Old Snow

Yesterday I stumbled upon some hidden treasure. 

In a box full of tapes and videos for another project (a book I'm working on), I find a thumb drive. 

I has a label taped on it: "Photos 12/7/07."

Turns our they're photos I saved when upgrading from one computer to another. Talk about a fun trip down memory lane.

I found several taken the first of winter I lived in Idaho. The girls and I were so excited to inhabit a world of snow and cold and sunshine - an exhilarating combination.

Maia and Meadow belly deep in fresh snow (winter 2005/2006).
Maia was six and Meadow was four - in the prime of their lives. They held their tails high on their backs. They explored, learning snow. They ran beside me. And they played.

The girls playing in true malamute fashion.
The girls always enjoyed wresting with each other, but playing on snow seemed to make it even better. Their usual play routine (which I'd watch with fascination and amusement): a play bow followed by some quick sprints and chases in tight circles, then some head-to-head wrestling and neck-chomping - sometimes with one or both girls standing on their hind legs while pushing the other with their front paws - lots of teeth flashing and some play-growls...all leading to a take-down of Meadow by Maia. After pinning Meadow to the snow by the neck for a couple of seconds, with some exaggerated head-shaking as if Meadow were resisting, Maia would jump back dramatically, releasing Meadow, who would get up and start it all over again. Meadow, being two years younger, seemed willing to always take the submissive role in this game, even though she's bigger and stronger. It was their play contract. 

The girls could do this for an hour before finally collapsing, exhausted, in the snow to cool down. To the uninitiated, it would appear they were trying to kill each other. The girls and I knew better. It was a carefully scripted drama.

Maia tries to gain the upper paw.

Meadow makes Maia work for it.

Take down! Maia pins Meadow by the neck.

Released, Meadow starts it all over again. "Come on," she says, "just try that again."
My house was under construction during the summer of 2005. When it became apparent that I'd be moving in during winter, I had the forethought to erect a temporary fence around a portion of the yard close to the house before the snow arrived. Once the snow fell - a little over three feet by the end of winter - the fence seemed ridiculously small. The girls could have jumped - or even walked - over the top of the fence if they wanted to. But they never did. I think they appreciated the sense of protection and safety that fence afforded them in their new environment.

Night never dampened the girls' desire to play.

There was one night, however, I'll never forget.

Oh boy! More snow!
The snow is deep, and the fence barely pokes above it. The girls have created paths of packed snow where they frequently walk through the yard. There's a hardened mound in the center - the best vantage point - where they usually curl up to snooze, day and night. Because they rarely venture close to the fence itself, the snow there remains soft and deep, like the snow in the field beyond the fence.

Most nights, the girls choose to sleep outside, curled in tight balls, their noses tucked in under hind legs unless they're scanning the landscape for movement. They love the cold - if it snows, they simply let it accumulate on their coats, insulating them. I marvel at their ability to enjoy such a harsh environment.

Heading to bed, I open the door to call the girls inside. Most nights, they raise their heads and look at me to say, "No thanks; it's perfect out here." 

This night, though, Meadow decides to come in, leaving Maia outside alone. No problem; that's not unusual. Meadow thinks her job is to guard me, while Maia's job is to guard the house with her incredible powers of observation.

Around midnight, Meadow wakes me up with a very intent stare, standing anxiously beside my bed. (I'm a very light sleeper; the girls know that this is all it takes to awaken me.) "Do you want to go out, Meadow?" I ask. Before I finish the sentence, she's dashing toward the door to the yard. 

Sensing there's something outside Meadow may want to chase, I decide to peer through the window before letting her out. I'm thankful I do, because when I flip on an outside light, I'm stunned to see Maia sitting on that packed mount of snow in the middle of the yard, quietly facing a large coyote on the other side of the fence, just ten feet away!

Forcing Meadow to stay inside (fearing she would jump the fence in an effort to chase the coyote), I step outside and close the door behind me. I'm barefoot, standing on freezing concrete, but this is a dicey moment. I can't take time to find shoes. I'm not sure what Maia will do, I just know I don't want her to take on a coyote, on either side of the fence.

Hearing the door latch shut, Maia turns to see me standing several feet behind her in the doorway, arms across my chest trying to stay warm in the sub-zero night. Maia turns back toward the coyote, who is now nervously pacing back and forth along the fence line in front of her. Maia stands, but remains on the solid snow of the mound. The coyote looks at me, then at Maia, then back to me, as he paces just beyond the ridiculously short fence.

I immediately have the odd sensation that this coyote is flirting with Maia. Normally, a lone coyote would be easily spooked by a human and run away. (Nor are they typically eager to take on large dogs.) But this one stays, pacing, despite my presence. I don't sense he wants to hurt Maia, who is bigger than him (although not by much). He could easily jump the fence into the yard if his intent is to kill Maia. He isn't growling or snarling. His posture says, "Who are you?" with benign curiosity rather than hostility.

Gathering courage from my presence, Maia stands up and starts approaching the fence, just a couple of tentative steps, to the edge of the packed snow mound where her footing is solid. Her tail is high over her back and the ruff on her neck and shoulders is up. Finally, she huffs at the coyote. Just once.

Now I can hear Meadow "talking" from the other side of the door behind me. She's watching the scene unfold through the window. Seeing Maia stand and hearing her huff, Meadow becomes concerned about her sister. Meadow has always been Maia's back-up, and she's frustrated, trapped behind the door.

"I'm concerned too, Meadow," I think, shivering from cold as well as worry.

Deciding I don't want this amazing scene to spiral out of control - barefoot, I'm hardly able to run through the snow fast enough to do anything helpful should Maia jump the fence - I hiss, "Maia, come!" 

My voice causes Maia to stop her careful advance. She stands still - tense, but with a barely perceptible tail wag. The coyote takes a last quick look at me, then Maia. Turning away, he high-steps in a slow, laborious trot through the deep snow, toward the forest. My voice has spooked him.

Watching the coyote leave, Maia makes a one-leap rush toward the fence, exhaling forcefully as she lands on all fours in deeper snow, still a few feet from the fence. So brave, now that the coyote's retreating! Hearing Maia, the coyote stops mid-stride, and with one front paw held up for his next step, throws one last look at us over his shoulder before silently disappearing into the darkness. Gone with the night, returning to his forest home.

That silly, short fence makes both Maia and the coyote feel safe, each leaving the encounter with their dignity intact.

Maia happily follows me through the door. Inside, Meadow anxiously sniffs Maia all over, gathering the story as only one dog can convey it to another through smell and body language. We all talk excitedly about "the coyote encounter" as we come down from the adrenaline rush.

Both girls spend the rest of the night inside. No way am I going to let them out until daylight. 

In fact, it was several nights before I let either girl sleep outside at night. Just in case that coyote came back for another clandestine rendezvous. 


Later that winter - January 2006 - I take the girls up to McCall for a dog pull contest during Winter Carnival. I brush the girls and put them in their skijoring harnesses. Alas, there aren't enough participants entered so the event is cancelled. Still, the girls and I have fun, greeting people who admire their beauty and ask about their harnesses. A friend takes our portrait, standing on a frozen Payette Lake on a beautiful sunny winter day.

And just to prove that even malamutes like to sunbathe...

Maia and the less dignified Meadow soaking up some winter Vitamin D.

Ah, winter. I miss being in Idaho during the winter months with the girls young enough to fully enjoy the environment they were born to thrive in. I'm thankful we had those amazing years together there - 2005 through 2008 - with lots of snow play in winter, and high mountain trail play in summer.

Rebecca Wallick1 Comment