CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 20 . . . . January 27, 2012
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.
Lyrical descriptions abound in Within the Stillness. For instance:
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.
Ruth Latta's collection of short stories, Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010) won the annual "Northern Lit" Award for Fiction in English, from Ontario Library Service North and Northern Ontario libraries.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.