The Far North Series

©2017 by John Phillip Backus all rights reserved.

Fireside Tales of High Adventure in the Far North Country

 

TWO WIDE-EYED CHILDREN stood nervously at the entrance to the spacious room fitted with a gigantic stone fireplace and twenty-foot ceilings. The taller child—a sandy-haired boy of thirteen—stared in wonder at the walls lined with shelves. Crammed onto those shelves were rows upon rows of books—thousands of them! Except for the public library, Joseph had never seen this many books in one place in his entire life—even in Boston!

But most remarkable of all were the creatures. Throughout the room, dozens of stuffed specimens of north country birds, reptiles, and mammals were preserved for posterity, mounted in natural, life-like poses on walls, shelves, tables and special stands—even peering down from the huge ceiling beams above. On the wall to his immediate left, a great horned owl with gigantic yellow eyes, clung one-footed to a tree branch, while grasping a helpless snowshoe rabbit in its deadly talons.

Joseph’s ten-year-old sister, Penelope, stood captivated as well, staring wide-eyed at a pure black timber wolf seated on the floor next to her, its snout raised to the ceiling, howling at an imaginary, distant moon. Far above her, a female Rocky Mountain goat with her pair of pure white kids balanced on the cross-beam. Penelope was amazed at how life-like they all appeared.

A roaring blaze burned brightly in the fireplace where an enormous fur pelt lay sprawled on the floor in front of the hearth. It was ancient and shaggy, and was probably white once, but was now yellowed with age and had bits of fur missing in places. In the middle of the rug was a strange leather chair with legs fashioned from moose antlers. Seated there, breathing quietly, an elderly, white-haired gentleman dozed comfortably in front of the fire. His full white beard lay softly against his broad chest. In his wrinkled hand rested a pen, and in his lap, some sort of ledger, or notebook, by the look of it. Nearby on the fur rug, an equally ancient dog lay draped across the old man’s moccasin-covered feet. The dark, malamute-wolf mix rested peacefully, the warmth of the fire easing the pain of arthritis in his tired old bones.

Standing behind the children, the elderly gentleman’s personal assistant—a middle-aged Inuit man named Han—spoke softly, directing them to wait while he went forward quietly, advancing to the near side of the chair. Leaning forward, he whispered something into the older gentleman’s ear.

As Han spoke, the wrinkled old man peered around at the children, nodding his head slowly, and beckoning them with a gnarled finger to come closer. As they approached his chair, the dog raised one eyelid, cocked an ear and, seeing the little people, gave a couple of stiff wags with his tail in welcome. Standing self-consciously before him, their two faces framed by the radiant glow of the fire behind them, the children waited. The old man peered at them with twinkling blue eyes from beneath bushy white eyebrows.

“So, who do we have here?” He asked in a deep, pleasant voice.

“I’m Joseph, sir” the gangly-legged boy answered stiffly, looking a bit pale.

“And I’m Penelope, great-grandfather” the dark-haired, blue-eyed cutie blurted out.

The old gentleman gazed with pleasure upon his great-grandchildren, his favorite granddaughter Eleanor’s children.

“Your mother used to spend her summers here in this same house when she was about your age, and if I’m not mistaken, had quite a few adventures here about as I recall.” His eyes glowed as warm as the fire.  “Well, it sure is good to finally meet the two of you in person!” He smiled and his eyes twinkled even more.

Penelope smiled broadly at the kind, weather-beaten face before her. She noticed the crow’s feet framing the ice-blue eyes, immediately liking everything she saw. She couldn’t believe it- this was the famous “Mountain Man Roy” about whom she’d been told stories by her mother all of her life! The ten year old was in complete awe of him and totally excited to actually be here in the Yukon Territories for a three-week summer visit.

Her brother was far more reserved. Back home in Boston, Joseph liked to spend time surfing the internet and playing video games, or reading Sci Fi. He wasn’t too sure that he was much into all this great outdoors stuff.

“So, how do you like your visit to the north country so far?” Roy asked, looking them over and drinking in everything he saw.

“Very much, thank you sir,” Joseph replied politely.

“I think it’s terrific, great-grandfather!” Penelope beamed. Her brother shot her an irritated sidelong glance, but she just squinched up her face at him and kept right on smiling.

At 92, Roy still didn’t miss much of what went on around him. He was physically slower now than in his youth, but he really couldn’t complain. He still had his wits about him, and his health was unusually good considering his age and the mileage he’d put on during those years. He was still fairly fit and could still get about and chop wood, ride a horse, and even hunt when he wanted to. He noted Joseph’s ill-concealed uncertainty about being here and figured he’d have to help change that.

Roy had rejoiced at the letter from Eleanor about she and the children coming for a visit, and she ‘d clued him in regarding Joseph’s requests not to have to come. He was having a great summer off with his buddies and wasn’t sure that there would be anything to do in the Yukon for three whole weeks.

“He doesn’t even have TV and I don’t think the internet even goes up that far north!” He had complained to his mother in Boston.

“Look, I’m sure you’ll survive without video games, Facebook, or texting for a few days. When I was a girl we didn’t even have videos, much less games and the internet or home computers for that matter. Joseph, you’ll live through it and you might even enjoy yourself if you just get your attitude straight and consider it an adventure.”

Eleanor understood how her son felt, but was certain that the trip would do him good. He needed some new stimuli in his life and the wilderness had a strange way of bringing reality clearly into focus.

The three of them had arrived earlier by train and were met at the station by Han, who drove them the thirty miles through the wilds in a customized Land Rover built to ford streams and climb up rocky, roadless wilderness tracks where only elk and mountain goats usually trod.

Later that evening after a tasty supper, they all gathered in the library where a roaring fire threw off radiant heat into the large, high-ceilinged room. Roy sat rocking in his big chair puffing lazily on an old pipe with Tug at his feet as usual. When they kids were all settled in, Eleanor whispered something in Roy’s ear and he smiled, nodding his white head and cleared his throat. He half turned his chair towards the sofa where his great grandchildren sat on the big, comfortable couch on either side of their mom and paused for a moment for effect before quietly beginning to speak,

“These are the adventures of Mountain Man Roy. He lived up in the far north country where the cold winds blow and the snow never melts. Roy was a big man with a bushy beard who had a horse named Coyote and a dog named Tug.”

Penelope glanced down wide-eyed at the large wolf dog resting contentedly at her Great-Grandfather’s feet.

“Roy’s best friend was Old Griz, who rode a mule named Millie and had a dog named Bacon…”

 

Episode One

Old Three Toes

THE SUDDEN ARCTIC storm swept down out of the frozen north like a barbarian horde, blanketing the region with snow and ice, and driving the wildlife south, or into grateful hibernation. Without mercy, the moisture-laden clouds marched relentlessly across the blackened sky, peppering the northern range of the Canadian Rockies with an unseasonable blanket of thick, white flakes. Nonstop snowfall slashed diagonally across the windswept landscape, accumulating rapidly along fence lines and roadways. The gale-force blizzard radically altered the northern wilderness, forming deep snowdrifts and ghostly, wind-sculpted shapes that assigned an eerie, otherworldly cast to the newly frozen vista.

For a thousand miles in every direction, the hardy animal inhabitants of the Yukon sought shelter and rode out the storm. The handful of lucky ones hibernated, sheltered deep inside snug dens and rock caves, safe from the howling winds on the frozen surface. The others had no choice but to adapt to their environment as best they could.

While most of the northern deer and elk herds had already started moving down towards their winter feeding grounds, the sudden snowfall trapped scores of the hoofed browsers in the high country where deep drifts and soft powder made travel nearly impossible. Many individuals and small groups were now stranded in tiny isolated pockets surrounded by snow too deep to push through by all but the largest and strongest. In just thirty-six hours, the storm had dropped a record seventy-five inches of snow. Although the official temperature hovered at around thirty below, the wind chill factor made it feel more like -50° Fahrenheit. Under these treacherous weather conditions all living things were desperate to escape the biting cold.

Surprised by the intensity of the early storm, flocks of pure-white Dall sheep and their sure-footed cousins, the long-haired Rocky Mountain goats, gingerly made their way down to the relative safety of the alpine valleys from the heights above the tree line. Buffeted by icy blasts and howling gusts, they scrambled single-file along three-thousand foot sheer cliff walls, crossed treacherous ice fields, and nimbly vaulted deep crevasses.

Far below in the snow-filled valleys, herds of North American elk and mule deer pressed on to their winter feeding grounds, fleeing the higher altitudes in their bid to survive the cold extended darkness of the Yukon winter. Moose, the largest of the deer species, having impressive antlers that grew up to six feet high each season, chewed the tips of twigs and stripped bark from saplings along frozen lakes and streams. To the north, beyond the foothills, vast herds of woodland caribou, numbering in the tens of thousands, thundered across the tundra in their annual migration south.

Closely shadowing this immense migration of animal life, the ferocious northern carnivores conducted a running skirmish against the herds, preying on them as they made their annual pilgrimage south. Highly efficient packs of timber wolves, family clans of a dozen or more, kept pace with their prey, deftly bringing down the old, or the weak. Solitary mountain lions patiently stalked the warm-blooded sojourners, especially at night, helping to thin their ranks and ensure the fitness of the species.

The Grizzly, like most northern bears, remained as inactive as possible during the winter, emerging from its den only when absolutely necessary. The strongest and most ferocious of the northern land animals, Ursus arctos horribilis, loaded up on fat and stored calories throughout the late summer and the fall, and with the coming of the winter season, settled in for a long, cozy hibernation that would continue through to spring thaw.

Solidly enduring this intense seasonal barrage, high on a snow-covered, boulder-strewn mountainside, a sturdy log structure hugged a level outcropping of gray granite rock just below the tree line. A stunted stand of gnarled pine surrounded the rustic, hand-hewn dwelling, affording it partial protection from the direct force of the wind.

Inside, warm and snug, the cabin’s occupants slept soundly, despite the endless moaning of the icy blast beyond the thick, frosted windows. At one end of the vaulted main room, inside the wide stone fireplace, a deep bed of hot embers glowed red edged with grey, silent evidence of the stack of hardwood logs consumed several hours earlier. Above the rough-hewn mantle hung a magnificent set of elk antlers upon which various articles of clothing were draped, drying in the heat generated by the stone chimney that rose to the raftered ceiling thirty feet above the rugged oak floor. Mounted on the opposite wall, and above the entrance to the well-provisioned kitchen area, an equally impressive set of moose antlers branched out, bedecked with bundles of dried garlic, wild onions and assorted herbs and spices.

Sprawled upon a thick elk robe in front of the stone hearth, two large male dogs lay sleeping. The dark one, a wolf-malamute mix named Tug, half-woke, lifting his head slightly off the soft fur rug and cocked an ear. It was as if some unidentified sound had filtered into his subconscious, triggering an instinctive response. With partially closed eyes, Tug listened keenly, sifting through the normal nighttime sounds one-by-one, methodically seeking an audible reason to investigate further. High above, in the bedroom loft Tug recognized the quiet, steady breathing of his friend and master, Roy. From the spare bedroom to his right he heard the partial snore of Roy’s best friend, Old Griz.

Lying next to him on the rug, Griz’s faithful companion, Bacon, also stirred—though not for the same reason. The brawny, pure-white Husky was fast asleep and engaged in a dream so realistic that his muscular legs began to pump the air wildly as he gave imaginary chase to a plump arctic hare. Reassured that all was well, Tug relaxed and drifted back into peaceful slumber.

* * *

HIGH ABOVE THE SHELTERED CABIN, fully exposed to the elements atop the windswept ridge, an enormous white bear lumbered across a frozen snowfield, all but invisible except for his sensitive black snout and liquid black eyes. Battling fierce wind gusts and ignoring the sting of frozen ice particles bombarding his thick, white fur, the incredibly rare white Grizzly ambled along with a curious stagger-step limp caused by a savage injury to his right forepaw when he was only just a cub. The nine-foot tall, thirteen-hundred pound omnivore was ravenous, driven from a relatively comfortable cave into this brutal, arctic onslaught by his overwhelming craving for food.  Under normal circumstances, he would have already been settled into his favorite winter den eighty miles to the north. Unfortunately, he had severely re-injured his already crippled paw this past summer and hadn’t been able to hunt effectively because of it. After an unsuccessful attempt at hibernation he had emerged from his den and for several days now the large Kodiak had scoured the forested, snow-covered slopes on his massive padded paws, urgently seeking something to eat. During the past twenty-four hours he had glimpsed several deer and a snowshoe hare, but had succeeded only in capturing a handful of mice. To survive he needed something large and meaty to gorge upon.

With the arrival of this big storm, he hoped to surprise a straggler, preferably a moose or elk too old or weak to make it through the deep drifts down to the safety of the lower elevations. It was also a remote possibility that he could challenge a wolf pack or mountain lion that had just concluded a successful hunt and muscle his way in to eat the recently killed prey, but opportunities like that were extremely rare and he certainly couldn’t count on something like that happening now. If this foray for a large animal was successful, the bear planned to drag the carcass back to a nearby newly discovered cave where he could lie low, conserve his strength, and feed on the remains periodically throughout the long dark winter until the spring thaw arrived and survival became easier. If he failed, this could very well be his final winter.

Circling a half-buried boulder, the extremely powerful beast paused and rose up on his hind legs. With his snout held high he tested the wind for sign. Detecting something out of place he swung halfway round to get a better scent. A hint of wood smoke passed his delicate black nostrils triggering a growl low in his throat. He knew about fire. Fire was painful. Recalling his distant past, he remembered when, as a young bear, the still hot embers of an abandoned campfire had burned his tender mouth and tongue as he ferreted out some scraps of food left behind by hunters. Fire was dangerous and could kill. The huge bear’s shoulders trembled as an involuntary shudder went through him. He stood all the way up and pendulum swung his large, white head from side to side, discerning as much information from the scent as possible. In the past, during the driest of years, deadly wildfires sometimes swept across the forested ridges. From personal experience he knew that the only way to survive such a fire was to be lucky enough to be upwind of the blaze or near one of the larger rivers containing small falls and to remain immersed in the protective water until it passed. But in the dead of winter, such fires were rare, and this smoke was coming from a far more dangerous source – his lifelong enemy – Man! -whose pungent scent now filled his nostrils.

The wary old bear hated Man and anything to do with him. He had survived this long by staying as far away from human beings as possible, but this was becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish. The two-legged demons had been encroaching on the wilderness in ever-greater numbers over the past decade and in recent times the great bear had been forced to relocate further north to eliminate the occasional near-run-in with the detestable species of Man. Under normal circumstances, he would head off in the opposite direction of the smoke, rapidly putting as much distance between him and the danger it represented as possible. But ever since his injury, he had been forced to venture from his homelands and abide closer to human territory where the food was tamer and easier to kill.

When winter had first set in, he was fortunate enough to luck upon a trap line which he raided regularly for food. Following this ready-made food source south for several days he had arrived in this new region facing dangers in an unfamiliar place. Tonight a devastating hunger consumed the once majestic bear and he stood his ground despite a powerful instinct to run.

Man was dangerous. Man trapped bears. Man was his hated enemy. The three toes on his left forepaw were a grim reminder of this fact. When he was just a cub he had stumbled into a trap which nearly took his life- but took two of his toes instead. He knew that the closer he was to man, the more danger he was in. However, in his currently injured and weakened state, the wary old predator resisted his instinct to flee and started off downhill in the direction of the man-scent.

The huge, white bear moved down the snow-shrouded mountainside like a phantom, growing braver with every stride, his desperate hunger overcoming his fear. The foul man-scent grew stronger as he descended into the tree line. He switched back across a jumbled, boulder-strewn section and gave a wide berth to the cabin and circled around, approaching the man-dwelling from the downwind side. The wind was gusting again and the blizzard resumed in earnest.

The bear navigated by sense of smell alone. Stalking through some stubby pines, he picked up a pungent horse-scent and began to salivate, the aching in his belly building. Horse flesh was delicious, though he rarely had the opportunity to partake of such a delicacy. He also perceived a strong dog scent. This didn’t worry him too much as dogs didn’t usually put up too much of a fight. Even wolf packs would rarely stand up to him when he robbed them of their kills.

He came up behind the man-dwelling and the flurries thinned. He appraised the structure, made of massive logs and granite, built up against the mountainside with a shed-roofed stable attached to one end. He tested the wind and took a step toward the stable but before he could shift his weight he felt something squirm under the snow beneath his good paw.

Inside the cabin Tug was dreaming. In his dream, he was lost in a pitch-black cavern deep inside the earth facing something horrible that he couldn’t see but whose presence was oppressive and close in the dark. Tug heard a low snarl and felt the monster rushing at him. He braced for the impact but it never came. Instead he was jarred awake by the loud uproar outside as the massive bear jumped back, stumbling over a second dog that had came up out of its snow den and started to fiercely attack the bear’s hind legs. Tug leapt to the door, barking and growling ferociously. Outside, the half-buried dog howled in pain. The huge bear’s crushing weight had snapped his foreleg like a stick. Instant pandemonium broke out in the yard as twenty-two sled dogs emerged from their snow dens yelping and barking, snarling and howling, and lunging at the ends of their chains towards the enormous white bear that had suddenly appeared in the middle of the raging blizzard to attack them.

Up in the loft, Roy awoke with a start and began pulling on thick sheepskin leggings and moose hide moccasins. Judging from the frantic noises outside, he knew that something was attacking the sled dogs. He scrambled down the ladder into the main room where Old Griz was lighting a kerosene lantern. Roy grabbed his hooded caribou parka from its peg on the wall. Tug and Bacon were jumping against the door barking and growling fiercely, anxious to defend their sledmates beyond the wall. Above the din Roy heard the distinct snarl of a bear and feared the worst.

Donning his parka he crossed the main room and plucked his fifty-caliber Hawkin from the gun rack, checking its load. Turning back toward the door, Roy speculated about the chaos of howls, growls and snarls erupting from the front yard. Not wanting to walk out into the waiting jaws of an angry bear, Old Griz pressed his face against the windowpane and held up a lamp to try to see what was happening before opening the door. At the first sound of trouble he had emerged from the spare room fully dressed, carrying a double-barreled sawed-off scattergun loaded with buckshot.

He put his hand next to his face against the glass to try to see outside. Halfway across the room Roy yelled to Old Griz over the noise of the dogs to be careful and then froze in mid-stride as a huge white paw with six-inch claws suddenly crashed through the window, slapping old Griz across the chest and knocking him backwards onto the wooden floor. His head hit hard against the edge of the solid wood eating table and he grunted as the glass lamp flew out of his hand and shattered against the wall, spraying flaming kerosene across the front room.

In the flickering half-light of the bluish flames, Roy gasped as the bear thrust his massive white head with black eyes gleaming and enormous teeth-lined jaws opened wide and growling through the broken window in an effort to reach his injured friend. Lucky for the unconscious Griz, the bear’s shoulders were too broad to fit through the opening, giving Roy a moment to point his rifle and squeeze the trigger. The sharp recoil rocked him back a step as the Hawkin barked out a deafening roar of its own and spit flames three feet beyond the end of the long, black barrel. The room filled with smoke and the smell of burning wood and gunpowder. The bear roared and retreated back into the arctic night as Tug and Bacon jumped out through the gaping window after him.

His old friend groaned as Roy kneeled down beside him. After smothering the oil fire with an old blanket, he lit another lamp and checked to see how Griz was doing. He had a nasty gash on the back of his head but Roy managed to stop the moderate bleeding. Luckily, Griz’s thick winter clothing had absorbed most of the impact from the bear’s dangerous claws and the sixty-three year old mountain man suffered only three scarlet scratches across his broad chest from the attack. With the pandemonium diminishing outside Roy picked up the shotgun and threw open the front door.

Outside the storm had weakened and the sky was clearing. Light from a three-quarter moon illuminated the snow-covered ground revealing a blood-soaked battlefield in front of the porch. Dogs were down all over the yard, some dead and some injured, whimpering pitifully. Roy’s anger rose as he noticed several of his best dogs dead or dying. The bear was nowhere in sight but he could hear Tug and Bacon barking from the direction of the stable. He jumped off the porch and pushed through the deep drifts.  Rounding the corner Roy saw the bear framed against the stable door and realized for the first time how truly immense he was.

The Grizzly was the largest specimen Roy had ever seen and the thick, white coat made him look even more impressive. The two dogs were holding him at bay, backed against the stable door and he was up on his massive hind legs, striking at them with his one good paw. The bear’s left foreleg hung down at an awkward angle, dangling uselessly at his heaving side. Deep red stains spoiled the white fur around the left shoulder where Roy’s bullet had apparently entered the bear’s upper chest, shattering the thick shoulder bone. In spite of his terrible wound, the ferocious bear wasn’t out of courage yet. He whirled and lashed out at the dogs in turn as they lunged and nipped at his legs, keeping him trapped against the building. Roy advanced cautiously, scattergun at the ready. He drew within ten yards and called off the dogs so he could get in a clean shot to finish the beast. Tug broke off the attack but Bacon remained. He had seen his master attacked by this monster and was determined to bring him down, alone if necessary.

As Roy called to Bacon the tormented, desperate bear saw his chance. With only one dog harassing him he swung his body about and hooked the stable door with the powerful claws of his right forepaw and with a mighty, Herculean effort, ripped the stable door completely off its hinges. In an instant the bear vanished inside the darkened stable and Bacon raced in after him.

Trapped inside the darkened stable, the horse and mule were in a state of panic. The strong bear scent filled their nostrils and they were terrified. Coyote was a big, strong mountain horse bred for the high country and able to carry a man and all his gear all day in steep, rocky terrain without tiring. He pricked his ears and could hear the snarls of the huge bear over the barking and growling of Tug and Bacon just beyond the confines of his modest stall. He wanted to run, to get out of the stable and as far a way from the bear as possible. He pranced back and forth, whinnying and calling to his friend, Millie, Old Griz’s mule.

In the rear of the stable, Millie was terrorized at the sight of the gigantic bear ripping at the back wall in an attempt to flee to safety. He shredded the wooden walls with his claws, but could not break through the solid logs.

Roy moved into the darkness and waited just inside the door.  He hesitated for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust and then carefully made his way down the central hallway between the stalls, scattergun at the ready.

Old Three Toes was frantic. With his strength failing, he realized there was no way out of the building except through the front entrance. As he turned back toward the doorway, he saw Roy’s silhouette and lunged. Before Roy could fire, the bear knocked the shotgun from his hands and he barely escaped being crushed against the stable wall. Rolling to his left, Roy reached for his large Bowie knife strapped to his leg and scrambled down the aisle in the dark. Old Three Toes whirled toward the sound and roared, determined to destroy this hateful creature who had brought further pain and suffering to his already miserable existence. Crouched against the back of the stable at the end of the center aisle, Roy knew he was in trouble. The huge bear was wounded, but very much alive and capable of incredible destructive prowess. One swipe of his paw could remove his head from his shoulders. As the bear roared and attacked, Roy raced forward to meet him, but Tug jumped between them, gripping the monster’s throat in his teeth.

The bear shook violently left and right and struck the dog a glancing blow to the shoulder, sending Tug flying into the adjoining stall. Tug’s attack was the distraction Roy needed to bury the knife to its haft in the beast’s muscled chest. Driving it deep, Roy was thrown to the floor by the scrambling animal racing to escape to the outside. As Roy collapsed with three cracked ribs he heard Old Griz shout something from the yard.

The loud blast of the shotgun filled the night and the pellets found their mark. Finally it was over- the huge white bear lay dead on the snow. A few hours later, as dawn broke over the frozen landscape, the devastation wrought by the bear was even worse than Roy or Old Griz could ever have imagined. Dogs were down everywhere, the fresh white snow splattered with crimson pools of frozen blood. The final toll was six dead sled dogs and another five badly injured. Roy recovered slowly over the next twelve weeks with the injured Tug resting nearby and refusing to leave his side the  whole time. They shared a special bond that to this day no one could deny.

Roy paused and peered at his family from beneath bushy, white eyebrows. He shared a knowing glance with his favorite grand-daughter and she hugged her children who were wide-eyed and mesmerized by the tale.

“Great-Grandpa Roy? Penelope asked, looking back and forth from Tug to him as if trying to figure something out that didn’t quite make sense.

“Yes, Penelope?”

“Was that a true story?”

“Well, yes, honey, that was a true story about something that happened many, many years ago, even before your grandmother, Ellie, was born.”

©2017 by John Phillip Backus all rights reserved.

to be continued…

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