The lightest of snowflakes drifted Earthward through the still air, flitting about their wandering courses as Rol drove the team eastward on the Tunkan Trail. Or, rather it may be said that Rol gripped tightly the handle of the dogsled as the team charged toward their destination.
Rol was not as well-practiced in dogsledding as some. His Chavchu family of reindeer herders typically drove sledges pulled by the big, hoofed animals built for the Arctic. His father held little stock in dogs as beasts of burden. “A man does more work caring for dogs than the dogs will ever give in return.” Evgenii had said. Rol’s family had three dogs, but all were herders treated as pets, and were not harness trained. The young man had ridden upon and driven a number of dogsleds, nonetheless, and though he felt less skilled than the best, he was confident in his capabilities. There really was no work for him on this trek, for now. Besides holding on to the back bow, he need do little else as the team seemed to follow Tun’s spoken orders, and knew where they were going.
The dogs splashed their way across Silver Creek, but Rol’s lack of dogsledding experience showed as he remained on the runners. The sled ground to a halt the moment it entered the creek and struck the rocky bottom. Rol hopped off the sled, recalling he’d seen it done this way when one encountered open water. As they cleared the creek, Rol was about to call out “Gee!” to the team, to put them on the westbound trail, but before he could, the team turned and did so on their own without commands.
Not far up the trail, Rol came to the first of several choices among the routes. Here, a sidecut bore off south, to the left. The right fork held more of a westbound heading. Again, before calling out a command, the team pulled onto the right fork, and continued up a long, shallow incline.
The air temperature fell through the afternoon, rather unusual at the onset of a light snow. As the team plied the trail, the muddy ruts and dog tracks through soft snow began to freeze solid, making it a bone-jarring bumpy ride for Rol. As they topped the rise, the trail split again. Here the main trail took a gentle turn to the left, while a side trail intersected it, and ran parallel to the ridgeline. The dogs held to the main trail, and a twinge of anxiety flowed through Rol. He had to trust that the dogs knew their course, as he did not. He could only hope that they were bound for the forest, and not running a trapline or following the scent of someone or something of greater interest to the dogs. The route they took coursed up and down over drumlins and low hills. At the top of each, Rol would crane his neck and stretch and try to look westward, seeking the edge of the spruce forest. Alas, he could see no further than the next hill or two, as each seemed to rise slightly higher than the last.
The light snow continued to float about in the air. Individual snowflakes that seemed to flit and dart like birds on the wing. So sparse were they, it seemed the clouds were carefully cutting each one from delicate lace before dropping them gently to the Earth below. As the clouds continued to move to the east, a slim band of clear sky could be seen on the western horizon. The edge of the cloud bank was clearly defined as if its clean edge had been cut with a sharp knife. Below the cloud cover, the orange-red summer sun slowly sank in the sky. As Rol rode along, he watched as, for the first time in weeks, it began to dip below the horizon. The air remained still, and felt continually colder as the snowflakes increased slightly in number, drifting down like so much white confetti.
At the top of the next hill, the trail split in numerous directions and was trammelled wide by passing herds of reindeer. One trail was a switchback to the east, disappearing into a ravine. There were four trails that headed generally west. Here, Dak stopped, awaiting a command from the driver. Rol, unaware that Dak was trained to stop at such an intersection, feared the team did not know which trail to take. His stomach flipped in a moment of nervousness. He wasn’t concerned with becoming lost, a back trail will always lead you home. He was bound to keep his promise. Bek’s homestead may have troubles and he was to discover them. He worried, too, that Tun anticipated his return tomorrow with word of his findings. There was no time to be on the wrong trail, but to Rol, each looked the same.
“The one in the center, up the hill.” Sasha called to Dak from her position behind Stone. Dak did not hesitate or wait for Rol, but got the team underway on the trail she indicated.
Rol harbored some concern that he couldn’t be certain this was the right way. He considered stopping the team to try to discern somehow for himself which was the trail to the forest. Once again, he had to trust that the dogs, particularly Sasha and Anchu, would know the way that led to the moraine.
The sun continued its dip below the horizon, and now a quarter of it was set. All of the sky and snow around Rol and the team took on a golden-red glow, and the clouds above darkened in hues of purple.
“Not darkness!” thought Rol, realizing he hadn’t planned on the possibility. Now it occured to him that he really had not prepared for this trip at all. In the exuberance of youth he simply hopped onto the sled and rode off, relying on the responsible adults for any serious need or considerations. If not for Tun packing provisions, he would have ridden off without food for himself or the dogs.
He thought now of those long, impatiently-waiting minutes when his father would tick down his well-memorized checklist. He’d assure everything was packed on the sledge. He’d open packs to verify if he couldn’t remember seeing this thing or that properly stowed. Rol realized how, over many trips, his father’s preparations had saved them time and again from tight situations, the elements, hunger, possibly even agony and death. He wished now that he had a checklist of his own, and that he’d employed it for this trip. Now, as the team climbed westward along the trail, Rol’s mind was preoccupied with the list of things he did not bring.
No spare boots to wear while his mukluks were drying, soaked in the creek crossing. Nothing for shelter. No tent or canvas or even a hide to pull over oneself, the extents of the trip seemingly an overnight stay at a friend’s home. His father would never leave home without some option for shelter. Who could know when a storm will arise, or perhaps one of your reindeer will suffer injury or death? His stomach turned until he thought he might vomit when he realized he’d brought nothing to start a fire. This raised such panic that he immediately halted the sled.
“Whoa! Whoa team! Whoa!”.
The dogs responded instantly to their training, and stopped three-quarters of the way up the long draw.
“Ugh! Starting on a hill.” Larik barked out. “What is this guy doing?”
“Maybe there’s something ahead. A bear or something.” Anchu volunteered.
Rol almost stepped off the sled to pull the lead dog around one hundred eighty degrees to begin straightaway to return to Tunkan. His father’s face came into his mind. He spoke no words, but looked confidently and proudly at the young man. In spirit, he conveyed calm. Rol recalled the many days afield with his father, and his mentoring to prepare for life in the Arctic. “First, we don’t panic. There is no circumstance to which we cannot apply our keenness. Your will can create solutions. We respect the Ice Queen, but must not withdraw. If it is our day to die, we must do so. We can believe it is a good day to die.” In an instant, a sense of peace washed over Rol. It was as if his father were here with him, watching over him.
“We will not withdraw.” Rol called aloud to the team, who swung their heads around, wondering what his barks meant, recognizing no commands or even words. All the fear and anxiety in Rol seemed to ebb as he imagined what his father would do, were he here.
“We will not withdraw!” Rol now shouted to the trail, the dogs, the sky, the snow, the three-quarter sun, and the Ice Queen. “Today may be a good day to die, but we have other plans.”
He realized he was cut from the same stock as his father, and trained by one of the best for life in this frozen wilderness. Fire or no fire.
“Mush! Go! Mush you dogs!”
Finally, words the team could comprehend. They began again to pull up the long hill.
“Starting on a hill…” Larik grumbled.