As I write I am sitting in the sun in the front of my hut, soaking up the warmth and watching the lazy buzz of a few fat flies. It’s 11° C (50° F), the warmest day we’ve had yet, I think, but there’s a cool breeze on the air and in the distance I can see the rain clouds coming, sheeting hazy gray over the mountains.
Spring has finally come to squirrel camp. On grid the snow is almost gone, leaving damp earth in its place. Soft, colorful mosses are springing up to meet the sunlight and the squelch of rubber boots in mud is now as common a sound as the scrape of boots on crusted snow. Silvery strands of spider silk now meet the brisk morning walk across grid, streaking forehead and cheeks and tangling uncomfortably in eyelashes. Northern harriers frequent the roadside now, white bodies with black-tipped wings they soar at little over car-height in search of small prey in the tall grasses along the roadside, still brittle and brown from the clutches of winter.
Ground squirrels provide the entertainment from the camp picture window, their high-pitched chatter audible through our thin walls. On hind legs their tails flutter a warning before dropping to all fours and waddling quickly away in search of the next morsel of food. Least chipmunks run to and fro in the hasty breeding season that follows emergence from hibernation. Everything finally smells of life, from the warm afternoon sunshine to the breeze that kicks up off the earth, carrying the scent of mud and water and fresh growth. Robins have begun their morning serenade and lying there in my hut amid the early morning light the fall and rise of their song makes it hard to climb from the depths of my sleeping bag.
And, dare I say it, the first mosquitoes have arrived. Big, fat, lazy ones that don’t seem to do much of anything except buzz in your ears and so far haven’t found the courage to take a bite. But their appearance portends the struggles of summer ahead. For now it is enough to feel the return of spring and to acknowledge the re-warming of the earth. Even the bears have felt the change. Bear spray and bear bells are not commonplace items at our hips. We spotted our first grizzly about 30 km down the road, near Kluane Lake, feeding contentedly on a sheep carcass. In truth the pickin’s for food items are few and far between. The bears have emerged from their dens about a month earlier than last year and the green-up has barely begun. Needless to say the bear fence now encircles camp and the mood is not fearful on grid, but more cautious for certain. You hardly realize how carefree you’ve become on grid until bear season arrives. Now I have to break out my repertoire of songs to let loose while huffing and puffing around on grid. It’s not quite the prettiest thing to grace my fellow squirrel campers’ ears and most of the time I realize I’ve forgotten 90% of the lyrics and so end up singing the same snatch of chorus over and over again, bits of Les Miserables, The Little Mermaid, Camelot, Pocahontas, Irish Ballads, Gordon Lightfoot, and random snatches of whatever else pops into my head.
It has been a busy few weeks and my blog posts have hardly done justice to the adventures of squirrel camp. A few weeks ago the squirrel crew took our first mini-vacation of the season to Haines, Alaska. We left after a full day of trapping and made the 3-hour drive in the semi-dark through mild blizzard conditions. At the summit of the highway, through the mountain pass, literally everything as far as the eye could see was white. The only hint of color was the thin strip of gray highway with streamers of snow snaking to and fro across the blacktop. (All credit from the photos I am about to post from Alaska must go to Marina and Sean. I did not carry my camera out in the pouring rain in Haines. And it’s nice to actually be in a photo now and then!)
By the time we reached the Alaska border the snow had turned to heavy rain and we were all ready to find a cozy place to curl up for the night. We stayed at the Beach Roadhouse Cabins and at 10pm that evening when we finally rolled in we were more than pleasantly surprised with our accommodations. The cabin, which sleeps 6, comfortably held all 8 of us. It was rustic, quaint and cutely furnished with a babbling brook running right beside and a deck that opened up to lush temperate rainforest. After a beer to shake off the stress of the drive we hit the hay and climbed into beds (real beds!) for the first time in months.
Of course the weather, as you might expect in a coastal temperate rainforest, was cool and wet, but Haines is gorgeous in any weather and in truth I think we were all simply ecstatic to see green lush foliage. The next morning we hiked out to Battery Point , which wends through the rainforest and emerges on the beach. Once we found a place out of the howling wind we all sat still and quiet for a few moments, watching the rain lessen and the clouds begin to lift from the mountains leaving a stark line of white where snow had coated the trees at higher elevations. As a team I think it was one of the most beautiful moments we had had together, a few of us humming the Irish folk tune, “Wild Mountain Thyme”, with the mist falling on our faces and the dense foggy weather somehow pushing us closer together as a group. Then Sean decided he needed to go pee in the Pacific Ocean and that was the end of that.
In the afternoon we went into town for a few groceries and had a tailgate lunch overlooking the docks stretching out into the Lynn Canal. We were all pretty hungry by then which made sharing a single plastic knife for making wraps a pretty interesting exercise in cooperation and self-restraint. Afterwards all 8 of us shared a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It was delicious and pretty hilarious watching all 8 of us pass spoons around and take mouthfuls of ice cream while shivering in the rain.
Before dinner we went out to Chilkoot State Park and walked the road out to Chilkoot Lake. No salmon were running yet but we saw lots of bald eagles. It was rainy, misty evening but beautiful and mysterious in its own way. At Sean’s request I sang Colors of the Wind for the group as we stood watching the bald eagles and the Chilkoot River running from the lake far beneath our feet.
We went to dinner at the Fireweed Café that evening and thoroughly stuffed ourselves with food. I had a bacon-wrapped date smothered in some type of bourbon sauce, which was out of this world, probably one of the best things I have ever eaten. I then followed that with a spinach salad with cranberries, candied walnuts, goat cheese, apple, and strawberry cardamom dressing. Monica and I split a Mediterranean pizza for our main course and to tope off our four-course meal we all shared lavender cheesecake and tiramisu for dessert. And all for only $25. How can you beat that?
That night we were up late, attempting to finish the beer that we couldn’t bring back to the Yukon with us (we didn’t quite succeed), and bonding over simple discussions of family and home and future careers. The next morning we woke up to pockets of sunshine and a blizzard of beautiful heavy, wet snowflakes. We had a lazy morning making crepes and getting ready to leave. And although it was disappointing not to do a big hike while we were there it was so nice to have relaxing mornings making breakfast, wandering around our beautiful cabin, and standing on the deck overlooking the lush forest while the snow fell heavy and silent.
We thought our adventure was over, but it wasn’t, quite. On the way out of Haines we stopped to have lunch and ended up driving around with a dog in the back of our truck that had chased our car all the way down the road and was wandering aimlessly around the highway. Since we didn’t feel comfortable just leaving it there, three of us packed it into the truck and drove around knocking on more than a few doors until we found the owners. Then it was back to lunch, this time biting off chucks of pepperoni and cucumber and breaking pieces of cheese since we had somehow managed to lose our plastic knife along the way and for once nobody had a pocketknife on them. Needless to say we all shared a good deal of spit that vacation and yet somehow, in some strange way, it wasn’t weird at all. (Okay maybe a little…)
Sadly the Haines trip was to be one of our last trips as a group. The changing seasons, as always, brings changes to the crew as the winter crew packs up for the year and the summer crew will soon arrive. Last week Anni, Cat, Sylvain, and Lawrence headed south after many tearful goodbyes. It always surprises me how attached you can become to people in the short span of two months. Before they left we had 80’s themed party for the four of them. With neon pipe cleaners in our hair, delectable snacks baked by Marina, Anni, and Monaly, and plenty of beer to go around, most of the crew was not up very early the next morning.
A few days before their departure, Sylvain surprised us with an accordion concert on the deck in front of the cookshack. With the sun just beginning to set and a cool breeze kicking up off the mountains we laughed and danced to French folk songs. Already we miss his bright tunes and sad sonorous ballads filling the mountain air, we miss Cat’s laugh and her snarky jokes, Lawrence’s quiet humor and endless nicknames, and Anni’s intelligent and insightful conversations. Today the new crew arrives and with smell of spring fresh in the air, we look forward to all the adventures yet to come.