Flakes of snow floated from the gray sky and settled on Addie’s old red baseball cap. Her eyes were cast skyward under the cap’s peak, narrowed at the weather, which was getting worse by the moment. It should have been in the low sixties, but the temperature was below forty and dropping steadily. The pass through which the road to her camp wound was likely already under two feet of snow, possibly more, and she was too many miles away from a snow plow to count.
This was bad.
She’d driven her truck out well past where the real roads ended a couple of weeks earlier, planning to observe the early to mid-fall migration patterns of deer in the remote Alaskan valley. The weather was supposed to be good, and it had been—until now.
“Dammit,” she swore to herself as she retreated back inside her tent. She tried the radio again. It crackled with static and nothing much else. Something had gone wrong with it days earlier, so she hadn’t gotten the weather report that had heralded this early winter storm—if there had been one.
She had thermal underwear and snow pants, but they weren’t doing a thing for her. She shivered and wrapped herself in her sleeping bag. It was cold, but she knew it could get much, much colder if the storm continued to blow up the way it was. It had been snowing for hours already and instead of getting lighter, it was getting heavier, driven on winds that were now buffeting the sides of her tent, making them billow close to her as the cold seeped through.
Addie set to work gathering every piece of warming material she had until she was a short, somewhat round figure inside the puffy layers of her bedding. All that could be seen were gray eyes peering out over the top of the sleeping bag, and a few tufts of blond hair sticking out from under her hat.
They’d advised her against coming out this far alone, but Addie had insisted she’d be alright. It was just a few weeks in the woods. She’d been camping since she was a kid and had done many field trips over the course of her studies, always in the Alaska wilds, and most of the time alone. She was famous for it at the university where at twenty-five, she was one of the youngest professors ever to receive tenure on the strength of her research.
As the day drew darker and colder, Addie began to regret what had now turned out to be a mistake. She had funding for a month of study in Alaska. It was September and snow wasn’t due until October. Pity nobody had told the snow that.
With little in the way of heating aside from the campfire that was now completely doused, and with her truck already half buried in the white deluge, it was all Addie could do to try to make sure she survived the dumping. The snow around her tent would act like insulation, up to a certain point, but it could also collapse the whole thing entirely if she was unlucky. She’d chosen an elevated place for her camp, on a ridge a little way beneath some small mountains. The area she was in was rife with ridges, ranges, and valleys that cut the vast landscape into what felt like more manageable chunks for study.
Though the nearby woods were obviously inhabited by at least one wolf pack and several bears, Addie instinctively felt that she was in more danger now, sitting in her tent, than she had been at almost any other time since her arrival. At least bears and wolves could be frightened away with a shotgun or pepper spray. The snow wasn’t going to be put off by either of those things.
The soft sound of the snow falling was deceptively peaceful. Sitting on her little camp stretcher, Addie looked up at the yellow peak of her tent as it grew darker with growing layers of snow. She knew she was risking being buried if she didn’t move soon, but where on earth could she move? The truth was, even though she was lying still, looking calm as a Buddha, she was panicking and the cold was already making her stupid. She knew a dozen survival strategies, none of which she remembered as the tent pole began to arch and strain under the weight of the snow. In a matter of seconds, the crisis that had been brewing for hours came to a head. The tent began to close in around her and Addie was forced to bolt for the flap, her heavy gloves struggling with the zipper. Outside the tent, the snow had already built up to her chest. She had to climb and crawl her way out of the campsite and then run through freezing snow, sinking in almost up to her waist with every other step. It took almost twenty minutes to reach higher ground on the mountainside and duck shivering into a cave that appeared out of the sleet almost magically. She’d never noticed it before, hidden among the rocky crags. If she hadn’t been running right past it, its yawning dark entrance obvious amid the white of the snow, she might never have seen it.
Her teeth chattering, Addie stood inside the mouth of the cave and looked out where all was covered with a picturesque blanket of white. A blanket that had claimed her camp and all her supplies as well. She had escaped the collapse of her tent, but that had not left her in a good position. She was now without food, without any source of heat, tired from fighting the snow, and facing an almost certain death. All because she’d made a dumb decision. Nature was merciless when it came to stupidity. It took all her energy to sink down on the floor of the cave, near the wall, out of the worst of the wind. This could very well be her last night on earth, and she was too tired to be afraid.
A soft growl in the rear of the cave should have sent her screaming for her life, but she didn’t have the energy to scream or run anymore. She curled up in a nook of the cave wall, closed her eyes, and hoped that whatever was growling would leave her alone, knowing that was unlikely. She was a soft, meaty thing in an area of the wild where much of the prey had been gone for weeks. Her rational mind knew that she was in serious trouble. Her instinct made her curl up as small as she could and stay as still as she could.
She heard the shuffling of something heavy and large coming nearer, heard the heavy footfalls of a great beast. In the dark of her eyelids, she could imagine well enough what it was—a bear, likely preparing for a long winter’s slumber, disturbed in its preparations for hibernation by one last tasty morsel.
Addie was too exhausted to be terrified, or maybe she had entered a mental place beyond terror. The instinct that makes a mouse freeze in front of a cat or a deer balk in headlights had taken over. She did not make a move or a sound as the bear approached her slowly and sniffed her with its large, wet nose. She felt the hot breath of the beast on her chilled cheek as it huffed her scent. She braced herself for the crushing bite that would surely come next, but to her surprise, it did not. The bear turned around, and to her great surprise, lay down. She felt the impact of the beast as its bulk came to a sudden rest on the ground next to her, so close to her that its back was pressed against her.
Part of her mind was insisting she run away from this dangerous predator. Another, more simple part was noticing that this bear, more than its bulk and muscle and teeth and fangs… was warm. In that moment, warmth meant more than anything else on the planet. Her body gravitated toward it with an instinct that was in direct opposition to common sense, and didn’t care at all. She was like a moth to a flame as she curled up at the bear’s flank and lost consciousness in that precarious position, not knowing if she would ever wake again.