“Snow, the most majestic of weathers – the deadliest too. We have snow falling by the inch here in Norfolk today. If you venture out do so with the greatest care, my friends.”
“I’ll find him, I’ll not return until I do.” Harka’s last words before heading into the winter wilderness.
Four hours ago, Harka said those words to his wife and daughter. It had been daylight, fair but chilly when he left. Now dusk was falling upon a grave, desolate countryside. Everything had turned harsh, grey and white. Frigid Snow had fallen like the thickest, cruellest blanket, compounding that which had frozen like slippery concrete beneath his bear fur boots. Even the bark-brown and evergreen of the wintering tree’s looked grey beneath the covering of snow.
The only colour came from the faded crimson to orange disc, of the setting sun. It appeared as the bitter wind blew up, gusting the snow into deep drifts and clearing the scudding clouds away.
Harka shielded his eyes against the wind, drinking in the beauty of the sun. Even on an evil day, such as this, it was magical as it silhouetted the shadowed poplar and larch trees. Harka looked like a thickset hunter. A hunter he was not – just a survivor in the harsh northern lands. His piercing green eyes, curly salt-and-pepper beard and cold-redden, weathered nose, were all, that were visible beneath the heavy hood of his thick fur coat,. He cursed the wind while turning to look where he’d come. A long line of deep holes showed the arduous passage he’d made.
Slogging forward again, he felt his legs disappear over a foot deep in the snow with every step. Post-holing they called it – cursed-walking he called it. Just a few steps left him breathing heavy with exertion, yet onward he went for hours on end. Never stopping, never anything but resolute in his quest.
Reaching a point in the deepening woods, he pressed his back against the gnarly, ruddy-red trunk of a larch sucked in deep breaths on the brink of exhaustion. Pulling off a thick glove, he cursed the cold air. The wind bit deep into his work-worn fingers like the icy fangs of a snow wolf. Raising two shaking digits, he put them between his teeth and whistled loud and shrill. Drawing his battered yet keen, survival knife, he cut a few flexy branches. Bent and wove them until he had snowshoes beneath his boots.
“No more cursed-walking, for me.” Harka’s voice was dry, gravelly, thanks to his love of strong whisky. Something he longed for just then. Heading ever north, he walked until the reddened sun was gone and darkness reigned. The temperature fell way below zero, his spirits never followed. Somewhere along the way he’d lost a friend, he was going to find him no matter the cost. Across the tundra, always against the blizzarding winds, he went. The canopy of the dense wood was not his friend this day, dumping heavy falls of snow upon him with infuriating regularity. Never giving in, he would stop periodically and whistle. Each time he’d listen for a reply on the frigid wind. When none came he’d keep moving ever forward.
Eight hours battling the elements got him only three-miles. Then as hope faded, his whistle was answered by a whimper in the dark. His beard hid it, yet a broad smile brightened his features. He whistled again, listening and turning until the whimper grew loudest through the twisted trunks of the tundral woods. He was there and there Harka would go. At last, there was Ila, lying in the cover of a bush. ‘Ila’ was Inuit for, ‘friend’, yet this rust-brown and white Malamute was more of a hero. He’d saved the life of Harka’s daughter one day, and now Harka was returning the favour. Through the blizzard and a bad turn, the dog had been thrown free. Not until he got home did Harka see he was gone. Now, through hell and snowdrifts he’d found him again.
Ila howled with joy.
Harka wrapped his strong arms about him. “Ila, my friend. Forgive me for losing you,” his words, icy steam.
The dog licked his nose, his thick fur had kept him warm, yet redness showed injuries to his left hind leg.
Harka saw wounds, but no breaks. He cut lengths of his undershirt and bound the injuries well. “Let’s get you home by the fire.”
Ila gave a whimper of pain, he couldn’t stand.
Harka looked into the Malamute’s intelligent blue eyes and nodded.
The dog bowed his head in trust and love for his master.
The strong man lifted him around his broad shoulders. Harka would struggle, but Ila was not dying this night. Like Viking warriors, the survivor and his dog made the painstaking trip back through the bitter wind, harsh drifting snow and skin-biting temperatures. The suffering was no object for Harka when his best friend needed him. Nobody could ever impugn the compassion and friendship between this man and his dog.
Harka would make it home by morning in a terrible condition. Frostbite had taken two toes and hypothermia chilled him to the bone. By the warmth of the fire, Ila and Harka would recover well. Man and dog would soon delight again in facing the elements as a team. Harka never forgot that reddening sun on his path or the heavy snow laying on the boughs of the trees. His missing toes were worth it for Ila, his sledge dog and best friend.