridge on the Flathead Reservation, protecting wildlife from our speeding cars.

Of course it would be quicker to fly, and maybe more sustainable, in the parlance of green guilt. But the airport experience would mirror my everyday life and I would arrive too quickly, as preoccupied as when I left home.

And if I flew, I would miss humanity’s roadside expressions. Displays catch the eyes of passing travelers, whether to declare a position, share history, prompt a laugh, send a greeting, or mourn a tragically departed loved one. You may be just a make, model, color, and license plate passing by, but everyone knows that for the near future, there is still a human being in that vehicle.

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So I drive for two days each way to visit Montana and Wyoming.  For some distance, I take Interstate 90 to cruise through spacious, sunny Eastern Washington, unraveling.  By the time I hit Idaho, I’m gone. I’m just an anonymous person with no real concerns except good tires, a reasonably full tank, and a place to sleep that night. I have food and camping gear if the last part of the equation falls apart.

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Because we have dinosaurs here.

On the first day of my May road trip, hardware worked into one of my dealer tires on their last jaunt before an upgrade to better tread.  I ended up at an Osburn, Idaho gas station on a Saturday evening by the air hose,  listening to a faint hiss. A nice gentleman in a worn truck, worn coveralls, and beatup work boots kindly offered to show me how my can of fix-a-flat worked.  He said he would drive on the stuff for weeks and I believed him.

Within 1/3 mile rolling forward, the gel expanded, the low tire light turned off, and I was back on my way 100 miles at 70 mph to Missoula.  At Walmart on Mothers’ Day, I cooled my heels over an atrociously salty and fatty breakfast while the tire shop repaired the breach.  I wondered which rocket scientist though biscuit gravy went well with eggs, brilliant orange cheese, and tater tots.  I wondered why I ordered it.ServiceManager

The repair cost me $10,  I never got to meet the tire center manager- apparently Johnny Depp.

Real life intruded once more on a remote gravel road in Montana.  My cell phone started ringing, a surprise considering my location; apparently cell phone towers really are everywhere. I answered it because the area code was home, hoping my horse was not in trouble. Instead, I found myself on the side of the road talking to my county’s prosecuting attorneys office about the upcoming trial for the young woman who, inebriated and traveling at high speed, clipped the plastic bumper cover off my car.  The accident was a lucky miss- if she tried to navigate the corner I would likely be dead, not parked among curious cows in open range country discussing trials and restitution.

I finally got back on my way to daydream and to get used to being a human being again. I had two weeks to be that way before the long drive home, and re-entry to the universe.

When I re-enter, I am not the same person who rocketed away.  The road trip shapes and shifts me a little bit each time, and I come back subtly transformed. One day, maybe, that transformation will be a complete shift into another universe.  Forever on the road, thoughtful and watching humanity reach out from the roadside.

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Except the author is Sam Walter Ross, not Holmes.  Ross was described as writing “poetry for the common man.” So be it.

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Honey, it’s open range country and I can roam where ever I want, and you have to stop for me.  Get it?

Morning on the prairie: imagining a million buffalo

APRBuffaloCamp

September 2016- It’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

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Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

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If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

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