Light is just beginning to pour over the mountains and a glum expression has settled on the dogs’ faces. Their initial excitement at getting harnessed to loaded toboggans has worn off with breathtaking speed. Ah, well. At least Sam and I are grinning, fired up about our brief escape from home.
We’re trailing noise: a constant crrrr, the toboggans’ scrape across the hard-frozen track. Everything else is quiet save for the fluttering of a raven, busy with nest construction on a cliff. She flies over us with a twig in her beak, the northern version of a dove with an olive branch. Offering sticks to rocks, the promise of a future. A flapping of wings and she lands on a rock ledge. Some branches tumble off it. She pauses and glances down at them, then places her stick on the ledge. A moment of contemplation, and she takes off again. Her mate croaks encouragement or ridicule from nearby, or maybe just a comment on our ragtag procession.
A nervous thought about the tomato seedlings having to fend for themselves in our now-unheated cabin quivers through my mind. It’s the reason we don’t do this more often. In the winter, stuff can freeze, in the summer, the greenhouse and garden tie us down. So we sneak these trips in between, always too-brief excursions, defined by a mixture of giddiness and slight worry like a nest-building raven.
The land unfurls slowly before us and sunshine reaches down. Soon, we’re opening jackets and pulling off gloves, cheering on the grumpy dogs who have to put in a day of work for once in their lives by pulling our gear. At the beaver lodge, we stop and listen. Anybody home? But there are no sounds. The dogs lie and chew ice from between their toes, flinging it away with expert flicks of the head.
A cup of tea and we continue on, driven by the sun and warming temperatures. Wait around much longer and the trail will get too soft, not that we’re in a great hurry to get anywhere. Old wolverine tracks lead out from the forest and cross the trail, a hybrid shape of bear and wolf paws. This is more to the dogs’ liking, they all push their noses deep into the tracks and inhale. I wonder what scent looks like to their minds - do they imagine the shape of things, steeped in smell, or do clouds of scent trump everything and the actual look of something remains vague, unimportant? When they think of me, is it my smell that primarily comes to their minds?
By early afternoon, we’ve reached our campsite. Shovel time. Sam and I excavate a semi-level spot of ground to sleep on and the dogs are finally beginning to see the fun of it all. They assist briefly in digging but when it becomes clear that we’re not after mice, abandon us to our task. We’re back to the usual distribution of roles. Sam and I work at providing food, water and shelter, while the dogs are having a great old time.
Canned moose chili bubbles over the fire. Oh, the joy of winter camping and not having to lug everything on your back: you can bring jars of food. And you can bring extra gear “just in case,” the tent for instance. It remains packed on the sled as we unroll foamies by the fire and snuggle down into our sleeping bags, fleece hats firmly in place.
Dusk falls slowly, rises up from the horizon and cold begins to settle in. The dogs are starting their sneak attack of crowding closer, curling up beside us only to stealthily inch their way onto the foamies over the course of the night. Ashes drift up from the fire, hesitate briefly before tumbling into the darkness. Moist cold air lays itself over my face. I snuggle up to Sam, one dog squished under my knees, another one weighing down my arm, and inhale the smell of coals, fur and musty sleeping bags. As I drift into sleep, my mind reaches for the image of the raven against the sky, poplar twig in her beak. She was the day’s omen, for this is peace.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.