Friday, July 18, 2014

Early morning visitor

We are woken abruptly by angry barking and lie there for a moment in the early hours of the morning, listening.

Outside the sky is just starting to lighten. Trees at the windows are scraggily black shapes only, no distinction between twig and leaf, against a pale gray twilit backdrop. There is just enough light in the bedroom to make out the beams of the ceiling and the clothes on the floor.

The barking does not stop. We sit up in bed because Murdoch’s forceful voice is insistent, constant, which means there is a reason for the noise. Molly’s staccato bark is there too, but she is a bit of an alarmist, we have learned, and barks at the slightest provocation, so we look to Murdoch for confirmation.

Many times Molly has leapt up from a snooze to bark at the window or the door or just into the room in general, alerting Murdoch to some unknown danger, and many times Murdoch has checked it out with a preliminary huff, ears alert, tail raised high, and then, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, has cast a look over his shoulder at Morgan or me as if to say, ‘She’s crazy’, and then returned to his bed with a grumble. If, on the other hand, he joins in with the alarm, then we know it is to be taken seriously.

So, just before 5:30 am, with Murdoch’s loud voice echoing up through the house and the cats scurrying hastily into our room, we crawl out of bed. Chestnut leaps up on to the wide windowsill, his shape silhouetted against the predawn and I know his curiosity has got the better of him, so I join him at the window to see if I can see anything.

“It’s a bear,” I say before I am even sure. We are three stories up in the trees, looking out over the edge of the second floor roof. In the space between the corner of our rickety old shed and the little pine tree growing valiantly straight, it’s boughs fanned out symmetrically, there is a shadow darker than the other shadows.

“Where?” Morgan says, appearing beside me.

“Just by the edge of the shed,” I say, turning my head sideways to try and get a sense of movement in my peripheral vision.

Downstairs, the dogs are still barking and I imagine them at the tall windows of the entryway, not 20 feet away from the bear, getting angrier at this belligerent creature just wandering around in their woods.

We watch the black shadow morph like an ink stain from one shape to another, more a suggestion of something large and black in the dim light than anything defined and obvious. In a moment the bear turns and lumbers fluidly across our small clearing and up into the woods, although we are confused by a low hanging branch also black in the gray light of predawn and for a moment we think the bear is lingering. But it has gone, and Murdoch’s bark is more pleading now, an entreaty to us to let him out to investigate.

We head downstairs then and Molly meets us in the kitchen. “Did you see a bear?” Morgan asks and she bounces happily and rubs her face on our legs. ‘Now that you’re up,’ she seems to say, ‘Let’s eat and then go play!’

“Good doggies,” I say as I head to the entryway where Murdoch is still standing at the window, vibrating with excitement, eyes glued to the woods. “Good boy Murds,” I say and touch his head. He huffs and shuffles backwards, then forwards, and I add, “No, you are not going out there.”

It is not long before everyone has settled down again and we head back upstairs to bed, although I am sure as the sky lightens quickly I will not really be sleeping.

A couple of hours later, with sunlight streaming through the trees, we get up for real. I wonder where the bear has gone as the Robins, who are nesting in an old Pileated Woodpecker hole in a tree by our house, fly by with worms in their beaks.

Downstairs, Molly greets us again as though she did not just see us two hours earlier, and Murdoch emerges from his kennel stretching eagerly. He is still itching to get outside, but I make him wait for a minute or two because now there is a rabbit in the clearing where the bear had been. His tall ears catch bits of sunlight that filter sideways through the trees while he munches on the green leaves of all kinds of forest plants growing there, and I think I do not want to disturb him because he looks so content.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lost on the mountain

I spent the afternoon picking ticks off the dogs with the sun streaming down on us between the trees. It fell weighty on my shoulders and filled the clearing around our house as I first leaned over one dog, then the other, their black fur smelling like swamp and sunshine. I knelt on the deck, my knees crunching on bits of stick spewed about by Molly, and ran my hands up and down their legs, then sat side-by-side with them, letting my fingers disappear into their fur almost idly, knowing sooner or later they would happen upon that tell-tale bump on otherwise flat spans of skin. Even as I found one tick after another, I knew I was missing so many.

We spent that morning getting lost on the mountain trails down the road from our house. Not our usual walking trail, a different one we have left unexplored for so long, mostly because it requires traversing a stretch of the main road that runs perpendicular to our little dead-end road. It is still a country road made of dirt and gravel with wildflowers spilling out onto the edges from the ditches on either side, but it is a thoroughfare and it is not uncommon to see a car or two.

Cars make Murdoch’s brain shut off to the point he thinks he is invincible, a giant even, that could very likely catch and eat the metallic beasts as they rumble past. I become nothing more than a nuisance fly buzzing about behind him, a superfluous accessory to get snagged on things and slow him down as he lunges after his prey. So, Murdoch and I came to an agreement years ago that we would not venture on to that road together lest we kill each other.

But there was this trail, we heard, one that would take us up to the top of the mountain where we could look out over the valley. Our usual trails have become so familiar, an adventure seemed like a good idea once we discovered we could get to an access point of the trail by walking through our woods and emerging onto the road for just a short stretch before being able to duck behind a line of trees into a meadow on the other side.

So this morning beneath an overcast sky we headed into our woods, taking a left instead of a right to crash
through the line of trees that contains our world, and crossed the road without incident. Once in the meadow of wildflowers, a sea of yellow and purple and green, I unhooked the leashes to let the dogs dash through it all and watched the grasses swallow them up. I knew there would be ticks. Even as their numbers seemed to be diminishing along our usual trails, here we were immersed in grass up past my knees, a completely different environment from the broad-leaf carpeting in our own woods. But I put the tiny creatures out of my mind and followed the dogs into the scrub and new-growth forest and away from the road as the trail started up the mountain.

We climbed and climbed, following the curving trail of waving grasses meandering through the patches of scrub forest, accompanied by the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes and the pattering of blackflies against my face. I put up the hood of my shirt over my sunhat to keep the bugs from attacking my neck and watched deerfly land on the dogs’ heads.

There were more trails on the mountain than I had anticipated; kept open it seemed by four-wheelers and probably snowmobiles in the winter. At each fork we stayed to the right as I tried to imagine our position on the mountain and keep us walking towards the top. When we were quite high up and the trees changed from new growth to mature woods, we headed in beneath the canopy, our feet slurping along the muddy trail, everything cast in green.

Looking up through the trees I could see the cliff face at the top of the mountain staring back at me and I thought we must be close, but when the trail began to track downhill again the whole adventure started to feel a bit like a wild goose chase. We had been walking for quite some time and we would have to do that same distance in return. Anyway, I was getting hungry and it felt like we would be searching for the top of that mountain for the rest of the day. So we turned around and began to retrace our steps home.

Then, on the way down, we missed a turn and got lost. I had a sense the trail didn’t seem familiar but I reasoned, how would I really know one patch of trees from another. But the puddles were different; it hadn’t been quite so wet on the way up. I couldn’t find my footprints from earlier, or the dogs’. And what about that tree I had to duck under, surely I should have passed that by now. And where was that pile of old weathered logs I’d found behind a row of newish trees, the light shining down from a tiny clearing above as though the logs stood in a spotlight on stage, the trees kind of containing them, defining them. It was like catching a glimpse through the curtain just moments before the show was to begin. I would have remembered seeing that again.

When the trail straightened out on its downward grade, I could see the distant view between the columns of trees and I knew we were heading down the hill in the wrong direction. We were facing north towards the valley, not west towards the mountain that rose up behind our woods.

I stood on the shady trail and pulled my hood close around my face against the bugs as I felt that glorified sense of satisfaction at being in the homestretch dissipate. The sun peaked out now from behind the cloud cover heating up the day, and I wondered where I had gone wrong, disbelieving that we were actually lost. Of course, we couldn’t get thoroughly lost on this mountain, there were trails all over the place that went somewhere and worst case we would just follow one and stumble into someone’s back field and then figure out where we were. But that wasn’t much of an option for me, trying to wrestle my dogs in a civilized setting.

So, I turned and called to the dogs as I tried to muster some enthusiasm for climbing the mountain again. I glanced over my shoulder at them as they stood in the middle of the trail, peering over the grasses at me as though I were crazy. Hadn’t we already climbed this hill? But when they saw I wasn’t kidding, they followed and the three of us trudged back up the trail together and I tried to forget about how hungry I was.

We walked and walked, making one more wrong turn, until I found the last spot I recognized and then I stood in the middle of the forked trail and turned slowly until all the elements of the landscape started to fall into place one by one. I pieced together a view I remembered, ‘that little tree there and that stand of poplars. This is the way we came’. Then I recalled the short side jog we did from one trail to another and we were on our way again.

We all sort of shambled down the mountain, passed the tree across the trail, the pile of old logs, and our footprints in the mud pointing up the hill. It was a while before I could hear the road ahead, the odd car rushing past. I leashed the dogs before the road came into view, not wanting them to tumble on to it in front of a truck

The flowers in the meadow glowed brilliantly beneath the full face of the sun and in some ways it felt as though we had just been here moments before and in others as though we had been gone for days. We crossed the road, again without incident, and then clambered through the trees and brush back into the cool familiarity of our woods.

Back at the house, the sun now streaming through the windows and spilling on to the deck, I found 17 ticks on the legs of my pants after I had discarded my hiking clothes for something clean and I shuddered to think what I would find on the dogs.

After lunch I ushered them out on to the deck, the two of them tired enough after our three-hour adventure they seemed happy to lie on the warm, sun-drenched boards as I worked my fingers through their fur.

The sun slipped quickly across the sky, soon throwing ragged shadows from the treetops onto the deck. I watched the shadows inch closer and closer to the wall of the house, the patch of sun diminishing, its intensity muted by the shade as I pulled more ticks from fur, and still more. In the end there were so many, I lost count.