Monday September 01, 2014

Finding an affinity for winter

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There are get away holidays and then there are get away holidays which are so unusual they become the inspiration for a book.

That was the case for Michael and Kathleen Pitt who now reside near Preeceville.

Previously residing in British Columbia the couple decided to leave the comfort and temperate climate of suburban Vanvouver to spend an isolated winter north of the Arctic Circle. With neither power nor running water; over 40 kilometres from the nearest community of 75 people, this middle-aged couple learns to embrace temperatures that regularly fall below minus 40 degrees.

That experience would become the book Beyond the End of the Road, released in 2009.

The obvious question is why take the unusual expedition?

"Kathleen and I had been canoeing the rivers of northern Canada, primarily the Northwest Territories, and what is now Nunavut," explained Michael. "We truly loved these northern adventures, but our experience seemed incomplete. We believed that we needed to spend a winter in the North, where rivers, lakes and muskeg remain frozen for seven to eight months of the year. Only by following the winter trail did we believe that we could truly know the character and soul of Canada's vast, seemingly limitless Northern landscape.

"Also, we toyed with the idea of moving to the Northwest Territories. Kathleen and I lived in Vancouver, and had never experienced a true winter. We thought it prudent to live at least one winter in the far north before possibly committing to a permanent move."

Surprisingly, finding the isolated cabin was not all that difficult.

"We read an article in the 'Up Here' magazine that told of Bern Will Brown, in Colville Lake, who had cabins to rent at the north end of the lake," said Michael. "Colville Lake is also the point where canoeists usually begin their trips down the Anderson River, 550 km to the Arctic Coast. This location was perfect. We would spend the winter at the north end of Colville Lake, and then paddle out after break-up.

"From our perspective, there could be no better way to embrace our mutual desire to learn about winter, and to pursue our passion for wilderness canoeing."

While the holiday has a certain idyllic charm, the reality was also that a cabin sans modern conveniences was a rather dramatic change for the couple, or was there anything they truly missed from out modern world?

"People commonly ask us this question," said Kathleen. "And, at first, we always answered, 'No. We didn't miss anything.'

"This answer disappointed people, as they genuinely wanted us to have missed something. We had done a lot of reading about living in the bush, without power, and the equipment and skills required. No book, however, ever talked about laundry day. We washed our clothes, mostly heavy wool, every Saturday. Ringing clothes out by hand is not easy. In Vancouver's antique stores, we had often seen old wash boards and hand wringers. These items are perhaps not 'modern,' but they would have been very useful on laundry day!"

Not surprisingly the time in the north did create its share of memories.

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Michael pointed to a passage from the book as an example. It was a February morning, and he had been out snowshoeing.

"I climbed uphill, into the spruce forest. I stopped to rest, and stood enveloped by the perfect, absolute silence of a world that had seemingly been created only moments before," he wrote in the book. "The silence of a world that had not yet learned to speak. The silence before there were ravens and jays. The silence before there were loons and wolves. The silence of a world before there were any people.

"I remained motionless, transfixed by the utter tranquility. No sirens screamed of emergency. No stereos blared unwanted music. No traffic intruded unceasingly in the background. I exhaled slowly, so as not to shatter the stillness. My breath condensed briefly, and then dissipated gently into the frigid, hushed air."

It was moments like the one described that made the trip all the couple had hoped for.

"We wanted to spent time together, away from the demands of our positions at the University of BC," said Kathleen. "We wanted to live entirely on our own, which we mostly did, as our cabin lay forty roadless kilometres from the the town of Colville Lake, with a population of only 90 people.

"We rarely saw anyone for the first couple of months after flying in from Inuvik on January 31st.

"We also learned that we actually enjoyed winter, especially the snow sparkling beneath a blazing sun. In fact, we liked winter so much that in 2008 we moved from Vancouver to Preeceville."

The experience was actually one the Pitts suggest was life-changing.

"It certainly changed me," said Michael. "I couldn't go back to my position at the university, where I would spend most days confined by walls, and attending interminable meetings that ended usually by scheduling yet another meeting next week.

"Also, I realized that I wanted to live more simply," interjected Kathleen."Michael and I had only the essentials of life at the cabin, which measured only 14 feet by 14 feet. We didn't need to have our large home in Vancouver. I didn't want to continue working and commuting just to get more stuff I didn't really need."

"I felt the same way," agreed Michael. "From January 31st, to when we paddled down the Anderson River on June 20, we spent a total of $100.00, and that was only because we went to town twice.

"After returning to Vancouver, we visited our financial advisor. I asked him, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, 'Do we have enough money now to earn '100 to 200 dollars a year in interest?' 'Of course you do,' he replied. 'Then I'm done,' I said. 'Kathleen and I are going to leave our positions at UBC.'

Our advisor looked perplexed. 'You can't quit. You're only in your fifties'. He was wrong. Kathleen and I both took early retirement at the first opportunity."

Michael said sharing the experiences of the winter in the far north via a book came rather naturally.

"Well, as I like to say, authors are people who write novels, short stories, plays and poetry. I wanted to be an author," he said. "So, while at the cabin, I wrote three short stories, based on our winter experiences. Where would I publish them, though? I'm not aware of any obvious outlets for unknown authors to publish short stories. I didn't intend to write this particular book, although I am happy with it."

Of course months of isolation was good in terms of time to reflect on writing a book.

"It certainly did, although the demands of cutting wood, hauling water, and the other chores associated with living in the bush without power took up a lot of our time," said Michael. "It required a great deal of discipline to write in my diary every day, no matter how reflective I might have felt."

And writing a book, whether Beyond the End of the Road, or an earlier effort Three Seasons in the Wind, chronicling canoe trips, writing has always been something Michael wanted to do.

"I have wanted to write, probably from about 12 years old," he said. "In my blue collar neighbourhood, however, kids didn't become writers. So when I went to University, I studied Forestry. After all, that would get me a job.

"During my first year, I took an English course, and was introduced to the natural history writing of Loren Eiseley. That's what I would like to do, I thought. I would like to write like Loren Eiseley. But, I was enrolled in the Forestry program. I could get a job. Natural History writers didn't get jobs."

But the reaction of readers to Beyond the End of the Road suggest the couple in relating their experiences were able to give a glimpse of a way of living most can't quite grasp the lure of.

"Most people think Kathleen and I are just plain goofy. I doubt if our experiences, or my book, have inspired anyone else to fly off to the Northwest Territories to spend an isolated winter north of the Arctic Circle. Too bad, though. Stepping beyond one's comfort zone can be very liberating."

As for Michael's own view of the book, he simply says "perhaps it's closer to the genre of Loren Eiseley, anyway."

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