Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Found and lost

It’s amazing what you can get used to. I often marvel at things second nature to me now that I once could never have imagined myself doing. I think about this again as I jog awkwardly down my driveway in clomping winter boots slipped hastily onto bare feet, holding my down vest closed with one hand while the other gingerly clasps the detached lower leg of a deer.

An icy wind whips down the road and takes my breath away as I turn my face and cross the short expanse in four long strides to the ravine on the other side. The ground drops sharply away from level here and I pause at the edge, look down through the tree trunks to the serene gray-white scene below. Then I pull my arm back and toss the leg into the trees. I turn away as soon as it has left my hand and I imagine it turning end over end through the air. “I’m really sorry little deer,” I call into the wind.

It is not a well thought out plan I tell myself as I sprint back to the warmth of the house, it won’t be long before one of the dogs finds it again and I’ll be running around looking for a spot to put it. But I couldn’t bring myself to stick it in the freezer to wait until we can take it to the dump.

We live on the edge of a vast tract of Crown land that becomes a major thoroughfare for hunters in the fall, so I have become used to finding deer legs, the bit from the ankle joint to the toe, about the length of my own arm from elbow to wrist. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have stood on the walking trail holding a deer leg over my head with two dogs at my feet eyes turned giddily skywards, bodies rigid beneath tap-dancing paws waiting for me to throw the tasty morsel.

I usually head off the trail into the thick of the forest, leg held aloft, until I find the crook of a tree, just the right height, and then tuck the leg there out of reach, secure it in place while trying not to look too closely at the rich, tawny fur and shiny black hoof that still seem so full of life, and certainly not at the bit where the fur is frayed and the pinkish-white rounded bone of the joint protrudes.

This latest find was sniffed out of the bush by Bear and carried carefully home. I watched her from the window as she swaggered along the road from our neighbours’ place, head held high, tail swishing triumphantly, the stick-like object clamped securely in her mouth. It took me just a second to realize it was a leg.

She placed it gently on the deck before walking casually, innocently, into the house. “Good girl,” I said, and slipped out the door behind her.

Not too long after I return from my mission to the ravine, Bear paces anxiously at the door, throwing looks of deep concern my way. “It’s gone Bear,” I say apologetically and open the door for her to see.

She leaps out on to the deck, ready to scoop up her prize, but stops short of where she’d dropped it, snuffling incredulously around the glaring emptiness. “I know I left it here,” she seems to say with her hunched shoulders and frantic sniffing. I tell her again that it is gone. But she won’t hear it and sets about investigating every square inch of the deck, pressing her nose right up against the hard packed snow, air whooshing noisily in and out, as if she can will the leg to re-appear, reshape it out of nothing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Breaking trail

We could see the curve of the logging road beneath the snow as it rose before us and disappeared to the left behind a stand of trees; an unbroken ribbon of white. Morgan and I trudged along its inside edge where the snow was shallowest, where the wind had skimmed across its surface, carving and shaping the snow up and away to the far side into a half-parabola.

In clomping winter boots we marched uphill pulling behind us what would prove to be inadequate trappings for our maiden firewood collecting expedition. It was our first winter in our new home, our first winter heating with wood. Morgan hauled our homemade firewood sled, an old heavy-duty plastic bin with worn-out downhill skis glued and then bolted to the bottom. Inside rode his chainsaw and an axe. I dragged the metal fridge cart.

Beneath our feet the snow squeaked like blocks of styrofoam rubbing together as the clear biting air gnawed at our cheeks. Bear and Murdoch struck out ahead, a couple of black shapes like solid shadows against the field of untouched white. Bear powered through the polished snow, the muscles of her broad shoulders moving in time with the swish of my snow pant-clad legs. Murdoch, not quite full-grown but long and lanky, swam and leapt through snowdrifts as effortlessly as a fish through water, kicking up sprays of white powder in his wake.

The road in seemed a lot longer on foot than it had when we drove over the hard, packed gravel in the fall, scouting out the broken trees and towering heaps of scrap wood left to wallow in the aftermath of this clear cut. Our plan, once we got permission, was to return and haul out the usable wood to heat our house instead of leaving it to rot in haphazard piles.

When we crested the hill, emerging from the fringe of forest left behind after the big machines had clawed and mawed their way through, we stood for a moment beneath an endless powder-blue sky and contemplated the long, white, formless road ahead. We had assumed there would be trails; long winding snowmobile tracks cutting an easy path over the deepening snow.

Snowshoes would have been an excellent idea, or maybe a dogsled.

But we had come this far, so we pushed on, until we were knee-deep in snow, dragging our tools with great effort. I tried to follow Murdoch as he broke an erratic trail, the fridge cart clattering noisily behind me until it became bogged down. I left it sticking sideways out of a snowdrift. “I’ll get it on the way out,” I said to no one in particular.

The piles of wood we scouted in the fall had disappeared into the landscape, becoming giant mounds of white. So we set our sights on a still-standing tree, a great big birch with broken and withered branches that stood about 20 feet off the road. We waded into snow up to our waists and then swam towards the tree, shoveling armfuls of feather light snow to the side of our trench which quickly filled in behind us.

We spent the better part of the day hauling that tree out one tiny sledfull at a time. Morgan cut and I trudged to and fro up over that curve and around the bend back down to the main road where our vehicle and trailer were parked. By the third trip Bear had staked out a spot in the snow to sit and wait while Murdoch leapt and twirled along beside me, behind me, in front of me. “Why aren’t you pulling this?” I asked as I leaned all my weight against the handle of the sled.

Murdoch didn’t slow down all day, not until we got home did he finally melt in a heap. It was the first time I’d ever seen him truly tired. That night was also the first time in the ten months he’d lived with us that I was able to hug Murdoch as he lay, flattened on the couch by the fire, too exhausted to show the whites of his eyes or even lift the corner of his mouth in his signature snarl.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Murdoch is good

When Murdoch is a good boy, we can walk in silence. He runs ahead on the trail, becomes a smaller and smaller black dot, then turns where the path disappears around a bend, looks back to see if I am still coming.

If I am stopped, listening to the distant call of a raven or watching a chickadee pick at berries in a tree, he launches himself down the trail, slides to a sloppy stop by my side, and waits. His big round eyes flick from tree to tree, What are we watching?

If I change direction as he blunders on ahead I call “This way Murds,” and turn my back knowing I will hear the calamitous charge of his feet, the whoosh of his breath as he comes up behind and then overtakes me.

When Murdoch is a good boy we play stick in the woods accompanied only by the thunderous rhythm of galloping paws and the hard roar of air tumbling in and out of his lungs. The stick clatters against tree trunks, shakes loose chunks of snow from the canopy that float soundlessly to the ground. Murdoch leaps effortlessly after the stick, brings it back in a big loop. If he loses it I say, “Find it,” and point, then watch his frenzied search as he steps on it again and again before focusing long enough to sniff it out.

When Murdoch is a good boy he sits and waits while I unhook his leash, not daring to move a muscle until I say, “Okay.” Then he explodes to life, his feet flailing about in every direction at once, ears flapping up and down on either side of his head as though he could take flight, his whole body bucking with each galumphing stride into the great unknown.

When Murdoch is a good boy he can rest his head on my leg and I can smooth my hand over his silky ears, watch his eyes un-focus beneath shaggy eyebrows and then plant a quick kiss on his head and inhale his smell. When he flips on his back I scratch that spot on his belly that makes his back leg thump wildly at the air and for a moment he forgets to be invulnerable.

But then he remembers.

When Murdoch is a good boy, it doesn’t last.