Sunday, January 3, 2010

A dog named Max

Morgan, Bear and I moved to Thunder Bay at the beginning of a very frosty January. We arrived to a city encased in snow. The drive out to the tiny house we rented over the internet took us through white forests that hibernated beyond five-foot snowbanks towering at the edge of either side of the road; a road which was reduced to a snowy track barely wide enough to pass a car going in the opposite direction. It was fantastic.

The three of us huddled together on the bench seat of the big red flatbed truck we had driven from Nova Scotia, veering north through Quebec to drive across the chunk of Ontario that seems so far north from the heavily populated southern parts of the province but is really only three-quarters of the way there. That road is dotted with small towns that all look the same and are carved from stretches of wilderness where the radio cuts out.

About an hour outside of Thunder Bay our radiator quit working. Morgan wired a square of cardboard to the grill on the front of the truck to keep so much icy air from flooding into the cab. We wore our toques and scarves as we limped into town.

Thunder Bay is not the coldest place in the world. It’s not even the coldest place in Canada, but for Morgan and I it felt like we had arrived on an ice floe somewhere in the arctic. We didn’t even need a refrigerator for the first four months we lived there; the backs of our cupboards were so cold we could keep milk and eggs pushed up against the wall.

Bear disappeared in the cloud of frosty air that rolled in the door every time we opened it to let her in or out, as though someone crouched on our porch running a smoke machine. She always reappeared with her breath frozen like a fine frosting on her fur. The air crackled with the cold, the dampness frozen from the atmosphere leaving the snow so light and fluffy it was weightless as down and could be swept from our car with an expelled lungful of air. Where we were from in southern Ontario, falling in the snow meant getting soaked from head to toe, possibly suffering a cut or two from shards of ice that hid in snowbanks after being scraped from the road or a car. This dream-like wonderland we found was what we believed winter should be.

Each night that first week in Thunder Bay the clear cold air made the sky seem a deeper black. It reminded me of what happens when ice freezes so fast and cold it is as clear as glass and makes everything seen through it look more real somehow, that’s what the air was like when looking through it to the black sky and silver-white stars.

As we watched those bright stars each night nestled against rich black velvet, we snuggled into the pile of blankets on our bed and listened to the rhythmic barking of a dog. It came from next door, the cold air clearing all unseen obstacles so it sounded like the dog was right outside our window.

We were annoyed at first to have our quiet solitude shattered each night while we tried to sleep, but then I started to think about that dog sitting outside on those biting-cold nights. I wondered how he could be left out there when the cold light of the sun disappeared each day stealing away with it any memory of warmth it may have grudgingly shared while it made its short journey across the lower part of the sky. How did he stay warm?

The house we rented sat on the edge of the large patch of land that was home to four other cabins. The forested property that butted up against our little square was owned by an old world Finnish couple in their 70s who built their home over 40 years before. A twenty foot stretch of our driveways were separated by a thin line of spindly pine trees. The rest of their property was obscured from us by densely packed woods.

We got to know them our first summer there, Morgan adopting the man, a retired engineer and bush mechanic, as a mentor. He spent long hours trying to glean anything he could from a head full of knowledge.

The barking dog was a large German Shepherd who lived outdoors in front of their house in a clearing amidst a small patch of trees. He stayed on a line attached to a pulley which ran along a thin metal cable; like a heavy-duty clothes line strung up between two trees.

The scrub grass that bracketed the outside edge of his lair was all worn away in the large area where he spent his days padding around watching the comings and goings of friends and children and grandchildren. His name was Max and we understood him to be a guard dog, not a pet, so I kept my distance.

We imagined each night when his deep bark rolled through the trees to our window that he was chasing away bears or wolves, protecting his home. He was a working dog, but still I occasionally thought about him living outdoors and couldn’t convince myself that was a good enough explanation. It wasn’t until about a year after Quincy disappeared when I had the opportunity to really get to know Max and discovered him to be the most gentle-souled creature I ever met.

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