The following article was written by Libby Fena, and originally featured in the 2004-2005 Ely Winter Times.
The six of us skied quietly. Behind us, two teams of dogs followed. We had been following the trapper’s tracks for hours. The creek under our feet wound back and forth, creating oxbow after oxbow. Whereas the trapper had traveled from water to land to water, we stayed on frozen water, trudging through the deep snow that barely allowed us to glide. Who had decided that we would follow this back route to Wind Bay anyway? The December sun was sliding closer still to the horizon. It wouldn’t be long before it was dark.
Suddenly I bumped into the tail end of the skier before me. “Break time,” I thought. As soon as we stopped, the two teams of dogs behind us took up their impatient chorus. They loved to pull; breaks were welcomed only to chew snowballs out of their furry paws and to roll happily around in the snow. When paws were cooled and itchy harnesses rubbed, the dogs were ready to go again. Waiting behind skiers felt like agony, but breaking trail with the heavily loaded sleds was too difficult.
When I looked up, I saw a strange sight. Wind Bay stretched before me, finally. But it wasn’t Wind Bay that captured my attention. My eyes squinted to discern the large brown object ahead of the group. I skied forward to join the rest of the skiers. From my new vantage point, I gained a full picture of what had caused us to stop. A moose stood on the ice. He was stationed next to his mate, who had fallen through the ice. Her front legs were stretched out on the solid ice around her in an apparent effort at self-rescue. The snow around the hole was marked by her scrambling hoofs. She looked thoroughly exhausted.
“We’re here for a reason,” Peter whispered softly. “We’ve got to do something.”
Silently, we all nodded in agreement. Our minds began to stir with possible solutions.
“We could use a snub line from the sled and wrap it around her neck to pull.” Jeff dumped his pack into the snow and hurried back to retrieve a rope from the two dog teams behind us.
“I’ve got a carabiner on my pack we could use,” Sally murmured.
In a few moments, our little rescue team had designed a plan to rescue the stricken moose.
Hunter and Cliff slowly edged toward thin ice, the rope stretched between them, carabiner in place, skis on to spread out their weight. Cliff glanced back nervously. Our eyes were glued to their progress. The two slowed in apprehension of the male guardian. He watched as the female struggled again in the dark water, but backed away to let them approach. He remained a few yards from his mate, a nervous shuffling betraying his unreadable brown eyes. As Hunter neared her, her struggles subsided. Exhausted, she was quiet as Hunter wrapped the rope around her neck twice and secured it with the carabiner.
Peter, Sally, Jeff, and I readied ourselves for pulling.
“Keep your skis on and turn them perpendicular to the moose!”
“Who wants to be closest to the moose?”
“What is our escape plan?”
“Has anyone told the mushers what we’re doing? They should be ready with the dogs if the moose charges.”
“We should try to get those dogs to quiet down!”
We had to yell to be heard above the din of ten barking, impatient dogs. Sally skied back to confer with the mushers. I watched for a moment as a musher from each team began to move among the taut, furry bodies and tried in vain to hush them. We finalized our plan. Hunter situated himself to be closest to the moose. When Sally returned, the six of us put mitten to rope and began to pull. Pull! Pull! Pull!
“Oh no!” We felt the difference when Hunter stopped pulling and looked up to see that one of the loops of rope had slipped off the moose’s neck. The taut rope now caught her at an odd angle, and was in danger of coming off completely.
“We can still do this.” Peter leaned hard against the rope before the rest of us had regained our grip. Each of us in turn threw our full weight against the rope, our leather choppers struggling for a grip on the now icy rope.
I glanced up anxiously at the ice-bound moose. She seemed to know we were trying to help. With her front hoofs still perched on the ice, she added her remaining strength to ours. Her mate stood as motionless as a stone, watching with absolute concentration. His gaze never wavered. We pulled with our whole bodies, with our hearts and souls. Something powerful had us in its grasp. Perhaps, as Peter had said, fate had intervened. Slowly, the female’s slick brown body emerged from the icy water.
Suddenly, the silence of winter replaced the background noise of loud, excited barking. Time stopped as the tall brown creature of the North stood, finally on solid ice. The rope fell from her shoulders and lay in the freezing water-soaked snow. Her mate moved to stand next to her. I glanced back at our dog teams to see the sight of ten silent dogs, staring in awe and wonder, just as we humans were. The two moose stood by the gaping hole in the ice, looking at us – just looking. Twenty silent pairs of eyes followed the moose as they turned and slowly walked to the marsh edge. There, they stopped and gazed upon us again for several moments before heading up the ridge behind us. At the top of the ridge, the female stood and regarded us again, her majestic body now surrounded by protective birches. Her mate followed her, waiting while she took us in for the last time. Then the two disappeared, reclaimed by the deep mystery of the wilderness that had brought us all together.
The silence continued as humans and dogs inwardly wondered. As if in a dream, we returned the snub lines and carabiners to their places and put packs back on our backs.
“Well, it’s getting dark. I guess we should find a campsite,” Cliff said finally, as he opened the map to locate the most protective spot.
“To a campsite, you guys?” I called back to the mushers. It wasn’t necessary to run back, as the dogs still stood silently. “What could this mean to them?” I wondered to myself. I took the lead, aiming for the northwestern shore of Wind Bay, where on this cold, strange December evening we hoped to find wood and shelter for the night. The wind, the gliding of skis, and the breathing and trotting of dogs were the only sounds to mark our presence. Deep among the birches, two moose softly brushed against each other’s bodies as they glided through the snow.