Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thrifty Acres: Four Seasons North

Hello! Not sure why, but I'm a fan of books with a back-to-the-land theme. Perhaps this fondness stems from my early love of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Laura's family didn't go "back to the land" - rather, most of the time they were pioneers who literally broke ground on previously-unsettled lands. 

Wilder's Little House series ends in the 1880's, but people have continued their pioneering ways in the 20th and 21st centuries. Courtesy of thrift stores and estate sales, I've read books set in the backwoods of Maine, an isolated area of British Columbia, and an off-the-grid settlement made up of Amish and others who wished to forgo most modern conveniences. 

And I'd picked up this book recently at a thrift store:

Originally published in 1973, my Sierra Club Paperback Library edition came out in 1991. Four Seasons North describes the first year author Billie Wright and her husband Sam spent in the Brooks Range area of Alaska; they lived 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. As the book title suggests, the book is arranged by the seasons, beginning in the fall when the author and her husband arrive at a 12x12 cabin. The story ends the way it begins - with the waning of fall, the Wrights prepare for the arrival of another winter. 

In between, Wright writes candidly but eloquently about the passing of the four seasons. There are endless descriptions of hunting various animals, whether for meals, pelts, or hides - very little is wasted. The often-bloody tales aren't for vegetarians or card-carrying members of PETA, but I got the sense that Billie and Sam respected, rather than denigrated, the wildlife they killed. Their hunts were always by necessity, never just for mere sport. They needed to eat and keep warm!

The Wrights had very few visitors that year, though they did have friends who visited for about a month, "neighbors" who dropped in from 30 miles away (over mountain passes), the pilot who brings in supplies and mail on occasion, and a exploratory team from a proposed oil pipeline project. All visitors come by airplane or helicopter; there were no roads nearby. They do have radio, so they listen to Alaskan stations and shortwave programming from all over the world.

Perhaps because I've never lived in a very small house, I've always been fascinated by minute dwellings. Thus, I was enthralled by Wright's description of their cabin and everything that was stored in it. "The oilcloth-covered table is big enough for a wolf to be skinned, an afternoon's baking to be mixed, a caribou skin scraped, moose ham butchered, card games played. Two can write letters, spread papers about." Okay, butchered moose may not be on most folks' lists of typical tasks, but she makes their cabin sound very homey. The maxim "a place for everything and everything in its place" is apt.

But as homey as it is, the Wrights decide to build another cabin, closer to a summer water source. This they do by hand, of course. The number of jobs they do by hand is truly mind-boggling. For instance, animal pelts were sewn onto their parka hoods to create another barrier to the cold - by hand, with an improvised needle from her sewing kit. 

Cooking is done via what Wright calls a "Yukon stove" - wood, of course. Between foraging for wild-grown edibles, hunting, and foodstuffs brought in via plane, they seem to eat pretty well. Wright provides their Thanksgiving menu:

I chuckled at the first line, "Fried Arctic Ptarmigan in Country Gravy (canceled)" - the cancellation was due to Sam's inability to shoot one of that species. But it sounds like they feasted nicely  anyway!

There is no lengthy list for Christmas feasting; instead, Wright discusses of making of Christmas gifts and decorations. Being a bit of a DIY enthusiast in these areas myself, I delighted in the presents the Wrights mailed out: animal drawings on seal skins, fur hats made from caribou, a collection of sourdough recipes, sachets filled with spruce shavings, and more. With all they had to do to get ready for winter, I wondered how they had had the time to make all these gifts! (besides the hunting, there was the gathering and chopping of firewood, the repairing and weatherproofing of the cabin, etc. - plus the ongoing "office work" - journals and other paperwork both did related to career interests. And somehow Wright found time to do some rug-hooking!)

I was also delighted with the holiday decor Wright fashions out of odds and ends: "...shiny tin-can lids, decorated with scraps of colored yarn and paper", "green garlands festive with strands of bright red yarn, strings of crimson wild cranberries and four large letters cut from the red cardboard box: "N-O-E-L." 

Wright also crafts Christmas ornaments from "bright, glossy advertising brochure papers of all colors". The Christmas tree itself is of tabletop size, consisting of "lovely fragrant spruce fronds standing tall and graceful in a pepper-red tobacco can..."

The supply plane comes just in time to deliver Christmas gifts from family and friends - books, clothes and enough non-perishable goodies to open a small gourmet food store. Although the Wrights indulge in sampling smoked oysters, cheese and other treats, they soon realize "We need caribou and fat." And caribou is what they have for their Christmas Eve dinner - in the form of marrow from a pot of caribou bones. That may sound rather crude to us, but they clearly enjoyed this bill of fare. 

It was cheering to me that they observed these two major holidays so well, when it was just the two of them in such an isolated area. But against the backdrop of the festivities is the reality of winter settling in. They would eventually endure temperatures of 65 below - and this in a cabin lacking central heat. Sam has a frostbite scare at one point, but comes through with no lasting damage. The Wrights endeavor to keep the cabin as warm as they can, but eventually "We turn in two hours earlier than usual to try to escape the inescapable icy pall that has permeated the cabin..." Whew! Words to remember if and when we get hit with another polar vortex this coming winter. 

And when I grumble this winter about how short the days are, I'll remember Wright's description of how short their days became - for example: "Yesterday, the full day's passage of the sun above the horizon lasted only ten minutes. Today the sun has vanished." 

I'm not sure what date it was when this so-called "long night" began, but it seems to be sometime in November. The Wrights have to adjust to their "grayed-down world", but accept this as a matter of course.

Nevertheless, they rejoice when the sun returns sometime in February: "The blue-black winter look of spruce turns warm green in an instant. I thought the trees were black because they were frozen. It was the absence of sunlight. We hurry outside, and the whole world lights up."

Spring eventually arrives, and with it the building of a new cabin. They befriend a fox. Edible plants are foraged. Nasty mosquitoes arrive. The last of the lake ice melts on June 12th, so fishing commences. The mosquitos get even worse. And the days get longer - a sunrise of 3:30 am is recalled. 

Friends arrive and stay for a month. They have to adjust to the Wrights' way of life: "Though...exhausted from their long journey, they were eager to help with the caribou butchering, astonished to find themselves preparing their own food in daylight midnight." 

I think I'd be astonished too if I were asked to help butcher a caribou after I'd just arrived as a house guest somewhere! But this is no "somewhere", of course - it's the wilds of Alaska. One highlight of the visit is a week-long back country camping trip. The excursion is 60 miles round trip, over very rugged and mountainous terrain. I got exhausted reading of the trip, but it appeared that a good time was had by all.

And I sure had a good time reading this book! At first, I thought it'd be one of those books returned to the thrift store when I was done with it, but no, I decided that this one will be a keeper. I thoroughly enjoyed it - probably the best "back-to-the-land" book I've read -of the 20th/21st C variety, that is. (The Laura Ingalls Wilder books are in a class by themselves!)


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