The toboggan with the two blue water barrels bounces lightly over the snow, its hiss the only accompaniment to the scrunch of my boots. Water music: our daily symphony of filling the buckets. Yellow sunlight lies flat on the surface of the lake, as if it has run down from the sun over the mountains and forest to pool here, as if it’s liquid.
I stop and catch my breath, as do the dogs. Everything is quiet now, so quiet I can hear Wilson’s stomach churning, and a faint tinkling in my ear. Inner body communications are making themselves heard. There’s not a bird sound anywhere. No branch cracks. The mountains sweep up toward the sky and the dogs sit tensely, looking professional and watchful.
It is part of our ritual, this act of listening and acknowledging. I squat down among the dogs for the next part – howling out our existence into this silence and waiting for an answer that hardly ever comes. But maybe today. We found fresh tracks earlier, made by wolves who had commented on the dogs’ pee spots and one windblown dropping with a liberal yellow sprinkling of their own, plus a heartfelt, four-footed scratch number, excavating deep grooves in the snow. Maybe they’d like to voice their opinion of these spoiled pooches?
Our combined howls and barks rise up into the air, steam clouds hanging from my mouth and the dogs. Milan’s lower lip sticks out like a drawer someone forgot to close, upside-down vampire teeth gleaming in the sun. “Ow, ow, whooo,” he sings, his eyes passionately closed. Then we listen again. But there are no sounds, which means that now it’s time for business, for hacking open the water hole.
I shovel away the latest layer of snow that has covered the Styrofoam lid. A squeal escapes from the lid when I wrest it aside. What remains of our water hole is only about a quarter of its original size – looks like we’re losing the battle against the ice growing into the hole once again. Glumly, I hack away the skinny sheet of ice and start battling with the sides of the hole. Water gushes up gleefully with each strike of the axe, as if the lake is curious to see how things are looking up here in the frozen world. I gasp as ice crystals and frigid water splash into my face and run down my pants. One way of taking a shower.
With the shovel, I scoop up the slush and throw it onto the growing bulwark of ice. A small water plant floats up dreamily, unbelievably green and frail. It swirls around in a lazy circle, a greeting from the life that goes on unseen down below the ice, a parallel universe. The water seems thick, dark, a hibernation version of its blue summer self.
I dip the first bucket into the hole, listen to the strange sound of gurgling in the midst of snow. We’ll have to chip away at the ice walls with the crowbar soon, I notice. A couple more weeks, and the buckets will hardly fit into the hole anymore. I heave the heavy barrels back onto the toboggan and set the Styrofoam lid back into place, bank snow around its edges.
“Come on, guys.” The dogs quit their supervisor poses and rush up to me, tails wagging importantly. They’ve taken on the job of piloting me back up the path. Sneaky critters: they’ve trained us to haul the water when really it could and should be their job. But who wants to cajole pouting dogs back to the cabin, forever calling them to stop because the buckets fell off again? Not me, not Sam.
And so I return to the house, sweaty, soaked and out of breath. I guess it’s a terribly awkward way to look after one’s water needs – it takes time and effort, you get wet. Yet when you have water that just comes out of a tap, vital things are lacking. The sense of where it came from, how vulnerable and precious it is. The countless lives that exist within it, how it changes with the seasons. But I think the greatest loss would be that moment of standing still and listening to the land, the feeling of connectedness.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.