Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An Early Autumn

Autumn is a short season here, and, in a place already rich in light and temperature dependent “now or never” opportunities, fall welcomes seasonal activities that we enjoy only this time of year.

View of home from the kayak
This summer gave clues that winter might come early, and indeed it did. By mid-August, the last fire weed flowers bloomed. That final flowering is our “old wife's tale” warning that winter is 6 weeks away and autumn is upon us. The 6 foot grasses and fireweed die back, revealing the red, yellow, and brown leaves of shorter ferns, cranberry bushes, and devil's club. The berries of the ash, elderberry, and cranberry bushes start orange and turn red and, in some cases, attain a gorgeous burgundy. The birch and aspen trees turn yellow, reflected along the lake edge, reminding me of many a Japanese screen. Over time, they shed their starry seeds and heart shaped leaves along the brown woodland paths, as though ready for a blushing bride to walk upon them. On a short shopping flight to Anchorage in late August, I saw a beautiful sight: miles and miles of yellow birch and aspen, looking, from the 500 ft vantage point of a de Havilland Beaver, like bouquets of giant daffodils as far as the eye could see.

Moose hunting season is in late August through early September. Each evening, my husband walked around our property blowing into a horn that is supposed to offer sexy “come hither” appeal to a bull moose. Each morning, he hiked a short distance out into the woods, to sit on a fallen birch tree adjacent to a meadow with lots of tasty vegetation that moose had clearly chomped off during the summer and more recently, too. Since we intended to leave in mid-October, I'm not sure what he would have done had a bull moose crossed his path. Maybe he didn't know either. But as it happened, none did. The mornings passed quietly as he sat there with a book, a thermos, and a still rifle.

I'm not a hunter myself, but, (except in cases of subsistence need), the silence and solitude, the scents of the woods, the intentional, highly attentive awareness are satisfactions of their own for most hunters I know. I imagine that most people wouldn't discover this if someone said, “go out and sit in the woods and be quiet!” But I wonder if this visceral pleasure is the real reason that Cabellas does such a booming business. Although normally a highly active and interactive person, Bryan loves this autumn “now or never” gift of quiet. I wish something similar and repeatable for my busy, social, electronically connected city friends. He sits quietly every morning, feeling the soft breezes and light rain, watching small woodland creatures that scamper along the downed tree, not noticing him until the last moment and then retreating in a sinuous turn or brave leap. By returning to the same spot each day for four or five mornings and lingering there, he really notices the woods in ways we don't when we pass through – the foliage that died back as the night time temperature dropped, the increasing expanse of sky as the leaves fall, the footprints and scat on the narrow path. I believe that these experiences deliver deep pleasures. He sleeps better. He's calm. And surely he gains knowledge each year important to when we will spend all fall and winter here, and will rely on the tasty moose burgers, steaks, and stew meat that feed so many grateful families through the long winter.

True to the fireweed warning, snow fell in the mountains opposite us on Sept 12 – and not just a dusting, either. It remained, soft and white, gathering depth with subsequent precipitation, and creeping incrementally down the mountain toward the treeline. Sept 23 we awoke to a white yard, and although it didn't last past noon, this early snow urged us to get to our fall chores. It was time to mulch the gardens, harvest the potatoes and remaining vegetables, move additional wood to the back porch, and install tall marking stakes by the burn barrels, fuel depot, fire pit and other sites we would want to find under the mid winter snows after returning from a trip Outside. We filled our 8 - 8 gallon water jugs, four with potable and four with non-potable water for a head start in winter, since otherwise we rely on slowly melting and boiling pots of snow which markedly delay the availability of usable H2O.

Between Sept 23 and Oct 9 we enjoyed two hard freezes. The first caused all the alder leaves to drop in one fell swoop, so, for the first time since June, we could see much farther through the woods, to lovely orange sunrises and purple sunsets. I look forward to this moment! During the summer, with its 20 hours of daylight, sunrise and sunset occur too early and late respectively for me to see them very often, so it is a welcome treat to see those purple mountains in the evening. With the waning sun, I start to use the propane light to see when I cook breakfast and dinner, something I haven't needed for the past five months. The light changes, like weather variations, make it easy to appreciate each day for what it has to offer, and to realize that it may, and probably will, be different tomorrow.

As the evening temperatures drop below 32 F, the dew on our cold hardy vegetables freeze, catching the morning light and reflecting it like prisms. The large, flat cabbage leaves are lacy with frost. How lovely! To us, the second hard freeze means that it is time to harvest the cranberries! Yea! To tell you the truth, what grows in the woods of NW US and Canada isn't really a true cranberry like those that grow in bogs in Maine, but the fruit smells and tastes like cranberries so that's what we all call it. It is high in vitamin C and three times higher in anti-oxidants than blueberries (which we harvest earlier in the year). Our cranberries grow as high bush and low bush varieties and perhaps obviously, the high bush variety is easier to harvest. The berries dangle in groups of three to five from nearly invisible, slim threads hanging several inches below graceful branches, on bushes 3-6 feet high. In an autumnal deciduous forest, so many bushes and trees have shed their leaves that the bright red high bush cranberries appear to hang mid-air, as though by magic. I like to clip the bunches with small garden pruners because I can keep my gloves on, but my husband just pulls them gently with his fingers. We crunch over frozen ferns, laid low by frost weight, and maneuver carefully around spiky devil's club prongs near the cranberries. We fill big buckets with as many berries as we wish until we get cold from being under-dressed for this first blast of cold. We figure that the competition for these berries is not birds – most have flown south by now- but bears, doing their final “bulk up” before hibernating. We can harvest any berries that the bears haven't enjoyed the night before.

At home, we put the fruit in the freezer to harden, which makes them both easier to clean and sweeter. A day or so later, we pull stems and bits of chaff off some of the tart, frozen fruit and boil it in water with lots of sugar, strain the cooled liquid through cheese cloth to remove the pit in each berry and enjoy the flavor.  The resulting juice is thick, almost like a nectar. I adore it. We drink it plain or mix it with orange juice, incorporate it into a vinaigrette, mix with apples in a cobbler, anything we wish! I haven't made jelly yet, but surely will. This fall, my husband actually added the cranberry nectar to his home brewed beer. The natural (and added) sugar actually started the beer to ferment all over again, but the yeast ate the sugar and the result was tarter than he liked. Next year, he may just add some of the juice to a poured glass of beer and see if that last minute addition works better, or add the berries at the beginning of the fermenting process instead of at the end. Stay tuned.

We flew away by float plane on October 9, rising up above the bare deciduous trees. In our absence, winter fell fast at our home. Within twenty days, our only neighbor wrote to say that the lake had swiftly hardened to 6-7 inches of glare ice (with no snow). Winter had arrived. 

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