John turned the truck into a turn-out and cut the engine.
“Well,” Suzy said. “Here I go.”
“Wish I could’ve cancelled this meeting tonight and hiked in with you,” John said.
“It’s okay, I can handle it.” Suzy eyed the two forest-green pickups with the Fisheries & Wildlife emblems parked along the five-foot snow bank. “I’ll look for you mid-afternoon tomorrow. Hopefully, I’ll catch some trout to fry for dinner.”
John gestured toward the trucks. “Probably state biologists checking bear dens. Maybe they’ve broken the trail to the pond.”
“That’d be my lucky day,” Suzy said as she stepped outside.
She stretched and looked around. John removed the red pack sled and two sections of aluminum tubing from the truck box.
“Hawk?” Suzy pointed to the brown bird sailing overhead.
“More likely a juvenile bald eagle. The head turns white around four years.” John smiled at her. “You’ve been away too long.”
“I haven’t heard that in a while.” Suzy knew her mother and father had been proud of her. The first girl on either side to graduate from college. But her thirty-year foray into Africa and South America as a mining geologist and two failed marriages had diminished her family currency.
“Well, you have. Katie and I miss you.”
She shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Suzy pulled on her parka and walked to the rear of the pickup. Together, they loaded her gear onto the sled John had tinkered with over the summer.
“You’ll appreciate this towing harness on the downhills.” John attached the nylon towing harness to the metal tubes. “It’ll keep the sled off your heels.”
“You should patent one of your creations someday.” Suzy said. “That could be your ticket.”
“Naw, I only do this to pass the time.”
“Ever wish you’d majored in engineering instead of forestry?”
“Sometimes.” John retrieved two small wrenches from his jacket pocket. “But things worked out. Besides, there wouldn’t be much work for an engineer in these parts.”
“You could’ve moved,” she said, immediately wishing she could take it back.
“Not this’un,” John said as he knelt and began securing the tubes to the front of the sled.
John shrugged. “Anyway, it’s just a few hills. Blame it on the jeezly glaciers.”
Suzy ignored the glacier comment.
“When’s the last time you went in there?” John stood and examined his creation.
“About ten years. Daddy took me and Michael in from the north side. We spent the night.”
John reached in the truck box and handed her a coil of green cord. “Tie her good.”
Suzy zigzagged the braided line through the sled’s tie-down rings and cinched the load with a modified trucker’s hitch that she’d learned from her father years ago.
“Good enough?” she said.
“Looks it.” John held up a dented metal thermos and two mismatched travel mugs. “Cup of coffee before you go?”
“None for me, thanks.” She watched John set both cups on the tailgate and pour coffee into his. “Is that Daddy’s?”
He nodded. The faded green cylinder had been under her father’s arm when he left for work in the morning and when he returned for dinner.
Suzy fastened her snowshoes as John sat on the tailgate with his coffee.
“Those snowshoes look a little gimpy. I’ve got an extra pair of Sherpas in the truck. They have great crampons.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be okay. These worked for Grampy when he cruised timber for Great Northern Paper….”
“And we should’ve buried them with him.” John laughed and slapped his thigh.
“I’m sentimental, okay.” She imagined bits of her grandfather’s DNA still enmeshed in the leather bindings, shed eons ago when horses ruled the forest and skidders conjured images of underpants.
“Just over three miles to the cabin. It’s a bit grown up since Dad cut in here years ago, but you’ll recognize where you are.”
Suzy zipped her down parka and cinched the padded harness belt around her waist.
“You’ll be stripping that jacket in no time.” John set his cup on the tailgate. “Got everything?”
“Yes, boss.” Suzy gave him a left-handed salute, the one she and her sister Katie, had shared as adolescents when their normally lenient mother decided it was time to impose strict order in the house—usually in the aftermath of making their little brother cry.
“Oh, spare me.” John checked his watch. “At any rate, you have six hours of daylight. Should be plenty of time.”
“The tote road’s marked with orange flagging for the last mile or so, right up to the pond. If it were me, I’d follow the old tote road trail along the south shore. It’s safer than going over the pond. Some of those spring holes take a while to freeze.”
“Is that trail still passable?”
“It was two winters ago.”
“I’ll be okay. If I remember right, it was me out there, ice fishing with Daddy, while you, Katie and Mom sat inside keeping the fire going.”
“Touché.” John made a stabbing gesture at his chest. Despite the grizzled beard, her little brother still possessed the smile of a ten-year-old.
Suzy pushed on her ski poles and took two steps forward. The fiberglass sled glided behind her on the packed snow. “It works.”
“Trust me, you’ll break down before she does.” John gave her a quick hug. “Be safe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See ya,” she moved toward the small gap in the snowbank that the biologists had shoveled.
“I’ll push,” he said as she started up the bank incline.
“Thanks.” Her legs, especially the right, tired more easily now. No sense wasting all her energy at the start.
The single-file snowshoe trail disappeared into the beech forest. She couldn’t determine how many snowshoers were on the trail, but there appeared to be at least three different types of snowshoe tracks.
Suzy stopped at the edge of the clear-cut to tighten her snowshoe bindings. John stood atop the snowbank looking on. She knew he worried about her going in alone. He’d have a fit when she told him her news.
“Tomorrow,” Suzy called over her shoulder. “Tell Tara and Tracie I love them.”
She wanted this time in the woods, alone, ice fishing and thinking. Once she’d drilled her ice holes and set up her ice-fishing gear, she planned to enjoy a little wine and wrestle with her inventory of worries while she waited for the fish to bite.
As she followed the biologists’ trail, she started to tally the list.
Number one, retirement. Very soon. She would miss the hunt of mineral exploration, but she had enough money to live well, and many places to visit before she couldn’t. A month ago, she imagined she could work well into her seventies, like her father had.
Two, family. She’d avoided parenthood, but she was doing okay in the auntie department. Coming back to live closer to her brother and sister might be a good move—maybe the Bangor area.
Three, was she ever going to find another man, or go it alone for the rest of her life?
Suzy chuckled. Maybe she should reprioritize that list.
Within a quarter mile, the biologists’ snowshoe trail veered left and joined a blazed survey line. She stayed on the old tote road. Her beaver-tail snowshoes sank knee-deep into the soft, untracked snow. After the first hill, she stopped for a water break and a snowshoe check. She shed her parka. Sweat ran in rivulets from her forehead and cheeks. She removed her ski hat and let the cold air bathe her scalp. The doctor had warned her to pace herself, but she felt like a young girl at the moment.
A Canadian Jay landed on a rock maple ten yards ahead. How did they survive these frigid winters?
Suzy thought of her ex-husband Michael’s passion for nature and landscape photography, wondering how he would compose this shot.
She never stopped loving him. But she understood. When they married, he’d been in love with Suzy the nature-loving idealist he’d met on safari in South Africa. Fifteen years later, he fell out of love with Susanne, the workaholic mining executive. She wondered if retirement would resurrect some of that young idealist?
The distant groan of a log truck interrupted her musings, and she decided the break was over.
She slogged through the hardwood forest along the southern flank of Big Moose Mountain, stopping frequently and cramming energy bars to keep fatigue at bay. Her practiced eye watched the sun descend until it became an orange orb dripping on the horizon. For a moment, she felt a quiver of doubt in the pit of her stomach. She had this … things always worked out for her … she’d just get there later than expected.
Suzy donned her headlamp before turning onto the short trail spur that would take her to the pond and the tote road trail John mentioned. She was at least an hour from camp if she took the shore trail, probably half that if she took the pond route. And, navigating the shore trail at night seemed fraught with challenges—especially towing a sled. Standing on shore, weighing her options, she decided in favor of conserving what little energy she had left. Cruising over the swath of wind-swept ice that meandered across the center of the pond seemed like the better option. Just get to the cabin, she told herself.
Ten yards in, she cursed herself for refusing John’s Sherpas. Her grandfather’s snowshoes provided as much traction as a pair of cafeteria trays. After the second fall, she muscled to her knees and unfastened the sled harness. She’d find the cabin and build a fire, then come back for the sled. So much for sipping wine by the fire while she pondered the miasma that had become her life. At least, if she threw in a charging moose or a stalking coyote, this hike to the pond would make a great adventure tale for her nieces.
Suzy pulled the down parka from the sled and tied the sleeves around her waist. She’d need it once she reached the cabin. She patted the chest pocket where she’d zipped in her lighter and fire-starter nuggets.
She walked over the wind-packed snow at the edge of the ice road. Through the moan of the wind and the creaking of trees, a hollow ripping sound erupted ahead on the left, toward shore. The ice must be expanding with the falling night temperature. Suzy inverted one ski pole to use as an ice spud and jabbed it downward twice, jarring her wrist … solid ice. Moose tracks cutting across her headlamp beam reassured her of adequate ice cover. A half-ton moose on four hooves would stress the ice much more than her hundred-and-forty pounds on snowshoes. She took five paces, checked the ice, listened, waited, and repeated. At this rate, she might still be doing this at sunrise—the trail might have been the better option. Four more probes and she increased the ice-check interval to ten paces.
The booming, cracking, and zinging all around startled her. Vibrations ran up her legs. She spun and raced towards the shore. The snow and ice around her collapsed. She pitched forward and held her breath. Braced for impact … for the icy pond to envelop her.
“Ghuahh ….” Water gushed into her nostrils. She was sure her sinuses would burst. The headlamp beam flashed in the murky water for an instant, then darkness. She whirled her arms, trying to right herself. But she’d become disoriented … unsure which direction was up. She stopped struggling for an instant and let herself sink, waiting for the shallow bottom, fighting the impulse for action. Pain stabbed her body like electric bolts.
The left snowshoe hit hard bottom—tail-first—and released. Her elbow and head made contact next. The roaring in her ears mixed with swirling water sounds as she wrestled the other shoe. Her lungs burned and her diaphragm spasmed. She planted both feet on gravel bottom and lunged upward, trailing the lone snowshoe like a wind-anchor. She exhaled as the crown of her head busted through the ice rubble. She gasped and flailed for something solid, trying to keep her mouth above water. She grabbed at an ice chunk the size of a boogie board and hung on as she kicked off the other snowshoe
Suzy dog-paddled through the ice field in pursuit of solid ice. A few more minutes in this water and she was toast. Twice, she clawed her way up and thrashed her legs until she beached herself like a seal, only to have the ice collapse when she rose to her knees. On the third effort, she battlefield crawled, half submerged in snow, until she was off the ice and onto solid shore.
Her legs trembled as she stood. She tucked her hands under her armpits and started high-stepping in place to generate body heat.
“Stay cool. You’ve got this.” No room for error. When the body temperature drops to 90 degrees, she’d start hallucinating.
Suzy slipped out of the dripping parka tied around her waist and left it on the snow. She’d lost her ski hat and deerskin mitts in the melee. She waded through crotch-deep snow along shore for what she guessed was a hundred feet, then crawled back toward the ice road on her hands and knees. Pain stabbed her ears and throbs reverberated up her arms with each hand fall. Hair icicles hung against her cheeks. She needed to find the sled fast. Don dry clothes and build a fire.
In moonless darkness, she stumbled along the ice path as if blind, shuffling, dragging her right foot, trying to divine the path by the scratching sounds of her boots on ice and their crunching descent into patches of snow. She fell, struggled up like a newborn foal, staggered forward ... repeat.
Focus … she had to focus.
Suzy crashed into the front of the sled and fell headlong on the cargo heap. Her nose and forehead smashed against something hard. She lay there, feeling for blood, but her hands were useless chunks of ice. She tried sorting her thoughts into a plan for building a fire, before she remembered leaving her parka on shore, with the lighter in it. But maybe, maybe that was the stupor setting in.
“Michael,” she called, “where did I leave my lighter.”
“Get into dry clothes,” he growled like he had when he was annoyed with her.
But she had nothing to cut the rope web that secured the gear and her duffel bag. The knot she’d tied was too elaborate for her frozen fingers.
Suzy clawed at the gear, trying to snag one of the lines. She nabbed the rope with her left, then worked her right under it, heaved and her hands gave way. Twice more … “FUCK.” She slammed the load with her elbow. “SHIT.” Her words sounded like baby echoes muffled by the noise inside her head.
She sank her teeth into the sleeping bag stuff-sack, tugged and swung her head from side to side, a coyote tearing into a fallen deer. The sack broke free and she fell back. With her forearms, she clutched the bag and stripped the sleeping bag out with her teeth. Biting the metal zipper, she unzipped the bag partway, stuck her head and shoulders inside the opening, and draped the rest of the bag over her back. Shivers racked her body, causing the sleeping bag liner to rustle—almost hiss—as it glided against her crusted hair.
Suzy recalled her father’s words on outdoor survival as she prepared to set off on her first solo deer hunt: use your resources ... don’t panic … and don’t give up ... never.
She sank to one knee and reached back to sweep the tail of the sleeping bag between her legs. Then she rolled into sitting position with the bag tucked beneath her. She hunched forward, hugging herself to minimize heat loss—if she had any left.
Over five decades of experience and guile, bested by nature. Twice within the space of a month that she had to contemplate her mortality.
The snarl of an engine—engines—stirred her. She sat up and drew her head from the bag. A cone of light bobbled along the opposite shore, followed by another. The lights moved beyond her, up the pond. She needed to flag them down when—if—they returned. First, she had to pee … so tired … should rest … then piss. She had time before they returned. Suzy burrowed her head inside the bag.
Searing heat jolted her awake. She bolted upright and shed the sleeping bag. She hauled the sodden fleece jacket and undershirt over her head, disentangled her arms, and threw the clothing aside. Suzy crawled ten yards and sat, elbows on her thighs, fists pressed to her chin.
The sound of blood coursing inside her head growled like a waterfall. Lights danced on the snow to her right. Then they sashayed on the cedar trees lining the shore ahead. The roaring in her head gave way to discordant snarls as the lights fused into one shimmering aura on the forest screen, gray trunks, green crowns, and snow.