"I love my farm, but my heart longs for the North."
These were the simple words spoke by my grandfather, Martin Klassen Sr., not long before his passing.
I knew what he meant. A wilderness man all of his life, he spent years in the bush country of northern Manitoba. His job as a forman on the construction of hydro dams on Manitoba's mightiest rivers took him away from home for extended periods of time.
But when he returned, it was not so much his job that he spoke of, but of the wild. The landscape, the wildlife, and the smell of the tundra.
This life must have been such a contrast for him, compared to his home. Here, Nature is tucked neatly between mile roads and ditches, ploughed fields and farm yards.
I grew up imagining this wild place. The CN rail line that winds into the north country is the same rail line that cuts through our property. I daydreamed of what it would be like to sneak off and board that train and experience it for myself.
My grandpa was also a trapper, and his crewmen often told him he was crazy for going out into the wilderness alone while they stayed in the camp and visited and gambled. He had no interest in smoking, drinking, or gambling his earnings. And he trusted Nature. His soul was renewed in the Wild. He appreciated the beauty of her and of her creatures. Trapping helped provide for his family and took him out into the Wild that he so loved.
He brought home several paintings, done on small pieces of plywood, of moose, elk, and geese in their habitat. He could capture their movements, their features, with ease. He could see them.
In his later years, he could no longer bring himself to trap or kill anymore. Instead, he longed to return to the Wilderness where he felt most at home.
These Wild Places have this effect on us. These pristine, perfect places that have been untouched, unsullied, uninterrupted by man. Their ability to make us feel alive and aware of our own Wild Natures.
They represent our own sacred, perfect souls. They stir these ancient memories within us and remind us of who we really are. Within them, we AWAKE.
A few years ago, I did board that train. I took my 2 oldest children to the North. We went as far as we could go, all the way to Churchill, on the shores of the great Hudson Bay. As we snaked our way across the province, I recognized the names of places that I had heard in my grandpa's stories. Grand Rapids, Jenpeg, Kettle, Limestone, and Long Spruce. I felt him there with me as I stared out of the rocking rail car into the miles of endless forest.
It was a humbling feeling as we passed the tree line and entered the barren, open tundra. To feel so ill-equipped to deal with the elements. A deep appreciation fell over me for the animals who have made their home in the North.
I breathed in the tundra, and my grandpa was right. It was the most pure, fresh air that I have ever breathed. During our stay, we all needed less sleep than usual, as it was so invigorating.
In Churchill, you do not wander the streets during the fall as it is polar bear season and they are making their annual migration onto the ice as the Hudson Bay freezes over. It was an unusual feeling to experience what it is like to be on the bottom of the food chain.
Perhaps we all long for the North, for all of the Wild Places that still exist in this world.
They call out to all of us.
I was fortunate enough to be with my grandfather during his last days on this earth, and I was able to hear the last words his body ever spoke.
"It's so beautiful. Jessie, it's so beautiful. It's Nature."
I know that he is in the Wild Places now.