Grappling with the loss of her mother, a writer finds meaning in a bitter Northern Michigan snowshoe hike and an unexpected encounter.
I smoothed vaseline on my cheeks, under my eyes, over my nose and up high on my forehead. I looked like a glamorous model—in reverse. The more Vaseline I put on, the worse I looked. But it was fine; no one would see me where I was going. I intended to disappear, go undercover, off the map. I put on thin thermals, then thick long underwear, then ski pants. I would be too hot, but without the three layers, the wind would bite and turn my skin red long after I came back indoors.
I pulled on a down jacket, zipping the collar tight under my chin. It was a jacket of white, impractical in every way except that it would let me slip into the winter landscape undetected.
Last: a facemask up to my eyes, a hat down to my eyes, thick mittens and boots with red laces, my only spot of color. My grief, a constant companion since the loss of my mother, was already packed.
I didn’t park at the trailhead. And I didn’t take the marked trail. Instead, I parked on a dirt road out near Lake Ann, where the plow turned around, next to a “seasonal road” sign marking the end of the pavement.
It was 4 degrees below zero. The wind made it another 12 degrees colder. I strapped on my snowshoes and turned to face the crushing wind that tested every opening in my clothing. I pulled and tucked, sealing every entry. But still, I was cold.
The low January sky watched and waited. Would I turn back?
My first challenge: summiting the mountain of snow the plow had pushed up so I could get to the old dirt road on the other side. Up and over I went, into the woods and off the road altogether. I hiked until I couldn’t see my car and, finally, once deep into the pines, I could no longer see the doubting gray sky either.
With each step, I sank to my shins, my snowshoes out of sight, the endless fresh snowfall tumbling on top, until I freed them with another step. It was so cold that the snow was light and pure, cascading off with ease. Each oblong print in the snow was singular, a clear effort. I carved a deep line that wandered and clunked over fallen trees and through sunken valleys.
Sweat coated my front and back, even as my face froze. It was a torturous contrast. I couldn’t open my jacket, not much. Any exposed skin was dangerous and my nose tingled, a reminder of past frostbite. I knew I should turn back, that the sweat would be disastrous if anything happened to trap me in this cold. I carried on.
Related Read: Go Cross-Country Skiing at Forbush Corner Near Gaylord.
Up ahead, I approached the edge of a tiny, frozen lake. I guessed I was on the far side of Christmas Tree Lake, a place I’d never been. It would take an hour for me to snowshoe back, maybe more.
I was alone; it was as I wanted. I stood and let the beauty come over me, and the grief, too. But then. A flicker of movement to my right, up on the ridge. My eyes sorted the grays and whites until I saw a shape, then dark eyes set against a steely coat. A coyote.
The coyote didn’t take off; he’d seen me coming. Instead, he trotted up ahead of me, leaving pinholes in the snow with each step. He slowed and crossed in front of me, rounding back on my left. A look on all sides—an assessment.
The adrenaline came, making my hands shake, my heartbeat in my ears, my skin prickle. Coyotes don’t attack humans. I knew that. But, still, instinct raced in and rattled me. He was shaggy and thin and roving.
I was alone, there was no fast way out, and no one knew where I was. Yet …
Even as I shook, I stood solid, facing the coyote, ready for whatever came next.
He noticed my stillness. He looked at me for a long moment, then put his snout down and began trotting back and forth, no longer looking at me, but watching all the same.
I turned to face him with every turn. Then, poof, he slipped into the woods, his thin tail bouncing in retreat. It was over without a sound, within seconds.
Had that really just happened? My racing heart said it had happened, his paw prints left in the snow said it had happened. But the most telling? The pleasure rushing into my chest.
I realized that even out there, off the radar, alone, grieving, I hadn’t gone anywhere. The hike, the snow, the piercing wind, the loss, none of it had wiped me out completely. Despite it all, I was still there. With a will and a strength that I’d forgotten I had.
Instead of turning back, I kept on, breaking trail over the coyote’s tracks, a delicious joy coming in, a reboot, a relief that I was still there.
It was a resetting of sorts, something I could only find in the woods.