This was first published in March of 2011. As winter descends upon the sub-Arctic once more, I revisit these moments of awe on a frozen lake.
“It may not strike you as a marvel; it would not, perhaps, unless you were standing in the middle of a dead world at sunset, but that was where I stood.”
I’ve been carrying that sentence around in my head, semi-colon and all, for years. Set down by the phenomenal nature writer and anthropologist Loren Eiseley, it referred to a flock of geese flying overhead during a solitary excursion into the fossil yards of the Badlands. It easily could describe any such moment of wonder in the wilderness – the starting point or rallying incident for many a career of scientific inquiry. Last week, I had a close encounter that brought me back to Loren Eiseley’s visceral approach to field observation.
It happens about a block away from my house, if that length can be applied to a short distance along a frozen lake, and it begins with a huge, gorgeous dog tearing across the snow in my precise direction from the Northwest corner of Yellowknife’s Frame Lake, where the highway jogs out to the airport.
I look around for the owner, perhaps unseen around the next bay. From the single-minded dash of the dog, they must be calling furiously. I hear nothing but a distant skidoo.
It could be a husky, but not the kind that pulls the sleds here – those tend to be scrawny little things, bizarrely. Still, the Eskimo dogs, as the word husky came from, are beautiful but severely inbred, having been almost wiped out quite recently. This specimen is in top form, and the way he is booting it across the lake at me, the only thing I can compare his gait with is that of a professional racing dogs, who themselves wouldn’t last a day on this terrain.
To my eternal embarrassment, I am irrationally nervous around dogs. The moment a strange dog approaches on the public paths and expresses the least bit of friendly interest, I am already turned around with my arms tucked into my chest, bracing for the leaping paw that almost never materializes.
By this time I am standing still. The great dog is far enough away yet for comfort, but I am getting ready to assess the situation. Nine thirty on a Saturday morning and there is no one else in sight.
In mid-bound, the dog’s head swings up and his eyes lock onto me. Halting on a dime, he stares at me, and I at him. Very close. If he were a car, I could read his license plate. After an interminable five seconds, he turns and trots along at ninety degrees.
Then I see the others: first two, then three more. All huge, white-grey, stunning. I finally map their features onto what I know only from David Attenborough films.
They are widely spaced but radiating intelligence and communicating casually. In travelling mode, the pack passes me and jogs toward the Northeast corner of the lake where the legislative assembly building for Canada’s Northwest Territories stands. With their air of easy pride and independence, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they’ve gone to speak in person about the upcoming Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline. Each of them has the integrity of a statesman.
Once they are out of sight, I finally close my mouth. There being no one around to blab at, I fish out my phone and brave a few mittenless seconds to post on Facebook about my run-in. Then I stagger on to Walmart, eyes still wide.
I piece together later that the leader might have smelled the coyote fur on my Canada Goose parka and taken a run at me before he pegged me visually as human. Wolves have been known to attack unleashed dogs out at a local quarry, tearing them apart as canine rivals.
On my way back home, domestic dogs fetch thrown sticks on the lake. Their clumsy, housebound movements, paedomorphic features and clingy dependence strike me as so pathetic. If only they could see their wild counterparts and taste that freedom.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons