The Ultimate Challenge: To Come Home Alive

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2001

By Tara Stroll, Illustrated by Jane Westrick

Peter Bradbury stepped outside into the ten-degrees-below-zero Canadian air. The winter would get much colder. The bundled-up, seventeen-year-old boy was not cold. He had grown up in this weather. He was tall, lean, dirty, unshaven, strong, and tough. He had been born in the woods. With much difficulty, he trudged through the three-foot-deep snow over to a rack that his snowshoes were on. The frame was made from wood and the webbing was made from animal skin. They had to be kept outside the whole winter. The temperature change of bringing them in the house was not good for them. Wearing the snowshoes, he walked on top of the snow with ease over to a small doghouse. Curled up inside was a young malamute. He was a grayish brown with black ears and patches of white on his face.

“Come on, Chocolate. We’re going to check the trapline.” The dog got up. Peter was wearing many layers to stay warm. He had a pack on his back. Chocolate had a thick coat of hair; he was always dressed for the weather. Peter put another pack on Chocolate’s back. “We’re ready to go.”

The dog followed Peter into the woods. Peter Bradbury’s trapline was fifteen miles long. At the other end there was a cabin where he would sleep. The next day he would come back home. It was usually easy for Peter and Chocolate to travel the ten miles in a day.

The Ultimate Challenge: To Come Home Alive boy and dog in the snow

“Come on, Chocolate. We’re going to check the trapline”

When they traveled down the trail, through the pines, Chocolate ran ahead and then turned around and came bounding back to Peter. Both dog and boy squinted. The light from the sun reflected on the white snow caused their eyes pain. Sometimes Chocolate would run off to the side to chase a squirrel for a while. Peter was quite amused when he dashed into the forest in a frenzy, in mad pursuit of some small animal, barking nonstop. Finally he would give up and come back to Peter.

At each trap that they came to, Peter would put in fresh bait, reset the trap, and if there was an animal in it, take it out. The bait came from Chocolate’s pack. Peter whistled cheerfully as he went along. He and Chocolate knew the route well. The first three traps were empty. At the fourth, there was a jackrabbit which he took. He tied the rabbit’s legs together and attached it to the outside of his pack. When he got home, Peter and his mother would skin the animals and sell the pelts at the closest trading post at the end of the season. Peter’s father had died long ago, so Peter was the man of the house. His mother did odd jobs in town. During the winter, Peter’s trapline was their main income. They desperately needed the money.

The fifth trap he disappointedly found empty. At the sixth he found an arctic fox. He cheerfully whistled as they moved on. The seventh and eighth traps were empty. Peter started to notice a change in the weather. It was getting colder and dark clouds filled the sky. It had gotten extremely windy. The cold bit at Peter’s pink nose. It was snowing lightly. At the ninth trap there was an ermine. Ermine fur was very much in demand. Very happily, Peter took it out.

They were headed toward the tenth trap when there were some very sudden gusts of wind. The snow was much heavier now, coming down in sheets. Peter could barely see. “It’s a blizzard! We’d better stop awhile, Chocolate. Let’s look for some shelter.” About seventy meters to the left of the trail, there was a small rock outcropping. The roof sloped down and met the floor at the very back. Slabs of rock held it up. It could not have been more than fifteen feet by ten feet. Once sitting inside the dry shelter, Peter began to go to work. He brushed the snow off of himself and the dog. “We’ll just stay here awhile, Chocolate.”

The dog barked.

“I’m going to build a fire. You stay here while I try to find something dry to burn.”

The dog stayed in the shelter while Peter pushed his way through the heavy snow, not being able to see where he was going, in search of something to burn. He found some tree branches, felled from the blizzard. Gathering as much as he could possible carry, he tried to make his way back to the shelter.

“Oh, no!” Peter groaned aloud. “How will I find my way back? OK, OK. Don’t panic. I can’t be more than fifty feet away. I’ll call Chocolate. I’ll hear his bark and follow the sound back. Chocolate! Chocolate!” he shouted, but his voice was lost in the wind. He continued to shout and kept moving toward where he thought the shelter was. He did not hear an answer.

Then he saw something coming toward him. It was an animal covered with snow, about the size of a wolf. Peter started to back away but the animal kept coming closer. Peter tried to remain calm. It was unlike wolves to attack people. The animal kept advancing toward Peter. Peter was still not sure what it was. He kept backing away. Then the wolf-like animal jumped on him.

“Chocolate!” Peter cried in relief. Chocolate led him back to the shelter. Once inside, Peter set to work. His hands and feet were numb from cold. His ears were almost frozen. His top layer of clothes was soaking. Peter cut up the wet wood and made a tepee. He stuck the leaves underneath it to use as the kindling.

“Now,” Peter said to Chocolate, “all I have to do is get the fire going and then we will defrost.” Peter hesitated a moment and then said, “Oh no. Oh no. Oh boy.” He sighed and then said in a grim voice, “I forgot to pack the matches.”

Chocolate cocked his head and gave Peter an odd look. Then he whined.

“Oh boy. What are we going to do? Things are not looking good. Oh boy. Oh boy.” Then Peter’s face brightened, “There might still be some in here from last time.” He opened up his pack, rummaged around and found a book of matches. Then he kissed it.

“We’re in luck, Chocolate.” He opened it up. “There’s only three left. It’s hard to start a fire with wet wood. Once we get it started, we have to keep it burning. And you know what, Chocolate, this blizzard is not going to let up. We’ll never make it to the cabin today. You know what, Chocolate? We’re going to have to spend the night here. We can’t go to sleep because the fire will go out and we’ll surely freeze to death. We’re going to be awake all night, feeding the fire and gathering wood.” He thought a moment and then said, “And you know what, Chocolate? I don’t want to die. I’m going to get more wood and maybe some birch bark to help start the fire. When I come back we’re going to have a fire. Tomorrow morning we’ll be able to travel again and we’ll make it to the cabin. Then we’ll have food and supplies and matches and a radio and a stove. But right now we have to make that fire.” He set out again.

Peter came back with more wood, birch bark, and leaves. He set everything up and lit the first match. The birch bark would not light. It was too wet. The flame flickered and then went out. “Let’s try again.” He lit the second match. This time, he tried lighting a different piece. He had the same result. “Well, cross your fingers, Chocolate. It’s looking like we’ve only got one match left.” He lit the match. Then he tried to light the kindling. He slowly released his breath as it lit.

“We have a fire!” Peter gave the dog a big hug. He fanned the fire and it continued to grow. Water was boiling on the wood. That was a bad sign. He kept feeding it more twigs. The glow of the flames gave light and the fire provided some warmth. “Let’s have some supper.” From the pack, he took two fish for Chocolate. Peter took for himself a piece of pemmican. Peter spent the whole night gathering wood and keeping the fire going, only taking small naps in between.

He awoke for the final time at seven o’clock in the morning. They did not eat breakfast. Peter packed up and put out the fire. “Let’s go, Chocolate. It’s time to leave.” They stepped out into a new world. It was totally unlike the previous night, dark, cold, and unfriendly. The sun was shining and it was warm and bright. The blizzard had stopped during the night. The ground was covered in a sparkling blanket of snow. Everything was white. Shining icicles hung from the trees. Peter could almost imagine little white fairies dancing on the ice. They really seemed to belong there. A clump of snow fell down from an overhead tree and onto Chocolate’s head. The surprised dog shook himself off and Peter laughed. “I think that the trail is this way.” After ten minutes of walking, they came to a trail leading in what seemed to be the right direction.

“Here’s the trail, Chocolate. Let’s go. We’ll make it to the cabin in time for lunch.” Peter started to walk down the trail but stopped abruptly when he noticed that the dog was not following him. He turned around. “What’s the matter, Chocolate?” Chocolate barked. “Come on, boy.” Peter turned back around and kept walking. Chocolate barked like crazy. “Well, let’s go.” Peter was starting to get annoyed. Chocolate came up to Peter, grabbed the bottom of Peter’s pants in his mouth, and started to pull him in the other direction. “What’s wrong?” Chocolate kept pulling him. “Let go of me, Chocolate!” The dog immediately obeyed. “We’re going this way. Let’s go.” Chocolate followed Peter as they continued walking down the trail. “Silly dog,” Peter muttered to himself. “He’s going crazy.”

The day continued to get warmer and the snow and icicles were melting. They had walked for about two hours when Peter suddenly stopped. “Chocolate,” he said, “we haven’t been checking the traps. That is because there haven’t been any to check. We’re not on my trapline! Now we’re really lost.”

The Ultimate Challenge: To Come Home Alive boy and dog in the water

The dog grabbed the boy’s arm in his mouth and dragged him out of the water

He looked down at Chocolate. “OK, you were right. I hate it when you have that ‘I told you so’ look on your face. Get rid of that grin right now!” The dog stared at him. “I said right now!” Peter said with his hands on his hips. The dog’s grin remained. Peter shouted, “Chocolate Bradbury! Did you hear me?” Peter was getting quite frustrated. Apparently, the dog did because he put his head on Peter’s feet and whimpered. Peter patted him on the head and said, “All right. This trail is probably parallel to my trapline. Let’s take a shortcut and go through the woods this way. We’ll be there in no time. Any objections, group leader?” Chocolate remained silent. They went on.

They were not on a path, so the traveling was harder. They had to push branches out of their way and walk over or crawl under other obstacles. Peter led the way. They had been traveling for quite some time. “We should be getting there by now. This wasn’t smart. We should have gone back on the wrong trail to the shelter and then found the trapline. This shortcut was the stupidest thing to do. Well, let’s keep going. Mother will be worried about us. She’ll send out a search party soon, if she doesn’t come out on skis to find us herself. Oh well.”

Peter heard a cracking noise and, without warning, the ground under him gave way. He fell into a stream of icy cold water. Chunks of ice floated around him. As Peter’s body began to go numb with cold, he knew that he would die if he did not get out quickly. But, very heroically, Chocolate jumped from chunk to chunk of ice across the stream. He eventually had to swim in the shallow but freezing water. The dog grabbed the boy’s arm in his mouth and dragged him out of the water and onto land again.

Peter lay in the snow and Chocolate licked his face. Feeling the dog’s warm tongue, Peter came to his senses. “Chocolate, you saved my life!” Chocolate glowed with pride as he wagged his tail happily. “I need to try to get dry now.” He started to use his arms to push himself up when he fell down again. He screamed with pain. “Chocolate, you dragged me out by my arm, didn’t you? My shoulder is dislocated!” Chocolate looked sad. “Oh, it’s not your fault, Chocolate. I’m not mad at you. You saved my life. OK. Calm down. Relax. Take a deep breath, Peter. I know how to do this. I need something heavy.” He picked up a rock with his right arm, his uninjured one. “OK. Here it goes.” With his right hand, he pushed the bone into a different position. Then he placed the rock into his left hand. “Ow!” he screamed in pain as his shoulder shifted into place. He took a deep breath. “It’s OK, Chocolate. It’s all better now. The muscles will just be sore for a while. I need to get dry now.”

The Ultimate Challenge: To Come Home Alive boy and dog near the fire

“I’m going to sleep now. Any objections, group leader?”

Peter did not have a lot of spare clothing with him. He put dry clothing on underneath but the layers on top were still wet. “We’ll stop and build a fire to dry these off so I can be warm and toasty again.” He remembered that he did not have any matches. “Forget that. Let’s have something to eat. What am I carrying this pemmican for anyway?” Peter gave Chocolate some of the pemmican in his pack and then had some himself. “OK, we better get going if we want to find my trapline and the cabin at the end of it.” They pushed on, newly refreshed from their meal.

They had traveled for another two hours. They were both getting weary. Chocolate was leading the way. He was about fifteen feet in front of Peter. Suddenly, the dog seemed to fall. He was then out of visibility. Peter ran to the spot to see Chocolate lying at the bottom of a ten-foot-deep crevice.

“Chocolate! Hang on, boy. I’m coming soon. You just wait there.” Peter kept giving Chocolate warm words of encouragement while he worked. The crevice was very steep. Once he jumped down, there would be no way to get back up and Chocolate might be hurt. Peter took a coil of rope out of his backpack and tied one end to the nearest sturdy tree. He threw the coil down. Holding onto it, he used the rope to rappel down to the bottom of the crack. “Oh, Chocolate.”

The boy sat and hugged the dog for a long time. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Are you all right? Try to get up.” The dog got up and stood on three legs. “Walk a little bit.” Chocolate walked, very slowly and very wobbly on three legs. He would not put down his back, left leg. “Let me see.” Peter examined his leg. “I think it’s broken. We’ll put a splint on it when we get back up.” Peter tied the dog around the top of his legs, where he had been sitting. He then had both hands to use to pull himself up. When they were on top again, Peter untied Chocolate. Peter used sticks and cloth torn from his undershirt to put a splint on the dog’s leg. He gathered up his rope.

“Now, how are we going to get to the other side? It’s certainly too far to jump. Hmmmm. There’s a fallen tree going across it a ways down. Let’s use that.” They went down to where the log was. It seemed sturdy enough. Peter straddled across, holding Chocolate in front of him. He took a good hour covering the eleven feet. He was very worried that he would fall and not be able to get out. He placed Chocolate down on the ground. Then, quite abruptly, the log gave way under him. Peter grabbed the edge of the cliff. His body dangled down. He kicked his feet wildly. He was hanging on only his hands. His life could depend on the strength of his fingertips. Very slowly, inch by inch, he pulled himself up. Safely on the other side of the crevice, they continued on their journey to the cabin.

They had walked for another three and a half hours. It was getting dark. It got dark early in the winter. Their hopes were not very high. Chocolate had been leading. All of a sudden, Chocolate turned around and ran back to Peter rather quickly, considering he was hobbling on three legs. Chocolate was barking furiously. He obviously wanted Peter to come quick. “All right, group leader, I’m coming.” Peter ran after the limping dog. Ahead of him, Peter saw Chocolate barking at an empty trap. It was one of Peter’s traps.

“Chocolate, we’ve found the trapline!” The empty trap led to the trail that led to the cabin. “We have another four miles to get to the cabin, based on this. We can get there by midnight. I know that traveling is slow and hard for you because of your broken leg. I’m tired and weary too, Chocolate. And my wet clothes are making me very cold. I don’t have a fur coat on me like you do. If we stop for the night, we’ll freeze without a fire. We have to keep going. Come on Chocolate, you can do it.”

After another hour of traveling, they stopped to rest awhile and ate some pemmican and fish. It was very dark now. They were weighed down by pain and lack of rest. The journey seemed to take forever. They were farther from the cabin than Peter thought they were. They had to make more and more stops to rest and had to take longer rests. The cold reminded Peter that if they went to sleep they would freeze. ,Chocolate was exhausted. Being a hero took his strength away. Peter continually urged him on.

Soon it became pitch black. Peter used his flashlight then. It was not very powerful but it helped them to see the trail. Peter turned it off often to try to save the batteries. Their pace got slower and slower. Peter thought that his feet were made of lead. He almost fell asleep while he was walking.

The fatigued travelers reached the cabin at one o’clock in the morning. Both Peter and Chocolate had never been so happy to see it. They went inside. Peter used the radio to tell his worried mother that he was OK and would come home the next day. Among food, candles, matches, tents, skis, ski wax, blankets, clothing, and the radio, there was a sled that Peter would pull Chocolate home on. Peter lit candles, built a fire in the stove, put on dry clothes, ate, and fed Chocolate. He finally plopped down on the small bed in the corner of the cabin for a well deserved rest.

“I’m going to sleep now. Any objections, group leader?” Chocolate was too tired to answer.

EPILOGUE

Peter pulled Chocolate on the sled and they made it home the next day. Peter’s mother had been worried and had gone out to look for them. She went home at the end of the day, figuring that they were spending an extra night at the cabin. Chocolate’s leg was fractured but he had a quick recovery. The bone healed beautifully. Peter and his mother had their best fur season ever. Peter and Chocolate still manage a trapline every winter. Whenever Peter goes out to check it, he always makes sure that he has enough matches.

The Ultimate Challenge: To Come Home Alive Tara Stroll

Tara Stroll, 13
Roslyn Heights, New York

The Ultimate Challenge: To Come Home Alive Jane Westrick

Jane Westrick, 13
Mechanicsville, Virginia

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