Our big pile of dead branches and wood cut-offs is wearing a blanket of snow, thrown over it with gusto by the longest days of the year. Days at-risk, I call them, prone to causing trouble. Who cares for them, dark and secretive as they are, forever lagging behind their 360-something siblings?
We’re all focused on pretty solstice, who deals in darkness, too, but with the silver lining of light and hope shimmering behind her. Something the days before her wouldn’t know if it hit them in the head, I grumble, and shake the sticky snow off our bonfire pyre’s top layer.
That’s what you get for being too efficient. Usually, solstice finds us hectically scrounging for wood in the snow – a difficult enterprise since the deadfall we mentally marked months ago but were too lazy to put aside is long buried under the white stuff, and dead standing trees are firewood for the cabin, too precious to fritter away in a bonfire. Even if it is supposed to lure back the sun.
We’re a bit lax about the date as well – if solstice has fallen prey to the bad influence of the preceding days and throws a temperature tantrum or howls with blizzardly rage, we quietly move our celebrations closer to Christmas. Sacrifice by frostbite doesn’t appear to be required to lengthen the days again.
Sam drags a bunch of dead juniper branches over to the snowed-in bonfire pile, the wilderness version of fireworks. The dogs sniff around, the two older ones resigned to taking part in yet another demented people activity when out there, rabbit tracks are waiting to be explored and moose nuggets to be eaten on the sly. Only young Wilson with his passion for sticks seems to approve. He grabs one and waves it furiously, bucking and whacking himself on the back with it, ears and tail flying in all directions.
I wouldn’t mind whacking something, heartily sick as I am of being doled out only a meagre four and a half hours of direct sunshine (on those days where there are no clouds stuck in the southern sky, hiding the sun altogether). Even with the twilight of dawn and dusk added to it, it doesn’t leave much room for getting the chores done and going for a long walk. Before you know it, darkness already presses its unwanted attention against you.
“There,” I comment on my bonfire revival efforts and admire the now snow-free heap of branches, half wishing we could light it already. But a fire in plain daylight is a boring thing, the better part of its magic sucked out by its larger cousin, the sun. It’s the one thing that always disappoints me on summer camping trips when darkness is long-forgotten.
But there is something we can already do to get ourselves into the mood: our solstice concert with the dogs. We’re missing old Leshi’s unearthly soprano this year, and Wilson has proven himself to be a non-howler, but between Sam and I, Nooka and Milan, we still manage to rustle up a fairly decent performance.
“Ow ow hooo,” I start. Sam falls in, the dogs dancing excitedly around us. Finally, they seem to say, they stop their constant jabbering and actually talk. Milan, our canine choir boy version, sits at attention and clears his voice with a bit of whining before throwing back his head.
“Ow hooo,” he joins in, trying as always to harmonize with our voices. His lower lip sticks out by a good four centimetres, trembling with passion and effort. Nooka works herself into it by a series of barks, her head flying from side to side as if she has to shake the howls loose from somewhere deep inside, until finally: “Who hooo!”
We all have our mouths tipped up at the sky where dusk is slowly gathering. I put all the darkness and little frustrations of the year into my howl, setting them loose, letting them rise into the tail end of December, these days at-risk. Our concert echoes across the valley and collapses into laughter as always before we hush each other, listening for a response from the wolves.
But there is none. Instead, Wilson stops beating himself with his stick, wanders over to the bonfire pyre and lifts his leg. One way of showing the darkness out.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.