31 July, 2014

31 July 2014

Late as Liz believed it to be in the afternoon, she had no particular desire to make a trip for elk, especially with the storm still blowing so fiercely, but she would have done it.  Even greater than her hesitance to venture out in such a whiteout, was her concern about Einar doing so.   This, of course, she had no intention of stating to him in so many words, his reaction predictable as she believed it was misguided, but in tending to him during the hours he’d slept that day, she had realized the frostbite on his feet was a bit more significant than it had first appeared.  Nothing, certainly, which would endanger his remaining toes and even, eventually, his life, as had happened previously, but the situation could change should he insist on spending the coming evening and night wandering through the wet snow after another elk quarter.  Besides which, she could see the weariness which still lay heavily upon him, he maintaining his rigidly upright posture only with great effort.  Not a time to be starting out in the storm with the intention of carrying home upwards of fifty pounds of meat, apiece.  He was waiting for her answer.

“How about waiting for morning, when maybe the visibility will be a little better?”

“Oh, I’ll be able to find it.  No problem.  Can picture exactly the route I took when tracking the critter, and unless this snow has really drifted up top in places, we’ll probably be able to follow my old trail right to the spot.  Sure don’t want to lose any of that elk, scarce as the critters are up so high this time of year.”

“No, I  don’t want to lose any of it either!  But the storm should keep it safe, really, and we can take all day tomorrow bringing back what’s left…”

“You really don’t want to go right now.”

“Not if we have a choice.”

He grinned, brushed more of the wind-plastered snow from Will’s rosy cheek.  “Sure, there are almost always choices.  How about you and the little guy stick close to the shelter here so he’s not out in this storm, and I’ll make one run up the ridge, see if I can get that second quarter down here before dark?”

Not the outcome she had been looking for, but neither should it have been surprising.  Better to be direct.  “I hate to think of us splitting up in this weather, either.  What if we all just wait for tomorrow?”

“You’re afraid I am going to get lost in this storm, aren’t you?”

“Yes.  Lost, turned around, frozen….I know you’ve got a tremendous sense of direction, but we can’t even see our boots right now.  You won’t have any landmarks.”

“An adventure!”

“Life is adventurous enough, up here.”

Einar was quiet, but not for long.  “Sorry Lizzie, no.  Can’t sit this one out.  Left most of that moose behind and am still regretting that, even though circumstances made it necessary.  This time I’ve got a choice, and I can’t choose to sit here and be warm and out of the storm while we maybe lose more meat.  Worked too hard for that elk.  Got to hang onto it.  Got to take advantage of the storm, too, to cover the tracks I’ll be making.  It’s just the way this has to go.”

He took off for the shelter then, Liz following close behind and Will, little understanding the gravity of the situation, squealing with fresh delight when a clod of wet show shook loose from one of the overhanging firs and grazed his nose.  Catching up to Einar just as he shook the snow from his parka and ducked into the shelter, Liz brought the fire back to life.  Already he was busy emptying his pack, preparing it for the elk run.

“I can’t talk you out of this…?”

“Not this time.  You’re right about not having Will out in this kind of storm, so the two of you stay here and with any sort of luck at all, I’ll be back before the night is half over.  Just want to be sure and get that other quarter, and that’s probably the extent of what I can carry right now anyway, but I’ll bring more if I can.  Then we can go back together later when the snow is blowing a little less, and bring in the rest of it.”

“Will you eat first?”

“Think I’d better, if you’ve got any more of that broth left.”

“Yes!  Lots of it left.  Sit by the fire and be warm for a few minutes while it heats, and you can at least have a good meal before you head out into that…”  She was still for a long moment, listening to the wind in its hollow, hurtling fury, tearing through the trees.  He was going, and no question about it.  She knew the futility of trying again to convince him to stay.  Einar’s mind was already made up, and she knew his resolve to bring back the other elk quarter before calling it a night must certainly have more significance than simply protecting the meat and keeping it from the teeth of scavengers.  The thing that drove him to do this was even more basic, more fundamental than the need to be sure his family would have enough to eat; this was her husband fighting to stay alive.  She did not want to oppose such an endeavor, even had she believed her pleas might make a difference.  The best she could do was to make certain he went into the storm well fed and as warmly clad as he might be willing.

Half an hour later, full of Liz’s good, hearty elk broth and as much meat as he had dared consume—too much, and he might well find himself slow and sleepy out there on his trek, which could prove deadly—Einar laced up his boots and prepared to set out.  His feet, true to Liz’s earlier suspicions, had suffered some damage during the long elk-stalk and the hike home, but the two pairs of dry socks Liz had pressed upon him would, he was certain, go a long way towards preventing further harm.

Time to leave, and he was out the door, out into the storm, almost immediately lost to Liz’s sight amidst a raging swirl of white, and for one of the first such times in recent memory, Liz did not worry; she just let him go.

25 July, 2014

25 July 2014

Alone in the shelter, for he could hear no soft, sleeping breaths which would have indicated the presence of Liz and Will, and Einar struggled to bring himself all the way awake so he could investigate, but without success.  Couldn’t seem to get his eyes open, and any attempt at raising his head only brought a swift, rushing darkness which he knew with certainty was darker than that of the night-darkened shelter.  If indeed it was still night, at all.  Seemed—looking back only on the dreams he could remember; knew there were others, as well—he’d been sleeping for so many hours that daylight ought to have come, and gone, and perhaps come again.  The smells in the place were strange, magnified, old woodsmoke, sweet willows and drying meat competing with several he could not quite identify.   Ought to be able to identify everything.  Not making sense.

Thirsty.  Needed water, felt around with one hand but could find none, no snow to scrape up and melt in his mouth, which, considering that he was in the shelter, had to be considered a good thing…but he could tell that nothing was likely to make a lot of sense until he’d got some water, and he needed things to make sense.  Needed to understand the change in the air, in the smell of things.  Needed to know how long he’d been asleep.

When finally Einar did manage to fight his way back to a slightly more wakeful state, it was to realize that his warm spring air was not so warm after all, place sharply chilly in the absence of fire and he shivering soon after working out from beneath the parka.  Well.  That, at least, had to be a good thing.  Would have hated to find he’d been out for several weeks and missed the coming of spring.  Must simply be the change in the wind that was allowing things to thaw a bit and smell strangely.  But, where were Liz and Will?  Must be outside.  He listened, quieting his breaths, but could pick up no sounds from outside save the wind in the spruces.  Howling, it was, and he could picture the lithe, blue-grey forms of the trees as they bowed and parted before it.  Storm coming.  And then he remembered the elk, and was on his feet, body stiff, unwilling and head swimming with dizziness at the suddenness of the thing.  Too dark to see the door, and somehow he seemed to have forgotten in his sleep how to find it, tripped over the firepit and crawled the rest of the way. 

Outside the strange, warm smells were even stronger than they had been in the shelter, Einar bracing himself against the wall and blinking, somewhat dazzled, into the brilliant blankness of a near whiteout.  The sky was bright, clouds clearly thin even as they let forth their frozen torrents, snow soft and wet and falling in big conglomerated flakes which occasionally hit the spruce-trunks with audible splats.  Not what he had expected to see, and certainly not the conditions to be hoped for when one must return to the high ridge for the better part of an elk, but at least, he told himself, this new snow would do something to obscure the great wallowing trenches of his earlier passing.  Would, at least, mask them to the extent that a person might, from the air, have trouble telling whether they were made by man or beast.  That would be enough.  Would have to be enough.  Of course, they would leave fresh tracks going up to retrieve the rest of the meat, but perhaps the snow would continue.

A sound over there in the timber, soft, muffled by the snow, but Einar recognized it as human footsteps, and was glad.  Had not liked the thought of his family lost and wandering out there in the whiteness.  He took a few steps towards the sound, slow, hampered somewhat by his sore leg, which seemed to have stiffened up rather significantly during the night, and Liz materialized rather suddenly from the swirling snow, flakes sticking to her parka hood and eyelashes, cheeks rosy and a smile on her face.  Will, snug on her back, squealed his greeting.

“Will was getting restless, and we wanted to let you sleep so we came out here.  We’ve been collecting more usnea.  See?  Almost got another bag filled.”

Einar saw, put a hand to Will’s cheek and brushed the wind-blown snow from his nose.  “Turned warmer in the night, didn’t it?  This is some mighty soft snow.”

“Yes!  It’s the kind that doesn’t last, the kind that comes right before things start thawing in earnest.  I think springtime is very near!”

Quiet, Einar allowed that yes, this was indeed the sort of snow that usually heralded a major thaw, but he knew also that it presented its own set of difficulties, chief amongst which was the fact that unlike the dry powder of winter, or even the sun-rotted crust with which they had been contending over past weeks, this heavy, wet snow would soak a person’s boots and clothing in minutes, seep its way through roofs which had held just fine all winter and generally complicate a person’s existence.  These things he did not speak aloud, for Liz had lived through other springs in the high country, and would know.  “Yes.  Spring.  Once the sun comes out again, this stuff will go real quickly, and so will what was under it.  All this water will soak right down and really hasten the melting.  Things are about to start looking real different around here.”

“Oh, I’m ready for it.  This winter has been long.   I can’t wait to see what Will thinks of having his toes in the grass.  And helping me did avalanche lilies and spring beauty bulbs!”

Though liking the sound of that, too—nothing better than seeing young critters testing their legs in the springtime, the whole world full of wonder and every sight a new discovery—Einar’s thoughts were more on the present day than on the coming spring.  He was puzzled, for the light, what he could see of it through the melee of giant, wind-tossed snowflakes, did not look like morning light.  The angle was all wrong.  He looked at Liz, trying to ascertain what she might know of this mystery.  Couldn’t tell.  Best just to ask.

“How long have you guys been out here?  Something makes me think it isn’t morning anymore.”

“I knew you’d end up wondering.  Please don’t be upset that I didn’t wake you.  You really needed the sleep…”


“I’d say the afternoon is more than half over.  We’ve been in and out of the shelter several times.  It didn’t really start snowing until a couple hours ago, but it was terribly windy all morning.  I could tell something was coming in.”

Dismayed, Einar kicked at a clump of sticky snow.  “Doggone lazy critter I’ve become.  Got no business sleeping the day away like that.  I was supposed to be up there hauling down the rest of that elk.  Didn’t really secure it too well, should anything come along.”

“I doubt much of anything will be out in a storm like this, and it’s probably just as well that we aren’t, either.  Wouldn’t it be pretty easy to get turned around up there in the timber, when we can’t see a foot past our faces?”

He shrugged.   “Could happen. But the snow would do at least a little to cover our tracks.  How about one trip, before it gets too much later and we’re running up against darkness?”

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.