“Hexagonal-pored polypores, ink caps, the slimy spike, larch bolete… rosy gomphidius…” The voice carries mysteriously over the grey water — a deep voice, musical in its intonation. The earthy, sticky words float, filling my head with new shapes and colours. Dreams of dirt and damp swamp the space between us, of hunting the forest in search of mushrooms growing in secret among the moss and bears.
The four strange heads bob before me; their features are blurred but I can make out one beard dripping lazily in the water and the black mark of a tattoo on an upper arm. Like a barbershop quartet they giggle at different pitches then bawl “jelly ear!” all together, completing the in-joke of which I am ignorant. I lean back into the hot water and float under centuries-old trees, allowing my eyes to refocus on the few stars weakly twinkling above our heads. It’s two in the morning but in the land of the midnight sun it feels like dusk. The distinct stench of sulphur hovers in the steamy air, clinging to my nostrils and I wonder if I’ve unsuspectingly fallen into a Beckett play.
Out of the hot spring and into the cool breeze — which pricks the skin into a blanket of goosebumps and draws gasps from my lungs — as we make a dash for our towels. Daniel wraps his plaid mac jacket over my shoulders and I can’t resist laughing at how stereotypically Canadian it all seems. We reel in the satisfaction of coming so far. The North: strong and free. For miles, in all directions, pine and cedar spread their branches out. For a moment, the sun skims below the distant line of the horizon but in 20 minutes she will rise again and later the trees will bask in her warm glow.
We make our way through the path towards our tent. All is quiet. A snap disturbs the silence less than five metres away and my breath catches in my throat.
Through the canopy of the trees a little moonlight glows on a large shadow. Our bodies stand frozen to the spot, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves. The body of the beast is awkward, huge with great big antlers. It’s careful not to scrape them against the bark of the tree as it bends down to munch on something in the moss. When it’s extraordinary head lifts it sees us gawping ungracefully back at him. We are held together in that instant and it feels significant: woman and beast caught in a staring contest at the end of the world.
From further up the trail, voices and music become audible as the drunken strangers stagger towards us not knowing the magic that bursts just moments from where they step. The moose, afraid, bends its antlers away and clumsily retreats into the darkness. Daniel and I stand a moment longer in awe at the beautiful creature.
The winner of the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Travel Writing Competition 2017 will be announced on natgeotraveller.co.uk on Friday 18 August