Snow falls ever so softly, forming around the bases of trees, clothing naked branches in white. An icy wind breaths through the forest, numbing my face. The wood appears devoid of life, the phantom of winter having driven away the birds, and caused the great bear to retreat to his cave. Save for my face the rest of my body is warm, bundled layer-after-layer like an Egyptian mummy. The whisky-laced coffee I’d drank back at the lodge still kindles in the pit of my stomach.
I should only be gone for a day, maybe two. Slung over my shoulder is a back-pack; enough provisions to see me through for a week. I always over-pack, you never know how long you might be out there.
I’ve had friends who’ve underestimated the unforgiving, unbiased power of God’s creation; it didn’t go well for them.
I’ll never forget the time I found the gaunt, frozen corpse of a man propped up against a fallen tree. His glazed eyes seemed to stare me down as I approached him. His rifle lay beside him, along with an empty rug-sack. Clenched in the dead man’s hands was an New Testament Bible, it’s pages soaked, it’s binding withered. A look of utter contempt and disappointment was permanently fixed on his countenance; perhaps caused by the realization that out here in the cold, not all the prayers in the world could save you. Out here in the cold, be you saint or sinner, even God forgot about you.
Thoughts of the departed often haunt me on excursions into the uncharted, as they do now. I have my rifle in hand, a bullet in the chamber, always a bullet in the chamber; for out here there are dangerous things, always lurking, just out of sight. My boots crunch down on the snow, leaving a trail of imprints that are quickly covered up. There’s no leaving bread-crumbs behind to find your way back, I rely solely on my instincts and conditioned intuition.
One can easily become lost out here, the man with the Bible was lost. To survive you have to keep a level head, even when hunger eats you up from the inside, keep a level head. Even when your compass is broken, you have no light-source, and the darkness swallows you whole; keep a level head. I can’t count the times I’ve seen the face of death. The time I was mauled by a grizzly. The time I was lost for a week, meandering aimlessly without food, mother-nature’s plaything. Every time I found my way back to the hunter’s lodge, dim lights shining through frosted glass, a beacon of life in the cold, inky blackness.
I switch on my torch, it’s the kind you can charge back up by cranking. Saves space as I don’t have to carry extra batteries. The sun gives off next to no light, it makes it’s descent behind the mountain line. Skeletal trees will filter out any moon-light. I brace myself for the coming night.
Darkness. Plain, evil, damned darkness. I can’t see much more then ten feet ahead of me in any direction. The swirling flakes of snow don’t help either. Gun in one hand, light in the other, I continue to trudge forward. The temperature drops. I know that if I stop to make camp I risk freezing to death. Getting a fire started will be next to impossible, everything is so damp.
I won’t stop to sleep until I find somewhere dry and out of the wind. That bloody wind, it’s picked up more now, blowing sheets of ice at me. The cold hits my windbreaker, like a battering ram hits a fortress gate. The icy hand of winter gropes at me, trying to find a chink in my woolly armour. The trick is to keep moving, keep the blood flowing. The wind will zap your energy, the cold will play tricks with your mind, your thoughts will betray you. It’s at this point in all of my wilderness adventures that I realize it’s not a war with nature, but a war with one’s self. It’s a psychological struggle within. When out in the literal middle of nowhere, at the mercy of nature’s whim, you’ll begin to question your very existence. What is the point of carrying on? Why not just lie down and sleep. These strands of thought claw at my mind even now. As I stumble on, I fix positive images in my mind, things that convince me that my life is worth fighting for, even in times like this. My wife, my kids. They are all that matters. If I sit down in the snow and give up it’s not myself I’m failing, it’s not God I’m failing; it’s them.
One foot at a time, one breath at a time. Keep walking… Keep breathing… Keep going.
You see it’s not that hard, all one needs is a good frame of mind. All the powers on earth, in heaven, and in hell will not hold me back from returning to my family, with meat to sustain them.
Then I hear a dreaded howling. Wolves. I hear the pitter-patter of paws in snow. Red eyes pear out at me from among the trees. I raise my rifle, holding the flashlight with it, as to see where I’m shooting. At least a dozen of them, a sizable pack. They snarl and circle me, getting closer, their natural, ingrained fear of man eluding them, the beasts are starved. I might be able to take down a couple; if they all decide to charge at once, I’m screwed. Before firing I opt to yell at them first, puffing myself up, adopting a threatening stance.
“Stay back you mangy bastards!” I shout. My voice is shaky. “F-f-fuck o-off! I curse. I can’t help the icy fear that laces my words. I stab the air with the barrel of my gun. I frantically wave my light around. The furry buggers are to hungry to be scared of me. A big one growls at me, the rest follow suit. Shit.
I raise my gun, aiming at a pair of eyes. The closest and most hungry wolf, the dog is huge, covered in a motley cloak of grey fur. It bears it’s teeth at me. Bang! The gun roars, kicking back as I squeeze the trigger. The projectile embeds itself in the centre of the creature’s skull. A clean shot. Blood spurts from the gaping hole, a steady, pulsating stream that turns the snow crimson. The wolf stands for a brief moment, dead on it’s feet, eyes crossed; then it falls, snout-first, into the snow. A short-lived feeling of elation resonates from me. The other members of the pack back away a few paces.
“That’s right you shit-heads!” I scream at the top of my tired lungs. “Who’s next!”
The other beasts are smart enough, they slowly retreat into the night. I raise my head to the sky in thankful silence. Maybe God hasn’t forgotten me. My stomach grumbles in protest. With renewed urgency I get a fire started, having to burn pages out of my Bible to do so. Sorry God. I think wryly.
Wolf-meat is tough, I’m to hungry to care. I can still sense the watchful eyes of the pack. They linger still, kept only at bay by the scorching light of the fire; and the pungent smell of their cooked friend.
“Survival of the fittest.” I mumble to myself.
I fall in and out of sleep. Shadows dance around me. I stoke the flames with a stick. There simply isn’t enough dry wood to burn, the wolves will return once the fire dies. The last flames lick at the dirt and fizzle out. Darkness. I crank my flashlight. It produces a soft beam.
Although I don’t see any wolves I know they’re near. I can sense their primal presence. I’m not alone. Hours pass as I nervously dart my light around. My ass hurts, a rock digs into it, I shift my position.
My eyes play tricks on me. Was that a person? Nah it couldn’t be. I’m sleep deprived, The conflict within intensifies. Even as hardened as I am, tears prick at my eyes, I’m so scared. Keep a level head. I hear a voice say from deep inside me. I will not give up. I wipe the beginnings of tears from my eyes, I can handle this.
Darkness… Light. Did I pass out again? It seems like time had sped up briefly. My flashlight is dead. I can make out the first streaks of a new day, like vibrant colours on a black canvas. The sinister presence of the wolves is gone. I arise from my slouched position. Pins and needles tickle my body. I stretch, I do jumping-jacks on the spot; feeling returns, as blood flows warmly though my body. I pick my provisions up from the ground, time to move.
Thirty minutes of trekking. The sight of the animal is beautiful, a scrawny buck. I sneak closer. Stepping carefully Indian-style through the snow and fallen leaves. I aim my rifle at the deer. It remains unaware of my presence. I am the predator now. Natural selection… Survival of the fittest. The only rules that govern this savage land. I shoot. The buck drops.
I’ll be able to feed myself and my family. We’ll pull through this winter. I gut the carcass, cutting the meat into manageable strips. What I can’t carry I hang in a nearby tree. I turn in the direction I came. Hopefully I’ll be able to find my way back to the hunter’s lodge.