Welcome back to Magnetic North, where just a hint of wood smoke flavors the air. Air so delicious that I don’t so much breathe it as gulp it down. Icy. Sweet. Winter air infused with maple or birch smoke is one of the joys of living here year ‘round. And so much more. The scent of smoke in the chilly air signals that all is well. It says that somewhere near enough to sniff, to find, to share, there is warmth. Even at minus 20 with a windchill of 50 below.
It’s a survival thing, something that the poetry of Robert W. Service awakened in my 12-year-old soul. Service’s “Spell of the Yukon,” published in 1907, a collection of his most popular ballads about the characters and critters caught up in the Canadian gold rush, came into my suburban Philadelphia home as a gift to my father. But I was its true beneficiary. I daydreamed my way through soul-sucking junior high subjects, conjuring up the Lady known as Lou and, though I’d never heard even a dog howl, the song of the “huskies gathered round in a ring” carried me away from the torture chamber that was algebra, taught by Mr. Miller-who-flunked-his-own-daughter.
My most beloved poem in that collection was “Cremation of Sam McGee.” Which begins this way:
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.
It gets worse.
You see, Sam, being from Tennessee, hated cold weather. He knew he was dying and asked his prospector partner to cremate his corpse. Of course the fellow says OK, a clear case of not thinking things through. So with no access to timber, the partner ends up lashing Sam’s frozen body to the sled and carting it around for heaven knows how long until he finds an old barge on the shore of, uh huh, Lake Lebarge. The barge furnace is big enough to stuff Sam in and the rest is historic macabre humor.
It goes like this:
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."
I recited the whole thing for my junior high talent show and I think doing that - instead of belting out Honey Bun from South Pacific - changed my life. The boys in my class no longer ignored me. They practically ran the other way when they saw me in the hallway. Except for Michael Landis; he invited me to come over to his house to cremate his brother’s hamster.
No one seemed to get it, the whole fire and ice thing…how you could love both, especially together, with wolves nipping at your heels and mountains of gold beyond every horizon? But I saw myself in that vision and kept it alive for the next 30 years when finally I moved to the North Shore of Lake Superior. Wolves, subzero winters and, according to recent mineral exploration reports, possibly even precious metals are us.
And as for playing with fire, I have a wood burning furnace, a Franklin stove, two fireplaces, more oil lamps than anyone needs, and - most sacred of all - a 10 by 12 woodshed. I can spend an entire day gathering kindling or chopping kindling and nobody thinks a thing of it. In fact, since I don’t fell my own trees, I am probably considered a bit of a wuss.
All the good trees on my 80 acres were logged long ago. Just aspen and new growth evergreens grow there now. So surrounded by woods, I need to bring in food for my furnace. Starting just about now, before this winter’s woodpile is half-burnt, I start scoping out next winter’s stash. Will I need a full logger’s cord again? Should I try for more maple? It burns so much longer than birch. And should I order right away? Last season I nearly ran out. And so forth. When I decide, I go through the list of wood sellers and order a full cord - that’s 128 cubic feet - for delivery in June.
I hire a neighbor teenager to stack the wood, then eagerly wait for the warm weather to go away so I can burn my first 10 sticks. That’s how many split logs I can fit on my old blue plastic kiddy sled. This winter, thanks to lack of snow, pulling that load from the woodshed to the back door has been a hassle. My reward is the satisfying crash as the avalanche of logs careen down the steps to the back door.
I carry in the logs with purpose, according to which will be split and fed to the fire first. These I line up on the red tiles of the furnace room. Then comes the laying of the fire, a task requiring discipline and focus, Tough stuff when twisting at least 10 pages of newsprint, just enough birch bark on hand to cradle four to six lengths of kindling and luck. It’s a fingernails-on-the-blackboard task as it is accompanied by soot, knotty logs that resist reduction and the occasional cross wolf spider rudely wakened from under a bit of bark.
But all that pales when I lay the perfect fire. One that burns true and fast, reducing several big logs and burning them down to neon red-gold embers. And as I perch in front of the open furnace door, basking in the glow, I search in vain for the outline of old Sam McGee, reanimated by fire, begging his friend - begging me- to not let in the cold. To “close that door.” And, reluctantly, oh so reluctantly, I do.
Airdate: January 22, 2013