High on the iron-blue mountain where the tall trees begin to shorten and the ground is steep, cradled in a quiet bowl is an almost forgotten place. Nestling unseen, beneath one of the few remaining gnarled ash trees, shielded by the rustle of the brittle brown leaves and blanketed in deep snow there is narrow entrance.
This entrance leads to a cave, a silent cave that nothing has visited for the longest of times. For untold years it has remained empty; the number of winters that have passed since it was last visited has drifted from the memories of all but the oldest and wisest denizens of this high, wild, place.
The she-bear nosed the air and discerned a thousand different scents. Her nostrils fluted rhythmically like the opening of giant bellows; her lungs drawing the air in huge unseen volume. Each breath was a reverie and in turn produced vast clouds of mist allowing her to savour her future and confirm her present.
Her black nose was made startlingly blacker by the whiteness of her flanks. The underlying structure of bone and sinew could be seen clearly through the leanness of her snout. Less white than the rest, her terrifying jaws were capable of chopping through bone. Indeed to her mighty hinged mouth, bone was as meat.
The Inuit songs tell that the white bears are fearless but this is not true; they fear hunger. It was this fear that caused her in this instant to sniff the air and decide; she knew that it was now time to move, to hunt, to kill and to eat. But this bears fate was to live in an age in which hunger was a lesser threat.
It was dawn and the monochrome bay with its twin headlands riven by the ancient glacier had at last begun to freeze. The summer had been long and the winter was late. In some places the ice remained thin and in other places lay vast lagoons of open water. Occasionally snow fell but in a way that usually heralded spring.
The freezing of the arctic sea is a prevailing constant in this beautiful, unforgiving landscape. Occurring for millennia with pulsar predictability, it is the rule by which all life in this cold, spare place is governed. Its arrival brings food, shelter, protection and the opportunity for travel to everything that lives in this fragile wilderness. The whole land seems to hold its breath in anticipation, welcoming its icy grip as a mother welcomes the embrace of an estranged child.
Through this measureless land of stillness an almost indiscernible speck moved along the distant rugged shoreline of the nearer headland. The speck occasionally paused as if considering before moving on again. It advanced inexorably, sometimes completely obscured behind rocks or within the dipping contours of the frozen land, but always advancing. It was the white bear driven onwards by an ancient yearning.
Oddly the movement of this God-Creature became more apparent when her camouflage was at its most effective – set against a background of pure white the pinpoint of her seal-black nose became a negative beacon rising, falling and advancing with every movement of her limbs. And it was at these times that her seemingly lumbering gait was belied; her arctic stroll was easily quick enough to keep pace with a running man.
As the bear came more closely into view she stopped and stooped to inspect the sea. More nervous of the water than the ice she stared curiously down at her reflection and pawed at it gently and then with lightning quickness she retracted her huge forelimb and flicked an arc of water as a man might flick nervously at a wasp. Without hesitation she leaped headlong from the rock and ice into the deep powder-blue sea in a motion that assumed a solid landing. A great spray was displaced but the sea had calmed long before she snorkelled.
She had relied on the kilos of fat that she had stored in the previous winters hunting season to sustain her throughout the long summer fast – and now that the new hunting season had finally arrived she was again swimming for her life.
The air trapped within her dense pelt far beneath the guard hairs was her buoyancy and her warmth. She swam continuously and rhythmically for hours on end until at last the pack ice closed around her. She heaved herself from the water with a great effort and stood with her head bowed, dripping on the ice. This transient place was her refuge, a platform from which to watch and wait.
The seal launched itself into the water like a black torpedo in a disappearing sheath of silver bubbles. It was no longer the cumbersome inhabitant of the land but was transformed into its antithesis; a creature entirely of the sea able to glide, dive and rise effortlessly. No obvious propulsion was in evidence to cause its slippery speediness. It could turn about - even turn full circle - within less than its own length. It performed barrel rolls repeatedly and its joy was its dynamism; it’s turning, tumbling, oily progress a silent, hunting rollercoaster.
The fish flashed silver then smoked red in the instant finality of the ambush. Triumphantly the seal swam vertically and at top speed, it breached and slid to a sideways halt in the frigid air. Its unexpected arrival startled and scattered the other seals barking and bouncing into the water. The blue ice turned vivid red; this stain was now the only evidence of the fish which the seal had turned head first and eaten alive.
The seal launched itself into the water like a black torpedo in a disappearing sheath of silver bubbles.
This time the myriad shoals of arctic herring proved their match and the chase finally ran its course. Disoriented and fatigued by the distance it had swum in pursuit of the fish the seal realised that it would have to breathe in unfamiliar water. It rose vertically again but this time cautiously, hugging the precipitous wall of the huge floe. As its ascent closed to the surface the ambient light around it increased and it slowed its progress until its movement almost stopped in negative buoyancy. It breached the surface of the water silently. Not even the faintest of ripples was created by its blunt, whiskery nose as it sought the life giving air; it was its silent exhalation that was to prove so costly.
It had started to snow heavily and the bear had arranged itself into a great hulking mound. The snow had piled high on her back and occasionally sloughed off in a mini avalanche causing a drift to accumulate on the leeward side. Only the black, radar nose betrayed her existence in this otherwise white world. Then gradually the snow eased and as it did so the breeze changed direction. Immediately the bear’s nostrils flared at the scent of fish, blood and oil. She was instantly convulsed into still readiness. The eye that was not covered by her huge forelimb slowly opened and then she started to move.
As she elongated herself by pushing her back legs rearwards, the immense hump of her snowy back diminished. Her front legs became the mirror opposite and in this strangely comical position the incredible length of the creature could be seen. She extended the giant claws in all four of her leviathan paws and gained silent purchase on the ice. She was in this way able to belly-slide, inch by inch towards the hypnotic scent.
The seal was completely unaware of the nose, the eyes, the jaws and the claws that waited with trembling patience. Then with a speed so astonishing as to seem unnatural the white bear sprang forward in a spray of snow, ice and panic. Huge forelegs crashed into the water. The claws were like shark’s teeth. They latched deeply into the stricken seal. The first drops of red coloured the sea. The bear tasted the iron rasp of blood. This provoked her into an even greater frenzy of murderous effort. The helpless seal was yanked clear of the water and like the Indian club of an insane juggler was bounced unnecessarily from side to side between the bear’s front paws. With a last effort the helpless seal was wrested onto the ice.
Standing suddenly upright with her forearms stretched out to the sides the great white bear raised her chin and chopped and clapped her jaws together and produced a truly chilling sound. Then she bellowed her pleasure and victory to the ice and the ocean.
Nearby a seal rose and bobbed casually, resting and replenishing with air. As it did so it turned and absently watched the bear and the seal. After a few moments it arched its back and descended once again to pursue the scattering fish. Far away to the south a sea eagle, white against a darkening sky warped its wings and shrieked its clarion call.
The bear continued to hunt from the floe and it honed its skill to such perfection that it began to tire of seal. Often it gorged only on the blubber or if it was lucky enough to catch a pregnant female, the foetus, the rest of the carcass was left on the ice to freeze. The bear piled on kilo after kilo of fat.
To the north the ice sheet had fractured and the sun now rose and set in random quarters of the horizon. The seals became less frequent visitors as their opportunity for air increased in the now open waters around the perimeter of the floe. Then the southern sky darkened as a storm gathered warmth and energy. The bear was used to winter storms; weeklong whiteouts during which the air temperature would plummet below minus fifty degrees driven ever downwards by catabatic wind. But this storm was of a different nature and would prove worse than any than the great white bear had lived through.
With the rising temperature brought by the southern clouds the snow became heavy and wet and then it turned into rain. The outer edge of the enormous storm’s black vortex spiralled northwards at great speed until within hours, its epicentre was over the arctic winter hunting grounds.
By mid-day the light had failed and then the first distant rumbles of thunder began to echo between the flatness of the sea and sky. A huge electric storm developed. Enveloping sheets of lightning arced between the angry roiling clouds and forks of lightning vaporised the ice, each flash accompanied by its instant visceral thunder roar. The lightning bolts revealed in a thousand fleeting chiaroscuro instances the entire ice sheet as a sharp and brittle landscape. When the storm at last broke the bear and its precarious refuge had been driven far to the south. The wind now swung to the north, the waves pushed warmly on the ice and Polaris continued to retreat.
The enormous gantry of halogen arc lights turned night into day as they splashed their hot, humming radiance across the deck of the rig. High above the platform a gas flare burned relentlessly into the oil-black sky. During the night a regular flotsam of charred and stricken birds fell from this huge flame into the catch net below like moths scorched by a candle.
The gas flare was an irresistible magnet for all manner of birds. Storm petrels, kittiwakes, arctic terns, tundra swans and even snowy owls fell from it and jumbled together in a dead and dying by-catch.
The net had to be emptied regularly and the oil-man responsible for this macabre duty had been keen to volunteer. He climbed the steel ladder housed in its tubular safety cage and stepped onto the welded mesh that supported the catch net. He carefully inspected each bird and frequently cursed as he did so. He delicately placed some of the dead but undamaged birds into a large plastic laundry bag that he had carried with him for the purpose. He also selected and then killed several of the injured birds by gently choking them before they too were deposited in the bag. When the bag was full the oil man secured the zipper and placed it to one side near the ladder. He then picked up the rest of the dead and dying birds in two’s and three’s and depending on the direction of the wind he launched them over the side of the safety rail into the sea many stories below. When the net was at last cleared the man retrieved his bag and descended the ladder. By the time he had reached the bottom two more birds had tumbled from the flame.
He made his way across the deck of the rig pulling his baseball cap lower over his eyes to avoid the blaze of light from the gantry and then he disappeared into the shadows of the upper deck canopy. Despite the gigantic size of the rig, the dimensions of the stairwells and gangways within it were small. The oil man started a hasty and furtive descent to the deserted galley deck deep in the bowels of the platform. He scurried along the narrow corridors on an imprinted journey turning right or left without thought or hesitation. He met no-one on his way, which was just as well because had he done so one or the other would have had to back track until a suitable passing place could be found. The oil man seemed to relax as he entered the galley.
Apart from clearing the catch net this man’s job was to cook. He moved with practiced precision through the familiar kitchen and into a small and gloomy ante-room strewn with open boxes of tinned food, bins of detergent, dirty and clean towels, black plastic bags of waste food and stacked plastic bottles of water. Along one wall was a rack of stainless steel shelves that held pots and pans and framed in the middle of the wall next to him was a large insulated plastic door in the middle of which was a sign that said “please keep closed.”
He put the laundry bag down, craned his neck around the door jamb and glanced back into the empty kitchen. Satisfied that he was alone he turned again and rummaged in the bottom of one of the broken boxes and retrieved a half empty bottle. Relieved to find it he pulled the cork and with scrunched eyes took a long pull of whisky. He wiped his stubble with an open palm which he then licked. The bottle was carefully replaced and the man rearranged the tins to conceal it. He turned to the heavy plastic door. Entering the blast freezer he deposited the laundry bag into the far corner and covered it with a large plastic sheet.
The distant golden glow of the gas flare was reflected in the centre of the bears eyes as it stared entranced across the sea. She was so enchanted by the flame that she was tempted to jump into the sea and swim towards it but she was so hungry that she knew such an expanse of open water would prove too much, so instead she reluctantly remained on the shrinking ice berg.
Beneath the incessant gas flare the superstructure of the rig was also plain but the bear only saw the flame. Even during the mid afternoon with the sun high in the sky the beacon was still obvious but unlike at night time its acrid smoke banner was also visible, rising in a fume and then bending off into the wind.
In recent years the oil men had become used to seeing ice bergs – even this far south. As long as they were small and far enough away to be of no threat to the precious rig their passage went largely unheeded. Occasionally the rig’s crew would report the ‘bergs to the coast-guard, duty bound if any of the huge oil tankers that visited the rig were in the area. With each passing day the rig and its beacon became smaller, receding down into the northern horizon as the bear drifted southwards towards an unseen coast.
The Cree name for the bay that the Kovik River empties into and in which the marooned bear now found itself is Winipekw. On its far northern shore is the town of St Francis that houses the workers of the numerous oil and gas rigs that now litter the bay.
The town had been built on the foundations of an old fort that had once been the most northerly outpost of the early European settlers. It had originally been used as a place to trade goods for the furs that the indigenous people had trapped during their hunting season. As the European appetite for fur diminished the trade died out and the fragile agreement for peace between the white settlers and the first nations was replaced by insurgency and brutal, murderous repression. The town now existed to reap a different bounty from the land and sea, the appetite for which would never be satisfied.
St Francis consisted of a harbour front and a jumble of clapboard buildings. The un-surfaced main street was littered with the skeletons of broken down vehicles, empty fifty gallon drums, worn out tyres, and all manner of other discarded rubbish. Stray dogs were everywhere and wandered aimlessly and hungrily about sniffing out the next opportunities. All the telegraph poles leaned and the wires sagged. About half way along the street was a store over which a sign proudly declared “Carllsen’s For Guns, Ammo, Traps and Sundries” and underneath the writing was the crudely painted crosshairs of a rifle’s telescopic sight. Next door to the store was a once gaudily painted but now very weather worn bar.
Down at the harbour a transfer ferry from one of the rigs had recently docked and from it exited a number of men. Almost all of them were unshaven and they wore the yellow overalls of the oil company for which they worked. As they made their weary progress down the sloping, aluminium walkway to the concrete breakwater, they discussed loose arrangements to meet later, promising each other beers and a beating at pool. When the column of men had left the harbour in a variety of expensive trucks and 4X4’s another man emerged from the ferry. He wore a baseball cap low over his eyes and was carrying a plastic laundry bag.
He was well over six feet tall but walked with a lightness of step unusual for such a big man. He wore a thickly quilted eiderdown jacket the cuffs and collar of which were trimmed with beaver fur. From the collar, hanging loosely at the back was a voluminous parka hood trimmed with wolverine. He also wore the company overalls and leather rigger boots. His face was obscured by his dark beard which extended high up his ruddy cheeks. His nose was blushed with broken thread veins and his eyes were pale and cold.
He approached a Wrangler pick-up truck that was parked at an angle near one of the harbour offices. He unlocked the doors using a key-fob and carefully placed the laundry bag on the back seat. The engine fired noisily and the truck lurched a little as the transmission engaged before it moved away. The vehicle exited the harbour and proceeded up the hill towards town.
The man lived alone in a clapboard cabin that backed onto rising woodland on the outskirts of the town. The only part of the cabin that was not built from timber was the random stone fireplace and chimney at the far end. It was similar in construction to all the other houses nearby; a triangular, single story facade with wooden steps leading up to a door in the middle and two windows on either side. The front elevation of the house was completely covered with antlers – the bleached trophies of scores of hunting trips. There were so many of them that there was no space left for any more to be nailed at the front and so the antlers from the most recent trips had spread around the sides of the building.
The Wrangler nosed its way into the scruffy front yard of the cabin and parked up next to a rusting, windowless station wagon the bonnet of which had been removed and was nowhere to be seen. Underneath this rotting vehicle a dark stain of oil had soaked into the ground.
The man got out and retrieved the laundry bag from the back seat of the truck and entered the cabin. Inside the air was rank and it was gloomy and untidy. Unwashed clothes lay scattered around on the bare floorboards amongst empty beer bottles and pornographic magazines. The long dead fire place was piled so high with ash and cinders that much of it had spilled out over the hearth. After taking off his coat the man kicked a clear space on the floor and put the bag behind a battered sofa. He lit a cigarette and then picked up the phone and dialled a number from memory, his smoky tobacco breath puffed into the mouthpiece, ‘Carllsen, it’s Magnus, ‘s that you? Yeah, I just gotten in, yeah I got ‘em - some real beauties too - dollar signs all over ‘em, I’ll drop ‘em by later. Listen Man, you’re not gonna believe this... I saw a polar bear in the bay floating along on ‘n ice berg... no shit. I think it’ll ‘ve made land fall on the Kovik somewhere – no I’m not kiddin’ - I ‘scoped it from the catch net two days ago, I’m telling y’ man it was a great big freaking polar bear... Carllsen, listen, have you got those Sabot shells I ordered...?’
As the Kovik River empties into the Winipekw it causes the bays saltiness to fall and the water becomes brackish. This river is the main exit from the bay to the inland rivers for tens of thousands of salmon that return to their native spawning grounds in a colossal annual migration. At times their number becomes so vast that even the huge coastal mouth of the Kovik River is insufficient to hold them. The water at the mouth of the river in some years seems to boil with fish - one frantically jostling with another for its place in the queue.
The strange fish were too tempting and easy a prize for the hungry bear. She hefted the salmon onto her shrinking refuge by simply scooping at the water. She fell delightedly to each flapping speckled silver bar, tearing and devouring great strips of orange flesh. The roe contained within the hen fish was a delicious revelation. When she had had her fill of salmon she dived headlong into the water and swam amongst them, joining their inevitable journey towards the mouth of the river. The memory of the sweetness of her own salty ocean was now blurred by the bitter tang of fresh water and at first this odd taste caused her to swim with her head held comically aloft.
As the fish and the bear swam towards the mouth of the river dusk began to fall and as it did so the distant lights of St Francis gradually cast a faint sulphurous gleam across the water.
It was completely dark by the time Magnus’s Wrangler reversed into the shadows of the narrow passage way between Carllsen’s store and the bar. Unseen, he retrieved the laundry bag from the back seat and shouldered a rifle contained in a slip. He knocked quietly on the reinforced back door.
The door was opened silently by an unseen hand and a dim light briefly escaped. Magnus entered a small vestibule and checked that the external door had locked securely behind him before punching a security code and releasing a second heavy steel door. He had entered what was the windowless rear stock room of Carllsen’s. The room was lined with shelves on which a vast collection of taxidermy was arranged which included all manner of rare birds and mammals. Each specimen was labelled anonymously, but on each label was a price in Canadian dollars and the equivalent sum in the currency of the country to which the specimen was destined. Magnus had worked lucratively with Carllsen for years on this secret trade. He was good at his work and he enjoyed it.
Magnus smiled smugly at Carllsen and placed the laundry bag on the floor Carllsen gestured pointing at the bag. ‘Have they been chilled”? Magnus replied ‘Yeah, not long after they were fried.” Carlson and Magnus both laughed at the joke.
‘You said you got some good ones..?”
‘You bet,’ Magnus’s face was now a delighted grin
“I got one in here that we’ve been promising that Chinese dude for years, It’s a Red Tailed Hawk – super rare”. Carllsen clapped Magnus on the shoulder,
“A Red Tail? Jeez Magnus, we hit the jackpot again”.
All the birds were listed and placed carefully in a large chest freezer. Carllsen got a pencil and note pad and made a few calculations. After a little while he reached into his pocket and handed Magnus several hundred dollars rolled up in a grubby elastic band. Then he disappeared into the front of the store and returned with a small but heavy cardboard box. He tossed the box to Magnus who caught and clutched it inquisitively to his chest. ‘The Sabots, they’re on the house – on account of the Red Tail.’ The two men shook hands.
“Magnus, do fancy a beer”?
That night the salmon continued to flood tirelessly into the closing throat of the Kovik. As the river shallowed, its rate of flow increased producing sections of rapid white foaming water and this seemed to galvanise the fish into even greater effort. Then for the first time in many weeks the bear felt solid ground under her feet and she steadily climbed towards the wet rocks of the left bank.
This was a very different landscape from the frozen northern wastes that she was familiar with. The boulder strewn bank of the river rose steeply and sandily and above this was a grassy, undercut plateau maybe twenty metres wide. This was skirted by a dense line of incredibly tall trees which stretched up high and out of sight into the blackness. In places the trees fingered right down to the river.
If the bear’s territory is a blessed land of ice she found herself in an equally blessed land of trees. The Giant Sequoias are the biggest and oldest living things that have ever existed on earth and some of those that now pressed close by were already big when Christ refused the Devil. Maybe Christ should have shouted louder because these timeless trees have also taken their place in the hierarchy of bounty that provides for men’s insatiable greed.
As the bear moved like a nervous ghost towards these trees her sense of smell was assaulted by an onslaught of unfamiliar scents. She disappeared like a silent white shadow; but her progress had not gone unseen.
On the opposite side of the river nearest to St Francis a figure sat silent and smudged. It was a girl and she had also been fishing for salmon. She had spotted the bear as it swam to the far bank and as soon as she had seen it she immediately held her breath and moved silently and unseen until the breeze was on her face. After the bear had disappeared into the trees the girl exhaled slowly into the crook of her arm, then she picked up her gill-threaded catch and ran noiselessly away from the river into the trees. She was so light and fleet of foot that she quickly disappeared into the night and not even the fragile elk-moss that covered the boulders had been disturbed by her passing.
The noisy, smoky bar was crowded with men. A pool table was popular and a quarrelsome game had broken out. The nicotine stained interior was illuminated by harsh fluorescent tube lights and all around were objects and memorabilia that related to a narrow variety of themes; ice hockey, off-road motor vehicles, the oil and gas industry, hunting and women. Hanging behind the bar was an AK 47 assault rifle under which someone had scrawled a misspelt notice - “Fer use on skint strangers and reluctent Squaws.”
Carllsen walked into the bar to a universal greeting and offers of beer. As the owner of the gun store he was an important person and someone to be friends with. He was closely followed by Magnus who was greeted less cordially. The rest of the men in the bar tolerated this aloof loner more because he was a friend of Carllsen’s rather than a friend of theirs. All the men however, begrudgingly acknowledged Magnus’s skill with a rifle. He was a crack shot and in his younger days had won trophies for his marksmanship. It was a common but untrue joke that he was only so good because of the rifle he owned – a personalised Weatherby. This high powered-rifle had been individually designed and hand-built to Magnus’s personal specifications and he had even insisted that it be fitted with a gold trigger. It was admired by everyone who saw it and he often carried it uncovered at inappropriate times, basking vicariously in the praise that it inevitably generated.
Carllsen ordered two beers and one whisky chaser. The men turned to face the room and both propped one elbow on the bar. Without looking at Magnus Carllsen said ‘So what you got planned?’
Magnus stared at the pool table with cold unblinking eyes.
‘Well tonight I’m gonna git on the outside of a bottle of whisky, maybe git on the inside of a Squaw and I’m gonna sleep late – because my friend, tomorrow I’m goin’ on a bear hunt’.
The cuticle moon silvered, it was the closest object to earth in a sky made iridescent mother of pearl by the Northern Lights. This magical aurora when first seen is a cherished childhood moment never forgotten. The child’s first conscious encounter with the light is considered by the Cree as a special moment of spirituality and is marked by an ancient ceremony in which the child is given a simple headdress of eagle feathers. It was under this exquisite canopy that the girl carrying three gill-threaded salmon entered her camp deep in the forest.
Her shelter was of an age-old construction of caribou hides stretched over larch poles. The area around the shelter was untouched save for a small, extinguished camp fire that consisted of four pieces of larch arranged at right angles. Over the fire, cooking pots were suspended from a finely balanced and ingeniously simple design of maple sticks. The girl opened one of the toggled pockets of her dark, faun-coloured tunic and found a bright-edged knife contained in a decorated sheath. She used this to quickly clean and fillet the fish. She then trapped the succulent loins between a framework of green larch which she secured with a withy. This was then suspended side-on near to the camp fire. She simply moved the blackened ends of the fire sticks closer together and as if by magic they flamed into life. She adjusted the position of the fish away from the flame and into the smoke. The girl cleaned her hands and the knife and then she entered her shelter.
She removed her simple headband of eagle feathers and hung it above the entrance. The inside of the shelter was perfectly warm and dry and smelled faintly of maple. She illuminated the shelter by lighting two small candlewicks which cast a warm, amber light. The floor was completely covered with supple, overlapping animal skins, furs and intricately woven, embroidered tapestries. There was a made bed of sewn sheep skins. A small, beautifully crafted drum lay on its side and scattered round it were sketches drawn in charcoal of deer antlers, wolverines, and bears. The girl had drawn some of the sketches from memory and some from memories that the she had forgotten.
The girl removed the little axe that she carried in a tooled leather belt around her waist and placed it in a lockless wooden chest. From her toggled pocket she retrieved the knife that she had used to deal with the fish. The handle of this knife was made from ivory and was decorated on one side with carvings of seals and fish and on the other side with a polar bear and cub. The girl looked at the beautiful carvings and felt their still sharp outlines under her thumbs. Then she cleaned the blade of the knife for a second time, inspected it closely again and wrapped it carefully in a linen cloth. She touched the linen to her lips, placed the wrapped knife next to the axe and closed the lid of the chest.
The girl’s clothes were all fashioned from the softest of leather and beautifully sewn together; they fitted her like a second skin and although practical they were far from plain, being adorned with intricate quill work and tassels. She wore a snug, deer-skin shirt tucked into fitted breeches. Over the breeches were hip-high chaps. Her tunic top was nipped in close and narrow at the waist by the tooled belt and on her feet she wore moccasins.
A small, broken piece of mirror was placed in between one of the larch poles and the outer skin of the shelter and when the girl occasionally glanced at her reflection she saw unblemished coffee skin and wide-set almond eyes of deep hazel. Her cheek bones were high and her raven hair was centre parted into plaits framing an oval face. With the coming of the snow she would be fifteen winters old.
Magnus drove the noisy ATV fast up the trail and into the woods in the direction of the Kovik River. The eiderdown filled quilted jacket ensured his warmth and the wolverine trimmed parker hood streamed out behind him in the wind. The Weatherby was attached securely to the side of the ATV and he wore the Sabot shells in a bandolier across his chest. The big man knew the backwoods intimately having been on countless hunting trips in the past. He crested a hill, drew the ATV to a halt and locked all four wheels. Using a pair of binoculars he glassed the bay that stretched out far below. He spotted a triangular orange reflection which he recognised as a sign on the coastal approach road to the town. It was at least two kilometres away. Magnus unstrapped the rifle from the side of the ATV and using the seat as a gun rest he sighted the target through the intense magnification of the telescopic sites. He brought the crosshairs to rest on the centre of the sign. Satisfied with the shot, he removed one of the Sabot shells from the bandolier and chambered the round. He slid the bolt slickly forward into the action. He shouldered the rifle again and steadied until the cross hairs found their mark. Magnus adjusted his aim minutely to account for windage and elevation and then he squeezed the round off. The supersonic boom of the bullet through the air added ten-fold to the explosion of the gun-powder. As Magnus checked the shot with the binoculars he smiled thinly to find it dead in the centre of the triangular sign.
By noon the forest had become so thick and dense that Magnus had to abandon the ATV and move on foot. He climbed breathlessly up a steepening incline and as he crested the hill he spotted the silver thread of the Kovik River sparkling through the trees far below. He scanned the banks of the river and found the exact place where the bear had climbed the bank. Magnus then noticed some movement. It was a bear but this bear was a deep chestnut brown and certainly not the white one that he had seen from the rig. He was tempted to shoot it but decided that the shot might spook the white bear if it was nearby. Magnus moved off again through the trees and as the ground eased his pace quickened. Then without warning or pause he stumbled headlong into a shaded clearing and was astonished to find a shelter made from caribou hides and larch poles.
Instinctively he dropped silently to one knee and waited, watching and listening. When at last he was satisfied that the camp was empty he crept forward on bent knees. The camps’ fire was extinguished and to one side he saw the loins of smoked salmon. He touched one of the cooking pots and felt for heat. The pot was cold. Glancing around Magnus took one of the loins from the larch frame and broke off a piece of fish, he ate it greedily and then carelessly discarded the remainder into the blackened embers of the fire.
He turned to the shelter, un-shouldered his rifle and used its muzzle to draw back the entrance. He crept inside. Magnus whispered bitterly, ‘This is a freaking Cree tent - as if we haven’t given those filthy redskins more than enough room on the reservation. They’re never satisfied. Jeez it stinks in here.’
He saw the wooden chest and was now quick in his movement. He opened the box and inside he found a pair of mukluks.
“Inuit boots? Jeez this gets better - a Cree sharing with a freaking ‘Skimo”.
Other than the boots the box was empty. Then Magnus saw the charcoal drawings and picked up one of a bear and without thought he folded the sketch and put it into the inside pocket of his eiderdown jacket. Then he took a vicious looking survival knife from its place across his chest and smiled as he used its saw-edge to cut the skin from the drum. As he was leaving the shelter he reached up and collected a simple headband of eagle feathers from above the entrance and absently stuffed it into the same pocket as the drawing.
Outside the shelter the girl had returned and was confused to find the disturbed fish. As she knelt on one knee to inspect the ground, Magnus crept from the shelter. For a moment they were both fixed to the spot and then the spell was broken when Magnus smiled through his cold pale eyes, ‘Well, what do y’ know? Today just got a whole lot better, I just hunted me a perty little Squaw...’ Then, without warning he leaped at her and grabbed the tassels of her tunic but as she twisted they tore off and she was free. She turned and fled into the trees with Magnus running and cursing after her.
The great white bear climbed through the forest and with each passing hour had gained altitude. She had learned to graze on the few remaining berries and had also caught rabbits and other small rodents. As she crested a patch of rocky ground she paused at the sound of a distant boom which echoed from the trees before gradually dying away and then she carried on down into a shallow depression where she rested surrounded by trees on the upward slope.
It was into this clearing that several hours later the Kodiak bear which Magnus had spotted early that morning on the banks of the Kovik and had considered shooting now wandered. The two animals froze as they stared and scented at each other. Then the Kodiak slowly approach the great she-bear and bent his head to her shoulder, the two bears stood upright, faced each other and wrestled in a great ball of brown and white. The two animals stayed together for hours until the she bear finally lost interest and wandered away from the clearing. As she left the Kodiak followed her but she turned on him and for the first time her bite was serious. The Kodiak shrank back and watched forlornly as she disappeared, climbing once again into the forest.
Magnus had lost the girls trail and was sweating breathlessly against a tree. He then slowly allowed himself to sink down onto his heels. As he rested, across the tree lined valley he could see the clearing in which the two bears had met. As he gazed across at it he saw the lone, rejected Kodiak wander back into it. Magnus quietly shouldered the rifle, chambered a round and brought the cross hairs of the ‘scope onto the bears flank just back from its shoulder. The bear stood obligingly still and Magnus fired. The bear had fallen and lay twitching before the sound of the shot had died from the wooded valley. The Sabot shell had done its job of ruining its heart and lungs. It was the second time that the white bear had paused at the destructive sound of the rifle. Unbeknown to Magnus the girl had been tracking him unseen and watched him kill the Kodiak from the shelter of the forest. As the bear lay dying she closed her eyes and invoked its spirit.
After witnessing the killing the girl shadowed away from the trail and into the trees always making the high ground. That night she made a bivouac and constructed a camp fire that remained unlit. She felled several large branches with her axe and used their weight to help her to bend two opposing larch saplings on either side of the fire. After tethering the two trees she suspended plaited ropes made from withies from them. Then she plaited the two lengths into one and at the end of this single withy she fashioned a small loop. She pinned this tight into the ground with a forked stick and disguised it under the leaf litter.
That night the temperature plunged and it began to snow heavily. By the morning the forest was covered in deep snow that would lie until spring.
During the night Magnus trekked across the valley to cut the ears from the Kodiak. Before first light the girl had found his trail and she now shadowed him unseen once again. As she watched Magnus from the forest, suddenly and without warning he dropped to one knee. In one fluid movement he had chambered a Sabot shell and shouldered the rifle. The girl anxiously followed the direction of the barrel and saw the white bear rising to the crest of a sparsely wooded slope. The bear turned side on and its white silhouette was keen against the sky. The girl knew that the time for concealment had gone; quick as the wind she sprang across the snow and flung herself bodily at the rifle. Magnus was taken completely by surprise and his rifle was knocked from his grasp into the snow. The girl picked it up, ejected the round and then she packed snow deep into the action making it impossible for the rifle to be loaded or fired. As Magnus screamed in fury, the white bear slowly turned and disappeared over the crest of the hill, as it did so it left the last sentinels of the trees behind. The girl stared at Magnus as he snatched his survival knife from its plastic holster. ‘Why y’ filthy little squaw, I’m gonna make you squeal for your Mammy – by the time I’m finished with you y’ gonna be useless and whisht y’ wus dead, now you come nicely to yo’ Daddy.’
She walked towards him. He relaxed and grinning coldly, reached out and put a hand on her shoulder to hold her; it was then that she drove the bright blade of her ivory handled knife deep into his forearm – it was he who squealed. He attempted to stem the flow of blood with his knife hand and cursed as she leaped past him.
She ran like the wind and occasionally shrieked the warrior call of a Cree Brave. It had been many years since these forests had echoed to its song. Magnus crashed through the snow after her in a blind rage bent on terrible retribution. Even for someone unskilled in tracking the girl would have been easy to follow as her footprints were left clearly in the snow and she made no attempt to disguise them. Magnus was left far behind but he was steadfast in his pursuit.
The girl retraced her tracks to the bivouac camp and without hesitation or difficulty kindled the camp fire. Down the trail Magnus saw the bright glow of the fire through the trees and its thin column of smoke rising up vertically through the breathless air. He focussed on nothing else for he knew that it would draw him to her and God help her then...he redoubled his efforts.
When the fire was set the girl retreated to the cover of the nearby trees and waited. It wasn’t long before Magnus stumbled sweating, gasping and cursing into the clearing. He stopped and saw the fire, the bivouac and then the girl as she stepped from behind a tree on the far side. Magnus smiled and whispered, ‘You can run but you can’t hide from yo’ Daddy, come here Darlin’ make things easier for yerself. Don’t be a reluctent little squaw now...’
The girl didn’t move, Magnus stepped forward and as he did so the leaf litter rattled under the snow. As if slow motion was suddenly accelerated, the loop at the end of the concealed withy bit around his ankle, he toppled over, was pulled along the ground and then as the two larch trees suddenly straightened he was hauled upside down into the air.
Reader, these are the facts:
As Magnus had chased the girl through the forest the cork in the bottle of whisky in his inside pocket had come out. Now, as he hung upside down the thin liquor soaked into the eiderdown of his quilted jacket and dripped into his beard and parka hood.
The picture of the bear and the simple headdress of eagle feathers that he had stolen escaped from his pocket. They fluttered slowly down to the fire and then caught in the flame.
As they burned an instant wind shrieked through the trees. It swirled and swirled, lifting a high spiral of spin-drift snow. The strength of the wind increased ten-fold and Magnus began to swing from side to side.
The flames of the little fire grew far beyond their natural fuel and licked up towards Magnus’s whisky soaked parka hood. The liquor caught the flame and Magnus was engulfed in huge, brief fireball - his screams echoing from the trees.
He finally died just after nightfall and by dawn his charred body was frozen solid.
The girl was already well down the trail when she heard Magnus’s screams and felt the shockwave from the fireball. With lightness and without a backwards glance she sprang down the snowy trail.
Spring came early.
High on the iron-blue mountain where the tall trees begin to shorten and the ground is steep, cradled in a quiet bowl is an almost forgotten place. Nestling unseen, beneath one of the few remaining gnarled ash trees, shielded by the peeping green buds and blanketed in deep snow there is a narrow entrance.
This entrance leads to a cave and from it the great white she-bear now slowly emerged, blinking into the dazzling spring sunshine. She sank belly-deep in the snow and then bounded forward in a great leap. Turning, she looked over her shoulder and watched and waited. From the cave followed a cub of mottled brown.