I’m eleven years old, sitting inside the little travel trailer, looking out a frosted-over window at the falling snow. My family are squatters living off the grid far from the main road, high up in the Rocky Mountains, close to clearcuts and timberline. Mom, Dad, my sister, and Buoy-Dog are crammed together inside this 31’ box, and I’m going stir-crazy. When I can’t hack the cramped quarters any longer, I bundle up and shove wool-encased feet into ski boots to walk slap-footed outside. I strap on my cross-country skis. I kick off through row upon row of identical lodge pole pines, following a faint trail deeper into the forest. My skis shush through the snow as I make my way further from home. The sky is grey and torpid, and the boughs of the pines sag beneath their heavy white blankets. I’m the only piece of colour in the world, and the snow falling upon me hides it with each flake. I keep skiing until I find a hillside clearing I’ve never seen before. It swaths through the forest, through the mountains, following strung-together skeletal steel towers into the pale vanishing point of snowfall.
I herringbone my way up the hill, tuck, and ski back down beneath the high-tension wires. The snow falls in thick, heavy clumps and the sky feels low enough to touch, sandwiching me between it and the drifts of striated ice and powder. I herringbone my way back up the hill again, and while I sweat with the effort, the skin around my eyes grows tight in the cold. Thick snowflakes have given way to small, stinging pellets. The wind picks up, my fingers are stiff, and my mittens are encrusted with balls of ice. I gaze at the lowering sky and hear wind building to a howl in the distance. Here comes another blizzard. It’s time to go home.
One last time, I tuck and race down the hill, my skis spraying powder in my wake. Then I look for the spot in the trees where I’d entered the clearing. I can’t find it. It’s snowed too much and my tracks are gone. My chest gets tight and it’s hard to breathe. I’m panting, and not just from exertion anymore. I’m a long way from home and that storm is getting closer. I force my breathing to slow, I listen, and under the sound of the building wind and the buzz of high-voltage power lines, I think I hear wolves. There are wolves in the mountains. What if they want to eat me?
I ski back and forth along the forest’s edge, but I can’t find the spot where I came out. The trees all look the same to me. I can’t see the trail, can’t see my tracks, but I pick a spot anyway and ski into the forest, relying on what I hope is an innate sense of direction. I scan the forest floor for any sign of ski tracks, but powdery snow sifts down through pine boughs, obscuring any marks that may have been there. I think I see a scuff left by my pole and I skate-ski over.
Halfway there, I feel and hear a snap. The tip of my ski just broke off on something beneath the snow. I unlatch and crawl around, patting the ground with stiff fingers in frozen mittens trying to find the tip, but it’s not there. It’s not anywhere. It may as well have never existed. I put my skis back on, and keep going in the direction I think will lead me home.
I feel like I’ve been gone for hours and hours. More than once, I find ski tracks, only to realize they’re ones I’ve just made. I’m going in circles. My lip starts to tremble, but I don’t let myself cry–frozen tears speed up frostbite. I keep skiing. I head further into the forest, and I stop every five minutes or so, listening for anything but wind and my own racing heart.
Finally, I think I hear Buoy-Dog bark, and I head in that direction, calling out for him. He comes running, bursting through drifts with his tongue lolling, tail wagging. He jumps up on me, and knocks me back on my ass into the snow before sniffing an interesting tree and anointing it with piss. I clamber back up and follow his tracks back home.
Dad is chopping wood beside the trailer. He looks at me. Looks at my skis. “Where’s the tip?”
“I couldn’t find it.”
“You’d better find it.”
It’s getting dark, and I don’t think I can find my way back to where I lost it, even if I wanted to. I don’t want to.
He puts the axe away and goes into the trailer, coming back out with his ski boots on. He skied professionally up until I was born. He was the first to introduce skate-skiing to biathlon when he represented Canada in the NATO games. I’ll never ski as well as him. “Come on,” he says, as he straps his skis on. “Let’s go.”
And so I end up going back into the woods. He’s hard to keep up with. His arms are powerful and he poles through the forest at speed. He once finished a race on just one ski, placing in the top ten. I kick ferociously, swinging arms and pushing off with my poles. It’s getting dark and I can barely see him. He glides through the snow like he was born to it. Only a few minutes pass before he finds my missing tip. He barely even searches. He just reaches into the snow and plucks it up–a magician producing it from thin air. Then he turns around and heads back home. I wonder how he found it so easily when I’d searched and searched and came back empty.
When we get back to the trailer, I take off my skis, and Dad reattaches my tip. I go inside and hide in bed with a book. Dad goes back to chopping firewood like nothing happened at all.
Shantell Powell is an author, artist, and swamp hag in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She’s a graduate of the Writers’ Studio at Simon Fraser University, of the LET(s) Lead Academy at Yale University, and is the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive Fellow for 2023. https://mastodon.lol/@Shanmonster