LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — You know that glowing blue in the photos of Caribbean island waters periodically appearing in National Geographic? An impossible, bluer-than-a-robin’s-egg color?
That’s what the sky looked like beyond the breaking clouds.
Nearing the end of a day run, the dog team and I were returning to the most distant trapline cabin just after sunset. A 30degree heat wave in early December had brought a few sharp bits of frozen rain that morning. Now the clouds had broken, revealing an incredible sky, still alight from a sun already below the horizon.
Deep gold edged the withdrawing cover, and the temperature, 70 degrees warmer than the previous week, felt good in spite of the overheating dogs and my soggy gloves, the third pair of the day, which had been drenched from melting snow.
There is something satisfying about reaching the end of a long trapline trail. Days of pushing through untouched ever deepening snow, rebuilding old cubbies and setting traps, cutting deadfall and opening and repairing bear damaged cabins, were all behind me.
Now, satisfied for the time with 50 miles of set trail, I had turned back shortly before sunset, five miles beyond the last of three cabins and looking forward to returning to a warm home for the night.
The seven dogs and I had headed out at daylight — late morning, really — Clarence running in loose lead to push through the knee-deep snow, six dogs running in single file behind him and poor, sorefooted Meeter barking in agony at being left behind for the day.
For half a mile, the team surged through the big woods bordering the creek, past three big deadfalls that I had cut out with the old chainsaw the day before.
One of them, a 15-inch blowdown, still overhung one side of the trail because we hadn’t cached enough chain oil at the cabin last spring for me to finish the job. The dogs obediently waited as I pried the sled around the end of the massive log hanging over the trail.
Leaving the towering stream-side timber behind, my team slowed as the dogs pushed past the end of my ski trail from the previous day. Although snow lay not quite knee-deep in the stunted spruce woods, it filled ditchy areas in the trail to knee or thigh depth. Six dogs couldn’t quite haul a snowplowing sled with me aboard, so I pedaled or walked behind. Between deep snow and sudden heat, we slowed to a crawl, and I stopped frequently to let the dogs cool off, recover from the heavy work and regain horsepower.
Here was the set in the tiny patch of green spruce, a miniature oasis in a barren half-mile-long stretch that had burned in the 1990s. There was the one under the big 6-inch black spruce, a monster in this stunted forest, its spreading skirt of branches protecting the trap below.
Each set seemed like a familiar old friend.
The dogs rested cheerfully as I rebuilt each little tipi of sticks, set a small trap in the doorway, tossed a chunk of rotted moose gut bait in the back and smeared a little dab of homemade peppermint lure on the trunk above the cubby, adding another inside the shelter. The odor would pull in any curious marten passing downwind.
Inevitably, when I stopped for more than a minute, Clarence circled the team to come back, moving powerfully through snow up to his chest to gaze intently at me, making sure everything was OK.
“On by, on by,” I told him before starting on, encouraging him to edge past the other dogs and resume his spot out in front. Thigh-deep snow filled an area of caribou ditches that the trail followed for half a mile. My sled plowed heavily behind as the dogs struggled to haul it while wading through the fluffy powder. I dragged out my snowshoes and told the dogs to go ahead, leaving me to pad along behind squashing the deep snow down. Every time the sled was about to slowly swing out of sight I hollered “Whoa” so they could stop and wait for me.
Heavy clouds were thinning when we reached our turn-around point, where the trail dropped down to cross the creek. I think the dogs were relieved when I called “Go back!”
more because they knew they might get wet if we crossed the creek than because of fatigue. Even so, the return trip proved a slow one as their big paws sank into still-soft disturbed snow.
A marten had already visited a cubby, perhaps called by the peppermint fragrance because he didn’t bother going in after the bait. His oval tracks showed that the big male had scampered over, peeked inside, and then scampered on his way without stepping on the trap. Disappointing, but a good sign that fur was moving around.
We were nearly back by late afternoon, dogs eagerly looking forward to an evening lounging inside the little line cabin, when the overcast broke. For a few moments the sun hit the spruce tops before receding below the horizon, leaving a sky glowing with that lit swimming- pool-at-night blue. My camera failed to catch the true hue, but the vivid colors and lovely snow-filled day remain impressed in my memory. Stowing the camera, I hiked up the team and the dogs hit their going-home stride as the striking colors faded slowly into the black of a moonless December night.
Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.