by Peter M. Leschak
It was the Year of the Dog in Chinese reckoning, so I treated Max to a ride. As we walked out of the cabin, I barked, "Truck!" and he bolted for the vehicle—would've beaten me into the cab if he knew how to open the door.
I chauffeured him to a Nordic ski trail that doesn't prohibit dogs. It was eight miles to the Sturgeon River Trail in Superior National Forest, and Max occupied the passenger seat with the dignity of a duke—head squared, back straight, ears erect, peering intently out the windshield. He was wired with excitement, and if I accomplished nothing else that day, I'd made one other creature happy.
A half-inch of dry snow had fallen overnight, just enough to refurbish the trail. Recent above-normal temperatures had softened the track, which subsequently refroze, fashioning a cementlike glaze that rendered hills suicidal. Without the fresh layer, I wouldn't have attempted to ski on anything but the flat snowfields of the lakes.
The trail parallels the Sturgeon River, contouring north along a thickly forested bluff. From the parking area, it ascends into a portal of tall red pines, which seemed to welcome me as I entered their shadow. It was like vanishing into a magic wood. Light snow was still wafting in the air, and the flakes added depth to the scene, frosting limbs and needles. After Max surged past me and trotted around a curve, tail held high, the silence was profound—the keen hush of deep winter.
A quarter-mile in, I darted downhill, leaned left into a turn, then glided to a stop on a flat stretch. I savored the first generous view of the river. The rim of the bluff is about a hundred feet above the water, and the drop is steep, with forest seeming to tumble away from the sky. Through a break in the trees, I saw the black center of the river, crowded by snow and ice. A week before it had been frozen over, but the uncharacteristically mild afternoons had re-opened the main channel.
I closed my eyes and listened to the distant purling of flowing water. The music reminded me that last May I'd paddled that same stretch, the riffles reflecting greenery, the forest brassy with birds, insects, and leaves rustled by warm wind. I was freshly struck by the contrast between June and January in northeastern Minnesota, between teeming boreal jungle and near-arctic trance.
Max returned to see what was up, clearly impatient to investigate the aromas ahead. "OK," I said and pushed off. Snowfall had ceased, and I caught a glimpse of muted blue through thinning overcast. The woods was more open, and the snow had a crusty, sun-hammered look—like in March—and on the southwest aspects of hills, I noted patches of bare ground. A rusty bristle of pine needle duff poked through here and there on the trail, thrumming the bottoms of my skis.
I poled and glided for two miles, past an Adirondack-style trail shelter where the track dipped almost to the river, then climbed to higher ground through aspen and white spruce into dense pine again. I saw fresh tracks of snowshoe hares, red squirrels, and voles. I heard a raven speak in the distance, a single chortle that sounded exuberant. I paused at another overlook, above a sharp bend in the river flanked by arching silver maples, with a clear view upstream to a conifer-studded ridge a mile and a half to the west. A clutch of treetops glowed in a single shaft of sunlight. Just below, an old white pine snag dominated the scene, an elder to all but the rocks.
I whistled, and when Max rejoined me, I turned and headed back for the truck. That simple reversal triggered a shift in attention, and a few minutes later, I was irritated to catch my mind engaged with irrelevancies. Next day I would be teaching a firefighting class, and on Wednesday flying to Albuquerque. I was scribbling checklists in my head for both days, suddenly blind to where I was and what I was doing. How silly was that? Stop it! There was ample time for "to do" lists later—not here and now.
In elementary school I had a teacher who took roll each morning and trained us to respond "present!" when she called our names—not "here" or "yo" or some vulgar grunt, but present. It's an excellent word, bright with its other meaning of gift. When we were present, the teacher expected us to be attentive and participatory. Being present was more than occupying a seat.
"So," I thought, "I'm blessed with the privilege of skiing through this magnificent forest with my happy companion, and I am not here."
I paused and drew a deep breath—through the nose, pushing with the diaphragm—yogalike. "Be present," I said aloud.
I willed myself to focus on what was near and now, not cogitate about duties to come. Tomorrow will arrive soon enough. Present!
As if to approve my adjustment, the sun winked through a break in the overcast sky. It remained veiled by cloud, and I could look directly at the disk as it peeped in and out of visibility. Yes, winking. Thank you. I will be present.
As Max snuffled around the base of nearby fir, I knew he certainly was.