I have a vague idea of where we are in this endless white landscape. We are not really lost, I assure the dogs, I know if I keep clawing my way in this direction we will eventually stumble upon the walking trail that begins at the end of our road and winds its way towards the mountains. But it is little consolation. We have been walking for hours and I am tired trudging through the knee-deep snow. Molly is walking so closely behind me she catches my heels with her paws, pitching me forward with every other step.
We are in the middle of a jungle of poplar saplings. My brain tries to convince me I am claustrophobic, but I push the idea away, focus on keeping some momentum as I wade through the snow along a narrow track in this new-growth forest. I use my hands to pull me along, grabbing hold of the tiny trees on either side of me as my legs churn up the snow, my whole body propelling me forward as the dogs fall in line behind, let me cut the trail.
When I stop in the whiteness to rest, the sky, the snow, the trees, everything is white and everything looks the same. We are at a point where the ten-foot tall, wiry trees are thick enough and the land curved at just the right angle that we can’t see the mountain behind us, it is just white on white on white, an endless march of saplings leading like a maze in every direction.
I am frustrated because we lost our trail for the second time in three days. It all started with the cedar trees. We stumbled upon them one day when the dogs and I went off trail, cutting a new path through previously untouched snow. I pushed my way through tight spaces, crawled beneath knots of branches, climbed over downed trees, and shielded my eyes from the smallest twigs and branches slapping at my face and pulling at my jacket before snapping off in the cold. I followed Murdoch mostly, and Molly followed me and we circled south towards the mountain.
When I stopped to determine the best route around a jumble of branches and saplings, the ropey bark of a small cedar tree caught my eye, its skinny trunk remarkable because it was so young and new. I stared for a moment in some disbelief at this tiny treasure. Cedar trees are scarce around here; it is usually remnants I come upon, trees half fallen over or logs left in a pile from the time before when machines clawed through these woods. But when I pushed ahead through the deep snow, there was another tree, a large tree, and then another and another, and we were in a stand of cedars with their twisting branches and yellow drops of sap frozen in deeply patterned faces.
They looked ancient with gray weathered bark that spread almost fluidly over their fat trunks, giving the illusion of motion, as though the trees were growing right before my eyes. I stood beneath one for a while leaned against its sturdy trunk and looked up into the snarls of branches that seem to have formed in the swirl of constantly changing wind currents. It felt like a place out of time and when we left to continue our circuitous walk through this unfamiliar part of the woods in search of the familiar, I vowed to return.
But the next day, retracing our steps, entering the woods from the trail we cut on our way out, we couldn’t find them. The trail we made seemed to peter out, branch off in ways I didn’t remember, and then I was standing in front of a puzzle of branches made up of a fallen tree ensnared in a clutch of saplings which I swore I had never seen before.
After a few attempts to set out in different directions in hopes of discovering my path, we gave up and returned to the meadow and our well-worn trail and headed for home with half an idea that perhaps the cedar trees did not want to be found.
We did find them though, the following day, as the wind whipped across the meadow and I mapped in my mind the ground we had covered the two previous days. I pulled the hood of my jacket around my face as we re-cut a path across the beaver pond at the edge of the meadow, the open space wind-blown and harsh, the trail we had made the day before just a dimple in the deep snow.
The day swung between sunshine and white outs. Patches of blue sky sailed past overhead chased by the bright white blankness of snow-filled cloud as we crossed into another beaver pond, this one sheltered by brush and clusters of trees and we wove our way diagonally in the direction of the mountain. Just on the far edge of this second beaver pond we found the cedars again, standing where we had left them two days before, creaking in the wind and casting complicated shadows in the sporadic sunshine.
It was then, on a whim, we set off up the mountain, the one on the other side of the meadow where we walk everyday, the mountain that echoes my voice back at me when I stand in a certain spot and call the dogs. We followed the gentle slope of the land through a section of mature forest, protected from the wind and the whipping snow above. Our trail twisted around clusters of birches and spreading pines, until we stood almost parallel with the canopy below, glimpsing the distant view through gaps in the branches.
But when we turned to go, to follow our fresh-cut trail back down the mountain, it became muddled and confused. I retraced our steps to a group of tiny maple trees whose brown leaves curled and clung to tapering twigs, and then I lost the thread.
I zigzagged back and forth between the trees trying to recognize my trail or particular clusters of trees or the way the land dipped and rolled. Eventually I picked a direction and started walking. The mature woods began to thin as the brush thickened and the snow deepened. And then the poplar saplings began. The new growth forest crowded down the side of the mountain and we were swept up into the midst of it.
I know this mountain from a distance and I try to imagine where we are, try to picture the way the new forest swells up the side of it, where it melds into the mature woods. But I can’t do it; all I know is if we keep heading in this direction, with the sun at our backs, we will have to emerge on that walking trail that used to be a logging road, but I have no idea what part of the trail that will be.
I try not to think about how far we still have to go, or about how utterly the same everything looks in the white clamour of saplings. The dogs follow single file behind me as I push on, cursing our lost trail and wondering out loud how we got so far off track. And then to my right, just peeking up above the battalion of saplings, I see a dark green shape. In the next breath I recognize the mature tree looming out of the white, the shaggy outline of the greenery on twisting branches and I abruptly change direction, pick up the pace as I wade through the snow in search of the edge of this monotonous forest and toward the stand of cedar trees, our stand, the one that just found us.