A Special Train Ride

by Dave Hanks

I came north on the Polar Bear Express. I came upon the rails. Clicking rails that sing in rhythm to the swaying of the train – a heavy, powerful force propelling itself methodically through the scrubby, spruce-covered landscape. Trains have always fascinated me and this one is no exception. It’s sounds and motion leave me mesmerized.

The quantity of people required to run this train is surprising. There is a long-nosed conductor who jokes and makes wry comments as he checks each ticket. Brakemen, hostesses, and even girls to entertain the children pass up and down the aisles. All the kids are systematically rounded up to sit in on a story hour. They return with coloring and puzzle books, and with happy smiles. The adults are not forgotten either as a very pert, young lady plays the piano in the entertainment car and the passengers join in a sing-fest.

These Canadians strike me as an unusual lot. They are very forthright, down home, and definitely family oriented. Irish, English, French, and Cree inhabit the train. Three different languages can be seen written upon both the inside and outside of the cars. Also, the hostess periodically narrates the progress in both English and French. Cree hieroglyphics, large, bold, and Arabic-looking; plaster the sides of the coaches.

It seems that the depot ticket girl quietly segregated us all when issuing tickets. The French are on a separate car, teenagers on another, Indians on another, and I’m in a family car of very English-type people. A father across the aisle has two small boys. Both boys are very active and their Dad dotes on them – his countenance beaming with fatherly pride as he points out things along the way and supervises the consumption of treats.

A big Irishman is the station master at the jumping-off point. He reminds me of my oldest brother – big and “extrovertish”. He keeps busy chatting with the passengers, in-between dealing with drunken Indians. I am not a Canadian and he seems concerned with the impressions that I might be forming. There is a drunken Cree who is giving him problems. The Indian is ensconced on my bench and is trying to make conversation. He appears to be a permanent fixture in the depot. The Irishman asks him to leave but nothing happens. Suddenly the police arrive to take the drunk to jail to sleep it off. I get the impression that the station master and the Indian are well acquainted and that I’m seeing history repeating itself. The Cree profanes and curses at the big man as he is led away.

Curiously, there is another drunken Indian at the arrival point. I must attract drunks because this one approaches me also. He asks: “Are you from South Dakota?” “No”, I say, “I’m from Idaho.” “Idaho huh! I’ve been to Idaho. I worked in Portland, Oregon.” Off he wanders to the baggage room. I can hear his voice apprehending the workers.”Hey, anyone wanna fight? There’s a guy over there from Idaho that’ll fight you.”

Fascinating country has rushed past between the embarking and debarking points. Mile after mile of stunted trees intertwined with endless marsh. The express rattles across bridge after bridge, each spanning a big river with a quaint name: Jawbone, Moose, Succor Creek, and Abitibi River. Gigantic Beaver lodges dot the water and ripples on the water surface reveal the presence of that large rodent. Indian children wave at the train – racing to their positions as if they have the assignment to be firmly in place for each passing.

It is July and the daylight clings on and on, making the most of the brief Northern Canadian summer. In spite of the persistence of the daylight, the weather is more fickle. It can’t decide what to do: hot, bright, sun to overcast – humid mists, to intermittent rain squalls.

The Indian settlement of Moosenee finally comes into view. It’s a low-lying town nestled on the shore of Hudson Bay. Wooden buildings line extremely wide, dirt-packed boulevards. The Cree race their trucks and cars up and down each street as if they were in a great hurry to get someplace – except there are no roads that lead from the settlement. The same faces keep appearing as they come and go. The town is an old Hudson Bay Fur Company establishment. The antiquated fur warehouses are still in place, doing business as in the past. A huge Catholic Church dominates it all. Planes buzz overhead and motor boats leave the pier at periodic intervals, taking people to the other half of the city across the water. Crees man these boats. They are intent on getting a share of the tourist dollar by sending young children who keep badgering me to ride in their father’s boat.

Indian culture is the epitome of social bonding. I’m struck by the fact that they act more like tourists than the tourists do. Groups of them are clumped all over main street, happily gabbing and eating ice cream – getting the most out of their short northern summer. They enjoy the brief glimpses of sunlight during what is otherwise a somewhat rainy day.

I came north on the Polar Bear Express. This Northland train is the pride of Ontario. I came all the way from Cochrane to Moosenee – one hundred and eighty six miles to the James Bay Wilderness. Curiosity made me come. The only way to get here is either by train or by plane. There are no roads, only miles of Black Spruce, Birch, and Tamarack. It’s Taiga: “Land of the little sticks”. Tiger Lilies, White Field Daisies, Yarrow, Buttercup, and Heather dot the way, adding color to the landscape. Ravens, Gulls, Swallows, and Robins flit through shrubbery and sky. Cree Indians flow freely back and forth upon the train. I wonder what is their purpose.

This country adds a different flavor to life. It’s a different world in a different time – a time that has become somewhat stationary. The whole experience enriches my life. Yes – I came north to taste it, and I’m glad of it!

hudsonp

The Polar Bear Express

Dream World

Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”, in her short story “Echoes from the Hills”, talks about Juma, a former house boy grown old. “An old man by the name of Juma from time to time would come up to the old house and ask permission to walk the grounds, to think, there, of the time that had once been, and for an afternoon would walk on the paths beneath the tall trees and then again would disappear. It was believed that he had come along a rough grass-track winding into the Masai Reserve – a long way for an old man to walk in order to meditate on the past.”

A past that had now become a part of a “Dream World”. A world where conscience is subverted to imagination and memories. Recollections that become shaded and hard to determine which was really real and which was nothing more than perception of that time, memories that make an event or place “bigger than life”. A thing I have learned is that one can never go back to a place from the past and regain the splendor that one recalls that place to have had. That particular past is like a dream, gone and hard to remember in total accuracy.

So the question arises: What is reality? Could it be just imaginings of the mind? Is history real, or has fantasy played a cruel trick upon the recorder’s psyche? Especially events of centuries ago, have, perhaps, been embellished beyond actuality. I know how present day occurrences are mis-reported and how legends spring forth – one who has personal knowledge of an event, cannot recall things happening in the way the event was reported.

We cannot own or control anything for long. We seem to be mere transients upon this world’s stage. That which we do, when we are gone, will be just a figment of other’s imaginations. At one time I existed. Was my life and the lives of past family members real or just a dream long past?

I live in an old, intriguing brick house on a small farm. The yard consists of about 4 acres. My parents, now deceased, planted the original yard and since those days my wife and I have greatly enlarged upon the trees, lawns, and shrubbery. It is now difficult to remember how it used to be – real, or is it remembered with a grandeur that wasn’t true? All the work and care expended can be erased so quickly, after some new proprietor takes hold of the reins. Because it was my parents, I have never felt like I completely owned it. The burden of what will become of it weighs heavily upon my conscience. It will all be a dream, hard to recall in detail.

My college athletic past and notoriety shrunk from view so fast that it makes me think of the song that says: “The things we did last summer, I’ll remember all winter long”. Gone in the “twinkling of a calendar year”! Years of school teaching and coaching are fading more slowly, but I now have a hard time recollecting any but a few special students and athletes. I was the driving force, so how would others, less committed, remember those days?

An obsession of my elderly years is wildlife photography. But what will all this concerted effort come to when my time is over? The photos will have to be exceptional if anyone, or school, would want even some of them. Their ultimate destiny, like school notes so carefully taken, will be the fire.

How much good has a person done that might be remembered? That is a valid question. The scope of that worth depends on the opinions of others. In the end it will become a “Dream World”. Perceptions of that past world will be as varied as each individual dreamer!

Scottish Highlands and sheep: Photos are more accuate than memory

Colostrum

by Dave Hanks

Colostrum is a thick milk. Mothers produce it for several days
after giving birth to their young ones. It is good for the baby because of the
extra nutrients and richness that it contains. It is thick and somewhat globular
– the color not a pure white but somewhat yellowish-orange. No matter it’s
assets, the physical consistency of it prevents older people from wanting to
drink it.

Milk cows are no exception and produce large quantities of it when they calve
each year. Milk from them is not sent to the creamery until all colostrum is
gone from the mammary glands. Dad always had a few Holsteins on the farm. He did
not believe in owning a milking machine and so the sons of the family, in turn,
got the opportunity to milk them by hand. When my turn came round, we had eight
to ten cows in production. I hated everyone of them. They would kick over milk
buckets and swat you with their dirty tail. Because off these feelings, the
results of the ensuing tale are somewhat surprising.

My parents were not in the habit of taking vacations, especially long ones.
In fact, this was the only one that I can remember. Even more surprising was
that I, the “baby” of the family, was left home alone and in charge. It was late
winter and the instructions were to dutifully look after the livestock, milk the
cows and deliver the milk to the creamery, and to “dry-up” a specific cow. Now
it’s a common practice in the dairy business to prepare a cow for her new calf
by giving her a rest from milk production. This is done by gradually reducing
her diet – which results in her giving less and less milk. You then stop milking
her and going dry is now less stressful to the cow. This is usually done a month
before her due date and gives her body a chance to recoup it’s reserves.

As much as I hated to milk, it was surprising that I didn’t follow my
instructions more carefully. That cow was not “dried” but milked right along
with the others.

Well the vacation progressed to a conclusion and I anticipated the family’s
return. As a farm family, much of our food was home produced and milk was no
exception. It was a Saturday evening and I expected the family to be home that
night. With this in mind, two extra gallons of milk would not go into the cans
for delivery to our local creamery. These would be placed in the family
refrigerator.

That evening I kept the first milk obtained and it happened to have come from
the cow in question. She had responded well that eve and it was with interest
that I noticed an increase in her production. The milk also seemed a little
heavy and colorful. Shrugging those facts off, that milk went into the kitchen –
chores were completed, and I eventually retired to bed.

Sunday morn broke bright and cheery. The family was home and the house was
a-bustle – out to do the milking – “hey, there’s a new calf out here!” But wait,
a knot rises in my stomach, I remember now that the cow didn’t get dried-up as
she was supposed to have been! Guiltily I examined the new calf and the cow.
Both seemed OK and none the worse for the experience. Being fearful of parental
discipline, I decided to keep my failure to follow orders a secret.

When alone, and at the first opportunity, I checked the refrigerator. The
cream had risen to the top. It had a light yellow tinge to it. In school we had
just learned about colostrum and now everything became clear in my brain. Two
gallon of colostrum was in the frige awaiting family consumption. Should I
reveal that fact to all? Discretion told me no.

The next few days were ones of great uneasiness. With heart in mouth, I would
sit quietly at the dinner table. My communications were minimal and I politely
refused milk when offered. It was with some amusement that I watched my two
older sisters drink that colostrum but I Must confess that I breathed much
easier when those two bottles were consumed and washed.

If anyone knew, they never mentioned it. Nor did I – until this moment of
confession!

Reluctant Cowboy

Reluctant Cowboy

By Dave Hanks

Montana in summer is alive with rodeo fever. It’s cow country and every little community has its own arena where the faithful gather religiously each Sunday. They arrive with their pick-up trucks, horse trailers, and that favorite Quarter Horse, one that means more to each cowboy than possibly his wife. However, she has one of her own – a barrel racing variety. Anyway, every Sunday the competition is on, bets are placed and money changes hands as the roping progresses.

Charlie was one of the faithful. A crusty old cowboy chiseled out of rock and rawhide. He really wasn’t old, just a couple of years more than me, but somehow he seemed ageless. If I were to return today, I would expect no change in him. Charlie was a close friend and colleague in the Registered Angus business. We spent many hours discussing the merits of various herd bulls in different breeding programs. These discussions were spiced with much laughter as he was a happy man with a dry, “down-home” type sense of humor. He worked at it and never let up. A day with Charlie was a day of holding your sides from continual merriment. However, he still looked forward to his Sundays when he could release some stress by roping a steer or two. His wife was a cowgirl from way back and rodeo was bred into their family’s soul.

One of the special events of our county’s annual rodeo was the wild-cow milking contest. Two people were involved. One on a horse to rope the cow and one on foot to race in and hold her by the head. The roper would then dismount with a pop bottle and milk enough to enable the milk to pour out of the bottle. Then he would dash to the finish line while the head-holder removed the rope from the cow. The rope must be removed or the team would be disqualified. The man with the assignment of holding the cow was called the “mugger.”

Being of large frame, somewhat stronger than average and a former collegiate wrestler, I was constantly beleaguered to be someone’s mugger. Charlie was no exception. He was always coaxing me to team up with him. After five years of finding excuses, I could think of no new ones. I consented to be his mugger in the upcoming annual rodeo. I had watched my neighbor’s son mug the previous year. He had a difficult time holding onto the cow and she had walked all over him. These were not your usual run-of-the-mill cows. They came straight off the range: rank, snotty-nosed and breathing fire. It was decided to be a wise move to practice some before actually entering the ring so out we went to a private arena to try it with a group of Mexican steers that were kept for roping purposes. However, those steers were much tamer and really didn’t prepare me for what was to come. The only benefit was in learning how to run in from the right-hand side of the horse and along the rope to position myself between rope and cow.

The day arrived and I had prepared myself mentally. Adrenaline was running and I was chomping at the bit to get at it. I didn’t know it then, but I was destined to become a legend among the local rodeo fans that day. It was a nice, temperate day with moderate cloud cover. A perfect day for sitting in the stands to watch an event and the stands were packed for the biggest event of the year in those parts.

The rodeo started and each segment passed until it was time for the wild-cow milking. I was in regular work shoes and a checkered, short sleeved shirt without a hat – hardly regulation rodeo uniform. As such, I was dutifully informed by the professional cowboys on the sideline. Because the cow contest wasn’t one of the major events, they decided that I could get by with the way I was dressed. The announcer made a big “to-do” about me as I positioned myself in the arena’s center. It seemed that I appeared quite large as he made much of that fact along with how he had never seen me before and was, therefore, an unknown quantity.

Well, so much for that. The cow was out of the chute and Charlie and his horse were off. Away I raced doing the 50 yard dash, trying to match strides with the horse. Must be in position to rush in quickly when the animal was seized! Old Charlie missed on the first loop, much to my chagrin because I had expended a good deal of energy in that first dash. The cow rounded the bend of the fence at the other end and Charlie was able to snag her on the second come-around. Once more a run, but with less vigor, to where the beast was straining at the end of the lariat. I was hoping for a small, better-natured cow, but this one was middle sized and very active.

Down the rope to grab the head and the horse slacked off. She was all mine. The head tossing and jumping began and all I could do was to hang on, which I did with bulldog tenacity. Finally I got my heels thrust forward and planted and she paused long enough to allow some milk to be obtained. But then she went wild like someone had “goosed” her with an electric prod. My partner would be disqualified if I didn’t get that rope off. That’s when problems began. I couldn’t let go long enough to grab the rope because of the wild, jerky movements of that bovine. She jumped high and came down with both front legs over my shoulders. A strange scene – man with cow on back! The crowd was loving it and cheered madly. I continued to hold on to her through it all but dropped to my knees, pulling on the neck as I went. The cow did a complete somersault over my back with all four feet pointing skyward. My body was full of endorphins, so I felt no pain, only exhilaration as I scrambled to my feet to grab the noose and pull. The cow came up, the rope came free, and I was vindicated. Everyone was surprised that the rope actuallycame off and noisily voiced their appreciation. Many shouts followed me to the end of the arena where a whole passel of cowboys greeted me. They immediately badgered me to mug for them when their turn came. I declined all but two. Those two I mugged for on the second day with much more success but less fanfare. It was gratifying to see people’s eyes light up and hear them chuckle when I reappeared in the arena.

Thinking it wise to quit when ahead, I declined more offers for my services although I had won some prize money. That decision gained credence as I sat in the bathtub a week later. Bruises on my thighs and back with strange shapes like cattle hooves forced that point home.

The next week the tales began to fly. Each getting bigger and more impressive with each telling. A superman legend had started. It was reported that I had grabbed that cow and threw her over my shoulder to her back, almost breaking her neck in the process. People passing in town would stop to ask if I were going to do anymore rodeoing. They would then recount my past feats to me. My renown had spread. It had even affected my banker. He was ecstatic, bragging to all – “Why, it was the best part of the whole damn rodeo!”

The Insatiable Urge

At school and at church, I’m known as a nature man. The “fearless one” who will go anywhere and do anything to observe nature. This is natural for people to believe because I’m a Biology teacher and besides, “that’s what you’d expect out of a large, masculine man”. My wife accompanies me on all excursions and that fact causes questions to continually arise. “Does she always go camping with you?” “How do you get your wife to consent to go along?” “You’re real lucky that your wife will camp out!”

But I have a confession to make. One that could alter the perceived image somewhat. It is my wife who is the major driving force behind most of those expeditions. I’ve never known when she didn’t have an insatiable urge to visit all places, to drive down every remote road, and to investigate everything as close-up as possible. Once, three other husbands and myself were photographing a bear in Yellowstone Park. Some wives were yelling: “don’t get too close, he might kill you!” Then above it all I heard my wife call: “get closer and get a decent picture.”

This urge of hers causes me trouble on occasion. Then even she may become concerned. It is then that I must rely upon “keeping my head under fire” and extricate ourselves from the predicament.

It’s still very vivid in my memory the day, when looking at a map, we discovered a back road leading between two towns. It was mountain country and we anticipated a scenic drive. I wondered why no one else was on that narrow road that led up to the summit. Then suddenly I knew, coming around a corner we met a large snowdrift blocking the way. The drive to the top had been scary, but nothing compared to having to back down that road to a point at which we were able to turn and get off that mountain.

Another back road experience led us into the Bob Marshall Wilderness of north-western Montana. One evening we found a road, how I’ll never know. It wasn’t on the map. It turned out that we were trespassing on Indian lands. Signs on the trees and banners stretching across the road proclaimed: “Salish Indian Territory – Trespassing Prohibited”. Once again the road was too narrow to turn on. It paralleled a quick drop-off into a canal full of water. It followed the ditch for a goodly distance. Besides it was Grizzly country and we wanted to see bears, therefore we resolved to see the road to it’s completion. Well into the interior, the road widened and at this point we met a car-load of Indian teenagers. We stopped them to ask advice. They said: “not to worry as long as we were out before morning”. Each Indian truck we met gave us much scrutiny and many dirty looks. Dire results flashed across my mind because we had dared to encroach into sacred areas.

My wife is a constant prodder for hiking. “I know your knee is still weak from surgery so let’s take it easy, this will be just a short hike. It will only be about a mile and a half up around that cliff and back”. As we transverse each road I watch for trailheads, fully expecting to hear a request for a stop and a short hike. Each hike unfolds into something much longer when she gets her way. “Lets just go on a little bit farther”.

One such hike was very foolish. Fresh Grizzly scat, still steaming, at the trails origin brought that fact home to me. We were in brushy tundra in the northern Yukon but the driving desire to explore all and see all overcame common sense. Besides, my wife is fearless when it comes to wild animals and so we were off. Most uneasily I picked our way through that scrub, expecting at any minute to surprise a bear. Fortunately, the bear responsible for producing those scats was with her cub on the other side of where we had parked our truck. They were in a ravine close to the road. If we had stayed by the truck, they would have been very near.

Yes, I must admit that I will continue to enjoy my role as the “Great White Hunter”; but secretly I’ll know that it is my wife’s constant “barbs” that makes me so.

Photograph of a camper far below in a great expanse of valley

Insignificant against the Yukon expanse – Grizzly country

Getting out of your Comfort Zone

by Dave Hanks

All folks, in any organization, have different skills from the others in their group. The group functions best if everyone is in their comfort zone and by combining all the various skills the organization will make great strides. As a former coach – if I had gotten everyone out of their comfort zone, I would have, also, gotten them out of the win column.

As a college football lineman, I have, in some games, played as much as 55 minutes. I played both ways – offense, defense, and on kickoffs. On offense I did very well because I was in my comfort zone. One former running back teammate said: “I liked to run the ball behind Hanks because there was always a hole”.

On defense I never reached my potential because they kept me out of my comfort zone. In one game, against undefeated Wyoming, they put me in my comfort zone. I had a terrific game and practically shut down their offense on my own. However, the coaches were not smart enough to learn to adjust, and take advantage of what could have won a couple of more games for them. They seem to think that screaming, swearing, and even slapping me across the head should be enough to get what they desired out of me. I grew to detest the coaches and even looked forward to the end of football.

My wrestling coach wasn’t too familiar with wrestling, but he did treat me like a human and let me function in the best way I could. As a result I had great success in what, as a result, became my favorite sport.

So all this talk about getting oneself out of one’s comfort zone, to me, is a lot of phony B.S.!!!

Wrestlers going at it

The Sacred Cow

By Dave Hanks

How often I have mused about the Hindu tradition of sacred cows and how asinine it is. Ridiculous because millions of people starve while a source of food is running free in the streets. Not only is the meat lost but the cattle put a lot of heavy competition on the human population for the valuable vegetative matter. How tragic – to live by a system that allows this to happen.

However, I have come to realize that India is not the only country with the “sacred bovine”. The desire to elevate the animal seems to run through all cultures and is manifested in various ways. The Children of Israel made their “Golden Calf”. African tribes revere the Zebu – scrawny beasts that contribute little except as status symbols. They repay the tribesmen by being scourges upon the landscape. Other peoples have a more practical relationship. Laplander cattle are their reindeer. Eskimos and northern Indians look to the Caribou with the same reverence. The American Indian felt the same about Bison until “Whiteman ” arrived to slaughter the vast majority of them. Only, in their turn, to replace them with European-type cattle.

Are the “white man’s” cattle sacred? I thought not, but have since had a change of mind. You have to look hard to find another industry that is subsidized by the federal government to the degree that livestock producers are. Their animals run upon the public lands for a mere pittance of a fee. But even that is not as devastating as the greed that motivates the over population of the beasts upon the land in order to harvest every vestige of grass. Even though they damage ecosystems, it’s hands off – they must not be disturbed!

Cattle have always held a soft spot in my heart. To see them grazing on a hillside or in a meadow still causes my heart to “skip a beat”. Fond memories of 4-H projects from my teenage years were a major spur to cause me to seek my dreams in the cattle business. The quest for a high quality Angus herd was an obsession that filled my early adult life. It didn’t matter so much that this quest was, for me, economically unfeasible – what really mattered was that my bovines were of a kind that would place them at the top end of their breed.

Well, economics finally had the say in the end, but dreams die hard. My love for the “cow” is so deep rooted that I couldn’t bear to part with all of them. I would be better of without them. They tie-up my life activities – every trip away from home requires extensive preparations for their care and safety. They are also hard on fences causing constant attention to the same. When they do get out, they’re an irritant to the neighbors. NEVERTHELESS, I CAN’T HELP BUT LOVE THEM. There is something very beautiful about a large, beefy, sleek cow feeding in a pasture. A beauty that endears them as if they were actually a family member.

Yes, upon reflection, I can clearly see that the cow is indeed sacred!