Canadian Spring

SHEILA BURNFORD iS a Canadian doctor’s wife whose tale of three animals, entitled THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, has become a classic of its kind and has been read and loved by thousands since it was published in March, 1961. Here Mrs. Burnford tells of the wonderful release when spring comes at last to the Canadian northlands.

OUR heralds of spring in northwest Canada bear no resemblance to the traditional and seldom inspire the poet within us: no primroses, lambs, or forsythia here, no tender green over the earth and soft unfolding buds. Instead we have the icebreaker battering a channel through the ice cap, smelt running in snow-swollen creeks, frost boils erupting on the roads, municipal drains backing up, and finally an inch-by-inch clearing of the snowdrifts in the garden until the exhausted daffodils push their way through the ironbound earth at last — in June. One’s whole soul cries out for spring hats and blossom, new-mown grass, the mayfly hatch, the first young tender morels; instead one pokes ineffectually with a stick at overflowing gutters, yearns over the etiolated narcissus brought up from the cellar, and plucks not primroses but long-lost overshoes and last year’s oyster shells from the snow receding at the porch.

In the first week of May, Susan and I reach the peak of delayed-spring frustration, and on a morning when the returning geese fly low over the city in an exultant, baying, clamorous pack, we receive their message especially loud and clear, for we are on our way to Whitelish, to the little hunting cabin on the shore of a lonely, hill-ringed lake, peaceful and timeless: Susan to paint and I to potter; Raimie, my Labrador, to escort us and investigate possible strange noises in the night. We have discarded our families for the weekend.

The track down the hillside to the cabin turns into a fast-running creek at this time of year, carrying off the melting snow from the hills, but the ground is hard and frozen, and the car coasts down in a childishly satisfying welter of flying spray. We leave it in a clearing, load ourselves up like pack mules, then walk or stagger the last quarter of a mile. The trail winds through spruce and poplar, the branches interlaced overhead, and always I come upon the little cabin crouched by the water’s edge long before I am prepared for it, so secretly does it seem to camouflage itself against the background of trees. Weather-beaten and gray, wearing its roof and chimney slightly askew, its one half-lidded eye bleary from the winter’s gales, it huddles like some shabby, eccentric old woman on a park bench in spring, blinking in the sunshine; and around her skirts, instead of cheeping sparrows, the peaty brown snow creeks make little murmurous singing sounds.

We open the door, and then, as quickly as possible, the window, when the familiar stuffy, sunbaked smell of mouse nests, straw, waders, and mud-encrusted gunnysacks hits us. The boats are stored there, and we haul out the light punt, then the heavy freight canoe, and a tangled mass of decrepit reed blinds — all the paraphernalia of last fall’s hunting; sweep out the first layer of powdered mud and little fluffy piles of duck and partridge feathers; then, lastly, after tossing for the victim, out go all the visible mouse corpses, hurled into the bush, from where they are conscientiously retrieved by the dog and returned to the steps. We leave the door and windows open to the cold sweet northern air; then, mutually unenthusiastic about housework at any time, we call it a day and sit on the wooden steps, at peace with the world, a bottle of beer apiece, so sheltered from the wind and warm in the noon sun that we take off our heavy sweaters and roll up our shirt sleeves.

Almost immediately the cabin’s own particular chipmunk appears on the lower branches of an ash, rather leaner than usual after the winter, but recognizable at once by his unusually stubby tail and exuberant personality. He resumes the teasing of the dog from where he left off last November, chattering excitedly. Raimie rises to his baiting like a trout to a fly and is soon reduced to hysterical, impotent rage, until at last the chipmunk becomes a little too bold and is chased up a flue pipe lying under the cabin. A brief but blessed silence follows, until Raimie’s eyes close and the next round starts. This has gone on for years.

THE ice is going out on the lake, and there is open water before us for about a hundred yards from the shoreline, edged by a new high bank of turf and reeds built up through the winter by ice pressure. The marsh water close in reflects a sky pierced with reed stalks and patterned with a faint constant movement of infinitesimal bubble rings, but out beyond the channel little rippling waves lap greedily against the ice stretching across the lake to the far shore — gray, sodden ice, heavy with age, the darkness of the imprisoned water lying shadowlike a few inches below the surface. There is no hint of green yet in the hills beyond — rather, a quickening of purple; and the three long plumes of the waterfall are vivid and white even at this distance.

The first frog chorus tunes up in the bulrushes a few feet from where we sit, and the mallards who were disturbed at our coming return in quacking pairs to the open water. Four whistlers pass like children’s bath toys drawn on a string, line astern, three drakes and a demure little hen leading. One drake is courting extravagantly, head bobbing and turning from side to side to a slow beat of six, then a fantastic arching of neck to twist his head back down the length of his body; but the little hen is not impressed by these contortions and swims on unheeding. The other two watch admiringly, then suddenly rise in unison and fly off with faint despondent cries; and so relieved by their departure apparently is the hen that she turns and acknowledges at last her exhibitionist suitor. They glide and posture in an endless fascinating ritual, the handsome drake in shining black and white, the drab little hen.

A long raft of ice and twigs sails by in a sudden gust of wind, with six mallard passengers aboard; sober and serious as priests on a cruise ship, they stare solemnly as they glide by, all heads turning together. The dog, inquisitive about our laughter, picks his way on heaving planks down to the water’s edge, but is taken off guard by the sudden splash of an equally surprised muskrat and slips on the precarious plank, so that his hindquarters slide into the water and he hangs on with scrabbling forepaws. I help him up, because he is nine years old and not so agile, but I laugh so much that he is offended; he shakes his coat, soaking us with moody satisfaction, then disappears into the bush. I know that he will not go far, but will return stealthily and take up position concealed by some bush or tree so that he can keep me within range; and I know that if I turn suddenly I will be able to catch him at it, to his embarrassment — but not this time, for I am feeling a little guilty.

I make amends with a piece of cheese when we settle down on the steps again to eat our lunch — satisfying hunks of homemade bread and cheese, dill pickles, and another bottle of beer to celebrate our weekend emancipation. Redwings chatter in the mountain ash above, chatter in a desultory way, rather as we do ourselves, with long silences savored peacefully between their observations. The frog activity is dying down, but the muskrats are suddenly busy, the V of their wake spreading in the still water close to shore, preoccupied, bewhiskered little faces forging through the reeds. More ducks flight in and settle on the larger ice floes, preening themselves, their cheerful garrulity suddenly silenced when an osprey appears overhead and hovers watchfully. They rise in a body and circle, rising and falling uneasily, until the hawk drifts off down the shoreline on an eddy of wind, effortless as a feather.

Now the wind rises and falls too, sighing through the topmost pine branches, and all around is a chorus of protesting creaks and groans of trees bearing the chafing weight of others uprooted in the winter gales and fallen against them. I am very content; lambs, primroses, and sprays of blossom are suddenly revealed as banal, hackneyed manifestations before this northland subtlety. I find myself filled with pity for the unfortunate masses who must wait another year before picking their next daffodil.

Susan settles down in a protected dip with easel and paint box and all the colorful clutter of a painter. She will be lost to the world for the next three hours. I whistle to Raimie, and we strike off from the trail into the bush, where the snow has receded, walking softly on a carpet of damp brown leaves; through the willow and alder clumps, whippy with new life, striking like a lash across the unwary face; over the mossy, rotting deadfalls; and around the impenetrable branches of new-fallen jack pine, the needles still dark green, the last desperate growth of cones in rubbery clusters like brown sea snails; between towering spruce and white pine; through enchanting sunlit clearings of terraced rock slabs, covered in pinky-gray lichen and long trailing tendrils of twinflower — the stems and leaves are brown now, but at the angle of each geometrically perfect pair is a minuscule of green. The surrounding moss is ankle deep, beautiful hummocky moss, and however soggy it may be within, I cannot resist it; I throw myself down and try to count the uncountable flowerets in a quarter inch. My eyes are on a level with a ledge of rock; caught below an overhang is a papery garter-snake skin, old, yet still clearly patterned and wonderfully supple, over two feet long. I tie it in a neat bow on Raimie’s tail; he is not amused, but suffers it as a collar instead.

I meander along the banks of a trout-brown creek, sun-dappled until it winds through the dark gloom of a cedar swamp, the twisted, agonized roots and branches of the giant fallen trees forming a dark dramatic frieze against the new vivid green of the living spruce beyond. The cold strikes suddenly, for the sun cannot penetrate the intertwined vaulting, and even the creek contributes to the brooding eeriness with weird shapes and fantastic grottoes sculptured from the overhanging ledges of ice.

Suddenly Raimie hurtles past, nearly knocking me into the creek, tail streaming, nose to the ground like a hound. He disappears into the thick undergrowth, his golden coat flashing momentarily in a patch of sun, and as I walk on, his quarry erupts from the bush across my path, then pauses to look back, upright on his haunches, still as a plaster rabbit on a suburban lawn, save for his twitching nose. A mighty crashing heralds Raimie’s reappearance, and the rabbit bounds off with a flash of full white winter trousers, contrasting absurdly with his neat tan summer coat. My idiot dog will now make the full round of the rabbit’s tracks before starting off on this new line, for he stubbornly refuses to hunt on anything but scent, and I have often wondered what would happen if a rabbit decided to run in ever-diminishing circles.

Of course, Raimie should not be hunting rabbits — or even his dearest enemy, the groundhog, for that matter — for he is a gundog, trained, with nine years’ wisdom and experience. He knows that, and I know that, but after several argumentative years together, we long ago arrived at a mature and satisfactory compromise: in return for shouldering a few extra duties (watchdog, childsitter, sled dog, juvenile circus performer, losthamster retriever, plus the full-time summer job of bear-scare on mushrooming expeditions), he may hunt for his own amusement, without let or hindrance, throughout the year until September 15, or such time as the upland game and wildfowl season opens, when he must immediately put aside all temptation and revert forthwith to his professional capacity of model gundog. It was his terrible misfortune to be born a scion of the great Shedd of Arden, to spring from a long illustrious line of field-trial champions and inherit the nose of an inspired cross between radar and a divining rod — and yet be subject for his lifetime to the whim of a woman-wielded gun. Any other dog would have a nervous breakdown, and because of his most generous acceptance of the inequalities of fate, I feel I must make allowances.

He never betrays our agreement, and would not acknowledge a rabbit if he fell over one during the shooting season; and even my hunting companions, critical field-trial purists though they are, admit that it would be difficult to find his equal as a retriever of lost and given-up birds, or a heart more eager and willing for work, whatever the conditions. Their only accusation, in fact, is that he smells faintly — but deliciously, I contend — of Schiaparelli’s “Shocking,” just behind the ears. He is the only dog I know who has been confronted with eleven mallards down in a treacherous, icefringed Manitoba slough and has set to work, systematically and entirely under his own directive, to bring them in (his mistress watching admiringly but uselessly, as her boots were leaking), then disappeared into the surrounding countryside, to reappear at ten-minute intervals with four more crippled birds. And only a woman owner could appreciate the gallantry of his compliment in bringing all fifteen birds to me, even though I had not fired a shot — a dogless companion being responsible for the massacre. And I know of no sight more fascinating than to watch him paddle painstakingly back and forth across a suspect area of water, submerging his head at intervals, until he finally dives straight down and comes up with a live but suicidally minded duck.

If I have digressed, it could be suspected that I dote on him.

I LEAVE the creek to come out from the darkness of the bush at the edge of a field, part of a longabandoned fox farm, and there, less than a hundred yards away, in a dip before the sagging barn, is a black bear. We stare at one another in mutual horror for a long second; then he turns and bolls across the field, galloping so fast that his back legs cross over his front ones, and disappears into the far trees. But that is the direction I want to go in as well, back to the lake, and I don’t feel entirely happy about bears, and however antisocial this one may be, perhaps he has a mother or a cousin or a sister (with cubs) who isn’t. I call my moral support away from his rabbit hunting and hear the reassuring sounds of his coming almost immediately. He arrives, panting, with beaming eyes and half a yard of pink tongue lolling out of a grinning mouth; I gather he has had a wonderful time. I am delighted, even more than usual, to see him. I am interested to see him sniff the wind as we cross the field, and the ridge of hair rise along his back, but he trots along beside me unconcerned; and so, of course, am I — now.

Susan has had a satisfying afternoon as well; two canvases are propped against the backs of chairs, she has found the glove she lost last fall in the bush, and has seen two deer, one mink, and a flock of geese. We sit on the steps again before dinner, loath to come in until the last possible moment,, and watch a spectacular sunset flaming in wild, windblown ragged clouds. The air below is still and soft and full of evening sounds: wings whistling overhead, throbbing frog chorus from the reeds, chickadees, and the solitary falling cadence of a white-throated sparrow far back in the bush; little whispers of wind rustling the dead brown bulrush spikes; and always the soft melodious tinkling of shifting ice in the background; coy bridling giggles of mallard hens in the next bay, protesting their virtue to the hoarse excited quacks of their swains; the occasional caustic comment of a raven. We sit there until the loons cry in the gathering darkness and the cold drives us into the snug, stuffy warmth of the cabin.

We have partridge for dinner, succulent gamy partridge shot in a Saskatchewan bluff last fall, marinated and cooked in homemade wine from a local Italian producer; Burgundy jelly from the Trappists in Quebec; and wild rice that grew along these shores only last year, dark and fragrant with woodsmoke from the Indians’ fires across the lake. We drink the remainder of the wine — a muscatel, says the sticking-plaster label on the gin bottle, with a surprisingly pleasant though elusive bouquet (a quality enhanced perhaps by the fact that our wineglasses once contained anchovy paste).

We play featherheaded chess until our eyes will no longer stay open and we realize that we are dozing between moves. Raimie is already asleep on a sagging cot, muzzle resting on a headless decoy, his nostrils twitching — dreaming of rabbits, probably. I lie awake in the darkness for a while, zipped into the cocoon of my sleeping bag, listening to the sighs and creaks of the wooden framework; there is a soft, intermittent scratching on the roof, which I finally identify as a scraping branch; outside there are faint little plops in the water, and a closer, intensified tinkling of the ice, which must mean that the wind is shifting.

In the middle of the night I waken with a sudden wide-awake alertness, almost as though someone had called me by name, but I hear nothing — only the sound of Raimie’s tail thumping on the cot when he hears me sit up. I get out of bed and stand by the open door, looking out across the lake; a star is hanging low over the hills, and when the moon appears from a bank of clouds the lake is bright before me, half a mile or more of shining water triumphing over the sinking ice. And as I stand there I realize that the wind is warm and soft and full of promise — the promise of the northland spring, fulfilled at last in the silent, vanquished ice.