Day dawns and an unnamed man diverges from the heavily traveled Yukon trail for a lesser traveled trail that goes through the pine forest.
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning, cloudless, but there is no sun.
“He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.”
The man thinks about the terrain of the Yukon, then shrugs it off, the cold, no sun, all the snow. This is his first winter, and it had no effect on him because he was a man of doing, not a man of imagination and forethought.
It is was 50 degrees below zero, 80 degrees of frost, but he cares not and has set out anyway. He tries to spit and by the way it freezes he can tell it is colder than 50 below.
The man is traveling to meet “the boys.” They are at the old camp. At the rate he is going the man thinks he will reach the camp by 6 that evening.
A dog is following with the man.
“It was a wolf dog, gray-coated and not noticeably different from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was worried by the great cold. It knew that this was no time for traveling. Its own feeling was closer to the truth than the man’s judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than 50 below zero; it was colder than 60 below, than 70 below. It was 75 below zero. Because the freezing point is 32 above zero, it meant that there were 107 degrees of frost. “
The dog is uneasy to be traveling at such a low temperature but because man can make fire and the dog has grown accustomed to a luxury like fire and craves fire he goes with the man.
He travels through the forest and then goes down and travels on the Frozen creek. He does some time calculations and plans to eat at the end of the creek.
He sees the imprints of sleds and knows that no sled has been on the trail for a month.
“The man went steadily ahead. He was not much of a thinker. At that moment he had nothing to think about except that he would eat lunch at the stream’s divide and that at six o’clock he would be in camp with the boys.”
He hears a crack in the creak and is put on high alert. It would be disastrous if he got wet. He studies the creek and the part where the break may be, then continues walking. For the next two hours he travels on making the dog go ahead of him. At one point the dog falls into the ice. The man helps the dog get the ice off of it.
At noon he arrives exactly where he said he would and so eats his lunch. But his hands are frozen, and he can’t eat.
“He had forgotten to build a fire and warm himself. He laughed at his own foolishness. As he laughed, he noted the numbness in his bare fingers. Also, he noted that the feeling which had first come to his toes when he sat down was already passing away. He wondered whether the toes were warm or whether they were numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numb.”
The man makes a fire from the wood of the forest. He melts the ice on his face, then he heats his lunch. The dog warms itself by the fire as best it can, and the man smokes a pipe.
“The dog was sorry to leave and looked toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly none of his ancestors had known cold, real cold. But the dog knew, and all of its family knew. And it knew that it was not good to walk outside in such fearful cold. It was the time to lie in a hole in the snow and to wait for this awful cold to stop. There was no real bond between the dog and the man. The one was the slave of the other. “
He continues walking, seeing that there aren’t any weak spots in the ice he walks. But then he breaks through the ice and is wet to his knees. He curses his luck and at the delay. He needs to build another fire. He knows he can’t fail at building this fire, he will die if he doesn’t get dry. Because he isn’t moving, he is feeling all the weight of the cold on him. He knows he’ll probably lose a toe. Then he remembers a man from one camp saying that no man should travels in weather below fifty alone. He scoffs at that saying that he had saved himself.
“All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.”
He mocks the cowardice of the man that gave him the advice, but then snow from the tree above squelches the fire. The man is shocked, and he realizes the man from camp was right. He should have had a companion. He needs to build another fire. He is very cold now and can barely get feeling in his extremities even after beating them and swinging them. He drops the matches and can’t light them. He tries lighting them with his teeth, but he drops them.
“The old man on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that followed. After 50 below zero, a man should travel with a companion. “
He gets a start of a fire going but it dies out. He is screwed. The man looks at the dog and remembers a story about a man killing an animal and sheltering in its corpse. He calls the dog and tries to kill it but can’t because he is too cold. The dog runs a distance away and watches him.
“A certain fear of death came upon him. He realized that it was no longer a mere problem of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet. Now it was a problem of life and death with the circumstances against him”
He runs. He thinks maybe if he runs far enough, he can make it to camp. He sits to rest because his strength is failing him. He has no feeling whatsoever. The dog is with him and he is angry that the dog is warm. The man realizes he is a fool and that he will die.
“He was certain to freeze in his present circumstances, and he should accept it calmly. With this newfound peace of mind came the first sleepiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep his way to death. Freezing was not as bad as people thought. There were many worse ways to die.”
He admits to the man from camp that he was right. He lays down into the most comfortable sleep he has ever known and dies. The dog watches the man for a while, howls, then leaves to search out other men who can provide the dog with food and fire.