Backwoods of the Alberta North

dilapidated house in northern albertaOn the weekend I took a trip up to rural northern Alberta, a place I seldom go, and spent time camping with a plethora of relatives who I haven’t seen since I was young, or in some cases, ever. My grandma also scattered the ashes of my grandpa that weekend.

All the aunts and uncles and first cousins stood on an abandoned train bridge overgrown with shrubs, above a stagnant pond, and watched my Grandma pull a plastic bag of ashes out of a cardboard box. This is the unvenerated patriarch of a large family, in a bag. It was tied shut and my uncle asked if anyone had a knife, and one of my cousins happened to have a large hunting knife.

Many of my cousins were drinking cans of beer. Grandpa would’ve wanted it that way, they reasoned, and nobody bothered to dispute that except to say maybe we should instead be drinking whiskey mixed with lukewarm tap water, as he often did. It was a casual assembly–Grandpa despised religion and never was sentimental.

Grandma accepted the knife and sliced the bag open and dumped the ashes into the space between the boards at her feet, and some of the ash got on her sweatpants and tie-dyed hoodie, which she dusted off nonchalantly. “Back to the Earth you go”, she said, then chuckled nervously, as she often does. Nobody said anything more and everyone hugged Grandma one at a time, finished their beer, then drove back to camp for a fresh one.

The farmland and forests in this part of northern Alberta, Canada were settled by Scandinavian frontiersmen a hundred years ago. There’s a hamlet called Valhalla, which is the name of the great hall in Asgard. A lake somewhere up here shares its name with our family. I really enjoyed getting acquainted with my roots in the grizzly lands of the North. I can’t ever remember feeling like I belonged to a certain people who came from a certain place, as much as I did that weekend.

They say that when Grandpa was about ten years old his parents made him live by himself in a small cottage far away from the family home, where he had to protect a flock of sheep from wolves and coyotes with a  gun. Who knew he would die an angry, solitary man?

The weekend was spent drinking around fires and eating meat and I had the pleasure of spending time with my many first cousins, who are mostly boys in their 20s. They’re truck-driving, tobacco-chewing, hockey-playing, snowboarding, foul-talking blue collar boys. They shotgunned beers, smoked joints when their parents weren’t looking, and got loud and rowdy. I had great fun with them and was very proud of my younger cousins. They had good, ridiculous senses of humour, and it was a joy to get to know them.

It was close to the longest day of the year and we were at a high latitude, making it light enough for me to read a newspaper outside at 11:20PM. The sun set for a while but the sky remained twilit until the sun rose again shortly after 4:00AM.

axe in chopping blockMy brother and I really held our own when firewood chopping got competitive, being taller and stronger than our cousins. They thought that living in the city and working at desks would make us soft–I’m currently an unemployed philosophy graduate and my brother has an IT job title that I probably don’t understand. They all told us that the huge logs that were used as chopping blocks couldn’t be cut without a chainsaw, and we accepted this challenge. We watched Grandpa axe apart giant logs when we were kids and we wanted to try it now.

You gotta bury the axe real deep then hoist the log onto your shoulder, and launch the log downwards with all your might onto the back side of the axe, against the chopping block, which is really just another log of equal size. This had to be done again and again, so we smashed them and hacked them that afternoon like violent psychopaths until we split them all, except for the last one because there was no other giant log to bash it against.  I broke the handle off a wooden axe but the fiberglass one held strong.

Hacking up trees and being out in the rugged frontiers made me feel a primal energy. I felt like throwing a burning spear through an RV, or something. “Fight the horde, sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming!”

When I looked around at all the straight-backed boys swigging beer, talking bullshit, running amok, and throwing gasoline on the fire, I thought–this is Grandpa’s Heathen Army. I had a vague genetic memory of the tundras of northern Europe, of attacking a wooly mammoth and carving a hole in its chest and drinking warm blood straight from its beating heart, together as a family.