Down through the timber, snowshoes on his feet and blood singing in his head at the exertion of the thing, load on his back representing well over half his current bodyweight and the clear, high-altitude sun arcing upward through the vast purple spruce-studded canopy of the sky, Einar set out that morning for the river valley. Liz had let him go with a reluctance roughly commensurate to her legitimate concern as to the prospects of his safe return, stuffing him with as much hot, rich stew as he could hold and pressing yet another packet of pemmican into his pack, tucking it beside the pitch-coated, woven willow-encased portions of honey, the jerky and bearfat and dried, pounded chokecherries that he was to add to his own stews down in the valley, the ones she hoped somewhat desperately he would remember to make for himself, have the will and the strength to eat…it was all out of her hands, now, and she had known it, had let him go with as much courage and calm as she could muster.
Still dark when he left, she had placed his son in his hands for a quick farewell, her forehead against his own in the glow of the firelight, and for a brief moment--of weakness? Strength? Sometimes he had a bit of difficulty telling one from the other, in such matters--he had found himself drawn very powerfully to stay with them, return to the bed and pass the remainder of the dark hours in the quiet warmth of her company, but the river was calling. His pack was ready, and he must go.
Tree to tree now in the dawning light, eyes full of wonder as he stared out at the rapidly melting snow of the valley, dirt appearing here and there in small but growing patches and the scent of springs rising softly on the morning breeze to softly infuse his entire being, gentle, warm, deceptive. Too early. Many more snows to come, yet he shed his wool cap as he descended, shook hair and wiped sweat from his forehead, exposing it to the welcome breeze. One might have almost believed spring was coming. One would have been wrong. He’d be freezing by nightfall, shivering in his parka and wishing he’d allow himself to build a fire, little doubt about it. Which he almost certainly would not do, not down there, the following days destined to pass in a long string of hard work and cold camps. Best enjoy the warmth while it lasted. He shivered, hitched his pack up higher on his back--straps were cutting into this shoulders, should have done more to pad them--and continued on his way.
Increasingly cautious as he neared the valley, Einar further slowed his pace, stopping frequently to listen and picking with greatest care a course that led him through the heaviest timber, concealing tracks, working his way out occasionally to lookout points that gave him a vantage, timber-choked as it might be, over the valley, allowing him to watch, survey the place for potential dangers, for signs that he might not be alone or recently had not been, but never seeing anything to arouse his suspicion. Particularly sharp was his watch for the ski tracks which would tell him the valley had been playing host to recent visitors. That would have been a game-changer, would have turned him around without a moment’s hesitation. Some part of him, he realized, scanning the most likely courses that would have been taken by such intruders, almost hoped to see the signs, so he would have a reason to turn back.
Descent had taken a lot out of him, more than it ought to have, left him swaying on his feet and near collapse if he did not take special care to keep himself upright beneath the weight of his pack, and he knew he was in for a pretty rough time. Which ought not matter, usually would not matter, as he accepted and even welcomed such challenges, and would do the same with this one. Right. Get moving again. All clear down there, near as I can see. No ski tracks in the places where they’d most likely travel, and I don’t see any in the less likely spots, either. No turns through the powder in the wider gullies coming down to the valley or on that open slope over there, which would be a pretty obvious attraction to anyone spending time down here this time of year. Nope, unless there’s something tucked in against the hillside where I won’t be able to see it until hitting the valley floor, it’s looking more and more like I’m alone down here. Just me and the muskrat and beaver. Best get trapping.
First, he had to find and establish a camp. Good safe spot in the deep timber where no one would manage stumble across him even should they somehow find their way into his valley, and after some searching he located just such a place in the dense tangle of young firs which backed up to a steep and almost overhanging wall of rock some hundred yards from the banks of the ice-locked river, its sound a mere gurgle at that distance, allowing him to listen almost unimpeded for any sign of danger. Another important factor in choosing his camp, for the rush and roar of water in his head would have rendered him quite unable to adequately listen for approaching voices, footsteps or even aircraft overhead, rendering his time in camp far less than restful and putting him at great danger of accidental discovery.
No such difficulty in his chosen location, and he unbuckled his pack where he’d cinched it tightly as possible across his hips, breathing an exhausted sigh as its weight left his shoulders and he eased it to the ground. Felt incredibly light in the absence of that pack, almost as if he could step off the ground and right up into the air, and he knew that though such was a typical sensation after freeing one’s self from such a burden long carried, he truly was almost light enough to have done so, had a stiff wind been blowing, and he supposed the fact ought to scare him, some. Might have, had he not over the past months grown so accustomed to his own progressing physical obliteration, to the occupying of ever less space, but he had, as a person will grow accustomed to nearly anything, given enough time, and as he worked to rub some feeling back into pack-numbed shoulders and hips, his thoughts were all on the river.
He would need to scout it well, look for signs of recent beaver activity and for the tracks and slides that indicated the presence of muskrat. His stomach growled at the thought of muskrat, and he pressed an elbow into the great hungry cavity between ribs and hips, hoping to quell its sudden aching; that good, rich meat had become one of his favorites over the course of the past winter and early spring, when he and Liz had eaten it more than once on the verge of starvation and benefitted greatly from its nutrients. Often, that seemed to be the way of things with him, the foods eaten in times of desperation becoming precious and greatly to be desired in the future, some trick of the brain perhaps responsible for assigning them greater value and worth than might have otherwise inherently been theirs. The Nutella which he had first tried that time at Liz’s when stepping gingerly back from the brink of starvation, the muskrats that had fed them later and even the piles of rough, bitter usnea lichen whose barely-nutritious bulk had served to stuff his empty stomach during yet another lean time…each of these had come to hold a special place in his heart, perhaps not entirely rational, but very real. And now he found himself excited at the prospect of once again feasting on muskrat.