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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

Contributor(s): 
Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives  on a 100-year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities 23 years ago.
She shares this special place with five cashmere and milk goats,  a dozen-plus laying hens, three talkative geese an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, six angora rabbits, a house cat , a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo and one very spoiled Bourbon Red turkey.
When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, knits, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or screenplay or, more like, a sit-com.  Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.


Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.

  

 


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Timber Wolf.jpg

Magnetic North - February 14, 2018

Magnetic North 2/13/18

There Be Wolves in My World
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where today I dare to speak of one of the three things I have learned never to bring up in polite conversation lest I offend. Not politics. Not religion. But the thorniest of the big three, at least in these parts - wolves.  Fact is, there are as many opinions about wolves as there are people in the northland. So I come not to praise or convict the beasts, just to share my limited experiences with them with you.
 
That said, my farm critters and I share a world with wolves. Any and all of my critters, from the tiniest bantam chicken to the bulliest billy goat would make a lovely meal for the fabled predator. And some have. As for me, when I moved here from the city many years ago, all I knew of the wolf was that one ate Red Riding Hood’s gramma, and others hang out with vampires. I knew that they would as soon gobble up my pet dog as take a moose calf. And I was properly freaked out by that prospect, even as I left the city and headed 300 miles north into wolf wonderland, the North Shore and forests beyond.
 
And so, it was no surprise to me that when Paul and I settled here 27 years ago, we found ourselves and our wolf fears tested on the very first night in our new home. Our bedroom faces on our  long winding driveway, and we had the windows open to enjoy the August breeze, so the distant sound of what sounded like a whole lot of dogs yipping, woke us up around about midnight. “Hear that?” Paul whispered, obviously thrilled with the nearness of coyotes or brush wolves. But his thrills turned to chills as the yipping got close and closer to our house, then seems to be, and in fact was, heading straight for our open windows.  By the time the pack veered off into the forest, probably after some poor prey animal, Paul and I were sitting bolt upright in bed, bug-eyed and scared silly.
 
“Close the bleeping windows,” was all Paul said after the sounds died out.  Thankfully, that was a one-time experience. Maybe even a welcome to the hood, thing.
 
It was Paul alone who had the first up-close-and-personal encounter with a timber wolf on our acreage. He went for a walk in our woods to scope out a potential trail to the back forty and Little Brule River. Paul was notorious for disappearing for hours on end in the woods, but that day he reappeared in less than half an hour.
 
“Somebody on this road has a gigantic German Shepherd,” he said with a nervous laugh. “I mean, the thing was coming right at me on the trail, then stopped when it saw me and loped off into the brush...sort of like a wolf.  Ha, ha, ahem, I mean, it might even have BEEN a wolf,...” he dithered on, now rummaging around in our unpacked moving boxes.
 
When I ask him what he was looking for and what the heck did he mean by “it might have been a wolf, he just kept on mumbling about it probably was a dog, but no, it must have been a wolf, until he found his trusty rifle.
 
“Whatever it was, I’m not going out there without this,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t worry, wolves are more afraid of us than we are of them.
 
Well, he could have fooled me on that one. The color still hadn’t returned to his face by dinnertime.
In the years to follow, Paul and I repeated the experience of seeing a wolf, or wolves and having our brains instantly imagining that they were really dogs. It must be some kind of primitive denial thing, but it always gives way to, “By golly, that IS a wolf!”
 
And yes, I have lost critters to both brush and timber wolves. To date, two turkeys, ten guinea hens and three geese disappeared, leaving enough forensic evidence to indict wolves, rather than other uninvited dinner guests. We learned to identify who did the killing by the scene and sometimes, the state of a carcass left behind. Wolves don’t leave anything but feathers strewn out all over the place. Raptors and owls leave a neat pile and, if there’s snow on the ground, wing impressions on either side of the pile. And weasels, such as martens, leave a Steven King horror show which I refuse to describe and wish I could completely forget myself.
 
So far, no goats, even though my little flock of five free range over the meadow and sleep in a barn whose door is wide open. Oh, I’ve seen wolves on the meadow. A pack of nine sauntered from west to east one sunny morn in late fall, paying zero attention to the fat, juicy goats in the corral as they passed. For their part, the goats were just as disinterested in the wolves. But Paul and I were pretty revved up. We got a picture of the pack as it passed the lone white pine on the east meadow and Paul urged me to “howl or something so maybe they’ll turn around.” He wanted a better picture. I howled....howled my very best, but for all that the wolves merely stopped for a few seconds, seemed to look at each other - maybe exchanged a few snide remarks about “people” and vanished.
 
The only other wolf seen on the meadow was a lame one, limping from the woods to our pond. This time, I was in a combative mood and took after him with a broom. Perhaps the chickens and ducks were out. But he simply kept on going, stopping only to relieve himself, a clear sign of his opinion of me and my antics.
 
As cutesy as these stories are, I am acutely aware of the heartache suffered by a number of my neighbors and friends who have lost beloved dogs to wolves, often cruelly hearing the last cries of their pets and unable to save them. For this reason, I do take precautions. My dogs run loose on my meadow by day when they need to go out. But by night, they go out only on leash, even if it is in the wee small hours and double digit below zero weather. This practice does not eliminate the risk, but it does cut it down.
 
This winter, I’ve seen no wolves and heard them only on my computer, which I fire up almost every night for my bigger retriever, Jethro. He likes to howl, but produces mostly strangled squawks, so I play YouTube videos as tutorials for him at night at bedtime. Lately, Jethro seems to have found his voice, pursing his muzzle, angling his silky black neck upward, as he shuts his eyes and let’s a low, mournful note flow from his throat. I clap and tell him he’s ready for America’s Got Talent, then I let him jump up into bed next to me. And my “secret wolf” and I sleep in blissful ignorance of what goes on in the night forest that surrounds us.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Cashmere Goat.jpg

Magnetic North - February 7, 2018

Magnetic North 2/6/18
Combing Out
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where the first real proof of winter’s coming demise showed itself this week on the tips of my big cashmere goat’s horns. Bosco, a striking cafe latte colored charmer, sported long wisps of cashmere fleece on both of his horns, proof that he and his three lady friends have begun to shed their winter coats. And, like any creature with excess hair, goats itch and scratch that itch with their horns. 
 
I feel bad for dehorned goats. Most dairy goats are, soon after birth, and so have to find a tree or fence post to scratch on.  So why do people dehorned them? Well, some say it is to protect them from each other, or protect us from them. The argument against is that, first off, it hurts to have a red hot iron held to the top of your head.  Duh! And if that isn’t enough for you, goats the blood vessels in goats horns help regulate body temperature in hot weather. And then there is the backscratching thing.
 
That said, one might assume that getting all that extra itching fuzz combed off would be something a goat would love. One would be wrong. None of my current flock, except for Bosco, enjoys being combed out, but I love to do it, and over time I’ve learned a thing or two about getting the job done with minimal stress to the goat and maximum fun for me.
 
First off, I have to catch them. Time was, I spent hours chasing the identified victim around the barn and corral, often sending a volley of invectives into the winter night as I careened around feed pans or trees. Once I got so fed up with a big male named Bubba, who continually escaped the barn into the frigid night, I yelled at him at the top of my lungs, ”Get in there you old “blanket-y-blank” or I’ll shoot you!” Only to have a neighbor call Paul on the phone to ask if he was “alright.” 
 
Since then I have learned that a bribe will get me whatever I desire. Turns out that goats dream of cracked corn, raisins and a bucket of warm water laced with molasses. The only trouble here is that appearing with such a treat bonanza puts me smack in the middle of a goat vortex. So I’ve learned to first rope one at a time, leading all who are not to be combed that day into the garage to wait their turn.
 
When at last only one goat is left outside, I tether him or her to the sturdy corner post of my woodshed and arrange myself on a chair, blocking the critter with the shed on one side and me on the other. Depending on the goat’s mood, the wiggling and bucking finally quits and I can pull my metal comb through her fleece without a fuss. First on the chest, where the softest fiber grows. Then around the neck and over the back and sides. This can take a while, sometimes hours, but time flies by as I see the buildup of  finely crimped cashmere on the comb and my shopping bag filling with clouds of fluff.
 
When each goat has had its spa day, combing and hoof trimming as well as a yearly tetanus shot, I’ll have at least six grocery bags full of cashmere, which I send off to a mill in Wisconsin to be washed and combed into balls about the size of a cantaloupe. If I liked to spin, which I have no patience for, I would feed strands of this ball into a wheel to make yarn. Or I could use it to do needle felting. But I am a knitter and love to use my fiber, from both the goats and my angora rabbits, to make ridiculously warm mittens. I learned a technique called thrumming a few years ago. It‘s a New England invention where you pull off a length of raw fiber, roll it between your palms, then knit the fat little roll into your mitten The result is that the inside of the mitten is packed with loose fiber, soft and warm and virtually water proof. For any of us who have to spend time behind a snow blower, that means a lot.
 
Admittedly, there have been a few comb outs that were, let’s say, less idyllic than they were near death experiences. Once, when I inadvertently cornered a very nervous goat named Nimbus in the barn after combing out another goat, I dropped something and bent over at the waist to pick up the fallen object. I was facing Nimbus, so I guess he thought I was about to make a move on him and he made a break for it, right through my legs! One second I was standing in straw and the next I was astride a terrified goat, riding him backwards through the barn and out into the snowy night of the corral. Neither of us was hurt, but the whole thing did nothing for our future relationship. Some years later though, Nimbus came right up to me as I was doling out feed for his stable mates. It was the first and only time he let me pet him. I figure it was his way of saying no hard feelings and goodbye, because the next morning I found him snuggled down in the hay, at peace at last.
 
For all the work, some heartache, and countless offenses such as debarking three apple trees, consuming rose bushes and any other edible plant they like, in the main, my experiences with goats has been worth every minute. And it is not just about the cashmere. My devotion to my goats is something that I often struggling to explain. When someone asks questions like, “how much fleece do you get?” or “exactly how long does it take you to comb them out?” or “does the fiber pay for their feed?” I am close to being struck dumb. It’s not about numbers, hours, pounds or dollars, so I usually just say, “I don’t really know, I just like goats.”
 
People either get this answer or they don’t. And if they don’t, I have only this to say to them.
Too darned Baaaaaaahed!
 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.

   

 
 

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Magnetic North - January 24

Magnetic North 1/23/18
Commuting by Memory
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where warmer weather had folks walking about outside in shirtsleeves until it plunged back down near zero, The change in temperature is nowhere more visible than when driving Hwy 61 along the lake, which, just a week ago looked more like a huge steaming cauldron than a body of water.
 
Sub-zero air teased clouds of mist off the big lake, sending droplets of water that may have been there for hundreds of years on a new journey over the land. It was gorgeous to watch, as the last of the great lakers sailed close to shore, bound for port Duluth. Imagining what life must be like out there on those icy decks makes me shiver. I hear the crews eats like royalty, but still....
 
There are many familiar markers and memories along that 15 mile stretch of highway between home and town. For example, there’s one scraggly alder bush that continues to amaze me with every passing winter. She is remarkable enough to have kept her footing on the shallow soil, rooted as she is within a scant ten feet of the water’s edge. But this time of year she stands encased in ice, buffeted by waves and wind. The weight of all that ice would seem a crushing burden, but year after year she bears it. Thawing and leafing out when spring comes again. So many times I promise myself to take a picture of her in her ice cloak. But I needn’t really. 
 
As I pass one place after another on my drive, I recall past scenes more clearly than any camera could capture.
 
There is the beach across from the Outpost Motel, where once I chased an injured snow goose for close to an hour in a vain attempt to rescue her. A friend helped, but each time we got close to the creature she would flap her great buff grey wings, and hobble into a large drainage pipe that ran under the road onto the beach. Finally, I gave up. I told myself that this was “her time,” and all that rot. But each time I pass that beach, the scene plays out again. And so do my regrets.
 
Then there is the seasonal waterfall near to Five Mile Rock, where, on a bright Sunday morning on my way to church, a deer ran in front of my car with a wolf hot on its tail. Again, I was in rescue mode, pulling my car over and hitting the horn. The wolf, stopped for a bit, just long enough for the deer to bound away uphill. And another few blasts of my horn sent the predator loping off in the opposite direction from his prey.  Again, as I pass that spot, I often play out the scenario, this time with a satisfied feeling. 
 
Then there is the ditch alongside the highway in Tofte that conjures up a particularly vivid memory. Paul and I were headed for Duluth one day when we spied a deer carcass on the lake side of the road. We saw also that there were a fair number of happy critters dining on it., lined up along it’s body like a family at a picnic table. There were four of them, three bright black ravens and one furry red fox, all chewing and pecking away at their treasure, the very picture of a peaceable kingdom. Now THAT would have been a photo I would have paid good money to get.
 
Five Mile Rock is my favorite memory spot on the commute. It is the place where my late friend, John Anderson, wished to have his ashes aimed. That’s right, aimed. You see, John’s friend, Chuck owns a small canon, which he hauls out and shoots off on special occasions. Doesn’t everybody? Anyway, when John saw his end approaching, he asked Chuck to load his cremates into the canon and shoot them in the direction of Five Mile Rock on July 4th.
 
It wasn’t just the spectacle, John was an avid fisherman, so to be shot into a body of water he had often plied for fish was a brilliant wish. Many of John’s friends gathered that July 4th at a home on the bluff just above Five Mile Rock. Chuck had alerted law enforcement of his plans, and a good thing too. For just as he aimed the canon full of ashes at the rock, a small fishing craft motored abreast of the target area. Well, we all knew there was no cannonball in the thing. And we knew that Chuck was not a man to dilly dally around until the fishermen decided to quit the rock. But the fellows in the boat were missing some of this vital information.
 
When the blast from the canon came, we all cheered. Then we howled with laughter as the little boat stood practically on end motoring full speed away. Rumor had it that they called the law and I would have given anything to have heard that conversation. “What do you mean he had permission?”  As the saying goes, “Welcome to Cook County!”
 
All in all, it was perfect sendoff for John, a man who loved a good laugh as much as anyone I ever knew.
 
There are more places, more memories along those miles I drive so often: a runaway pot belly pig, a sudden ditching on black ice, the eagles, my spirit animal, flying overhead every single time I went to get chemotherapy in Duluth. So many odd, funny, mystical scenes playing out over and over. And, like a favorite movie or tune, they never, ever get old.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 
 

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Magnetic North - January 17

Magnetic North 1/15/17
 
Critter Catch and Release
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where daily snowfall reveals fresh critter tracks every morning. On my chore rounds to coop and barn, I spy the telltale prints of field mice, and snowshoe hares, along with a few more concerning paw marks. The wily fox visits each night and often at dawn, sniffing out the flock of bantam chickens, ducks and two geese snugged up in the hay storage side of my garage.
 
But old Wiley can sniff all he wants. I keep the garage door and coop hatch shut tight at dusk and my two big Lab, Jethro and Zoey, often chase the handsome redhead across the meadow and into the woods by day, allowing the birds safe sunbathing outside, even on  the coldest of days. 

That is not to say there haven’t been loses over the years.. The chicken wire run has been breached by tenacious martens and raccoons.. Stubborn turkeys and guinea hens have resisted my efforts to put them in at night, paying the ultimate price for their brief freedom. And hardest to bear, there have been lapses on my part -a garage door left ajar, or the coop hatch I forgot to close.
 
And so, I have lost birds to pine martens, skunks, coyotes, raccoons and foxes.And even though I know that the predators are only doing what nature tells them to do, I am bitter, even vengeful. But over time, I think I’ve struck a workable method of dealing with the inevitable outcome of keeping domestic creatures in the midst of wild ones.
 
All of the marauders mentioned, except for fox and coyotes, I’ve successfully coaxed into Havahart traps. Skunks proved to be the trickiest to deal with humanely, for obvious reasons. And for those who say that skunks are just big pussycats who can be covered up with a tarp, then carried to a distant place and release without spraying, I say this: give me your phone number and I’ll pay you a hundred bucks to do that for me next time I catch one. 
 
Time was, Paul would dispatch trapped predators with the 22 rifle he got as a twelve year old boy for Christmas. He was a great shot and did the deed well. I can’t shoot straight and, for my own health and safety, prefer not to have a weapon in the house. For these reasons, over time I have become a catch and release fan. 
 
Oh, I did toy with the idea of snaring for a while after my pet goose, Ziva, was killed last winter. She was snatched by a fox in the middle of the day when the dogs were inside. Ziva was a dear thing, not the least bit mean. When I visited her quarters on bitter cold winter nights, the big grey and white African goose would waddle up to me as I sat on a bale of straw and wait for me to pick her up and unzip my parka so she could stick her head inside. It must have reminded her of being a gosling under her mamas wing. For me, it was like holding a big feather pillow, only with a beating heart and cold feet. I miss her every night on chore rounds, as her babies, Thelma and Louise, are not so much cuddly as combative.
 
So when I lost Ziva to a fox, I had blood in my eye and took to researching snares. I knew where the fox came and went from its tracks in the snow. He -or she- made a path off the driveway into a willow stand. The slender willows were perfect for setting up snare lines. After measuring and plotting the wire placement, I asked a friend who knew about such things what he thought my choice of location and chances for success.
 
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked me. . “Have you thought it through?”
 
I had not. 
 
“Well, the thing is,” my friend told me, “it’s not going to be pretty. The animal is going to be frantic, caught by a foot or by the neck. And right off the driveway?....What happens when you let Zoey and Jethro (my dogs) out? Are you going to borrow a gun? It won’t stand still, you know, so you’ll probably end up making a mess of it.....”” and so forth. 
 
Frankly, he had me at “it’s not going to be pretty.” The snare wire is still in the garage. And the fox is still coming, like clockwork, at dusk and dawn, outracing Zoey and Jethro across the meadow at other times. 
 
Howsoever, also in the garage are three sizes of Havahart traps. Wonderful devices that look like big wire breadboxes, with spring-loaded doors that snap shut after the hungry varmint enters and steps on a metal plate where I’ve placed stinky tidbits. The biggest Havahart snapped shut on an enormous raccoon, who clung to the wire piteously until I released her. The small traps have imprisoned three pine martens. All of them, like the raccoon, left the farm alive in my car with road trip treats to keep them happy on their way to their new hunting grounds.
 
When get to the release point - a good 15 miles from my farm - and set the Harahart on the ground, I open the trap door and sing, “Born free, free as the wind blow, free as the grass grows, born freeeeeeee.....” After a momentary confusion as to where the heck they are, the little criminals can’t get away from the sound of my voice fast enough.
 
So yes, this isn’t the eye for an eye punishment I feel like bestowing when I find a favorite goose missing, or a poor duck so badly injured that I have to put her down, but revenge is, as they say, a dish best served cold. I take that to mean that to punish an offender when in the grip of grief and rage is folly and just makes matters worse.. 
 
It’s not exactly the Annie Oakley image of myself I had when I moved to this wild and wonderful place. But it’s one I can live with. And so can the critters who live here too.
 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Magnetic North - January 10 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 1/10/18
Sam McGee and Me
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where winter warmed up just in time for the Beargrease sled dog race. Not that subzero double digit windchill ever stopped mushers or their dogs. Lack of snow is the real deal breaker for the race. This year, we have snow aplenty. Perfect weather for a great race. And as a would-be adventuress in the far north since the age of ten, I am thrilled for the mushers, the dogs and the volunteers. But I’ll cheer them on, as always, not at any of the frozen checkpoints, but from my warm and comfy couch, an old book of verse in my lap.
 
This fantasy of living in the far north, dependent only on my dogs and my wits, began when I graduated from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to the poetry of Robert W. Service. For some reason, Service’s verses swept me out of my suburban Philadelphia home and into a life of adventure, tragic heroes, breathtaking natural beauty, plus the tantalizing hope of finding gold in a land where others would find only frostbitten fingers.
 
I blame my DNA for this. I just found that my DNA proves that I am of 98 percent British ancestry. A slim connection, you say, to Robert W. Service, who was actually born in England. .But we share  a taste for Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing poetry at a young age, and choosing a path less travelled. In Service’s case,  he left England in the late 1800’s to be a cowboy in the Yukon Wilderness, later writing his way to the title of Bard of the Yukon. About a hundred years later, I too took a detour from the predictable and ended up here, surrounded by forests and snowscapes, with a fellow of 100 percent Norwegian ancestry.
The Beargrease race always leads me back to the book Paul and I both loved, The Spell of the Yukon. I still have the same calfskin edition I read as a kid, a collection of Service’s greatest poems, nuggets of the purest gold panned from the icy streams of the land he loved. While others stand shivering at race checkpoints, I curl up in front of the fire and turn, as always, to my favorite Service saga that surpasses all others, The Cremation of Sam McGee,
You probably know the first lines.
 
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
 
The narrator goes on to explain how his buddy, Sam, who hailed from the state of Tennessee, succumbed to the cold on the trail while mushing on the Dawson Trail. One night, Sam asks his friend for a very creepy favor.
 
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."
 
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."
 
Well, old Sam did die that night and the poor sap telling the story mushers on, weighed down with dread and a promise. The whole ordeal drove him a little nuts. But, judge for yourself....
 
“The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
 
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."
 
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
 
Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
 
 
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.
 
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."
 
So there you have it. The poem that foreshadowed my calling this place home. Not with a sled dog team, but for 22 years with a man, who also fancied the Bard of the Yukon. It’s true. If, as Jane Austen’s Darcy claimed, poetry be the food of love, The Cremation of Sam McGee was the first course in Paul’s and my courtship. On one of our first dates, sitting in a Perkins restaurant drinking coffee, Paul admitted that he too was taken with Service’s poetry and launched into “There are strange things done in the midnight sun...”  But he knew only the first stanza. I recited all the rest, learned by heart so long ago, reeling the stunned man in with every weirdly wonderful line. And the rest, dear friends, is history.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Magnetic North - January 04 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 1/3/18
 
The True Cost of Love and Art
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where our new year dawned, still cold, but without the howling winds that blew out the old one. When I set out to do the first chores of 2018, the change was stunning. The sun and stillness was more a caress, than a slap. I could actually go without the hood of my parka and do all my chores in one trip. For the past week I divided them up out of concern for my life, and by extension, the survival of my two dozen chickens, eleven ducks, two geese and five goats.
 
Going to town for anything more than food was the rule during that nasty spell of weather. But I did make it in to spend a few hours with my fellow fiber fanatics at the butt end of our show at the Johnson Heritage Post. What a deeply delightful time that was. Weavers, needle filters, spinners and knitters, like me, just sitting about demonstrating our favorite things, while greeting curious, or just plain frozen, folks who dropped in. 
 
One day of the exhibit, I brought Julia, one of my two German angora bunnies so that people could see where that to-die-for fiber actually comes from. I set up a Pack ’N Play, the ubiquitous folding soft-sided playpen, for the big, round rabbit and visitors admired and petted her, while I showed them how I use raw angora fiber to create wildly warm mittens. I do that by knitting fat rolls of angora, along with regular wool yarn - a historic technique known as “thrumming.”  I also use cashmere thrums from my goats to make things, however installing a goat in the Heritage Post didn’t seem like a good idea.
 
“How long does it take you to make these?” was an often asked question. In reply, I just laughed and shook my head. Because time has little to do with what I, or most of my fiber friends, love about our art. Instead, making and experimenting and sharing are at the root of it all. And for me, of course, there is having an excuse to keep and feed and clean up after rabbits and goats. 
 
Having critters I love, and that love me back, then getting to relax and create all winter, making beauty things, is beyond satisfying. Why on earth would I count the cost in time or money?
 
The only cost involved that I can say I hate, is that inevitably I have to say goodbye, to suffer the loss of one of my beloveds. Not all are gut-wrenching, though.  I remember one which was actually laugh out loud funny. It involved a chicken, a big White Wyandotte. I named Twisted Sister. It fit her, because she had a beak that crossed, top and bottom, so picking up dry feed like other hens was not to be.
 
Now a true farmer would have culled the chick right off, but not I. Instead, for the several years of her life, Twisted got her egg mash mixed with water, a gruel she could scarf up even with her scissor beak. Naturally, we became fast friends and, when she died one spring day, I decided to have a proper burial for her in one of the raised beds near the goat corral.
 
Armed with Shakespeare’s sonnet 118, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate...” and so forth, I popped Twisted’s body in a fabric feed sack, and dug a hole in the raised bed. Wouldn’t you know, that day the goats got out of their fence and, spying the feed sack in my hands, made a beeline for it and me, just as I was reciting Twisted’s eulogy.
 
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” I said, between curses at the goats as they nipped at Twisted’s burial shroud. “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date...Ahhhh, get off me you fiends!”
Finally, the mood totally blown as I sound the sack around my head to keep it from the leaping goats, I gave in, chucked my dear old friend into the hole and shrieked,’

“Thanks for the eggs!  Amen!”
 
So there you have it, why I do not count the time or treasure involved in surrounding myself with critters. Or in turning their output into art, or in the case of chickens, breakfast. It’s about joy. It’s about love given and returned. And, truth be told, dear friends, it’s about having a never-ending stream of stuff to write about. 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 

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Magnetic North - December 14 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 12/12/17
 
Lasting
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where several days and nights of gentle snow make all things sparkle and bring the evergreen trees into sharper focus. The towering White Pine standing on the southeast edge of the meadow seems to take center stage, a kind of palace guard standing watch over my winter world. Summer meadow flowers and deciduous trees proved fickle. One good frost and a few days of wind and were out of here. But not the pines or balsam or cedar or spruce. They are in it for the long haul. Their colors last and I am grateful for that.
 
That word, “last,” crops up a lot these days in my imagination. For instance, on a particularly wretched day of sleet and high winds, I imagined the outcome if I took a crippling fall on the skating rink that annually forms between the house and chicken coop. How long would I last, I wondered. And then, I thought, better to fall outside the coop than in. Chickens, especially starving ones, would not be kind. And so forth.
 
These nightmare fantasies are not peculiar to me. Anyone living in a remote spot like this has them from time to time. Even if one does not live alone. I remember how Paul and I had a come-to-Jesus conversation one below zero night when I stayed out in the barn from 10 until midnight, combing cashmere off the goats. I lost track of the time and when I finally looked at my watch  I felt terrible for worrying Paul.
 
Well, as you might have guessed, Paul was sound asleep in bed. But not for long!  “What’s got you in a tizzy, sweetheart?” he mumbled, trying to pull back the covers I so unceremoniously ripped off him. So I told him. “What if I’d broken a leg or fainted out there? In this weather, how long would I last?” He protested that he didn’t worry about me, not because he cared so little, but because he had so much confidence in me.” It was a good effort. But it fell on deaf ears.
 
“Here’s the deal, my sweet,” I growled at the poor man. “If you EVER go to bed and leave me to freeze outside you’d better pray that I’m good and dead when you finally do come to look for me!”  
 
Another way I think of “lasting,” besides physically surviving is in the way folks begin to see their big decisions in life. My friend, Sylvia was furious when someone admired her new car, then added, “Well, this will probably be your last one.”  Who needs that?
 
But it got me thinking, always a dangerous thing for me. There will be a “last car” and a “last order of chickens from Murray McMurray,” not to mention a last vote or meal or belly laugh. There will even be a last time I look across the meadow and say my morning prayers gazing at the old White Pine. One of us simply will outlast the other.
 
Oh, now please don’t think I linger in the shadows of my imagination. But often they give me the best giggles of the day. Case in point. When I told my only child, a wonderful, albeit slightly controlling know-it-all, that I’d paid a fortune for a Norwegian Forest cat - she scolded, “Mom!  Do you really think that was necessary, with all of your other animals?”
 
So yes, I have a few more critters than most: two big dogs, two long-haired cats, two angora rabbits, eight bantam chickens, five Swedish ducks, eleven mallard ducks, two buff geese, twenty-nine laying hens and five goats. 
 
She had a point. But, to my everlasting shame, I countered with a sucker punch no parent should ever throw. Sighing mightily into the phone, I said, “Ohhh, but honey, this will probably be my last cat.”
Yes, I said that. I played the Old Lady Card on my own child, no less.
 
Of course I apologized for doing that and vowed never again to use my nearness to the Great Beyond to win a point with her.
 
Today, Wolfie, the Norwegian Forest cat, sits on the back of the couch, hungering for just one bite of the black capped chickadee feeding on sunflower seeds outside.  The short-eared Northern owl we both watched for weeks on the meadow seems to have moved on. One day it simply did not appear. The last time I saw it was on my way to Thanksgiving dinner with friends. He (or she ) was sitting on the fence rails surrounding the vegetable garden. I waved as I drove by. The pretty buff colored owl stared right at me. And that was the last time I saw it.
 
Another “last” that I didn’t see coming. And really, when I think about it, isn’t that just as well?
Thanks for listening. For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Magnetic North - December 7 with Vicki Biggs Anderson

Magnetic North 12/07/17
Early Winter on Ice
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where high winds and sun combine to polish the ice crust covering most roads and driveways. Until last night, folks in the Banana Belt, about half a mile uphill from Superior’s waters, still had bare earth and even grass showing. A good friend and fellow chicken keeper’s flock was even enjoying free-ranging, while my poor hens were cooped up. Now they are all in it together for the duration of winter.
 
My hens do have advantages when it comes to getting out for a few hours of winter sun. Paul and a friend built a huge chicken run 27 years ago and it still stands, affording the girls 200 square feet of outdoor access. Not that they always want out. Chickens are a titch wussy about stalking about in snow, so I always toss in a few of my female ducks come winter to stamp down the snow in the run. Why just girl ducks? Well, suffice it to say that male ducks- drakes - are not gentlemen. One might even put their photos up there with the likes of Harvey Weinstein. So in winter I have to segregate my three Swedish drakes in the dog kennel where they coexist with my two big Labs, Zoey and Jethro, neither of whom look the least bit enticing to a duck.
 
Tomorrow marks one of my favorite winter preparations. Not the hanging of ornaments on the tree. Not the baking of cookies. And for sure not shopping madness. For me it is the annual hay delivery from Dan’s Feed Bin. Fifty bales of sweet green hay will be off-loaded from the huge semi by two bully boys who swing those bales around like feather pillows. As they do this, a chore that takes only about ten minutes, my five goats hover on the deck between the house and garage where the hay is stored. Now, I’m not sure that goals actually drool, but they do something just as, well, weird. When new food, like fresh hay appears. Their upper lips curl up so as to fully absorb the delicious aromas released by the bales. 
 
This crazy looking behavior is actually performed by many creatures, from cats and dogs, to zebras. It’s call Flehman behavior and has more to do with finding members of the opposite sex than in locating dinner. By rolling back their gums, pulling a face so as to let scents enter their mouths, critters allow pheromones-the animal equivalent of Old Spice or Chanel #5-to flip a switch behind their front teeth.  The message? “Get ready for something good!” In this case, that’s fresh hay. And while hardly better than sex, when it’s below zero and the meadow is three feet under snow, hay and the occasional dish of cracked corn, spells survival.
 
Survival in the coming months for us hairless, featherless creatures depends primarily on warmth. Thus, my weekend delivery of beautiful split maple has me feeling all cozy and safe. Now all I have to do is fetch my daily stack without cracking a hip or twisting an ankle. These hazards are the reasons I always take my phone with me whenever I do chores. Plus, I popped for a special bracelet with a “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” button from my home security provider.
 
Oh, yes, I’m in that stage of life. If I ever doubt it, I’ve only to listen to my peers’ endless “organ recitals” or joint replacement sagas. Plus, my middle age daughter recently suggested that I install a granny cam, of all things, in my home. “Just so I won’t worry about you, Mom.” she cooed over the phone. “After all, you are all alone out there.”
 
Bristling at the “out there” remark, I put a stop to the whole thing by telling her that a “granny cam” would not be a good idea as I had taken to walking about the house naked. Just between us, this is a bald faced lie. But tough times call for tough measures. So now she is content with a gadget that will alert her if I don’t open the fridge within ten hours. Still irritating, but a small price to keep her off my case.
 
Sitting here now, listening to the wild wind, watching the ducks and geese goats sheltering from it in the woodshed, now stuffed with a winter’s worth of maple, I am sinfully content to be “out here” and feel anything but “alone.” I am blessed to have been born an introvert and an only child who learned how to enjoy my own company and find endless opportunities for entertainment. I have some very close friends, fresh eggs, money to indulge my knitting addiction and can, thanks to brilliant physical therapy help, can now walk without a limp, albeit with Yak Tracks strapped to my mukluks.
 
In short, I have enough. Best of all, so too do my darling and completely frustrating naughty goats, drakes and all creatures great and small who inhabit my wintry world.
Life is good, even on ice. 

Thanks for listening. This is Vicki Biggs-Anderson for WTIP with Magnetic North

 
 

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Magnetic North: Staying home

Welcome back to Magnetic North. Today I want to address the subject of staying put for the winter. Staying home instead of sprouting snowbird wings and flapping away at the first sign of frost. Fact is, most of us retired sorts could go somewhere else. Somewhere warmer. But we don’t. Too much money we say. Too much hassle we protest. And so we stay. Stoically, but seldom silently, enduring all that Mother Nature chucks at us for the next six months. We are indeed, the stuff of epic drama. And drama, my friends, is exactly what it is and why it is we stay.

Because the truth of the thing, the real reason why so many of us stay here all winter is this: This is where the good stuff is and we don’t want to miss any of it. Even for a month or two. Or, in my case, even for a week or two.

For instance, have you noticed that the pine and balsam and spruce are now taking center stage? Leaves are leaving deciduous trees naked and slightly embarrassed. To their rescue and our craving for color come the evergreens. The sight of these giants standing tall throughout a January blizzard warms me as no Florida sun could ever do. 

The apple tree in the yard is bare now, too; but one bushel of its fruit is already transformed into silky, tangy sweet apple butter. Twelve pints this year. I got the recipe from a book my husband, Paul, got me at a long gone bookshop in town, the Book Station. There, proprietors Ray and Virginia Quick, also sold angora mittens made by a local woman who spun her yarn right off her bunnies and dyed the wool with Kool-Aid! Virginia was a fount of grandmotherly advice for a newcomer like me. And Ray was a daily vision, breezing through town on his way to the little shop on his ten-speed bike. They, like their shop, are gone now, but with each new batch of apple butter, I remember them fondly. Remembering blooms in winter.

So do spectacular sunsets and sunrises. The former casting a rosy glow over the world - Sigurd Olson called it “Ros Light.” And the latter coming so late in the morning that even a slug-a-bed like me can catch it most days. And between sundown and sunup there is a delicious 14 hours in which to star-gaze, build fires in the hearth, read, write, imagine, and, most glorious of all, give in to the siren call of comfort food.

Ahh, comfort food. We must have it so we can bulk up in the event we end up in a ditch and are not found for days, don’t you know. At least that’s my excuse. On the first visit to our clinic after moving here, I found no comfort at all when I stepped on the scale in late January. Before I could protest the inaccuracy of the equipment, the nurse patted my hand and said, somewhat cruelly I thought, “Welcome to Cook County.” We transplants hear this phrase often in our first years, usually after a mind-boggling event of some kind renders us speechless.

Speech in winter tends to be as brisk as the air. Small talk is for summer. Pumping gas in a gale wind in subzero temperatures one tends to keep one’s mouth shut, conserving what little warm air there is inside. At the most, an exchange out of doors at the market might be along these lines.

“Had 21 below at my place to his morning.” To which a reply might be, “Anything freeze up on you?” The concern being, not fingers or toes but plumbing. Winter is our shared enemy and we are comrades bonded together in the fight to endure, if not to conquer it. We strategize hourly about how to get to work, then home, then to this or that meeting. We are ready for anything. And we are invariably snookered.

The power goes off. The private plowers all break down on the same day. The early winter rain turns to snow at midnight and garage doors freeze shut. 

No day is ever like one in living memory, according to the weather mavens at the Blue Water Cafe. It may be better. Or worse. But it is never, ever, the same.

And yet, in the midst all of this uncertainly we have community and the ever-present sweetness of wood smoke in the air. Add to these, the incessant meetings of committees and boards and hobby groups, like the knitters at Java Moose coffee shop or the cribbage crowd at the Senior Center. Community. It’s here to take or to leave. But it is here for us, solid and snug and comforting, 

This place, this stretch of woods and shore in winter is truly a world apart. There is a saying here that many come to our woods and shore to find themselves and when winter comes, often don’t care much for what they have found. I get that. The unbroken whiteness. The monochromatic palette and daily bouts with nature is not for everyone. But I just happen to be wired to love that kind of world and for that I am so very, very grateful. 

In the summer months, tourists often ask us, “what do you do up here in the winter?” Sometimes I say no one actually lives here in winter, that we all leave and the highway is closed at the county line. Or some such smarty pants answer. But I never tell them the truth. Because to yammer on about Northern Lights and apple butter, much less the thrill of bag day at the recycling shop on Fridays, would be exposing some of my favorite things to ridicule. And so usually, when asked that question, I just channel Jack Nicholson in the Shining and smile and say, “well now, that’s a secret.”

And that tends to end the conversation pretty quick.

(Photo courtesy of Ed Suominen on Flickr)

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Vicki on her kick-sled

Magnetic North: The stuff of dreams

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the resident goats, chickens, ducks, bunnies, et al. are as baffled by our on-again-off-again, winter as are we all.

The recent rain/sleet/snow of late made chores a sloppy mess, but the result was unexpected bliss. Until this series of events, the snow base was just a little too soft for me to enjoy my daily and nightly kick sled rides up and down the driveway, and more importantly, the use of the sled to hold feed and water buckets on the twice daily chore runs. Now, however, the frozen hard layer exists and I am once more slip-slidin’ away through the winter.

My favorite time to ride is between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight. Think aurora borealis. Or stars so numerous and visible that it looks like the sky is dusted with powdered sugar. Or, as was the case just two nights ago, a full moon turning the new-fallen snowflakes into diamonds. Diamonds that painted the meadow and the backs of my mittens and flew up around the rungs of my sled as I sailed silent as a soft owl.

Tis the stuff of dreams, unless you are my daughter living in L.A. hearing this and demanding to know if I have my phone in my parka pocket while I am swanning about in the dead of night on a sled(!!!!) in the middle of “nowhere.” The answer is “yes, dear.” Ahhh, the sweetness of payback for all those nights when she was in high school and blowing through her curfew. Life is really, really, really good sometimes, isn’t it?

On a more somber note, not all at the farm has been moonbeams and chuckles. This weekend I tried in vain to doctor my majestic rooster, Mr. Fancy. A ridiculously fluffy blue-grey ball of sweetness, Fancy came to me as a “free, rare and exotic mystery chick” with my yearly Murray McMurray chick order. For “free” read “rooster.” So if anyone is averse to crowing, don’t bite on this offer. Only once in the 25 years of ordering have I been sorry that I went for the freebie and that was when I got a nasty little piece of business called a “game cock.” But Fancy was the best. Protective of his hens, always showing them the choicest morsels of food before partaking himself and posing strutting his stuff like a rock star when kids came to visit the farm.

I will miss him. And no, I will not take the mystery chick this spring. Fancy was just too great a rooster to top. Plus, I still have a crazy little bantam rooster crowing his head off!

It is snowing again today and I have new straw to throw into the coop and barn - the critter equivalent of starry snowflakes for us. Paul used to call it “putting on the clean sheets,” and that’s just what it is. The goats stand in the doorway to the barn as I break up the bales of golden straw, covering up the old and hardened bottom layer. Bosco, my big buff colored cashmere wether, likes to get in there with me, employing his handsome horns to lift up the flakes of straw, rearranging them as he sees fit. The others just baa a bit, eager to see if there might be some tasty bits in the bedding.

Over in the coop, though, the job is much simpler. I just take off the baling twine and let the hens tear the big bale apart. This is akin to a day at the Alpine Slide to a chicken. Scratching, flinging straw, and generally wearing themselves out rearranging all the flakes. By evening chores, the floor of the coop has been transformed into one cozy comforter of golden straw with the hens up on their roosts gazing down on their handiwork. Spent, but happy.

And so, as we head toward the spring equinox, just weeks and more hours of daylight from now, all is well at the farm. Come rain or snow. Sad farewells and remembered joys. Winter gives me the time and space to sort and piece together these things. Winter and the solitude of life at the end of a gravel road 14 miles from town and two miles uphill from the big lake. What scares some, suits me just fine. As it does, I imagine, most of you listening right now,

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