Taiga

The snow crunches underfoot, holding his weight momentarily on its crisp surface before crumbling and sinking him to the knee. It’s bad snow for the moose; their heavy bodies sink fast and deep while the wolves skate across the frozen crust, gaining the advantage. Aleksey heard them three nights ago, howling a few kilometers from his hut – they are restless and eager for spring to arrive. Winter is coming to an end, but the thermometer this morning shows -20 degrees.

His dogs are awake, but haven’t come out from under their shelter yet. The best of them, Mariya, sleeps nearest to the entrance, blocking the wind from the others and training her eyes on Aleksey as he starts the snowmobile and slaps at his body with heavy mittens to move his blood. She is ready to work. The other two – Mitya, the pup, and Maxim, his sire – are cowering from the cold. Mitya is lazy in camp, but eager on the trail. Maxim’s best days are behind him; he is nearly nine. The dogs stir, and finally emerge as Aleksey pulls a frozen pike from a hook and begins hacking pieces of it for their breakfast. They scarf the fish greedily as he returns inside to fetch his rifle, and are licking their chops clean when he returns and mounts the snowmobile.

They head north from the camp, taking a worn trail deep into the forest where the traps are laid. The day is bright, and the snow is brilliant white; it stings his eyes even through the dark goggles he has used for several seasons. It has snowed twice since he last checked this territory, but the deep ruts of his sled are still easily visible. The dogs run behind him, taking detours into the forest at will, but always returning to his wake. They are happy today – full of energy since they hadn’t moved camp in two weeks. Mitya chases the rare squirrel when he catches a scent, but he isn’t quick enough to do more than worry them. Maxim lags behind, even slowing to a walk at times; Aleksey doesn’t slow for him.

He nears a patch of trees where he has tied a band of red plastic tape around a pair of pines at eye level – the first set of traps is a couple hundred meters into the thicket. Aleksey dismounts and chokes the snowmobile, basking for a moment in the immense silence of the taiga. He unpacks his skis from the sled and searches the area for a branch to push himself along. Finding a sapling the width of his wrist, he knocks the twigs off it with his hatchet, steps into the skis and moves into the thicket with the dogs at his heels.

Together, they move from trap to trap. The first two are snapped shut, but empty – triggered by the snow and robbed of their bait after they’d been made useless. His heart sinks. But the next trap is full, with a nice sized sable hanging dead and frozen in its jaws. Another swings dead in the next trap, and three more follow. By the end of the day, only four snares have come up dry. The dogs have done their jobs too; Mitya cornered and fat female inside a hollow log, and Mariya chased another down shortly after lunch, snapping its neck with her jaws and bringing it back to him with no blood stains on the pelt. After checking the last trap, he spots a forest cock within fifty yards. Carefully he levels his rifle at it and fires, dropping it before it can flap a wing. In his good spirit, he lops off its feet and neck with his hatchet and gives them to the dogs, scratching them behind the ears and singing songs his mother sang to him as a boy.

He returns to the snowmobile with a pack stuffed full with sable. It is a good haul, and will keep him well in front of his number for the season. He is happy until he sees how far the sun has sunk to the west.  He wasted too much time celebrating his bounty; it would be dark long before he reached the hut. He turns the sled around and lets the engine roar in frustration, eager to make up time. Halfway home, he flips on the dim headlight and squints ahead as the dogs struggle and gasp to keep up.

Five kilometers from the hut, the snow begins to fall in heavy clumps, and he pushes the sled to its limit. He worries he will lose sight of the trail and be forced to slow down. The temperature is plummeting, falling well below -40 degrees; his legs are growing numb, no longer warmed from his work. Over the groan of the engine, he doesn’t hear Mariya barking.

Finally, the hut comes into view and he mumbles his thanks to God he can get warm and enjoy his dinner by the small stove inside. He kills the snowmobile out front and hastily unpacks the sled, hanging the sable from a rafter underneath the porch. He finds the remainder of the pike in his pack and cuts up the rest of it for the dogs, throwing it into three piles in front of their shelter. They hadn’t returned yet, having fallen behind in his pace, but they know the way; they are good dogs.

He rushes inside where he sheds his clothes and starts a fire while he shivers. Soon the hut warms, and he butchers the forest cock, roasting it with potatoes and thick gravy. Outside, he hears one of the dogs bedding down in the shelter, kicking out snow to get comfortable. He beds down for the night full and happy; spring would arrive soon, and he would return home with a heavy haul of pelts. On the verge of sleep, he hears the wolves again – closer this time.

In the morning, only Mariya greets him.

 

 

 

 

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