Traa (wood) Camp


Daazhraii playing zhoh in the snow

On that Saturday, we left Zhoh Camp late in the morning. Leaving camp in cold weather is always hard. Getting up is the worst part, because it’s cold, even in the tent, until someone starts a fire. I don’t usually budge from my sleeping bag unless the cold tickles my toes in earnest.

Once the fire is stoked, the chores begin: Geoff always makes coffee first, usually enough to fill the thermos. I don’t drink coffee, so I sometimes get to luxuriate in my sleeping bag while he builds a fire. After coffee is made, someone has to heat snow to fill the water bottles, which is more time-consuming than you might think. The dog-bowl has to thaw out. Breakfast has to be made and eaten (a hot breakfast makes a difference on a cold day); damp gear has to be dried (after a day out, my boots usually have a film of ice in the toes under the liners, so I have to thaw them out before I put them back on – in the tent I can do this overnight); fuel has to be siphoned,mixed and poured; and the gear we haul with us (“Beverly Hillbillies!” someone once commented upon seeing our sled) has to be tied down.

We did get out, eventually, and we thought we might make Venetie in the wee hours of the morning. The rumor mill had told of trail at Bob Lake, twenty miles away, and we’d already broken the first five. Fifteen miles of trail breaking was a lot, but it wasn’t unthinkable for a day’s work, and once we reached the trail it was fifty miles: just another long dark haul through the night, and we’re no stranger to those.

We set out.

Trail breaking is hard work in ideal conditions, and Geoff had to haul the sled and carry me and the dog on the back of the machine. Usually, that meant leaving us behind while he broke trail through new territory, then turning around to pick us up, so he was running the trail three times. The section right after the tent is the trickiest part of the hundred mile stretch. The cat trail disappears for a while, and you have to cut your own path.

We crossed a blinding expanse of tundra with Brown Grass Mountain in the distance. “It looks like the Lonely Mountain,” said Geoff. Nerd.

At the end of the tundra, we began a long climb. The whole valley rolled away behind us, and I felt untethered and giddy as I always do when I watch the familiar fall below the horizon.


When evening rolled over us, we had just found the cat trail again. Looking for it is like driving by a field of corn and waiting for the moment when the sea of green suddenly stands up in straight rows. You’re looking at forest – a wall of black spruce, and then suddenly, if you catch it at just the right angle, it parts and there’s this long, narrow hallway through the trees.


A break just before we found the cat trail again

Dark fell as we were nearing the top of the ridge.

“Let’s take a break here,” Geoff said, and began untying the chainsaw. “We’ll get a fire going, then I’ll go break trail to the top the ridge and come back for you and the little guy. It shouldn’t take me more than an hour or two to get up there.” I began knocking down small dead trees and pulling dry, brushy branches from the lower parts of the large spruces. “After the ridge, it should be smooth sailing to Bob Lake, and then there’s trail to Venetie. We could get in early in the morning if we push through.” We lit a fire in a flat spot beside the trail.

Night closed in as I limbed the trees Geoff cut, and suddenly I was sobbing. The wolf, the cold, the inscrutable night beyond the firelight: It was too much, and it pressed out on my insides so that my breath came short and my eyes filled.

In the dark and cold, behind all those layers, it’s easy to hide some tears so I held myself quiet and still. I didn’t want to make a fuss, knew in my head that we would be fine, that a few hours wasn’t too much to ask, although my gut shivered.

“I’ll leave you plenty of wood, the chainsaw. You’ve got your bear spray, the axe. You can take the pistol if you want.”

Geoff sawed lengths of wood. I stacked them.

“Are you okay?” Geoff asked. He had noticed my silence or perhaps that my eyes were shifting away from his, not from the glare of his headlamp.

“I’m not sure I want the pistol. I’d be too scared to fire it,” I deflected.

“Well, you can have the flares. That’d send the big bad wolf packin’.” He began rummaging in the crate on the back of the snowmachine.

After a while Geoff came back to warm his hands by the fire, “I can’t seem to find them. I’ll keep digging in a sec.” His gloves steamed.

The firelight flickered on our faces and he got a good look at me.

“Keely? Are you crying? What’s wrong?” He opened his arms and I crossed the fire pit and pressed my cheek against his jacket.

“I’m scared” I said. “I don’t want to slow us down or ruin the trip, but I’m scared of being alone out here.”

“I don’t have to go.” He said simply, and I felt my belly turn from ice to jelly.  “Let’s get everything set up. We can stay here tonight, or, if you feel up to it later, you and Daazhraii can hang out in the sleeping bag by the fire with a nice stack of wood and a killer arsenal while I go break trail. Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t.

I gathered soft tips from the spruce trees while Geoff made dinner, and made a bed of them beside the fire. We laid out the tarp, the sleeping pads and the sleeping bags. I ate quickly and fell asleep almost instantly with my headlamp on and my book in the sleeping bag with me. Geoff brooded a while by the fire, and I woke up long enough to put the headlamp and book aside when he crawled in beside me.

“thirty-five below” he said.

We pulled the puppy close beside us and Geoff draped his parka over the little guy. Daazhraii’s breath steamed in the night air, and he curled his paws tightly under his belly.


Traa camp in the morning

Zhoh (wolf) Camp

teeth sunset.jpg

A sky-blue-pink sunset on the way down the trail to the tent

From my notes:

Friday, 3/3/17 10:30 PM

I saw a wolf tonight.

Geoff and I were getting wood just after arriving in camp. Daazhraii was curled up on my sleeping bag in the tent beside the stove, beat, as he always is, after a cold night ride down here. Geoff had taken down two trees and I had already limbed them when the chainsaw ran out of gas. Seeing no further work for myself for a few minutes, I started walking back to the tent to check on the pup. The tent was only about fifty yards away, so I didn’t even bother to put my overcoat back on.

I was several yards down the trail when my headlamp caught a pair of eyes, green-blue, about as far away as the tent, and seemingly on the trail. Daazhraii? I thought, (his eyes are that color by headlamp), and then immediately discarded the notion: the eyes were much too far off the ground. Vadzaih? Surely it’s a vadzaih, I thought next, but I think I knew better already. The profile had none of a caribou’s boxiness.

It was very still, and I stood frozen for a while, locked into those glowing eyes. I thought I could make out the silhouette of a sickle tail curving down to brush the snow.

“Geoff?” I said, “There’s something on the lake – really close”

“What does it look like?”

“Maybe a wolf. Probably a vadzaih?” I said as I began to back slowly away.

There was more, but it’s a blur: getting back to Geoff and the snowmachine, watching in horror as the animal loped toward the tent and Daazhraii – holding a tight hope that the puppy would stay inside – keeping my eyes on the silent, silky-graceful shadow as it slipped through puddles of moonlight and the dark tree-shadows of the clearing behind the tent – the sudden light and roar of the sno-go as we crashed through flying ice crystals toward camp. I stood on the seat and pointed at the wolf as it casually loped out of sight. Geoff never saw it at all – his memory is of the fear in my voice.

Geoff fired the pistol once after the animal was away, just to be sure to scare it enough that it wouldn’t come back. I held my hands over Daazhraii’s ears on our cot, still shaking from the adrenaline.

We checked the prints later, and there was no mistake – it was a single, large wolf that had come to investigate our camp. It stood and stared at me from about 120 feet away.

I have seen wolf tracks often, especially this winter. There was one memorable incident last year where a wolf crossed my ski-trail within about fifteen minutes of me; I saw the tracks as I was returning to camp and they ran right over my own outgoing tracks. Twice now, I have heard wolves howling. It is eerie and beautiful and strangely welcoming: Join us here in this vast, glorious country, they might be singing. Until tonight, though, a part of me did not believe wolves were beings of substance: certainly they would come to lay prints as wide as my palms in the snow, but they would then disappear as quick a breath, invisible and incorporeal. Just phantoms in the silent winter woods. It was like coming face to face with a ghost.

Strange that the wolf came across the lake while we had the sno-go and the chainsaw running, loud and bright. Strange how it let me get so close and then ran toward the tent and the camp. Geoff thinks it was curious about Daazhraii, and I have to agree. The puppy will not be going out alone tonight.


Zhoh camp and little Daazhraii in the morning.


dsc05533It’s snowing, which rocks. The trail down the valley looks like bubble-wrap and jolts the snowmachine with every tussock. The snow will soften it.dsc05537We went out several weeks ago and Geoff shot a caribou: a young male. We gutted it where it fell, leaving the entrails for the wolves and foxes. We ate caribou heart for dinner at camp that night before skinning and quartering it. All that week, we cut meat after school and into the evening.

dsc05458dsc05461Camp is about fifteen miles down the trail, and we broke another fifteen two weeks ago. Only seventy more to Venetie!


We had guests in camp the weekend before last. They didn’t visit while we were home, but the tracks were quite fresh.


There will be a new challenge as we push down the trail this weekend. His name sounds like something between black and swan in Gwich’in – closer to swan. Daazhraii. He is a malamute/greenland dog mix, and he’s a big boy – 20.5 pounds at 11 weeks. I am smitten, and Geoff is no better. He spent last weekend cooking and freezing caribou chunks for dog treats.

dsc05603dsc05592dsc05574Bringing Daazhraii along will be tough. We’re bringing extra clothes in case of accidents, and I wish now that I’d found a light I could stick to his collar for nighttime romps. He’s an absolute sweetie and never wanders far, but I’d hate to lose sight of him out there. The fresh snow is nice though: his tracks will be obvious, and he won’t make it far, floundering along in the drifts.

Daazhraii: He snuggled up in my lap at Wright Air last weekend and showed his tummy to the world. I played with his feet and his ears and his tail and he just wriggled closer and went to sleep. He has learned to sit and come and look up when we say his name. He hasn’t mastered the bathroom, but he’s learning. The hardest thing has been leaving him for the day. I visit every hour between classes, but he still cries every time he’s left alone.

Bonus pictures: