20 July, 2014

20 July 2014

Many years, spring comes slowly to the high country, slowly, and late.  Others it arrives in a great rush, warm winds bringing down the snowpack virtually overnight and rocks beginning to emerge, patches of ground bared of their cover to greet the sun, brown, vegetation flattened, crisscrossed with fine white networks of snow fungus that looked like the oversized webs of great spiders.  Green was never far behind, plants anxious to send forth new shoots to the sunshine, blossom, drop their seed and begin storing away energy for the following winter, which was never long in coming.

That spring was to be one of the latter, the riot which marks the changing of the seasons following on the heels of a brief snow squall and bringing with it precipitous changes which would muddy the ground and send snowmelt roaring down from the heights to fill creeks and muddy larger streams, rivers choked with rolling rocks and shattered trees. 

*  *  *

There was to be no second trip to the elk that night, for Einar did not stir from his spot by the fire and Liz had no intention of trying to wake him.  Was glad to see him resting after what she knew must have been a tremendously trying journey through the rotten snow, and the night, besides, was sounding increasingly stormy outside the shelter, wind wailing through the trees.  Not a night on which she looked forward to traveling with Will, the three of them likely as not ending up lost and floundering in whatever storm seemed to be on its way.  Morning would come, and with it, plenty of opportunity to return for the rest of that elk.  Meanwhile Einar, fast asleep by the fire and slumped over now so that he was lying nearly flat on the floor, seemed not to be warming much at all, shivering and looking so drained of color that she found herself wondering whether she had mistaken unconsciousness for sleep.

Hoping to hasten the warming process she slid beneath the spread-out parka and lay down behind him, fire on one side and she on the other, hoping it would be enough.  He felt like ice.  The shirt he’d been wearing beneath his parka was basically dry but she could feel the cold radiating through it as if coming from inside of him.  She got her arms around his sharp shoulders, tried to rub some warmth into them but with seemingly little effect.  Wished he had been able to stay awake long enough to consume more of the sweetened tea she’d made and eat some liver, for without this additional energy his body was seeming quite incapable of warming itself.  Couldn’t be helping, she realized, that he was still in his snow-crusted boots, which had begun to thaw and become quite damp.  She remedied the situation, checking his feet and wishing the light were a bit less uncertain so she could be sure whether the discoloration she was seeing could meant frostbite, or might simply represent the normal color of his feet and toes, which those days was a decided shade of mottled purple.

Frostbite, she was pretty sure, though between his boots and the fact that the day had not really been terribly cold, there seemed reason to hope it would be mild.  In any case his remaining toes—this is one situation where it might actually be advantageous for a person to have fewer toes, she told herself.  Not as many left to freeze—weren’t waxy and frozen, and needed no immediate attention besides the dry socks she was about to give them.  Having done all she could really do for the moment Liz checked on the still-sleeping Will before adding another log to the fire, wrapped cloth around a warm rock from the fire ring, pressed it to Einar’s chest and went to sleep beside him, satisfied that he would continue warming.

Einar was not nearly so satisfied with this arrangement as Liz, dimly aware of the passage of time and struggling mightily in his dreams to bring himself back to wakefulness, to motion, but to no avail.  Needed to go after that meat, had meant to stop at the shelter for no more time than it took to explain the situation to Liz and prepare little Will for the journey, and then he was to be off again, all three of them hopefully, but if Liz had not been able or willing to come that night, he’d been quite prepared to make a second trip on his own… 

Was still willing.  If only he could move.  Tried to tell her, to find some words with which to plead for a kick in the side of the head, a bucket of ice water, anything that might get his rather uncooperative body going again, but he found the words no more compliant than his wooden, disconnected limbs, objects rather beyond his rapidly shrinking sphere of influence.  Soon, struggling as he was to hold on, even that most persistent of thoughts faded, vanished, swallowed in darkness.  Dreams, then.  Only dreams were left him, and when he woke what after what seemed a very long time it was with some confusion, for the air that met him was soft and warm, and he was sure spring must have come.

14 July, 2014

14 July 2014

When finally Einar began recognizing with certainty the terrain around and before him, the night had mostly passed.  Through the dark hours he had done his best to follow the trail of the elk and then, starlight blotted out by a bank of clouds that rolled through, to find remnants of his own trail from early that morning, not so easy to do, as he had hardly been breaking through the crust.  Now, despite the night being advanced, he did break through, clouds serving to halt the typical temperature drop which had still over the past several days been serving to solidify the softened surface and form a crust on which travel was practical.  This lack of a solid surface over which to move had not only slowed his progress, especially burdened as he was with the heavy elk quarter, but had sent him at times into heavier timber as he sought a route which would more thoroughly conceal his trail from the air.  Knew he had to be leaving more sign than he had done that morning while covering similar ground, both because of the unstable crust and his own far greater weight, now that he was lugging the elk meat. 

Falling.   Did not want to keep falling—just made a bigger mess of the crust when he did that, left more sign—but couldn’t seem to stop himself.  Leg would just give out at random, refuse to support his weight and down he would go before he knew it was happening, pinned, more often than not, beneath what was beginning to seem the impossibly heavy burden of that elk quarter.  Couldn’t raise himself to standing with that thing on top of him.  Not anymore.  Had to slither out from beneath the thing, haul himself to his feet and then do his best to somehow get the load back up onto a shoulder, ready to move forward again.

The basin.  Hardly recognized it at first, starlight gone and the night dark, but a faint whiff of old smoke confirmed what the changing terrain had suggested; he was almost home.  This realization giving Einar a sudden surge of energy he moved forward at a better pace, hanging on with both hands to the loop of cord which he had tied round the elk’s hind foot and standing up a good deal straighter under the heavy load than he had found himself able to do for some hours.  Had no intention of crawling into camp, not if he could help it.

Shelter in sight, bulking black and welcoming in the first dim light of the coming dawn, and Liz heard movement in the snow, rushed out to meet him.  Hurrying to join Liz Einar went to his knees when the crust gave way, elk quarter shifting on his shoulder and putting him off balance so that he fell face first into a drift and Liz had to help him out from beneath his burden before he could rise again.  Together they carried the quarter inside, Einar bracing himself so as to prevent his right leg going out from under him again and Liz bringing the fire back to life as soon as they were inside so they would have some light by which to see.

Einar had not been particularly aware of the cold on his nightlong journey, but now in the relative warmth of the shelter he shivered, standing all stiff-legged and wide-eyed with hands braced against the beams to prevent him falling again as he stared at Liz, at the elk quarter, and tried to remember what he had been intending to say.  Right.  Rest of the elk.  They had to go after the rest of the elk.  He’d meant to have the job done before the night went too far, and here it was nearly dawn.  Liz was saying something, animated speech whose tone made him smile even as the words swam around him like ephemeral insects and were gone, impossible to grasp, and he focused on her, watched her face as she spoke but could not seem to make sense of her speech.  Shelter going black around him, a sudden hissing in his head, and he was going down.

Crouching on the floor, fire flaring before him, and he could feel its warmth.  Liz still trying to tell him something.  Instructions, this time.  He could tell by her tone.  Seemed she wanted him nearer the fire, and he tried to do it, but his body wouldn’t respond.  Better stay where he was.  She asked him something about the elk, and he smiled in response.  Yes, the elk.  Got to go back for the rest of it…   She did not respond.  Had to tell her.  With words.

“It’s a big elk. We…  I couldn’t carry the whole thing.  We need to go back.”

“We will go back.   Looks like a good-sized elk, for sure!  You take a break, have some of this tea and then we’ll go back.”

“Ate some liver up there.  I’m good.  Ready to go now.”

“I’m glad you ate liver up there!  Is this the rest of it, here in your pack?”

“Yes.  Didn’t want to leave it. Tried to slip away down the mountain, get away.”

“Slip away down the mountain?  Hmm.  Sneaky liver.”

Einar laughed, realizing how it must have sounded to her, but lacking the eloquence just then to correct his statement.  Liz was easing the liver from his pack, setting it in a pile of snow to stay cool.  “I’ll come help you take care of the rest of the meat, but I want to have some quick breakfast first, and this fresh liver seems like just the thing.  I’ll fix you some more, too.”

All the while she had been speaking, Liz had been working over the fire, stirring something into a pot of steaming snow-water, and now she pressed the pot into Einar’s hands, insisting that he drink.  Heat of the pot hurt his hands, blood just beginning to return after his night in the cold, but he couldn’t figure out what to do about this, so did nothing.  Sleepy.  Now that he was off his feet, keeping awake became a nearly impossible task, and Einar found himself nodding over his tea—or whatever it was that sent warm, sweet-smelling steam rising around him from that pot—and quite forgetting to try drinking any of the stuff.  Liz did not let him forget for long, holding the pot up so he could have a sip and then returning it to him when the sweet liquid revived him sufficiently that he could manage on his own. 

“Good stuff, Liz.  What is this?  Some kind of tea, you said?”

“It’s just honey and rosehips in hot water.  Have some more.  It’ll help you get warm.  Here.  Some liver to go with it.”

Einar tried to eat the liver, got a slice into his mouth despite shaking hands but couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with it then, so he just sat there staring into the fire with half closed eyes and listening to the pleasant little sounds of Liz preparing her own breakfast, Will’s sleeping breaths and an increasingly gusty wind outside in the spruces.  Storm coming.  Spring storm.  Good thing.  Would keep scavengers out of the meat until…

Einar fast asleep against the shelter wall and showing no sign of moving, Liz draped her parka over him for warmth, added a stick to the fire.

10 July, 2014

10 July 2014

Work was difficult there in the rotten snow of that steep slope, Einar struggling to keep the downed elk from inching its way even further down the side of the ridge as he began cleaning it.  Lasso rope around the antler provided at least a partial solution, he cinching it up tight around the aspen he’d used to trap the fleeing creature, tying it in place to prevent further slipping.  This arrangement, though securing the elk, itself, did nothing to prevent Einar slipping as he worked, no purchase for his feet now that the crust had all been bashed and broken by the struggle, and he kept falling, once sliding several feet down the ridge before catching himself, thoroughly winded and choking on the dryness in his own throat.  More snow.  Scooped it into his mouth, stood swaying and shivering as he waited for the stuff to start melting and providing him some moisture.  Ok.  Better.  Back to work.

Got the animal gutted, gravity helping after he’d made the cut, helping so much, in fact, that he nearly ended up having to chase the animal’s liver down the slope after it began slipping from the spot where he’d set it to cool in the snow.  Managed to prevent it going too far, securing it on the uphill side of a tree and returning to his work. Animal gutted, Einar wanted to go on with the skinning, keep going, as he always did, until the entire job was done, but instead he stopped, considered for a moment and took a seat on the elk’s stillwarm shoulder, cutting a large slice from the liver.  Chopping this into small squares with his knife, Einar ate it bite by bite until it was gone.  Not his usual course of action, but probably, he realized, a very good idea under the circumstances.  The iron in the liver gave him strength, an amazing feeling of well-being which told him just how far behind he must have been on all such nutrients, but at the same time the food left him feeling unbelievably, inexorably sleepy, barely able to keep his eyes open.   Knew he must finish the job, had hours of work left before he could even think about going home and sleeping, and he knew what to do.  Knelt in the snow, scrubbed his face with a double handful of the hard, icy stuff until he was confident in is ability to remain sufficiently wakeful.

Once the fairly arduous task of skinning out the elk had been completed—not the neatest job he’d ever done of it, but more than satisfactory under the conditions—Einar began thinking about what he might be able to haul home on the first trip, and how best to accomplish this.  Not wanting to leave the liver subject to possible scavenging by passing crows and ravens and lacking a good means to prevent this, he settled on hauling it in his pack, while carrying one of the animal’s hind quarters over his shoulder.  Or attempting to carry, as the case might be, for as soon as he rose with the quarter his right leg—the one he’d injured in the hard landing after being dropped out of Roger Kiesl’s plane—collapsed under him, spilling him, and his cargo, in the snow.

Nearly impossible to rise again with the elk quarter on his shoulder, rotten snow crumbling and collapsing beneath his every attempt, and at last Einar was forced to set it aside, extricate himself from the hole thus created and drag the meat out after him.  Well. Might have to rethink the sort of load he would be carrying. Or perhaps simply rethink his method of carrying.  Dragging might well work better, take some of the strain off his troublesome leg and spread out the weight so that he might not fall through the crust quite as often.  A plan. Not time to head out just yet, though.  Must first do his best to secure the remainder of the carcass against any scavenger that might pass by before he and Liz could return for the second load.

Using the lasso cord he secured the second quarter, threw the line over a high branch and attempted to raise the meat up off the ground.  Not an easy task and he couldn’t seem to get it very far because—the fact surprising him, as it did every time he was reminded of his own diminished physical existence—its weight was so much greater than his own.  After much struggling and straining Einar did manage to raise the quarter some distance from the ground, quickly tying the cord and moving on.  Not enough cord to raise everything off the ground, and in the end he had to leave some of the meat right where it had fallen.  Not a terrible thing, he told himself, seeing as there had been little sign of sizable predators in the area who might come along and decimate the remaining bits of the carcass in his absence.  Though hating to leave things in such a state he knew he couldn’t be all that far from the shelter, really, and was hopeful that with Liz’s help they could still get all the meat hauled in before nightfall—or at least more thoroughly secured against scavengers.

Dusk already, Einar realized as he raised weary eyes to the horizon. So that might not be happening, the bit about securing all the meat before nightfall.  No matter.  Elk was down, he’d got his quarter ready to transport and now must get back to Liz, let her know the good news.  He got to his feet, grinned fierce defiance at a wave of weakness that wanted to knock him back off them again, and set out for the ridge’s nearby crest.  Up, over and down, and he would be home.

Dusk fading into darkness, and Einar’s plan was not working.  Temperatures had not yet fallen sufficiently to begin firming up the crust, leaving him to break through with every step in an agonizing series of repeated motions which served only to further aggravate his injured leg and exhaust any energy he might have gained from eating the liver.  Long before reaching the ridge’s crest, he knew his plan was not going to be particularly successful. Sure, he’d make it sooner or later, but with night coming and the rest of the meat to think about, he turned back, got himself into the elk’s old trail and began following this, movement still far from easy while packing twenty five pounds of liver on his back and hauling significantly more weight behind him, but at least he was making slightly faster progress.

Darkness at the shelter.  Liz had wanted to set out searching for Einar hours ago, when first she realized that he’d been gone longer than for a typical trapline run, but by then the sun had already been on the snow for some time, and she had known it was not wise for both of them to be out making great, deep tracks in the rotten snow.  Much as she hated to admit it—not from any sense of vanity on her part, but because of it’s implications for Einar—she was also aware that she, especially while toting Will, would leave rather a deeper mark than would he.  Best to stick close to the shelter and await his return.  Not easy to do, especially as morning turned to afternoon and still she’d heard nothing from him.  No sense worrying, and she had kept herself busy around the shelter, tidying up, collecting and splitting firewood and keeping Will entertained and out of trouble, which was itself an increasingly demanding job, lively and mobile as the little one had become.

Now, last of the light fading and no sound outside save the sighing of the wind in the firs, she questioned her decision to wait, knowing Einar had to be in some sort of trouble out there and well aware that, as he had departed early in the morning when the crust was still firm, she had little hope of tracking him to wherever his journey had ended for the day, even should she decide to make the attempt

06 July, 2014

6 July 2014

Both creatures—the two-footed and the four—were rapidly nearing exhaustion as they worked their way higher up the ridge, elk increasingly struggling to make headway through the drifts and Einar picking his way gingerly along behind, not wanting to allow the animal out of his sight but half afraid to move lest he fall through the crust again and find himself even further slowed as he thrashed his way out of the quagmire.  Wasn’t entirely sure he could do it again, or that he would have anything left with which to continue the chase if he did manage such a feat, and did not want to test the matter. Elk was still moving pretty well though, one hoof after the other as it broke trail through the crust, and he knew he would lose it if he stopped the active pursuit, allowed it time to rest and regain its strength.  Onward, pursuing, breath coming with a harsh, metallic-tasting rasp and air burning in his lungs, not seeming to contain much oxygen, not nearly enough, but he was beyond heeding, beyond caring, entire focus on that elk and on closing the distance.

Ridge crest.  World spreading away beneath him on both sides, colors deep, vivid, timber-detail sharp before his eyes, every needle defined and air crackling with life as he moved through it.   Blood singing in his ears, feet moving of their own accord, and he could go on forever.  Good thing, for the elk was still moving, gaining ground.  Faster.  Feet falling through with each step, stumbling, and he realized he’d drifted over into the damaged snow of the elk’s trail, steered himself to one side where the crust would still support him. Most of the time.  

Fell hard as the surface gave way, shins bruised against the hard, icy crust-edge, bleeding.  Blood in the snow.  His, and the elk’s.  Could hear it breathing not far ahead.   Panting.  His own blood hissing in his ears, no longer singing now but roaring, drowning out all other sounds.  He could feel the blackness near.  Nearing.  Gaining ground faster than he was gaining on the laboring animal.  Tried to breathe it away, but his lungs were already at capacity.  Doing all they could do.  Keep moving, and he did.  Closed his eyes and went on.  Bile at the back of his throat.  Chest tight, hurting.  Couldn’t get a breath.  Kept moving.

Silence.  The elk was down, Einar on his knees in the snow.  Fifty yards.  Seemed close enough to touch, thick hair of its neck glinting red-brown in the sun, but he only had thirty feet of rope, and that was not counting the lasso coil.  On his feet.  Animal not moving, not until it caught a glimpse of his motion out of the corner of its eye and then the chase was on again, everything in slow motion, neither man nor beast possessing the energy or the wind for fast movements.  Terrain changing.  Leveling out.  Snow worse up there, more rotten for the angle at which the sun had been hitting, no longer sound enough to support even Einar’s modest weight.  Elk went down, he went down and then he was crawling, scooting forward on hands and knees and hips in an attempt to stay atop the uncertain surface, but the elk could not crawl, and Einar at last closed the gap.

Could have simply crept  up to the animal, but he did not dare.  Knew he didn’t have another sprint in him, should it somehow manage to gain its feet once more and take off.  Parachute cord lasso in hand  he stood, swung, got a rhythm going and lost it, tried again.  Success.  Caught the upper two points on the animal’s left antler, elk jerking, pulling, rising, desperation giving it the strength to run.  Einar was desperate too, cord behind his back and wrapped several times around his left arm as he hung on, leaning back, digging into the snow, stumbling forward before regaining his footing.  Feeling his own strength failing as he fought, he knew he must end this thing in a hurry if he wanted much chance of living through it, much less bringing home that elk…

Animal fighting him, making for a stand of aspens, and in doing so, making its last and fatal mistake.  Allowing himself to be dragged forward without resistance, running to keep up until they reached the trees, Einar threw himself around the trunk of a fair-sized aspen, snubbing the elk up short and quickly giving the cord another quick wrap before the animal could change direction and free itself.  Over.  Going nowhere, and the elk went down again, did not rise.  Quickly tying the cord around the aspen Einar scrambled forward, knife in hand.  Seeing him, eyes rolled partway back in their sockets and sides heaving for breath, the elk lowered its head, lunged, sharp tines driven towards him, seeking to drive him into the snow, into the earth, but Einar rolled aside, escaped untouched.  Knife to its throat, blood on the snow, the elk’s struggle was soon ended.

Einar, too, felt near his end and indeed might have been, had he allowed himself to slump forward in the snow and give in to unconsciousness as his body and mind so wanted him to do.  Rest, just rest, let the blackness claim him for a while, at least until his heart ceased its furious, erratic leaping and pounding and he could begin to get a full breath again.  Instead, instinctively knowing what was at stake and not yet finished with the job he had started, he braced himself against the antlers of the deceased elk, arms shaking with the effort of supporting his body, dead weight, going down, but he managed to drape himself over one antler before the sudden icy tingle at the back of his neck spread to envelop him.

Waking, a band of white-hot pain across his ribs and sternum where the flat branch of the antler dug into his bones, and it kept him from drifting off again, kept him present.  Mostly.  World not making much sense, trees growing downwards towards an azure earth, everything inverted, and he blinked, struggled to right himself.  Half succeeded, arms and shoulders still draped over the massive antlers but head more or less upright, terrain taking on a more familiar appearance, and he stared at the snow before him, red with the blood of the departed animal.  Red, but fading to black every time he attempted more than the slightest movement, and that would not do.  Not if he was going to clean and skin the creature, secure some of the meat and haul the rest home to his family in the little basin. 

Needed something.  Needed… snow.  Some of that red snow, rapidly fading to pink just beyond his reach, and he eased himself forward on the antler, closed his hand on the stuff.  The first attempt gagged him, icy snow catching in his dry throat but he tried again when the dry heaves had stopped, this time succeeding in getting some of the stuff to melt and trickle down his throat, a bit of hydration and some crucial minerals beginning to revive him so he could carry on with his work.

02 July, 2014

2 July 2014

Einar was not the only one out taking advantage of the improved snow conditions that morning, as he soon discovered.  Rabbits, squirrels and other small creatures had been able to move across the surface with little difficulty even when the snow was at its most rotten, but animals even slightly larger than these had been struggling, along with everyone else.  Now Einar saw the sign of fox and coyote, tracks not showing on the hard crust of the snow but the spots where they had taken their prey giving them away, fox piercing the crust to pounce on a mouse and coyote lying under a spruce to enjoy his meal of rabbit.  Only a few shreds of fur remained from the coyote’s repast, and these Einar tucked into a pocket, thinking to use them in making a bobcat lure for one of his snares, someday.  Up the ridge, still staying easily atop the snow, and then Einar was near its crest, sparse firs around him and a wide, sweeping view opening up as he looked down its less heavily-timbered far side.

The elk was struggling, too heavy to stay on top of the crust which that morning supported all the smaller mammals, and when Einar first spotted it out in the open some distance down the slope, there was a trail of blood on the snow where the animal had been breaking through.  Ragged and raw-boned after a long winter spent up high, the bull was missing hair in patches, head down as he fought to free himself from the clutches of a rotten snowdrift.  Too far away to risk a shot with the pistol, but Einar knew he would be able to track the animal down, if he returned with the rifle.  For that matter, why risk a shot at all?  He knew that in the Altay Mountains of Mongolia, tribesmen had for thousands of years hunted elk in winter by running them down on skis, pursuing them through the deep snow until they reached exhaustion and could be approached, lassoed and taken with spears or even a knife.  

There in those snowy mountains, not too different in either climate or flora and fauna from his own high country world, petroglyphs of hunters on skis had been dated to at least three thousand years old, and it was widely believed that skiing as a mode of winter transportation might well have been invented in the Altay.  Einar did not have skis, but he did, he reminded himself, have the advantage of being able to run across the surface of the snow while the elk broke through with each step and had to struggle to break trail through the impossibly crunchy, rotten snowpack.  The elk appeared exhausted already, surely wouldn’t be able to move more quickly than he could, himself.

Well, Einar kept moving toward the elk, keeping well hidden in the firs, I’d kind of hate to lose my chance at this fellow by going back for the rifle, especially when I probably won’t be willing to risk the sound of the shot, anyway. Got thirty feet of parachute cord here in my trapping pack, more or less, and that ought to be plenty to lasso the critter by the antlers, snub him against a tree and make my move.    Could use the pistol, but will probably find the knife adequate.

Right...  he laughed silently to himself.  At himself.  And just how much experience do you have lassoing anything at all, let alone an angry and terrified bull elk who won’t be any more than twenty feet from you at the time?  Which is assuming you can even get that close.  Snow may not hold your weight by the time you work your way in close enough, or he may head deeper into the timber when he realizes he’s being pursued, which means the crust won’t be as hard and you’ll have one heck of a time swinging that rope.  And seriously, paracord? It’s rated to hold weight like that and all, but how likely is it that you’ll be able to hang onto your end, with that elk struggling and straining and taking off running in the opposite direction?  You’ll only lose him, and the rope, and go home empty-handed.  He doesn’t look like that much meat, anyway. Half-starved after this winter, and was probably in pretty bad shape before that, to be off by himself like this in a place that’s so far from ideal.  Surely you can do better, for meat.

Einar was not sure that he could do better, though.  Not anytime particularly soon.  Knew he must do his best to take advantage of the opportunity before him, and careful to keep downwind of the struggling elk he moved down the ridge, beginning to close the distance.  Sun still over an hour from peeking over the horizon, he hoped to be able to complete the stalking and lassoing portion of the hunt, at least, before its rays would have time to soften the crust and render him as badly crippled as the elk.  No way he would be able to get the creature skinned out and a quarter carried home before the sun began interfering with travel, no way at all, but he could aim to at least have the chase done by that time.  Might have, too, had one slight misstep not sent him sprawling in the snow where he caught himself against the extended branch of a small dead fir.  Snapping under his weight, the branch gave him away.  The elk stopped, looked up sharply in his direction and did its best to take off at a run, hooves plunging deep into a drift and body brought up short.  Fighting the deep snow, going down once but quickly righting itself, the elk made for the nearest stand of timber, Einar scrambling to keep up and not lose sight of the creature.  Sure, tracking would be easy through the rotten snow, but he wanted to keep the animal in sight if at all possible, hopefully manage to get a sense of where it was headed and save himself any unnecessary travel.

Headed for the ridgetop, it appeared, wily old bull instinctively acting to save itself by gaining elevation and seeking protection in the heavier timber, and Einar took off straight up the slope instead of following directly behind, wanting to cut out some steps and arrive in the timber shortly after the elk.  Watching the creature jump-trot through the deep snow he could see its strength; it was not going to be a quick thing, this chase.  Already the elk had disappeared into a close-growing grove of firs, Einar slipping every few feet on the hard, icy crust until he broke off a sharp-pointed spruce stick to function as an ice ax as he climbed.  Good thing for the sharp-pointed staff, for, snow softening as temperatures warmed for the day, it wasn’t long before he hit a patch of crust that would not support his weight, going down hard before he realized the trouble, stuck up to his knees in hard-fractured fragments of icy snow and sinking deeper with every move into the quicksand-like remains of the winter’s snowpack beneath.   Stop.  Don’t struggle, you fool.  You’re only going deeper, breaking up more of the surface.  Now.  Use the stick, get on your hands and knees and pull yourself up out of this.  Elk’s gonna get away if you don’t start moving again pretty quick, here.

Staff did the trick, allowed Einar to spread out his weigh so he could successfully extricate himself from the area of broken crust and get gingerly back to his feet, sliding one boot in front of the other and testing carefully before ever trusting the ground beneath him.  Better.  Crust harder with a slight change in the angle of the slope, sun’s rays hitting it just differently enough to allow more soundness to remain, and he picked up a bit of speed, encouraged by the sound of the elk stomping and crashing in the timber not far above, blowing for breath after the steep climb.

Up then, quickly, for here was his chance to close some of the distance.  Moving over the surface like a spider, weight spread evenly between feet and staff Einar made quick progress, up and over one drift after another, surface sometimes beginning to crack beneath him but he quicker than the spreading fractures, moving on ahead.  Until, wanting to get a better look at the terrain above, he made the mistake of standing upright for a brief moment and then taking a step without first testing the ground.  Down he went, falling in up to his elbows before he realized he had a problem, and every time he moved to climb back out the coarse, sugary snow only broke around him, beginning to fill in the hole but allowing his feet no purchase.  Tried jumping, digging, thrashing arms and legs as if attempting to swim, but to no avail.  Out of breath but unwilling to stop until he’d freed himself and was on course again he probed about for the spruce staff, found it, stomping and kicking until he’d reached the solid soil beneath. Bracing the staff he used it for leverage, half-climbing, half springing until at last he managed to extricate himself.

Solid surface beneath his body, solid but beginning to give, and he rolled over twice to get away from the bad section of crust, sprawling on his side in the snow as he fought for breath, nauseated at the effort, vision going dark.  Not dark for long, as he woke a moment later staring straight up into the sun, squinted, looked away.  Sun was high overhead.  Too high.  He sat up, testing the snow with his staff.  Losing the crust, and with it any advantage he might have had over his would-be prey, but he didn’t want to give up, not with success so close, appearing so possible…  On his feet, elk trail clear before him, Einar went on.

26 June, 2014

26 June 2014

Sleepy and something close to satisfied after their meal of squirrel stew, Einar and Liz sat near the warmth of the coals as darkness became complete outside and the cold of the night closed in, Will dozing on Liz’s lap after enjoying his own supper and Einar leaning back against the wall, eyes half closed.  He had, before Liz began working on the stew, heated a small quantity of water and broken into it two dried yellow Oregon grape roots they had previously dug and stashed aside for such purposes, carefully washing Will’s scraped nose and cheek with the resulting antiseptic solution.  The scrape would heal up just fine, he had no doubt.  Still didn’t understand Liz’s concern, supposed it must simply come with the territory of being a mother.  Which he was not, so perhaps he was not entirely equipped to understand.  No matter.  The little one would be fine.  Drowsy, dozy as he stared into the embers of their supper fire, Einar startled back to wakefulness when Liz spoke.

“Feels like it’s getting colder.  Do you think the snow will be more solid in the morning?”

Einar nodded, flexed stiff fingers over what remained of the fire.  Had thought he might well have been alone in feeling an increased bite in the night air as it crept in under the door, stiffening muscles and unsteadying his voice just a bit.  “Yeah, ought to help for sure.  Rotten as that snow was today, we’ll need a number of hours well below freezing before it will hold our weight, but looking like we may get that tonight.  Morning may be the time to run that trapline.”

“I hope so.  Another squirrel or two would be a good thing to help tide us over until things start melting out a little better and we can be more mobile.”

“I’ll give it a try, first thing in the morning before things have a chance to start softening up.”

“Oh, let me do it.  I know you’ve got to be tired from your trip still, and that way Will could spend some time with you here at the shelter, while I’m gone.  He missed his daddy while you were away.”

Einar smiled at the sleeping boy.  “Sure, I’ll spend some time with him tomorrow.  But how about if it’s after I do the snares?  That snow isn’t going to be any too certain, as far as allowing one of us to pass without collapsing here and there, and I think I may weight just a little less.”

“A little!  You certainly do underestimate things, don’t you?  Ok, guess it makes sense for you to go, so long as you’ll eat plenty of whatever you may find in those snares, so you can start working your way back up to weighing a more reasonable amount.  Is it a deal?”

“Oh, I intend to eat.  Got to keep going.”

Satisfied about the sincerity of Einar’s intentions, Liz began preparing for bed.

Awakened in the night by the need to reposition knees, elbows and ribs in such a way as to ease the painful pressing of bone on bone which seemed with increasing frequency to disturbed his sleep those days, Einar lay listening to the night.  Still, silent, only the faintest whisper of a
Breeze through the spruce-tops, and reassured by the quiet, he might have tried for a few more hours’ sleep, but instead lay wide awake testing the air with his nose and attempting thus to roughly determine the outdoor temperature.  Somewhere below freezing, he was pretty sure, though how far below he was finding difficult to determine from inside the shelter.  Far enough, he hoped, to have caused the rotten snow to form a hard crust which would support his weight, allow him to travel a little more easily without sinking in up to his hips with every step.  In addition to being dreadfully inefficient, energy-wise, such movement left a great deal of highly visible sign should anyone fly over before either the next big snow had come along to conceal it, or all the snow had finished melting out.

Unable to relax again into sleep at the thought that he would be wasting his opportunity to get out on some more stable snow—was still not comfortable; seemed to be no position in which he could lie where some part of him was not digging into another and hurting rather insistently after a few minutes, and he didn’t know how Liz could stand to be near him when they slept, for surely he must make her uncomfortable, also—Einar after some minutes eased out of the sleeping bags, doing his best not to disturb Liz and grabbing his boots before slipping out the door.  Definitely below freezing out there, Einar somewhat surprised at the efficiency of their shelter in maintaining a temperature significantly higher than that of the outdoors, even though the fire had been cold for hours.  Overhead the stars arced brilliant and unblinking above a softly swaying curtain of spruce boughs, looking almost close enough to touch and shedding enough light, once Einar moved out from beneath the trees, for him to travel without stumbling.  A good thing, for the snow, though cold-crusted and solid underfoot, was riddled with pitfalls and uneven spots where the actions of sun and nearby stones or fallen trees had accelerated the melting process, and even with the starlight, it was all Einar could do to stay on his feet.

Picking his way over the crusty snow and striving to avoid spots which would have been shaded by evergreens most days and not sun-softened so they could later form a crust in the cold, Einar headed up the ridge on which lay the snares, hoping to be able to bring home a squirrel or rabbit for breakfast.

21 June, 2014

21 June 2014

Skinning out the squirrel and hoping all the while his snares might procure another before suppertime--these alpine squirrels, even at the height of growth and good health, were not terribly large--Einar found himself daydreaming of the bacon and other things he’d seen in the coolers in the bat biologists’ camp…and then something perhaps a bit more obtainable, for his thoughts turned to that last grouse they’d had, roasted over the fire until crispy on the outside and steaming most deliciously when finally they had sliced it and eaten…  While the grouse roasted (since he was dreaming, and suddenly rather keenly aware of being hungry) he would make up a batch of the lightest, fluffiest flaky-topped biscuits with the last of the flour sent them by Susan, find some stout willow sticks and twist the dough around them for rising and roasting over the fire, and as the biscuits baked to perfection he would make gravy from the grouse drippings, season it with wild garlic and add a little bear fat just for good measure.  Grouse, gravy and biscuits.  Sounded better than just about anything else he could imagine just then, and he realized with a start that he had halted his work and sat there with hands idle, all but drooling over the images he’d created in his head.  

Silly creature, he chided himself, getting back to work.  Ought to be very grateful indeed for the squirrel stew which would instead make up their supper, for even had they a grouse and the means to whip up a batch of biscuits, he knew he would have had to take care just how enthusiastically he allowed himself to participate in such a repast.  Already since returning from his journey along the canyon rim he was beginning to experience a fair amount of swelling in his lower legs and feet, in what he knew was the first sign of a potentially dangerous trend.  He knew a good bit of the difficulty was result of his body struggling to adjust to being given something close to an adequate amount of food again now that he was back at home and eating Liz’s cooking instead of living off the random scraps he’d allowed himself on his journey, the simple solution being to stop eating for a few days, give things time to settle down.   Knew he couldn’t do that this time, though, mustn’t do it, lest he fail to start eating again at the end. 
Spring was coming and he had big game to take for his family, a little boy to bring up in the ways of the woods and high, windswept ridges, and he knew from recent experience that these thing might not be physically possible for him, if he did not somehow manage to reverse the trend of increasingly complete starvation to which he had over the last months and years been subjecting himself.  Most times, he had been able to very effectively put its negative effects aside, draw strength from the struggle itself and from the knowledge that he was persisting despite what were at times rather dire effects on his physical existence; he was not giving in, and that, at the very core of his being, was often the thing which mattered most.  Sometimes, when the nights grew long and he began losing his place in the world, it seemed the only thing that mattered.  The only one he could remember, fall back on, the thing that kept him in this world.
Now, though, he remembered the way things had been on the last days of his recent journey, he barely able to stay conscious at times—had deliberately refused to let his mind dwell on the incident in which the two men had stumbled across him down in the canyon, but it was always there, reminding him just how dire things had become, and what their consequences might have been, might still be—and his core muscles giving out to the degree that he found himself having a difficult time getting up into a sitting position again whenever he did lie down.  Scary enough on their own, these effects--though he had always found such things a good deal more fascinating than frightening, at least when observing them in himself--but when viewed in the context of a search and pursuit which could at any time go active once again…this potential inability to move his body and rely on his muscles as needed took on some rather terrifying implications.  

He had to persist, then, in eating, manage the difficulties—both mind and body—as well as he was able, and hope he had something left at the end of the process with which to carry on and build a life for his family.  Really didn't know how that would go.  Body he wasn't worried about, as it had always lived up to the demands he placed upon it, and usually exceeded them, but the other...well, seeing as the starving and deprivation were, themselves, his main tools for keeping his thoughts in line, and always had been, he was not entirely sure what to expect.  Not that it mattered too much.  Was only one direction in which he could go, considering his duties and obligations.  Besides which, when had he ever shrunk from the prospect of an adventure?  This, if he could just bring himself to look at it in such terms, had to be the ultimate adventure, really... Squirrel skinning finished, he took the animal to Liz, began scraping the hide.  His son's first summer moccasin.

Liz had gone inside while Einar worked on the squirrel, freeing Will from her parka hood and searching for a place to stash their newly-collected supply of usnea lichen, a bounty which would surely be put to many uses as the spring went on.  Lichen securely tucked up under some of the roof-logs where it would stay dry and out of reach of a curious little boy who would no doubt take the greatest delight in separating each little frond and scattering them across the shelter, Liz set about laying a fire, tinder bundle, kindling and a few slightly larger sticks, but once finished she left the arrangement as it was, not wanting to kindle flame until she'd seen what Einar thought of the idea.  It had been some hours since they'd heard the last plane, no air activity, in fact, since that morning, but still she knew he might want to wait.  Hopefully not too late in the evening though, for much as she liked squirrel sushi, a good hot stew sounded far more appealing. 

Will, who had been watching her every move and knew exactly where she had deposited her supply of springy, chewy, fascinating lichen, had pulled himself up to a standing position against the wall, and was stretching, reaching, lifting on little foot as if certain he could climb the wall with enough effort, determined to retrieve the prize.  So determined, in fact, so focused that he noticed not at all when his stance began growing less steady, and by the time he did discover the trouble, he was already lying face down on the floor, side of his nose skinned on one of the firepit rocks.  Much to Liz's alarm the little one did not immediately cry, she fearing lest he had been knocked unconscious or otherwise seriously injured.  Rushing to kneel beside him and calling for Einar, she saw that her alarm had been premature--or at least misplaced--for the child was indeed conscious, appearing unharmed save for a deep graze down the side of his little nose and cheek.  Appearing more puzzled than disturbed, Will ignored Liz's ministrations to grab at his injured nose with hand, studying his tiny digits intensely when they came away red with blood.  Einar had by then ducked inside, crouching breathlessly beside the pair, knife in hand as he glanced about the dim interior of the shelter for the cougar, wolverine or other similar creature which he supposed must be present for Liz to cry out in such alarm.

"What is it?  What's wrong?"

"It's ok.  It's Will. He was standing against the wall and fell on the rocks, and I thought he'd knocked himself out, injured his head or something, but it's just a scrape on his nose, looks like."

Einar stared, Will staring back and holding out a hand to show him the smear of blood.  Einar picked him up, balancing him on one knee as he inspected the injury.  "What's the deal, little guy?  Couldn't wait a couple of years for those nettles we were talking about, huh?  Oh, well.  A lesson is a lesson.  Now you know that gravity works, and rocks are hard.  Think you'll remember it the next time, and maybe land better?"

Will made no answer, once more fascinated with the patterns made on his hand by the smear of blood.  Liz sat down beside them, her voice belying some degree of consternation.  "Do you think he's ok?"

"Sure, he's fine.  It's just a scratch, really.  We'll just clean it up with some berberine water to get the gunk out, and I don't think it will even need bandaging.  See?  Mostly quit bleeding, already."

"Right, but that's not what I meant.  He isn't crying."

"Why should he be crying?  It's just a little scrape."

"Because he's a baby, and he fell a long way--for him--and that had to hurt!  Most babies would be crying.  A lot."

Looking puzzled, Einar shrugged, began cleaning Will's face with a bit of dampened usnea lichen.  "Guess maybe we're just a little different, Snorri and I. He'll be good as new in no time.  Almost got him cleaned up.  Looks like it's only an hour or so from dusk outside, an no planes recently, so what do you think about a little fire to heat water for the berberine, and for our stew?"

Liz, still troubled at what she had witnessed but thinking a fire sounded like a great idea, had her little tinder bundle lit before Einar finished speaking.