By Kate McDonough –
This winter has been exceptional, four feet of snow on the frozen ground. Our one-room log cabin down in the Kleena Kleene River Valley is truly isolated, the track was never plowed, and never will be. We have two horses, but they can’t plough their way through the formidable snow. Mike can manage on snowshoes, though. Checking his trapline and weekly hikes to get the mail and supplies, five miles away, keep him fit. And not feeling isolated. He is too exhausted to have a conversation after dinner, but he’s been happily outdoors in the wilderness, where he belongs. I chop and carry kindling, feed the fires, ferry buckets of water from the river, wash clothes and diapers in a huge oval wash boiler on the wood stove, bake bread or bannock, sweep the floor, pick up the messes, and mother my two toddlers. When all three of them are asleep, I read books ordered by mail from the Library in Victoria.
Now February, I haven’t seen another soul since last October. I suffer on most days, thinking I am bored, incompetent, or crazy, especially when the sun doesn’t shine. We dug a big square hole in the snow in front of our porch, a playhouse for the children, snow-steps down into it. It could be called cozy on a nice day, if there were any nice days. A week ago a warm Chinook wind melted and evaporated some of the snow, bringing hope. Three days later it snowed again. Life continues. I cry sometimes, when I’m alone, usually in the outhouse, the only place I find true solitude. I’m probably not a very good mother, although I try.
Often too cold to stay outside more than a few minutes at a time, your nostrils stick together with the frost, your forehead burns, you’re scared you’ll freeze your lungs with every breath, frostbite your fingers or toes. Forty below zero is right cold. We have to stay housebound. They say you should never go out in that weather alone; it takes an observer to tell you if your nose or perhaps an exposed earlobe or a spot on your rosy cheek is turning white. The long-time ranchers here tell horror stories about losing legs, blackened toes and premature deaths. People do, of course, go outdoors alone. We all must fill our water buckets, chop wood, visit the outhouse, etcetera.
I’ve been here for almost four years, since 1969. How could that be? Right now, I’d give anything to get out of here for a while. Yet I chose this life, this isolated place, above all others, for reasons which I remember and usually still believe. I love nature, feel very grounded and comfortable here. We have enough to eat, plenty of firewood and clean water, my dream life. It can be gloriously beautiful here in the winter, with hoar frost on every branch, snow sparkling if there is sunshine even though the days are short. The snow-covered mountains stand majestic all around me. But for some reason I still believe I must get “out” to make it true, make it good again.
Cabin fever, that’s all it is. The longer you stay indoors, the harder it is to get out the door. This country, the Chilcotin Plateau, has only one lousy dirt road the whole length of it from Williams Lake to Bella Coola on the coast, our cabin one hundred sixty miles from either end. Neighbours seldom closer than five miles away, it feels like a fever of the spirit eventually, of the mind, of the heart. I lose my perspective perhaps, in the face of this isolation and remoteness.
Change and variety somehow seem necessary, especially when you look out the kitchen window a hundred times a day and see exactly the same thing, the same view, never any change for months on end. Well, there might be a crow or a whiskey jack pass through the picture if you’re lucky. I am slow, tired, turning my mouth down, and very irritable. It’s hardest in the winter, of course, which is never gentle here, although I’ve had the cabin fever before, just not so long. Depends on the person, I guess. Some of us have really gone crazy, you know. Maybe telling stories would help prevent that…
“One day, near the end of my rope of misery, Mike suggests I just go for a snowshoe walk by myself. He says he’ll stay with the children. So I do. Luckily, Mike’s well beaten snowshoe trail leads up the track, past the waterfall on the KlinaKlini River, around numerous boulders and pot holes, though the poplar flats, and climbs the ridge to the splendid view of all the Coast Mountains, to the post office/store at Kleena Kleene, so I follow it without thinking. At least I don’t have to slog through several feet of snow to break one. The sound of my snowshoes shushing and crunching like a metronome is calming. There are no other sounds. I am so at home here, Douglas Fir and Jack pine trees as friends to chat with, as though they are animated like those in The Hobbit, with different personalities and countenances. Some are lively characters, some wise elders, others sleeping or ill. I look for other signs of life, knowing that my stellar imagination may have the ability to anthropomorphize trees, but staying in the present physical moment calms my thoughts and hints of happiness. I crunch and shush along; my singing rhythm invites me forward. My eyes glued on the trail in front of my feet, lest I fall, I don’t exactly notice much else unless I stop. Just before the waterfall I shuffle along beside the poplar flat, still staring down. The trail suddenly gets a little rough, icy bumps and holes here and there, and I wonder why. Must have been an animal, taking advantage of this snow-packed path, I think, perhaps a moose. I stop, bend down to study the tracks of the intruder. Yes, it was a moose, I decide.
Standing up again, I raise my head and realize that the shussing and crunching is no longer coming from me and my snowshoes. A very large cow moose, at least eight feet high, head down, looking closely at the trail as I was doing, is stomping her way towards me, five feet away from a head-on collision. She smells like Labrador Tea and Red-Osier Dogwood bushes, a vaguely sweet but pungent woodsy aroma. She stops, jerks her head up, her giant ears flap like wings, her nostrils flare. Her wattle wagging like a bell on a collar, her dark eyes staring into mine in what I hope is surprise, she snorts and gasps, and then in a flash whirls around and dives over the bank down into the forest below, where she trots out of sight, picking up her feet like a graceful Tennessee Walking horse, grunting loud displeasure with every step.
Yes, my heart is racing, but I am laughing. Laughing at her grunts, this ridiculous situation, and the petty toxic thoughts that drove me here. Where else could I have found this experience? And survive? I look around at the trail, our tracks in the snow, at my friends the trees, and I see peaceful softness. I see something new and different. I hear my new friend the moose breaking branches, huffing now instead of grunting. Then comes complete silence. I feel like singing. Reversing my direction, not an easy maneuver, I resume my holiday trip. I can hardly wait to return to my beloved home and tell my story.
* Please note that this story will appear in Lived Experience 16, available at The Open Book and Station House Gallery in Williams Lake.
Now residents of Williams Lake, Kate and her husband moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1968. Starting in Anahim Lake working on a ranch, they gradually moved into the Kleena Kleene Valley, where they lived with their two children for 18 years. Kate has been writing since childhood, and her work has been published in several magazines in years gone by: Interior Woman, North of Fifty, Mother Earth News, and the recent anthology Voices from the Valleys, as well as in local newspapers.