The race is on and the loser will not take it likely.
I look at Sam out of the corner of my eyes, trying to gauge him without letting him clue in. It’s important to appear natural and unconcerned. I yawn, stretch my legs and take another sip of coffee.
There: his eyes are flitting around the cabin. He is clearing his throat and takes a deeper breath. He rolls his shoulders back. When he brushes the bread crumbs off his pants and is just about to get up, I slam down my coffee cup on the table and triumphantly rush past him to grab the door handle. I beat him!
“I’ll get the wood in,” I say, trying in vain to hide the grin plastered across my face as I quickly shove my feet into my boots and grab my jacket. Sam shoots me a dark look, cranky that he lost. Never does splitting wood become more popular in our household than in late winter. Usually a chore done at some time during the day, often just before it’s getting dark, it has inched up in our schedule to right after breakfast time now. With a slight feeling of panic I wonder if Sam will soon take to getting up in the night and chopping wood by the light of his headlamp, just to be the one who does it.
Equality is to blame for this chore having turned into a bone of contention. It’s not that we love splitting firewood so much that we feel devastated when the other person beats us to it. No. It’s because it means that the person not splitting wood will have to go and get the day’s supply of water.
A task that many Yukoners are thoroughly familiar with, it involves chopping through last night’s skin of ice that has formed on the waterhole, dipping the buckets in, and hauling the water back to the cabin. Not much of a hardship during early and midwinter, when the hole is still nice and big. The later in the season, however, the trickier it gets. The ice grows in steadily from the sides, closing in more and more until it becomes almost impossible to submerge the bucket.
That’s the stage where serious waterhole maintenance comes in and where the hole procedure (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun) becomes loathsome.
It’s vital to chop away the ice every few days, with the axe and chisel, to enlarge the hole. It’s a task that involves bending low and, while doing so, striking hard at the encroaching ice to chip it away (which is why I hate it – it takes me about a full minute to straighten out my back after one such session). It’s also a procedure that tends to send up fountains of water which inevitably rain on the person connected to the end of the axe handle (which is why Sam hates it – he has an uneasy relationship with cold water).
The end result, no matter who does it, is a peeved, wet person. Chopping firewood, on the other hand, leaves you completely dry unless you work so hard as to build up perspiration. It’s also not as backbreaking. Which is why the popularity of splitting wood rises in strict correlation with the shrinking of our waterhole.
The daily fight for the woodpile is a direct result of our effort to share the household tasks that come with bush life, to make things fair to both of us. Lucky me: I’m rereading Gorillas in the Mist and just stumbled across the paragraph about the village women having to get both water and firewood. I did not tell Sam. I trust he won’t read this column.
He’s been trying to argue that I have to get water more often because I use more of it, being a cleanly person. I’ve been holding his fetish of dishwashing against him, a tiresome activity that wastes endless amounts of water. Neither of us wants to give in. Instead, we up the ante each day by rushing to the chopping block earlier and earlier.
The solution, of course, would be to simply rotate the chores day by day. Equal suffering for both of us.
But with April not too far off the horizon, it hardly seems worth it.
With any luck, I can beat Sam to the woodpile a few more times yet.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.