Flight To The Mountain

Alexei continued his low whimpering as the team plied the eastbound trail, having left his brother Larik behind at the devastated village that had been Tunkan. The trail paralleled the river, and presently they came to the village fish wheel. This is a water wheel with baskets instead of paddles. Fish lifted in the baskets would be dumped to the side as the wheel came around to the holding bin. Herein could be held a hundred fish or more. Normally, folks from the village would empty the holding bin every day or every other at most. Now neglected several days, the bin overflowed, with many frozen, rotted or half-eaten fish lying on the ground. Fish now thrown onto the pile slid off, and they flipped and flopped until gravity returned them to the safety of the water.

Rol stopped the sled a few meters from the wheel, grabbed a fish for each dog, and tossed it to them. Having traveled two days without food, the team was ravenous, and Rol offered a second helping to those that ate their fill and looked for more. He then filled the sled bag with all the frozen fishes that would fit, all the while watching his perimeter for any signs of threat.

With the best intentions for feeding the hungry dogs, inexperienced Rol inadvertently hobbled the team. Now with full bellies they would be lethargic, and any strenuous work would result in stomach cramps and vomiting. As the boy tried to press the team eastward, the dogs ambled along slowly, until finally Stone stopped and sat behind Dak at the lead, halting all progress. The rest of the team followed suit, exhausted and stuffed with their meal, and laid down on the spot. No amount of coaxing from the driver could force them to stand, and finally Rol capitulated. They would rest here several hours, during which Rol sat on the sled until he dozed off. When he woke, snow was falling heavily. He and the sleeping dogs had a thick layer of snow on them. The boy rose, returned to the river to fetch water for the dogs, slaking his own thirst as well. Afterward, the group again began their eastward trek.

Before traveling far, the trail split around a spruce bog. The main trail bore right, leading around the swamp, back into the forest, the route to the river and the Dezhnevo Trail. The track to the left was much less worn, clearly used more by the wild inhabitants of the area than humans or dogs or sleds. With intent to avoid the merciless soldiers, Rol drove the team onto the narrow, northbound trail that skirted the bog before ascending the steep terrain. Snow continued to fall heavily, and the sky grew darker. The end of the day drew near. The sun, blocked from view by the snow storm, commenced its half-dip below the horizon. The occasional deciduous tree could be seen preparing for winter, dressed now in its autumn raiment of yellow, red, gold and brown leaves. Low growing plants set forth seeds, falling or blowing about, or transported by wild friends. The squeaky honking of a flock of snow geese could be heard crossing the sky, bound for milder climes. The air grew colder with each passing hour. The trail underfoot became hard as rock, and the snow accumulated on it.

As the team left the bog behind them, Rol spotted a flag hanging from a tree branch that arched over the trail. Several strips of leather had been tied together and hung. Perhaps this is a marker for a cache of goods, Rol thought. As desperate as his situation was, Rol would not disturb such a cache. Not only would it be unheard of to take something that doesn’t belong to you, but a cache on a trail could be a re-supply someone may be counting on. To rely on such a repository on a trek then find it to be missing could spell tragedy under the harshest conditions. As the team passed the flag, Rol saw the strips were fringes with a distinctive color pattern. When he saw it was the same pattern repeated on the racing sled and harness, he realized this flag was left by Tun. This caused him to pause and consider perhaps this was a message meant for him. Could Tun have cached provisions for the boy, having known he had just two days’ food and would find no re-supply at Tunkan? Maybe the fleeing group chose to lighten their loads by leaving some cargo behind. Knowing Tun’s thoughtfulness, it would be like him to leave something for Rol. Something from the Gifting Giant.

The sense of familiarity, the known, the link to someone fond of him brought Rol some warm comfort out on this lonely, cold trail. He stopped and secured the snow hook, and walked to the tree to look for a secreted stash. He walked all around the tree, kicking at the snow, and looked up the trunk for a pack tied above the reach of bears. He explored the adjacent area and trees, searched intently for anything that looked disturbed, out-of-place, or heaped in a pile. He could find nothing. Perhaps the flag was reference to something that no longer existed, or was simply a trail marker. Returning to the sled, the party again commenced to move steadily along in the snow-filled evening.

Not infrequently, the trail seemed to vanish through Larch stands, thickets, gaps between huge boulders. Often Rol could see no trail at all, and more than once feared he had missed a turn or made some misstep that led to a dead-end. Dak at the lead and the rest of the team never hesitated, and seemed to pick out the trail where none could be discerned, continuing on with steady uphill progress.

Before long, the group came upon another flag made of Tun’s jacket fringe. Rol again searched for a cache of goods, a map, anything that might be indicated by the marker. Again, his efforts were fruitless, and they pressed onward, presuming these were trail markers, yet encouraged by the thought that this was Tun’s trail. The team continued their ascent up the craggy side of the mountain, through narrow ravines in the ancient bedrock, across flat spans of granite covered in ankle-deep snow, across a tiny frozen creek where Rol stopped for water.

The half-set sun cast a surreal orange glow in the snowy sky as they came to a lean-to. Here, high on this hill, far from the main trail, Rol finally felt they could stop and pitch camp. He started a fire, keeping it small to avoid a plume of smoke that might advertise his presence. He gave another fish to each dog, and roasted one in the fire for himself. The first mouthful of fish seemed the finest thing Rol had ever tasted. He ravenously ate all the flesh he could strip from the bones, and crunched a few of the bones down as well. Fed and tired, he curled in a corner of the lean-to, wishing he’d grabbed a hide or blanket from the pile around Chimlik. The air grew increasingly colder, and just as he began to shiver a little, the wild Black and White Husky came over and curled beside him, pressing his body close to warm the boy. Rol was asleep in minutes, and in his slumber laid his arm across the big dog.

All the dogs slept deeply, except Alexei.

He would wake often, and stand facing the backtrail, staring for long periods of time. The steady snow piled atop him as if he were a statue. Only the occasional soft cry betraying his thoughts.

The King of Tunkan

What seemed like a never-ending string of people visited Tun on his arrival at the Summer Festival in Tunkan. After welcoming the children of the gathering and gifting each with a small trinket, adults gathered around. Some introduced themselves for the first time. Some latched on to the big man’s paw and hugged long, having known one another for so many seasons, seeing each other at the Festival and a race or two throughout the rolling year. As the crowd of greeters thinned slightly, down to less than a dozen, huddled close so as to miss nothing, Tun began slowly to walk toward the open space at the edge of the village. Lively conversation continued as the group fanned out slightly and made their way to the end of the main street. Without words or even a look, Dak stood, causing the other dogs to rise, and they began to follow behind the mob at their leisurely pace.

Now outside the settlement, Tun chose a place for camp. He enlisted the help of a young man, the son of one of the long-huggers, and had him take the team back out to the trail at the edge of the village to retrieve the cargo sled. The steady stream of visitors continued, many with gifts in their hands. People had planned for this, waited, anxiously anticipating their chance to see Tun, and to bring something to the man that always seemed to be giving to others. Sasha watched as each would bring their offerings, and Tun’s face would light up at the presentation. A small bone-handled knife was a fine and elaborate gift, given by one fortunate to have much. A single bone needle, wrapped in a thin piece of hide was all that could be offered by another. Each gift was received with the same wide eyes, broad smile, words of appreciation, comments about how this was the thing he’d been hoping to find for so long.

As the never-ending line of well-wishers and gifters continued through the sunlit night, Sasha began to notice a curious thing happening. After accepting each gift as a valued addition, Tun would invariably turn to the sled bag, saying, “Wait. You know, I have something for you.” He’d reach into the bag and produce something to give to the giver. Sometimes conversations would accompany Tun’s gift.

“I remember how you admired one of these last year.” or “This is just like the one your father has.” or “As soon as I saw this I thought of you.” It took a while for Sasha to realize Tun was pulling from the bag the gifts that had just been given to him by someone else. He’d place the offering in the bag and exchange it for another, and in this way the bag was always full but not over-filled, and never was empty. This was not done lightly or frivolously, and Tun meant every word he said. He carefully selected that which he was to give, and indeed many were “perfect gifts”, something the recipient had needed or had desired for some time.

The young assistant, Rol, returned with the cargo sled, and Tun thanked him for his help. Rol offered to help unload and pitch camp, and Tun again thanked him, and gave a few instructions. Rol set up the simple canvas structure, incorporating the cargo sled as the main wall, then began to build a fire. As Rol continued, one by one other young men appeared, each silently joining in the tasks. They built a small fire ring of stones, gathered wood and got the fire going. They laid out straw for the dogs and fetched two bags of water from the river for them. One rolled a stump of a tree a great distance across the open area, arriving a little breathless. Tun looked at the young man and the stump, and treated both as any other honored guest with a well-appreciated gift. “Your throne, sir!” The young man bowed.

“Well, this is just perfect. This was what I was hoping to find for myself.” Tun beamed as if the lad had brought a jewel-encrusted crown to him. He placed the stump at an ideal location, at the front of the camp, and sat down. He stood and turned it a little, sat again. One more adjustment. “Perfect.” he declared, and sat with the grace of a king, stretching his arms wide to welcome all before him.

The midsummer sun scraped along the horizon as the visitors continued in a constant, endless line of guests in camp. Many would sit for hours as others came and went. Some would sit beside Tun and retell old stories of this time or that, this race, this hunt, that blizzard. Some would bring a thousand questions. “Do you really live in a castle?”, “Where’s the best trapping this year?”, “Have you been to the sea yet?”, “Where’s Willow?”, “Who are the new dogs?”, “Where did they come from?”, “Have you seen Jiak?”

Sasha’s ears perked up. Did she hear “Jiak”? “My Jiak?” she thought. Then she realized that Jiak and Bek talked of Festival all the time, and raced at every one. That would mean Jiak must be here! Perhaps with Bek! She began to look into the busy village, looking for familiar faces. She sniffed the air, concentrating on the scents coming to her. There were so many people, and smells of everything permeated the air, the people, dogs, reindeer, food. It was an overwhelming tide of smells, and she could not discern those for which she searched. She retired from the quest, laid her head on her forepaws. She was exhausted from the trip and the excitement and the constant barrage of visitors. Her eyes were growing heavy and she knew, in spite of the daylight, that it was very, very late at night.

Her eyes closed. A sound, a loud laugh or greeting, would awaken her. With one eye she’d look and see Tun still greeting guests in camp, his energy and smile never fading. The sounds of the village and the Festival filled her sleeping hours. In her dreams she was a sled driver, then a reindeer, then a child chasing a giant through the settlement. Then she was seated on a tree stump, and people came to her in an endless line. Each brought kind words, wide smiles, and a unique gift. All the time, she would look past the face before her, look down the line of waiting admirers, searching for Jiak.

All the dogs now curled up and slept through the sunlit night while Tun manned his throne. All except Dak. Dak sat immediately beside Tun. Inspected every visitor. Watched the perimeter. Wagged his tail at all the faces he recognized as they reached out and rubbed the top of his head or fluffed his ears. He’d jump up if a stray dog wandered into camp. Go to greet them, usher them on. He would stare long and hard at the faces that were unfamiliar. Trying to memorize them, associate their smell with their face. Always watching for any potential threat, though he suspected that no such threat would be found here in Tunkan. Here in this little village, where year after year, it seemed to Dak, people came from every extent of the windswept taiga, from the mountains to the west, from the sea to the east, from the frozen wastelands of the tundra.

A Festival, a fitting venue, to honor all that makes up the man called Tun.

Sasha Dreams

She was on the East Trapline Trail, heading west, heading for home, the Homestead in the moraine, leading a team through the spruce forest. The sun was at their back and the sky was clear, and all the world was painted with gleaming white new snow. The air was wonderfully cold. No slush or puddles underfoot. The sled was weightless, trees flew past as if they were rafting down a swift river. The pulling was effortless, and Sasha looked down to see her feet were not touching the snow. Her legs made galloping motions in the air as she, the team and the sled glided airborne, just above the ground. She turned to look back, overjoyed with anticipation of seeing Jiak on the runners. Behind her was a huge team. So many dogs she couldn’t count them, the gang line so long it disappeared around a bend, and she could not see the sled at all.

As she turned back to the trail, she froze in terror, as an enormous polar bear stood immediately ahead of her, blocking the trail. The bear raised itself on its hind legs, and stood as tall as a spruce tree. It stretched its gargantuan forelegs and Sasha could see strips of flesh, skin and dog fur hanging from its claws, as drops of blood dotted the snow beneath them.

From out of nowhere, Mother suddenly stood between Sasha and the giant bear. Mother bared her teeth and planted her feet, growling and glaring at the beast. The bear reached out two paws as large as reindeer, and gathered up the team, the harness and the sled, raising them skyward. Mother leaped, flying through the air to the treetop height of the bear’s throat. She turned her head ninety degrees and clenched her jaws onto the mighty monster’s neck. The bear pawed at Mother, swinging its head violently side to side, trying to shake off the attacker. It shrieked in pain, an ear-piercing noise. Mother held tight, her tiny body battered by the giant paws, flung back and forth by the bear’s shaking, all four legs dangling high in the air. She made not a sound, her eyes fixed on the target, her determination and fearlessness apparent in every inch of her being, every look on her face.

The bear staggered, took two steps back, still pawing at its own throat. The ground beneath shook. It stumbled to the side and fell into the forest, knocking down fifty spruce trees with a tremendous crashing crescendo as it struck the Earth with a deafening noise. Snow and evergreens filled the air in a great cloud, limbs falling, thumping, snowflakes gently wafting their way to the ground.

“Mother!” Sasha called out, “Mother!” She awaited a response. She turned to look for her driver. What was he waiting for?

As she looked back, the innumerable team of dogs was gone. There was only a long gang line, the rings hanging empty save the very last one. Far down the trail stood Anchu at the wheel position. She could see his mouth moving but heard no words. He, too, was calling “Mother!”

Sasha looked to the sled for Jiak, or Bek, or even the new guy, Tun. She beheld a stranger, dressed in smooth leather. He held in one hand a whip, and in the other a bag filled with colorful feathers. He threw the bag into the air, and as it hung momentarily suspended in its arc, he cracked the whip and the bag split open. Instantly the air was filled with big snowflakes, thick and heavy snow, a blinding blizzard.

“Mother?!” Sasha called into the forest where the bear lay.

Suddenly, she was standing on the roof of her dog house, and no snow was falling. Then, as she looked below, she saw she was standing on a lean-to, and Tun sat within. Beside him sat Mother, wagging her tail. And then there was Bek, and Jiak and Nina! Tun was pulling gifts from his bag. A rib bone for Mother. A rifle for Bek. He pulled out a dog sled, handling it as if it was as light as a boot. He handed it to Jiak, who smiled from ear to ear.

As Jiak placed the sled onto the snow before the lean-to, a team appeared in its harness. At the wheel were Alexei, and Spring, one of her mentors. At the swing positions were Dak and Kotka.  Sasha was thrilled to see Kotka pulling the sled, no stiffness or limping from the leg he had broken. In the lead was Stone, and beside him, Lema, the pack mother of her former team. Bek, Nina, Jiak and Mother climbed onto the sled, headed westward, looking over their shoulders waving and calling out a cheery goodbye. Tun smiled and waved as he watched them leave. The moment they were out of sight, he fell to his knees, sobbing inconsolably.

Sasha jumped down from the roof and ran to him. It was agony to see him cry, this man whose voice sounded like song, who was never without a smile on his face, and she realized how much she had come to love him already, how her heart ached to see his sadness. She sat in front of him, but he did not notice her, his face buried in his hands, consumed with grief. She barked twice, and the big man looked up to see her. The moment he laid eyes on her, his face lit up with joy. He reached out and grabbed her, hugged her tightly and laughed out loud. He kept laughing heartily, a big booming laugh that continued until it echoed off the mountains and became a chorus of laughter, filling the valleys with song.

He stood and danced with Sasha, holding her forepaws as she stood upright. Icy crystals of snow began to fall, in colors, indigo, crimson, gold, silver. Soon they were joined by other dogs, standing upright and dancing. Her new team was all there, and then there were Yura and Nib, and all the other dogs from the Homestead. And there were wolves, and the wolves danced with reindeer. The giant bear rose from the dead, his bloody neck turning into a bright red scarf, and he began dancing with Mother. Beside the dancing crowd sat a chorus. Reindeer and wolves and owls swayed rhythmically as they joined together in song. They sang out loudly and gleefully.

“We’re a pack, we love to run

And pull for Bek or Jiak or Tun.

Life is joy, our work is fun.

A Pack means love for everyone.”

Bek and Nina and Jiak returned and picked up the tune. And there was a Chavchu herder dancing with a wolverine. Then the man from the Fur Trader’s was dancing with Nona the Cat.

And it seemed the whole world was celebrating.

They would dance in and out of Sasha’s dreams,¬†through a rainbow of snowflakes in the sunlit night, as she slept with a smile.

Lodge Trail Lean-To

“Chukchi Sister,

Chukchi Brother,

Lift your head,

Proud for Mother!”

Sasha’s new pack sang out their rallying cry as they made their way northward on the Tunkan Trail. When they came to the fork at Silver Creek, Tun drove the team to the right. To the left was Tunkan, and beyond, the familiar North Trapline, and the trail to Kantuc, where Sasha had spent many happy hours with Jiak, and his inamorata, Tati.

This course, known as The Lodge Trail, curved its way through a low spruce bog, skirted a large pond, and wound through gaps in massive rock outcroppings. With summer quickly approaching, there were bare spots in the trail, open gaps of dirt and lichens, mud and mosses. The earliest and hardiest low-growing plants were already leaping rapidly toward the sun. They must take advantage of every moment of the brief Arctic Summer, before returning to the dreamy, dormant state for another nine months.

The air smelled like everything, and was unlike any Sasha had experienced. There was hardly a scent that could not be picked out. Melting snow and mud, the budding spruces. Something dead and rotting, emerging from the winter’s thaw. There was something floral and sweet. The mosses gave off a rich, earthy tone, the breeze smelled of water. As the team continued onward, the trail narrowed. In places it was barely used, and it seemed as if it was all uphill. More than once the team stalled, requiring Tun to push, pull and heave the loaded sled through mud holes, over fallen trees and bare bedrock. Progress was slowed as the sled, laden with provisions from the Trading Post, scraped and dragged its way across the rough ground. The work was quite exhausting to all of them, accustomed to a sled gliding along a frozen, snow-packed trail.

They came to a little clearing, on the north side of which was a small, cobbled-together lean-to. Tun called for the team to stop, the Original Five recognizing the campsite and eagerly anticipating food and rest. Sasha couldn’t help but feel a little out of place, and presumed Anchu felt the same, if not more so. They felt like guests in another’s home, and looked to the other dogs for social cues.

Tun went to the front of the sled and unhitched Dak, who scampered over to the lean-to, sniffing inside and outside for the scents of recent guests, or those of interlopers. Instead of a tie line, Tun used a long lead for each dog, except Dak who was free to roam, and clipped the leads to the sled, the lean-to, or nearby trees. He then went about the business of preparing chow for the dogs, and himself. When finished, he served a generous portion to each dog, then retired to the lean-to where he sat to eat his own meal, sharing the dogs’ chow, accompanied by biscuits.

The smell of the food was different than that which Sasha and Anchu were accustomed to. Upon tasting it, they were pleased and impressed with its rich flavor. Any meal at the end of a day’s mushing tasted good, and the stew Tun served was no exception. A mix of numerous species of game; reindeer, wolverine, fox, weasel, lynx, and some bear. It was hearty, flavorful and filling. One by one the satiated dogs laid down, relaxed, preened themselves, and drifted off to sleep.

All but Sasha. Her mind was still spinning, still racing at the end of this long day. The new team, including Anchu, was already sleeping the deep sleep of the work-weary. Sasha looked at the five newly acquainted dogs, and thought to herself how much they resembled the dogs and team she’d left behind. A dog team, a sled, a man and a lean-to. If she didn’t look too closely, she could easily imagine this was Jiak’s team, and the man could as well be Bek, her former drivers and favorite people.

She looked into the lean-to, where Tun sat cross-legged, a leather bag on his lap. He pulled a dog harness from the bag. It was elaborately decorated with bone and shell embellishments, colored leather fringes, and a silver button. He then pulled a sewing kit from the bag, and commenced to work on the harness, adding tassels and stitched adornments. He worked slowly, deliberately. He’d set the bone needle carefully, then pull it back and set it again before finding the perfect spot, finally plunging the needle through the leather. The summer sun hung low in the southwest sky, providing light enough for Tun to continue, consumed by his work.

A couple of half-power yips were heard from Umka, apparently active in his dreams. Dak’s snoring was as loud as a man’s, and Sasha wondered that it didn’t wake the other dogs. Anchu, lying on his side and within easy reach of his sister, twitched his legs repeatedly, still pulling the sled as he slept. The sky was deep, dark and inky in the east, contrasted by the bright red of the west. Between the extremes, great bands of gold stretched in an arc from north to south. The clearing was surrounded on all sides by tall, mature trees. No horizon could be seen. Only a great circle above, of ink and red and gold. Sasha lifted her head to observe the glorious view. The gentlest of breezes, drenched in the fragrances of the woods, silently stirred the air.

Sasha returned her gaze to the lean-to, and watched this man she hardly knew. She could not help but like him already. His face always bore a smile, even when working, pushing the sled, building a fire. His voice rang out like birdsong. Whenever he talked there was always an air of excitement and wonder and joy in the words he spoke, the gestures he used.

He’d reach into the bag and pull out a trinket. He’d hold it between his thumb and forefinger, turning it, admiring its beauty and the way the soft low light glistened on its facets. The midsummer sun, dancing along atop the horizon, cast long shadows and poured a steeply angled glow into the camp. The flickering of the fire, the orange-red light of the non-setting sun, shined in Tun’s eyes as he critiqued his handiwork. Sasha marveled at the giant hands that could lift dogs, heave sleds, move logs. How soft and gentle they seemed as Tun held tiny objects in them, as he carefully pulled the thread through the leather, as he tied knots in the threads.

When he’d finish a step, he’d stretch out the harness, imagining how it would look on a dog, his lips parted in a smile of satisfaction. Occasionally, he would pause to look at the dogs, particularly the new members of the team. He would look up through the spruces at the colorful sky, crane his neck to see down both directions of the trail. He’d take a deep breath, close his eyes, and exhale slowly, savoring the peace and beauty of this humble and fulfilling life.

He placed the harness in the bag and took out another, and began again with his embellishments. Before long, his hands began to slow, stop from time to time. His eyes grew droopy, until he dropped his chin to his chest, fast asleep.

Seeing this, Sasha’s own eyes felt heavy. She curled beside Anchu, who did not stir, and drifted off to sleep, and into Dream World.