Glorious day, blue sky, white snow and gleaming mountains; life distilled to its essentials, with no thoughts other than those of the immediate moment. The roadbed had not been plowed after the snows of the last few days. There were tracks made by snowmobilers, probably the day before. Right now there was no sight or sound of any other people out this way. Alongside the machine tracks were the largest canine tracks I had ever seen. "Huge dog," I thought, but didn't pay them much more mind.
Then came the REAL end of the road. A four-foot berm marked where early season plowing had stopped. The road would not open past this point again until spring rains melted the snow. A small trail veered off to the right. In summer it leads to a remote camping area with an open view of the Wrangell Narrows. But in winter it is a barely discernable path. Rather than staying out on the open road grade I decided to follow the narrow path. The snow machines had made the same choice. But it wasn't long before the snow became too spotty for machines, and frustratingly thin even for snowshoes. I removed mine and walked in booted feet for another hundred yards or so. The snow thickened again to a point where I needed the gear again to make my way through or sink knee-deep. Ahead lay virgin snow on the trail, leaving all other tracks behind. Except for...
those "huge dog" tracks that I had seen early on as I started out. They ran ahead of me, the only marks on the white blanket of snow. Now those tracks grabbed my attention. Definitely they were canine tracks and definitely huge. They stayed straight on line, cutting the curve of the snowed-over road, never deviating or distracting off course. I bent to admire them even closer and put my hand beside one for comparison. Straightening, I eyeballed the path of the prints as they ran to the distance. It was then I noticed the other tracks about three feet off to the right. But where the huge tracks were clear and untrampled the tracks to the right were less distinct. Scrutinizing them, I realized these were tracks of more than one animal walking along in a line, one's steps following on top of the previous animal's trail.
I was following a small pack of wolves. The leader was obviously on the left, walking a bit removed, while the other animals trailed to the side. I followed the tracks for a little over a mile where they cut up into the timber. There I turned for my return.
Following my own meandering tracks back to the truck, I arrived just as solid dark was falling. Those other tracks had never doubled back, had never turned aside or drifted. I had stopped and started, turned and returned while they had kept on some compass-straight course that I could never comprehend. They had kept moving forward into places where I didn't follow.
Somehow, holding the memory of all that, reflecting while I sit now in a small town coffee shop, I feel both freer and more confined for the awareness of their passing.