A year ago, Amelia & I put together a photo book of our (nearly) decade owning and operating Fortress Lake Retreat. It has our favorite photographs, memories, people, moments, wildlife, the extremity of hard work, and life in and about our time. As you might expect, it’s a gorgeous book that reflects how incredible our experiences were. It was a good part of life. Neither of us would trade any of the wonderful moments for anything, nor would we wish the worst moments on anyone. It was a well-rounded experience that taught a lot about life and ourselves. The book reflects these things.
Now, the book is based on 11×14″ pages and a double page spread shows off a photo incredibly well. It’s spectacular to see some of our photos in such a presentation, something we’re proud of, it turned out well. Not all the photos are works of art, they’re memories. And not all pages are 2 page spreads of images, some pages are collages of people or works in progress. And not every photo – at first blush – makes sense as to why it’s in the book.
Enter the “Snap & Chirp”.
Anyone who has ever owned a lodge or any facility in the back country and is honest with themselves knows that there are a few things you simply don’t share. It’s real. You make sure everything is good, safe, pleasant, etc for the customer. Like any small business operator, you take the chaff, the customer gets the gold. In fact, the customer, then mgr, then staff get the gold, and you, the business owner, get the chaff – you honor everyone else first or you aren’t in business long. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you simply don’t have the time nor energy to better the chaff so that you don’t have to deal with it and live in it. And “in it” is a pertinent term in this case.
There is an old BC Parks cabin that was never used and we worked with Parks to fix it up on the premise they could use it while doing their annual site inspection. Otherwise we’d simply use it as a staff – er, owner – cabin. There were no windows, no walls, no wood stove for cold nights, the floor was sketchy. The first year of operations there was so much pine marten shit covering literally everything that I had it in mind to burn the thing and re-build. Had I known the cost of trying to sleep in that cabin over a decade, hindsight math is clear, I should have burnt that %#&! building to the ground. Seriously.
But I decided to cut a few holes in the walls and door for windows, put in a wood stove, and put tongue & groove pine walls. It came mostly together and was actually starting to take shape nicely. I never quite finished the reno that first year and after that I simply ran out of energy as the retreat got busier. The room was certainly not sealed.
Of course, there’s a problem with the above. And there was a reason that the cabin was originally layered in pine marten shit. And the next summer I found out why. Mice.
In a prior life I took Forestry in school and worked for the Alberta and the BC Forest Services. While in school, we did a “microtine survey”, studying the populations of various mice, voles, etc relative to different habitat types. It was quite eye-opening to see the numbers of critters we trapped in the grid of mouse traps through spruce, pine, willow, grass, etc habitats. Bar none, the highest population was a willow thicket. Every day we went to collect the traps there was an endless parade of dead mice, voles, etc whereas the spruce, pine, etc habitats peaked and their numbers declined.
To prove some things you learn in school are applicable to real life, fast forward 15 years. In that BC Parks – errr…. Snap & Chirp cabin, I was again doing a real life microtine survey. The old Snap & Chirp cabin stands in the thickest willowy bit of the entire retreat. And every night as I settled in to bed about midnight I’d hear the familiar wall scratchers. Most nights I fell asleep quickly, exhausted by another day of engaging guests from 6am to midnight, and I’d miss the onslaught of mice.
I sleep on my side and usually with my arm out and across the bed and it usually takes a lot to wake me when exhausted. I was roused from my sleep one night as I felt something tickling my arm. I twitched and it tickled again as it tickled up my arm. I drowsily woke up to feel little claws running up my arm. As I freaked out the mouse freaked out and I heard a series of loud squeaks as it left. That wakes you. In the morning there was a puddle of mousey pee on the bed sheet with two wee mousey droppings in the center. How cute.
There are defining moments in life and that was one. That night I set two mouse traps on my bed and four more on the floor. That sounds like a reasonable plan. But, like all plans that sound good, I discovered the plan’s fault. At 2 am, having fallen to sleep an hour earlier after another long day, there was a loud SNAP a foot away from my face. Startled and shaking, I turned the light on to a bloody disaster on my bed. “Maybe not a good plan”. I refrained from setting any more traps on the bed.
Stopping short of keeping a live pine marten in the cabin with me, I hatched a master plan and got Amelia to send an army of mouse traps in on the plane. I got quite aggressive with my trapping, thinking ahead to the sanity of the vision of end times without mice: I set out 8 traps on the floor to annihilate the population. Surely, I’ll clean out the numbers eventually. Like that old CCR song, Somedays Never Come.
The first night it was about 1 am when the first trap went off. “SNAP!!!!” That wakes you up. I thought “perfect, got one!” as I nestled back to sleep. 1:45am “SNAP!!!” I startled awake again but thought “good, keep ’em coming”. 2:45 “SNAP!!!” I jolted awake again “Ok, progress”. 3:10 am “SNAP!!!” 3:50am “SNAP!!!!” 4:15am “SNAP!!!” It was a rough sleep, only compounded by the coming light of dawn giving silhouette to the eastern mountain ranges. 4:20 am the ravens landed on the snags beside the cabin, the robins, waxwings, thrushes, warblers, and most every other feathered friend seemingly on the spine of the roof calling out. Loudly. Try as I might, a return to sleep was not in order. I’d be the one up making coffee at 6am. Others did offer to get up and make coffee for everyone, but what was the point? “I’ll be up anyway”.
The next night, getting to bed at midnight after chores per usual, I decided to continue the mousey onslaught. And once again, the 8 trap salute. And the early morning chirp-fest. Every night for 2 weeks I did the same, having faith that at some point Mother Nature would show me the mouse carrying capacity of a stand of willows had finite limits. As it turns out, it does not. Each night for two weeks I had the same shitty sleep filled with SNAP! followed closely on its heels by CHIRP!
Now, not all mouse trap kills are clean. Some nights SNAP!! was followed by a mouse wrestling with the trap in its final moments, sometimes flip-flopping across the floor for 20 or 30 seconds. Some of these then flip-flopped over to another mouse trap, which was followed by a second SNAP, which was always the end of the tussle. And some mornings you had quite a mess to clean for how clean a SNAP might have been.
There was never an end to it in that cabin. EVER. There was a sanity-check however. I cried UNCLE! (and I mean cry in the most insanity, sleep deprived sense). I had to stop trapping in hopes to get a night’s sleep. And for two or three nights I was able to sleep through to dawn. It was wonderful. I think it was the third night that the tide turned again and I had yet another bed partner – one that Amelia wasn’t jealous of. I wound up shedding the bed sheets and got myself my mummy sleeping bad and fastened my head into it – and wore ear plugs to keep from hearing the morning bird orgy. I never, ever got more than 6 hrs of ‘sleep’ while working up there. And each morning as guests and staff came down after their glorious night’s sleep in the cool mountain air, I’d engage them, hearing of how “spectacular” they slept, or how they “slept like a baby”, or hearing “man, I haven’t slept like that in years”, I always wanted to reply,”I’ve never slept like that in 8 years!” but nobody wants to hear that on their vacation. 🙂
The worst part was that nobody else ever had a mouse in their cabin. Not one guest or friend or employee ever woke up with a mouse in any other cabin. I didn’t want to put anyone else out, so I put up with it for 8 years. By the end of 9 years of it, getting 3 solid hours and 3 interrupted hours, I couldn’t take it any more.
So, all told, that’s how the following photo earned a 2 page spread in the Decade at Fortress Album. It shows well. The memories are vivid. And I feel the same way today, several years removed, as I did while taking the photo… “I GOT YOU, YOU LITTLE SOB!!!”