A Frozen Slog

The following is a work of fiction

Snow clung onto the spruce trees. The ground was a blank canvas, without evidence of a track or the slightest disturbance on its surface. Over the past two days, snow had fallen continuously, blanketing the area with a foot and a half of fresh snow.  Trails and tracks had filled in. And all living activity ceased, as animals waited out the storm in their respective shelters.  Early this mid winter morning, the snow had finally slowed to a halt, as the clouds began to break up and yield to the stars displayed across the clear night sky.

If one was to look closely among the spruce trees, they would notice a faint light played out across the snow.  The source of that light came through the window of a small, log cabin nestled amongst the trees.  Made of spruce with moss chinking, the cabin blended in well with its environment.  Inside the cabin, Tom Knox dressed by the light of his sole kerosene lamp.  He was a trapper, placing himself out in the northern wilderness of Alaska in an effort to acquire enough fur to be able to send money to his family back home in the States. This wasn’t far from Tom’s mind at the moment, as he wondered if there were better options out there for a man with his skill set.  The day seemed like it would test his mettle, with the fresh snow and temperatures continually dropping, already below zero.

The trip could be put off no longer, especially with arrival of clearer skies.  Tom was set to run one of his lines, about 60 miles in length. A trip that could be done swiftly in five days with a good trail and conditions.  With his mukluks laced and parka on, he stepped out of his cabin into the crisp morning air.  There was no time to linger around on this morning and look at the stars as he often liked to do. Tom headed straight behind the cabin, to five distinct mounds of snow.  With a quick whistle, these mounds appeared to come to life as five Alaskan Huskies darted out of their snow covered abodes.  They were beautiful dogs, to the untrained eye they took on the appearance of wolves.  Yet, they were working dogs and there was plenty a time where they had served Tom above and beyond the call of duty.  Some of the dogs paced back and forth as Tom lashed the canvas sacks containing food and supplies to the sled.  With goods secured, Tom set about putting the dogs in their harnesses, leading them from their rope one by one.  Within minutes, the team was harnessed in front of the sled and ready to go.

The perception of what it is like to run a dog team is often different from the reality.  For one, the ability to travel on top of the snow without sinking is limited to a very brief period in the spring when a significant enough crust develops.  Otherwise, the sled and the dogs will sink down to the nearest layer of snow that is able to support them.  In the far north, the environment is as dry as a desert.  As such, the snow takes on a consistency like that of sugar, with a small water content.  Multiple layers do not develop and all travelers sink close to the bottom.  What this meant for Tom was that there would be little riding on the runners that day.  Instead, he would often be out in front of his dogs, breaking trail in snowshoes so that they could complete their route for the day.

For each mile forward Tom traveled with the sled, he actually travelled three.  Since starting outside the cabin, travel for the day followed a routine of Tom walking ahead of the dogs for a few hundred yards, returning to the sled and proceeding forward until reaching virgin snow where the process would start all over again.  It was slow and exhausting travel, by the time the first tinges of pink and orange graced the southern sky near midday, they had only traveled 4 miles in the 6 hours they had been out on the trail.  Frustrated at the slow travel, the dogs whined in their harnesses as Tom set forth to break another stretch through the forest.  It didn’t help matters that the mercury had continued to drop as the day wore on.  At his cabin, the thermometer had read five below zero but by mid day the temperature had plunged down further close to twenty below. By this point, the only thing buoying Tom’s spirits were the relatively full traps.  Atop of the burlap sacks were an ever increasing number of marten and lynx.

As the day wore on, light soon gave way to the long northern light during mid afternoon while the team trudged on.  The goal for the day was to reach one of Tom’s line cabins, 10 miles down the trail from his main home. Yet, by the time he was a little more than a mile from his cabin, it appeared he could go no further. Taking a break, he pulled some pemmican, made of caribou, bear fat and blueberries out from a bag lying atop the sled, hoping to gain some much needed energy.  With a minute increase in determination, he set forth once again, plodding in front of the dogs in the deep snow.  Seemingly making minimal progress, but advancing nonetheless one step at a time.

Tom and the team finally emerged out of the forest and onto the brush free expanse of King Creek.  Just a few hundred yards up the creek lay his cabin.  Throughout the course of the day, the wind had blown down the creek, reducing the depth of the snow in this area.  The dogs were able to proceed forward with a broken trail and with an awareness of where they were and an anticipation of a hearty meal they dug into their harnesses, pulling hard towards the cabin. Atop the runners, Tom drifted in and out of sleep, barely retaining enough consciousness to remain balanced on the sled. The sled slowed to a stop in front of the cabin. Tom, caught sleeping, fell off the sled and into the snow.  He contemplated just remaining there, going into a deep, eternal sleep.

A sharp bark remained him of his obligations and he slowly dragged himself up towards the cabin, canvas sacks in hand.   A pile of kindling lay atop strips of birch bark within the tin stove, awaiting the touch of a flame.  With great effort, Tom produced a match and lit the small pile ablaze.  Larger rounds of wood were thrown atop as the fire roared.  As quickly as he was able in his exhausted state, he set about arranging food for the dogs, a mixture of warm water, dried fish and beef tallow.  With their bowls set and dogs fed, Tom ambled back to his bunk.  Without feeding himself, he collapsed in the bed, almost instantaneously falling asleep.  The next morning he would awake, hopefully rested, as only the first part of the journey was complete. A similar day faced him as he set off down the trail through the forest in pursuit of his next cabin, 13 miles down the line.


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