There’s a buzz in the air that’s aiming right for us. Sam and I look up from Operation Rebar – trying to chip away the ice that is constricting the throat of our water hole. With limited success so far. We mostly got wet. I scowl down the trail, at the noise, willing it to fade instead of drawing closer.
“Snowmobilers,” Sam comments.
The dogs stare at the bend in the trail, where the trees swallow up the view, tensely waiting for the machines to emerge.
“Great,” I mutter. “Wonderful timing.”
But they’re probably just passing through, as they usually do. After all, it’s a half-decent weekend and we’re still six snowmobilers short of our annual average. I can do this, bare my teeth in the simile of a friendly smile and wave. Pretend I’m having fun hacking at the ice and was looking forward to motor noise and stink.
“Don’t get grumpy now,” Sam warns, reading my expression just right. I chastise myself for feeling this way. Why does it always feel like an invasion when people show up, why do people cause a shock to the system unequalled by bears or moose? Because they’re the rarity here, I guess, as unusual as a bear wandering down Main Street in Whitehorse – it happens, but leaves you kind of rattled.
The dogs storm off with a volley of barks when the noise gets suddenly louder as the snowmobiles come around the bend. Three machines, good stuff. That means only about another three to go this winter. I can almost smile. Sam whistles back the dogs, who come reluctantly with bristling fur and stiffly raised tails. I wonder if in the old days, when more people still lived out in the bush, I would have felt differently. Maybe. Maybe it’s partly the snowmobiles that bug me. When you live in a largely non-motorized world, in utter control of turning a lonely ignition on or off, it’s somehow a rude awakening having to listen to somebody else’s noise. Geez, Sam and I are way too spoiled.
The dogs sit, trembling with excitement, as the machines roar closer. I take a mental snapshot of ourselves – three northern mutts, a man in the world’s oldest jacket with insulation hanging off his arms, and a woman glistening wetly, frozen pearls of water adorning a pair dirty rain pants. The berm of slush and ice around the water hole suddenly feels like a bulwark. Why don’t I play otter and slip down that hole? Aren’t we supposed to act eccentric?
The snowmobiles slow to a crawl, then stop. The dogs can contain themselves no longer and storm at the visitors, loud-mouthing each other. Who actually has the guts to go and sniff these people? Helmets come off, balaclavas and tousled hair appear, eyes narrow in friendly smiles. I scan their machines, not so much for make and model but survival equipment. Too many people have driven by here over the years with neither spare gas, a shovel, snowshoes, nor a backpack of survival gear. Maybe they all carry satellite phones and just call in a chopper when they run into a problem 60 kilometres from the closest house?
Not these guys, though. I spot jerry cans and a couple of small packs. Sam is already shaking hands and going on about the water hole, the lack of sunshine lately and our astonishment at seeing real-life people. I smile and nod, feeling (and looking, no doubt) like an idiot. But my mind is wiped clear of things to say. Snow conditions, maybe?
They look bemused as they point to the cabin and ask if we live out here, what we do, if it doesn’t get lonely. We’re falling over ourselves with answers, which feel too complex to press into a few sentences. How do we actually manage to talk, I wonder, to press something as unfathomable and large as wilderness into words?
After a few minutes, the helmets go back on, the machines roar back to life and we all wave. Leaving a trail of exhaust in the air, they speed away, further up the valley, while Sam and I stand and stare, trying to absorb it all. Slowly, our little world shrinks back to its usual proportions and I can breathe again. How glad I am that I didn’t play otter after all.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.