Paw prints trailed across the snow like a ball of wool unravelled by the feet of our dogs. They were playing a wild game of chase, Nooka running flat out, sucking in her hind end and casting backward glances at Milan hot on her heels.
The instant I opened my mouth to yell “watch out,” Nooka’s paws connected with the thin skin of ice on our waterhole.
There was a crack and a splash as she briefly disappeared into a geyser of water and ice crystals. Her head and front paws immediately popped up again and she started to frantically paw at the ice. Milan, puzzled by this novel game strategy, wagged his tail uncertainly and began to bark at her. Quite possibly he was saying the same thing as I.
“Idiots,” I hollered as I ran towards them. They had not been allowed by the waterhole to avoid precisely the situation that Nooka now found herself in. The other reason was Milan’s unhappy habit to pee on just about any object that protruded more than a quarter inch from its surroundings – such as the axe we used to chop through the ice each day.
All these years, I had expected a caribou or moose to fall into this watery trap, if anything at all. And of course, the dogs beat them to it, just as no bear has ever messed with our compost or the chickens – just the dogs.
The waterhole does stand out, framed in by a build-up of snow and ice around its rim with a dome of snow on top. After getting water, we always let the hole freeze over lightly and then shovel snow on top as insulation. The waterhole had been in the freezing over stage of operation when Nooka came hurtling along.
Milan greeted my arrival with excitement, perhaps even glee: check this out, mom. I did. Nooka clung to the ice with her front paws and looked at me beseechingly, her fur plastered to her head. I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and under the chest, and gave a mighty heave.
It’s amazing how heavy a wet dog can be.
Her claws scrabbled against the ice and then she was out, all 70 waterlogged pounds of her. Shaking herself furiously, she transferred most of the remaining water from her fur to me, although my jacket had already served as a blotter when I pulled her out.
“Come on then, let’s get you inside to dry out,” I said and rubbed over my sleeves, which began to glaze over already. At 26 below, my wet jacket started to transform itself into an ice sculpture rather quickly. Beads of ice popped off and intricate crack like lines on a batik fabric spread through my new garment of ice when I moved. Good thing that it was not far to the cabin.
Milan pranced ahead after peeing on the waterhole axe, but I didn’t care at this point. From behind me came pitiful whimpering. I turned around and saw that Nooka was hunched over, taking dainty baby steps, and whining as she went. The tips of her long fur stood out in stiff, icy spikes.
“Well, come on,” I repeated and watched as she advanced two more steps, then stopped.
Did she hurt herself?
I crunched over to her, pieces of thin ice cracking on my clothes as I went, and felt her legs and ribs. Everything OK, apparently. Maybe it was the shock. She took another small step, hunched up her back even more, and whined. After looking her over again and coaxing her forward, it finally dawned on me that her long, half-frozen fur was the problem.
Nooka has always been sensitive to brushing and hair pulling, and now various strands of her guard hair were merging from different locations into spears of ice, tweaking her skin every time she moved. “It’s only getting worse if you don’t move fast,” I argued (why do we argue with dogs?). “Come on. Treats, yummy!”
She didn’t look too convinced, but at least she continued to follow me, tiny step by tiny whimpering step, until we got to the cabin.
My first attempt to towel-dry her was rebuffed by her iced-up fur.
Next I discovered a new disadvantage of zippers: they freeze solidly shut. As we positioned ourselves close to the wood stove and began to drip, I counted myself lucky to have learned these minor new things so close to home.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.