They look strangely spider-like as they cross the lake, cow moose and calf, blurring at times into one dark, long body with an impossible multitude of skinny legs moving underneath. An instant later, they separate into two distinct shapes again, the calf running ahead of slow old mom. The wet slush sucks noisily at their hooves, gets churned into welts of white ice crystals that outline their tracks while the indentation fills with water.
I’ve been eyeing the ice suspiciously, its colour shading from white patches to slate grey to an ominous dark blue-green. Layers of air bubbles are enclosed in it as if somebody lost a string of pearls while the odd leaf, splinter of wood and dog poop has melted into it, got topped up with water and froze over again to hang suspended in the ice like meat and spices in aspic.
Along shore, pools of meltwater ripple against the steeply angled shore ice with the promise of open water to come. Dark gashes and holes gape here and there in the soft ice that holds the puddles, the lake still caught under its winter blanket peering out.
Getting water this time of the year involves sliding gingerly over the slick surface in the early morning to our waterhole while the ice still retains a crust, and then scrabbling up the steep slippery shore ice with full buckets. Any later in the day and my feet sink into five centimetres of slush – a feeling I don’t relish after unexpectedly breaking in with one leg last spring.
Gleefully, Sam and I now pull on hiking boots for our walks instead of the cumbersome winter gumboots that we’ve been wearing for the better part of the last six months. The forest and its understorey that we haven’t seen since late last fall have finally melted out enough to make for easy walking. Or walking that should be easy – after half a year of not watching my footing much because everything was covered in snow, I find that I have become clumsy. Branches, thorns and fallen logs seem to grab at me everywhere I step, slippery rocks and unexpected stones wanting to trip me. Winter walking is so similar to having a proper trail, a road to walk on, that the forest suddenly feels tangled.
It’s a feeling that our old dog seems to share. Disgruntled, she lurches through thickets of wild roses, gets stuck in a mess of fallen branches and slides off rock outcrops, stopping all the while to telepathically transmit her question to us: “Can we go home now?” I grin back at her, careful not to stumble over an exposed root, and cheer her on. Drunk on the intoxicating air of spring, buzzing bees and hummingbirds, the novel smell of dank earth, we wobble onward, ungainly creatures of the woods.
On the secret meadow where the crocuses always grow first, the going is easier. Sam and I fan out to scour the hillside for hairy, fluffy buds, only to discover a few clusters of already blooming crocuses. Like children, we kneel in front of the dark purple petals, the cheerful yellow pistils smiling at the sun. In all the drab green and brown, the little splashes of colour shout out defiance, announce the summer to come. I run my fingertip over the silky petals, savouring how soft purple can feel. The dogs of course are disappointed in us, as always – stupid humans, sniffing at boring plants, instead of pointing out delectable caribou droppings or at least a vole nest. With doubtful glances at us, they investigate the crocuses as second time, then wander off in pursuit of tastier findings.
On our way back, we notice a large rock that has recently been moved. The tiny canyons and tunnels of ants and other insects stare up at us in moist dark brown. A bear, we guess, and the dogs do follow a scent from the rock through the bare shrubs for a while. Tails down, though, so it couldn’t be all that fresh.
Back at the cabin at night, we keep an eye out for animal traffic on the soggy lake ice. That’s when we see the two moose, the long legs almost with lives of their own, morphing from moose into a spider back into two moose. The season of transformations has begun.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon
River south of Whitehorse.