28 September, 2014

28 September 2014

His willow-gathering expedition put on hold by the smoke rising from below, Einar paused for a long minute, torn between slipping down the slope to investigate the source of the intrusion, and hurrying back up to the basin to warn Liz and make sure she, herself, did not have a fire going which might betray their presence to whoever was camped in the valley.  Quickly seeking a spot from which he might have a better view back up the slope, he scrambled partway up a scrawny spruce, branches mostly dead but providing him good grip, seeing no sign of smoke from above and slightly reassured by the fact.  The smoking tent was not finished, needed racks, still, and so he doubted Liz would have a reason to start a fire until the time came to heat an evening meal.  Good.  That gave him several hours, and practically falling out of his spruce-top lookout, he shook his head in an attempt to clear his vision, got to his feet and set a course for canyon.  Though he had not as yet caught sight of the smoke and lacked knowledge of a precise location from which it might be rising, the direction of the breeze gave him a starting place.  Warm and rising it came from the canyon, sweet-sharp with willows and water, meaning that the smoke must come from the canyon, too.

Whoever might be camped along the thawing creek, Einar had every reason to believe that their mission in the canyon did not involve his own presence or that of his family.  Had the intruder been part of some search, surely he would have wished to be more mindful of his security practices, smoke, light and noise kept to a barely-detectable minimum.  The campers likely believed they were alone, and it was best, by far, to leave things that way.  No approaching the camp too closely to investigate.  Not this time.  All he wanted was a good fix on the location of the camp, a count of its occupants and some sense of what might be their purpose in the area.  For this, he should not have to draw too near or risk giving away his own presence.  Momentarily, working his way down through the timber, he considered returning to the shelter to let Liz know his intentions and destination, but hoped by continuing to make short work of the reconnaissance, and return home, himself, before nightfall. 

Corner of his mouth twisting up in a hint of an ironic smile at that thought, Einar increased his pace.  Back before nightfall, is it?  Since when have you made it back before nightfall from one of these scouting expeditions, even when the snow wasn’t rotten and barely-navigable and your legs were working a bit more normally than they are, now?  Well.  He knew the answer, knew that one could not very well put a strict time-limit on such an information-gathering trip, but believed at the same time that his chances would be pretty good of making quick work of it, this time.  Hopefully the situation wouldn’t even demand that he descend below the canyon rim.  If it did…well, all bets were off and he would end up wishing he’d gone and consulted with Liz before setting out.  In any case, enough pondering and debating with himself; time to go.

Day warmer than those that had come before, Einar struggled to find footing on the rotten snow, still-sore leg quickly tiring as he fell through numerous times and had to extract himself, climbing gingerly from the crumbly remains of ice and crust as he strove to avoid breaking it further.  Not good.  Didn’t like leaving so much sign, yet with temperatures creeping up above freezing, not even in the shade could he find solid footing, anymore.  He could, though, reduce the visible trail he was leaving from the air if he did his best to keep beneath the trees, so this he did, down the narrow spine of a craggy, spruce-spiked ridge and into the tumbling confines of the rock-choked couloir which took off from its terminal end, sweeping down the mountainside.  No rotten snow in there, not much snow of any kind, really, and he crept carefully but with as much speed as he could muster from boulder to boulder, testing the tenuous hold of each on the mountain.  Most held, but a few did not, movement beneath his hands and once a desperate scramble to prevent a quarter ton chunk of lichen-encrusted granite from coming loose beneath him and thundering down the remaining three hundred vertical feet of the couloir.  His weight quickly removed from the unstable behemoth Einar jammed his back against one side of the rocky chute, feet pressed hard against the other and hands behind him for stability, silent, breath held as he waited to see what the boulder would do.  A heavy grating, the illusion of stillness, broken when he tore his gaze away from the massive granite piece below him and glanced at the side of the chute… 

Nothing he could do, not once that thing started to gain momentum, and though he briefly considered throwing himself beneath the boulder and attempting to wedge it with a stout length of broken spruce trunk he saw lying on a ledge beneath it, the idea was quickly dismissed.  A sure way to die, that one, and then how would he finish his reconnaissance of the smoke in the canyon?  No need, as it turned out, for any heroic action on Einar’s part, boulder grinding to a slow halt before it could really gain any momentum and he—legs trembling with the strain of so long holding his position there above it—soon on his way again.

More cautious than ever after his incident with the boulder—it was one thing to risk losing one’s footing on the glassy sections of water ice that lay so smoothly contoured as to be all but invisible in some of the steep shadows of the couloir, but quite another to chance setting off a rockslide which would inevitably draw the attention of whoever camped down there in the canyon—Einar took the remainder of the descent quite slowly, testing each step and trusting nothing to sight, alone.  Down at the bottom, then, ground opening up around him in a broad shelf of mixed spruce and aspen, last respite before the plunging steepness of the canyon wall, itself.  Several more times on the descent Einar had caught a whiff of smoke, faint but unmistakable, and though he had hoped to have a more definite fix on the location of the camp by the time he began nearing the dropoff down into the canyon, such was not the case.

Afternoon light.  Already he had been traveling for some time.  Needed answers, so he could report back to Liz.  So he could return to her before she really started wondering where he had gone, and—a moment of panic at the thought—perhaps even tried to follow him.  Last thing he wanted was for her, with Will on her back, to end up in between the treacherous walls of that couloir, just waiting for the first freeze-loosened boulder to ease its way loose from its icy moorings and come tumbling down from above…  This thought nearly turned him back, but he shook his head, carried on.  Had come too far to return without at least some basic information regarding their uninvited guests.  Must make a good effort to pin down the origin of that smoke, and put his eyes on the individuals who sat around the fire.

To the rim, then,  and avoiding the more open ground beneath the aspens he zigzagged down the remaining dozen or two yards of forested slope, glad to see that he had happened to come out at a place where the walls fell away in a near-vertical drop beneath him, rather than a more gradual descent which would have allowed for the growth of trees and shrubs that might have obscured his view.  He would be able to see.

18 September, 2014

18 September 2014

Softening of ice, slipping of the rock beneath, and through that afternoon Einar and Liz continued to hear occasional rumbles from the canyon, but they were by now reasonably certain of the sounds’ source, and were not overly disturbed by them.  Once assured that no helicopters were involved in the racket he was hearing, Einar devoted all his attention to the construction of the smoking tent.  Choosing a group of closely-growing spruces with heavy, smoke-dispersing boughs, he set to work suspending the parachute which had carried Liz and Will safely to the ground.  Scrambling up into one of the spruces and bracing himself securely between it and the trunk of an adjacent tree, he tied the top of the canopy in several places so as to keep an opening at the top, a place for excess smoke to escape.

Working, he almost hated the thought of soiling that clean, white fabric with smoke residue, but they still had his chute which would remain clean, snow camouflage for future missions.  Finished securing the top of the tent, Einar lowered himself down from his perch, Will watching him all the way from the spruce bough enclosure which, if not serving entirely to contain him, acted as both a visual barrier and slight roadblock should the little one choose to take off on his own.  It would, at least, give Liz or Einar time to see what was happening, and, if needed, intercept the intrepid explorer.

“Well Snorri, that ought to do it, don’t you think?  For the top, at least.  That’s where the smoke’s going to come out.  Smoked elk jerky, that’s what we’re aiming for, here.  I know you don’t have enough teeth yet to appreciate anything like that, but the time is coming.  Ok.  Better get back to work on this thing.  Still have to do the lower edges, and then put a rack of some sort in there so we’ll have something to hang the meat strips on.  Should have done that first, huh?  Would have been easier.  But I didn’t have any willows, and kind of wanted to wait for willows, since they’re smaller, smoother and don’t leave spruce sap in the jerky.  Will have to go hunting for some willows, when the tent is all done.” 

Will chortled in agreement, firmly and repeatedly banging his little hand against one of the branches of his enclosure.  This gesture, as Einar had noted previously, seemed to serve a catch-all attempt at communication, sometimes denoting agreement, others indicating displeasure and on occasion simply a call for attention.  Einar found it fascinating to watch this growing development of his son’s communication abilities, a mystery and a delight to witness.

Stopping briefly to catch his breath after climbing down out of the trees, Einar began work on the bottom of the tent, securing the chute to adjoining trees to make a fairly wide canopy, its lower edge less than a foot from the ground.  Inside, sunlight seemingly magnified as it filtered through the white cloth, the air itself appeared to glow, dancing tree-shadows playing across the canopy.   Not wanting Will to miss out on this experience and knowing that the tent would be no place for him once filled with elk strips and smoke, Einar ducked out and retrieved the little one, rolling back under the billowing fabric and depositing him in the circle of dancing light.

Here Liz found them some minutes later, Einar lying on his back with the child reclining against his raised knees, father fast asleep and son staring in rapt fascination at the changing patterns of sunlight and shadow.  Sun’s warmth trapped by the fabric and wind largely excluded, the air was already a good ten degrees warmer in the little tent than outside, Liz quietly slipping in beside Einar and motioning to Will to be silent, let his father sleep.  She needn’t have bothered, Will so caught up in watching the shadows that he hardly noticed her arrival.  For some time the three of them remained together in this little cocoon of warmth and light, Einar soon waking but finding himself in no great hurry to move, hating to disturb the peace of the moment.  Perhaps, he thought to himself, they would have to make a second tent with the remaining parachute, leave it uncontaminated by smoke and visit it every sunny day for a few quiet minutes, just for the delight of doing so.  A silly idea, and not one he would likely pursue, but the thought had been a pleasant one.

Shaking the sleep from his eyes and blinking in the brilliant white light, Eianr ducked out of the tent, and began searching for the best branches to which he could secure the lower ends of the smoking tent, better channeling the smoke and preventing its blowing away on a windy day.  Finished constructing and securing the tent, he set off in search of the willow wands they would need in the construction of a good, lightweight rack for smoking and drying jerky.  No willows grew in the immediate area of the shelter, but this did not disturb Einar, wanting as he did to clear the remaining confusion of sleep from his head with a walk.  Liz and Will remained behind in the tent, enjoying the sunlight, stillness and warmth of the place and finding themselves rather reluctant to leave.

Up out of the tiny basin Einar climbed, air from the canyon almost warm against his face when he reached the summit of the small ridge which sheltered their home, rich with the odors of thawing ground and awakening vegetation.  Closing his eyes for a moment and allowing the smells to drift past and through him, Einar tried to pick out the sharp, sweet tang of willows, but could not find it.  No surprise, as he knew they must be some distance away, down lower where there was more water.  He had no intention of going as far as the canyon floor, not a wise expenditure of energy when they had other branches at the shelter which would suffice for drying jerky, but he did want to make a thorough search of the more immediate area before giving up on the idea of willows. 

Lower.  He had to travel lower if he was to find his willows, and though knowing the return climb would be something of a challenge, weary as he was feeling, Einar continued to descent, enjoying the signs of spring all around him and a mellow breeze which increased in strength and sweetness as he emerged from the heavier timber surrounding their tiny basin home.  Smiling, Einar enjoyed the unfamiliar sweetness, but then he caught scent of something else, and it stopped him in his tracks.  Smoke.  Faint but unmistakable it rose to join the other odors, and though his first thought was that perhaps Liz had decided to try out the new jerky-smoking setup, he knew this could not be so.  The air that flowed past him was rising warm from the canyon, no eddy or gust of wind which could conceivably carry smoke down from the basin, and Einar, turning his head this way and that in an attempt to get a better fix on the direction from which the smoke might be coming, knew they were no longer alone.

10 September, 2014

10 September 2014

The remainder of that morning passed quietly for Einar and Liz, Will playing happily in his new spruce enclosure while the two of them worked at thinly slicing the remains of one elk quarter and draping the results over the dry, barkless branches of a nearby dead spruce to dry.  Einar wanted to build a proper jerky drying rack, set it out in the sun where drying would take place at a better rate, but lacking any nearby willows he contented himself with the spruce, confident that it was still too early in the year to have to worry about flies, an extra day or two of drying time no disaster.  Beyond his desire to preserve the meat against the coming of warm weather and insect pests was a need on Einar’s part to produce a quantity of more easily portable travel food against a time when more mobility might be required.  

The tiny basin with its wind-sheltering terrain and surrounding timber had offered them a refuge, a concealed spot in which to quietly live out the remainder of the winter, but he knew it might not contain resources sufficient to recommend itself as a more permanent location.  This they would not know for certain until the snow was gone for good and they observed the summer patterns of the elk and deer, but even should the spot turn out to be a long-term home for them, the life they were living demanded a constant readiness to pick up and move on. 

These things were not spoken as the pair worked, words not needed and an easy silence settling over the clearing, Einar seeming to know right when to hand Liz another slab of partially frozen elk and she working in concert to help him fill empty branches with thin, already-drying slices.  The only interruptions came in the form of Will’s occasional demands for food, these desires heralded now not only by his accustomed grunting and squealing, but increasingly put into words, or something like them.  Somewhat early, Liz thought, for a little one to be doing much speaking, but she was not surprised.  The boy’s father, when not in one of his silent moods, had quite a bit to say, himself, once he got going on a subject.  Must be something of an inherited trait.  She smiled, shook her head and glanced about in search of Einar, who had disappeared while she was watching Will.

Soon returning from inside the shelter, Einar deposited a carefully-tied bundle of cloth in the snow at Liz’s feet.  She glanced it over, squinting skeptically at Einar.  “What’s this?  You’re planning on doing some parachuting?  Base jumping from the canyon rim, perhaps?”

Einar laughed, flashed her a wild look which seemed to say, hey, not a bad idea…!  And for a moment she almost regretted making the suggestion.  “Not with this rig, I’m not!  No, just wanted to see how this chute would do for a jerky-smoking tent.  Figured with a little smoke and just a little warmth, we could really speed up the process, add some flavor at the same time.  I’d wanted to do this for the moose, back when we were staying down in the canyon, but never really got the chance.  White chute will blend right in against the snow, too.  We’ll have to be careful about the smoke, maybe only do it after dusk just to minimize the chances of anyone spotting it, but once we get the tent set up we’ll be all ready for other game, too.  Ready to process stuff for the warmer weather.”

“Oh, yes.  I like that idea.  It really will help things to dry faster, and will keep the flies away once things start to warm up.  Where do you want to build it?  Right here by the shelter?”

Leaning back and inspecting the over-arching ceiling of spruce and fir boughs, Einar shook his head.  “Let’s put it over in that cluster of spruces near where we’ve been hanging the meat.  Not as convenient because we have to carry the jerky strips over there, and will need to build a rack since there’s not a good, dead tree to hang the strips on, but I like the way the branches are so thick over there and will help disperse any smoke we may make during the daytime hours.  Just don’t want to risk doing it out in the open here in the clearing.” 

Still studying the evergreen canopy overhead, Einar managed to get himself slightly out of balance and momentarily lose his place in the world, reeling and falling hard into a sitting position before he could catch himself.  This so delighted Will that Einar quite forgot to be irritated with himself for the oversight, remaining there in the snow for a good two minutes as the child laughed, waved his arms in an exaggerated imitation of his father’s failed attempts to prevent the fall, and plopped himself repeatedly down in the spruce needles.  Seeing Will’s delight Einar repeated the process, this time falling harder and meeting rather uncomfortably with a rock that lurked just beneath the surface of the crusty snow and nearly knocked his breath out with its impact, but Will laughed nonetheless, and so did Einar.

Liz finally put an end to these antics, scooping Will up out of his spruce enclosure and taking Einar by the arm.  “Enough, you two!  You’d better stop this before you both end up all soaking wet and black and blue with bruises.”

Einar struggled to his feet, brushing the snow from pants and elbows and pausing for a moment to catch his breath.  “Oh, we were just learning to fall.  A person has got to learn to fall, sooner or later.”

“Well, it looks like you’re both becoming experts, in that case!  Let’s have some lunch before we get back to processing that elk, ok?  There’s still some squirrel stew from last night.  I’ll heat it up.”

Sometime not long after noon—squirrel stew having been enjoyed and work resumed—the pleasant monotony of elk-drying was disturbed by a distant rumble which Liz mistook at first for thunder and Einar heard as the approach of several large helicopters.  Eyes wide and white as they met Liz’s, he scrambled without hesitation into the shelter and slid the ever-present flat rock over their shallow fire pit, cutting off all further air to whatever coals might linger and precluding a flareup which might have given away their position. By the time he made it back outside the sound had subsided entirely, leaving behind and anxious silence into which the two of them stared, ears straining for any further clue as to the origin of the commotion.  Nothing.  Too long and sustained for thunder, and if the rumblings had been airborne in origin, the craft must have changed direction and disappeared.  Or—Einar reflexively lowered himself to the ground at the thought—dropped below the canyon rim and continued their approach.  If that was the case they would know soon enough, and not waiting to find out, he hurriedly motioned for Liz to follow him beneath Will’s spruce tree, crouching at its base and waiting.

Nothing.  No further sound, save, after several good minutes of silence, Liz’s voice, soft and steady, unsure as she was what Einar might be thinking, how far away she might find him.  “I think it was rocks.  Falling rocks, in the canyon.  It wasn’t helicopters.”

Silence, Einar thinking.  The pattern fit, the tone of the rumbling.  Springtime.  Thawing.  Lots of things started moving, rocks, even, freed up by the freeze-and-thaw of fall, early spring, broken, waiting only for a softening of the ice that held them.

04 September, 2014

4 September 2014

Squirrels stewing and the shelter filled with their warm aroma—perhaps not such a delicacy, normally, but welcome for the variety they represented—the little family sat around the fire, silent save Will’s constant, happy babbling.  Einar, hard as he tried to conceal the fact, was not nearly as alright as he pretended to be, Liz knowing even before she checked that he had lost a fair amount of blood over the course of his days in the timber and seeing that he struggled now to remain awake, nearly dozing by the fire as she cooked.  He was content, though, or appeared to be, taking an interest in the little details of life in the shelter, entertaining Will with the tail of one of the squirrels he’s brought home, that faraway, unreadable look gone from his eyes and his manner easy, uncharacteristically relaxed even as he shivered violently in the presence of the first heat he’d allowed himself in days.  Liz was not terribly concerned.  The fire was warm and his body, she knew, would recover, if only his mind would allow it.  Things seemed off to a good start.  She liked the way he eyed the simmering stew, not only a willingness, but a genuine interest; the rest would come in good time.

In good time, after sharing a leisurely breakfast and Liz, her persistence overcoming his mild objections, tending to Einar’s wounds, the family went squinting and staring out into the streaming sunlight of what all recognized to be the most spring-like day yet, breeze feeling soft and almost warm as it wafted up from the valley below, carrying the scent of green, growing things, soil exposed to sunlight.  This warming weather, though welcome, brought its own challenges.

Clothing that had done well by little Will all winter, keeping him dry as he crept, scooted and crawled about in the snow, now began failing at that task, remaining snow so wet and slushy that it quickly saturated anything with which it was allowed prolonged contact.  This situation led to a great deal of displeasure on Will’s part, not because he minded being wet, but because his mother rather inexplicably began denying access to his favorite exploring spots.  Liz at first attempted to solve this wet-snow-and-saturated-child dilemma by confining Will indoors and taking him out only in the hood of her parka, but he squirmed and protested so at this restriction that she was left seeking other options.  It was Einar—watching this struggle on his first day back and doing his best not to allow the child to guess at how strongly his father approved of his fighting spirit, if not perhaps of the context in which he was currently applying it—who came up with a solution.

Leaving the tree where he’d been working to lower one of the elk quarters so he could begin taking off slices of the frozen meat to dry for jerky, he limped over and crouched beside Liz, quietly observing the struggle for another minute, Will fighting to be free of the confinement of the hood and Liz working very hard to keep him there even as she fought to maintain her own balance and not upset the pot into which she was shaving frozen elk for an afternoon stew.

“How about I take the little critter off your hands for a minute, so you don’t upset the stew?”
“Oh yes, that would be very helpful!  He’s every bit as stubborn and intractable as his father, you know…”

“He just wants to be free.  Tired of being cooped up inside all the time.”

“I know.  But the trouble is he ends up all soaking wet in the slush every time I let him get down, here lately.  I know that wouldn’t bother you, and it doesn’t seem to bother him either, but he’s just not old enough or big enough yet to make those decisions.  Not that his judgment about being cold and wet is likely to improve much, if he takes after you in that way…  But for just a few more years here, I intend to put my foot down and keep him from losing any little fingers or toes!”

“Hey, I wasn’t suggesting we let him lose fingers or toes.  I know he’s too little to be turned loose in the slush to make his own way, but I thought if we could make him a drier spot where he could sort of move around and explore and not feel quite so confined…well, might just make these next few weeks easier on everybody.”

Liz thought this a fine idea, watching closely as Einar balanced the little one on his hip and began using his boots to scrape the remains of a melting snowbank out from beneath one of the thickest spruces at the edge of the little clearing.  This task done he squirmed out of his own parka—Liz had been rather insistent he wear it that morning after arriving back at camp, seeing how keenly the cold seemed to be affecting him—and laid it on the ground for Will.  “See this thing, buddy?  This is the limit of your world for right now, so I want you to stay on here and not get your clothes wet while I fix you up a better place.  Ok?”

Will scrutinized the newly-announced boundaries of his world, tested them, eyes on Einar all the while, one little mittened hand reaching out over the edge of the parka and into the snow, just to try his reaction.  When Einar squinted, scowled and shook his head Will pulled the hand back, busying himself with a spruce cone that had fallen on the parka.  Well, Einar silently observed, turning away to retrieve a bundle of mostly dry spruce needles from beneath a different tree, sure is going to be an interesting thing, watching this little guy grow up.  At least he’s starting to understand the concept of boundaries and the fact that we’re the ones who set them, in his world.  Doesn’t mean we’re not gonna have an awful trying time getting him to respect those limits, at times.  Guess he wouldn’t be our son, if he didn’t have that stubborn streak in him…

Many armloads of spruce needles later, little Will’s outside exploration area was nearing completion.  By scraping away the remnants of melting snow and adding dry material atop the still-frozen ground, Einar had created a spot which was large enough to satisfy even the most persistent of young explorers, at least for a time, while also reassuring the little wayfarer’s mother as to the state of his clothing and boots.  All that remained was to find some way to keep him from creeping without delay over the outside boundaries and back into the snow.  A fence of some sort seemed in order, and for this Einar began collecting downed spruce boughs, brown, without needles, their rough, abrasive texture and multitude of tiny, dry twigs hopefully enough to deter the youngest Asmundson from too easily passing.  Einar stepped back, crossing his arms and critically inspecting the enclosure.

“Well, what do you think?  Strong enough to hold him, dry enough to make you happy?”

Liz laughed.  “I don’t know if anything would be strong enough to hold him, if he really wants to go.  Not if he inherited half of your resourcefulness and drive.  But it ought to give him the idea, anyway, and I see that he hasn’t budged off of your parka since you told him to stay there, even though he’s looking very longingly at that little ooze of melting snow and mud.  I think it ought to do the job.”

Einar lifted Will into the enclosure, gave the boy a nod when he looked up with big eyes, ready to take off and discover this new territory.  “Good.  That’ll free us up some so we can put some more focus on getting this elk turned to jerky.  Not gonna stay frozen solid forever hanging up here in the trees, the way the weather’s turning.  Need to get a good bit of it dried before the really warm stuff gets here.”

Warm weather, it seemed to Liz as she retrieved Einar’s parka from the snow and draped it over his shoulders, seemed a long way off still, but it could not hurt to plan, prepare and be ready.