Around The Fire

“There they go.” Alexei referred to the string of people that flowed through Tun’s camp after the race, congratulating him and Tati. “First they all try to beat each other in the race, and now they’re all hugging. I don’t get it.”

“Is there anything people won’t take credit for?” Larik interjected. “After all, we did all the running.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” added Dak, “Tati runs as fast as you!”. Larik was not amused by this, but the rest of the team snickered at the remark.

“Well, we are Tun’s team. We wouldn’t be here without him, or have a sled or a driver.” Sasha felt compelled to defend Tun.

“I could run a lot faster if I wasn’t dragging this dogsled, you know.” Larik replied.

“I think they just want to know what it feels like to be us.” Anchu added, looking at the people gathered around the camp. “They only have two legs, like birds, but they can’t fly. Their wings or forelegs or whatever you call them are deformed. No pads, no feathers. It must be a little frustrating. With us, they can feel what it’s like to run down a trail, to have the wind whistle past your ears.” He laid down and placed his snout on his forepaws, contemplatively shifting his gaze from one musher to another.

“I’ve never thought of that.” Stone now joined the conversation, “People envying dogs.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Alexei continued. “Someone makes our meals for us, someone makes our beds. We don’t need to do anything but pull a sled, which is really just walking and running anyway.”

“Maybe that’s why they keep so many dogs around.” Anchu added, “Maybe they know they’re inferior.”

Inferior?” Umka interjected, shocked, even insulted on behalf of humans. “They get us food and houses and boots for the ice. We would have none of these things without Tun.”

“And we’d be free as the wolves to do as we please.” Added Larik, cleaning the mud from his legs.

“Yes,” Stone added, “free to starve and die in the wilderness.”

“If you were a wolf you wouldn’t be afraid of the wilderness.” Larik countered.

“True. I guess you’re right about that.” Stone conceded, his eyes wandering to the top of the glacier and the mountain beyond, imagining what it might be like to be out there on his own.

“Do wolves really live all by themselves?” Anchu asked his more worldly teammates. “Where do they sleep? How do they eat?”

“They sleep wherever they please!” Larik replied, “They eat when they feel like eating.”

“But where do they get the chow?”

“Come on! You know animals in the wild hunt for other animals or eat trees and things like that. They don’t need people.”

“Sounds like a lonely life.” Umka chimed in, unable to imagine a world without people. He really loved people, all people. The way some people love all dogs. “No one to pet you or talk to you or make you a fancy harness.”

“You don’t need a harness if you’re free and wild.” Larik’s tone became contentious with no one following on his line of thought. “They talk to each other. They pet each other.

“I think people are confused.” Alexei continued, still staring at each person that passed. “I’m not sure they understand what kind of animals they are. You really must pity them.”

“Right about that.” Umka added. “I feel sorry for them. They’re lousy at building nests. They’re all way too big and far from warm. They need to get their fur from other animals. How sad is that? The only fur they have is on the top of their head. They have very delicate feet. Notice they can never go anywhere without boots.”

“That’s why they need us so much.” Dak stated flatly. “They need us to keep them warm, to pull them where they need to go on their sleds. To protect them from real wild animals that would kill and eat them.”

At the west end of the village, the crowd could again be heard cheering and congratulating another team crossing the finish line.

“And there they go again!” Alexei mused. “It’s like it doesn’t matter if you won.”

Dak, more caught up in the lives of humans and their world responded. “It matters to me!”

Tati approached the team with Akej at her side. They were involved in intense conversations as they walked.

“Here he is!” Tati stopped in front of Dak and gestured, “The fastest lead dog of the day!” She reached out with both hands behind his ears and fluffed them, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.

Dak wagged. “But it was Anchu who…” he began to say, but unable to understand, Tati and Akej continued.

“Yes, you’re excited to be the star, eh boy?” Akej addressed the dog, and petted his head to express his admiration.

“It takes a whole team.” Dak barked out, looking to Anchu with a nod.

Oblivious to the dogs’ comments, the people continued their conversations. Tun greeted Tatiana with open arms, a long hug, and gentle pats on the back.

“Fine job young lady!” Tun’s eyes sparkled, “That was an amazing finish.”

“That was the greatest ride I’ve had in a long, long time.” Tati replied, pulling her mackinaw over her head, bits of sticks falling from her hair.

Two children ran up to Akej, one grabbing each hand. He bade Tun and Tati “Good race” and farewell, as he was hauled away to the next excited group of Festival attendees.

“Sasha acted up a little, not sure what that was about. Smelled a wolverine maybe.” She pulled more sticks and debris from her hair. “Then Anchu!” she continued, removing her muddy pants and pulling on a dry pair, “Anchu was faster than the rest of the team. That dog can sure run! He really set our pace.”

Her mukluks were soaked through, and she laid them on the hot stones of the fire ring to dry, walking barefoot in the muddy camp. She continued to relate the events of the race to Tun; falling on the hill climb, cutting her forehead; getting snagged in the bog; the team’s racing spirit, the thrill of passing Akej and Ilja. A cheer could be heard at the finish line, not far off, as another team completed the course.

Tun poured hot water on a wash cloth, wrung it out, and began gently to wash the dried blood from the girl’s face and neck. She paused her tale long enough to purse her lips and close her eyes, turning her face upwards, a child trained to anticipate the grownups’ propensity for such preening. He listened intently to her account, watching her eyes widen and shine at the glorious parts, watching her brow furrow as she described the team’s struggles. As Tati continued to talk excitedly, her lips lost their color and began to look bluish. A rosey flush showed on her cheeks, but the rest of her face grew pale. Without realizing it, she began to shiver and hunch toward the fire.

“You need boots.” Tun interrupted the narrative. “Put this parka on, you’re chilled to the bone.”

Her shivers turned to pronounced shakes as she reached for the parka, holding her elbows close to her sides. Tun took the parka back from her and helped her to don it. He pulled the hood up over her head and drew it close under her chin. He then took a pair of sealskin mittens from the tent, and pulled them over her feet. Next, he steeped a cup of hot tea, then stood behind the girl, vigorously rubbing her upper arms. Tun threw several pieces of wood on the fire and stirred it. The man who always was smiling and gay bore a solemn countenance. He worried about Tati, that she might be taking ill. One at a time he removed her mittens and rubbed her hands to warm them. He borrowed a fur and a blanket, and made a bed beside the fire.

“Lie down, child, and warm yourself by the fire.”

Tatiana, still chilled and shivering, was also exhausted from the rigors of the race. Within a few minutes, she was fast asleep. Tun placed his giant hand on her forehead to check for fever. He tucked the blanket in around her, and again pulled her hood close. The big man lowered himself to the ground and sat by Tati’s head, placing his great arm across the sleeping girl.

Few things could make Tun fret. Tatiana was one of them. Now, in the quiet camp, he also worried about his dear friend Bek and his family. It was most unusual for them to miss Summer Festival. He knew Tati would be looking forward to seeing Jiak, as was he. He would make a fine son-in-law, Tun thought.

As he caught himself thinking this, a lump climbed into his throat. He stared at the sleeping girl’s face, deep in thought. Thoughts of long ago, unavoidable, undeniable. He smiled as tears filled his eyes, imagining what might have been. Tun lowered his face to his hands, and, for just a minute, allowed himself to cry, quietly.

Dak was instantly beside him, cocked his head, whimpered, placed his paw on Tun’s.

“Yes, thank you.” Tun smiled as his eyes met with the dog’s. “Oh, Dak.” he said, putting his arms around the Husky, hugging him as his tears subsided.

“My Anka-Ny would have been this age by now.”

Finish Line

Ilja was quite surprised, his senses momentarily bewildered at being overtaken by Tati’s team. An odds-on favorite to win, the only other competitor likely capable of beating Ilja’s team was Bek’s. Jiak had piloted his team to several victories over Ilja’s, and it seemed the two men almost took turns winning over the course of this past season.

Tati looked closely at Ilja’s dogs as she passed them with her own. They didn’t look particularly weary, and their eyes shined with the thrill of running and racing. She hunched low to reduce wind drag and urged the team onward, though it seemed they couldn’t possibly move faster. Over her shoulder, Tatiana could see Ilja’s head jerk upright. He renewed his grip on the handle and reset his feet on the runners as if demonstrating his conviction to correct this unexpected and unacceptable encroachment. As he called out, the dogs eagerly responded, and one could see the entire team redouble their efforts, their quarry in their sights.

There were several heaves of the glacial base that ran perpendicular to the course, like a long, stretched-out set of ice stairs, sized for a giant, the cracked edge a foot above the step below. Dogs would jump one after the other in a line, giving a flowing effect, like water over a fall. The sled would glide off the stair, its whooshing sound of the rails through the soft snow suddenly silencing, a breath held,  then in a second beginning again as they struck down on the firm snow-covered glacier.

Tatiana used her knees as hinges, her leg muscles as springs, anticipating each jump of the ice stairs. She’d feel the sled drop away below her, and, pulling upwards on the back bow, would apply just enough pressure to keep her feet from coming off the runners. As the sled returned to Earth, she would bend her knees and gently lower her weight onto the sled. Behind her, Ilja, so large he carried just one handicap stone, could not navigate the jumps as gracefully and delicately as Tati. His weight fell full force with the sled as it banged down each step, jarring his knees, elbows, back and neck. This was not without effect on the sled, as its momentum slowed incrementally from the dogs’ speed. Lines would tighten, the weights jerking on the team. Step by step, Tatiana opened the gap between her sled and Ilja’s.

Tunkan once again came into view. People could be seen gathered at the west end of the village, the end of the race course. Now could be seen another team ahead of Tati’s, and it cruised into the settlement greeted by cheers and hand clapping. Several people ran to the sled, shook the driver’s hand and congratulated him. Many folks were still looking up the hill. Supporters, friends and family members strained their eyes, each searching for their own party.

“Isn’t that Ilja?” comments rose.

“But who is ahead of him?”

“Wasn’t Akej after Ilja? Who’s that?”

“Is that Tun’s team? It is! There’s Dak!”

The major upset in the race and the record-setting pace of Tun’s team drew the attention of the crowd. Now, any who knew her were calling out Tati’s name, encouraging her onward. Tati saw the finish approaching, and looked over her shoulder to see Ilja and his team slamming down the last ice step, still a considerable distance behind her. She laughed out loud, a kind of giggle erupting from deep within her belly, the thrill and excitement overwhelming her.

Within the village, Tun was amazed as any at the early arrival of Tati and the team. This was not the first win for Tun. In these recent years with young, energetic and light Tatiana as a driver, the team had scored several victories. This, however, was quite an upset, quite the turn of events, as the Summer Festival drew the stiffest of competition. Akej and Ilja were two of the top competitors in the area, and elsewhere in the race were two more teams that frequently took wins and second-place finishes. If Bek was here with Jiak, they would rank among these successful racers.

The cheers of the crowd reached a crescendo as Tun’s team crossed the finish line. Tati drove the team further a bit, leading them to an area away from the throngs of race watchers. Here, a watering trough had been filled for the benefit of exhausted teams and drivers finishing the race. Each team had their own special fans, and Tun’s was no exception. Typically, a half-dozen people would have followed Tatiana, helping cool and water the dogs, fetching a drink for the driver, reveling in all that is the racing spirit, congratulating musher and team. On this occasion, more than a dozen people, some unknown to Tati, approached the finely decorated sled and team, petting dogs and patting backs.

Their conversation was an energized buzz, marveling at the incredible time the team had made, the upset of it, and the victorious finish. Sasha and her team were exhausted yet still excited and exhilarated by their first race experience together. Certainly it was Anchu that was the subject of many exchanges between humans and dogs alike. His eagerness and high level of racing spirit, his indefatigable stamina, and of course, his amazing speed.

The attention was a bit overwhelming, and despite his elation at the race results and his own newly discovered talent for speed and endurance, Anchu eschewed the praise. For the first time in his life he felt truly a part of something meaningful, and this meant more to him than winning. He looked with love and great admiration at the other dogs, and addressed them

“It takes a whole team to win a race.”

Proud For Tun!

The solid frozen foot of the glacier was topped with a thin layer of wet snow, and it angled downward slightly, making the last leg of the race almost a downhill run.

“Let’s Go! Go! Go!” Anchu barked, eagerly pressing muscles to action, his stamina and energy unwavering. Immediately behind him, Alexei was not to be outdone by such an inexperienced youngster, and he, too, pushed himself to maximum speed.

Sasha’s line slacked with the acceleration of the dogs behind her. Even Larik, at the wheel position, was meeting the pace of Anchu and Alexei. Now she clenched her paws and dug her claws into the solid ice beneath the snow, and worked her legs as hard and fast as she could. She felt the line gently tension behind her, as Umka, ahead, sensed the increasing speed as well, and picked up his pace.

Dak looked over his shoulder at the team and saw they were all gleefully striding flat-out, challenging one another to go faster still. While the pitch of the terrain lent its advantage equally to all the teams, the gap between Tati’s and the one ahead could be seen to be closing.

Anchu was still pulling a little faster than the rest of the team, Sasha’s line slacking behind her occasionally. “Dig!Dig!Dig!” he barked as all the dogs were dumbstruck to see he could move even faster. Still, he hardly seemed strained or winded, his breath and step coming easily and naturally.

The other dogs were astounded by his energy and agility. Each pressed their muscles to the extreme, sailing across the slick glacier at a speed that was nothing short of phenomenal. Within just a few minutes, they closed on the team ahead, and trailed them now by only ten meters.

Seeing this, the driver, Akej, commanded his dogs to full speed. His team now noticed the competitor gaining, and this inspired them to increase their efforts. Incrementally, Tati’s team gained on the second-place leader. Now they were alongside, and could see they’d outpaced a veteran musher, and his strong and well-trained nine dog team.

Then, as if Akej had conceded and slowed, Sasha and the sled passed them, and began to pull away. Akej was in disbelief at the speed of Tati’s team, and his mouth fell open, speechless.

Tatiana’s team was running flat-out, except for Anchu. He kept a constant tension on his tugline, yet was not in the least winded, nor going as fast as he wanted to. If not for this team and dogsled anchoring him, he would have streaked across the glacier at twice this speed. He’d never known such enthusiasm and exhilaration. He’d always been quiet Brother Anchu. Middle of the pack. A little smaller than most, perhaps. A bit less likely to win at wrestling in the yard. Not likely to be first to smell an intruder or bark an alarm. Last in line when it came to tearing up a carcass and sharing with the pack.

But now, he had found something he loved, and it was running. He found something that he was especially good at. Something that made other dogs look to him with some admiration, perhaps even envy. From the moment Tun had placed the racing harness on him, he felt a change. His was not the last or the least of the harnesses. And now he, quiet Brother Anchu, was far from the least or last on this team of dogs. This was not only the thrill of running and racing, but the thrill of being the best.

“Come on! Go! Go!” he called out to his teammates, his smile a mile wide, tongue flapping about.

“Where did we get this guy?” Larik barked out, catching Anchu’s racing fever, and driving harder to faster and faster gaits. Likewise, each member of the group was thrilled tremendously to be on such a fast and winning team. Just one musher still ran ahead of them. In all, they’d passed six dog teams over the length of the course, one of which never saw them, overtaken sight unseen during the switchback shortcut maneuver.

Tati realized she was smiling with such effort her cheeks began to hurt. She’d been on a number of sleds and ran her share of races, but never experienced a team this fast. They were rapidly gaining on the race leader, and likely setting a new record time for the course.

Sasha regarded the team they’d just passed. There was no hint of Jiak scent anywhere on Akej’s sled. The scent trail of the leading team also revealed no Jiak. Now she wondered if she’d just imagined it. Wishful thinking, perhaps. Within that moment, another face and name appeared at the forefront of her thoughts. It was Tun. Suddenly she was stricken with a little guilt. She didn’t mean to place Jiak on a pedestal. She couldn’t help but to love and miss him.

Still, she was here with Tun. Part of Tun’s team now. A part of his life, and he a part of hers. She thought of his smiling face and gentle hands. She thought of the comfort and freedom he provided his dogs, remembered her thrill and surprise when he produced the ornate, personalized racing harness, even for the new and untested recruits. She had nearly derailed the team during a race with her selfish insistence on seeing Jiak. But it was Tun that had brought her here. Tun that made all of this possible. The exquisite sled, the team’s matching harnesses, Tati for a driver, the trip to Tunkan and the Summer Festival.

As much as she loved Jiak, and he would always be precious to her, she realized how much she was now part of something bigger than herself. Tun and her new team were now her family. She didn’t feel she owed Tun her loyalty, as much as she felt deeply indebted to him.

“Proud For Tun!” She barked out between gasps of the mild air.

The rest of the team, still running flat-out, could hardly gather enough breath to return the rallying cry.

“Proud for..” some barked in one breath, followed by “…Tun!” in the next. Some could only manage “Tun!”

Anchu, looking like he was trotting at a relaxed pace, sang out all of Dak’s greeting to Tunkan.

“Here we come!

Second to none!

Ready to race!

Proud for Tun!”

And with that, this phenomenal team running top speed accelerated further, and overtook the next musher, becoming the race leader.

Bogged Down

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.

A Team of Eight

Sasha and the team streaked across the foot of the glacier at breakneck speed. They were moving so quickly, Tatiana could hear the wind rush past her ears, and she, too, caught Anchu’s spirit of competition and reckless abandon. She laughed out loud as she let the team run full speed with no braking. She was certain she’d never moved this fast on a dogsled before, and she crouched down to reduce wind drag and keep the center of balance low. As they approached the bottom of the hillclimb, the transition could be seen to be a bit rough, with a narrow creek running perpendicular to the course.

“Ho! Ho! Easy now! Ho!” Tati shouted. She repeated the commands, but the dogs seemed to be deaf to them. She stepped lightly on the claw brake to reinforce the command physically. The dogs hardly noticed, and continued to run at a fast gallop toward the shallow open water, the ripples betraying a rough bottom, some rocks protruding above the surface. “Hey! Hey! Whoa now, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Tati inflected the call with a scolding. She stepped with both feet onto the claw brake. At last this finally began to slow the team, and with continued braking she managed to get them to pull up almost to a stop before the creek. She hopped off the runners, never loosing the back bow from her grip, and urged the team to go easy across the water. She trotted through the creek to reduce the weight on the sled as it bumped over the rocks.

The moment the sled’s runners were clear of the creek, she shouted another rapidly repeating command to go, and she dug in with both feet, sprinting behind the sled, pushing up the hill. It was mostly covered with snow, but there were many bare patches about, some fairly large. Big rocks stuck out of the ground forming something of an obstacle course on the steep grade.

“Pick it out, Dak! Find the trail! Pick it Out! Pick it out!”

Dak had already begun looking up the hill, three, four or five turns ahead. A track up the mountain revealed itself to trained eyes. A shortest distance, vectored with avoidance of obstacles, staying on snow wherever possible. The call to “pick it out” meant he was to choose the path, to lead the team in the most advantageous fashion he could. This was perhaps the most common use of the command, when a well-trained dog has the experience to pick the easiest route. Sometimes this was used in unfamiliar territory, when the driver knew no landmarks. A good lead dog can find a trail under three feet of snow. Part skill, part training, part instinct, and in a strange place in the darkness, what seemed like a little magic.

Dak would turn left and Tati would call for the team to haw. She’d move both feet to the left runner and sling her compact body out over the side, pulling the right runner up, riding on one. She’d make turns this way, and when needed, lift a runner to avoid a rock or patch of bare ground. Between turns she was on the ground and ran as fast as the dogs. Sasha could not help but to be impressed by her young friend. This added to her exhilaration, and her legs, now hot with working muscles, flushed with blood, seemed to increase in their speed and power. Like Tati, she pushed hard, and dug into the hillclimb with every bit of energy she had.

The thrill of speed, going flat out or as quickly as possible, is a mesmerizing and hypnotic experience. Each moment, a drive to continue faster, beating back the warnings and fears of the rational, self-preserving mind. There is no time to heed warnings, only time to react as this foot comes up and that one comes down and as this one comes up again it needs a place to land right now! And so on and so on, over and over as rapidly, or perhaps more so, than one can handle. Look, move, react. Look, move, react.

The team zig-zagged up the hillside, straining against gravity, their speed ebbing as the climb wore on. Tati was still running behind the sled, her breathing now deep and rapid, grabbing lungfuls of air and pressing onward nearly blindly, following the sled wherever it led her. A foot slipped on the snow-covered slope and her legs went out from under her. As she fell, her forehead struck the left runner, slicing a gash above her left eye. In spite of the pain she quickly grabbed for the safety line, a rope of three or four meters trailing behind the sled. She grabbed it with both hands as the team continued their progress, and rolled onto her back as she was dragged up the hill. The ground beneath was alternately smooth and slick with snow, then hard, icy, peppered with rocks. Tati tried to roll onto her belly to pull herself to the sled, but the hard ground and rocks made it impossible, and she returned to her back to ride out the rough spot.

All the dogs were breathing hard now, panting rapidly, their rib cages heaving. Still they pumped their legs to a quick gate, and barked encouragements to one another whenever a breath could be had. Near the top of the hill, the snowcap deepened, and the ground was smooth enough for Tati to slide along on her belly as she pulled herself back to the moving sled. As she hauled herself up onto the runners, she could see the top of the hill, thirty meters ahead. She grabbed the handle of the back bow and jumped to the ground, running again. Ten meters, five, three, each step now a labor.

At last they crested the hilltop, and relief washed over them as they settled onto the flat trail along the ridgeline. They could see the next team, far down the trail ahead. Dak backed off the pace a bit, and the team followed suit. They galloped along at a quick but relaxed gait, catching their breath after the exhausting hill climb. Tati was catching her breath as well, and pushed off with one foot as they cruised along the snow-covered trail.

Then, Sasha caught the slightest whiff of a scent from the team ahead. She sampled the air again, picking through the countless smells in the air as it washed by. There it was again! The team ahead!

Sasha barked excitedly and began to sprint until her neck line stopped her.

“Come on! Come on!” She shouted to the team, straining at her harness, compelling them to action.

“The next team! It’s Jiak!”

 

Race Day

When Sasha awoke in camp in Tunkan, she saw the sun had migrated to the opposite horizon. It was morning, and Tun was hitching the team to the racing sled. While working, he frequently lifted his head and looked into the meandering crowds in the village, searching the faces for one in particular. A call came from the center of the village, the race official calling all entrants to weigh in.

Drivers would stand on a small platform on a plank, resembling a child’s teeter-totter. Others would pile stones on the opposite end, until the weight of the heaviest driver was determined. After this, each driver would stand on the scale, and weight would be added until all were equal. These handicap stones would be placed on the sled, and this way all drivers were equal in weight to start the race. One by one the drivers stood for the first round, determining the handicapped weight. Then again, each would climb onto the platform to receive their handicap weights. Only three drivers remained in the line, and Tun continued to look about anxiously.

He found Rol, and asked if he would drive his sled in the race, as the driver he’d expected was nowhere to be found. Rol shrank a little at the request, having little experience mushing. He assured Tun he’d be willing to do whatever he asked, but felt he was not a very skilled driver, and didn’t want to bring the team down. “We haven’t missed a race at Festival as long as we’ve been coming. We don’t have to win, Rol. Do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.”

With that, Rol stood in the line behind one other driver, as the handicapping was completed. As the driver ahead of him stepped on the scale, someone came running to him from the edge of the village.

“I’m here! I’m here!” she said, and Sasha leaped up to look. It was Tatiana, Jiak’s love interest from  Kantuc! “Hey! Hey!” Sasha barked, but Tati did not turn to her, the barking lost among the dozens of barks coming from excited teams ready to race. She started to run to Tati, only to be arrested, having forgotten she was hitched to the sled. She had to get Tati’s attention, and she barked repeatedly, sprang up and down on her forelegs. “Hey! Hey! It’s Me! Over here!”.

Tun turned from preparation of the sled at the sound of the repetitive barking. He looked up to see Tati climbing on the scale, and he let out a whoop of joy and greeting for her. She turned and waved energetically, tossed her handicap stones in a deerskin sack, and ran over to Tun.

“I almost didn’t make it!” she said breathlessly, as Tun wrapped his arms around her. “Our sled broke through the ice on Flat Creek and we almost lost it!”

“Oh my goodness! I’m so glad you’re okay.” Tun answered. “Where’s your father?”

“He took the team to the river for water.” Tatiana replied. “And to let them settle their nerves. Two went into the water with the sled, but the rest pulled the wreck from the edge of disaster!”

It was then Tati saw Sasha. At first glance, she saw another dog in harness, then she realized just who it was. A bit out of place, since she had always seen the dog with Bek or Jiak.

“Is that Sasha? My Sasha?” At this, Sasha melted. Her tail wagged as quickly as it could, and she threw herself on her side, turned her belly up for a good rub. Tatiana went to her, and hugged her several times between kisses and belly rubs. The rest of the team wanted attention, too, and they all loved Tati, their regular driver now for the last four Festival races. They wagged and whimpered and crowded around her as best they could, their movement limited by the harness.

“They’re ready to start the race.” Tun addressed Tati. “I’m glad you made it. A couple of new dogs this year, as you’ve seen. Unknown commodities.”

“Oh, Sasha is young, but she’s a real musher. Who is the other dog?”

“That’s Anchu, Sasha’s brother.”

“Well, if he can run as good as he looks, we’re on our way to a win!”

Another call was heard from the center of the village. All drivers were ordered to their sleds and instructed to join the queue for starting positions. More than a dozen sled teams, some larger and some smaller than Tun’s, lined up along the street. The noise was nearly deafening as every team barked with eager anticipation. Occasionally the competitors would get too close, and two or more dogs would try to charge each other. Rarely, they would have enough lead to reach one another, but fights were quickly quelled by the drivers.

Tati climbed onto the slim racing sled, threw the bag of stones on it.

“Okay team! Eik! Line ’em up.” The dogs felt they were already lined up. Had been for quite some time as far as they were concerned. They added their barks to the cacophony filling the village. Tati directed them to the line, and they took their place. Then they waited. This seemed the longest part of the entire day, as they continued to stand still while teams were released one by one.

“Why can’t we just all go at once?” asked Alexei, as much to the ether as to any one individual, continuing his consternation at the workings of the race. Three more teams ahead of them. More waiting. Two more teams. Waiting. One more.

Sasha was excited and nervous about her first race. She felt she was a confident musher on the Trapline Trails, but wondered if that was anything like racing. She didn’t want to drag the team down. She was concerned also for Brother Anchu, even less experienced than she. She had no instruction on this racing thing. She needed some reassurance, some direction.

She called out to Stone. “What do we do if we…”

“Go!” came the call from the race official.

“Eik! Eik! Eik! Eik!” Tati ordered the team with rapidly repeating commands. She placed both hands on the back bow and sprang from the starting position like a sprinter, pushing the sled so hard and fast that the line slacked a bit before the dogs tensioned it.

Sasha worked her legs as fast as she could, but still felt the slack in the line. She pressed harder and the harness tightened around her chest. Then it slacked again, even with Tati on the runners.

“Come on, Sis!” Anchu called to her loudly “Let’s win this race!” and Sasha realized that Anchu was running so fast and pulling so hard that it was he who caused her line to slack behind her.

“Pace yourself!” Dak called in short staccato commands, “It’s a long race. Save your wind.”

Tati weighed next to nothing, and even with the handicap stones, the sled seemed light as air. Anchu could not stop himself from pressing harder. His energy and speed were contagious, and soon the whole team, Dak included, threw caution to the wind, and they ran flat out onto the foot of the glacier. Here, with the wet snow atop the frozen ice, and the runners greased with lard, the team gained more speed. Tatiana was astonished at the pace, and called to the team to “Take it easy now.”

They would hear none of it. Even the most experienced dogs on the team could not resist Anchu’s spirit of competition, and they all poured on the power.

Sasha realized she was running flat out. It was exciting and exhilarating and she paid no attention to social graces. Her mouth hung open, panting, her tongue flapped where it pleased, drool flew from her mouth and her smile stretched so wide it made her face hurt. She looked up and down the gangline to see six other dogs running top speed, flapping their tongues, flinging drool and smiling ear-to-ear.

“This is one of the best feelings I’ve ever known.” She thought to herself.

“Lift your heads!” was all Dak could squeak out between gulps of air.

“Proud for Mother!” came the breathless replies. “Proud for Tun!”

And with that, their pace quickened further.

In the first mile, they overtook two teams. At first the others would look over their shoulders, pick up their pace a bit. As Tun’s team came streaking past them, their mouths opened in wonder. As they watched the team dash away, their stamina waned, paces slowed.

As they approached the hill climb, the team got their second wind.

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.