a lifelong commitment to the north

It's a regular white-out. The trees close to our cabin keep blurring in the driven snow, then reemerge during a lull; dodging in and out of view.

It’s a regular white-out. The trees close to our cabin keep blurring in the driven snow, then reemerge during a lull; dodging in and out of view. Every time I open the door (which is lots of times: to let the dogs in and out, to get more wood in, to go pee, to get water, to get food from the cooler-turned-freezer), gritty snowflakes prick like needles in my face. A small cloud of snow blows into the cabin each time, only to succumb immediately to the warm air.

I’ve been going about the chores today with my eyes squinted and shoulders hunched, snow melting on my face, shaking myself like a dog every time I come back inside. Water has pooled on the worn floor where the snow has melted off our boots, melted and dripped off our jackets and hats. It’s the kind of day that makes you stoke the stove more than is really necessary, just out of defiance; a day where you cling fiercely to the thudding warmth of life inside yourself.

It’s also strangely exhilarating to feel that stormy embrace of winter. I’m prone to reading books about the North and the Arctic at this time of the year – it seems particularly fitting somehow. With the dogs snoring softly and the stovepipe ticking with heat, I follow the adventures of the story, the exultant descriptions of the North which in many non-fiction books are nothing short of a declaration of love.

Oh, how glowingly the authors write about the beauty of the wilderness, the joys of a simple life, the animals. The North, they declare, is a truly special landscape, a place of meaning and purity to them, the region that they love. It is then at the latest that I flip to the back of the book for the short blurb about the writer and almost without fail, that’s where it says they live in California, Banff, New Brunswick or some other near-tropical place. And every time this happens, I begin to wonder about the glowing sentiments expressed in the book.

If it all means so much to you, why don’t you live here? And since you don’t, how much of what you wrote is really true for you? It is a bit like the unfaithful husband who declares himself to love his mistress more than anyone – but is unable to commit to her. For all the excitement and passion, for all her surpassing beauty, apparently the most important, vital thing is still missing. Otherwise, wouldn’t he make his life with her?

Sam takes a more benign view of this phenomenon and says that people’s interests and preferences change throughout their lives. Maybe after a certain time of hauling water in buckets, calling bears by their first name and bushwhacking across the northern landscape, they had lived their dream and were ready to move on to different things.

It still smacks of fraud to me. Either you love it or you don’t, I argue. How much insight can you have into a place that you just breeze through briefly, over a series of summers or a couple of years? Doesn’t that leave you nothing more than a tourist?

Wouldn’t it be weird to be looking out at Vancouver highrises from your condo while waxing poetically about the true meaning of the North? If wilderness and a free lifestyle has meant so much, how can you trade it for in for milling hordes of people, bad air and manicured city parks?

What I would like in these books is an epilogue. Where light is shed on why the mistress got left behind in the end. Did she start to give the author a hard time too often, was she too demanding? Did she change? Is he off to another fling elsewhere or has he settled down where he came from?

And does she miss him? Of course he wouldn’t know. But I wonder about these relationships between ourselves and the land we live on, live with. Surely it knows us in its own ways. Those trees outside feel my footsteps on the ground everyday as I walk by, the moose have seen me often, my fingers rake through the berry bushes every fall.

I don’t know what, if anything, this means to them. I can only tell that as the daylight wanes and the snow still flies in squalls at our cabin, the land is in a very different mood than it was only yesterday.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.