Millions of snowflakes rush at us – small, gritty ones, the kind that mean business. They’ve already swallowed up the mountains and reduced the forest to a grey-green smudge. Everything in the landscape is reduced to just itself by the storm, cut off from its surroundings by the curtains of driven snow.
Pelted by ice crystals, Sam and I labour on, our footsteps almost drowned out by the wind and the tiny explosions of snow against our jackets. We walk with our heads bent, toques and scarves meeting our sunglasses with hardly a sliver of exposed skin in between. Finally, we make it into the trees. The storm relents, absorbed by the forest.
Our dogs shake off their coats of snow and immediately get down to the important business of checking for fresh tracks. They sniff, hesitate and scan the snow. “Grouse or ptarmigan,” says Sam, pointing his chin at them. We come to small three-toed tracks leading to a deep hollow in the snow where the bird had huddled for warmth.
A single khaki-brownish dropping lies curved at the bottom, the imprint of wing feathers to the left and right of the little snow cave showing that its tenant left just a short while ago. Already the tracks are sprouting a fluffy covering of new snow.
The dogs keep craning their necks, trying to catch the scent of the bird on the air currents, when suddenly I see it – a ptarmigan, only a few metres off the trail. I nudge Sam. The bird, camouflaged into near invisibility, cranes its neck and daintily steps away from us, its beady eye locked on mine. We stare at each other for a matter of seconds, me in the cumbersome winter outfit I need to brave the cold, the inhabitant of an equally ungainly log cabin, and the bird, clad in its feathers and at home in the snow.
All of a sudden, the dogs clue in and Nooka dives off the trail after the ptarmigan. Half-heartedly, the white bird flutters into the air, only to land on the ground again metres away.
Perhaps it trusts its camouflage, or else it can tell the dogs are bumbling amateurs when it comes to hunting.
Nooka doesn’t disguise her intentions. Elated that, unlike a grouse, the ptarmigan didn’t disappear into a tree, she jumps towards it.
We watch as the dog, all brainless chase, flounders through the deep snow and the bird effortlessly sails on a bit further. It reminds me of the ways ravens like to tease dogs. After a few seconds, Sam calls Nooka off and we continue, the dog inordinately proud of herself for some reason.
I raise the ear flaps of my toque and pull down my scarf, hot in the relative wind shelter of the trees although their tips continue to sway in the blizzard. The sheets of snow that drive across the land are filtered here, have some of the bite taken out of them.
The dogs stop to chew off the ice that’s build up between their toes. Only two dogs now. Old Leshi has passed on to wherever it is that good dogs go after their life has been lived to the fullest. It feels like an amputation, this walking without her. She wouldn’t have minded this weather and would have been bored by the ptarmigan, bears being the animals she cared about – with rather too much passion. I smile at the memory of having to forcibly remove her a few times from underneath the tree that a bear took refuge in. Somewhere in the woods, asleep under deadfall and in caves, are the bears that may still remember her.
I like that idea, that the land carries its own memory of the animals and people who live here. How long will the ptarmigan waste a thought on us, two humans and two dogs passing by in the snow? Probably not for as long as a bear would have wondered at the politics between the dog who chased him up a tree and the human who dragged the dog away.
Tokens of Leshi, bits of hair that got caught over the years in rosehip bushes along the trail, mark our way, like so many furry prayer flags.
She’s here, and yet she’s not; like a landscape during a snowstorm.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.