Chapter 6: The Danger in Nature
Consciousness played a game with Jake that morning. Every once in a while it would shake him in his seat just enough to remind him that it wasn’t far from taking him over. It had been an uncomfortable battle because he was much more eager to embrace deep sleep than this thing that consciousness was threatening to force on him, but the pesky annoyance of being awakened would not leave him alone. And, as the battle became one-sided and Jake knew that he would lose his will in this fight, his ears began to remind him of his failure to stay asleep. The whip-whip-whip of the helicopter blades was the first thing he heard when consciousness finally stopped playing games with him and yanked him back to reality.
As he yawned and stretched, he opened his burning eyes to let the image of the world sink in. His shoulders were sore and his neck felt tight. He slowly massaged them back into comfort as he carefully sat upright. Once his eyes fully opened and the details came into focus, he saw Kate taking pictures out the window. In his slightly dizzy state, he leaned over to see what had caught her attention.
“What are you immortalizing now?” he asked.
“Some wolves sleeping by a river,” she said. “Look.”
Jake glanced over her shoulder to see a small pack of wolves, about four, lying down in the snow next to a river. From this height they looked like little plush toys curled up on a pillow next to a hefty drool trail. For as nice and docile as they were, he thought they made the perfect photo opportunity for Kate. Of course if it were up to him, he would’ve looked for a chance to one-up her attempts by rocking the boat a bit. But then again, if it were up to him, neither of them would be photographing these creatures from so high up. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he believed it should’ve been up to him. It was his calendar, too, for crying out loud.
“I think we need to go down there,” he said. “These creatures deserve better coverage than this.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Kate. “This is good coverage. This is safe coverage.”
“This is coverage to ruin our reputation. We have to go down there.”
Kate stared at him, petrified.
“Jake, I don’t want to get mauled today.”
“You’re not going to get mauled today. They’ll have to maul me first. Besides, it’ll just be a quick snap and go.”
“Yeah, right. You go down there, who’s gonna snap who?”
He placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled.
Kate’s apparent fear over what he had suggested didn’t lift so quickly. It was obvious she didn’t trust him. But in Jake’s mind she should have trusted him because he had yet to prove to her that he was wrong. In all of his travels from one location to the next, he had never gotten mauled by anything, so Kate should’ve been willing to take this chance.
“Kate, I need my pictures, too,” he continued. “You know I can’t take them from up here.”
As he stared into her eyes, he sensed her will caving in. He tapped her quickly on the shoulder to encourage her to fold over completely.
“Fine,” she said at last. “Pilot, take us down.”
The helicopter gradually descended until it landed by the water’s edge. Once grounded, Jake and Kate climbed out and placed their feet briskly into the snow. Jake looked down the stream to see small chunks of ice breaking into the water. The sleeping wolves lay maybe half a mile away.
Jake took a few steps along the shoreline in the direction of the slumbering pack, but somehow he felt he was making the trip alone. He turned around just enough to see Kate holding her ground.
“Aren’t you coming?” he asked.
A brisk chill wind zipped past Jake’s ear and blasted Kate right in the face. The sudden gust nearly toppled her over. She wobbled briefly before catching her balance. It took her a moment to readjust her scarf. Once she caught her bearings, she stared at him motionlessly.
“Well?” he continued.
“I’m not comfortable with this,” she said.
“Why? They’re just wolves.”
Kate paused before releasing an almost faked chuckle.
“This is part of a joke, isn’t it?” she said. “This is some hilarious way of you getting back at me for all the times I tried to convince you to take still shots, isn’t it?”
He noticed her face turn to delight as the relief quickly overcame her emotional tension, but considering that he had yet to say anything in response, he wasn’t sure why.
“We can laugh later,” he said. “Right now there are pictures to be taken.”
Her stream of laughter quickly trailed off into something hushed—almost pitiful to be exact. She stood there with her mouth hanging open as another gust of wind smacked her in the face. This time it knocked her flat backward with her arms flailing into the snow. The force of the wind was so strong that Jake almost found himself barreling face forward, as well, but he regained his balance in the nick of time. As Kate rolled backward into the slushy ice, Jake quickly reached for his camera to snap a photo, but stopped himself midway when he remembered that she was not part of the project. Once the wind gust finished passing through, he reached out his hand to help her up. Slightly disoriented, she grabbed for it and pulled herself to her feet, brushing herself off in the process.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “That was quite a spill you took.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit shaken, that’s all.”
Jake helped her brush off the snow from her shoulders and back. As he stood there meticulously flicking each flake off her sweater, he could feel her semi-sweet breath gently touching his neck. At least he thought it was her breath. It was a bit too warm and rhythmic to be part of the atmospheric breeze.
“So, are you fine enough to walk upstream with me?” he continued. “Or do you need a piggyback ride?”
Again she fell silent, but not quite as defensively as she had before. She placed her free hand atop her forehead and nodded. Jake smiled and reached for her hand to lead her for the journey.
They had taken no more than twenty steps when Kate stopped again. Jake also halted his travels when he heard the echoing slush behind him come to a stop. He turned around to see her reaching for her camera.
“We’re still too far away,” he said. “We have to get closer.”
She ignored him. Instead, she popped off her lens cap, adjusted her focus, and pointed her eye toward the stream. A moment later, Kate took a picture of the running water and the little ice chunks that floated downstream. Jake wanted to say something, but decided to honor the terms of their bet, so he held his tongue. He grabbed for her wrist and nudged her to continue following him. Again she came across as hesitant, but didn’t put up much of a fight. A second later, they resumed their footsteps.
Once they reached the den of wolves, Kate stopped about thirty feet from the nearest animal and knelt gently in the snow. Jake raised his ears cautiously to make sure she didn’t rustle any premature disturbances, but had his hands and feet ready to spring into action just in case. He rapidly alternated his focus between the wolves and the woman to keep a close eye on the situation. So far, everything seemed okay when Kate readied the camera to her eye. When he felt his pounding heart slowing just a little, Jake decided he was ready to line up for his own special take, so he moved closer.
“Jake,” said Kate, whispering from behind. “Get out of my shot.”
Jake raised his finger up to signal her to wait. He didn’t want to screw this up, so he slowly dropped to one knee and placed his free hand in the snow until he found his center. Once he established the perfect angle, he placed his camera in hand and aimed for his target. His knees shook slightly under the pressure of his physical angle, combined with his uncertainty of what might happen if the wolves awoke. But danger often served as his calling card, and this scenario offered him nothing particularly new, so he held fast.
He breathed methodically as he adjusted the focus, watching as the quadruplets phased in and out of the viewfinder. But, when it came time for him to press the shutter button, nothing happened. Immediately he noticed his heart racing again.
This wasn’t the right time for a malfunction. He lowered his camera to see the torsos of the animals expanding and contracting but nothing else of their bodies coming to life. Slightly relieved by his safety, but on edge from his equipment failure, he checked the camera to see that it had remained on its previous shot. At that moment he was ready to smack himself for allowing such an unprofessional oversight to occur. He advanced the roll of film, then refocused his aim at the creatures. A moment later, he snapped a quick picture of the entire group.
But it was following that shot that the nearest wolf started to flinch. In response, Jake backed a few feet until he was right behind Kate.
“Take it quick,” he said. “I think they’re going to wake up soon.”
Kate took her shot. At first, Jake thought the clicking and whirring of the cameras might be the wakeup call that the animals needed. But fortunately, they were still in the clear, so Jake decided to get another, more interesting picture for himself.
“Okay we’ve got a couple good shots that we can both share,” Kate whispered, “so let’s go.”
“Wait one more moment,” Jake said. “I need the special shot.”
“No you don’t. You need to get us to safety.”
He looked her in the eye, but said nothing.
Jake carefully stepped his powdered boots into the icy stream, which went up only a little over his ankles, and he silently treaded water until he was practically in the heart of the wolves’ den. His teeth chattered under his breath as he felt the fierceness of the cold trickle up his legs and into his spine. But he pressed on because he knew his art was worth the pain. Once he figured he was near enough to get a close-up of all four wolves in his viewfinder, he slowly got down on his knees and held his position. Next, he focused on the wolf lying closest to him, which had its paw hanging listlessly over the water, and allowed for the others to have varying degrees of sharpness behind it. After he successfully and accurately framed the animals, he took the picture. The nearest wolf twitched its ears.
Deciding it was better not to give them a chance to smell him in their dreams, Jake acknowledged that he had gotten enough for the time being, so he started heading back. As he slowly approached Kate from the embankment, he noticed her mouth hanging open slightly. She kept pointing at the wolves, but didn’t say much. She squeaked. That was a bit unlike her really.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” she said, after a long hesitation, “I just can’t believe how close you got. What’s wrong with you?”
“You act like you’ve never seen that before.”
She struggled with her words before falling silent. When the next set of words finally escaped her lips, they poured forth with trembling.
“When you lay on your belly in the middle of a group of lemmings, that didn’t shock me. With this…”
Kate didn’t seem to have anything else to say, so she tossed her arms up in defeat and headed back to the helicopter.
Jake wasn’t sure if Kate had expected him to follow, but chances were pretty high that she did, so he rushed through his thoughts for an appropriate response. He decided at last that he would tell her that he wasn’t actually ready to leave yet. But, he didn’t want to yell since that would’ve wakened the wolves, and he didn’t want to chase after her to whisper in her ear because that would’ve been a wasted trip. So, he decided he would just keep her in suspense. Besides, he needed just one more picture. Deep down he knew he hadn’t gotten his special shot. As much as he would’ve liked to have taken his break from the jaws of danger, his heart wasn’t satisfied yet. The shot he had taken was merely the test shot, to see if he could get that close. He hadn’t gotten the one he really wanted, but he was going to now, while there was still time. So, he removed an apple he was saving for lunch from his pocket, and ate out a ring around it, leaving only the core.
Once again, he carefully treaded the water until he was close enough to smell the first wolf breathing. As he carefully examined the animal’s position, and the impact it would have on the world of calendars and photography, he noticed its nose twitching slightly and a little bit of drool coming from the side of its mouth. The sight made him realize that he needed speed to finish this.
He carefully placed the apple core in front of its mouth, trying very hard not to disturb anything, including the stream, and lined up his shot mentally. As he perfectly framed the image of sunlight reflecting off the red skin of the apple, Jake took caution to position himself in such a way that both the apple and the front half of the wolf were in sight. The angle he chose looked perfect, and not only did the apple get great lighting, but the wolf’s nose did, too. At last, he snapped the picture.
But this time, the click and whir of the camera emitted just enough noise to wake the wolf. This time, perhaps, he was too close.
Jake didn’t wait around long enough to analyze the situation. He didn’t know if it was just the one wolf that he had woken, or if he had woken them all. All he knew was that he heard hurried footfalls and heavy breathing rushing forcefully behind him—faster than his own hurried footfalls and heavy breathing—and he was determined to get away from it all very quickly. But he snapped a swift picture behind him anyway, just in case they all happened to be back there running with bloodlust.
He felt the first jaw closing around his pants before he had a chance to think of his next move. This was obviously not an angry muskox biting him. This was obviously not a creature that he could outrun. Even if he could, he didn’t really want it chasing him all the way to the helicopter, hopping in for a ride, and sticking its tongue out the window to taste the breeze. To him, he was content with kicking it away before it managed to bite all the way through his three layers of pants. But how he would accomplish that, he didn’t know. The beast seemed too angry to let him get away scot-free.
Fortunately, the next move came to him instead. When he managed to tune out the vicious sounds of dogs growling and teeth gnashing, he heard the chopping sounds of helicopter blades echoing from above. He looked up to see his ride coming straight for him.
As he struggled to kick the wolf away, he turned around to see the other wolves chasing after their packmate with a vengeance. To his relief, the helicopter reached him first. Kate leaned out the door and shouted for him to grab the skid bar as it approached within reaching distance.
Jake stretched for the skid, as the machine hovered steadily above him, and wrapped one elbow around the crosstube to anchor himself tightly. As it lifted off, the helicopter took both Jake and the wolf into the air.
Before they got more than a few feet off the ground, Jake freed up one hand to take a picture of the dangling beast. He snapped another shot as the wolf finally let go of his pant leg, sending itself falling into the soft, luscious snow below.
“Lovely show, my vicious friend,” he yelled. “You deserve chocolate for that juicy pose.”
Jake tried to catch his breath after his words escaped.
It took about a minute or so before the helicopter could safely touch down in a cleared snowfield. Once it neared the undisturbed ground, Jake let go of the skid bar and climbed back into the cabin. As he struggled his way into his seat, Kate quickly embraced him. Immediately, he found his tense body relaxing.
“If you ever do that again,” she said, “I won’t come back for you.”
As he let her words sink in, he found his body tensing up again. Somehow, in that moment, he believed he had finally understood her.