Chapter 3: Grand Prairie to the 60th Parallel

Finding myself back in a long-forgotten place I once knew

My third day included driving from the Grand Prairie area in Alberta into a new province: Northwest Territories.

As I continued north in Alberta, something felt hauntingly familiar. You worry about this feeling as you get older, wondering if some sort of neurological decline is setting in. It did not really gel for me until I reached the 60th Parallel that I had traveled to a place I already knew.

When I was 12, my mother decided abruptly- as, on a Tuesday- that we would leave the rat race of Chicago and move to northern Minnesota. By Thursday we were back at our apartment packing up. The move might have saved my brother who was going astray with too much opportunity for trouble in the city. It might save both my brothers in a neighborhood where boys were being stalked by a serial killer.

A few years before, my mother had purchased a small cabin at Hovland, Minnesota from some hippies. She had saved everything she could find to buy a tiny place with no running water or electricity. We had spent a few summers there, with family friends tagging along. My grandparents visited once, but stayed in a tourist cabin; our place was too basic. Now we would move for real, to a place that was no place for city folk to spend a winter.

  • Aerial view of rows upon rows of buildings on the left, with a green buffer and the shores of Lake Michigan on the right.
  • Aerial view of a forested area with some small roads and dispersed buildings, with Lake Superior in the right side of the photo.
  • Aerial view of farm area along a river. My property has a growing green buffer around it.

Our years in Minnesota were no Hallmark holiday special . My mother’s high-risk move didn’t resolve as pastoral bliss, with sunbeams radiating from parting clouds at the end of an hour minus commercials. I didn’t transform into a young Rachel Carson, an urban child suddenly enthralled with nature. I never even realized I was standing in the largest biome on the planet, the boreal forest.

Way back then, I didn’t know this forest is a huge carbon sink, home for significant wildlife– and being lost to products like toilet paper.

  • Map showing northern segment of North America and the southern tip of Greenland. The boreal forest is colored dark green and extends in a belt across Canada.
  • Map is the same as previous, with a belt of white creeping in at the south end of the belt, signifying loss of forest for farming and development.

Minnesota then was the place I just wanted to leave. In my own words from some years ago:

I sat on the shores of a frozen bay along massive Lake Superior, gazing at the Northern lights shimmering across the sky. I sat huddled in an oversized, ugly snowsuit, sorel boots, wool hat, and lined wool mittens.  I was as lonely and bent toward the future as any teenager stranded in a foreign and isolated place. I wanted to be far away from trailers, cabins and shacks. I wanted to breathe without the smell of propane heaters in ice fishing huts, and the choking fumes of diesel, gas and oil that ran buzzing chainsaws, growling logging skidders, and screaming snowmobiles. I wanted to run from a strange world of drunkenness and teen pregnancy and domestic violence punctuated seasonally by the puzzled eyes of well-appointed city tourists seeking natural beauty.

Aurora over Lake Superior, 2016. RomanKahler [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

If I could dissolve into light, I imagined, I could rise to the sky like the Northern lights and catch a ride on stratospheric winds to some faraway place where my mind’s eye could already see sunlight and hear laughing, chatter, music.


We lived in a land divided, with white folk living in Grand Marais at the foot of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Grand Portage band of Chippewa Indians on remnants of their former lands by the Pigeon River. Well-intentioned city dwellers streamed in to escape their rat race, bringing their culture with: they started community theaters, reading groups, and artisan shops. Tourists flooded in during the summer to visit Isle Royale, and to cross-country ski in the winter.

The rest of the year, local people were left facing each other and facing off. Nurses from the Grand Marais hospital were caught gossiping about their patients at the Blue Water Cafe. People gossiped about my mother, a single white parent living on the rez with her kids. I learned about domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide from my classmates. I learned about turning in and eating your young from adults.

The reservation kids were slowly banished from school in Grand Marais. They would slump in the back seats in class, then slowly disappear. It wasn’t their fault. Palpable disapproval washed over them as they sat there. I could feel it sweep past and watch them turn away. We got scorned as children of a single parent, but my skin color exempted me from the worst of it. Maybe they thought we could be saved.

I spent a lot of time outdoors when I wasn’t reading or teaching myself to draw. I spent a lot of time alone. I was miserable but determined to get by. I got treed by rutting bull moose before an elder helped me understand that where wolves follow the trail moose stay away. I figured out how to deliver trash to the dump without ending up with a black bear cub in the truck. I learned to ski and fish, to skin a deer. I planted trees and worked at the local resort for money. I watched northern lights.

Bull moose are nothing to mess with. Here is a fine bull looking for someone to beat up or mate with in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. USDA Forest Service [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

The natural experience shaped me into the person I am today while the human experience left me focused on one thing: getting an education and getting out. I finally did, returning once when my mother was killed by drunk-driving teenagers and then when my brothers threw their share of her ashes into Lake Superior from the Hovland Dock.

The noise, glare, and claustrophobia of city life never suited me after that. Decades later, I bought the only house I’ve owned in river flood plain, where only a few crazy folk like me would chance it. I have spent almost two decades planting a green barrier with only wildlife and few trusted people welcome.

  • A rusty yellow cedar waxwing with black mask and beak faces left. On its head feathers rests a fragment of plant fluff, sparkling against a blue sky.
  • An adult bald eagle is flying toward a small tree with its wings spread and talons dropped for landing.
  • A flicker with red streak below its cheek looks back over its shoulder. It is standing on a rough grey surface.
  • A dark garter snake is curled up with face pointed right, eye focused on the viewer.
  • A male duck with a striking square crown flaps its wings to stand up on the water.
  • A group of white swans are feeding among brown corn stubble while one spreads its wings over them.
  • A dark hawk with striking red tail looks into the distance from its perch on a grey post.

But even in a farm with no farm lights, I will never watch the northern lights dance. A dome of artificial light from exploding communities around me obscures the night sky. We can never escape the light or the noise here.

Now here I was driving north, not fully aware I was heading to a place I already knew, a place that shaped who I am. In northern Alberta, I traveled through boreal forest, complete with moose, wolves, and bears, and northern lights. The difference this time was a lifetime of experience and real longing to be there, eyes wide open and ears listening for the call of birds and animals moving through the woods.

View from below of a dark golden eagle flying toward the right of the viewer.
A golden eagle cruises over the boreal forest hunting prey along AB 35.

The drive from Saskatoon Island Provincial Park to the 60th Parallel made for a long but interesting day. I headed northeast from Grand Prairie toward Peace River and eventually, north on AB 35.

Alberta’s roads are generally like Roman Great Ways. Vital links to resource-rich areas, they are wide, paved, and easy to drive. Hundreds of kilometers are treeless and mowed on each side to keep wildfire from jumping the road. Later in the trip, I talked to an Alberta rancher who harvested hay from the right-of-way.

Besides conferring some wildfire deterrence, the mowed areas provide great sightlines for wildlife. Ravens look as large as calves. It seems like Montana might benefit from this approach to avoid the slaughter that occurs spring and fall on their highways.

The drive changed character as I approached Dunvegan, Alberta on Hwy 2. I started to descend to the Peace River, with some warning of unstable geology.

An orange and black striped barricade blocks people from a broken part of the road.
A barricade prevents people who pull over for photos from ending up in a sinkhole.

The road is crossing the Dunvegan Formation, ancient sea bed with rich gas reserves and notorious instability. A geotechnical report from 1959 warned about conditions as a bridge across the Peace River was considered to replace a ferry system.

Eventually that bridge was built. The Dunvegan bridge, constructed of steel, was completed in 1960 as the longest vehicle suspension bridge in Alberta at 274 m.

Aerial view of Dunvegan bridge, by awmcphee [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D.

You can take a drive over the bridge and through the scenery in this YouTube video (pardon the puzzling dramatic music- and here I thought I was a little weird about road trips):

Or better yet, stop at Dunvegan Provincial Park for a visit or the night. The park is at the site of historic Fort Dunvegan, a fur trading post. While I’m no more a fan of the fur trade than I am of logging or war, I believe it is important for us to understand that history. The fur trade decimated wildlife and indigenous peoples coerced or forced to support it, and has had ramifications for the environment to today.

  • A grey sign with yellow text and graphic shows a Dunvegan Maple over three curving lines representing the Peace River.
  • An old maple with two main trunks and one broken trunk leaning to the left.
  • A cross and steeple rise above a wooden church building with fir trees as a backdrop.
  • A white statue of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown rises above a pedestal with sign, surrounded by wild rose shrubs.
  • Pink roses in bloom on a dense, yellow-green shrub.
  • A small white building with tidy picket fence stands before a sandy hill.
  • Interpretive signage and a plaque mark a view spot by the Peace River, with the yellow span of the Dunvegan suspension bridge overhead.

Historic Dunvegan District includes not just remnants of the fur trade, but also historic trees. You can touch the bark of Dunvegan Maples brought to the area from Manitoba in the late 1800’s. I wondered how many historic moments include these furrowed trees as silent witnesses in the backdrop.

I could easily spend a full day at Dunvegan, but I know there is one thing I won’t be doing: hiking the hills.


Turning onto Highway 35, I returned to parkway like-conditions alongside the road. I found that mowing is not a guarantee that epic wildfires won’t jump the highway. Increasing heat and drought create potentially explosive conditions for wildfire. All bets are off when a fire starts.

High Level looked like a good stopping point when I first put together my plan in March. But as I traveled through southern Alberta in May 2019, I heard reports that fire had engulfed the area. I decided not to risk it and set my eyes on 60th Parallel Territorial Park as my next stop.

Wildfire at high level.
This image from Wildfire Today, which I wish I had read before leaving.

What I didn’t realize is that the fire chased High Level residents out of town a couple of times, but what really burned was Paddle Prairie. As I drove through this Metis settlement, I saw people clearing burned debris and rebuilding houses. I wondered why Paddle Prairie burned while High Level was spared; some reports say that Paddle Prairie might have been more impacted by unequal distribution of firefighting resources.

Along this burned landscape, I saw people clearing charred remnants of their homes and rebuilding.

The settlers of North America were line drawers. When forced, they used natural features as boundaries. They preferred to slice and dice North America using squares, rectangles, polygons and placed abstract, sometimes arbitrary lines on paper and and on the ground.

The 60th Parallel is one of those lines. It divides the northern and southern provinces of Canada. “North of 60” is sometimes used to describe the provinces that lie closer to the pole, just as “Midwest” describes 12 states in the north-central U.S.

A simple map of Canada's provinces, with a red line marking the 60th parallel, marking a straight border between several provinces.
Bazonka [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

In addition to being an abitrary line, the 60th Parallel heralds your entry into a new province. This is marked with great fanfare as you enter Northwest Territories. Despite grey weather threatening rain and creeping tiredness, I felt welcome. I made it.

A large, colorful sign reads "60th Parallel- Welcome to the Northwest Territories". A compass pointing north is included at the right of the sign.

I stopped in the Visitor Center to check into my campsite. As usual, I looked a little silly, conditioned to reserve a spot even though I was traveling in off-season in a lightly traveled area. The woman behind the desk was friendly and funny, with great stories and good travel advice. I believe she was Metis from her stories, but I didn’t know if it was polite to ask.

The number of wildlife mounts increased at visitors centers as I moved northward. This may be due to the increased amount of wildlife you might encounter as a tourist, combined with the number of accidents and conflicts they have because of people. The nice employee gave me wildlife tips along with some tales of mistakes people made over the summer. There was the person who insisted on feeding the fox after she said it wasn’t allowed. And then a couple decided to camp in the backcountry with no preparation for bears. I would find signs of worse as I traveled.

There were few visitors. One couple making dinner in the day use area slept in their van. Another van drove up and stopped. The driver was a man who was all of 4 1/2 feet when I saw him on the ground. His van was modified to let him enjoy roadtripping like everyone else. He asked me if I knew how to pay for a site if the visitor’s center was closed. I told him I didn’t, but he could probably wait until morning. He said he had driven for eight hours and needed to turn in.

There was a potted cactus strapped into the passenger seat of his van.

A green-yellow tent with grey flaps is tied down on a light grey tent platform in a clearing with trees behind.. A matching grey picnic bench sits to the left of the tent along with a fire pit.
Tent platforms are a must in damp forested areas. I carry a ground cloth since most campgrounds don’t have them. 60th parallel was well set up for tent camping.

I set up camp on a chilly night, ate, and turned in after a walk to the river. Just as I snuggled in my bag, the raindrops started to tap on the tent fly, first a few, then rat-a-tat-a-tat. My sleeping bag was cozy and I dropped off to sleep.

Rain fell all night, then stopped at dawn. The sun was rising over the Hay River as I strolled to the lone outhouse, bundled up against the damp chill. The small man was walking with a camera to catch the sunrise. I came back with mine and we nodded hello in passing. We’re all a little different here, I thought. And that’s alright.

Sunrise illuminates the sky below a cloud layer. A wide, flat river winds among forested banks.

I walked down to the river and looked up to see a canoe on the bank. That’s when it hit me. I had come back willingly– even at risk– to a place I once refused to call home.

A deep yellow canoe lies hull upward among green, maroon, and yellow shrubs beneath an aspen forest.

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.

An unexpected journey

It was supposed to be a straightforward adventure. And then my path turned to water and light, life and death, and deep time.

My best laid plans always leave room for surprise.

Bright green arms of the Aurora Borealis spread across the starry sky over Great Slave Lake.
The aurora borealis shimmering over Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories.

It was supposed to be straightforward. I would take another road trip to a bison destination to gather blog and story map content. I would add to the project I sweated over for 18 months to publish– and then recovered from , letting it languish online for a year. My day job swelled with opportunity to innovate and lead. I suddenly found myself mentoring two college interns. I needed to divest myself of the whole Barbie Western Ranch kit after my last horse died. The country descended into surreal chaos. Too much going on to think, write, draw, communicate anything personal.

Cover image for a Story Map, with a title and buffalo staring out from the screen.
“On the Trail of the North American Buffalo” now lives on ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World.

This trip, I would take time to decompress. The interns would be back at school. I would spend more time traveling, four days driving to Northwest Territories and Wood Buffalo National Park and three weeks on the road. I meticulously penned the plan on a pre-flight wait in March. I scheduled the trip for September to avoid mosquitoes and crowds. I left an itinerary and emergency numbers with my sister, neighbors, coworkers, friends. I would check in regularly. All set.

But my journeys, no matter how strategically planned and defined in scope, always lead somewhere I don’t expect. This time, it was meant to be about wildlife, documenting travel tips, history, updating neglected blogs with new stories.

And then my path turned. The journey became all about water and light, the randomness of life and certainty of death, and deep time.

blue sky.
A golden eagle flies over the rich boreal forest of Northwest Territories.
A large wood buffalo bull walks among young aspen trees growing at the edge of the boreal forest.
A large wood buffalo bull walks among young aspens at the edge of the forest.

It will take me awhile and a few posts to unpack this journey. I packed not only my gear but also a strange and dangerous organism that dogged me all summer and almost won. I drove across a national border and turned off the news to ignore my country in historic chaos, anger, and agony. The unexpected changed my perspective at every stop.

I’m not superstitious, but I will always carry a small wooden square carved from an ancient tree, pressed into my hand by a Métis man who struck up a conversation with me. He insisted I take the square with me to ensure my survival and safe return to Canada in the future. He asked me to look up the real history of St Paul des Métis, where the tree once lived. He wanted me to share the story as far as I could. People needed to know the truth, he said.

At the time we spoke, I wasn’t sure I could do that. There might not be another trip. Ever. By that point in my travels, I felt overwhelmed, almost done in by a microscopic pathogen, and meaningless in the face of time. I wasn’t sure it mattered what happened to me. This was supposed to be a simple adventure and now I felt like a kayaker spilled into infinite rapids, grabbing a breath anytime I surfaced in the sunlight.

Then, after that conversation, the tide turned- suddenly, finally.

The sun rises over Great Slave Lake, on the shores of Hay River.

Here is the path I followed, a route that landed me in a place unimaginably old. Watch for updates as I set out on the road for my first destination: Blue River, British Columbia.

My journey from home to Wood Buffalo National Park, through the badlands of Alberta, and back home again.

Key:

  1. (A) Snohomish, Washington
  2. (B) Blue River, British Columbia
  3. (C) Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, Grande Prairie, Alberta
  4. (D) Sixtieth Parallel Territorial Park, Northwest Territories
  5. (E) Hay River, Northwest Territories
  6. (F) Peace Point, Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta
  7. (G) High Level, Alberta
  8. (H) Elk Island National Park, Alberta
  9. (I) Drumheller, Alberta
  10. (J) Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
  11. (K) Springy Point, Idaho
  12. (L) Home again!

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.

PrairieSunset

Random acts of travel

Wandering the prairie as a grasslands nomad

I drove solo to Death Valley National Park one year and spent the whole trip looking over my shoulder. I committed no crime more serious than extremely distracted driving and hiking in  a rich visual landscape of surreal abstraction and surprise.  I would pull over or wander off trail for unnatural colors, unusual textures, or just a small shrub full of butterflies sitting in the middle of a barren.

And once, passing a coworker and friend on the way into the women’s room, she asked,”Hey, do you want to go on a kayak trip in Tonga?”

“Sure, sounds cool, sign me up,” I replied. “Where’s Tonga?”

That’s my temperament, orientation, and wiring: wandering, curious, focused on nature, taking in the world through my eyes. I think I hailed from nomads, following food across the landscape. It is not the best fit for today’s linear, boundary-defined, man-made world. But it is natural for me to be attracted to grasslands,  where I can wander and find little surprises everywhere.

BrokenHills
Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, Grasslands National Park

For most, this scene disappoints:  no towering mountains or trees, no sparkling azure lakes, no man-made stuff. For people like me, it’s an invitation to explore. What’s more, I have permission from the ranger, who says that Grasslands National Park allows people to roam everywhere. Hilltops welcome after dinner strolls from camps, and tempt you from a track.

FrenchmanValleyEveningLight
Frenchman Valley, as a storm clears and lets in evening light.

And navigation is not challenging here, even without a device.  The land is heavily sculpted by water, with a distinct orientation and flow, and landmarks easily visible from the ridge tops.  On Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, the yellow trail markers guide hikers down a path, but you can roam without fear of wandering up in the wrong drainage, as can happen in my area. Perfect.

GrasslandsAerialWestBlock
You can see in this aerial view how heavily the Grasslands West Block has been influenced by water.  Imagine the flood outflow from two melting lobes of a giant glacier sending water scouring across the land.

GrasslandsAerialBelzaBW
This map illustrates what Parks Canada calls undulating prairie.  These undulations are important for prairie life. And you can see how Broken Hills got their name!

BrokenHills2
Those undulating prairies wander into water-sculpted landscapes perfect for wandering and playing rock/fossil detective (don’t remove anything).

One of my challenges hiking Broken Hills was catching up to prairie butterflies.  They are really petite and speedy.  This makes sense if you think about what they face:  drying sun, a lot of wind, and no shelter from any airborne insect eaters.  Wing size needs to be large enough to absorb heat and fly, but limited to avoid moisture loss and predation.  At least that’s my amateur butterfly scientist hypothesis.

BrokenHillsButterfly
Sorry, haven’t figured these two characters out yet!

At any rate, I know that some butterfly flowers like ridge tops, and they attract butterflies.  This happens in Eastern Washington, and sure enough, it works in southern Canada, too.

I also know the dark side of butterflies, as we humans interpret them. We poeticize them as flying stained-glass angels alighting on nectar-filled flowers.  But they need protein, too, and will find it in carnivore poop, blood, rotting meat, and so on.  Grasslands has its coyotes, as you can tell from night time howling and occasional deposits.  I never find butterflies on the furry scat, but they will land on more moist scat.

BlueButterflyBrokenHills
Lovely little butterflies waiting their turn to access moist poop, lower right.

BrokenHillsButterflyPoo.jpg
Yum. Butterflies extracting needed amino acids and other nutrients from a rich source.

Larger animals and birds frequent these areas.  Wolves and bears that roamed the land were extirpated by settlers who couldn’t imagine coexistence with predators. But smaller herbivores are stalked today by coyotes that spread across North America with human settlers.  Wary, they give hikers a chance to leave, then bound gracefully away.

BrokenHillsPronghorn
Pronghorn antelope

BrokenHillsDeer.jpg
You’ve got two seconds to leave before they’re outta here.

An herbivore that doesn’t need to fear coyotes-and can injure feckless or ignorant humans-is the mighty bison.  I’ve personally seen one stand off a pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park despite a clearly broken leg.  After awhile, the wolves gave up and ambushed an elk.

IMG_0146
Viewed from Hellroaring Creek Overlook, Yellowstone National Park, 2012.

You can find traces of buffalo throughout the prairie landscape, including poop, laydown areas, and tracks dried in once muddy areas. As a prairie detective, you can take notes on where they sleep and what paths they use.

This buffalo bull at Grasslands appears unconcerned about either the weather or people.

BrokenHillsBison.jpg

People have long wandered these lands; Parks Canada literature says the park includes 12,000 known tipi rings, and drive lines that people used to direct bison (or perhaps antelope) into traps.

brokenHillsTipiRing2.jpg
Tipi ring used by native peoples skilled in anchoring shelter on windswept prairies.

I’m not a good enough prairie detective to determine whether piles of bones are a result of natural death or hunting, or how old they are. This is a harsh environment that can fatally tax young and old animals.

The bone at lower right looks really lacy and weathered, and many appeared cracked.  I could make up a whole pile of stories about these, but really, they could even hail from the previous use of the area for ranching. Note that I moved nothing, and just took pictures.

If it doesn’t work out for an animal (or you), there are always patrolling vultures to clean up the aftermath.

EastBlockVulture

Other random finds on my Broken Hills investigation include a shed antler and various flowers.

Like people long ago, I become nomadic in grasslands. Unlike those resilient, skilled people, I am not dependent on the landscape and its inhabitants. I’m just a prairie detective, with ancient genes directing me to root around for suprises hidden in the grass.

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For a printable maps of Grasslands National Park trails and other invaluable visitor information, visit Parks Canada.

 

Rest in peace, Larkey Skip

I thought I would return from back-to-back trips to Nebraska and France brimming with stories. Instead, I came home to bathe the dead.

I was going to sit down after two disparate but rich trips, one to Nebraska and one to France, and write blog articles about amazing sights, perspective shifts and unexpected connections between the two places.  I have thousands of photographs to sort, dozens of stories to tell.

I did not expect to find myself washing the dead a week after getting off a plane from Paris.

Larkey
Larkey Skip; he earned his first name after a suprise birth late in August, and the second from his lineage (Skipper W).

The namesake of this blog, my last horse, succumbed to apparent catastrophic colic on a sunny May day. I returned home from work on a warm spring evening,  walked to the barn with a cool drink, planned to give him a good bath to scrub off shedding hair and layers of dust that brushes don’t lift. Instead I found him near death, staggering and foaming at the mouth, his eyes swollen shut. I struggled to get him to the barn, then watched him drop onto the ground as I frantically called the vet. My neighbors came to help, but it was too late. I held fingers to his neck as his pulse vanished.

Shock launched my brain into that vague survival space that protects us after trauma. The next day, I numbly wandered with my neighbor around my little town trying to find a heavy equipment operator to move Larkey so his body could be collected.

Livestock disposal is increasingly tough in an area with explosive development. Fewer facilities accept the remains.   Fewer haulers service barns and veterinary clinics. They don’t like to pick up on Fridays and get stuck with carcasses in our legendary traffic. Burial is not an option where I live, right by a river in an estuary and floodplain.

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Brothers: Tigger stands over Larkey while they sleep.

So this is the second time I have lived with a deceased horse over a weekend. People like me still want to touch farm life and buffer ourselves against endless sprawl, condo buildings blocking out the sky, and metastatic subdivisions. People raise everything from urban chickens to llamas, goats, cattle, sheep, and horses. But end of animal life poses a challenge.

To pass time while waiting for help, I anxiously collected Larkey’s supplies- blankets and brushes and first aid and washing supplies. I loaded the truck and drove to the transfer station.  My phone rang as I left the dump: someone in the rental equipment business had called someone else, and he called to tell me he could help me move the horse the next morning.

Back home, I started to focus. Larkey would go away soon, and I would never see him again.  When I lost his brother, the veterinarian had clipped a portion of tail.  A couple weeks later, a braided segment with charms arrived in the mail.

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Today, this memento is mounted in a shadow box.

This time, there was no veterinarian with skilled hands to help. It was only me, and I have never been “girly”. I’m a hard-wired tomboy, with wash and wear hair and casual dress.  I can do it up if needed, and I own business and formal wear, but my dress up doesn’t extend to hair.

The only time Larkey ever bit me was over my ineptness with hair dressing. It was the first Quarterhorse show we attended together, far from home. As a late foal, he spent his first winter in Idaho fighting with mares for food, and was always defensive about food afterward. At the show, while Larkey watched other horses eat their dinners, I struggled for over an hour to part his mane into segments and braid them. Finally done, I raised my hand to remove his halter and he unleashed his pent-up anger on my wrist. I made enough of a point that it never reoccurred, but I also never again toiled over his hair during dinnertime.

 

IMG_2488So now, 15 years after we left the show ring for a peaceful life at home, I needed to braid again. This time, there would be no biting, no matter how long it took. But first, I needed to wash the mud and blackberry canes from his tail, one terrible reminder of the struggle he went through alone. As I looked at him, I decided I would wash whatever I could reach, especially his bruised face.

 

Before institutionalized handling of the deceased, families and friends prepared the dead for final rest.  Some cultures and religions still call for bathing protocols, perhaps with purified water infused with plum or herbs. For the rest of us, our loved ones are carted away, handled in an approved facility by licensed and trained individuals wearing appropriate protective gear. Our deceased reappear as ashes or as a neatly dressed body carefully made to look natural by a stranger’s hands.

For time immemorial, horses have held powerful symbolic meaning for peoples across the world. The Uffington White Horse was created by Bronze Age peoples who dug trenches up to 3 meters deep and filled them with white chalk.

Uffington-White-Horse-sat
Photo by USGS, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Horse burial was practiced by peoples across the world, sometimes in sacrificial ritual, other times to provide the deceased person with a ride to the next world or life.

Horse_burials_and_artifacts_of_Kostromskaya_Kurgan

A Scythian burial mound in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia dates from the 7th century BC. The mound includes 22 horses carefully arranged. Chariot burials occurred in Rome and China, and the Nez Perce and Blackfeet peoples had specifihorse death rituals.

(Sketch of the Kostromskaya kurgan, or burial mound; public domain.)

Surely some people living on the margin of survival simply ate them; they may still have blessed the animal or performed a death ritual.

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Not ever doing this:  sacrificial horse pit, believed to belong to the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi who reigned from 547 to 490 BC; photo by Rolfmueller, Creative Commons, no restrictions.

I would not be following ancient peoples by skinning Larkey and stuffing the hide or creating a frame with his bones. We have regulations about those things.

But I could wash him, and now I understand the power of the bathing ritual.  Running my fingers through Larkey’s tangled tail, now clean and fresh with the scent of lavender conditioner, gently scrubbing the star on his forehead white again- it is what I would have done the night before had he lived.  He would have been tied out after a snack, arching his lip when I scrubbed itchy spots, shifting his feet to pinch off the hose, squirming if the water got cold.

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Washing the scuffed body clean felt like goodbye to my old, reliable friend. It felt like respect for my grumpy old gentleman, who endured my life’s twists and turns and the loss of his brother. Scrubbing his dead body would never cleanse the agony he went through, but it was the least I could do to apologize for not being home to help.

ImStillBoss
Tigger lets Larkey know he’s still boss even though he’s lame and has to graze in hand on a rope.

The braiding part came no easier for my clumsy fingers, but I had time to do it carefully.  Plaits of black, brown, blonde, and auburn wound together slowly.  For once, I was focused and calm as I twisted his thick tail into a tight braid. Sharp scissors sliced the braid clean below the tailbone. I hung the section in the house and unbraided the tail to dry.IMG_3393

Back in the paddock I placed Larkey’s bobbed tail on a clean white sack. I washed and dried his head one more time and laid it on a dry towel. I draped another white towel over his face and eyes. It felt like he went to sleep forever.

Rest in peace, grumpy, loyal Larkey Skip. I hope to forget your final hour, but I will never forget you. I will need to take a road trip, go to the prairie in a few weeks, to watch the sky and reimagine my life after 30 years with horses. And this blog remains a dedication to your companionship for the last 20.

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