Tater pulls with such heart and charisma. Not many dogs will pull like this. I see him throw his weight forward, the strain of his strong little body tugging against the flat straps of his harness, the tight little muscles on either side of his hind quarters bulge as he pushes off with his back feet. He is too thin. I might be too. We are skijoring and it is nearly night. I am up in the clouds, where they have bent low over the tall cap of Scout Mountain, the heroic peak at the South end of the Portneuf Valley. With Tater’s help I am flying through white on white on white. The trees are gracious, leaning phantasms, their shadows prickly and darkly spreading are a kind of harbinger of the cusp of night. It’s nearly upon us.
I keep my knees close together and bend them deeply with each double pole pass I make, letting my arms fly out full and reaching behind me. I can feel my shoulders and back turning hot beneath my various layers of clothing. I call out “YIP YIP” to Tater, which is my run command for him. He digs in a little deeper, I feel the tug of a power increase, a jarring little jerk at my waist where I am connected to him with a waist belt and run line. My quadriceps are burning. An owl flys from its perch in a stately douglas fir. There’s no one else around.
I didn’t mean to leave the house so late but the days seem so much longer now, than they did in December. I’m tricked into stretching the daylight hours out further then they can really stretch and I realize, halfway up the mountain, that I’m going to be skiing down in the dark. I call Tater to a stop, pull my pack off my back and rummage around for my headlamp. I’m glad I thought to bring it. I put it on, over my toque and check to see if it’s working. The batteries have been jiggling loose lately and it’s been prone to randomly shutting off. I put my pack back on, flip my pole loops over my hands and wrists, and call Tater onward.
I love doing things in the dark, in the woods. It can be terribly lonesome and spooky. At times, it makes one pine for the light, count the minutes until sunrise. On nights when the sky is clear as a spring creek, it feels almost cozy and crystalline, quiet and thrumming, peaceful and bright. It’s cloudy tonight, and snowing gently. On a clear night, I’d be marveling at the cosmos spread out above like a picnic for the eyes — blue twinkle and dusty milky way with a scoop of glittering horizon line graced with a tilted, fingernail clipping of a moon rising through the sky. But tonight, the night is thick and dark. I think I feel it pooling around me as I move. I dig harder with my poles and feel my heart rate rise a little more as I push myself harder. Tater responds with even greater heart and haste. The sooner we make it to the top, the sooner we can come down.
The greater our ascension, the thicker the cloud. Visibility is poor now. The temperature has dropped and I can feel the snow hardening beneath my skis. I call out encouragement to Tate, to comfort myself with my own voice, to let the wild things know we are coming. We are breathing hard from physical exertion, it’s as though our breath has turned the world around us to alabaster gloom. Tater veers to the right and looks up at the tree tops, a large shadow of a bird rises up, in an awkward flap of wings, swoops about in a bumbling loop and settles once more in the same tree.
Oh! The top! The top! I praise Tater for his hard work, unclip his harness from my waist belt, command him to heel at my left hip and turn my skis North — it always feels so natural and relieving to point myself North, I wonder if all Northerners feel this way? It’s cold now. I can feel the roots of the air wending about my cheeks and lips. My braid is frosted over. I zip my jacket hood up higher and push my mouth beneath the edge of my neck warmer. I press the button on my headlamp and there is light! I begin the steep, downhill journey back to the truck. The snow has turned slick and fast, crusted over with a veneer of ice. My skis jump in and out of ruts as I snowplow hard on tight, steep corners. My knees are growing weary. Tater keeps pace at my left hip, never leaving my side, and I sing out loud, as boisterously as I can, the Canadian anthem in French because the sound of my voice diffused through the timber seems to roll back the dark. It’s hard to see. I fall down once when my left ski bounces out of a rut and smears slowly over a pile of frozen coyote scat. I manage to catch myself and draw my body in from the brink of disaster, but sit down hard anyway and laugh out loud over what tripped me up.
We zoom lower and lower, my legs struggle to control my speed now. I’m tired. Suddenly we find ourselves at the gate, just beyond is my rig. I unclip my bindings and crunch over to the truck where I drop my skis in the back along with my pack. Tater and I hop in our ride, I turn the key in the ignition, halfway to warm the glowplugs, and the rest of the way to turn the engine over into a growly purr. I turn on the radio, a Keith Urban song is playing, I tap my finger tips on the wheel and sing along as we make for home.
When I reach the house, Robert is in the kitchen cooking dinner. My face is still stung pink by cold wind and cloud kiss. He asks me how it was and I declare, “Beautiful and terrifying. I’m so glad I went.“