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The 2013 Fox Report 

“Why do robins sing in December, long before the springtime is due? And even though it’s snowing, violets are growing.  I know why and so do you.  I can see the sun when it’s raining, hiding every cloud from my view.  And why have I this feeling, stars are on my ceiling? I know why and so do you”.  I chose the beautiful 1941 jazz standard I Know Why and So Do You (M. Gordon/H. Warren) to start this newsletter because it brings me such a wonderful feeling of hope.  With much of the world in a mess with climate change, nature still brings me hope.

 2013 began with tons of snow and a late, wet spring – a real bonus for cranes.  We have both sandhill and whooping cranes, and they seem to like hanging out together.  The internet says that cranes don’t nest where we live, but I don’t think the birds have access to that information.  We have a book that says whooping cranes are an endangered species with only 40-50 left in the world. Perhaps world conservation measures have increased their populations, but if the book is correct, they all gathered here for the 2013 Spring Frog Buffet at Dawn and Don’s. We had so many frogs this spring that it was difficult to sleep through their nightly serenade.  Since amphibians are a sign of a healthy ecosystem (and they eat lots of mosquito larvae), the frogs were a welcome din.

 Cranes nest in isolated wetlands and they like privacy.  They eat crustaceans, frogs, insects, mice and some water plants.  They fly around in circles making a croaking, rolling call, which kind of sounds like geese gargling.  It’s a cacophony of sound on the ground but often you can’t see them.  Look up, way up, and you might see some tiny dots, which is almost unbelievable because cranes are huge birds.  Sandhills are slate-blue with black legs, standing 40-48 inches.  Whoopers are all white with black wing tips and black legs, standing 50-56 inches.   We mostly look up and squint into the sun to see the cranes, so you can imagine how cool it was to see a 4.5 foot whooper digging for frogs in the field just north of the yard.   Jurassic-park flashback!   Think of their dinosaurian ancestors – 18 feet tall, 27 feet long, and a call equivalent to their size.

 This summer we had new wild visitors- 2 bush gophers. They are called “bush” gophers because they mainly live and forage in the forest (unlike prairie gophers).  Don hadn’t seen one since he was 16, and I’ve never seen one. Each gopher was about 10 inches long without the tail, which is like a squirrel’s tail except gophers hold it long. They are reddish-brown, slender and quick moving.  They seemed content to eat grasses, but that might have been because my garden got flooded. They saw we weren’t hostile and quickly became curious and friendly, to the point we had to watch where we stepped.  One day I almost stepped on one and when it ran under cover, the other started jabbering a mile a minute, probably yelling at me to pay better attention. 

“The ants go marching two by two, hurrah…”.  We had an ant problem a few years ago but replacing a leaking window seemed to fix things.  This summer, the other side of the house got invaded.   My kitchen was like an Elmer Fudd cartoon, when the ants carry off everything and harass him to the point that he starts shooting up the place with a shotgun.  I tried ant traps, deterrents with chalk and grapefruit seed extract, poisoning with borax, meditating and very harsh language - all ineffective.  One hot day we came in to find hundreds of flying ants on a wall.  I was told that they send out pairs of flying ants to establish new colonies … pairs?  Don and I agreed the situation would be hilariously funny, if only it was happening to someone else! 

 Don read recently that ants have more biomass on this planet than humans, which seems amazing given the 7 billion of us.  But the ant mass is mostly underground.  Like humans, there are hunting ants, herding ants, farming ants, meat-eating, vegetable-eating and omnivorous.  Some have symbiotic relationships with plants – ants protect them while feeding on sap.  There are lots of ants in the forest here, so they must play an important role – but eating our house isn’t one of them.  We diligently vacuumed, as a temporary solution, and emptied the bag far away from the house so they wouldn’t come back to start their new homes with us.  An exterminator would mean moving out for a couple of weeks due to toxicity – not acceptable.  We went looking for “why” with major exploratory surgery.  We removed the metal siding, styrofoam insulation,  house wrap, plywood and there we found an ant colony honeycombed in the insulation, just under a rotting window header.  We traced that to another wet board and a roof leak.  Ah ha – the source! Knowing the chemical scents ants follow, we deconstructed, ripping all that out, relocating the ant village to the landfill, and then we reconstructed. Fingers crossed. 

I took a free 6 week online course in songwriting from with Berkley U’s Pat Pattison instructing, a writer I’ve admired for years.  There were 65,000 of us worldwide in this course which marked with online multiple choice theory tests and peer review for practical assignments. 65,000 is a social networking nightmare, so 45 of us Cannucks formed a private facebook group moderated by Songwriters Assoc of Canada.  We blogged every week, posted to soundcloud and gave each other thoughtful comments. We were honoured when the instructor joined our facebook group and gave us personal comments.  His input plus the peer review made me burn the midnight oil to squeeze out every ounce of creativity.  It just wouldn’t do for this College instructor to get a failing grade.  My self- image was on the line.  I finished with 92% and was selected along with 4 others to be considered for a Berkeley scholarship.  I didn’t win, but I felt proud to be in the running.  

“Oh he’s a lumberjack and he’s ok …” We got the big propane tank following a plan to move from wood to propane for heat. With our propane hot water heater and stove, “roughing it” in the bush was in danger of becoming “cushing it”.  But, with the price of propane and this long stretch of -25 to -40°C temperatures, burning wood is by far the cheaper option and wood heat is more comforting. So, Don is still swinging his splitting axe and toting heavy tamarack rounds.  

“Smoke gets in your eyes …” Why is it wood burning appliances only act up on really cold nights? It was -30 and suddenly smoke started billowing out of our airtight heater.   Airtight heaters, also known as “Hippie Killers”, are lightweight, inexpensive wood burners that look like big, black garbage cans.  They heat-up quickly and can go for 10-16 hours of a load of wood if fed and damped down properly, which made them popular with “back-to-the-land” types. However, if not fed and damped properly, they become raging, red monsters from hell, displaying behaviour such as jumping up and down while blowing out rings of smoke through the damper.  At that point, if you damp them down too quickly, they become silent for about 5 seconds, then suddenly blow the lid off in a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke and possibly a few hot embers, causing serious unpleasantness -  thus the name “Hippie Killers”.  This has not yet happened to us (knock on wood).  Because it was really windy, we thought the smoke was caused by back drafting, although it had never done that before. Don scrambled to carry the burning logs from the heater to a snow bank and we opened the doors and windows for the frigid air to clear the smoke.  For two days we scowled at the mutinous scag, fearing it could no longer be trusted on windy days.  But it was getting colder and something had to be done.    Don looked up the pipe with a mirror and saw no daylight – odd because it had recently been cleaned.

 “Chim chim cherie, a sweep is as lucky, as lucky can be …”   What idiot came up with those lyrics?  At -35 with a -50 wind chill, Don got up the courage to climb on the roof to clean the chimney.  The brush hit something hard and he detached two pieces of pipe yarding it out. So there he was, perched on a snow-covered, slippery ladder, 30 feet up in the air, freezing to death, and romping with chimney … definitely back to “roughing it” in the bush.  He got it reconnected but there was still something blocking the pipe lower down.  We decided to disconnect on the inside and clean up the pipe. I held the flashlight and Don thrust the brush which hit a crust of creosote, shattered it, and showered both our heads with fine black soot.  Don said I looked really cute with a big black smudge across my face.  My maternal grandfather was a chimney sweep in his younger years, so maybe I have a face for it. Don thought I better give up the look though, because “black-face” routines are no longer politically correct.

 The winter bird feeder is busy: 4 whiskey jacks, 6 blue jays, 2 downy woodpeckers and many chickadees.  They all share and get along just fine. One morning I realized I had nothing for the birds and there they all were, looking in our patio doors, waiting. Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard, found a bag of flour and immediately made a mess of pancakes for them.  Sometimes I wonder who’s really running things around here. 

 My newsletter has a tradition of bringing you the best world candidates for Darwinian awards (given to adults who improve the gene pool by killing themselves off doing something really stupid).  2013 has no shortage of candidates: drinking gasoline by accident (?) then lighting a cigarette to calm down, drinking windshield washer solution because it was in a vodka bottle, taking strychnine to enhance the effects of other street drugs, welding a gas tank, falling off the trunk of a car while attempting to fly a kite from a moving vehicle, accidentally hitting a high voltage line while casting a fishing rod, and miscalculating while engineering a near-death experience using hypothermia. One guy crashed trying to move a truck downhill that had no brakes or steering.  Another guy tried to capture a 15 ft python by holding its head and wrapping the body around his neck (it strangled him). I voted for the do-it-yourself bungee jumper who tied a rope to his waist and ankles and then to the car bumper.  He lowered himself over a bridge to dangle above alligators, having his family members drive the car forward and back to make him bob up and down to taunt the gaters and amuse the kids.  The rope broke. 

You’d think that after reading these stories every year, we would be immune from doing really stupid things.   I had an appointment in Saskatoon and I wanted to do a Costco run.  It was -33°C but the internet said -25°C would be the high for the day. I figured it would warm up, so we left early for the 3.5 hr one-way trip.  I didn’t look at the hourly forecast. -25 was the high at midnight the night before we left, with temperatures falling all the next day.  It turned out to be the coldest day of the year.  I should have guessed something was wrong when no one was on the road.  Driving 100km/hr at that temperature makes a ridiculous wind chill and that thin piece of glass we call a windshield has no insulating value.  We both got “ice cream headaches” wearing our furry hats, with the car heater going max.  The water bottle froze beside me.  Fortunately, we made it there and back – hurrah for old Toyotas - but that was SO STUPID!

 Speaking of old Toyotas – yes, I still drive the 1988 Tercel coupe and Don still drives the 1987 4WD wagon, which we both bought new in 1988 – they are even the same sandalwood colour. Both cars have about 270,000km – still adolescents as far as Toyotas go.  But, we have decided to not push our luck and are looking for a newer vehicle.  My mechanic actually refused to order new snow tires for me this year because the undercarriage is so rusted and before next winter I am likely to have a Fred Flintstone car, with my feet pedaling me along. Alas.  We love our cars.  What are the chances we will get 26 years out of a car made today?

 Thanks so much for the cards, calls, texts and emails.  We wish you all a happy and rewarding 2014. 

Take care,

 Dawn and Don