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Word From The North

Dwelling at the Bottom of the Lake

Gratitude for the lessons of life

Van Allen Bear

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Many greetings, dear readers.

I’ll tell you a tale from this summer, a milestone tale indeed. A tale of great loss and great rewards. Good fun and solemn, sour twists.

The setting, of course: A rainy lake in the vast valleys on the northern expanse of the Alaska Range, east of the Matanuska glacier field. My good friend was to bed wed, and as you know with such things, that called for many celebratory measures! As these things go, naturally, watersports were in high order.

Water Skiing is a sport I have developed little to no skill at, so this was a perfect opportunity to try my hand. Of course, my good colleague went first, and we strapped him together and gave him a good send-off from the dock to be towed by one of the jetskis. I was manning another jetski in order to provide both moral support and lend a hand in the event of a false launch. My dear colleague made it a great distance for his first time, and we were all impressed. About a football field’s length across the water, he had lost his balance and dropped the tow line.

Not remembering that my cellphone was tucked into the breastplate of my flotation device, I dropped my phone, accidentally, straight into the middle of the deepest part of the lake while capsizing one or two times as my colleague and I struggled to properly board my watercraft. We eventually boarded and strapped him in yet again. He did well his second run, a good sport. I was next in line. With a few pointers from the gentlemen present and the demonstration beforehand, I did rather well, I do say. It was quite the time!

Upon returning to shore, I searched ’round for my cellphone, to no avail.

Much thinking, backtracking, calling, and ponderance later, I solemnly concluded that it was indeed at the bottom of the lake.

I was distraught, and separated myself from the group to take a short nap in the driver’s seat of my vehicle. 

Refreshed, I went to the edge of the water and looked out at the still, cold plane. Helplessness, was the word. Even if it was miraculously recovered, it would be of no use for it was assuredly fried. That deep feeling in the pit of your skull when you’re forced to watch a train wreck, that was all wiped away when I had such a curious thought, “why would I want it back… what had been lost?” Across my face came a smile, and a boastful laugh, “I’ve finally gained freedom from the tangle, I should have thrown the demented thing in the lake myself, and a long time ago!”

“I’ve finally gained freedom from the tangle, I should have thrown the demented thing in the lake myself, and a long time ago!”

young man, phoneless circa 2020

Photos lost, gone forever. Videos, texts, heartbreaks and heart throbs, strings tied to the higher mind–severed in an instant. Evaporated, alleviating an odd pressure. The recoiling strands were thankful to have rest once more, eager to strengthen the grasp of what was most pertinent to my immediate life and successes. It’s almost as though my consciousness was waiting for something this tumultuous to occur, for I was being too stubborn, allowing for past transgressions to roil within the forefront of my mind.

I didn’t get another phone for about 10 days even though it was necessary for work. Those 10 days were the quietest of the summer, where I had no one to answer to and could truly be off the reservation, in my own ways.

Now, dear reader, I’m not suggesting you toss your phone into the nearest body of water, or leave it on train tracks, or give it to copper enthusiasts… that’s a you thing, not a me thing. All I’m wishing to impart upon you is: helpless situations have a silver lining, and sometimes hidden blessings.

P.S. If you cannot afford to be a wildman like me, save things offline you cannot part with.

Word From The North

Beetle in the Oakwood

Van Allen Bear

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Little Bear Woodshop and I had reached an agreement, of sorts, where I send him proper currency accompanied with materials and he would use his facility to craft a pair of knives. What materials, you ask? I asked myself the same thing… If there was a knife you were going to carry with you all the time, what materials would you use? Naturally I am inclined to choose wood blanks, so I decided to take a saw to a few types of wood that were available nearby, which ended up being: mesquite, Spanish oak, cedar, and a local contact provided me with a few planks of Texan Pecan.

A fine blank, no less

So, this was going to be quite easy, I merely send the wood to the craftsman and bark some orders. Once the materials are in his hands, then he’s charged with making my cutlery. However, once showing pictures of my loot to the woodworker, I was informed that the bark had to be removed prior to both shipping and crafting. Naturally, I realized that I only had a few hours to de-bark the wood with a rotary table saw on hand. I set to it with my glasses on and table saw whirring in the garage.

The wood had been dry for quite a while, and I ran it sideways to grind off all the bark, strip by strip by strip. Curious, were these markings on the exposed hardwood beneath… what were they? Ovular and they seemed to be made of softer wood, they didn’t look to me as being natural. I began cutting the wood across the diameter of the trunk when out popped a beetle the size of my thumbnail. I was fooled, thinking this wood was in tip-top shape!

“Good Heavens, what on earth is this beetle doing in my oakwood?! What corruption is this?”

surprised man, sawing wood, circa 2020

Confused and surprised, I made more and more cuts for coasters. Lo’ and behold, there was another beetle that felt the sting of my rotary saw, and unfortunately had to take a very very long nap in the trashcan. The rest of the wood was untouched, for there were different cuts from different trees. Only some interesting ant-made markings marred the surfaces or the interiors of the other hardwoods.

As they were shipped out to and received by the man whom fabricates knives and things made from wood for a living, they were met with acclaim. The mesquite shall be turned into ladles, Spanish oak into spatulas, cedar into spoons, and a few planks of Texan Pecan shaped into Idaho State cutting boards. There are things to learn from this endeavor: never judge a cut of wood by it’s bark. It’s not that you shouldn’t trust things unseen, but be prepared to slice up a couple beetles or so through your endeavors for there very well could be all sorts of insects lurking just beneath the surface.

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Children Stories

The Heedless Woodchopper

For the Children’s Hour

Van Allen Bear

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By Van Allen Bear

The wood beyond the eastern peaks shimmers yellow in the autumn months. Lakes stretch long from the top of the valley to the south, and there are tall pines that sway in the warm breeze as their needles slowly drip one by one onto the soft forest floor beneath. The lakes have a healthy stock of trout with rainbow shimmering scales as they breech and munch on the lazy flies skittering on the surface. The skies are watched by eagles, always vigilant and steady as they soar from the valleys to their perches. Faint songs are sung from high boughs of the pines when the wind blows through. The wood harbors countless deer, elk, wolves, rabbits, squirrels, owls, and mice.

There is an interesting story about something that had happened to these woods, and had something to do with a woodchopper, however he wasn’t always called that.

You see, the wood harbors a family, and the head of that family is a man whom one could consider a woodchopper. Though he tries, he doesn’t quite pay enough attention to truly be called a woodsman, nor a chopper. He does fell trees but the man works along at a less-than-reasonable pace. The woods are rife with trees ready for chopping, but his pace surely is slow.

In the height of the spring, the woodchopper goes out from his home quite some distance to find the standing deadwood trees and clear out thickets of the wild brush. One year, on a particularly warm spring, the woodchopper headed out far from the house to a thicket that had suffered a landslide two seasons ago. The land had slid from a ways up the mountain and came to a halt in a rather flat area, off the beaten path. The trees were dead and ready for harvest, but they lay strewn about in new terrain, all bent and bundled together. This was going to be quick work, and the woodchopper made his way down to the fresh ground with only an axe and a bent claw tool. The woodchopper went to work, putting his hat on a protruding low branch, and dug his claw tool in a stump nearby his first tree.

“This is going to be an easy batch,” he thought, “all that I need to do is make a few cuts on these that are already dead and this should be the easiest bundle I’ll ever make.”

Careless, he wants the most firewood with the least amount of effort, so he finds a bigger tree than he has ever chopped before laying there in the pile of warped trunks and branches. Heedless, he goes atop the pile and began hammering away at the trunk. The woodchopper gets part of the way through and his axe loses the edge as it goes dull on the massive trunk of the dead tree. Realizing that he has forgotten his sharpening stones, he has to continue making due with an ever-dulling blade. “bang, bang, bang, bang, skrrraak!” he reeled back and the head of his axe was tumbling around inside the big pile of bundled lumber.

“You’ve got to be kidding me! I brought my worst axe and didn’t even notice!” he shouted to the sky.

Under further inspection of the handle, the woodchopper said, “no wonder it just broke, this is the most brittle axe I’ve got in the shed, I could have sworn that I brought the right one this morning, I must’ve not paid attention…” he said to himself, “what am I suppose to do now? Ah, guess I’ll go home and come back tomorrow…”

On his way off the pile of logs, he looked around to find his claw tool to see if he could drag a smaller log up the hill and have himself at least something to go home with. Around and around he looked and couldn’t find the claw tool, nowhere was it to be found. He reached for his hat on the bough and realized the ribbon had ripped on the inside brim, as it was rubbing against the sharp bark of the pine tree bough that it was resting on. He let out a low grumble and growl, having lost both his axe and claw tool and damaged his hat that day.

As he was climbing up the bank of the new earth towards the beaten path, he slipped with his right foot and slid gently back to the base of the slope. Tired and demoralized, he sat down on a bare log at the bottom. “My,” he thought as he put his head in his hands, “I had traveled so far and gotten so tired, I wish I had brought along a flask of water and a bundle of bread… I think I’ll just rest here a moment and try again to make it up this hill.” He then took a stick and cleaned the mud from under his boots.

Faintly, the woodchopper heard an unseen elk crying in the fields down the slope, and he panned the landscape but couldn’t place where the sound was coming from. Not up, not down, not left not right, and then it stopped. Nearing another clearing, he looked up to the peaks that were jutting above the treeline, then suddenly all at once the woodchopper got caught up in all the sounds and sights of nature. He saw the eastern peaks shimmering green in the springtime, the lakes stretching long from the top of the valley to the south, tall pines swaying in the warm breeze as their needles slowly drip one after another onto the soft forest floor beneath. The woodchopper could get a fair glimpse of the lakes he knew were full of rainbow trout and lazy flies skittering on the surface. He looked out towards the black wings gliding along in the skies as the eagles soared from the valleys to their perches. Faint songs were sung from high boughs of the pines when the wind blew through, and he knew, this world around him was that of no other.

Using the handle of his broken axe as a cane, the woodchopper made his way back up the bank towards the beaten path, and back to his home where he was greeted with a hot bowl of soup and his children reading a fairy-tale in the corner by the fireplace.

“My dear,” he started to his wife, “I’ve broken my axe, this brittle thing. I’ve ripped the inside of my hat, and I’ve gone ahead and lost the claw tool I brought with me. What I hadn’t brought with me was a lunch nor a flask of water… I tell you I’ve been heedlessly rummaging around about these woods too long. Thankyou for dinner, and in the morning I’ll be off with firewood in my return.”

The next morning he remembered his faults of the previous day. With a satchel full of mealtime pastries, broadaxe sharpened with a spare stone, flask slung on his back with water, and son by his side the woodchopper made his way into the warped bundle of trees down the bank.

“Son, take heed of the things you will see. I was here yesterday and made quite a fool of myself. Today you and I will harvest and clear a few piles of wood, and we will do it right, for we are within a living wood, full of elk and deer and eagles and fish and wolves and rabbits and trees and people like us. The woods have what we need, and in return we need to take care of and find a balance between what we take and what we give back.”

He said as he pointed his axe from the top of the slide zone to the base, “We will clear this slide area by the close of the summer, and in the next year it will be another thicket for the rabbits and the wolves and the bugs and the deer while we are warm and cozy all winter long.”

The woodchopper gained his title that day, as he and his son took a good helping of wood away from the warped pile and neatly stacked it under the awning of their humble home. They did this all summer, and as the eastern peaks shimmered yellow in the autumn months the slide zone was left clear for another springtime field for all the rabbits to play and the deer to bounce and the eagles to guard. That unseen elk which cried out to the woodchopper now lays to rest by bushels of berries on a carpet of grasses.

The same for all as time went on.

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Word From The North

Wolves in the Dark

An agreement, of sorts.

Van Allen Bear

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Dear readers, gather round extra close for this tale. This tale was lived-out by myself and many other young men at the time in which it took place, the tale of the wolves in the dark. One evening while canoeing a fleet of manned canoes (some were fastened with make-shift sails), gray wolves were seen along the banks of the Yukon River. Following us paddlers, they were spotted running along the treeline the same direction as our fleet. Briefly afterwards, they disappeared into the brush, never to be seen again.

Hours later we beached and made camp. Campfires and stories–all in a summer night’s close! That part of the world hardly gets dark during the summer, mind you, only for a few hours in the deep of the morning. That’s when the shadows are afforded their daily dance. After a good ‘marking of the territory’ we bedded down for rest.

The inevitability of the event was thrilling. Knowing they were coming for us and eventually having to get off the water and set up camp. We weren’t frightened: we knew they were going to come at one time or another, so we had been prepared. With the adults on the perimeter we clustered our tents in a circle, pocket knives were kept by us as we slept, kept food isolated in sealed containers, and tented-up in pairs.

Guard the gravy

They didn’t get into anything, they didn’t attack anyone, and they didn’t make any noise. Not a single huff or puff, not a sniff nor a growl. However, we knew that they had undoubtedly been around all of the dark hours in the morning, for there were countless wolf tracks going everywhere through camp between the tents, the gear, and the boats.

It is good practice for team building, and good to realize from barely the beginning of my teenage years the inevitability of danger and how to mitigate it. Especially since we were canoeing hundreds of miles with only what was in our boats: packed food, oars, tents, and a few misc items.

This was the understanding that was struck between us and the wolves: they won’t bother us if we don’t bother them nor tempt them. As hungry as a pack of wolves may be, if you prepare properly by not leaving out food or stragglers, they will begrudgingly leave you be. This agreement can be found between you and many other types of adversaries in life: if you are prepared and stand your ground, they will be far less inclined to target you or your group. The wilderness is not a theme park, one must continue to strike agreements with the creatures of the woods, the waters, and the air. Fall short on your end of the bargain, well, let’s just keep up our end of the bargain shall we?

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