Three pale suns hang in the southern sky, its colour that of washed-out denim.
As I walk across the lake, my footsteps leave a dotted line in the snow and shades of blue and pearl-grey pool in each indentation. I’ve often wondered what the appeal of hallucinogenic drugs might be when the real world, and especially the North, is so richly endowed with surreal imagery.
The two sundogs that are bracketing the true sun each lean against their own blurred miniature rainbow, up above the mountain tops, and lure me on. Who could resist a trio of suns in the winter sky?
The lake offers easier walking to me now. Recent dumps of snow have made my forest trails impassable for the time being; I always keep a few routes open for walking without snowshoes, but this requires diligent trail maintenance. All it takes is a few heavy snowfalls in a matter of days, and I struggle get everything trampled down before it snows again.
Like the sun triplets, the frozen lake is not all it seems either. Telltale patches of grey dapple the snowed-in surface, indicating overflow: water under the snow, on top of the ice—a wet greeting from the depths.
If I fail to spot the greyish slush up ahead, the dogs’ body language is a give-away. Nooka in particular gets a most distasteful expression on her face. Her lips curl into squiggly lines, her ears flatten and with a tucked-up belly, she will grimly stalk through the overflow. I don’t like it either, that feeling of standing on Jell-O or suddenly losing all the resistance of snow underfoot and splashing into water. I usually have to fight down the irrational fear that the ice is not safe.
Winter seems like such a static time of the year and we didn’t really understand how dynamic and variable the land remains until we came to live on the water’s edge. In the first winter, we discovered, to our surprise, that the lake and its lid of ice do a great deal of moving. Although we had known in an abstract sort of way that water levels drop over the winter because no precipitation can enter the lake and glaciers don’t contribute much in terms of run-off to the watershed, the impact on us only became clear when our first waterhole on the lake went dry.
I’m not sure we even understood the proper reason at first; it seemed like the ice was getting so thick that it brushed the lake bottom. When the previously submerged rocks greeted our bucket instead of the expected water, we went and chopped a second hole, a bit further out on the lake. That one lasted until about mid-winter. Again, the rocks seemed to come closer and closer to the waterhole until there was hardly a drop to be had. By that time, the cause behind the increasingly elusive water supply was obvious.
As the lake’s water level continued to drop throughout the winter, the ice that floated on it kept dropping with it. This could only be accomplished by pulling the shore ice downward, cracking it here and there under the strain, so that it sloped down towards the lake in its winter incarnation at an ever steeper angle, finally resting on rocks and sand that are under water in the summer.
Sheepishly, we hacked a third waterhole that first winter, this one finally far out enough to keep us supplied until break-up, without the taunting rocks winking up at us.
As I return from my walk today, the sundogs at my back and my real dogs running ahead, I notice with chagrin that the overflow has now swamped this winter’s waterhole. Pushed up through cracks in the ice, the overflowing water sucks at the snow and all the accumulated dirt on the ice: chicken manure that stuck to my boots, dog poop and moose droppings. The water on the ice softens and spreads them all and their attendant bacteria with it, now possibly even into my waterhole—I give myself a boil water advisory.
In the cabin, the dogs click loudly across the floor with ice marbles on their toe nails, souvenirs from the water and slush on the seemingly snow-covered, frozen lake. It is not just the midnight sun that shines on strange things in the North, it is also in wintertime that not everything is what it seems.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who
lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.