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In the Barren Ground

By´╝ÜLoreth Anne White


Friday, November 2. The Barrens. Two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Day length: 8:06:38 hours.

As the sun cracked over the horizon a quiet befell the five occupants of the bright yellow AS355 Eurocopter Twin Squirrel, the words “Boreal Air” printed in bold black letters beneath the craft’s belly. They’d entered the land of desolation. Only the sound of thudding rotors reached into their earphoned cocoons of private awe. Selena Apodaca watched the trees unfolding below—black spruce, tamarack—growing more sparse and stunted the farther north they flew. Like grizzled old crones, the conifers bent and marched resiliently forward into the frigid winds blasting down from the arctic—the dwindling survivors of the dense boreal forests that lay farther south. Only to disappear. For soon there were no trees. Just whalebacks of scarred bedrock that bloomed with rust-red lichen and sphagnum mosses, muskeg bogs pocked with tussock, and silvery threads of river strung with beads of dark blue lakes.

A herd of migrating caribou suddenly lifted their antlers, alerted by the sound of the chopper. An invisible current seemed to spark through the herd. It exploded into two groups, half the animals splashing into a river and up the opposite bank. The rest cascading down an esker ridge.

The Barren Lands.

It was a primordial place, Selena thought—the last, vast, uninhabited frontier of the North American continent, still being formed in front of her eyes in slow geologic motion. Oblivious to insignificant mankind.

An old caribou bull struggled, lagging behind his herd, and she wondered if he’d survive the night. This place was as hostile as it was breathtakingly beautiful, and winter was relentless. Already it lurked like a dark, constant shadow along the horizon, coming a little closer each day, and the air was turning brittle—the ice of the tundra creeping down from the north.

Marcie Della, one of the elders of the Twin Rivers First Nations community, had told her that this land was called the hosi—the treeless place. And that it was no-man’s-land. Marcie was one of the remaining few who still knew the old names for some of these lakes, and where the “dreaming places” lay—sacred areas where terrible visions would afflict travelers who dared rest weary limbs there. Marcie also told of a cadaverous creature of the cold—a hateful shape-shifter that lived in the tundra winds and snows, a wolflike thing whose hunger for human meat and whose rage could never be sated. She had a name for this thing that meant “the spirit of lonely places.”

“It doesn’t get old, does it?” Selena jumped at the sudden intrusion of the voice in her headset. She shot a glance at Raj Sanjit, who was strapped into the seat beside her. His liquid black eyes met hers. His breath condensed into clouds around his face—even inside the chopper it was frigid. He grinned. “It’s like we’re entering a kingdom where everything is sacred, don’t you think? And that we ought to hold a special passport that admits us, or else we shall be punished by death.”

Selena wasn’t sure what to make of this oddly maudlin comment from her teammate. She glanced at Veronique and Dean, their fellow wildlife biologists seated with their K9s to Raj’s left, to see if she was once again being mocked for her newfound fascination with the lore and locals of this place. The light of mirth twinkled in Veronique’s eyes, but her features remained studiously benign. Dean looked hostile. Irritation snapped through Selena.

During these last few weeks of their university co-op, she’d been getting on fine with her crew, in spite of Dean’s earlier, unwelcome sexual advances. Now it seemed he was back to his brooding. He looked away and stroked the head of Buddy, the black Lab pressed between his knees. Selena’s gaze went to the other K9, Pika, an Australian shepherd lying patiently at Veronique’s boots. Both animals were scat sniffers, trained to search specifically for the feces of wolverine—the elusive “death eater” of the north—now extinguished almost everywhere else in North America. Once collected, the scat samples were shipped back to a lab at the University of Alberta where DNA and other markers told scientists about the existing populations and health thereof. They’d been doing this all summer as part of a massive environmental study required of WestMin Diamonds before the territorial government would consider approving an open-pit mine at the south tip of Ice Lake.

Selena and Raj were focused on the local grizzly bear populations, but they were collecting DNA old-school style, with bait and wire traps designed to snag the hair of ursus arctos horribilis, which in turn was also sent to a lab for analysis.

As Selena opened her mouth to snap back a retort, the voice of their pilot, Heather MacAllistair, came through their headsets. “Looks like the storm might hit before the day’s out.” She pointed a gloved hand toward a black band on the horizon, and cast a glance over her shoulder, eyes invisible behind mirrored aviator shades. Her hair hung in a thick blonde braid down the center of her back. “You guys equipped for an overnight or two? Because if that keeps coming at that speed, I might not be able to get in for the scheduled pickup.”