Lobo bounded across the frozen meadow, joy personified.
He rose up out of the white depths with each lunge, spattering snow on all sides, then plunged back into the snow to his chin.
I stood easily atop the snow, thanks to my big-brained cleverness and my brand new snowshoes, as he plowed through the drifts with a brute force undulation.
The sight of him laboring along gave me a guilty, but savorable pleasure.
You must understand this about Lobo: He’s solid muscle, but graceful as a ballet dancer. He can match paces with a greyhound, he can skip lightly over six-foot block walls. He makes me look like an animated sack of wheat. I’m jealous and pudgy and in my little wizened heart, not a generous person.
So I will admit this right up front: For the first time in our relationship he looked like the clumsy blunderer — and I had the undisputed advantage.
Lord: I love snowshoes.
I’d picked up my first-ever pair at Big 5, inspired by reporter Alexis Bechman’s ode to snowshoeing in last week’s edition. Then I packed Lobo in the Jeep for a jaunt to the Rim, figuring I’d finally give him a workout. On foot, I have to hike myself to death to make him break a sweat — except, of course, dogs don’t sweat.
But I finally had the advantage.
Of course, this seemed not to bother Lobo a whit.
He went bounding this way and that as I slogged along. He found the snow a source of endless discovery and fascination. For he had access to the secret world of snow, lost to me in my nifty snowshoes, with my dull ears and my useless nose — good only for dripping in the 15-degree cold.
In truth, a whole world scurries and squirms beneath the snow — which insulates everything beneath its shroud from the bitterness of wind. Snow remains mostly air, which hoards the heat in a lattice of ice crystals.
A whole ecosystem thrives beneath that insulated layer. Specialized algae, bacteria and fungi go about their secret business in the snow — which breathes in and out — a constant process of vapor exchange. These organisms hum along all winter, decomposing buried plant matter and sustaining an ecosystem of mites and spiders and species of insects blessed with natural antifreeze.
Those fungi, algae, insulated plants and insects in their turn sustain mice and shrews and squirrels, which live in burrows and tunnels along the underside of downed logs. And those squirrels and mice in their turn sustain foxes and coyotes and other eager creatures that pad through the snow ± stopping to sniff and listen for the furtive signs of life beneath the surface.
Wolves have long hunted happily in the snow, taking advantage of the distress of deer and elk. One study I read found that the deeper the snow, the better the hunting for wolves that live on deer. The wolves bound through the snow more readily than the fleet footed, sharp-hooved deer.
Recalling that conclusion, I stopped to watch Lobo cock his head alertly, then bury his cold, pointy nose in a snowdrift. He burrowed in, rooted about, but came up empty — his face frosted. He has a two-layer coat, which leaves drifts of hairballs in my living room twice a year — but that serves him well in the snow.
Lobo looked back, grinning ear to pointed ear, before bounding on ahead. He stopped at the base of a huge, old-growth ponderosa — its red, vanilla-scented bark deeply plated and vivid against the pure white of the snow. Lobo dug experimentally, then again buried his head. He emerged in triumph a moment later.
I shuffled forward to look.
Lobo had a mouth full of coyote scat.
“Good, grief, Lobo. Drop it,” I hollered.
He dropped it, not a bit abashed.
“What is it with you and coyote do-do?” I said.
He just grinned.
We mushed on for a couple of hours — all the way to a snatch-your-breath view from the edge of the Mogollon Rim, a perfect day in the unbroken snow. I stood in the buzzing silence, in the company of the dog that had followed me and my kind the 100,000 years since Homo sapiens departed Africa and set out to claim the world.
Then we turned and headed back to the car, Lobo as eager as ever, me growing tired.
I crunched through the snow, my smug sense of superiority waning.
“No telling what you’d do with snowshoes,” I said as he came up behind.
Just then, he stepped deftly on the back of my snowshoe.
I pitched head first into the snow.
I came up a sputtering. I put my arm out to rise — and sunk in the snow to my armpit. I floundered like a drowning man with brain damage, struggling to get my oversized feet under me. I got one foot half placed, but the edge of the snowshoe slid into the snow at an angle as I rose and I lurched sideways into a snowdrift. I rolled over on my back like a beached whale. I stared a moment at the startling blue sky, without a hint of upward leverage. So I flopped over onto my stomach. But when I kneeled to rise, my knees and hand plunged into the drift and I did another face-plant. Lobo must have figured I was looking for shrews. Finally, somehow, I rolled into a crouch, rose by sheer force of will and accumulated humiliation and floundered a couple of steps through the drift, flailing for my balance. I shivered, finally unsteadily upright.
Lobo sat at a distance with his head cocked, trying to make sense of the game.
I gathered up my frozen dignity.
“What are you looking at?” I demanded.
He grinned, but said nothing.
“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Well. I’m not the one eating coyote crap,” I added haughtily.
He grinned, turned and bounded off through the snow, the world made new — and delightfully full of scat.