Grizzly bear picnic

We met the Yukon’s most formidable forces this spring. The annual breakup of the Yukon River ice, which will not go until it is ready and will not stop for anyone, the world’s fastest bird and a family of grizzly bears, Mum and two grown cubs.

Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for up to 3 years and nothing, not even the largest, grizzliest of male bears will tangle with the combined power of this fluffy, little family unit, happily picnicking across the river from us.

The cubs are almost the same size as their mother now and loll around on the bank digging at roots or voles. One is honey amber and the other a shimmering blond, almost polar bear white. I’ve read that males usually have dark fur so maybe they are both teenage girls? They lay on their bellies with their paws stuffed into holes in the sand. Probably looking at their phones.

Mum is slightly larger and paces along the beach. Even she is endearingly plump and cuddly. Grizzlies are the teddy bears of the ursine family, round-headed with little ears like petals and cute-as-button eyes.

Although larger and stronger than black bears, they are responsible for less human attacks, possibly because they range across areas where they are less likely to meet us. The advice for anyone attacked by a black bear is fight back. For grizzlies, it is essentially, don’t bother.

Saw this male on the Top of the World highway on our first trip to town

A mother and her baby were killed by one near their remote cabin outside Mayo, YT this autumn. You may have seen it on the news and that tragic event is still fresh in our minds. (See this article for a local journalist's perspective.)

It is a tremendous privilege to watch these magnificent animals. They made breakfast that morning a spectacular event that I will never forget, but we will give them as much space as we can. We were almost relieved to see our local black bear returned and pacing down the bank a few days ago, knowing that he would not dare if the happy family of picnickers were still around.

Our black bear, a puny speck on the beach

The river is open now, so we have a (false) sense of security with a barrier between us and our bear neighbours. Bears regularly swim across river and do it alarmingly quickly so there is not much logic to this feeling. But they may not always fancy a swim and may not have their swimming trunks with them, we reason.

And of course, the bears on the river bank are only the ones we can see. The woods around our cabin will be full of those we don’t and every available picnic spot taken.

We start to see bears shortly after the river breaks, it seems. This year, that was a 3-day event at the beginning of May. The ice moved first at about 4am May 1st. With the water so low it was a gentle affair, there was no great cracking or crashing like we had last year.

I woke to what sounded like a motorway choked full of huge trucks driving very slowly in lowest gear just beyond the yard, as if the cabin had been transported to rural Kent in south-east England and plonked ¼ mile from the M2. 

                                   Break up, part one, May 1st

The ice jammed after a few hours and was stuck for two days, until one evening, I glanced up from my book to see it off again. After more than 6 months of stillness, there is something terrifyingly wrong about seeing the river move and we gaped at it for hours, awe-struck and ready to run away, as if it were a tornado or an earthquake.  

                                           Break up, part two, May 3rd

Extreme warm-ups over the winter have left the river at its lowest level ever recorded for break up. The snow-melt trickled away early and there was not enough water to create the surge that usually pushes the ice out.
Our beach

We were left with a magnificent wall of icebergs that extended as far as we could see, on both sides of the river.

Last year we had a week-long sentence in the ice-gulag, smashing down the wall with a pickaxe for long, hot, back-breaking hours to clear a launch way for our boat. This year, with low water, the ice was further down the bank and the weather has been warm.

The bergs all melted and floated away without so much as a poke from us. We got our boat in the water faster than I imagined. Much faster.

We have to get our boat down a 100’ bank with a 1 in 4 gradient to get it from the yard, where we store it away from the ice in winter, to the beach. Last year we tied off a safety rope from the stern so it didn’t slide out of control, but found the boat got stuck in the willows and we had to push it down with poles. Pushing a heavy boat and outboard downhill was rather dispiriting so this year I suggested we just give it a shove and let it go.

It went from top to bottom in less time than it takes to say “safety rope”, which speeded the process up marvellously. We had it all the way from the yard to the water in a few hours, total, and can now spend the time we gained trying to wrestle it onto the trailer to plug the leaking rivets in the hull that are the result of that rollercoaster ride.

Winching the boat to the water with a rope puller, anchored to a berg using ice screws

Spring is a mad rush for everything here. Ducks have flown in and left already, with geese hot on their heels behind them. Trees pop their leaves overnight turning our world brilliant green all of a sudden, and grasses and weeds grow literally inches by the day.

One evening the air is full of fluttering moth-like bugs, the next day they are gone and the air is swarming with flying ants, swallows sweeping and diving amongst them.

Swallows nesting in our gable top bird boxes

But compared to the fastest living creature on the planet, all this rushing about seems sluggish. A pair of peregrine falcons, maybe 3, appeared for a few days. We weren’t sure how many as these creatures move quicker than lightning. You can see lightning quite easily, but you can barely see a peregrine when it is hunting at full speed. You will probably only hear it.

They move so fast they tear the air open before them. As the first one shot from the trees to pound a duck from the air, we thought someone had fired a gun above us and both crouched on instinct. As they dive, they break they air with a clap, almost a sonic boom, like a cannon shot.

So vulnerable I could cry- baby red pole all alone in the yard

They have been clocked diving at over 200mph and it is believed could fly even faster if they wanted. But really, why would you bother?

Having got the boat down the bank at almost peregrine speed, we are afloat and can get to town again. We’ve been without fresh fruit for over two weeks now and we ran out of conversation months ago. I haven’t been to town since early March, so our first shopping expedition was a great excitement, even though I had to wash and brush my hair. What a pain in the ass.

Good grief, look at the state of me...

Now we have apples, broccoli, grapes, onions! We have an Eazy-Xtract bit and grade 8 bolt so we can continue with painting the Forth Bridge, (our never-ending snow machine repairs, see my last blog.)

We borrowed a compression tester and have discovered that out little Polaris, Piccolo, needs an engine rebuild. Any further work is therefore pointless, but for reasons I can’t explain we are going to put it all back together anyway.

Life is often pointless. In fact if you think about it too hard, life is always pointless, so best not to go down that route when you live alone in a remote cabin in the bush. Far better to busy ourselves and join in the mad spring rush, even if we’re not sure why.

There is only one thing moving painfully slowly here. That is the construction of our new log building. It goes slower than the hands of an unwound clock. Slower than the fireweed and raspberry bushes that are growing up around it.

Chainsawing out knots before peeling

Peeling bark with a shovel

But we get a quiet joy from seeing each log go up and, despite the natural Piccadilly Circus that is spinning around us, there is really no rush. So more on that in my next blog if, indeed, there is anything to report and if we can still find the building beneath the thrusting greenery.  

Lupins in bloom already


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