A true story from the winter of ’75.
BY DONNA CLAYSON
From behind, I could feel the eyes following my every step. I guessed there were half a dozen or so wolves behind me. Every so often I would catch a glimpse of one or two out of my peripheral vision and yet not being certain if I had seen them at all … perhaps just an apparition.
Each time I turned in that direction, there was nothing but willows and aspens.
The baby in the pack on my back began to whimper. In a way, I was thankful she had been quiet for the last hour so as not to entice the timber wolves closer, wanting to investigate the sound.
There was no way I could reach back and comfort her or remove her from her prison, to hold her close to me and warm her freezing extremities. I had been bent over, trying to balance the load on my back for so long that I feared that straightening up or stopping would render me too tired to keep going or, worse yet, falling, permitting the pack to close in.
From the pocket of my parka, I retrieved the baby’s bottle, which held half-frozen milk, and tucked it under my armpit, hoping to thaw it. Perhaps the familiar bottle would settle the baby somewhat.
The pack on my back began feeling heavy and there was a piece of it digging into my side. I tried shifting it a bit, but, with the weight of the baby, the pack would sit only one way.
I couldn’t believe I had allowed myself to get lost in the Yukon wilderness.
The bright December day was cool but perfect for a walk, and I wanted to search for a brand-new watch received as a gift at Christmas and lost while training our dog team. My little dog was excited to go on an adventure, pawing at the thin layer of snow and attacking the frozen cranberries as they enticed her ever-sensitive nose.
It wasn’t long before the pup whimpered, tired of the game. Her feet were cold, but I couldn’t pick her up, afraid that if I leaned too far forward I would lose my balance from the weight of the pack. Soon she would have to fend for herself as I searched for the right path that would take me back to the trailhead.
There were three trails: one five-mile loop, a 10-mile and the 15-mile loop. This area was familiar to me, to all the mushers, but when not paying attention it was easy to get confused – and lost.
The hairs on my body stood on end when the wolves started howling, their vocals reverberating off the surrounding mountains. I needed to get back quickly to the trailhead, to the warmth and safety of the truck.
I knew the wolves were close by as every so often they would show themselves on both sides of the trail, no longer transparent. I came to a fork in the road, not sure which path to take. I looked at the mountains trying to get my bearings …
If I took the wrong path, it would lead me into the 15-mile loop and deeper into the bush. The correct path would take me to the trailhead, to warmth and safety, within a half hour. Again the wolves howled and I shivered.
I could no longer hear the pups’ whimpering, and when I looked down at my feet for her she was gone.
I chose the right fork, and my steps quickened. I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my eye. The inquisitive pack was much closer, braver and I could clearly see five of them. They were glaring at me with their heads down, tails low, probably pondering their next move. I quickened my steps, walking as fast as I could in the direction I hoped was correct.
It was getting too dark to see the wolves clearly or the trail in the faint light; all I could make out were shapes. The canines were constantly moving – first on my left, then on my right, and when I couldn’t see them, I knew they were behind me. I hoped that mushers who knew I was on the trail would come looking for me.
In the meantime, the mushers were, in fact, getting a search party together. Thank goodness I left word with friends that I was going onto the trail. A couple had brought in their snow machines as they would be able to cover a larger area more quickly than a dog team.
As they started their engines, the moon was peeking over the mountain tops and reflecting off the peaks. The rescue party could hear the wolves howling and thought it best to head for the sounds, thinking correctly that I would be close by.
The first snow machine quit and they couldn’t get it started again. The second machine roared to life, but it, too, quit immediately. It was noted later, after I was safe, that the drivers could find no reason as to why the engines quit and could not be started again.
Dog teams were called into action.
Four teams arrived with six dogs each. These dogs knew the trails well as they had spent many hours training on them. It was going to be tricky, though, getting the dogs to head toward the howls of the wolves.
And only a seasoned musher with well-trained dogs would be able to convince them to continue on down the trail. Soon the teams were ready as the mushers hoped I had stayed on one of the paths.
In the meantime, I continued my quest for safety. I didn’t dare stumble or fall as I was certain the wolves would be on us in a second. I had to step carefully around the tree stumps, pointing up through the snow, which was difficult in the dimness.
Thank goodness the moon afforded a bit of light. With the sparse landscape of only willows, at times, tickling the edge of the trail, I hoped I would not stray. I needed to stay on the well-worn path. Somewhere I had lost the bottle of milk.
After what seemed like hours of circling on the trails, I finally walked out to where the truck was parked just as the teams were leaving. The temperature at that time was a cool minus 30.
The mushers saw me with my head down, concentrating on every step. I was unaware that I was finally safe as they ran over to help. As one of the men lifted the baby out of the pack, another grabbed me as I fell forward, finally free of the pack’s weight, unable to stand up straight after being bent over for four hours.
The baby made no sound; in fact, she was rigid from the cold. Quickly, the musher yelled out to Helen, who lived close to the trail, to throw flannelette sheets into the dryer to warm them, and to get some warm milk. As the musher ran with the baby, to the warmth of the neighbour’s trailer, I was also being ushered, unceremoniously, to warmth and safety.
As the warmed flannelette sheets touched our cold bodies, the pain was excruciating! Finally, I heard the baby cry when the pain registered. It was so good to hear her.
The pup? She came out not long after we did. She was cold, limping and whimpering, but all right.
The lost watch? I found it the following spring.