Spokes And Spires

Rol left the house in good order, save the burnt food smell, and insured the door was latched and would not blow open again, as he found it. He flipped the burnt food pail upside down behind the shed, and scrubbed the other cook pot clean before hitching the team.

“It feels strange this time. Leaving here.” Sasha said. “Last time it felt like I was leaving my whole world behind. Now it’s just a distant memory. This could be any place, any yard, any doghouse.”

“Perhaps we’ll meet up on the trail.” Anchu offered, always looking for the positive, the silver lining in any situation. “Or maybe in Tunkan.”

“Up! Up!” Rol commanded, as the team stood and tensioned the gangline.

“All those dogs.” Sasha spoke her thoughts out loud. “Who would take all the dogs?”

“Hike! Hike!” the call came, and the team plied the trail eastward.

At the top of the valley wall, Sasha decided she would not look back. All the way up the long draw of the sidecut she had thought of turning her gaze at the top. Back upon the trail to her once-beloved home. To look to the place where Mother stood patiently watching Sasha and Anchu leaving. She found herself thinking in a different light as she and the team ascended the ridge. There are times for looking back, looking long. Times to hold these visions close in our hearts and minds.

Then there are times for not looking back. This needn’t represent an ending or beginning. There are times for looking forward. Times for seeking and seeing what is before us. Time to leave the dreams of last night’s slumber, and look to define new dreams, new destinations, new aspirations. What is past is now history, memory. It cannot be affected or altered any more than one could remove the sun from the sky. Good and bad, memories will always remain unchanged, unaffected by time.

A feeling rose within her. She began to feel and see herself as an independent being. Not only part of the team, not only part of a pack. Not only part of Tun’s family, not only Anchu’s sister, but one equal and kindred to all other dogs, and yet apart. She saw in her life a wheel around which the outboard aspects of her world turned. She remained centered, the hub.

There was a spoke of now and today. Rol and the team returning eastward, returning to Tun and Tati and the village. And here was a spoke populated by her old homestead; Bek, Nina, Jiak, Kotka, Mother, Nona the Cat. The dogs’ yard. A house with her name on it.

Another spoke ran all the way to the top of the mountain, past Tear-In-The-Rocks Creek, to Tun’s hilltop Lodge, its solitude and sanctuary, its freedom and comforts. Still another led to Kantuk. Jiak and Tati sharing afternoons together. Sasha playing with laughing children, or sleeping in the warm yaranga. Simple, happy times that now seemed long ago, yet the smiles and the sun shone as brightly as the last day she was there. The warmth of the love and happiness shared then filled her now, as the team trekked past Silver Creek, and up the Tunkan Trail.

Elsewhere, another spoke of the wheel reached down into darkness. It was filled with mystery and fright and longing. Strangers and soldiers. Illnesses and wringing hands, hastily sent messengers. Peering down a long cave, the images faded into the darkness. Danger unseen, yet sensed. Cold violence and cruel death hidden within, veiled in blackness.

Opposite this spoke’s fearful composition, one that reached all the way to the heavens. It touched and stirred the Spirit Lights that danced above. It was white as snow and shined as brightly as the stars. It was safety and surety, warmth and welcoming. It was the spoke of love, all around and above her. From her first vision of Mother to the love of her life, Jiak. From kind and caring Bek and Nina to the wonder-filled joy and love of Tun. It was kisses on the head from Tati, congratulations from Akej, hugs of laughing children.

As these thoughts swirled around her mind and heart, she looked up the trail to the top of the hill ahead. Beyond it stood the mighty mountain, the ancient dormant volcano that stood watch over Tunkan. Tiny crystals of ice floated down through the air and were illuminated by the sun, streaming up the trail. A glittering, sparkling column reached skyward and seemed to clasp the hands of the Spirit Lights, joining past, present and future.

A great sense of peace and belonging washed over Sasha as she observed the shining spire of ice and light. How could she not have thought of this before? How all of Mother’s teachings guided her to this very place in her life, this moment of realization.

“A pack does not need to be all the same species.” Mother had told her when the whole world consisted only of Bek, Nina, Jiak, Nona the Cat and the dogs in the yard. “We are all of us a pack.” she concluded.

Sasha thought of the wheel. Bek and Jiak, Tun and Tati. Her team, Akej’s team, Ilja’s team. Of Chimlik and Sarut. Of Kotka and Rol, Rol’s family and herd. The bears, the wolves, the owls and the sables. “We are all of us a pack!” she spoke her thoughts again. As she returned her gaze to the Earth, she marvelled at a newfound feeling within. A warmth and belonging. She now saw everything around her as her own. Not only part of her world, but part of her life. Simultaneously she felt as if she, too, belonged to all these things. The people and the dogs, the Spirit Lights and the snow, the volcano and the trees. She was overwhelmed with a joy hitherto unknown. All the world is her pack, she realized.

“We are all of us a pack.” she repeated the words as if hearing them for the first time. Indeed, she felt as if she were seeing the world anew. There must be a reason for this, something must have awakened and inspired this spirit. She vowed to waste no time at this moment trying to discern what the trigger may have been. She’d have the rest of her life to reflect on that. For now, all she wanted was to experience this fullness of spirit, this lightness of being. She felt as if no worry could vex her that she could not see as part of the wheel, this great ballet of life, this kaleidoscope world. She rather suddenly felt she loved everything. Even the fierce wolverine, even the rabbits deigned prey.

She watched Kotka trotting along beside the team, and thought of his harrowing tale of fearsome intruders. She thought of the people called soldiers. She could not understand their actions, yet felt still that these, too, were part of her pack. “A mean dog has a reason to be so.” It was as if Mother were whispering the lesson in her ear. Surely the soldiers, too, had reason for their malevolence. This thought, that these so foreign to her, and perhaps evil, were equally a part of the wheel, raced around in her head. Their deeds may be harmful, but they still deserved love and respect. This dichotomy pulled at opposite ends of her heartstrings. On one hand, these wayward ones are still us, still part of our pack. And on the other, the heartache of her own kin, and the unresolved quandary of their present location and condition. Emotions swirled like snow devils as she and the team topped the last rise before Tunkan came into view.

“Stop! Stop!” Rol shouted excitedly, momentarily forgetting mushing commands. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he repeated, “Hold up!”. Still standing on the runners of the racing sled, his hands holding an iron grip on the backbow, Rol began to shake with fear. He stood, wide-eyed, his mouth hanging open, as he looked into the village.

“Oh Great Spirit!” he called out, for protection and safety, for consolation and assurance, or perhaps to wipe away the terrible scene before him. The boy who was almost a man could not contain himself, and burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably, the heels of his hands pressed to his eyes.

There, spread across the tundra before him, were the remains of Tunkan. The village he’d left just two days ago filled with revelers and racers, children and campfires, dogs and reindeer and laughing out loud. Now, smoke rose from blackened wood frames of cabins burned to the ground. Not a single one of the dozen buildings was spared. Several yarangas were collapsed into heaps, plumes of black smoke rising from them.

Rol was terrified by the scene, and felt that those responsible may still be near, felt he may be apprehended at any moment. He jumped off the sled and hid behind a boulder, eyeing the destruction. He stayed there, frozen in fear and time, observing the smoldering village, looking for signs of life, of his people. No person could be seen, the only activity a half-dozen dogs that scampered from one smoking mass to another. They would each go to a spot in the center of the village and stop, lie down for a while. Some would remain here as others came and went. They seemed to be huddled around a bulge covered by a blanket of furs. It shocked him to see the bulge move. A hand reached out and touched a dog. Just a touch to the head, held for a long minute, then the hand withdrew. The dog continued to stand and stare at the bulge for another minute, its tail swinging slowly side to side in relaxed, friendly motion that was completely out of context in the midst of utter destruction.

Someone was there. Someone remained in the village amidst the smoke and debris, where not another soul could be found. The touch of the hand to the dog proved it was not some unknown marauder. Now Rol reconsidered the scenario at Bek’s. Perhaps the family did not simply go somewhere. Perhaps those responsible for this preceded Rol to the homestead. This served only to increase Rol’s fears. Suddenly he worried about his family. His parents and sister, though not at festival, could be gone already. He had to get to the village. Whomsoever was in the bulge must know something about what occurred here. Maybe they were the only people left on the peninsula, he and the bulge with a hand.

“Mush up! Let’s go!”

The team drove into the place that was once the village of Tunkan.

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.”

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!”

 

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.

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.