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The 2016 Fox Report

“We just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow.”  Jason Isbell's song “The Elephant” best sums up 2016 for us. If you’ve heard this song, you know what came our way.  We’ll just keep ignoring that elephant and write the usual cheery newsletter. I’ll bring back the big elephant later.

National bird - We were thrilled that 2016 saw the Canada Jay accepted as Canada’s national bird.  They are also known as Grey Jays, Whiskey Jacks (a corruption of the Algonquin word meaning “trickster”), and “camp robbers”.  We call them “Jacks”. They are found year-round in every province in Canada’s boreal forest, but do not live permanently in any other country.  They have been sighted visiting some northern states but they come home to brood in Jan-Feb. They are usually in pairs, and they mate for life.  When not in a pair, single Jacks will team up with a pair and help them with raising the young. Some ornithologists consider Jacks to be the most intelligent of all birds.  Campers are likely to be visited (even far back in the woods where Jacks have never seen a human before), and they boldly examine everything! They will make off with any edibles that they can carry, if the camper is not attentive. They stash excess food in little hiding places and birders report that they remember where they hid it all.  

Jacks seem to take delight in teasing squirrels.  Red squirrels are extremely excitable and bad-tempered.  In Jasper National Park we once watched a pair of Jacks use the squirrel’s temperament to their advantage.  Picnickers had left bread scraps and the squirrel was trying to remove them, but he was greedy and he wanted ALL the scraps for himself.  One of the Jacks would land on the end of the table and wait until the squirrel ran at it, chattering to chase it off.  At the last second the Jack would fly and its mate would swoop in behind the squirrel and steal some bread. This made the squirrel even more angry and willing to chatter and chase the Jacks.    They played that squirrel until all the bread was gone.  It was hilarious to watch, and what a great life lesson about anger management and selfishness.

For us, Jacks are our winter friends.  We see them daily at our bird feeder, where they are always friendly, quiet and polite. Jacks share the food at the feeder with other birds, even when it is in short supply.  They always give the chickadees a chance to feed. They make a soft, melodious call, unlike their cousins the blue jays and magpies.  The blue jays get a bit bossy (remind me of Americans), but the Jacks are higher in the pecking order and the blue jays are forced to acquiesce.  The get along with the blue jays but they do not socialize with magpies. Magpies are big bullies and nest raiders.  Although Jacks prefer to eat meat, they won’t eat an animal whose temperament they don’t like – like magpies or squirrels. (They will also throw out cooked rice, grain by grain, if put in the feeder, but I have no idea why.  Rice noodles they eat.) I feel the Jacks keep a “Canadian spirit” (except for the rice thing). They are not stunningly beautiful birds to look at, but hey, have you looked closely at most Canadians?  All in all, we think they were a great choice for Canada’s national bird.

Knife throwing has become a popular skill-building sport at our place, especially for the 55+yrs boys club.  They also throw hatchets, axes, spears and tomahawks (no discrimination here!).  Winter brought a smaller target indoors to the heated workshop.  The various holes in the ceiling and chips out of the floor attest to how much fun it has been.  Fortunately, Don’s flawless, fancy footwork and jumping agility kept his voice from moving up 2 octaves as a 12-inch razor sharp blade came bouncing back point first. What is it about boys and toys that makes those that involve danger to be the most appealing?

Gardening  - I tried a new plant that was getting rave reviews – the asparagus pea.  It certainly grew well, was picturesque and produced large quantities of little pea pods.  There was only one problem – they taste like cardboard, raw or cooked! The ground hog wouldn’t touch them, even when I left them undefended. He strolled right past the asparagus peas, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d his front legs up to the top of my fence barricade, pulled himself up, did a summersault over the top, then nestled his fat butt in the other pea patch to chow down the little left from his previous raids. 

Critters – first year we have had a racoon living in the yard. Usually, in this part of the world, coons will den all winter because it’s too cold.  After 2 weeks of cold weather, -25C with a -40 windchill, we turned to unseasonably warm, +4 highs with sunny skies, major melting and the ‘coon is out. Usually they are nocturnal, but this one hangs out in the day. I’ve read that ‘coons are very intelligent, and can remember solutions to tasks for years. They are very dexterous with their fingered hands, gathering food, opening doors, trash cans etc., and they like to wash their food before they eat. We have been enjoying watching it.  

Home Repairs never stop. This year was the kitchen floor. There was a water stain in front of a cabinet with no obvious source.  Hmm. Then the propane stove moved out of level.  Underneath that was a giant ant hill pushing the floor up. That involved major digging to remove the entire colony. Then some cabinet doors wouldn’t close, and the stove pipe detached from the chimney.  We tried to deny it, but the sloping floor could no longer be ignored.  4 rotten joists were only being held up by the floor, so lifting that resulted in complete collapse and a major repair.  It’s all due to the very wet years we have had.  The water table is only a few inches below the surface and unfortunately, with a 12-inch footing, we built too close to ground level. Even the ants are trying to live above the surface. If the trend continues, we’ll be living on a houseboat.  Did you know that about 20 million years ago, Saskatchewan was an inland salt water sea?  And it has been large lakes several times since then.  We made jokes when an otter came to check out our property for a home a few springs back.  It’s not so funny now.  Climate change -  an elephant, but too big to ignore.

Work – I’m getting laid off in May.  This is good news because I’m ready for a change.  We are thinking about extending the job search to a warmer, drier climate, possibly southern BC. It would be nice to spend a winter some place warmer and in a more arts friendly community.  The College plans to call me back for the 2018-19 school year, and my union contract and seniority will allow me to re-take my position. There are lots of unknowns though, as the SK government is in major deficit, as is my employer.  - another elephant.

Move - We have been in the solitude of Nowheresville for so long that we are a little concerned that we have lost the skills necessary to live with neighbours. In the bush, we kill things that disrupt our lives or ruin our property … mice, squirrels, groundhogs, gophers, moles, skunks, magpies, ants, mosquitoes, blackflies … Since we can’t do that with people, we are going to have to learn new skills, or make a fast retreat to continue our frontier way of life. Hopefully you won’t see us on the news in a road rage story. If we relocate, we will be renting. There are no plans to sell our property, and we have an offer for a caretaker.

Darwinian Awards – It’s become a newsletter tradition to look at some of the leading candidates, awarded for killing oneself off by doing something really stupid and thereby “chlorinating the human gene pool”.   2016 candidates are not yet published, due to the time it takes to verify each story.  From 2015, my favourite is the woman who decided to claim a free curb-side mattress by transporting it on top of a van, pinning it in place with her body.  Why use tie-downs? The mattress slid off with her on it and she died of head injuries.

A Canadian made the “honourable mention” list (he lived, so is not eligible for an award). He tied 120 helium balloons to his lawn chair with a plan to fly over the Calgary Stampede and drop in on the chuckwagon races.  High winds thwarted his plans and he had to bail.  He crashed with minor injuries, but faced about $35,000 in fines!

Here are some other candidates:

·         a burglar who broke into an apartment under a fumigation tent which clearly warned of deadly gas inside

·         a tourist who tried to take a selfie photo with a crocodile in Thailand

·         a stunt man filming in India, who took the contract to jump from a helicopter into a reservoir without a life jacket, without the ability to swim

·         a guy brewing 60% hooch in his bathtub who got ‘drunk’ on the fumes and collapsed into a scalding bath that was heating the alcohol

·         a tire slasher whose knife plunged into his vital organs when a tire exploded

·         a man who threw his wife off the balcony in a heated argument with intent to kill her. She landed safely in some wires.  He dove off the balcony at her to finish the job but he missed the wires and fell to his death. 

The Big Elephants - On a final serious note, in Feb we lost Don’s mom and a week later, we added my brother Ralph “Chick” Schumilas to the long list of musicians who passed away in 2016.  He died after a 20-month difficult fight with cancer of the tongue, which ultimately spread to his throat and lungs.  Here is the link to my blog, where I posted the speech of my favourite Ralph stories, that I wrote for his memorial.  Here are some tribute youtubes: (“Fly”, one of Ralph’s last songs. Tribute video, created by Brent Doerner (former Helix guitarist), features Ralph’s immediate family). ( In “Ride Through the Country”, Ralph writes about his love for bike riding. Tribute video created by the song’s co-writer Hills Walt, features stage photos and video of his last days with his bike).

Here is the link for the Jason Isbell song “The Elephant”, which began the newsletter

 We happily bid farewell to 2016 and look forward to better times in 2017.

Dawn and Don