This is the opening to Jim’s new book “Terror on the Tundra”
January, North Slope
Wind is the voice of the earth. Joe Ukiak stood up straight on the seemingly endless ice shelf and pulled back his hood to take in the sounds. He was no wiser than many others but he understood the wind better. His people called the wind Sila and she told of approaching storms, of animal scents that might bring danger or hunting opportunity and of the distant groaning and cracking of ice that might bring good fishing or possible breakup and disaster.
Sila had spoken and he understood that it was time to pull his in lines. He fished through a seal’s air hole and the fishing had been good. But now, hard weather was coming and the afternoon twilight, already pale, would fade quickly. He had a long way to travel and he wanted at least some light to navigate. Once he had known this place by memory but summer melting and rising water levels were changing the landscape of crags covered by snow drifts. Just ten years ago, the government had moved his village to keep it from falling into the ocean. Now, every year, the shoreline changed.
He had a good catch of Arctic Cod already strapped to his snow machine. No reason to push his luck at an air hole he often shared with Polar Bears. Joe always kept his rifle at the ready but, today there had been no bears. In fact, there had been no animals at all. No birds flew, no fox or any other creature scurried. And Joe knew why. The wind told him.
Gusting and harsh, it came from the north and chased little whips of snow in uneven strings along the ground. A storm was coming, a storm that would steal the faint light he needed. This far above the Arctic Circle, the sun would still not actually break the horizon for several more days. It had been a long winter of darkness since the last sunset of November.
Joe was about to start his snow mobile engine when he heard a sound unlike anything he had ever heard before – and he knew every sound of this barren place. It was far away, a shriek or cry, but certainly an animal sound. It was no bear or wolf or owl. He knew those sounds as well as he knew his wife’s voice. This was an alien sound, something that did not belong.
He sat straddling his snow-mo with his hand on the throttle and waited. He listened to the wind and waited. Nothing. Perhaps his mind had played a trick. Perhaps the old ones were right about the lost spirits who wander the ice. Whatever it was, it unsettled Joe Ukiak enough that he started his engine and opened the throttle full, leaving a trail of snow spewing as he sped away into a fantastic world of wind-sculptured ice and snow.
Clouds moved over the sky like a blanket pulled up on a cold night. The darkness deepened and he turned on his single headlight. He didn’t like to use the light. It cast a cone of light, but it was a bouncing narrow cone that destroyed his night vision. Everything else was invisible once his eyes became light-adapted, but no matter, he knew the way. He had lived his whole life here on the North Slope. Long before the oil companies came; long before the Native Corporation was formed; long before the monthly checks started rolling in, Joe had traveled the same paths, fished the same ice holes, lived the same life.
Sure, he had satellite TV, a DVD and a microwave oven, but that was just for convenience. In his heart, he was still Inupiat. Called an Eskimo by outsiders, he was a man of the land, a man of his people, a man of the Great North. His fishing was hardly a matter of subsistence although it was covered by subsistence laws that allowed native peoples special rights.
For Joe, now approaching the age of sixty, it was important to live off the land –at least partially. Certainly, things had changed in the way he fished. Now he used a shiny snow mobile to pull his tackle box on a ski trailer. Now, he used stainless steel, multi-prong hooks and nylon filament line. After all, it would be foolish not to take advantage of technology. But, it was still fishing. Man and fish were unchanged. The weather, the cold, the very ice itself – were unchanged from times long past.
The snow mobile’s engine whined as he gunned it over a small ridge line leaving a rooster tail of snow. He whizzed through the small drifts and banged over the top of larger ones. Joe bounced, going much faster than he really should in the dark but why not? This was his land, his path. He knew it by heart – at least, he used to. Every inch, every dip, every rise belonged to him. The wind cut deep, as it always did but he didn’t mind and he didn’t slow down. He was anxious to get home. His wife would have a warm soup on the stove and this was a good night for TV.
Joe sang a made-up song, a happy song. Who cares what words he picked, there was no one to hear. He sang and rocked his shoulders in time to his little tune while paying no mind to the jarring ride or the darkness. His life had settled into a comfortable routine and everything about it seemed right.
In the distance, he saw lights, the crisp lights of his village. It looked so peaceful in the snow, almost like a Christmas card. In the summer, his town was dirty. With irregular garbage pickup, trash just built up around the little frame houses turning them into dumps. In the winter, all that was hidden. He liked the winter.
For a millisecond something flashed in his headlights. Joe tensed but, before he could really react, he had already smacked into it. The snow mobile bucked and tumbled. Joe wrenched out of the seat and spun. For an eternity of half a second, he hung suspended in the blackness of night. Then he slammed against the frozen ground. The impact winded him and jarred his brain. What happened?
He had hit the ground really hard, as hard as he would slap a fish on the ice to kill it. But he wasn’t killed, just stunned. Slowly, his vision sharpened, he was able to breathe again. Then he became aware of pain. It was a sharp, almost electric pain in his leg, pain that shot up his spine and made him stifle a gasp. He would never cry out from pain. He was Inupiat.
The lights of the snow mobile glowed softly from the snow drift where it had buried itself. How strange, Joe thought. The engine was still running though the machine itself was lying on its side half buried. Except for the puttering engine, there was stillness. Light snowflakes disturbed by the impact drifted in the headlight.
The cold air felt as if it was being injected right into the bone of his leg. He realized that he was wounded, hurt bad. His teeth began to chatter. He had to get to the village. To just lie there getting weaker, was to die. That much he knew. In the Arctic, no matter how badly you’re hurt, you don’t give up. You keep moving, always moving. He pulled himself over the snow covered ground by walking on his elbows. Each movement of his damaged leg was like a dentist’s cold water spray onto a bare nerve.
As he inched towards the snow mobile, Joe smelled something. It was an unfamiliar smell. Like rotting meat but more than that, there was an odd musky odor he couldn’t identify.
Then he heard the growl. A low, rumbling growl, too deep to be a dog or a wolf. It had to be a bear. There was only one kind of bear this far north, a bear that hunted men, ate men. Ignoring the pain, Joe thrashed his way to the snow mobile and pulled himself upright.
He didn’t have the strength to lift the big machine. Instead, he straddled the sideways seat and opened the throttle. The drive tracks spun, digging into the soft snow to make a small blizzard as it spit loose snow. The badly wounded man didn’t realize that spray had saved his life by blinding the attacker and allowing Joe precious seconds to escape.
His snow-mo skidded along, dragging him for several yards before it flipped upright. Somehow, he managed to hang on but pain was now shrieking through his body. He settled into the seat and accelerated towards the lights of his village. His damaged leg bobbled alongside as Joe fought desperately to stay conscious, to stay alive. He had to make it to the village.
The beast watched as the snow mobile crested a small rise. The scream of its engine faded and silence returned to the tundra. The only sound beside the wind was the crunching, of its jaws and an occasional snort as it ravaged Joe’s fish catch.
Its eyes were on the village. There were many lights. Perhaps there would be more fish there – and maybe more humans. The beast was satisfied for the moment, but soon it would need to feed again. With a great blast of steaming breath, it turned and padded off into the blackness leaving a trail of footprints each the size of a small frying pan.