“What are you talking about?” It was dangerous to be lost in the sub-arctic wilderness, especially in winter.
“You and I aren’t where we should be.”
We found the beaver trap.” Albert tried to keep the panic out of his voice. “You told me Indians don’t get lost.”
Fred smiled. “Well, maybe sometimes… There are supposed to be two traps, right near each other.” He carefully released the no. 330 conibear and pulled it off the dead animal. Its neck was broken, its fur intact. It was young, not too large, but not too small to bring a bit of money at the NorthWest Company’s fur auction. Not too small to make a good meal for everybody in their tipi.
Albert preferred his meat to come shrink-wrapped on styrofoam, or better yet, cooked and placed on the table by his mother. But he was on an important mission, and would put up with eating food he had to kill and butcher himself. Well, maybe not himself: by his friends and hosts. He had to watch them do it, though.
“Maybe George got confused about how many traps he set.” This was George’s territory; Fred was George’s cousin and both Fred and Albert were George’s guests.
“There are supposed to be two streams here. Do you think he’s confused about land he’s trapped on all his life?”
Albert shook his head as he took the pack off his shoulders. He held it open as Fred slid the beaver in.
“I think I know where we went wrong,” Fred said. “George said the river narrowed, but it was still too wide when we turned off to follow the stream.”
Albert looked all around as he wrung his hands. He didn’t see anything that indicated a good route to follow. And if he had, he wouldn’t say anything. He was utterly dependent on his friend, and it would be stupid to pretend otherwise. “What if we can’t find our way back? What are we going to do?” Fred looked too cheerful for someone lost in a vast wilderness.
“Well, what do you usually do when you’re lost?”
“I ask someone directions.”
Fred continued to smile. “So ask.”
Albert didn’t want to let himself cry. “How do we get back?”
Fred shrugged. “How the hell should I know?” He re-set the trap, and started walking towards the sun, which was slowly heading towards the treetops.
Albert ran to catch up. “We came from the other direction.”
“Keep your distance; the ice isn’t strong enough to support two of us walking together.” Fred didn’t smile as he said it.
Albert dropped back a few yards. “Seriously, do you know how to get to the tipi?”
Fred shrugged again.
The wind was picking up. Was a storm blowing in? That was all they needed. Lost in the wilderness, eighty miles from the nearest village, about five hundred miles from the nearest road. No way to communicate, except face to face with each other.
Fred pointed to the sky. “At least it’ll be pretty clear tonight. We’ll have a full moon to light our way.”
Night? They would be walking at night? While lost? What if Fred was wrong, and there was a snowstorm? Albert felt his stomach rising as they trudged in silence towards the setting sun. The glare off the river ice was painful, but he wasn’t anxious for the sun to sink below the trees. He kept his eyes pointed low, just high enough to see the boots ahead of him. Getting more nervous as Fred’s shadow grew longer.
Albert Bronstein wanted to be the boy from Brooklyn who saved the natives from the ravages of colonialism. Prospectors had determined that the Waska Indians’ traditional trapping grounds were littered with rare earths. Within a couple of years, mining corporations would be leveling forests, building roads and airstrips. The verdant forests and lakes would become home to open-pit mines and tailing ponds, housing complexes and heliports–unless an environmental review could show that the mines would cause irreparable harm to the people already living there. So Albert was spending the winter, courtesy of a generous International Friends of the Forest Foundation grant, documenting that the Waska lived off the land, lived with nature. With that money, he was almost Indian himself. Albert had proudly joined his new people walking the forests, fishing the lakes, sleeping in a canvas tipi as the temperature touched thirty below zero. Using a fallen tree as a privy at thirty below, cleaning himself with snow when he ran out of toilet paper. Getting lost because Fred, a native-born Indian who held his life in his hands, took a wrong turn.
Albert trusted Fred. Whenever he traveled to the village of Painted Valley, he stayed with Fred’s family, living in their simple wooden house, sharing a single heated room and the outhouse that should have been covered up years earlier. When Fred came south for hospital treatment of his arthritis, he stayed with Albert’s family—unless he was too drunk, of course, in which case they put him in the garage. But they loved each other like brothers. Albert was an only child, so he wasn’t sure what that meant. But it sounded comforting.
Albert was good with languages, and had learned Waska quickly. Fred was fluent in English, as were most of the younger people in the community, because they had been forbidden to speak their own language at school. Fred attributed his bad back to beatings he had received there for speaking Waska. Albert felt that if he spoke to them in English, it would be taking advantage of their oppression; it would be a form of exploitation.
They had met on Albert’s second visit to Painted Valley. Fred had helped himself to a couple of large bottles of the church’s sacramental wine, and they got wasted together. Albert felt terrible when he found out where the wine had come from, and apologized to the Pastor. The Pastor immediately and graciously accepted the apology, making him feel worse.
A loud bang, like a high-powered rifle shot shattered Albert’s ruminations. “What was that? Is someone shooting?” Was George, was anyone signaling them?
Fred looked back and laughed, then kept on going. “I wish. It’s the ice shifting.”
“I’m going to walk on land.” His obligations to Friends of the Forest wouldn’t be served by falling through the ice. He was too unhappy to complain about Fred’s wish for a truck. He pushed the idea of a loud, warm cab from his mind.
“Hey! Look at those tracks.” Fred pointed to the river ice as Albert scrambled towards shore.
“Chicken white man tracks. Where do you think they came from?” He was enjoying this too much.
Albert’s shoulders sagged. He tried to comfort himself that if Fred wasn’t concerned, he shouldn’t be, either.
Fred swept his arm across the terrain. “It’ll be too slow walking cross-country. I’m not waiting for you. If you really insist on staying off the ice, wait here until the mining road is built. It’s supposed to pass very close to this spot.”
Albert took small, gentle steps as he trod back to the center of the frozen river, and resumed following Fred. The sun was no longer in his eyes. They walked by the light of the moon, hanging huge and bright above them. Dark clouds raced through the sky, an ominous warning of something, he didn’t know what, in the distance. He expected the howl of wolves, but the only sounds were their footsteps, the threatening whispers of the wind, and occasional groan of the ice. Albert shivered, but not from the cold.
“How do you know where the mining roads are supposed to be?”
“The company gave a presentation in Painted Valley.”
“Fred, there are five mining companies involved in a consortium. They’re going to use their millions of dollars to rip up all the land.”
“I know. Vickers Resource Corporation did the presentation, because they have the mineral rights around our trap lines.”
“They want to poison your lands, Fred. Don’t let them poison your minds first.”
Fred laughed. “Don’t worry about my mind. Whiskey is the only poison I use on it. You should worry more about keeping yourself above the ice.”
Albert sighed. “How do I know when it’s breaking under me?” If he could understand that, maybe he wouldn’t leave all those chicken white man tracks.
“It’s simple. When your face is closer to the river and your feet are wet, it means the ice can’t support you.”
“What if we don’t find our way back soon?”
“You have an ax. You’ll find a place to make a shelter, and wait till morning.”
You? What happened to we? And if he waits till morning? Albert didn’t bother saying it out loud. He didn’t want any more remarks like the last ones.
The wind was blowing hard. His beard was full of frost, his mustache full of frozen snot. He’d been excited about this expedition, getting close to nature. He didn’t mean to get this close. Albert’s expensive down parka, expedition mitts and boots protected him from the cold, but not from the isolation. Not from being lost.
The ice was making a different sound below his feet. He looked down, and to his horror saw little wavelets lapping at the underside of the thin, glassy river ice. He picked up his pace, stepping gently so as not to break through.
“Slow down.” Fred glanced over his shoulder. “You’re too close for comfort.”
The moon was high when they finally climbed off the frozen river. Albert hadn’t asked any more questions, hadn’t run to shore; hadn’t complained at all. He silently followed Fred’s footsteps, ducking branches, avoiding rocks, trying to avoid tears.
Fred stopped, and hung his pack on a tree limb. “I want tea and donuts.”
“No, please, let’s just keep going.”
Fred pointed to some brush. “Take your ax; get some wood.”
“The longer we stop, the longer it is till we find our way back.”
“Really? You mean that? Albert, my friend, you’re full of surprises. I’ll tell you what. You go ahead without me if you want. If not, get some wood, so I can enjoy a hot tea.” Fred swept some snow off a fallen tree, and sat down.
The tea was surprisingly good. Hot and very sweet, in a large, chipped enamel mug. The donuts were balls of fried flour dipped in sugar, and were better than the chocolate coconut or glazed almond donuts that Albert often had for breakfast down south.
“I told you it would make you feel better.”
Fred hadn’t told him that. Nor had Albert said anything about feeling better. There was no point though in denying it.
“Fred, what did you mean when you said you wish the noise had been a truck back-firing?”
“Trucks are a lot less dangerous than walking on thin ice over fast water. And if there was a truck, we would have a warm ride.”
“And your way of life would be over. Your people would be destroyed.”
Fred scowled. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“We’re going to stop that mining project, Fred. You know why I’m here. We’re not going to let those mining companies ruin your forests, pollute your rivers. Friends of the Forest will fight to make sure you can continue hunting and trapping, living off the land as the Waska have for generations.”
“Is that really why you’re here?”
“Why? What did you think?”
“I thought you wanted to spend time with your friends, and learn how to hunt.”
Albert nodded. “Well, exactly. I’m here to help you, to help the Waska.”
Fred stood up. “Hand me your twenty-two rifle.”
He passed his rifle over. Fred held it upright, weighing it, and then gave it back.
“It would do the job. A thirty-oh-six would be too messy.” He glared at Albert. “You may be a friend of the forest, but you’re no friend of the Indians.”
“Of course I am. I just want to—”
“Everyone in Painted Valley has stock options in Vickers. They’ve guaranteed a lot of high-paying jobs, even given some people contracts. We’ll make more money in a month than we could in a lifetime of trapping.”
“It’s the same thing to us: harvest beaver pelts, harvest rare earths. Both are living off the land. But one pays a lot better and doesn’t involve trudging through the forest on a cold night in winter. I could work in a heated excavator, sipping tea from a thermos, listening to music. I would earn the price of a beaver pelt in less than an hour.”
Albert’s beard was covered with ice, but Fred’s eyes radiated fire. “And you and your forest friends, in your big comfortable houses down south, want to take that away from me.” Fred picked up his thirty-oh-six, weighing it in his arm.
Albert took a step backward. He tripped, and fell into the snow. He propped himself up on his arms, waiting for the shot. There was no point running, because there was nowhere safe to go. Even if there was, he wouldn’t know how to get there.
Fred took a step forward. “How did your grandfather feed his family?”
“Was he a hunter? A researcher like you? Or maybe a country and western singer?”
Better not to argue with someone holding a loaded thirty-oh-six. “A peddler. He sold hardware from a cart he pushed through the streets.”
“How does your father feed your family?”
“He has a small trucking company.”
“So why aren’t you a peddler or a truck driver?”
“I decided to study—”
“Why do I have to live like my grandfather, while you can do whatever you want?”
“Because…um…you have a precious way of life here.”
“What’s so precious? The snow? You like lying in the snow like an idiot?”
Albert hesitated, and then stood up.
“You like crapping outside at thirty below zero? Is that why you’re always constipated? Because it’s so precious? Tell me, if it’s so precious, why don’t you get up before dawn to light the fires? Why do you always leave it to George and me?”
“I suppose I—”
“Next time we check the fish nets, you’ll stick your hands through the ice, not me. Let’s see how much you want to save our way of life when you have to live it, not play at it.” Fred extended his arm like a rifle, pointing at Albert’s head. He lifted his thumb, bent his index finger inwards and made a popping sound with his lips. “Don’t worry. You’re my friend. I won’t shoot you.”
Albert exhaled, and touched Fred’s arm. “I appreciate that.”
“You didn’t think I would, did you?”
“No.” He smiled and shook his head. “We’re friends, like brothers.” Albert wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Maybe I’ll trap you instead. A nice leg-hold for you to step into.”
Albert forced himself to laugh.
Fred patted his shoulder. “Ready for a long walk?”
They packed up the mugs and the little kettle, kicked some snow over the remains of the fire, and continued their trudge through the forest. Albert tried, but didn’t completely succeed in pushing away his dread of being shot. It kept him from arguing further about saving the forest, saving the Waska.
They were in some kind of valley. The trees were closer together; not much light made it through to the forest floor. When he could see the moon it was bright and clear, but with dark clouds scudding quickly past. The snow was deep, and they sank down with every step. Albert was soon exhausted, from exertion as well as fear.
The light had a hard time, but the wind made it easily through the trees, chilling Albert’s face. He pulled up the hood of his parka, unfolding the extension to make a small, wolf-fur tunnel in front of his eyes and nose. His cuffed mitts were thick down, with fleece on top for wiping the snot that was inevitable when the temperature sank too far. It wasn’t the weather that was making his heart congeal.
They trudged on through the silence. Did Fred have any idea where he was leading them?
An open area marked a frozen-over pond. The moon was bright overhead, lighting their way. The Northern Lights shimmered and danced, painting messages across the canvas of the sky. An ocean of stars roared quietly above them, marking their plodding progress towards an unknown somewhere.
There was something barely visible in the forest ahead; something yellow. It took a moment for Albert to realize it was a small flame. “There’s somebody there. Call for help!”
“We don’t yell in the woods. They know we’re here.”
Albert took a deep breath. “I’m safe!” He grabbed Fred’s arm. “We’re safe.”
George waited for them in a little clearing. Albert pulled off his hood, and ran to clasp his hand.
“Wow, am I happy to see you.”
“How did you know where to find us? Have you been looking for a long time?”
Albert waited for more, but quickly realized that was all the explanation he was going to provide. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“I brought some bannock.”
Bannock, fried bread, was probably the main source of Albert’s chronic constipation in the forest. At this moment he was too grateful to care. “Yes, please.”
George waited until Albert had finished eating, and then set off towards his tipi, towards their sanctuary in the forest. Fred fell in behind, and Albert followed them both. There were hills to their right, a pond behind them, and a river to the left. Ahead was civilization as they knew it: a conical log frame structure with canvas walls, a spruce bough floor, and most importantly, two steel oil drums converted into wood stoves, which could easily overpower the frigid temperatures. Albert felt warm in anticipation. He felt safe.
The wind was picking up, the temperature was dropping. He breathed in deeply, and spat out. The hairs on his neck rose up when he saw his saliva hit a birch tree and bounce right off. Frozen spit meant you had passed a of dangerous temperature threshold. He pulled up his hood, and hurried to catch up. His friends were walking quickly, not looking back.
Albert pulled down his hood. “What? I didn’t hear you.”
Fred turned around and pointed at something. “Watch out for the hole.”
Albert found it, by falling in. It was deep, soft, and wide. He quickly took off a mitt and wiped the snow from his face and hair He tried to pull himself out, but the white, powdery ground gave way under his arms. He took a breath, and waited for George and Fred to get him.
He stood patiently, rubbing his arms, his nose, shifting his feet. Fred had told him you don’t yell in the forest, but this joke was getting stale. “Fred!”
Same response. Albert listened for the sound of their breathing, laughing; of their doing anything. There was nothing to hear.
Albert’s parka, his mitts, all his clothes, were designed for the kind of temperature he was exposed to now; designed to keep out the wind and the cold. But they couldn’t protect him against silence, which penetrated everything. Albert’s teeth chattered loudly, his knees shuddered. He half-expected the noise from his pounding heart to knock the snow from the tree branches above him.
Nothing. He was trapped, just as Fred had promised.
He jumped up, swinging his arms wildly in search of a handhold. He grasped only snow, and fell back panting, his mind frozen by fear.
Time to surrender. “I won’t stop the mining project! Let me out.” As if it was up to him. He looked for an arm to pull him from the trap. It wasn’t because of the dark that he didn’t see one.
What if there were wolves? He wouldn’t be able to escape them. What other predators lived in these woods? Bears? Albert was terrified of the forest he had befriended.
He sat down in the snow and looked carefully around, peering through the shadows. His prison was boat-shaped; long and narrow, curving slightly upwards at one end. It was like a cleft in the forest floor. If one of the ends rose gradually, he could just walk out. The accumulated snow might have made it look steeper. An escape, it seemed, was up to him. Albert dug frantically with his hands, created a ramp, and quickly climbed out. He flopped down on the ground, panting.
Good. He was free of the trap. It was clear that he had to rely on himself, not his supposed friend. He had a rifle, an ax, food, warm clothes. It wasn’t like he was helpless.
Now what? He wished Fred’s warm truck would come by to pick him up, or better yet, one of his father’s. Maybe his next visit to Painted Valley would be in an eighteen-wheeler, after the mining roads were built.
Would he come again? That would require ending this visit alive, which would require as a first step, surviving the night.
Fred had given him a few donuts to keep in his pack, which meant he wouldn’t go hungry right away. Was all this planned? Did giving the donuts mean Fred would come back for him, or imply that he was waiting just down the path? Albert could see his footprints leading away; they wouldn’t be too hard to follow.
But not at night. What if he lost the trail, and made a wrong turn? Everything he had learned about the wilderness taught that if you’re lost, stay put because moving around will just make it harder for others to find you.
Nice idea, but it started with the assumption that someone was looking. Albert was lost because the only people who knew where he was had deliberately left him behind. He was too frightened to go anywhere, anyways.
There was a large boulder off to the side. That would be his shelter. Albert quickly chopped some scraggly spruce boughs, making a rough and uncomfortable mat to keep his body from direct contact with the snow. He looked for something to cover himself with, but decided there was nothing around that would be of any use. He put his knapsack down beside him, tried unsuccessfully to get comfortable leaning against the rock, and shut his eyes.
The knapsack. He had a dead beaver in it. That might attract a bear, or some other predator. But he couldn’t get rid of it. It belonged to Fred. Well, to George really; it was George’s trapping grounds. He pictured himself handing George the large, dead rodent, and George gratefully inviting him into his heated, crowded tipi.
Not likely. He had to hold on to the beaver because it might be his only food until he found help. And how would he do that? Besides George and his family, the only people he had any hope of finding were eighty miles to the west, in a village by a river, a few miles in from the coast. Albert took the knapsack, and hung it on the highest tree branch he could reach.
He sat back down, and closed his eyes again, expecting either not to sleep or not to wake up. He was warm enough now, but how would he be when the temperatures plummeted, when he wasn’t moving? The boulder sheltered him from the wind, but that was all. He looked around again for something to cover himself with. There was still nothing. He pulled off his mitts, made sure the cuffs of his pants were drawn tight, the hood of his parka was tunneled, that everything that could be tucked or snapped in place to keep him warm was properly positioned. He wiped the tears from his face, and put his mitts back on his already-chilled fingers.
He pulled his mitts off, stood up, went to the knapsack, and ate the donuts. He was too frightened to be hungry, but figured they would provide extra warmth. He sat back down.
His toes were numb. He knew that was a problem, but couldn’t think of anything to do about it. He certainly wasn’t going to get up again till morning, if at all. If he was going to freeze to death, alone in the wilderness, he might as well get it over with.
His leg was starting to cramp up. Or was it getting stiff from the cold? A comforting warmth started to move up from his feet. This was it. He knew the hallucinations of death were taking him, easing him out of this world.
Love like a brother. That’s how Fred described his feelings towards Albert. Some brother, abandoning him because of a threat to his stock options. Was that the Indian way of treating people? Was that gratitude for Albert’s efforts, for Friends of the Forest’s attempts to save the Waska way of life?
“Get up, you idiot.” It was as if Fred had sent his voice to taunt him.
Yes, he was an idiot to try to give these people help that they didn’t appreciate. But no, there was no point getting up.
“Get up!” Fred had sent his foot as well, and it was pushing at Albert’s legs. “We’ve been waiting for you for fifteen minutes. It couldn’t have taken that long to climb out of the hole.”
Fred was standing above him. George was off to the side, examining the beaver in the knapsack.
Albert pulled off his hood, and pushed himself up from the ground.
“What the hell are you doing? Why were you lying down?”
“I thought, um… I thought it would be better to stay put, in case someone came looking for me.”
Fred shook his head. “Why should someone come looking for you? You weren’t lost. It’s safer to stay together, especially when all you know about life in the wilderness comes from fairy tales.”
“But Friends of the For—”
“Like I said: fairy tales.”
“When did you decide to come back for me?”
“As soon as we realized you weren’t following.”
“I fell in the hole.”
“Yeah, but you climbed out easily enough.” He pointed at Albert’s rough mat. “Why did you cut branches? I hope that’s not supposed to be a bed.”
Albert stared at his feet, as he realized what his error.
Heat radiated again from Fred’s eyes, as he too, understood. He slammed an open hand against Albert’s chest, knocking him to the ground. He folded his arms together and glared. “You son of a bitch. You thought I abandoned you.”
Albert looked everywhere but up. “I’m sorry. I should have known better.”
Fred shook his head. “Yes, Albert, you should have. Maybe where you come from, friends abandon each other, but not here.”
“Look at that!” The rage in his face had been replaced by a grin. He pointed at Albert, lying on the ground.
“Chicken white man.” Fred laughed.
Albert gave him a feeble nod.
“Come on. Let’s go back to a warm tipi, and wait for a truck.”
“Can I have a ride when it comes?”
“Will you pay for the gas?” Fred grabbed Albert’s hand and pulled him up.
“We’ll get money from Friends of the Forest. The corporations give them plenty.”