It is evening, early in november. I am sitting on the closed porch of the cabin at Richardson, making snares. Working with a few strands of cable and a pair of pliers, I am making a sliding noose seven to eight inches in diameter; it will be for lynx, or coyote if I am lucky. The wire is tough and springy, and I find it hard to make the knots hold.
I have spent part of this day cutting wood. Out in the yard by the sawhorse there is a pile of freashly sawn birch, and slabs of it already split to be stacked against the outside wall of the cabin. The wood flesh, the sawdust and chips, are a pale yellow on the evening snow.
The cabin is warm; a fire smolders and sparks in the big black wod-range in the room behind me. Something is cooking there on the stovetop; the big kettle hums in the silence. Out the window, in the southwest, a cloudy light fades slowly over the mountains. The river channel at the foot of the hill is frozen, but downriver I see a dark streak in the snow: open water.
The land changes slowly in a thousand years. The river has shifted from one side of the valley to another, worn its bed deeper in the sediment and rock. Islands have formed, grown grass and willows, and then been washed away, to be drift-piles buried in sand. The spruce forest on these slopes gave way to forset, to birch and aspen, and in the spaces among these now the spruce come slowly back. The birch will die, stand punky, and fall, and moss thicken once more on the downed and rotting trunks.
Of all I can see from this hillside, the only recent things are the narrow roadway below the house and my own cluster of cabins and sheds. Everything else is as it has been for a thousand of years. It was colder then, or warmer. Brown coal-beds were forming in the swamps to the south. Animals and birds very like those here now roamed the windy meadows, made their way south, and flew north again in a far springtime. Enormous heards left tracks in the snow, browsing the willows and lichens. And others no longer here, huger, with hairy sides and heavy tusks. They were hunted, pursued by shadows on the snow. They have passed through, they have eaten and killed.
Days and years run together. It is later and colder, past the middle of December, the shortest days. The sun has gone down behind Mount Deborah, a cold, pyramidal slab in the southwest. I am fitting together a new harness for the pup I am training. I have cut the leather from strips of tanned moose, made from the back of the animal, the thickes part of the hide. By the light of this window I sew the collar seams with an awl and havy flex thred. I have already punched holes for the bellyband and the collar buckles.
A large piece of of hide taken from a hindquarter of moose i soaking in a tub behind the stove. The hair has slipped, and I have scraped the hide clean. It soaks in a solution of soap and snow water. Stirred and wrung out once or twice a day, it will be ready in a week or two to be washed clean, then pulled and stretched until it is soft and dry. Later I will hang it in the smokehouse and smoke it with dry alder until it is a light or deeper brown. I will cut new moccasin soles from it.
I remember things. Names, friends of years past, a wife far off. Last week I saw a magazine article on contemporary painters in New York City, photographs of people I once knew. I wrote one of them a letter, telling of myself here in the North. There will be no anser, and all that seems very far and ages distant.
In that same magazine – or was it another sent to me, or borrowed from the roadhouse – I have read something of the politics of this nation and the world. Names again: Truman, MacArthur, Eisenhower, a place namned Korea. But these too are distant and unreal. My life is here, in this country I have made, in the things I have built. In the world of Richardson and Tenderfoot, of Banner Creek, and the Tanana at the foot of the hill. I do not want more than his.
Winter comes dark and close; there is snow, and wind on the hills. It is a lean year, and there are few rabbits in the county now. Two years ago they were thick in the willows and alders; when snow went off in the spring, the gnawed bark showed pale near the height of the snowfall. Lynx followed the rabbits everywhere, and it was no trick at all to catch a dozen or so of the big cats in a few weeks’ time. Now the snow in the woods show little sign of anything, only dust and leaves, the occasional track of a fox or a squirrel. I may catch a few marten on the ridges behind Redmond Creek, a lynx in Banner flats, or a fox here along the river.
I have built a small cabin at the mouth of Tenderfoot, six miles upriver. I built a new dogsled this fall, and I am eager to use it. I have dried fish stacked in the shed, potatoes and cabbage in the cellar, and wood in the yard. A moose, shot late and none too fat, hangs from the tall rack behind the cabin, frozen like a rock. Little by little I am learning the ways of the North. In the darknes and cold that is coming, we will not go hungry.
I put down my work; the light is poor, and I listen. A car drives slowly by and is gone over the hill. There are not many now so late in the year.
Seasons, years. The sun will rise over the hill next spring, the cold will come again, and more or less snow will fall. If I live here long enough, I may see a new migration of people from Asia. Here below me is the corridor, the way into the continent, a way still open until stopped once more by ice.
I am alone in my thirty-third year, strange to myself and the few people I know. In this immensity of silence and solitude, my childhood seems as distant as the age of mastodons and sloths; yet it is alive in me and in this life I have chosen to live. I am here and nowhere else.
It is dark in the cabin now, the fire in the stove is going out. I am done with these snares. I hang those I have finished on a nail by the doorway to the porch; I put away my tools and the lengths of unused wire. It is time to feed the dogs, and begin supper for myself. Tomorrow I must be up early, and out on the trail before light.
A breath of wind pulls smoke down across the south window. Out on the river, there is fog on that open water.
John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Northern Wilderness.