The Beaver dropped us off late Wednesday afternoon on Ward Lake or Bear Lake- depending on whom you ask. Jerry landed, brought the plane to a stop, unloaded our gear and he was GONE. We were left in a bushy, lakeside spot that would become home for the next number of days.
We soon set up camp and fell into the daily routine of a campy chores. Wake, boil water, hunt, start fire, eat, hike, pick berries, eat, hunt, gather firewood, survey area with binoculars, sit, read, pick, hike, eat, rebuild fire, hunt, drink wine/tea, sit, read, sleep, repeat. The sleeping tent was perched up on a slight knoll and the make-shift kitchen was marked by a noisy brown tarp. Campfire and lounge area could be found lakeside. Grayling fishing to the far right of camp, blueberry central to the left, right and behind camp. We watched caveman tv (the fire) and the beaver channel, which consisted of a family of 5-7 beavers that worked in played right before our very eyes. While we enjoyed their entertainment, they seemed rather annoyed by our presence and let us know with an aggressive whack of the tail in our general direction.
The blueberries were the best picking I have probably ever experienced. Large blue grape-like globes grew in the dwarf birch alongside the small creeks that ran down into the lake. Bunches of 7 and 8 berries could be easily plucked in a one-handed grab. I could fill both palms at the same time, rather quickly, with proper body placement in the right patch. While I started with one berry bowl, I quickly moved to two and did not return to camp until both were spilling over. I carefully balanced an overflowing plastic bowl in each hand and later found that with each bowlful I was securing 2 1/2 cups of berries. Therefore, it would take me 15-50 minutes to accumulate 5 cups of berries. I came home with a 5 gallon bucket of berries and then some.
David hunted morning, afternoon and evening, sometimes by ancient skiff and other times on a walk-about around camp. We'd watch him move farther and farther away and then get closer and closer to camp hours later. The girls bounced from reading and drawing to fishing or berry picking to fairy house building and roaming freely on the edges of camp. Hours were spent making potions in a 5 gallon bucket and hunting for, carving and whittling the perfect staff. I moved between reading and picking and fire-tending- maybe my favorite camp thing to do.
Sadie honed her bone-finding skills. Her future is bright in the art of skull, antler and jaw exploration. She spent many minutes wiggling moose and caribou teeth loose from their jawlines. Maren caught upwards of 20 grayling, keeping some in a 5 gallon habitat for observation before releasing them back into the small lagoon below the lake.
The colors in the hills were so rich and bright and vibrant. When the sun lit the land with its' bright rays, the colors were illuminated in bright reds, oranges, yellows and lime green. I was reminded of the feeling in spring when the sun's rays return and the light feels so good on the skin. The colors of autumn soak one in such awesome hues that one's eyes receive a sensory overload of coloration. With each passing day the colors got brighter and deeper and more widely spread. Autumn truly is the season of color.
The sky was such a sight. Depending on weather and time of day, the sky never failed to amaze. The reflection of the lake only added to the dimension of the landscape. The first two nights were reasonably warm, but when the cold settled in for the second two nights, a mist developed in the evening, creating a middle layer between land, water and sky. Binoculars provided a sharper landscape for the human eye. We watched moose and caribou roam the distant hills, beaver, loons and caribou swim in the lake and swans, kingfishers, eagles, ospreys, jays and kestrels navigate the sky.
A gunshot fired in the distance late in the morning of our last full day. Even in the silence of the wilderness, I second-guessed whether or not I had truly heard the loud, disruptive noise. As to plan, I turned on the walkie-talkie and waited to hear. Nothing for minutes. "Hello. I shot a caribou," David's quiet voice finally called. Just a mile a way, he came back to camp, gathered family and supplies and we all anxiously followed him back to the caribou.
He led us along and above the creek that began behind camp, through the short spruce and dwarf birch, to a glorious golden meadow divided by a meandering creek. I only knew the animal lay creek side and I anxiously anticipated the moment my eyes found it. The sight of the caribou collapsed on its side took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. It wasn't the sadness I expected, but more of a gratitude and awe for the environment and the animal and my family experiencing this together.
And then the work began. David quickly went to work field-dressing the animal. I found myself gaping at his handiwork until he threw me a pair of rubber gloves and instructed me to pull the skin back. I couldn't take my eyes off the inside of the animal; the muscle, the fur, the tendon and cartilage. By removing its skin we allowed the warmth of its body to escape and thus release the last of its life. This felt like important, humble work. I served as David's assistant, retrieving game bags, spraying meat and placing raw flesh in clean white sacks. I thought I would cower and gag and become disinterested, but David was meticulous in his work, at times talking his way through the process, but not talking to me. It was something to see.
Sadie moved closer and closer to the kill site, finally becoming fully engaged in the bloody carcass. Maren stayed a safe distance away, but kindly checked on me with the thumbs up and down sign. Even though I responded with nothing but thumb ups, she never got involved and in her words, found it " rough."
David loaded my pack in preparation for the return to camp. The meat would be hauled back to the hanging racks and secured with a bear fence. Two hind quarters strapped to my back, a half set of ribs in one hand balanced by the 45-70 in the other, I was quickly winded. Meat and bone are heavy. Lifting my legs over soft tundra and around fallen logs and roots, I quickly felt the familiar fatigue of the last hours of a 100 miler. One step at a time, ignore the back and shoulder pain. This was a small caribou and it crushed me.
This was a proud moment for our family. This is where the words become more challenging to find to express the feelings of thankfulness, hard work, independence and togetherness. It was a calm, quiet, humbling moment. A moment of feeling very small, in a vast natural world.
This was an amazing 5 days for our family. I understand why David holds this time precious in his yearly plans. Our girls had an individual experience that they determined on their own. We just got them to the location and they made it their experience. For that we are very proud. We were together as a family in a way I think we can only be in a place like this. Our regular chores and routines and schedules were replaced with whatever we created at any given moment. A rhythm was created without discussion or plans, we just were.
As Jerry arrived to pick us up a little later than planned, I cried at the sight of the plane. I did not want to leave. As we flew back to Glenallen, I took in every last bit of landscape, every sight.
The girls seemed happy, but reluctant to leave. They made their dad promise to come back next year. He happily did.