Well, in my rereading of all the Kjelgaard books on my shelf, I saved my two favorites for last. Wild Trek is possibly the first Kjelgaard book I ever read – either this one or Lion Hound, both of which were at my grandma’s house when I was a little girl. While Lion Hound had my dad’s name scrawled on the frontispiece, my hardcover of Wild Trek (that Grandma gave me) is a Scholastic Book Club edition with “Cedar Heights School” stamped inside: my grandma’s mother was a schoolteacher at Cedar Heights, and this was one of her books.
As a girl, Wild Trek completely enamored me. Later, though, I discovered that it was actually a sequel! Snow Dog is the first in this duology starring Link Stevens and his half-wild dog, Cheri. Snow Dog opens with the introduction of a huge black wolf.
As large as a Great Dane, the wolf was in his battle-scarred prime. His ears were ripped and torn from a thousand fights. A ragged scar that ran from the base of his left ear to his left shoulder had grown in to pure white hair.
Kjelgaard goes on to tell us the scar was earned when a man shot at the wolf and almost killed him. That shot granted the wolf a deep hatred of men and their dogs, and when opportunity presented itself – the wolf killed a man. Now the leader of a pack, the black wolf still hates men, and though he sees few of them in his wilderness, he knows that he would kill again if he had the chance.
Our next scene is of Link traipsing to his winter cabin in the wilderness (presumably in Canada somewhere) with his five pack dogs. The newest addition to his team, Queen, is a large dog – “a hundred-pound female whose outlines suggested a strong dash of both Husky and Irish wolfhound,” and she is due to give birth to a litter of puppies any day. Link, a young man who makes his living by running traplines, is determined to win Queen’s confidence and affection, but she is still aloof and wary, thanks to a long history of harsh masters, one of whom killed her last litter of puppies. Of course, Link doesn’t know the details of Queen’s past, but he has every intention of helping her raise her pups, as he believes that they can become valuable trail dogs as well. However, deciding that she cannot trust him, Queen runs away that night, while Link is asleep. She gives birth to her three puppies under a windfall far off the trail, and although Link searches for her, he is unable to find her and is forced to continue down the trail to his winter cabin.
As the story unwinds, we follow the birth and life of one of Queen’s puppies. Eventually, when he is introduced into Link’s life, he is given the name Cheri, after the man Cherikov – the man the black wolf killed. As a puppy, the black wolf kills Cheri’s mother and brothers, but Cheri is able to escape. Throughout the tale, we know that Cheri and the wolf will someday face each other – and that only one will live.
Kjelgaard weaves an excellent wilderness story – in my mind, one of his very best. Link is one of Kjelgaard’s most personable characters. I didn’t want to marry Link when I was a girl – I wanted to be Link. I was so jealous of his wilderness life!
Cheri’s story is fantastic, as he grows and learns to survive in the wilderness on his own. When he finally gives his allegiance to Link, it’s beautiful. The story is engrossing and intriguing. Unlike many of his books, Kjelgaard manages to avoid rambling at length about the importance of wilderness preservation, instead letting the actions of his characters speak for themselves. Snow Dog is a story all the way through, with minimal dialogue. Kjelgaard never gives speech or human motives to his animal characters. While intelligent, neither Cheri nor the black wolf are capable of using human logic, and neither possesses human emotions. Both act and react as animals, which makes for an excellent wilderness story.
Wild Trek opens shortly after the end of Snow Dog. A ranger appears in the wilderness, riding up to Link’s cabin. He has a broken arm, as he was thrown from his horse along the way, but he is determined to continue on his assignment. A plane has gone down even deeper in the wilderness than Link travels, in a region known as the Caribous. Fly-overs have been unable to locate the plane’s wreckage or signs of survivors, but every opportunity for rescue must be given to the two men aboard the plane, which means that this ranger has been sent to see if he can find them – dead or alive.
Since the ranger can’t really continue on his way with his broken arm, Link insists on going in his place. Link takes Cheri along – wilderness-wise, Cheri is intelligent and can hunt for himself if necessary. Link loads up a pack for himself and one for Cheri and heads into the Caribous.
Like I said, Wild Trek was my first Kjelgaard book, and I can’t even tell you how many times I read it as a kid. I was completely enraptured by this tale of survival. When Link finds the survivors, the pilot, Garridge, has a head injury that has left him somewhat a few screws loose, while Trigg Antray, his passenger, has injured his back in someway that makes it difficult for him to climb or walk for long distances. When Garridge goes completely off the deep and steals the supplies and Link’s rifle, Link, Antray, and Cheri have to work together to try and survive much as “primitive” man must have done.
Antray is an entertaining character, quick-witted and intelligent, and provides a counter-balance for Link’s more steady and practical outlook on their situation. This story is a little more human-based as the two men have to work together to survive and escape from the Caribous. With crazy Garridge lurking about with a rifle, the story is more intense than many Kjelgaard’s adventures, and is a thoroughly readable story. I enjoyed it just as much as an adult as I ever did in my youth. Even when Link and Antray are fighting for their very lives, Kjelgaard manages to paint the wilderness as a beautiful and wonderful place – a place where your survival and success is based on your intelligence and adaptability.
I highly recommend both Snow Dog and Wild Trek as quick and easy reads that are full of adventure – intelligently written and engaging stories that make for excellent reading.