by Don Rearden
The Arctic sun that Christmas Eve sat an hour from dipping into the horizon as Rohn’s feet, numb from the cold, plodded through the waist deep snow. The spruce boughs that lined his path bent toward the deep snow-covered taiga. His breath rolled in heavy plumes from his mouth and the air crackled with each gasp.
Pushing through the thigh-deep snow had made his breathing heavy and he could feel a bead of sweat building itself upon his brow only to freeze against his forehead. He reached up to pull his fur hat down further, only to realize it wasn’t there. He cursed himself for foolishly leaving it back at the cabin earlier. He must have been too rushed as he loaded his gear to check the trap line and set a few new ones if he found tracks in the fresh snow.
When he stepped onto the lightly packed trail he blinked his frozen lashes in disbelief at what he saw sitting fifty yards up his trap line trail. The sight of Santa’s sled and eight reindeer wouldn’t have been any stranger. There, in the last light of day, sat a team of dogs, harnessed and facing down the trail with no one standing on the sled’s runners. The strange scene felt wrong, and he scanned the surrounding trees looking for movement, for any sign of life. This was his trap line, his trail—there shouldn’t be anyone on his trail, especially not on Christmas Eve.
Rohn’s eyes scoured the stand of twisted black spruce and dwarf birch. He couldn’t recall if he had set a snare beneath the largest of the spruce that sat a few yards off the trail. He’d never heard of trap line thieves in the area, and he wasn’t carrying his old lever-action Winchester or his .44 in a shoulder holster. He approached with caution. The last humans he’d seen had been two months earlier in Bethel, and he hadn’t prepared himself for such an encounter. The only words he’d spoken since were to his own team of dogs.
“Hey there!” he yelled, the sound of his own hoarse voice sounded distant, foreign.
The icy air kept the thin sound from travelling very far. It wavered a bit and he noticed a few of the dogs turn and look back at him. The leader stood up and wagged her tail lightly. The team appeared to have been sitting on the trail for a while; he could tell this from the small brown and black balls of fur that several of the dogs had turned themselves into to escape the blustery chill.
“Hey! Anyone here?” he asked.
This time his voice confident, cut through the cold and nearly echoed. The only reply, a still silence and the sound of his own labored breathing. The snow screeched in protest beneath his feet, as if he stood on a piece of Styrofoam as he shifted his weight and peered around, half expecting someone to come staggering out from the trees.
He inched closer to the team, watching carefully for tracks. Part of why he’d decided to try trapping for a winter alone was that he wanted to learn how to read the ground like book, how his father did, for him every impression in the snow a clear sign of who or what had passed by and when. Here the frosty ground sat pristine, the only marks were the two snake lines from the sled-runners and the obvious small round paw prints of the eight dogs.
He knew that the owner was out there somewhere in the cold and night had all but arrived. The temperature would drop another fifteen degrees, placing the evening chill at around -45, far too cold for a man to survive without the proper gear.
He pulled off his mitten and reached for his numb earlobe. He was surprised how rapidly the cold bit at his fingers and was even more surprised to find that both ears were very close to frozen. He could barely feel his fingers squeeze at the lobes. He cursed himself again for forgetting his hat, and decided to peer into the bag of the sled to see if the man had left one he could use. He would borrow it and return it with the dog team—which Rohn was sure he would have to do—but that was if he could find the guy before they both froze to death.
The cold snapped at his fingers as he pulled the sled bag open and fumbled about inside. He just needed something to cover his head. All he found was a pair of wool socks, similar to the extra socks he carried in his own sled. No one traveled that country without an extra pair or two. He tied the ends of the two socks together and pulled them over his head and ears like a headband. He knew that he might have already lost some skin, but “better a nipple than a whole damn tit,” he heard his father saying from the recesses of his memory.
He needed to get moving if he was going to find the man before dark. The scene behind him still had him frightened. The image of the dog team sitting alone on the trail haunted him. He couldn’t help but think that the man must be close by, as the dogs didn’t seem all that concerned at their own predicament. Had Rohn not happened to come down the trail, the dogs would most likely have froze to death, or worse with the several wolf packs that roamed the long wide valley.
The snow crunched beneath his feet as he staggered to the front of the team. It felt as though he’d lost some feeling in his toes, but he felt confident that he’d be warming them at the side of his stove in a couple hours if he could get the dogs back to their owner and hitch a ride to the cabin. The lead dog was friendly enough as he reached down and patted her between the ears; she greeted him with another wag of her tail and a few of the other dogs stood up as well.
“Up!” he grunted at the dogs through his frozen beard. The rest of the huskies leapt to their feet. They appeared to be ready to get moving down the trail towards home. He wondered if they were going to give him problems when he went to turn them around. He didn’t have to wonder long, as the lead dog, once it realized he was going to make them turn around, refused to move. He tugged on her harness and finally pulled her towards the sled. She whimpered and the rest of the dogs reluctantly followed.
When they were all turned around, he stumbled back to the sled and stepped onto the runners. “Hike!” he barked, nearly breathless at the energy spent moving the team and turning the sled. The leader looked back, almost apologetically, and headed down the trail, the other dogs followed and the sled runners began their familiar hiss.
He began to imagine the fear the other man must have felt. Anyone who ever ran dogs had fallen off the sled before, but Rohn had never been left too far behind. His leader was a good one and she’d never go too far without him. He placed himself in the boots of the other man, wondering what it must have felt like to watch his dogs run down the trail without him. In such cold, the outcome unthinkable.
He felt himself losing his footing on the runners, possibly from a large bump or hitting log in the trail, and slipping off—only to catch the handle with one hand numb from the cold and trying to hold on for dear life. He imagined himself being dragged down the trail, trying with all his strength to pull himself up onto the runners, knowing full well that to fall off and be left behind on a crisp clear night like this most certainly meant an unpleasant death.
The dogs trotted slow and seemed reluctant, but Rohn felt comfortable knowing that he probably wouldn’t have to walk any more. His legs were unusually tired from the long trek earlier to check his trap line. He cursed himself again for not putting his fur hat on and then cursed himself for snowshoeing the trap line on a day like this instead of taking his own dog team.
The trail began a long familiar meander around a small stream, winding itself around spruce and birch trees and thick alders. He’d often snowshoed across the stream to avoid having to take the longer trail route, but crossing the thin creek ice posed a danger. Taking the shortcut also meant pushing through deep snow and a frustrating wall of tangled alders and willows.
He watched the trail with a close eye, searching back and forth for marks or indications on the fresh powder of someone getting dragged or falling off the sled. He began to notice the long shadows forming down the trail from the last light of the sun. A strange new fear set in. There had been no tracks back when he found the team, but he might have missed something. He realized that the owner might have crawled deep down into the sled bag to sleep or warm up. He wasn’t sure if he’d looked closely enough inside. His heart felt as if it might burst from beneath his parka, which he’d opened slightly, as his body seemed to be growing warmer. His foot slammed against the snow brake between the runners as he tried to stop the dogs.
“Whoa!” he yelled. He took a rusty hook tied to the towline out from the sled and stamped it into the snow to keep the team from running off. The sled bag didn’t look like it had a man in it, but he wasn’t taking any chances. In the last fingers of light, he opened up the bag. The familiar gear of any outdoorsmen like himself lay within the sled: a lever-action Winchester, a pair of snowshoes, a lantern, a bundle of food, a frozen fox, and a couple freshly waxed traps.
There was no man inside, dead or alive. He breathed a deep sigh of relief.
With a heave, he pulled the hook free and had the dogs moving up the trail again. They did not appear eager to look for their owner, but he knew that if they didn’t look, no one would. He wondered what he would say when he rescued the man. Would the man be grateful? Would he want to stay for the night and play cards? They could make a holiday dinner. Or would he think Rohn was stealing his team and sled? These thoughts made him nervous as the sled slid smoothly down the trail, the runners hissing and slicing across the snow as he traveled.
He was deep in thought when he realized the dogs had stopped. Up ahead in the trail, he spotted a large impression in the snow. Rohn got off the sled again, but this time didn’t set the hook. The man’s dogs didn’t seem like they were interested in running away, at least not that direction down the trail. His feet felt much warmer, but he still stumbled past the dogs, almost drunkenly, to inspect the snow. The sun had set, but the clear sky allowed enough light for him to read the disturbed snow as if he’d been there to witness what happened. From the long boot strides leading up to the body sized hole in the trail, to the thin layer of crystals that had shot out from his body as he fell, the man had collapsed right there on the trail, but was now gone.
He again imagined the man falling from the back of the sled, being dragged, and then finally getting up and sprinting after the sled for as long as he could, only to fold in a heap of exhaustion. He glanced around and could see if the tracks in the snow told the rest of the tale. From the signs, just as his father had taught him, he could see in his head what took place, as if the man filled the very tracks in front of him. He could picture the man as he scrambled to his feet, brushed himself off, and left the trail, either to build a shelter and fire, or perhaps worse, because he had already become too delirious from the cold.
The sky, now dark, offered Rohn just enough light to inspect the man’s tracks. From the footprints, he guessed the man was about the same height and weight as himself. He pondered lighting the lantern inside the sled, but decided that the bright light would only make it harder to see beyond the arc of light cast from the hissing globe. He also wondered if he shouldn’t put on the snowshoes that were in the sled, but he didn’t know how far off the trail he would have to go to find the man.
Rohn began to feel foolish, he hadn’t even called out to see if anyone was nearby. His voice cut the icy night’s silence, “Hey! Are you out there? I’ve got your dogs here!” His voice sounded much weaker than before, but he knew someone close by would hear. The lead dog cocked her ears curiously at him, tilted her head back and let a mournful howl echo into the crisp winter night.
He stepped off the packed trail into the waist-deep snow and began following the tracks. The bitter cold didn’t seem as harsh as it had before and he wondered if the weather wasn’t beginning to break. The deep snow was tough going but the man had ploughed himself a path through it and Rohn followed. He glanced back at the dogs as the tracks headed down a small slope towards the creek. The lead dog slumped down to the ground to nestle into the snow. He thought he heard her give a soft whimper as he focused on the man’s tracks.
The path through the snow seemed direct, as though the man knew the country. This set him on edge. He realized that from the man’s progress in the snow he had no plans of building a fire or shelter. This man was headed somewhere, making him wonder who the man was and what he was doing in the area. Perhaps there was an abandoned cabin around that he wasn’t familiar with, but he thought he knew every creek, game trail, and shortcut along his trap line.
The tracks dipped down the bank and to the creek. Rohn hesitated. He didn’t want to follow the prints across because to fall into water in these conditions meant losing a toe or two, or worse, and he was just starting to really warm up. He guessed that the exertion in the deep snow was helping him get comfortable, though the clouds that rolled from his mouth indicated that temperature might have become even colder than before.
The tracks appeared to cross the creek without any signs of weak ice, but he wasn’t going to take such chances. He knew a safer spot just down the creek a bit and chose to cross there. Five minutes later, he realized that the place the man had crossed was the safe spot, but he didn’t have the energy to backtrack, so he decided on the narrowest point in the channel.
He’d nearly made it to the other side when the ice began to crack. He froze, searching for the nearest branch or stick to grab. The ice broke and suddenly he was in boiling black, waist deep water. Frantic, he dove forward, the very last of the feeling going out of his feet as he pushed against the loose gravel of the streambed and propelled himself up onto the ice. He crawled forward, pulling and clawing with his mitten-covered hands, the frigid liquid soaking into every pore in his body from his belt down. His Gore-Tex pants instantly began to freeze.
Rohn pulled himself from the creek bed. Now he had to find the man. Now his only hope was that the man had built a shelter or started a fire nearby. He had a flint in his pocket for ignition, but the miserable cold would make getting a fire lit tough. He actually felt warm enough to go a bit further, knowing that to find the man meant getting back to the dogs and his cabin.
By the time he’d gotten back to the musher’s tracks, Rohn’s pants were crackling with each lumbering footstep. The frozen pant legs made it harder and harder for him to walk. He couldn’t keep from thinking about his warm cabin and the only thought that kept him going was the idea that the man with the dog team probably needed help. Again he imagined himself in the man’s predicament. He undoubtedly would have built himself a fire by now; no one in his right mind would trample through snow like this without stopping to build a fire and warm himself. Trudging through deep snow at such cold temperatures would likely make a man break a heavy sweat and Rohn had been taught from childhood that heavy sweats could bring death at forty some below.
He hoped that the poor bastard would be okay. He didn’t want to find the first human he’d seen in months, dead. Dead on Christmas Eve. He realized he actually missed talking and joking a bit with others and for a second even pondered maybe leaving the trap line a bit early in the spring to make the trek to Anchorage for some real nightlife. He imagined just how sweet a glass of eggnog with brandy on ice sounded despite his frozen ears and feet, his icicle beard, and frosted eyelashes. Just the thought of the eggnog warmed him more and he continued to follow the man’s trail, taking slow lumbering steps on feet that felt more and more like two big blocks of ice.
A pale moon crept across the clear night sky and wisps of the shimmering aurora began to slither here and there—as if dancing just out of reach of the moon—and he stopped for a moment and watched as he caught his breath. He’d grown up with the stories of the aurora, told they were spirits and to be careful in their presence, to never whistle at night when they danced or they might come and get him. His lips were too frozen to whistle anyway.
He turned his eyes back on the trail and to the tracks of the man, but they no longer seemed quite as focused as he had noticed before. The boot holes in the snow zigzagged here and there. The tracks indicated that the man was obviously beginning to succumb to the horrible cold.
Then he spotted it. Beneath a large spruce tree, sat something dark in the trampled snow. For a moment a strange sort of fear paralyzed him. He imagined the man lying there, curled in the snow, with only his head exposed and the rest of his body hidden beneath a blanket of white. He raced forward and relief swept over him. A hat. The man’s brown beaver fur hat.
He pictured the man taking it off after sweating profusely from all the walking in the snow. The man must have accidentally dropped it, or simply forgot it here, delirious from the cold. Either way, Rohn decided he would put it on and was surprised when he couldn’t get it to fit. Then he realized he still had the wool socks tied around his head. With a sharp tug he pulled at the socks. They made a tearing noise as the wool frozen to the flesh from sweat ripped small pieces of frosted skin away from his forehead and ears. He felt the sharp burn for only a flash though, as the new emotion of terror surged through his frozen body.
He looked closely at the fur hat.
Rohn let out a small cry of disbelief and toppled into the snow. He clutched the fur hat to his chest. After a moment he struggled to his feet and began to run with long frantic strides despite his frozen limbs and face. He gasped at the frigid air and each gasp became more and more of a sob. Thirty feet from where he had found the hat he broke into a clearing and stumbled onto the lightly packed trail.
It took him only one glance to understand that it was a horrible trap.
The tracks told the whole tale, and he could see in his mind what had happened, just as his father said he would be able to do when the tracks revealed themselves to him. He could see a dog team and a man turning the team around in the middle of the trail. He looked down at the fur hat in his hand in disbelief. He looked again at the boot tracks in the snow, his boot tracks, and pictured the dog team, his team, sitting back down the trail, alone, and waiting.
Rohn stared at his fur hat. The entire situation coalesced in his mind. The evil games that hypothermia played on the human mind. He’d always thought he would be tough enough to know, to not get that cold, or smart enough to recognize the delirium.
He needed to settle down into the snow to rest for a while. The run through the snow had warmed him, but he knew better. His mind told him everything would be fine, but now he knew it wouldn’t be, it couldn’t be. He laid his back on the trail and looked towards the night sky. He could just rest a while and then hike back down the trail to his team, but he knew he’d never make it.
The northern lights pulsed a brilliant green and red, brighter than he’d ever seen them before. He could feel his body warming from their glow, almost as if the aurora was a woman, holding her hands to his face, pressing her body against him. The warmth spread through his cheeks and down into his neck. The brilliant colors swirled and twisted and Rohn removed his mittens and stretched his arms out towards their warmth. As soon as his fingers felt their burn the lights winked out. Rohn’s eyes scanned the black night sky.
He knew better. Aurora was no woman. They had no warmth. He was going to die there. Tricked by the cold. Fooled by his own tracks, his own hubris. His only true hope rested with the dogs and they were at least a mile away if he took the trail. Only a miracle would save him at these temperatures. His frozen beard and stiff face couldn’t even allow him to smile at the thought it would have to be a Christmas miracle that would save him. He had little hope in miracles.
He couldn’t believe this was how it was going to end for him. A chance accident in the wilderness. Alone. He’d often wondered how he would die. Not like this. Not tricked by a cold delirium.
Then he heard a distant howl.
It was his leader. They would die out there, too. He couldn’t remember if he’d set the hook. Had he? If he had they would die right there, either from the cold or from the wolves. Unless they could chew through their lines. Even if he hadn’t set the hook, the odds were the sled would get caught up on a black spruce or alder and they would become all entangled and freeze or starve to death. He couldn’t let them die like that.
He pulled on his mittens and rolled to his knees. He struggled to balance on his two frozen feet. He realized he dropped the beaver hat, so picked it up and pulled it on and right away started to feel the tops of his ears burning. That was good pain, he told himself. It meant he was still alive, and it meant he wasn’t too far gone.
“Kianna! Kianna!” he yelled. With the last of his energy he called for her. He screamed for her again and again. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. He yelled for her over and over until he had no voice left. He pursed his cold lips to try to whistle for her, but decided against it.
He started down the trail at a trot, but he knew he couldn’t even be sure he was running because he couldn’t feel his feet. He kept calling for the dogs, but his voice had become hoarse, his lips and beard too frozen.
Up ahead on the trail, movement caught his eye. For a fraction of a second they were wolves, slashing through the forest out as a pack. Hunting. Then they turned, and were coming, towards him, running hard, and behind them, a toppled sled. His sled.
Rohn fell to his knees as they sped towards him and he scooped his leader into his arms. He hugged her and she licked at his frozen face. “Kianna, girl! Good girl!” he cried. He hugged her again and hobbled down the entire line of dogs patting them and thanking them. He flipped the sled upright, clawed the bag of the sled open with his frozen hands and climbed inside. “Home, Kianna!” he yelled. “Hike! Hike!”
As the team neared his cabin and he planned how he might deal with the possibility of a lost toe or two, he thought of something else, too. He wondered what someone would have thought if they came across his team of dogs sitting in the cold still of a Christmas Eve night with no one around.
Rohn looked up and thick ribbons of red and green floated across the sky filling him with hope and somehow, as he watched, like the two tracks of a dogsled in the snow, they came alive, and with the aurora’s dance across the night sky, he knew he wasn’t alone.
* * *
AUTHOR’S NOTE: My cousin, Rich Gannon, now a web-designer and reformed dog musher and race manager, once suggested to me late one night after a few beers how scary it would be in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness to encounter a dog team with no owner. I agreed with him, and that idea haunted me for a while. When you think you are alone in the Alaskan wilderness there is nothing scarier than a chance encounter with signs you aren’t alone. I know this from personal experience. A few simple impressions in the snow or mud can set your mind reeling. Who is it? Why are the tracks there? Will the man who left them know you? What if he needs help? What if he’s dangerous? The only thing scarier than this situation is being alone in the wilderness and needing help and knowing there is no one but yourself to save you. That situation I know all too well having spent a good majority of my life in the Alaskan wilderness, and more than once just barely returning alive. The image of the dogs pulling a sled with no musher never quite left my mind. The scenario played out in my head for some time and eventually turned into this story. - DR
Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska. His experiences with the Yup’ik Eskimo culture shaped both his writing and to a larger extent his worldview. A produced screenwriter and published poet, he hopes in his fiction to shed light on the struggles of everyday life in rural Alaska, a place outsiders often view as a mystical and mysterious land. Rearden lives in the mountain community of Bear Valley, Alaska, and teaches as an Associate Professor Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage where he shows young writers how to develop their creative voices. Don also serves as the president of the board of directors for the 49 Alaska Writers and is faculty for the 2012 Kachemak Bay Writing Conference. Much of his writing and thought is influenced from learning experiences in the Alaskan wilderness, as well as from the teachings and writings of his mentor and friend, Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and The Story of B.
COMING SOON: Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift will be published in Summer 2013 by Penguin, and The Rogue Reader will publish Don’s new Alaskan thriller later in the year. Find more from Don and sign up for exclusive content from The Rogue Reader here. And connect with Don on Twitter @donrearden and on Facebook.com/TheRogueReader