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.