Within the Stillness: One Family's Winter on a Northern Trapline

Within the Stillness: One Family's Winter on a Northern Trapline
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Author: Olsen, Keith
ISBN: 9781894431613
Pub. Date: Apr 1, 2011
Size: 5.50″ x 8.50″
Pages: 200

It was almost noon when we entered the portage. The fresh autumn air was still quite cool even though the sun was well up by this time. It was pleasant to see how the sunlight penetrated the thick forest of tall evergreens, giving light to an otherwise dark and damp part of the overland trail. The ground in this area was covered over in a thick layer of green moss, and a similar type called old man's beard hung down off the branches like sheets of light green tinsel. This part of the portage was spooky, but on parts of the trail where the deciduous trees were it was bright and vibrant, especially where the leaves hadn't fallen. It was there the sunlight caused an explosion of colour, shading each leaf in a different hue of autumn glory, and it made you feel warm and alive with excitement.
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It was almost noon when we entered the portage. The fresh autumn air was still quite cool even though the sun was well up by this time. It was pleasant to see how the sunlight penetrated the thick forest of tall evergreens, giving light to an otherwise dark and damp part of the overland trail. The ground in this area was covered over in a thick layer of green moss, and a similar type called old man's beard hung down off the branches like sheets of light green tinsel. This part of the portage was spooky, but on parts of the trail where the deciduous trees were it was bright and vibrant, especially where the leaves hadn't fallen. It was there the sunlight caused an explosion of colour, shading each leaf in a different hue of autumn glory, and it made you feel warm and alive with excitement.
Additional Information

Additional Information

ISBN 9781894431613
Publication Date Apr 1, 2011
Author Olsen, Keith
Illustrator No
Pages 200
Size 5.50″ x 8.50″
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Keith Olsen in his autobiographical work Within the Stillness refers to the Canadian North as his playground. He develops that unique attachment to the land growing up in a family that efficiently lives off of the land. Their time spent living through a harsh Canadian winter in an extremely remote location is a tale of admirable quality. Their will and determination as a family unit turns the rugged wilderness into a modest home. From such settings Olsen is able to live a profound child-hood, where simplicity and nature become the most nurturing aspect of their imagination. The source of their livelihood is Olsen's wise father who is well versed in the extreme realities of nature. Throughout the novel we are left feeling confident that this man will never fail to provide sustenance for his family and security in his absence.

Though their tactics for survival are memorable, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Within the Stillness is the creative ways in which the family feeds themselves. They are extremely imaginative with their meagre supplies and the descriptions that Olsen provides for the most natural meals will leave one amazed by the culinary ingenuity. Whether it's moose tenderloin, venison stew or fresh Bannock fried over seasoned birch, the recipes are completely natural and represent an authentic attachment to the outdoors.

Within the Stillness is a fascinating trek into the woods of Canada. It is uniquely Canadian and if one has ever spent time on any of the great lakes in Canada it will be very easy to relate many of the scenes to their own out-door experiences. Though we may not be able to categorize our own experiences to such a level of 'roughing it', it is the ever important communion with nature that rings true throughout. Review by Zachary G. Chauvin / (Posted on 2015-02-22)
Author - Winter Moon
In 1965, when he was five, Keith Olsen spent the winter with his parents and his seven-year-old brother in a cabin on the west shore of Little Mahigan Lake in Northern Saskatchewan. Jim Olsen, a Canadian of Danish ancestry, and his wife, Flora, a member of the Lac La Ronge First Nation, had been planning a winter on a trapline since their sons were babies, and together they had paid an earlier trial visit to the area to "see if the venture was viable and could sustain a family."

The winter was a success thanks to Keith's parents, whose skills, inner resources and organizational ability become apparent as the story unfolds. Like all good writers, Olsen "shows" rather than "tells", bringing the family's experiences to life with vivid, well chosen detail.

In the summer prior to the winter on the trapline, the family of four went to Little Mahigan and lived in a "shack tent" (a canvas tent with a wooden floor) while building their 20x20 foot cabin of peeled spruce. The trip into this home base involved an 84 kilometer truck ride from the town of Big River, SK, (northwest of Prince Albert) to the shores of Smoothstone Lake (near Lake Dore). There, the Olsens left their vehicle with the Schloegle family and travelled by motor powered canoe across Smoothstone Lake to Selinite Point. Then, after a five mile portage along Mahigan Creek, they came to their home base.

The Olsens' nearest neighbour, another trapper, was wintering in a cabin at the end of the portage, but, apart from him and the Schloegles and Durochers on Smoothstone Lake, there were no other people anywhere near. After freeze up, the Schloegles came in with a horse drawn sleigh to do commercial fishing until they reached their quota, so, for a while, a trip to Big River and back was possible. Before Christmas, Jim Olsen went to Big River to sell his furs and buy necessities and gifts.

The Olsens listened daily to the Northern News from Prince Albert, which broadcast messages to people in the bush, but these messages were incoming only. There was no telephone or CB radio.

Whether describing sightings of bear, moose, wolves and other wildlife, infrequent visits from old friends, or boyhood games and antics, Keith Olsen never fails to capture the reader's interest. The most dramatic adventure was his dad's night outdoors in midwinter (see the excerpt above). While reestablishing his trapline, he came upon a moose, a source of food, but after shooting it at close range with his .22 calibre rifle, he had to butcher it and hang the meat to freeze out of reach of other animals, and he ran late. He was about to cross the lake by moonlight for home when suddenly a pack of wolves, which had been after his moose, came up close from all directions and howling. Deciding it would be wiser to stay put, he built a huge campfire. Sounds indicated that another moose was in the vicinity and that the pack was "intent on making a kill." Keith's father spent the night beneath the stars, taking "power naps" and feeding the fire.

The sequel to this incident shows the family's philosophy about the animals they encountered. When they went to collect the rest of the moose meat the next day, they came upon signs of a death struggle in the snow, then the carcass of the second moose, which indeed had been killed by the wolves.

"We looked on in silence," Keith writes, "speaking not a word, shocked at the brutality of the scene before us, yet fully understanding the wolves' need to survive just as we did."

Along with exciting encounters with wild life, Within the Stillness includes lyrical descriptions of nature, a map at the front, photos from the Olsen family collection, two recipes (one for "Grandma Florence's White Sauce" and another for "Mum's Bread") and wise advice. For instance, the boys' parents taught them that, when you leave the cabin, it should always be ready for your return with a supply of wood and properly stored matches and food. There was also the rule that, at a scheduled time each day, noisy activity would stop, so that "stillness could settle" and the "orchestra of sounds" from the bush could be heard.


It taught us both respect for nature and the ability to share it with the wildlife around us; when we were still, wildlife and waterfowl alike were given the opportunity to go about their activities undisturbed and unthreatened

Lyrical descriptions abound in Within the Stillness. For instance:


At some point during the night the wind stopped and by morning the snow had played itself out as well. ...Morning brought an absolutely brilliant scene, a perfect winter wonderland; the sun peeking over the far hill against the deep blue of the sky, all the landscape covered in a white fluffy blanket of pure snow, the evergreens held out their branches as if gently cradling the precious powdery gift from above.

Author Keith Olsen has lived all his life in Northern Saskatchewan, receiving his education there and working at a variety of jobs. Writing is obviously one of his many skills and talents, and Within the Stillness deserves to win a major award. I hope Olsen will write more books set in this part of Canada that he knows so well.

Highly Recommended.
Review by Ruth Latta / (Posted on 2015-02-22)
SPG Book Review
This book encapsulates deeply etched memories of Keith Olsen, whose grandfather came to the United States from Denmark in 1910 at the age of thirteen. When he moved to Canada, he settled in the Big River district of Saskatchewan, where he married Anna Ethier in 1914. After the birth of two daughters, she became a victim of the 1918 influenza plague. The elder daughter, Florence, became the mother of James Edward Olsen, who was born out of wedlock in 1934. Florence Olsen married an English immigrant, Thomas Edward Nicholson, in 1937. After only nine years in the Nicholson family, James Olsen’s relationship with his stepfather became unendurable, and he set out on his own. He was twelve years old.

In the late summer of 1960, James Olsen, his wife (always identified as Mum), and their young sons Clarence and Keith went to Little Mahigan Lake for a winter on the trapline. What follows is a colloquial account of living off the land. Aside from a few purchased necessities, they ate what forest and lake provided: wild berries and meat of moose, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and bear.

The story reads like the hard existence of prairie homesteaders in an earlier time. The family had no modern conveniences. There was a wood stove, gasoline lantern, coal-oil lamps, candles, and a battery-powered radio. Everything else they needed they took from the land, forest and lake.

They had a team of horses and a sleigh. They had snowshoes. They built their own cabin. They had their own skills, ingenuity and boundless energy. They had neighbours with whom they shared a reverence for the land and resources near at hand. They sold their furs to the Red & White Store in Big River. The gill net which they tended under the lake ice produced another valuable harvest, which was sold to Waite Fisheries, also in Big River. They had a successful season.

In 1961, the isolation in which the Olsen family lived was disappearing in the land below the tree-line. In 2011, the deep understanding of the people north of the prairies for the places in which they live has not waned. Keith Olsen remembers. He remembers also with love and respect the tireless, caring woman called Mum.

How could two little boys disappear from school registers for a whole year without officialdom noticing? It appears that Mum was a Cree woman. Government officials forced Cree children to endure the dubious disciplines of the residential schools, but were not so concerned with the education of children of mixed blood. Nevertheless, Keith Olsen wrote, and Your Nickel's Worth Publishing produced, a book which helps readers to understand who, why and where we are.
Review by William Wardill (SPG) / (Posted on 2015-02-22)