Sinclair Hollow: April 2020, Part III (Expedition Memoirs)

Our campsite may once have been cleared of trees, though no intact stumps remained.  There were signs of prior habitation, and like what we had seen with the canvas tent on our way in, these seemed to be at least semi-permanent.  There were not just the obvious remains of a chainsaw in the felling and cutting of an unusually inflammable (sic) tree, but older, cut logs from a different tree.  Two of the logs were employed in the fabrication of a wooden bench, topped by a cutting from the other felled tree to span the two logs.  A third log we used for our water reservoir; some seven gallons hauled up on to and then down from the roof rack, and which represented the majority of our water supply.  All around these logs were the remnants of a firepit, the parts of which we utilized to construct a smaller pit that first night.  This included a number of thick, charred logs, which we proceeded to burn that night, as well as a number of recent cuttings.  We located the rest of our wood in the surrounding forest, the ground being littered with sticks and logs of all sizes and in every stage of decomposition.  Much of the wood was dry and punky, a sign of past flooding.  The water would first saturate the wood before then drying out to a degree which green cuttings simply do not, rather like driftwood on a beach, in that respect.

These punky logs made excellent firewood, and for Sasha, they were her favorite sticks for chewing.  More than once would I return from gathering wood to find many of the choice pieces pulled from the woodpile and scattered about the campsite, their exteriors speckled with the small holes of canine teeth.  Upon recollecting the pieces and returning them to the woodpile, she would indignantly reclaim her prize, often taking it farther from the woodpile the second time as a way of ensuring its safety.  As the trip proceeded, she grew more and more bold with the sticks, at times grabbing them from our hands—though never aggressively, and exclusively in play, and thankfully never from the fire.

In this regard, Sasha was the happiest I have ever seen her.  Although at first disgruntled by the application of bug repellent, once over that necessary evil, she adored weaved in and out of trees and bushes, leaping over logs, and even balancing on fallen trees.  It was on our second day that this reached a zenith with her wildly running about in her personal equivalent of the zoomies, clearing dangerously large drops and 4-4.5 feet of sheer incline—such as in the case of surmounting the embankment of a stream we visited the next day.

This level of energy and play was further expressed in an unusual and hitherto unseen behavior she exhibited around the camp, one which was initially unprompted but later encouraged.  In the course of that first night, when the sun was set and we had eaten our fill, Sasha suddenly alerted from where she was nestled among the leaves and bolted into the darkness beyond the edges of the fire’s light.  The low growls which accompanied her bounding leaps were at once replaced by barking—not incessant, but instead territorial.  She would then proceed to round the camp, crossing down to the extent of the area Mark and I—not she—had explored at a radius of approximately one hundred yards from the site of our camp.  At this distance, she would run a sort of patrol around the camp, stopping every few dozen yards to bark, at times a low bark which I interpreted as more of a check-in, but primarily a territorial bark out towards the darkness beyond.

We had on a prior expedition encountered a black bear a few miles from where we were presently encamped.  Although at a significantly lower elevation than on that our occasion, our current campsite was still well within their range.  It should come as no surprise that we were both armed with canisters of bear spray, which we now took in one hand, while the other we armed with the reassuring light of our flashlights.

The beams from our lights crisscrossed the foliage and tree trunks, searching out the source of my dog’s concern.  Even after being recalled numerous times, she continued to alert towards the woods behind our chairs.  With the aid of earlier sunlight, we had seen in that direction a rather steep hillside descending to a branch of Shaws Fork.  Like most of the wilderness trails in this part of the Forest, a hiking trail followed that branch of Shaws Fork to a gap in the hills, thus leading one into Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness.  It was here—or rather the general direction of that gap—along which she would concentrate her efforts.  And although we had our flashlights trained in that direction and even followed into the bush—prompting her to proceed further in the darkness, all the while barking—we never did spot anything.

But this was, in fact, an unusual aspect of our entire campsite.  With the exception of the odd birdsong, we neither saw nor heard a single animal in the two days we spent there.  This we had noted to one another before the sunset, and so it was in that context that we took the dog’s sudden irritation as a reaction to seeing the movement of something very small; a mouse, squirrel, or bird.  In our whiskey-infused state, the silence might have even been suspicious—were we in an episode of Looney Toons, and so we joked about a version of Smokey the Bear who was slowly sneaking up on us, only to burst into the firelight and shout at us about the importance of preventing forest fires.  He might have congratulated us on the good job we had done at clearing brush and other lightables from around the firepit, and then we would offer him a beer and he would stay to chat.  Then he would proceed to overstay his welcome by drinking a disproportionate amount of our beer before passing out and snoring all night in the middle of our campsite.

The exercise was repeated a number of times that night: Sasha springing to action, patrolling in more-or-less the same pattern, while Mark and I would drunkenly wave our lights into the woods from the comfort of our chairs, joking about Smokey the Bear.  Any other night it might have been annoying, but we had decided to stay up late that night.  I was feeling sorry for myself over a past relationship of some significance and needed a morale boost, and so we did what Mark and I normally do to improve our moods: we drank!

Beer from our supply of seventy-eight cans turned to the delectable amber of Shackleton whisky.  This particular scotch is based on a recipe only recently rediscovered, having been lost to time following the distiller’s bankruptcy.  It was then discovered in the twenty-first century that among the leavings of Ernest Shackleton’s 1909 expedition to the South Pole were a number of bottles containing this once-lost recipe, and so an expedition was undertaken — a very noble expedition, indeed! — to recover what remained, buried for over a century in the icy embrace of Antarctica’s bosom.  It seemed the appropriate whisky to have brought on an expedition, and so to the memory of Ernest Shackleton and the fortunes of our expedition did we toast and indulge long into the night.

Even in 1909, you couldn’t spell “fun” without F and U.

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