Off To Tunkan!

Trekking down the mountain was only a little easier than climbing it. Tun had loaded the racing sled on the cargo sled, then packed necessities for the trip. The load was lighter than the haul of provisions, but the trail was still unforgiving. In places, there were mud holes, and in others, running water. Large expanses of bedrock, normally covered with snow, now lay bare. Dragging the sled across bare bedrock was the worst, they all agreed. After squeezing through the last gap in the granite outcroppings, the team was finally off the mountain, and wound their way along a regular trail, though it was still punctuated with puddles and patches of mud. As they crossed Silver Creek, they turned right at the fork, and the entire team became very excited to be on the last leg to Tunkan and the Summer Festival.

The sky was overcast and gray, and the temperature quite mild. A light breeze blew perpendicular to the path. Most of this section of the trail rode across the foot, the vast leading edge of a great glacier that poured its way down a wide, sloping valley. The solid, compacted snow and ice was topped with a thin layer of wet snow, and the sled glided along as if it was empty. Sasha was anxious and curious to see what all the fuss was about. To finally see the Summer Festival she’d heard about so often. The team was rigged in pairs, with Dak free-leading the team without a harness. Beside Sasha was Alexei, and she inquired as they mushed along about the big event and their destination.

“It’s the craziest thing.” Alexei described the festival from the previous summers he’d attended. “It looks like a big mating ritual. People come from all around. But all the males have fun and work together instead of fighting for the best mates. Then they do the dogsled races. My favorite part.”

“I’ve never been.” Sasha offered, “What’s a race like?”

“That’s another weird thing they do. Not just at Festival, but every race. It would be easier if we all started at once, know what I mean, then said ‘First one to that tree is the winner.’. Instead, they start a team ahead of you and make you wait. Then when they say ‘Go!’, you spend the whole time trying to catch up to the team ahead of you. If you catch up, you pass them, and then try to catch the next team.”

“That sounds confusing.” Sasha tried to imagine the concept. “So it’s more like tag. Just catch the one ahead of you.”

“Maybe, yeah. I guess if you pass everyone you’re the winner, but it doesn’t seem fair to the teams that start later.”

“Maybe I’ll understand better after I see it.”

“Sometimes there’s no understanding people.” Alexei continued with an air of ponderous curiosity, “After they race, no matter who they call the winner, they’re all happy and go around hugging one another. Honestly, I’m not sure what the race is for. Maybe it’s just play to them.”

A whiff of wood smoke wafted across the trail, disrupting their conversations as they sampled the scent. Right behind it was the smell of food cooking.

“We’re getting close!” Alexei exclaimed.

A few minutes later, after a couple of turns and a rise in the trail, distant sounds of activity drifted to the team. Dogs barking, drivers calling commands, an occasional shout or outburst of laughter. This raised the team’s excitement further, and they all began to wag and bark, picking up the pace of their steps. They rounded the last turn of the trail, and ahead of them, Tunkan came into view.  Though yet a mile distant, it could be seen to be teeming with life and activity. Dozens of people, dozens of sled teams, small herds of reindeer, yarangas and tents and plumes of smoke from campfires spread across the small village.

The team was ready to sprint to the action, but Tun called for them to halt, still far down the trail from the gathering. Here, he moved rapidly, talking to the dogs as he worked. He carefully unloaded and took down the racing sled, and placed it on the trail. He pulled out a large leather bag, and took from it a long gang line, for seven dogs in tandem. Sasha looked to see the line was embellished along its entire length with colors and patterns, the same repeating pattern that could be seen on the sled. Next, Tun began to pull out harnesses. Each one looked like the one Sasha had seen Tun finishing in the Lodge Trail lean-to, and she now noticed the same repeating color pattern in these as well.

One by one, Tun would take a dog from the gang line of the cargo sled. He’d remove their everyday, ordinary brown leather harness and place the decorated one on the dog, then hitch it up to the racing sled gang line. Sasha wondered how long she and Anchu would need to be part of the team before they, too, were awarded such honors; the fancy harness, joining the team in the race. The dogs grew impatient, their destination now in sight, the smells permeating the air. They barked and bounced and hopped and pawed one another as Tun quickly yet methodically rigged the team. At last he came to Sasha, and unhooked her tug line. He spoke softly to her as he removed her harness and held out one that matched the others. She noted the embroidered symbols and could not read them, but swore they bore resemblance to those painted over her doghouse at one time, symbols representing her own name. She suddenly felt warm and happy all over, as if she’d been crowned queen of the ball. Brother Anchu was also dressed in the finery of his own personalized harness. As Tun placed it on Anchu, he looked with great affection into the giant man’s eyes. Somehow, he stood a little straighter, a little taller. Suddenly, plain old little Anchu looked majestic. It was almost magic.

Dak was called in and hooked at the lead, and when all the dogs were hitched to the elaborate racing sled, Tun removed his fur parka. He stuffed it in the bag of the cargo sled, and retrieved a smooth tan leather jacket. It was black with use all down the front, at the cuffs of the sleeves, and on the elbows. Despite these signs of age, the jacket was an exquisite work of art worthy of the racing sled. Colored paintings, fringes and decorations adorned it, and it bore the same repeating color pattern of the sled bindings, the gang line, and the dogs’ harnesses. When finished, Tun took a few steps back to take in the sled in its entirety. His ever-present smile stretched across his face, gleaming out beneath his bright eyes, sparkling with enthusiasm.

Sasha felt regal, resplendent in her finely crafted harness, hitched to this showpiece sled and beautiful team. The dogs could not contain themselves, and they barked and whined and jumped about in their anxiousness.

“Ready?” Tun asked, and a chorus of barks answered as all dogs faced forward. Tun climbed onto the runners of the small racing sled and called for the team to go. They bolted down the trail swiftly, the light sled no burden, eager to see all the activity ahead. Just at the edge of the village, Tun called for the team to slow, and go easy into the main thoroughfare, lined on both sides by onlookers. He lifted his shoulders and squared them, struck a statuesque pose, and smiled his bright, infectious smile for all to see.

Sasha’s head began to swing from side to side. People, dogs, reindeer and sleds were everywhere. From immediately behind her she was suddenly startled by a loud, shouting bark, and for a moment she could hardly believe it was quiet brother Anchu. She turned to look and saw his chest puffed out with pride, his snout slightly raised to the sky. He called out loudly, boldly, and confidently, as if he were the leader.

“Chukchi Sister!” came his call, and with it, heads turned to look at the team.

Without thinking, Sasha automatically answered in the same loud voice, “Chukchi Brother!”. More heads turned. The Original Five joined in, and all seven on the team called out in unison.

“Lift your head!

Proud for Mother!”

Conversations ceased, and it seemed a hush fell over the entire village as all turned to see the spectacle. The team appeared to bark in unison as their rugged and ornate driver stood tall on the runners. Seven stately dogs lifted their heads, tossed back their shoulders, swelled their chests, and pranced proudly before the crowd in a perfect line, eyes fixed forward.

Murmurs and pointing began as every witness was mesmerized by and enthralled with this beautiful team, their intricately detailed harnesses, their exquisite sled, and their handsome driver.

Sasha recalled a time so long ago, at the Trading Post in Dezhnevo, when she saw such a team. Beautiful proud decorated Huskies strode through the settlement like royalty, exuding power and grace in every step. It was then she realized that all the people and dogs and maybe reindeer, too, now looked at her team with that same awe.

“It’s Tun” she heard a voice say. Then another. The murmurings and pointings were peppered with the name, “Tun. It’s Tun!”, as the murmurs grew louder, smiles grew wider, and the village began to boil with excitement.

The team repeated their rallying cry, louder and more enunciated, in rhythm with their step.

“Chukchi Sister!

Chukchi Brother!

Lift your head!

Proud for Mother!”

“Here we come!” Dak continued, “Second to none! Ready to race! Proud for Tun!”

The other six gleefully picked up the call and repeated through the length of the village, “Proud for Tun! Proud for Tun! Proud for Tun!”

Tun’s huge frame swelled further with pride, as he turned his eyes skyward. As Sasha looked back, she could see he held in his hand another harness, fancifully decorated in the same fashion as her own. On it, lovingly embroidered letters she could not read spelled out Willow.

Above the giant man’s beaming smile, beneath his shining eyes, fell a single tear.

2 thoughts on “Off To Tunkan!”

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