It wasn’t my idea to take Uncle Brad’s truck out onto the ice, but I guess everything that happened was my fault.
I had never been anywhere so cold. My hands and feet felt disconnected from the rest of me, and my nose felt as if it would shatter into a thousand pieces if you just tapped it lightly. I wore layers and layers of clothes, even inside the house, and when we went outside, past snowdrifts higher than you could see over, I jumped up and down, waving my arms like pistons while my breath formed clouds that drifted away into the dark.
“How do you live up here all year round?” I asked Felix, after I’d been there a week.
He shrugged and said, “You get used to it, I suppose.”
There was no way I could get used to living in a place that was dark half of the year and cold nearly all of the time, so I hoped Dad would hurry up and finish whatever it was he had come up to do so that we could go home.
My cousin Felix’s idea of fun was to grab a couple of beers and sit in his friend Jason’s room, drinking and smoking and watching reality TV. I went with him the first time, so as to be friendly, but I soon got bored, while Felix and Jason got drunk and passed out. I suppose I would end up getting drunk if all I did was watch reality TV at sub-zero temperatures.
“Hey, how about we drive over to Beaverton?” Felix said the day after the big storm.
It had snowed for over a day, with the wind shifting the snow into piles, so that it was almost impossible to make out any of the portacabins that served as houses in the small settlement, but today was clear, with a blue sky stretching for miles in every direction, while the sun did its best to warm up the permafrost. I was not sure I trusted Felix in the truck, but I did not want to be left alone while he and Jason went off so I struggled into my coat and boots, pulled my hat over my head and at the last minute remembered my gloves. You never go anywhere without gloves up here.
We never made it to Beaverton. The fresh snow was piled thick on the hard packed strip that served as a road and the truck kept getting stuck and then stalling. At least digging it out of the snow kept me warm; too warm, as after a while I could feel the sweat trickling down my back inside my woolen undershirt. By the time we got going, the last of the daylight was fading, with the sky changing from a pale blue to a dark purple with strips of orange. The first stars flickered in the sky like distant beacons and soon we were in total blackness with only the headlamps of the truck reflecting off the snow.
I had never been anywhere so totally dark before, other than hiding inside a closet, when I was younger, but this was a wide open space, with the land stretching out forever in every direction.
“We’d better turn back,” I said, wondering if we would have to dig our way over the snow lumps again.
“Nah, this road goes all the way to Beaverton. We’ll just keep going and crash at my buddy Dave’s place,” said Felix, while Jason nodded and opened a beer. I wondered what my Dad would say when he discovered I was not at the house, but I figured we could call from Beaverton and let them know where we were.
I stared out the fogged up window at the inky blackness and saw an arc of green shimmer across the sky.
“What was that?” I asked, pointing to the spot.
Felix and Jason peered through the darkness as a curtain of green light pulsed across the sky.
“Oh, thash’s the Northern Lights,” slurred Jason, who appeared to be well on the way to becoming drunk.
“That’s so cool,” I said, gazing at the rippling colours that appeared to dance across the sky.
“We get that stuff when the sky is clear,” said Felix.
The road passed between a line of trees and I twisted my neck to keep sight of the display in the sky, peering through the tree branches.
“Stop jiggling around,” said Jason, as I squirmed in the back seat. “Can’t you stop the truck and let him out to have a good look?”
“I’ll drive out onto the lake,” Felix said, swinging the wheel hard over to the side, which made Jason fall against the door and curse loudly.
The truck passed through a gap in the trees and bounced along a small track, without getting stuck once, and then rolled out onto a smooth flat sheet of ice in a large clearing. Felix stopped the truck and jumped down onto the ice.
“Welcome to Beaver Lake.”
“Is it safe?” I asked, looking across the ice covered lake.
“The ice is as thick as a door post,” said Jason. “My Dad comes up here ice-fishing and he has to drill a huge hole to get down to the water.”
I climbed out of the truck and stood on the ice, which seemed solid enough, then looked up at the sky, where the green swathes of light flickered like flames above the tree tops. It covered almost half of the sky, with the stars shining through the light like pin pricks. Jason and Felix began to argue about something and I walked away from the truck until I was standing right in the centre of the lake, craning my neck upwards to see all of the sky at once. I felt as if I was drinking in the light, trying to absorb it all in one swallow. Maybe it was worth living out here in the middle of nowhere if you got to see sights like this.
I could hear the others shouting but I was not ready to go back yet. I wanted to stay and watch the lights for as long as possible as the tendrils of colour twisted and floated, as if touching each one of the trees before moving on. I wished I could take a picture of the sky but I had given up carrying my phone when I discovered it did not work up here.
“C’mon man, this thing’s shifting!”
The honking of the truck’s horn jolted me out of my dream and I began walking back towards the truck. The floating lights were just bright enough that I could see the truck moving and I thought maybe Felix had begun driving off without me but then it slumped forward at an odd angle and I heard a loud crack followed by shouts.
“It’s going down!”
I saw Felix jump out of the cab just as the front of the truck sank slowly into the ice. I began to run, slipping and sliding on the ice, then slowed to a fast walk as I saw Felix back away from the lilting truck. There was no sign of Jason.
“What happened?” I asked, “Where’s Jason?”
“Oh, man, that ice shifted,” said Felix. “We must have stopped over an old fishing hole, where the ice is thinner.”
“Where’s Jason?” I shouted, looking around the truck.
“Inside the cab,” pointed Felix. “He went to get another beer.”
Damn those beers, I thought. Can’t they do anything without beer? I should never have come on this trip. Placing one foot carefully in front of the other, I slowly moved towards the truck and peered in the passenger side window. I could see Jason moving, so I reached for the door handle, but the door was locked.
“Jason!” I shouted. “Can you hear me? Unlock the door!”
The arms moved a bit more but the door remained locked.
“Felix, give me the keys. We need to unlock this door to let Jason out.”
I went back to Felix who was standing by the side of the truck, holding his head in his hands, and felt in his pocket for the key, but it was empty.
“My Dad’s going to kill me,” he muttered.
“Felix – the key. Where is it?”
Felix pointed at the truck, which gave another lurch and slid farther into the lake. I looked down at the ice between my feet, wondering if cracks were spreading, but I could not see anything.
“Come on Felix, we’ve got to get Jason out of the truck.”
I tugged at Felix’s sleeve and dragged him over to the other side of the truck. Jason was no longer moving.
“Help me open the door,” I said, pulling at the driver’s door. The truck was now leaning over on a slant, with both front wheels under the ice, and the driver’s door almost level with the edge of the hole.
I yanked the door open as far as I could and called out to Jason.
“Come on, quickly, come this way.”
I heard whimpering from inside the truck and looked in to see dark water swirling by the pedals and Jason clutching his leg.
“Felix, give me a hand here, we’ve got to pull him out.”
Somehow, I pushed Felix towards the open door and made him grab hold of Jason’s arm and tug, while I pulled off my gloves and reached down into the icy water. I gasped as the cold hit my fingers and numbed them, but I wiggled them and felt around the pedals. Jason’s bootstraps were caught on the gas pedal. I pulled and worked at it as my fingers became number and number and the truck shifted and settled, but I could not get the straps untied.
“I’ll have to take his boot off,” I said, yanking my hands out of the water and shoving them in my armpits. I wondered if my fingers would have the strength to work Jason’s boot off his foot before they turned numb.
“Here, move over,” said Felix, who appeared to have recovered his senses.
He plunged his hands under the water and a moment later camp up with Jason’s boot. I grabbed Jason by the arms and pulled him over to the door. Between us we dragged him through the small opening and laid him down on the ice, his bare foot shining white in the eerie green light.
“Pull him away from the truck,” said Felix, climbing onto the back of the truck, “I need to get something.”
I took hold of Jason’s shoulders and pulled him away from the truck and a moment later the truck gave a final groan and sank into the hole in the ice, causing the displaced water to slosh over the surface of the ice towards us. Felix, who had jumped from the truck just as it tipped over, was scrambling on the ice close to the hole, clutching a box, and he slowly crawled over to us.
My gloves were in the truck, along with Jason’s boot, so I stuck my fingers into my mouth and blew on them, but I could not feel any warmth. I knew we should put something on Jason’s exposed foot but my hands hurt too much to do anything.
“What’s that?” I asked Felix, when he came near and began to open the box.
“Flares,” he said, taking out a long stick and ripping open the end. “We’ll fire some of these off and somebody will come and find us.”
With a practised twist Felix set off the flare which shot into the sky like a rocket, leaving a bright long tail of fire. Up, up it went, until it exploded in a shower of flame. A single point of light set against a backdrop of green and purple. Would anybody see it? I wished the lights would go away and make the sky dark again so that our flare would be visible.
Felix took his scarf off and wrapped it round Jason’s bare foot, then pulled his friend into a sitting position.
“C’mon, man, we’ve got to get you moving. Can’t go to sleep out here.”
Jason shook his head and mumbled something. Felix lifted one of Jason’s arms and I took the other. Together we dragged him across the ice to the edge of the lake.
“Now what do we do?” I asked, wondering if we would have to carry Jason all the way to the road.
“Now we wait,” said Felix, “and make sure we keep warm.”
“What about a radio?” I asked, remembering I had seen Uncle Brad use one earlier.
“It was in the truck; it’s gone now,” said Felix, who was rubbing Jason’s foot through the scarf.
I looked around at the looming shapes of the trees, surrounding us like an armed guard. Above us the lights continued their display, but it was no longer the awesome spectacle it had been; now it was as if the heavens were laughing at us, and our helplessness.
Rescue came, eventually, and Jason’s foot survived the ordeal. Felix got into a lot of trouble for taking the truck and losing it but I think the insurance paid out something. Dad and I went home soon afterwards and the biting cold became just a memory. People often ask me if I saw the Northern Lights during my stay up north and I shake my head; if it had not been for me wanting to get a better look at the lights, Uncle Brad would still have his truck.