A loud bellow, so deep it digs right into my stomach, comes from the trail ahead of me. Whistle, call back the barking dog, get out the bear spray, and grab the other two dogs is what I do automatically, simultaneously. When the dog comes a second later, I have time to wonder who is on the trail ahead of us. Moose or bear?
A cow moose and her little calf have been coming by our cabin for the past few weeks – could it be them? The dog’s bark sounded like it usually does when they announce a moose, no stressed aggressive ring to it and no raised hackles that go with noticing a bear. I stand and wait, strain to listen. The animal ahead of me must do the same. Everything is has fallen completely silent.
“Hey, it’s us,” I say eventually, just to make a human noise. If it is that cow and calf, they must be familiar with our scent and sounds. Maybe that’s why the moose told the dog off and stayed on the trail, even though she must have heard me making noise before. She would know from around the cabin that we don’t bother her. So now what? And I’m still not one hundred per cent sure it’s a moose. Wish I could take a peek.
“Well, I guess we go back, guys,” I tell the dogs who are starting to look bored. Must be a moose then. We rarely bump into bears and when we do, all those noses and tails are quivering. As we turn around, I make more noise to inform the animal of what we’re doing. Maybe it has the same idea – I now hear the cracking of branches off to my right. Briefly, I catch a glimpse of the shoulder hump of a moose through the foliage, then it disappears, breaking a twig here and there. Got that question solved.
We are such visual creatures. Why do I always second-guess what I hear but am so gullible to what my eyes tell me? Hot from the sweltering sun, the dogs and I dip gratefully into the cool mossy shade of a spruce grove. It feels secluded, secret, like being inside a fairy tale, the ground soft under my feet and the staccato knock of a woodpecker the only sound.
I notice it more these days, the countless voices out here, because I am alone. Sam is out in civilization, mingling with people and traffic to make a bit of money, and so I’m left without the constant reference point and distraction of my partner – I’d probably be lonely if I wouldn’t reach out to the land, try to understand what is being said, how it relates to me.
The dogs and I emerge into a sunny meadow flecked with paintbrush, goldenrod and yarrow, the wind a mere whisper in the trees. When we get to the cabin, so quiet without Sam, I revel in the comparative silence. The radio stays mostly turned off now. With a length of copper wire looped a certain way around our collection of cast caribou, moose and deer antlers on the cabin wall, we are able to suck CBC radio out of the atmosphere into our home, if no other station. Sam enjoys the background noise of radio programs, the endless discussions and odd song – the warbling of what must be women but sounds distressingly like mournful little girls – even when neither of us is actually listening to it.
Blissfully, I’ve exorcized these uninvited, disembodied voices now and am tuned exclusively to the nature channel playing non-stop outside the house. In my mind, I replay the warning of the moose, trying again to shelve it away for the future under “moose” so that I won’t always think “bear” first whenever I hear it.
In the meantime, there’s another drama unfolding. In the shrillest of voices, a long call of alarm rings out through the trees, followed by a small, merciful silence. Not quite a silence: the chickadees keep talking back and forth among themselves, the big fly is still buzzing against my window. Then the hysterical cry of the squirrel again, like that of a panicky stockbroker whose trade has just gone sour. Sometimes my two channels intermingle.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon
River south of Whitehorse.