Sasha and the team waged their battle against the spruce forest, slogging through ankle-deep water and dragging the ornate racing sled over rocks and logs. In several places, the water was so deep that brush was laid across it like a straw bed, serving as a bridge of sorts.
Tatiana began to feel the discomfort of wet clothing. Between the drag up the hill, marching through bog water, and falling into it, she was soaked from the waist down. Her upper body was wet with mud and the perspiration under her coat, the results of the strenuous work required of the bog. Her legs were beginning to tire and ache, and she was relieved to see the meadow beyond the spruce trees as they banged their way through the last arduous stretch of swampy trail.
When they had finally cleared the bog and were once again on firm ground, Tati stopped the team for inspection. She flipped the sled onto its side to check for any signs of trouble; sticks or debris, damage to the frame or runners. “One thing this sled is not,” she said aloud to the team, “and that’s delicate!” She proceeded forward, and starting with the safety line, continued up the gang line, checking every connection. She fussed a little over each dog as she made her way up the line, checked their harness and neck line, then took a look at their paws. This continued at a rapid but unhurried pace until she reached Dak. Tati was pleased to find all the gear and dogs to be in good condition.
“Good job, you guys!” she smiled and fluffed the top of each dog’s head as she passed. In return, they lifted their heads to welcome her hand, and wagged their happy wags. Tati looked up to the grey sky, then to the Spruce Bog behind them. She looked at the trail before them, over the top of seven heads eager to get underway, eyeing her, ready for instant response to her command.
It was a beautiful place to be, Tati thought to herself, and made a brief account of the richness before her. The panorama of spruces and the mountains beyond. The healthy and strong team. The smell of the summer air, infused with evergreen and mud. Here on the trail, running the race. “No place I would rather be.” she said as she grabbed the back bow.
“Eik! Eik! Eik!” she shouted rapidly, and pushed hard up the slight grade covered with a thin layer of snow. “We have a race to win!”
In spite of the rigors of the bog, the dogs were somewhat rested from the near-walking pace of it. They broke into a fast gallop, and were relieved and reinvigorated to return to open trail. The excitement and exhilaration of running the race once again consumed their consciousness. Sasha’s thoughts of Jiak went out of her head for a while, as the team worked smoothly together, swiftly reaching the top of the rise.
From the crest of the ridge, the descent was steep. A sharp, near-vertical drop through a harrowing conglomeration of huge boulders and ancient spruce trees. The trail cut into the side of the hill snaked its way down through four switchbacks to accommodate the elevation. Tatiana sprinted the team into the turns, slowing just enough to make it around one hundred eighty degrees on the wet layer of snow. She’d lean off to the side, raising the outboard runner, leaning into the turn like a downhill skier. Exiting the turn, she’d shout her repeating commands to go as she jumped to the ground and pushed until the dogs were moving faster than she.
Between the third and fourth turns, on the straight stretch, Tati saw an opening between a boulder and a tree, and noted it was a clear shortcut to the last stretch of switchbacks, below them. She thought the narrow racing sled could just squeeze through. “Haw! Haw!” she called out to the team, dragging her right foot.
Dak couldn’t understand the command, nor how or why the team would quit a straight trail and drive into trees. After a few metered steps, he came to a stop, looking over his shoulder at Tati, with a bark and whine that conveyed his consternation. She jumped from the runners and ran the length of the sled and the team to place her hand on Dak’s neck.
“This way. Come on!” she led the dogs to the gap. “Hold up, now. Hold up!” she said to Dak and the team, raising her mitted hand, reinforcing the command to stay. She didn’t want the team to begin the descent without her on the sled to hold the brake down. Without braking, lines would slack and bunch up, and the sled would run over the dogs. If they fell and rolled on the steep hill, it would surely mean injury and mangled gear, a gauntlet of rocks and trees bordering the narrow cut. Once she had a hand hold on the back bow, Tatiana called for the team to go “Ahead Easy”, and as the sled started down the bank she jumped onto the runners.
The grade was so steep, the team more or less fell down it on their feet, making footholds and movements more to slow themselves than propel a sled. The randomness of each individual dog’s reactions and interpretations of the speed and terrain caused them to bunch here and there, to bump one another, or cause a jerk on the gang line for the one ahead. At one point, the sled crowding him, Larik actually jumped up onto Alexei, who was blocking the path. This caused Alexei to lose footing and stumble, which caused the gang line to tighten and yank on Umka’s harness. Several similar chain reactions occurred up and down the gang line, the sticky snow and an occasional stick flying upwards and outwards from the scrambling team.
Tati was now standing on the mat brake, placing her other foot on the ground, fighting gravity to maintain control of the sled. In some places she hopped her free foot over entanglements, and in others she let it slide along the surface like a ski. It was the hill itself that called the pace now, and the team and driver could only react and respond as quickly as possible to manage it.
Down, down, down the steep grade they rapidly fell until at last they broke out of the brush and onto the trail. “Haw! Haw!” Tati tried to get the team to make the right-angle turn onto the switchback, and she leaned hard, but the momentum of the sled would not be slowed. The runner dug into the ground and the sled rolled over, all the way around until the runners slammed down onto the trail, the sled upright. Tati was still clinging to the back bow, standing on the runners, when it came to rest. The look on her face of surprise and bewilderment was accented with a big smile. Her dangerous and daring gamble had cut off a considerable length of trail. Now two teams could be seen ahead, and the trail once again traversed the foot of the great glacier for the last leg.
Sasha remembered her longing and eagerness to see Jiak, and the teams on the trail ahead helped reassure her they would all gather together at the end. It made her think of the last thing Kotka said to her, as she left the Homestead for the last time. She called it out now, to Jiak, and all of her old team, and the other dogs back in the moraine.
“See you at the finish line!”