Ariel Gordon “Hauling Up”

August 2015. I’ve just arrived at the Muskwa-Kechika Adventures’ treed base camp for a week.

It’s taken two flights, from Winnipeg to Edmonton and Edmonton to Fort St. John, another ten hours on the Alaska Highway, and an hour on a floatplane flying over mountains and valleys and more mountains, just to get to the Mayfield Base Camp.

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It’s beautiful but unreal: endless mountain ranges carpeted with conifers and the stands of conifers across Mayfield Lake. Green lakes and sinuous rivers and my white toes wriggling in the cold water of Mayfield Lake.

I can’t quite take it in, but I try as we haul luggage and a week’s worth of groceries in boxes and bags from the marshy landing zone, through the make-shift horse paddock, through the saddling area, between a small shack that is M-K Adventures owner Wayne Sawchuk’s sleeping area and a smaller one—a sauna/laundry area— that abuts a dock, and into a tarped area that contained a kitchen, firepit, and picnic table or two.

Beyond that is a tipi and two wall tents, set in the trees like box lunches amidst place settings. Jerry, who manages the base camp, tells me I’ll be sleeping in the second tent, so I separate my bags from the pile and head toward it.

There are a few stairs leading up to the wall tent’s platform that has just enough space for two yellow plastic Adirondack chairs before the tent’s entrance. I can’t help but try to mentally pack them into the back of the floatplane we’d just arrived on.

Inside, there are two rough-hewn platform beds with headboard shelves, with a stack of folded blankets. There’s a wood stove with a chimney that vents outside the tent.

I had been steeling myself to sleep on the ground. This will be warm and cozy.

As I head back towards the firepit, where writer and guide Melanie Siebert and novelist John Vaillant and his family are waiting, I note that there are mushrooms next to the path.

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We’ve found ourselves in the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area—otherwise known as the M-KMA—which was created in 1998 and is in BC’s Northern Rockies. It consists of 6.4 million hectares of land on the traditional homelands of the Kaska Dene First Nations, Treaty 8 FN, and Tsay Keh Dene FN.

Two million hectares were parcelled out in thirteen provincial parks. Another four million hectares were designated as special management zones where limited resource development is permitted, as long as it is sensitive to wildlife and the environment.

Wayne, a logger turned conservationist, helped to agitate for the M-KMA. He’s also married to poet Donna Kane, who adds artists’ camps to Wayne’s expedition list every few years.

Political boundaries aside, the land surrounding Mayfield Lake is situated in the Boreal White and Black Spruce zone, whose major tree species are white spruce, trembling aspen, lodgepole pine, black spruce, balsam poplar, tamarack, subalpine fir, common paper birch, and Alaska paper birch.

Shrubs include highbush cranberry and prickly wild rose. At their feet are a mixture of mosses and herbs, including step moss, red-stepped feathermoss, and knight’s plume as well as twinflower, trailing raspberry, pink wintergreen, coltsfoot and bunchberry.

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We’re meant to leave first thing tomorrow for a twelve-hour ride up into the alpine.

So after a morning spent reading, a mid-afternoon swim, and an afternoon walk, we’re spending the early evening being matched with a horse in Wayne’s herd. After a few shrewd questions about the depth and breadth of my riding experience over dinner, I find myself in front of Tony, whose reins are tied to a tree.

Their matchmaking has taken me back twenty-seven years, when I was a fifteen-year-old atheist at a Christian horse camp, learning how to take care of a grey and white Appaloosa named Moose. Moose was enormous and eager; I knew that he would take me anywhere.

This horse, Tony—Antoinette—is beautiful and haughty.

She’s been giving me the stink-eye since I walked up. None of the usual tricks—talking low and sweet, offering my hand to sniff, scratching around the ears—have worked.

“Tony’s such a bitch,” says Erin, the Calgary-based wrangler, her blonde hair tangled, her fair cheeks ruddy with exertion and living rough for weeks, as she leans in to adjust Tony’s girth strap.

Tony is surefooted, which is important, because even though I can remember learning how to saddle a horse, I can’t remember details: which parts of the tackle are supposed to touch the animal. Which parts are most definitely not, because they’ll rub the horse—rub Tony—raw. Make her hate me. Worse, cause her pain.

Watching Erin secure the saddle while I stand in the background is like running into my best friend from grade six and struggling to remember her name: frustrating, even embarrassing.

When Erin is done, she tells me to mount up. The point of this exercise is to introduce riders to horses and to adjust stirrup lengths before tomorrow’s day-long ride.

I approach Tony, who’s clearly impatient, stepping from foot to foot. I notice that she looks like she’s been steeped in a cup of tea; her legs are the colour of tea that’s sat on the counter for an hour while her rump is weak tea.

My hand on the pommel, I lift my creaky foot high and then higher and still barely get it into the stirrup…

Sandra, a fellow expeditionist from America who breeds horses and paints watercolours, sees my discomfort and calls for the box, which is meant for old people and children.

Wayne, who has been leading horse expeditions into the Muskwa-Kechika since 1985, who can ride anything and fix anything and is almost always calm, appears behind me.

“Your horse is short and you have long legs,” he says.

He’s right. And it isn’t pretty, but I manage to swing my leg over the horse, to haul my forty-two-year-old body up and over the mountain that is Tony.

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The ground is studded with mushrooms. Some of them are small brown things, looking like raisins that have soaked overnight in water, while others are the whitest of white bone-china. There are puffballs and two varieties of coral mushrooms, which resemble peachy-pink and beige colonies of marine invertebrates but also candelabra.

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There are mushrooms everywhere. So I pick one or two different ones, break off the stalk, and lay them gently on the pages of my second book of poetry, Stowaways. I leave the whole works in the sun on deck of our wall tent.

Hopefully, over the next few hours, the mushrooms will deposit spores on the paper, leaving the mushroom equivalent of a fingerprint, in that the colour could be used to help identify the mushroom species but also the shape of that particular mushroom.

I am under the tarp around the cookfire when it starts to pour. I am enjoying the noise when I remember the spore print, so I tear back to the tent, running flat out.

I scoop up the book and take it into the tent to see how much damage it has sustained. It’s sodden and will take days to dry out. It feels awfully symbolic. The spore print obliterated. My poems—all the years of work—sodden. Flimsy.

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My hand on the handle of a canoe paddle, except twenty-four years ago, when I was eighteen and just about to try out for the junior national rowing team. And it was an oar, sometimes even two oars, and I could use them to make the boat soar.

In those days, I spent most of my mornings scrambling in an out of a rowing shell, navigating kilometers and kilometers of the silty Red River, enclosed by elms and oaks and full of speedboats and jet-skis and the swells of water and sound they left behind them.

This evening, I’m in a red-bottomed canoe, is just as light and easy to maneuver as the shells I spent ten years hoisting over my head. But the only things powering it are my arms. And I’m forty-two, not eighteen, but for some reason I’m trying to substitute power for technique. Even so, I’m gratified when I feel the canoe start to glide over Mayfield Lake.

Melanie Siebert, sitting behind me, has been paddling for most of her life. She’s even paddled for a living, spending fifteen years as a canoeing and rafting guide and then also writing about it both authoritatively and beautifully.

She’s quiet for the first half of our evening paddle: loon tremolos, blue-green water, dark green trees, grey twilight sky.

“Um,” Melanie says diplomatically. I’ve just switched my paddle to the starboard side of the canoe because my right arm is aching. “I can show you a less tiring way of paddling, if you’d like.”

“Sure,” I say, brightly. Sigh….

She explains that if I started my stroke with my shoulder and not my arms, I will be more efficient.

“Using my shoulders, I can paddle all day without getting tired,” she says.

And she’s right. Even though I’m completely comfortable on the water, even though I made the junior national team and could still teach an intro-to-rowing class, I’m just needlessly tiring myself out this way.

Fifty meters away, a loon feigns a wing injury, hoping to draw us away from his mate and their nest.

      


                                                                                             

We’re riding up into the alpine. We’ll be twelve hours going up and getting down, riding out of the Boreal White and Black Spruce zone and into the Alpine Tundra zone.

That means the trees I’ve been getting used to will give way to shrubs and grasses, mosses and lichens, and bare rock. There still might be some wildflowers even this late in the summer: Mountain Avens, buttercups, lilies, and paintbrushes.

But first, we have to cross a football field-sized salt-lick, all wet gray clay. The ground is split by hoof prints, which Wayne points out: moose, caribou, mountain goat. We add horseshoe prints and boot prints to the mix.

I tug gently on the reins but can barely keep Tony from chomping grass. (We have been told to keep the horses from chomping grass.)

There are ten horses-and-riders, wranglers and expeditionists, women, men and teenagers. We get strung out sometimes, so Wayne periodically stops to wait for everyone to catch up.

Once, while paused, Wayne shifts sideways on his horse to pick huckleberries on the ground, which are just coming into season. It’s a confident display. If I tried that, I would fall off the horse and, most likely, burst into tears.

I occupy myself with tugging on Tony’s head and scanning the ground for mushrooms, which are yellow and creamy-white punctuation to the ride.

It’s difficult to mushroom from atop a horse, but I can’t keep myself from pointing them out to John Vaillant, who’s riding behind me, especially when there’s a big blob of yellow witches’ butter on a log or a big orange. Something—anything—I recognize.

      


                                                                                             

Tea. As I turn the pages of my notebook, I notice again that my fingernails are dirty, my cuticles a little swollen. One of my projects for today is to clip the hangnails and buff the rough edges because last night, as I slept and slept, they occasionally caught on the sheets.

But everyone’s hands, even just three days in, are just as bad. Though there is a washtub full of water on the wood stove in the sauna, so people wash themselves and their clothes. Though there is a wash station rigged up near the campfire, so people can wash their hands after using the outhouse, I’ve found it very difficult to keep my fingers clean.

Last night, just before crashing into bed, a group of us looked at Wayne’s collection of maps of the area, dirty fingers tracing our route up the mountain. I was able to pick out the place where we’d stopped for lunch, just on the other side of a stream.

My horse Tony had paused to drink from the stream when we’d crossed, her legs submerged to mid-cannon. After we’d all dismounted and the guides were starting a fire to cook lunch, I climbed back down to the stream with a mug and drank my fill.

I’d wanted to know the name of the mountain we’d climbed for my journal, but apparently these mountains haven’t been named. They’re an hour’s float plane ride from the nearest named places, in a region that’s mostly mountains. And Wayne hasn’t bothered to name them. Maybe he’s content to just to be on and over them, to sit in their shadow, year after year. Or maybe he doesn’t feel that it’s his role to assign names, given the long and soiled history of European settlers arriving and renaming places and people, trees and lakes.

We use names in order to communicate. Labels like “oak” and “ash” give you more information about what I’m looking at if I’m trying to describe them to you, instead of more general categories like “tree.” But here, “mountain” works just fine, especially when Wayne can stand in camp and point at the particular mountain he means.

The placelessness of the mountain was startling at first, but I told myself, again, that naming can only get you so far. And it’s only one way of knowing. It’s just that knowing-the-names has become the way that people signal expertise.

                      


                                                                             

When I’m feeling a bit lost, when I’m feeling a bit lonely, I try to bring in friendly voices.

So, three years later, I email Wayne and ask him about his favourite tree of the Northern Rockies.

Wayne responds within an hour:

“I’d have to say the birch tree, Ariel. Birch are relatively rare in the mountains, they only occur in a narrow band around 4000’ (usually.) But, that birchbark is the best firelighter! So, when I see a birch on the side of the trail, usually on the way or back from the high country, it gives a wee jolt of pleasure as I dismount, peel off a few loose rolls of bark and stow them in the saddlebag, knowing I’ll have an easy fire to make when we get to camp.”

     


                                                                                              

My hands on the handle of an axe, except back when I was fifteen, when I split wood at my family’s cabin.

My favourite memory from that time was sitting in an old wicker chair with a blanket on my knees and my socked feet on the base of the fireplace, a bowl of sunflower seeds to one side, a book and an apple to the other. It was early fall and cool/rainy outside, but I was warm & fed in every sense possible.

All of which is to say: we all knew how to split wood, even if we didn’t do it very often. We didn’t use the fireplaces very often in July and August and we had electric or propane appliances in the kitchen.

This axe has been well-used the six days I’ve been at base camp. We consume lots of firewood when cooking three meals a day and those fires are kept burning longer when it’s cold. There’s also a woodstove in the little sauna, which does double duty, providing steam but also boiling water for washing bodies and clothes.

A week in base camp equals a small stand of trees.

Our group is six men and six women, ranging in age from thirteen to mid-sixties but so far, only the men have been splitting wood for the fire. These are not sexist men and we are not shrinking women, but the task has split along gender lines.

And that bothers me somehow.

It’s a cold/rainy afternoon late in the week. I’ve got nearly every layer I brought with me on. It’s all dirty. So: I’m cold/damp/smelly.

What’s more, I’ve finished most of the books I brought with me and even some of Melanie’s. I don’t feel like making another belt out of Wayne’s exceptional store of leather bits and buckles or painting or even writing in my journal. My tea is cold.

So I step up to the big stump they’ve been using to split wood on and I lift the axe.

I’m aware that other people are watching as I put my first log up on the stump. I take a few tentative swings, which bounce off the log. I’m swinging the axe up over my right shoulder, which doesn’t feel wrong, but neither does it feel right.

I consider giving up. But I hate the small smile of defeat that would require as I slunk back to my seat. So I find a smaller log, put it on the stump, and somehow manage to split that.

John Valliant is a writer of adventure stories. He is perceptive and generous with everyone. He reads poetry and cleans up after himself but he also does things like going with the wranglers who are half his age to get the horses and manages to hold on for a bareback gallop back to camp.

He’d been watching me sort-of-split wood and he uses this in-between-logs moment to approach.

“It’s better if you swing from over your head,” he says. “Instead of from the side.”

And he’s right. Swinging from overhead is much more powerful. And that is the only bit of technique I need, aside from advice on how to attack the particularly big and branchy stumps.

I’d forgotten that splitting wood is mostly confidence. You mostly have to want to do it. It looks big, it looks hard, but wood-splitting is easy, both in terms of technique and effort.

I split the rest of the logs in the pile that afternoon. After the first few logs, I shed most of my layers. I’m intensely warm and, what’s more, every time I destroy a big stump, it feels like I’ve wrestled a bobcat or successfully manufactured arrows or something.

When I’m done, John comes over and helps me stack the pieces of wood. We’re surrounded by the scent of wood and sap and smoke from the fire.

 


                                                                                                    

When we get up onto the tippy-top of the mountain, we dismount. The wranglers break out snacks: fizzy water, energy bars, fruit, and candy.

Tony’s lead rope is loosely tethered to the saddle of Wayne’s horse Bonus.

“He’s called Bonus because I didn’t know that mare was pregnant,” says Wayne when I ask him.

Tony is used to riding behind Bonus. She won’t go anywhere, unlike some of the younger horses, who have wandered away and will have to be retrieved later.

We compare notes on the snacks. Those of us that packed binoculars in our saddlebags get them out and scan nearby slopes for wildlife. A couple of browsing caribou are spotted just down the hill and some distant mountain goats, which can best be described as white specks on dark rock.

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There are no mushrooms this high up. There are no trees. Just small scrubby things, lichen, and rock. I’ve mouthed my share of the snacks. I’ve watched wildlife mouth their share of the grasses.

I’m feeling restless but I sit myself down. My pants are marked with dust, sweat, and a horsehair outline of Tony’s flanks, which I like.

I sit and look out over the mountains. The wind blows.

  


                                                                                                 

While we’re up in the alpine, Wayne points out a boulder covered in orange lichen and speckled with fossils. He tells us that Ben Gadd, a draft dodger turned naturalist and writer, spotted this rock with his binoculars from the firepit down in camp and so they came to find it.

While mushrooming, I found a brown mushroom whose cap resembles an overstuffed pillow or a royal-wedding fascinator. Which is to say, nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before, so I spend part of a rainy afternoon flipping through the camp copy of Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies and identify it as a saddle-shaped false morel.

So I email ask Gadd about his favourite tree too.

“Oh, the poor northern Rockies. No Douglas-fir, no Engelmann spruce. No Lyall’s larch, no western larch. No ponderosa pine, no limber pine, no whitebark pine, no western white pine. No hemlock, no cedar. All these iconic trees of Canada’s western mountains are found in the Rockies farther south, but they are missing north of the Peace River.

However, there is something that grows all the way to the northern end of the range at the Yukon-B.C. boundary. It’s a willow. It’s very small. In fact, it’s the tiniest willow in the whole tribe. It’s Salix nivalis. (Or maybe it’s Salix reticulata; the botanists argue about that.) I know it as the snow willow.

“This is an alpine plant whose three little leaves, each smaller than your pinkie’s fingernail, barely rise off the tundra. The only part of the snow willow that reaches more than a centimetre into the chilly high-country wind is the catkin—the flower—which hardly looks like a flower at all. But it’s bright red, proudly awaiting your intake of breath when you discover it for the first time, and you get down on your hands and knees for a close look, and you realize how incredibly cute it is. Awww …

“How can I call this a ‘tree’? Simple. It’s because it’s a willow, with close relatives that grow more than 10 m tall, and because like other trees it’s a woody plant with a single stem. (Well, that single sticky-uppy catkin.) And also because the one and only George Scotter, who wrote the masterful Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies, refers to it as ‘my favorite tree.’

Which, of course, makes it my favorite tree, too.”

             


                                                                                      

Our last evening paddle.

When Melanie and I aren’t stopping to gawk at the moose cow who skulks in the reeds opposite base camp most nights or to peer at the osprey pair in their ridiculously large nest, built like a bad idea on the very top of a tree, we glide…

I was ridiculously pleased when, one night around the fire, John tells me that they’ve watched us from shore. That we’re fast, clearly experts.

“I’ve never really canoed before,” I said, humble-bragging.

There is a pleasant routine to our paddles. We’ve figured out which of the paddles and lifejackets fit us best and we take the same canoe every time.

We paddle around, wedging ourselves into small reedy spots, exploring corners of the lake, until we’ve used up the last of the sun.

Tonight, I’m happy to stop and start, resting my paddle across the gunwales as Melanie takes pictures of the ospreys with her big camera.

I have binoculars. But I have my own eyes and my memories of the grey twilight of our paddles, so I just sit.

When I rowed, I usually sat bow, which meant that I steered, that I called the tempo of our strokes, but I trust Melanie. I’m happy to do whatever she tells me. And I think she’s coming to trust me.

It’s nearly dark and we’re gliding toward the shallows, slowing down as our keel touches rock and sand on the bottom of Mayfield Lake.

I step out of the canoe while it is still moving, like I did when I was a kid at the cabin, our motorboat approaching the dock, like I did when I was a teenager, aiming the shell at the rowing club dock like an arrow…

And my leg gets stuck in the gravel, like a fleshy anchor, and suddenly we’re tipping. We right ourselves within a few seconds, but the canoe tips enough that our asses get wet and there’s suddenly a few inches of water sloshing around in the bottom of the canoe.

“Whoa!” I say. “Sorry!”

“I just put my camera away,” Melanie says, gesturing towards the waterproof carrying case she uses on wilderness trips. “I literally just closed the latch.”

I blush and apologize again and, after the paddles and sopping lifejackets are stowed and the canoe turned over, run to stoke the fire in the sauna’s woodstove.

While Melanie is peeling off her wet pants in the sauna, I tear through camp, dripping, and retrieve my bottle of port from the tent and the camp’s much-used Scrabble board from the picnic table.

And we drink and Scrabble and get toasty warm in our bras and longjohns.

                         


                                                                          

On the way down the mountain, there are stretches where it is too steep or too slippery for the horses to manage with riders, so we dismount.

I clamber down the path with Tony’s reins held loosely in my hand.

And while she is more likely to greet inexperienced horses trying to rush her or even push by her on the trail with a nip or even a sharp kick, I’m not worried.

She is twice my size, with metal reinforcing her hooves. She’s gentle.

The rest of the ride is like that. Up and down, leading and following. When we get back to camp, it is nearly eight o’clock.

When I slide down her tea-dark side one last time in basecamp, I am weary but happy.

I slowly take Tony’s saddle off and see that its outline—my outline—is marked in sweat on her back. I like that.

Usually, Tony rolls on the ground after her bit and saddle are removed. But this time, she lets me scratch the spot between her front legs first.

Erin walks by, lugging a saddle back to the tack shed. She’s the one who showed me this spot, which wasn’t part of my teenage repertoire.

“Look at her eyes!” Erin exclaims. “You know horses are happy when their eyes get like that…”

I’m absurdly grateful for our détente. Tony doesn’t have to like me for me to ride her, but I much prefer a friend to a living bicycle.

I step back and watch as Tony rolls on her back then moves to rejoin the herd. The ones ahead of her in the pecking order, the ones behind her. Everyone in his or her place.

And then I turn my back on them. All I’m thinking about is how I can feel all those hours of riding in my thighs, how good a seat by the fire and a cup of tea would be.

 


                                                                                                    

I have written and rewritten this essay so many times. But it never felt finished, so I returned, once more, to the photos I took back in 2015.

On the first day in camp, when group of us went for a walk, we took along bowls so we could pick highbush cranberries. Camp cook Jerry wanted to make syrup from them to go with our breakfast.

It was a leisurely walk on what will be the warmest day of our trip. As we sat on a hill overlooking the water, Wayne inspected my bowlful of berries and found a rare spider that he said might be poisonous. Then he laid down on the moss-covered ground and had a snooze in the sun, his battered hands steepled over his solar plexus.

I wandered off and found mushrooms but was not pleased with the quality of my photographs. And then it was rainy and cold for several days in a row. Wayne and his wranglers consulted with the group and decided that we would not do an overnight trip into the alpine but instead shorter day trips, given the conditions.

And it seemed like everyone had a fancy camera, so I eventually put away my little camera, thinking the fault was with the technology and, somehow, with me.

So I have very few pictures to return to. And what I have is almost all mushrooms.

But I spend hours looking through them, hours looking up the other articles written about the M-KMA, including John Vaillant’s November 2008 article for National Geographic, where he writes:

“What is so extraordinary about this wilderness is that one can follow these rivers and explore these ranges for days and weeks and never see a person, a rail line, or even a fire tower. This is the West as Lewis and Clark, or Roosevelt and Muir, might have seen it: a landscape without familiar reference points, where everything is so massive and raw that estimates and distance continually fall short of the reality.” (“Northern Giant” by John Vaillant. National Geographic, November 2008, Vol. 214 (5).)

There is a shock of recognition. I have been wondering why I couldn’t connect with this landscape, these trees, but it makes sense: everything was so different from where I’m from, everything was so big.

For some reason, I can handle Banff, which is encircled with mountains but parceled up and managed. Banff feels small to me.

But three years after spending a week on the shores of Mayfield Lake, I still can’t manage to find it on the map of the M-KMA.

The expression goes ‘she couldn’t see the forest for the trees,’ meaning a person who is mired in details but can’t see the problem as a whole, but I’ve got the opposite problem: I can’t see the trees for the forest.

I decide that maybe re-reading Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies will help me locate myself. Except I’m in Winnipeg and it isn’t available anywhere locally and I don’t want to wait two weeks to have one shipped to me, so I ask if anyone on my social media has a copy.

My cousin Chris MacLeay was born in Thunder Bay but has lived in the mountains in BC and Alberta for most of his adult life. He writes me from Whistler.

“Hey, so I’m not sure why you’re after Ben Gadd’s book but just wanted to share with you that his novel Raven’s End has had a big impact on the ‘spirituality’ of mountain culture in Canada.”

When Gadd sends me his ode to the snow willow, I share it with Chris. His response?

“Can’t speak to the northern Rockies but my favourite tree in southern mainland BC would be a solitary pine on the ridge above the ground that has hosted the Basscoast Festival for the past few years. On Vancouver Island there is a stand of old growth cedars outside of Port Renfrew called Avatar Grove that is pretty amazing.”

And this is why I always come back to trees, no matter where they are: because they help bring me back into community. Because they help me think on I remember, and what I forget.

                  


                                                                                 

My hand, rooting around in the Scrabble tile bag, except thirty years ago, when I was a smart-aleck-y twelve-year-old at the cabin, my hair still wet from jumping in and out of the lake all day.

Scrabble tiles were like cedar roof shingles, or, if you had the more expensive set, big square teeth. None of us really cared if we won, but we played. It was what you did, evenings at the lake.

After years of sitting around the campfire at base camp, Wayne is a Scrabble fiend. I play semi-occasionally now but still know all the angles: high-scoring words, doubling-up on triple-score tiles, all the two-letter words that get you through.

All week, I’ve won evening and rainy-day Scrabble games. The second-last night, after we’ve had our final ride, after I’ve said a weepy goodbye to that bitch Tony, Wayne presents himself as an opponent.

Everyone makes it clear that they expect me to lose. Everyone stands around the board, peering at the score sheet.

I lose the first game. Wayne doesn’t crow but everyone else does.

And this isn’t cheating, technically, but as we’re finishing up, I grab Wayne’s knee. Or, more precisely, grasp his leg just above the knee. I’m not sure what anatomy is in play, but do it right and people jump, like they’re in a doctor’s office getting their reflexes checked.

My mum used to do it to me all the time in the car. She’d reach over with one big, capable hand and take hold of my knee. And I’d jump and squeal and feel loved.

Wayne’s usually very composed, but he yells “Whoa!” and tries to grab MY knee. I move to avoid him, laughing like a maniac. We’re churning on the picnic table seat, almost wrestling, and people can’t figure out what the fuck is going on.

“Again?” Wayne asks, chuckling.

“Yah,” I say. And begin shoveling tiles into the bag.

I win the second game. And I’m happy to have won, but it’s just a game. It doesn’t mean anything. Just like it didn’t mean anything—except to me—whether or not I could saddle a horse.

Waggling his eyebrows, Wayne tells me—insists—that we’ll play again tomorrow and retires for the night.

The next day, the floatplane arrives earlier than expected, so we spend the time scrabbling to pack up and haul gear and then suddenly we’re airborne, Wayne waving from the shore. The particular trees of the Mayfield Lake base camp getting smaller, becoming one stand amidst the millions of trees in the M-KMA.

Under the plane’s electric light, I can’t stop looking at my swollen fingertips, the splits and scrapes of not being able to wash thoroughly for a week, of handling axes and reins instead of skimming a keyboard.

I raise my eyes to the other expeditionists, who are packed onto the plane in the seats ahead like groceries. They’re goggling out the window at the M-KMA’s mountains, its rivers and lakes.

I realize that they’re just as grubby and disheveled, as sleepy and surprised as I am. And while I might be overly attached to the idea that I’m good in the wilderness, the only thing I’m tethered to is this big, capable, aging body.

So I rest my eyes in the trees, knowing they’re always a good place to land, here and at home.

 

Ariel Gordon is the author of two collections of urban-nature poetry, both of which won the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. Recent projects include the anthology GUSH: menstrual manifestos for our times, co-edited with Tanis MacDonald and Rosanna Deerchild, and the third installment of the National Poetry Month in the Winnipeg Free Press. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

 

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