By Emily Thurston
[Thurston writes about her grandfather Tom Findley, a renowned chemist who quit his career when he realized that some of the substances he’d developed were contributing to the degradation of the environment. In 1971, Tom set out to travel from the east coast to the west coast across Canada by canoe (yes, it’s possible: look at a map of Canada and pay special attention to the rivers and lakes.) Midway through his trip, he wintered in a cabin at a place called Jonah’s Roost; at his journey’s end, he came back to settle nearby in a cabin surrounded by 168 acres of woods. He lived off the grid for over 40 years.]
In that year of 1972 or 1973, Scott Landis stayed with Grandpa Tom at Jonah’s Roost through the winter, there by the lake where, if anyone got into trouble, they’d be there to help. They had come 1600 miles from New York City in 1971, their first summer out, Tom Findley and Scotty, his student, and four other students. The six of them made their way through the rivers and lakes and across the portages in three innovative, homemade canoes, on a voyage to travel the world and explore a life of simplicity. In their second summer, they progressed just another 100 miles, from the south end of Lac Seul to an island 11 miles from Ear Falls, by the northwest end of the same lake. They called the island “Jonah’s Roost,” after that place in the bible where Jonah went to watch and see what would happen after he’d preached to the people of Nineveh to quit their evil ways. And after their third summer, Tom and Scotty ended up on that same island again.
The snow came and covered everything, and ice silenced the lapping waters of the lake. The local cars and motorboats turned to snowmobiles whirring across a soft white landscape that covered a frozen core. For Tom and Scotty, snowshoes quietly replaced hiking boots and canoes.The nights grew long and deep. Nighttime shone with moonlight reflecting from the white and crystal surfaces of winter trees. The evergreens were all cushioned with snow, and the deciduous trees were bare and mysterious with stars blinking down through their branches.
Winter doesn’t come all at once around Jonah’s Roost. It teases you with a light snow one day and a freezing rain the next, the strong west wind turning to a north wind and then a south wind, and then a clear calm warm sunny day that melts everything. Then there is more cold snowy wind out of the west. One day you burn one or two logs on the wood stove through the day, and the next day the weather turns cold and you burn four. And then the next day you let the fire go out, because you’d rather be outside in the sun than inside tending a fire.
It’s hard to say when the realization comes that, yes, it’s winter. You hope you’re ready. Sometime, somehow, when you’re not really noticing, the snow begins to accumulate deeply on the undulating contours of the log structures around the yard: the house, the privy, the woodshed, the toolshed, and the sauna, and then you know. Winter is here to stay.
That winter, Herman the Ermine left tracks between the different buildings, where he went looking for mice and warmth. He paused to pose for pictures in the snow, because he knew that here he didn’t have to worry about being trapped for his white winter coat. Inside the house, a marten ventured to poke his head up through a hole in the floor to see what was going on. If things looked good, he’d come out to visit, to look for mice, to investigate, for instance, the lens of a camera with his nose.The bears went to bed for the winter, but the timber wolves remained, parading their large swift footprints right across the lake.
Otters made their slides down the snowy banks into the still-liquid edges of the lake, streaking the banks with their skid marks on the way down, piercing the packed snow with sharp little bursts of claws on the way up. They looked for places where the water runs fast, because those places stay open. They made slides around “the narrows,” where the mainland and the island nearly touch each other for a couple of hundred feet and form a rapids. Downstream from the otter slides was the dock, with the cabin and the outbuildings clustered nearby. The narrows was too fast to bring a boat through in summer, so you’d launch your boat from just downstream and slant across the current at a 15-degree angle towards the island. In the winter, you’d trace a similar route across where the ice was solid.
One evening, still early in the winter, Tom and Scott sat settling into the coziness of a late night beside the orange lapping glow of the old wood stove. It was fairly cold, -16 Celsius perhaps. They were reading a Sherlock Holmes story: The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was a snug feeling: keeping the cold, dark, hunger winter night at bay with a warm fire, a good roof, and a strong door.
Scott read in his robust young voice, “’I say Watson,’ said the baronet, ‘What would Holmes say to this? How about that hour of darkness in which the power of evil is exalted?’”
Scott heard something outside the house, perhaps a spruce tree branch losing its snow and springing back. He cocked his head and paused for a moment, then kept reading. “As if in answer to his words there rose suddenly out of the vast gloom of the moor that strange cry…”
Scott heard a murmur from outside in the dark cold quiet winter air.
“Do you hear those ‘voices’ on the ‘moor?’” Scott asked. Grandpa, entranced by the story, only heard Scott’s voice. He chuckled. Scott shook his head and kept reading.
“It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a thin howl, and then the sad moan in which it died away.”
There came a knock on the door: a brittle, chattering, knock, tentative at first. Grandpa sat up straight and looked intently at Scott. Scott paused over his book, and the two men listened silently. The knocking went quiet.
Scott went on, as if to insist that the noise was not real. Just a story.“Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild, and menacing.”
The knocking, as if encouraged by Scotty’s voice, started up again, louder and impatient, insistent now.
“The baronet caught my sleeve and his face glimmered white through the darkness.
“’My God, what’s that, Watson?’”
“I don’t know who that could be,” Grandpa said. “I didn’t hear a snowmobile. We’re the only people around who would snowshoe eleven miles to get here from Ear Falls. At this time of night. It’s well after dark.” His thin, grizzled, uncut hair stood on end.
The knocking continued, louder and faster.
“Maybe it’s the Hound of the Baskervilles,” Scott said, in a dramatic spooky voice, smirking. “Or a pack of timber wolves that want to lure us out to eat us.”
“I don’t know who that could be,” Grandpa said again.
The knocking went on in a loud, steady rhythm that could go on all night.
“I don’t know either,” Scott said, dropping his spooky voice. His brown eyes opened wide and shone with genuine fear. The knocking continued on and on and on.
“Well, I guess we’d better look to see who it is,” said Grandpa in his most sonorous, confident, warmest voice. And he amiably grabbed his biggest Maglite flashlight, the kind you use to scare the wolves away from the cows out in the pasture, with a blinding light and a long heavy handle like a club. He turned it on and shone it on the floor. He waited for a moment while his eyes adjusted, and then he made his path through the dark cabin to the door. The knocking went on.
Scotty set down the book on a sawed-off log next to the one on which he was sitting. The book was a hardcover that he and Tom had carried back from the Ear Falls public library in a big backpack across the eleven-mile snowshoe path from town. He got up and reached for a split log, as if to feed the fire, but paused with the log in his hand, swinging it a little to get a feel for its weight. The knocking went on.
“I’m coming,” Grandpa hollered to whomever, or whatever was outside that door. The knocking stopped. Grandpa unlatched the door, and put his hand on the knob, and turned it, and he opened it up.
There on the porch were two friends – Richard and Carl – and they were just drenched. Scott and Grandpa started laughing.
“Come in, come in,” Grandpa said. “We’ve got a nice warm fire going in here.” Scott opened the stove door and put the log he was holding inside the stove, then grabbed two more and added them as well. It was a large woodstove with six burners on top.
Richard and Carl went and stood by the fire. Their boots squished as they walked across the room, leaving wet footprints across the plank floor. They stood as close to the stove as they could get, holding their hands out into the warm air and shivering. Scott grabbed two more logs and added them to the fire, then left the door open to allow the air to go through and blow the fire up. The whole cabin glowed orange with heat.Scotty poured water from a 5-gallon container into the teakettle, and set it on top of the stove.
“We never –huh!- thought you would -huh!- open up the door,” Richard said, in a voice shaking with spasms of cold.
“We thought you’d- huh!- gone out and left –huh! – your fire going.”
“We thought we were –huh!- going to freeze to death.”
“Well, we opened the door,” Scott said. “Come in!” Richard and Carl came in and walked straight to the warmest spot beside the woodstove.
“What happened to you fellows?” Grandpa asked.
“It got late while we were out here –huh!- on the lake, so we figured we would come to visit you and –huh!- warm up before going home. We must’ve –huh!- headed the wrong way from the peninsula, because –huh!- we ended up on the narrows. The ice failed and we lost our snowmobiles.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes,” Carl nodded, looking dejected and freezing wet.
“And so you walked here through the snow.” It was a couple hundred feet from the narrows to the cabin’s front door.
Richard nodded, shaking his head a few extra times from the cold.
“You’d better take off your wet boots. And your wet clothes. We’ll dry them off by the fire while you fellows get warm.”
It took some time to peel four layers of wet clothes off of limbs that were shaking with cold, but they did. Grandpa fetched blankets and sleeping bags from the two small bedrooms in the back of the cabin, and gave them to the naked men to pile against their backs while they warmed their fronts. The water boiled on the stove. Scott made a big pot of tea. Grandpa picked the sodden clothing off the floor and hung it up to dry. The tea finished brewing. Scott poured two big thick rough ceramic mugs half full. “So you don’t spill it with your shaking hands,” he said.
He handed the mugs to Richard and Carl.
“What will happen to your snowmobiles?” Grandpa asked
“After they went through the ice, we dove down into the water to put buoys on them. So we will know where to look for them later.”
“Wasn’t that cold?” Scotty asked.
“Yes,” Richard said.
“But you did what you had to do,” Tom said.
“That’s right,” said Richard.
“Are you going to leave them there all winter?” Scotty asked.
“I’d rather not.”
“I think that if all four of us pulled together, we might be able to heave them up onto land tomorrow.”
“And then the water will freeze inside the engines and crack the snowmobiles once they’re out in the air. That’s no good.”
The tea had cooled down to the point where it was drinkable. Tom handed the two men spoons, and pointed to the big 5-gallon tin of white-yellow crystallized honey. Carl and then Richard dipped their spoons into the honey to get a big glob. Slowly they stirred the honey into their tea.
“Well, maybe if we could bring them into a warm place, we could keep them from freezing while the water drains out.”
“We could put them in the tool shed,” Scotty said, “And keep a fire going.”
“That sounds good.”
“And then we’ll fire up the Finnish sauna.”
“That sounds very good.”
“You can set your spoons down there on the table,” Tom said.
“Do you want a shot of whiskey in your tea?” Scotty offered, holding up the amber bottle of Scotch. And they did. They began to sip the hot sweet dark liquid.
“I don’t know what my wife will think, with me gone overnight,” Richard said. “She’s going to be worried to death over us.”
“She should be,” Tom said.
“But we’re fine. We just can’t get home right away.”
“It would take you half the day to walk home, if you started at sunrise tomorrow. You could borrow our snowshoes.”
“I don’t want to start at sunrise. I want to get the snowmobiles out, and get them drained out and running again.”
“Donna will probably call for a rescue crew in the morning.”
“And then the Crown police will charge us for their efforts.”
“But we don’t need a rescue crew. We’re fine.”
“Thanks to Scotty and Tom, and this beautiful fire.” It was now 80 degrees Fahrenheit inside the house. Tom and Scott stood back from the fire. Carl and Richard stood right next to it, their fronts naked, their backs covered in blankets and sleeping bags, as the shivers gradually subsided.
“John will fly out to check his trap lines in the morning,” Scotty said. “Maybe he could get word to your wives that you’re okay.
“We’ll mark out a long patch on the snow where he can land. There’s a big section down below the narrows that’s been frozen solid for a month. He’ll see we’ve been up to something and come to check in on us.”
“He can take word back to Donna, and then we can work on getting the snowmobiles out of the water without getting the Crown police involved.”
“Well, my front half is warm. I think I’m going to turn around and warm up my bottom.” Both men rearranged their blankets and turned around.
“Scotty was just reading me a good story when you fellows knocked on the door: The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
“That’s a good story, eh?” Carl asked.
Scott nodded vigorously.
“Where were you Scotty?” Tom prompted
Scotty picked up the book and opened it to the small slip of paper that marked his place, and read out loud, “It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a thin howl, and then the sad moan in which it died away. Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild, and menacing. The baronet caught my sleeve and his face glimmered white through the darkness.
“’My God, what’s that, Watson?’”
“And that’s when you knocked on the door,” Tom said.
“No wonder you took so long to open up and let us in.”
“I thought you had something against us.”
“We thought you were the Hound of the Baskervilles,” Scotty said, laughing uncontrollably.
“But you were just two friends, soaking wet and a long way from home on a cold winter’s night,” Tom chuckled.
“That’s right,” Carl said.
“We’re going to be all right, thanks to the two of you,” Richard said.
“We’re glad to be okay, too,” Tom said.
“No Hound of the Baskervilles is going to get us,” said Scotty.
“Well, go on reading, Scotty.”
“’My God, what’s that, Watson?’
“’I don’t know. It’s a sound they have on the moor. I heard it once before.’”
And the four men stayed by the warm fire beside the winter lake, reading a good ghost story into the wee hours of the night. It was a snug feeling: keeping the cold, dark, hungry winter night at bay with a warm fire, a good roof, a strong door, a cup of hot tea with honey and a shot of whiskey, and a group of good friends.
In the morning they marked out a landing strip for their friend who flew in to check his trap lines, and the friend stopped in to see what was going on, and brought word back to Donna that Carl and Richard were okay. Scotty lit a fire in the toolshed while Tom built another in the sauna. Then the four men walked back toward the narrows and found the buoys poking up through a thin layer of fresh ice, and they waded into the water, chest high, and heaved the snowmobiles out, and pushed them back to the toolshed to drain, first one and then the other. And then they took a sauna. Later, their pilot trapper friend came back to fetch Carl and Richard and bring them home to Ear Falls. Scotty and Tom stayed on at Jonah’s Roost, there by the lake where, if anyone got into trouble, they’d be there to help. They drank tea and ate bannock and sat by the woodstove and read out loud, and then sometimes they went outside to watch Herman the Ermine or look at the stars or go snowshoeing into town for more books or flour or honey or tea or Scotch. It was a snug feeling.
Tom Findley now lives in Berkeley, California, where he is expecting to celebrate his 95th birthday in March. Scott Landis graduated from his years of canoe and wilderness studies with Tom to work in sustainable woodworking and forestry. He has written extensively about these subjects, and founded and directs the nonprofit GreenWood, which promotes sustainable forest management by training artisans in the craft of fine woodworking.
The author, Reed College graduate Emily Thurston, is a bicycle racer and runs two thriving businesses with her partner, Dennis Jenkins: one is a bicycle store in Berkeley, California,and the other is a moving, storage, and estate liquidation company serving the Bay Area and all of California. Both businesses are named “Lulu’s” after the parrot who owns them.