Sasha pulled hard at her harness, eager to catch up with the team ahead in the race. She’d smelled her beloved Jiak, and was so excited to see him she wanted to sprint.
“Come on! Let’s go!” she said, looking rapidly at her team mates, then again to the trail ahead, “I’m anxious to see Jiak!”
“Hold on Sash’,” Dak called from the lead, “we need to pace ourselves along here before we get to the bog.” Dak referred to the Spruce Bog through which the trail wended, and into which the team ahead could now be seen disappearing.
“No! No! Not now! We can catch them!”
“We’ll catch them soon enough.” Dak replied, “We’re making great time.”
“But I want to see him now!” Sasha again tried impulsively to run, only to be halted by the harness and the team. She stared ahead at the place where the team had disappeared from sight, and let out a whimper.
“What’s going on up there?” Tatiana called out over the team, having noticed Sasha’s behavior, “Easy now. Easy”
Sasha’s stomach felt funny. It seemed to sink and pull at her innards, and made her want to cry out. Now that Jiak was so close, she realized how much she had missed him. She had pushed it out of her mind with all the activity since leaving the Homestead. There was the new team to acquaint herself with, a new home at the Lodge to explore, trekking to the Festival, preparing for the race.
“Quit yanking the line.” came the gruff and direct bark from Larik.
“But we can go faster! What are you guys doing? Pull!” Sasha dug in, hopped, barked. She strained against her harness, yanked repeatedly on the gang line and her neck line, trying to drag six dogs, a sled and a woman down the trail by herself.
The rest of the team maintained their steady gait, eyes on the trail ahead, breathing deeply but steadily, readying for the challenge of the bog. Being unable to run to Jiak only doubled Sasha’s longing to see him, her pain and pining emitted as loud, long repeated whimpers. The strain of all her pulling began to take its toll in the form of painful leg muscles, deep and rapid panting, breathless exertions.
Clarity came to her as suddenly as waking does. Just as there is darkness and dreaming in the world of sleep, instantly supplanted by light as eyes open and brain awakes. Of a sudden, she could see the whole team, as if flying above, in a dream.
Dak, Stone, Alexei, Anchu, Umka and Larik were trotting to the same gait, their eyes fixing on each footfall as it approached. Their minds silenced in concentration, their only sounds their breath and step. One foot on the runner at the back of the sled, Tati pushed off with the other in a relaxed rhythm, her eyes fixed like the dogs’ on the trail, darting left and right as she picked a course and made constant corrections. Blood had dripped from the gash above her eye, and was now dried like paint across her cheek and down her neck. She was smeared, front and back, head to toe, with streaks of mud, her hair a disheveled tangle with bits of sticks stuck in it. The dogs were wet and muddy up to their bellies after the creek crossing and the hill climb.
And there, in the middle of it all, dead center of the gang line, one character stood out from the others. She was leaping and barking, not quietly concentrating. She was pulling and straining, not resting up. While the rest of the team, Tati included, concentrated all efforts toward a mutual goal, this one dog in the middle was consumed with her own thoughts and desires. Totally disregarding the team’s progress, well-being, and success.
Sasha immediately halted her antics, realizing her offense, and looked to the other dogs as she fell into place in the line. She sniffed the air, seeking Jiak’s scent on the wind. It was not to be found. Her stomach sank again, and she felt sad.
“We’ll see them back at the village.” Alexei offered.
“What do you mean?” Sasha inquired.
“At the Festival race, we go all the way around this course which takes us back where we started. The race finishes back in Tunkan.”
Sasha could not quite make sense of that. Any time she’d pulled a dogsled, except training, the purpose was to go from one place to the next. Alas, knowing she would be able to see Jiak and her old team made her want to finish the race and get back there.
“Can’t we go faster?” her request now more a question than demand.
“Can’t run through a bog.” came Dak’s reply from the lead.
Sasha resigned herself to the fact that she could not commandeer the team to do her bidding. She remembered again one of the first lessons Mother had taught her about teamwork. How one must put the team’s goals and needs ahead of one’s own. She lowered her head and concentrated on the trail, her breathing still heavy from all her exertions. As they entered the Spruce Bog, they saw the trail to be very rough. It was unusually warm prior to Festival this year, and so the course was wetter than usual, and the trail had many bare spots. In the bog were mud holes and swampy patches, deadfalls across the trail. At one place, the teams before them had bypassed a large tree trunk that blocked the path by hacking through the brush and going around it.
Tati was off the runners from the moment they reached the woods’ edge. The sled banged and bounced and hopped over tree limbs, and slogged through mud holes. As they made their way along, barely faster than a walk, the sled struck a sturdy branch protruding from the mud, and lurched to a stop. The dogs strained and pulled, Tati pushing at the back, but the thing was immovable.
“Hold up! Whoa. Hold up.” Tati called the team to cease their efforts. She walked to the front of the sled through ankle-deep water, but still could not see what anchored the team. She pulled up at the front, but the sled wouldn’t budge. She called for the dogs to pull as she yanked up on the front of the sled. They dug in and yanked at the gang line, but the sled never moved. Tatiana returned to the back, stood on the left runner and pulled to raise the right. Her efforts met with solid resistance, the sled still stuck. She tried rocking it to the right and it moved a little.
The clock was ticking, the race continued, and Tati was anxious to get the sled freed and back on the trail. She moved to the side of the sled, flipped it up onto its side. It was then she saw the limb, which had wedged itself between a runner and the sled frame. She pulled at the branch and a piece broke off in her hand, Tati falling backwards, landing in a sitting position in the muddy water. She laughed out loud at this.
“I’ll be quite a mess by the time we get back to Tunkan.” she said to the dogs, picking herself up and returning to yanking on the limb. It was wedged securely, and it took another minute or two to free the entanglement. They could hear the barking of the team behind them approaching the Spruce Bog.
“Alright!” Tati shouted, “Back on the run you dogs!”
“You can’t run through a bog.” Dak repeated, as the team got underway.