I found paw-prints today. Big enough to be The Demon Cat. If it’s not the Cougar, then there are other predators in these trees. If it is the Cougar, then not only is it stalking me, it’s ahead of me; getting to the lake faster than I can.
The prints were on top of the snow. It isn’t pushing through like I do. It can walk atop the snow. Snowshoes. How did I not remember that? That would make my life considerably easier, except I have no idea how to make them. And snowshoes won’t save me if Diablo comes around.
On the plus side, I got my first ‘kill’ with the slingshot. Funny, because I didn’t plan it at all. I saw an owl, up in the trees and I reacted before I stopped to think about it. My slingshot was drawn, aimed and fired in seconds. The feathery dinner-in-training dropped before it had time to squawk. Owls sleep during the day, so it may not have been sporting; but owls hunt. He would have done the same. Dressing a bird is more or less the same as a rabbit; so I still have food supplies.
I also came across one of the exploded trees today. Plenty of kindling for my fire; and I found some of the actual sap. I decided not to make another torch, so I’m keeping the frozen sap wrapped in my tinder pouch. I’m positive that it’ll burn like a firestarter. Chloe, I remembered you making one of those pinecone torches. I didn’t remember that when I was making one myself. You set it up as a light-pole when we camped by the river. It burned like a torch for hours, while we grilled fish over a fire. I wonder why I didn’t remember that before.
The cougar isn’t the only trail I’m coming across. At first, I thought it was bad luck; coming across two sets of tracks; but it suddenly hit me that some of the game trails I saw passing through the bushes are a lot bigger than a rabbit or raccoon. When I saw the prints, it suddenly hit me why. I’ve entered their territory. The wolves own this area.
My slingshot can take a rabbit or a bird; but I have to assume a wolf would laugh. Laugh, and then eat me. And then tell the rest of the pack funny stories about how tonight’s dinner tried to fight back with a pebble and the elastic out of his underwear. And the wolves will all find that hilarious and tell the rest of the predators in the area.
They’re still howling. It’s such an eerie sound; like it’s designed to send cold shivers down my spine.
“Bear traps? Really?”
Chloe gently tugs on the chain, pulling the cage up from the water. Within the cage are a few bottles of her homemade cider, sealed with wax. The cage is tethered to the chain by a large bear trap; its teeth holding tightly against the cage links. “You’d be surprised how useful they are. I like to find three uses for everything.” She levers open the trap and presents me with one of the bottles. “There you go. Properly chilled by lake-refrigeration.”
Having gotten cold drinks, we row the canoe back to shore, and our campfire. We have settled at the edge of the lake, where a stream feeds into it gently. The fish are grilling perfectly, turning on a spit that Chloe has fashioned by making a water-wheel out of tree bark, and the tubers are wrapped in leaves, cooking in the coals. All in all, the smell is driving me wild, and a chilled cider is just icing on the cake. “What is it about being outdoors that makes you hungry?”
Chloe smothers a smile but doesn’t say anything. I’ve been hungry since I got up here. The fact that she doesn’t comment on it makes me wonder. It feels like the silence between us stretches often. “Chloe, can I ask… Have I offended in some way? Maybe something I’m not aware of?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… This is going to sound childish, but it feels like I’ve been keeping the conversation going with a lot of hard work.” I say as I reach back into my bag and pull out a wrapped dessert. “It wasn’t like that back in the city.”
Chloe notices the packet. “What’s that?”
Chloe gets back on topic. “The conversation never lulled in the city because they keep Feeding you.” She says quietly. “There was always something new on a screen, something going on with the news; some new diet that a celebrity was selling…”
“So… what? Out here, there’s less to talk about?”
“You see those deer?” She gestures at the far side of the river. I can see a deer, munching on some grass. There’s a much younger deer beside her; immediately apparent as a parent-child combination. “The day that little one was born, I was close enough to see his first steps. The mother doe has taught him how to find food, how to respond to predators; how to survive the winters… All without a word being exchanged.”
I consider that and decide it makes sense. Without a word, I hold out my fork; just a little high to be holding it out to her hand. It would be easy for her to eat the dessert straight off my fork. But that would be more than friendly.
Her eyes meet mine; and I knew she’s picked up the suggestion. Years of setting snares has given her an understanding of the overtures a creature can make without speaking. After a second, she reaches out and takes the fork from my hand, eating the offering. She was accepting the food, but not being fed. A gentle refusal.
I sit back a little further. “Sorry.”
She nods, warm encouragement on her face. “Don’t be. I’m not. Look, Sam; the way I live-”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“I’m not giving you the ‘let’s be friends’ speech, I’m telling you why.” She insists, making sure I am paying close attention. “I like you. I’ve loved having your company here. But you are the Anti-Me, Townie. You stomp around so loud that everything for half a mile knows where you are; you fill up the air with topics even you don’t care to hear about; and you plan to leave after a few weeks. None of which is a strike against you. You’re just suited for a world that isn’t mine. Which is fine, because I’m not suited to do more than visit your world either. Even onenight would make that harder for both of us.”
“Would it? Really?” I ask; not trying it on, just curious. “We’re both adults.”
“Trust me on this, if you ever lived the way I do… And I mean reallylived the way I do; not just bringing a pack full of chocolate bars and bug repellent up here and hauling a pack full of empty wrappers and spray bottles back with you a week later…”
I laugh, despite myself.
“...you’d see how much ‘one night’ is worth.” She gives me a smile of pure affection; and it would warm me completely if it wasn’t the look you’d give a toddler learning to walk.
I decide it’s okay to ask now. “I haven’t asked this, because it would sound like a come-on; but…”
“Don’t I ever get lonely?” She says it for me. “You sound like my mother, who’s commentary of the subject is… constant, and creative.” She gestures around us. “Close your eyes.”
I do so.
“What do you hear?”
“I hear the wind.”
I chew on my lip and stay quiet, listing things one by one as the sounds come to me. “I hear the water. I hear the campfire. I hear the birds. I hear the crickets. I hear twigs snapping. I hear you breathing…”
“If you stayed out here a lot longer; you’d be able to keep going forever.” Chloe tells me, and I feel her take my hand. “Sam, back in the city; can you hear anything but the traffic during the day? Can you hear anything but your own television at night? Trust me on this, you’re no less isolated in town. Just more crowded. You want to know why you have to keep the conversation going out here, it’s because I’m listening. For instance, do you hear that motor?”
“No.” I open my eyes. “Yes.”
I can hear the sound of the engine; but it takes ages for the actual vehicle to come into view. I had no idea how far sound carries in the Valley; but after a while, an ATV comes into view; driving towards us. I glance at Chloe, who waves the driver down with a big smile on her face.
The driver is wearing a Park Ranger uniform. I had seen the Firewatch Station on my flight in with Chloe. The Ranger looks me over exactly once. It’s not an approving look. Chloe is right. He gives a most eloquent inventory of his observations about me without saying a single word. I realize instantly that I’ve just met Chloe’s dad.
Chloe makes introductions anyway. “Sam, this is my Uncle Ewan. He’s on Firewatch Duty for the valley; which makes him the closest thing to a neighbor I’ll ever have. Ewan, meet Sam.”
Uncle, not dad. Well, I was close. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Mister, you must have taken one heck of a wrong turn if you were on a day hike.”
“Oh no, I’m here as a personalguest of your niece.” I assure him as innocently as I can. “Fudge?”
Ewan looks at me, then to his niece. “Really.” He says, in a voice that speaks volumes of absolute doom.
“Don’t worry, officer.” I say with my best ‘aw-shucks-golly’ expression. “Chloe’s demonstrated that she can be really creative with Bear Traps; and I make it a point to keep such things in mind.”
Chloe bursts out laughing so hard she nearly rolls into the campfire. “Siddown, Ewan, please. We were about to have lunch.”
“Don’t mind if I do, but do you have enough fish for him?” Ewan points over my shoulder.
I turn to look, and find The Cougar, already pouncing for me.
And then I wake up. I hate this. Every dream of happier moments is now tainted by The Demon Cat.
I’ve got a routine. I wake up, drink some water, break down my camp; and start walking. I use my spear to test the ground where I can’t see through the snow; and my eyes are constantly looking for my next meal. I can recognize a few edible plants from my time up here last Summer; but most of them are buried under the snow; likely dead by now. I walk until thirst/hunger gets me, or until my legs go numb from the snow. I eat, or melt some snow in my mug to drink. When it gets within three or four hours before dark; I start collecting branches for my shelter.
I collect more than I need, which is my firewood; and light a fire. My bits of meat go in the mug with melted snow to make stew; along with whatever else edible I can find. If my hunting is successful, I dress the extra meat. It’s never enough to be full; but enough that I’m not shaking every day. I thought it was cold. It was hunger, because when I ate, the shaking stopped.
After dark; I return to making cordage, and sharpening up my stone adze. I now have over a dozen loops of cord, about two feet long apiece. Good for lashing together my shelter. The stone edge is as sharp as I can make it, and I’ve cut a better handle for it. I just happened to come across a bit of firewood that made a better grip. It works, but it took me a few tries to tie the stone and handle together tightly enough.
I’ve heard stories of people getting lost in the wilderness that go crazy. It breaks them. I get why, now. I remember when you showed me your trails, and we hiked them. You knew where we were. You picked the areas you knew, and walking between them was relatively open, like a walking trail that didn’t have any footpaths put down.
Now I see the other side of it. It’s oppressive, the way it crams in on you. Thick brambles with thorns that cut at you, the ground can turn to swamp and sink you up to your knees without warning, from one step to the next; and the trees are in so tight that I can’t see more than ten feet in some places. It’s why this is taking me so long. I have to push through all of this to make any distance, and after an exhausting slog, I look back at my tracks, and I’ve barely covered any distance at all.
Speaking of looking back, I’ve gone over my journal entries; and realized that it’s almost been a month. Liz gets back from her vacation in two days. If her first thought is to check in with me (which is unlikely) then she’ll know I’m gone. I figure another two weeks before she starts to worry, since I left the ‘return’ date open. In retrospect, that was a mistake of epic proportions; but to be fair, neither of us were in the mood to schedule anything after dad’s funeral.
Chloe, if you were making your once-a-month trip back to civilization; you’d be getting an email from Liz, asking about me. But the plane’s not there, and the Pass is snowed in. If you decided to go on your ATV; you’d find my burned out wreck. But that’s nothing I can bank on, if you can’t call it in.
I figure I’m going to make it to the lake tomorrow. That’s when I’ll know for sure about the Plane. Also, I c-
Good news: Not dead. Bad news: That can’t last.
Okay, so. I’ve been hearing the wolves howling so often that I barely registered them anymore. But last night, there was no sound. I was halfway through writing to Chloe, when I heard the hint of something outside. It was such a slight sound I’m amazed I noticed it, but I guess I’m more aware than I thought. It was a crunch of snow being pushed down by a footstep, the huff of something breathing. Something sneaking up on me.
The wolves found my camp; and it took me less than two seconds to figure out why. I was cooking the owl on my campfire. In wolf territory. Let’s all take a moment to consider what a totally new, completely unclassified level of moron I am; to have raw meat and cooked meat sitting right next to my head in a place where I know full well that predators patrol.
I only saw three of them, but I knew the adze, or the kitchen knife wasn’t going to be much help against more than one attacker at a time. If that. So I threw my meat supplies as far away from me as I could and ran in the other direction. Since I’m writing this, you can probably guess how it worked. The three of them ran after the free meal. I thought one of them would come after me, but I guess they figured there was no rush. I scampered up a tree. Thankfully, there was no wind last night. But it was freezing cold until the sun came up. I even left the jacket behind. I can’t believe I did that. My sweat had frosted the thing, and I was leaving it to dry out; but I would settle for a second damp layer right now.
When the sun rose, I couldn’t find any sign of the wolves; or the jacket. Wolves, I have discovered, eat while they walk, and I had kept some of the meat in the pockets; so I guess that was inevitable. I keep thinking what those teeth would do to me. I stayed in the tree another hour or two; just to make sure they hadn’t set a trap for me; laying in wait. If Chloe had come across me, holding onto a tree branch for grim death, clutching a dulling kitchen blade in one hand and a sharpened bone in the other, she’d have laughed.
But after a while, I summoned up my courage and returned to my shelter. They’d pushed their way through it, but they were only interested in edible things. They left everything but the food pretty much intact, beyond ‘marking’ their territory here and there. Tough to not take that personally. It’s not like I smelled good before. Interesting, that they didn’t seem interested in the skins.
I had no idea how badly I had bled the meat. It looks like someone ran one of my rabbits through a blender and then dumped the result all over the snow.
My food supplies are gone now; but it’s not like they’re ever full. They left bloody trails all over the snow. I actually thought about following their bloody paw-prints, but if memory serves; they lead to the stream. That stream is my all-purpose guide down to the lake. I’m running out of real estate. I started this journey with more than a few excess pounds to my frame. I’ve burned through all of them now. I’ve still got my ‘tools’, but it’s clear I need a change in strategy. What’s left of my old jacket will have to do, though it’s more of a vest now. A warm vest with frayed stuffing and half a sleeve.
To get to the lake; I have to stay in wolf territory; and whatever happens when I get there, it’ll take longer. Here’s hoping my luck changes.
The Lake! At last!
Alright, time to make some proper plans. I know your cabin is on the far side of the lake. I also know that you’re out of sight of it. Lighting a signal fire won’t work. You’ll see the light, if you were at the lake after dark, (which you won’t be, I know that from our talks last summer) or maybeduring the day (but without the plane here, you have no reason to come. I know you fish in the rivers that feed the lake, and I have no idea if you go ice-fishing at all) but the wind is going the other way, so the odds of you seeing a smoke signal is slim-to-none.
I’ve been observing the trails, and I’m pretty sure the edge of the lake is home to two different wolf packs, which respect each other’s territory, but would each like to make a meal of me. I also know the lake goes almost the width of the valley; which is why you usually stick to the other side unless you’re taking your ATV along the road on the valley walls (which is out of sight, thanks to the forest. You won’t be seeing me until I get right up to your door and knock). So, with the terrain, the cold, and the predators; hiking around the edge of the lake will take a week or two; given the time I’ve made hiking so far. The terrain is flatter here, but that makes the snow thicker along the lake edge; and if I go around a drift, I’ll hit ice and go through.
Which means going over the lake is a better option. So I either wait for it to freeze over, or try and make a canoe.
Alright, let’s do the math. I know that ice is safe to walk on at a thickness of three or four inches. From my dad’s fishing trips when I was a kid, I know that when the temperature stays below freezing, even during the day, it takes about fifteen days per inch of ice. It started snowing on Day Five after the accident; but the temperature rose back above freezing during the day for a while. The liquid water was why I had so much trouble lighting anything on fire. I know from my trusty thermometer that it’s been below freezing every day since my third night at the Firewatch Station on Day Twelve.
Now, take away the insulation. There’s a thin layer of ice on the lake now, and it’s strong enough that snow has piled here and there. Not a lot, but I know from experience that a layer of snow makes excellent insulation for what’s underneath. That white powder is actually keeping the wind-chill off the ice.
So, the Laws of Thermodynamics being what they are, I figure the ice on the lake must be about an inch thick now; give or take. If I had ice skates or skis, I might even try for it; but recent events have proven to me that it’s better to be a scared and cautious survivor than a brave corpse. My footspeed, plodding along, I’m likely to go through the ice; and nobody will find my bones until spring.
So, I either wait it out for another fifteen to twenty days… or I hike the long way around; and take my chances with the animals. It might take me that long to make the hike anyway. And I’m going to need food and shelter at every stage. With no supplies; that’s impossibleinsanehopelesstricky.
What’s it going to be, Sam?
Everything in these woods have their place. Everything has a den, a territory; game trails. Everything except the Cougar; and Diablo is more suited for that solitary life than I am just now. If I’m going to survive, I either have to mark out my own habitat; or I’ll have to get a lot better at pushing my way through the neighbors yard. Either way, I’m in no shape for it now.
Something else I’ve learned from Diablo: Injury is the biggest threat. If I turn an ankle, I can’t keep hiking. If I keep pushing through the snow, I risk frostbite. If I cut myself badly, I bleed. I can’t call an ambulance. Playing it safe with my safety is the safest move.
So I’ve decided to set up a base camp and wait for the lake to freeze over. The Lake and the Trees have everything I need.
Update: Building another debris shelter was easy enough; but after the other night, I’ve chosen a more secure spot. The lake is fed by streams that bring water down the Valley Walls. Finding a rock ledge nearby wasn’t difficult.
I’ve been making A-Frames all this time, but this is something else. The lake gives me water and clay and smooth stones. My Adze gives me solid poles. I average cutting down a tree/limb/branch about the width of a baseball bat every ten minutes. Dragging them back to the lake takes twice as long. Trimming away the excess bits takes twice as long as that, but it’s free firewood. An actual steel axe would be worth more than gold to me right now.
This is going to take longer than the daylight I have left; so I haven’t bothered rushing myself. I can only cross my fingers that nothing predatory comes by until it’s finished.
And I have other projects, too. The encounter with the wolves has reminded me that food; and meat especially, has to be protected. As I’m in no state to fight off whatever comes looking for my stores; I have to hide them well. Chloe made pots. I’ve got one of them, slightly chipped after the wolves pushed apart my shelter.
I’m dividing up the work between things I can do during the night, when I can sit still by a fire; and things I have to do during the day with light and relative warmth. Making crockery is definitely a ‘nighttime’ duty, since I can do it while sitting still. There’s a lot of good, slick clay along the lake’s edge. It’s frozen too, but the consistency is right once it’s thawed out; and I saw Chloe adjust the mixture by adding sandy dirt, or water, as needed.
I used some clay to make pots of my own; and mixed up some more to wrap around the base of my future long-term shelter. I’ve also been weaving sticks in and out of the main support poles. If I can find more clay, I’ll make a wattle-and-daub style wall. With the rock wall on one side; heavy poles on the other side, and a good roof with a slant to keep the snow from piling too high; I’ll have a good solid habitat. One that I can defend against the wolves, and the Demon Cat.
Speaking of that, I’m getting to know the neighbors. There’s been no trace of the Cougar since that pawprint, but I’m positive he’s still out there. The wolf tracks were at the very edge of my ‘gathering’ area; and following each other. I’m guessing they patrol the edge of their turf. At the other end, I found a new track. It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at, but it was a moose, or an elk or something like that. The last time I saw something that size, the wolves had already gnawed on him; and there was still enough to keep me fed for a week. If I had this knife back then, I would have tried my luck making a pair of pants from his hide.
The wattle-and-daub idea isn’t going to work. The clay is too slick with moisture, and it crystalizes enough to shatter overnight. The pots I made are inside my shelter, protected from the elements.
My snares were successful overnight. The Lake brings all kinds of wildlife. I guess everything is looking for liquid water sources. There’s fish under that Lake; and I know that some of these snares will work in the water, too; if I adjust the trigger; but I don’t know how to stop the ice from building back up again.
The wolves taught me to be careful with my meat cuts; so they’re staying wrapped in the tarp and buried under a layer of snow, to keep the scent out of the air. There’s plenty of leftover stuff once I’ve dressed the animal. Bait, for fish; for other animals. If only I could figure out how to make the trap work. I know Chloe had a fish trap. I know, because she made me promise not to tell anyone about it; since it violated fish and game rules.
Ewan, if you ever read this journal; feel free to come and arrest me for that. A jail cell would have at least three square meals and a bed.
Knowing that I have dinner waiting makes the day’s work easier. I had to dismantle the Adze last night and sharpen the edge; but it’s still working for me. The hard part is finding young trees. Ones that are tall and thin, without being too far from the lake. When I don’t find any, I’m still hunting. Food, kindling, clay, construction supplies. The pots are sitting in the sun, but that won’t be enough. They’ll have to sit for days. I need to make a fireplace. Chloe’s cabin has one made of clay bricks. For a shelter, I won’t need one as big and elaborate, but a fireplace means I can have it inside; and save a lot of firewood.
Fireplace has to be top priority, because, like the clay pottery; I need to let it dry out before I can make fire in it. That’s a lot of wasted days. I remember seeing a show on Netflix about frontier homes, and how they built the fireplace first, built the house around it. I’ll be doing the same. Hopefully, my usual A-frame can hold together that long. Even after I started lashing them together with cordage, I’ve never left them standing for longer than a night.
A Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying 'Dear Chloe' in its serialised format. If you'd like to read the whole thing at once, and take it with you, you can buy the whole book here in eBook and Paperback Format.