A strange creature is staring at me. It is the only representative of its species in who knows how many square kilometres. In the same split second that I direct a tentative smile at it, it also smiles.
That’s me in the mirror, my face the bleached colour of winter feet and my hair lank and lifeless, bearing mute witness to the latest self-inflicted haircut.
Now over two months into my solitary wilderness winter, I catch myself looking into the mirror more often: the only place where I can see another life-sized human figure. And one that moves and talks, too. The rest of my species have long receded into unreal abstracts; tinny voices on the radio and phone, black letters on my computer screen.
It is on the days that I feel acutely aware of my status as a lone human in the woods that the land works its way deeper inside of me. Out in the woods, I notice tracks with chagrin. Coming upon the fresh signs of a moose but having just failed seeing the actual animal is a teasing disappointment. It is much like returning home and finding a message pinned to the door by a friend who had wanted to visit and whom you’ve missed only by a minute. The moose tracks led me to an oval indentation in the snow where the animal had bedded down, always a humbling sight. Oh, to be able to live on frozen twigs and sleep curled up in the snow!
Since the only semi-fresh food I have left now is some heads of cabbage, I’ve started eating the odd willow leaf bud on my walks. The taste is vaguely aspirin-like but at least it’s something fresh. Tired of my limited food supply and the resulting repetitious meals, some dinners have become a strange combination of cereal, canned peas and spoonfuls of Nutella. Though not on the same plate.
Until recently, there was a steady supply of eggs from the chickens. But an experiment with my wind-up led lantern that lights up the chicken coop at night has resulted in the end of this fresh food. Since only two of the five hens were producing eggs in the last months, I doubted the lantern was making much of a difference and decided to stop putting it into the coop, assuming the two valiant layers would keep on producing. Not so. Egg production ceased after about 10 days, proving the effectiveness of the lantern and making me feel rather stupid. I’m not sure the hens can be conned into immediately starting to lay again if I put the lantern back, so I’ll wait a couple more weeks.
On my evening walk with fresh water and feed for the chickens, I often pause and pay homage to the mountains that rim the lake. It is one of the few moments every day I have truly to myself, when I leave the dogs inside. Like a caress, I let my eyes fall and glide over every mountain top, ruffle through the dense forests until they slide off onto the smooth expanse of the frozen lake.
When night falls—now already a good hour later than at solstice—I am drawn outside, away from the cabin with its lamplight, fire and books. In the darkness, the stars pulsate and vibrate as we whirl though space, enthralled by our sun.
The engine drone of a jet plane announces fellow humans passing by. With the red signal lights flashing like a heartbeat, its crew and passengers become my unwitting neighbours for a minute or two. As the plane vanishes into the stars to the west, a great horned owl begins hooting on the other side of the lake. I can hear him only faintly, the hooting pattern revealing him as a male owl, but now there are intermittent cracks in the woods by the cabin. This indicates an evening moose on its way through. I catch my breath, standing very quietly, as the moose picks its way through the trees just a couple of hundred meters from me.
Finally, filled with the sounds and sights of the wilderness night, I go back inside, into my cumbersome human environment. The creature in the mirror has a more fulfilled and happier smile now, though the hair remains a sorry mess.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.