Duty Bound

The lightest of snowflakes drifted Earthward through the still air, flitting about their wandering courses as Rol drove the team eastward on the Tunkan Trail. Or, rather it may be said that Rol gripped tightly the handle of the dogsled as the team charged toward their destination.

Rol was not as well-practiced in dogsledding as some. His Chavchu family of reindeer herders typically drove sledges pulled by the big, hoofed animals built for the Arctic. His father held little stock in dogs as beasts of burden. “A man does more work caring for dogs than the dogs will ever give in return.” Evgenii had said. Rol’s family had three dogs, but all were herders treated as pets, and were not harness trained. The young man had ridden upon and driven a number of dogsleds, nonetheless, and though he felt less skilled than the best, he was confident in his capabilities. There really was no work for him on this trek, for now. Besides holding on to the back bow, he need do little else as the team seemed to follow Tun’s spoken orders, and knew where they were going.

The dogs splashed their way across Silver Creek, but Rol’s lack of dogsledding experience showed as he remained on the runners. The sled ground to a halt the moment it entered the creek and struck the rocky bottom. Rol hopped off the sled, recalling he’d seen it done this way when one encountered open water. As they cleared the creek, Rol was about to call out “Gee!” to the team, to put them on the westbound trail, but before he could, the team turned and did so on their own without commands.

Not far up the trail, Rol came to the first of several choices among the routes. Here, a sidecut bore off south, to the left. The right fork held more of a westbound heading. Again, before calling out a command, the team pulled onto the right fork, and continued up a long, shallow incline.

The air temperature fell through the afternoon, rather unusual at the onset of a light snow. As the team plied the trail, the muddy ruts and dog tracks through soft snow began to freeze solid, making it a bone-jarring bumpy ride for Rol. As they topped the rise, the trail split again. Here the main trail took a gentle turn to the left, while a side trail intersected it, and ran parallel to the ridgeline. The dogs held to the main trail, and a twinge of anxiety flowed through Rol. He had to trust that the dogs knew their course, as he did not. He could only hope that they were bound for the forest, and not running a trapline or following the scent of someone or something of greater interest to the dogs. The route they took coursed up and down over drumlins and low hills. At the top of each, Rol would crane his neck and stretch and try to look westward, seeking the edge of the spruce forest. Alas, he could see no further than the next hill or two, as each seemed to rise slightly higher than the last.

The light snow continued to float about in the air. Individual snowflakes that seemed to flit and dart like birds on the wing. So sparse were they, it seemed the clouds were carefully cutting each one from delicate lace before dropping them gently to the Earth below. As the clouds continued to move to the east, a slim band of clear sky could be seen on the western horizon. The edge of the cloud bank was clearly defined as if its clean edge had been cut with a sharp knife. Below the cloud cover, the orange-red summer sun slowly sank in the sky. As Rol rode along, he watched as, for the first time in weeks, it began to dip below the horizon.  The air remained still, and felt continually colder as the snowflakes increased slightly in number, drifting down like so much white confetti.

At the top of the next hill, the trail split in numerous directions and was trammelled wide by passing herds of reindeer. One trail was a switchback to the east, disappearing into a ravine. There were four trails that headed generally west. Here, Dak stopped, awaiting a command from the driver. Rol, unaware that Dak was trained to stop at such an intersection, feared the team did not know which trail to take. His stomach flipped in a moment of nervousness. He wasn’t concerned with becoming lost, a back trail will always lead you home. He was bound to keep his promise. Bek’s homestead may have troubles and he was to discover them. He worried, too, that Tun anticipated his return tomorrow with word of his findings. There was no time to be on the wrong trail, but to Rol, each looked the same.

“The one in the center, up the hill.” Sasha called to Dak from her position behind Stone. Dak did not hesitate or wait for Rol, but got the team underway on the trail she indicated.

Rol harbored some concern that he couldn’t be certain this was the right way. He considered stopping the team to try to discern somehow for himself which was the trail to the forest. Once again, he had to trust that the dogs, particularly Sasha and Anchu, would know the way that led to the moraine.

The sun continued its dip below the horizon, and now a quarter of it was set. All of the sky and snow around Rol and the team took on a golden-red glow, and the clouds above darkened in hues of purple.

“Not darkness!” thought Rol, realizing he hadn’t planned on the possibility. Now it occured to him that he really had not prepared for this trip at all. In the exuberance of youth he simply hopped onto the sled and rode off, relying on the responsible adults for any serious need or considerations. If not for Tun packing provisions, he would have ridden off without food for himself or the dogs.

He thought now of those long, impatiently-waiting minutes when his father would tick down his well-memorized checklist. He’d assure everything was packed on the sledge. He’d open packs to verify if he couldn’t remember seeing this thing or that properly stowed. Rol realized how, over many trips, his father’s preparations had saved them time and again from tight situations, the elements, hunger, possibly even agony and death. He wished now that he had a checklist of his own, and that he’d employed it for this trip. Now, as the team climbed westward along the trail, Rol’s mind was preoccupied with the list of things he did not bring.

No spare boots to wear while his mukluks were drying, soaked in the creek crossing. Nothing for shelter. No tent or canvas or even a hide to pull over oneself, the extents of the trip seemingly an overnight stay at a friend’s home. His father would never leave home without some option for shelter. Who could know when a storm will arise, or perhaps one of your reindeer will suffer injury or death? His stomach turned until he thought he might vomit when he realized he’d brought nothing to start a fire. This raised such panic that he immediately halted the sled.

“Whoa! Whoa team! Whoa!”.

The dogs responded instantly to their training, and stopped three-quarters of the way up the long draw.

“Ugh! Starting on a hill.” Larik barked out. “What is this guy doing?”

“Maybe there’s something ahead. A bear or something.” Anchu volunteered.

Rol almost stepped off the sled to pull the lead dog around one hundred eighty degrees to begin straightaway to return to Tunkan. His father’s face came into his mind. He spoke no words, but looked confidently and proudly at the young man. In spirit, he conveyed calm. Rol recalled the many days afield with his father, and his mentoring to prepare for life in the Arctic. “First, we don’t panic. There is no circumstance to which we cannot apply our keenness. Your will can create solutions. We respect the Ice Queen, but must not withdraw. If it is our day to die, we must do so. We can believe it is a good day to die.” In an instant, a sense of peace washed over Rol. It was as if his father were here with him, watching over him.

“We will not withdraw.” Rol called aloud to the team, who swung their heads around, wondering what his barks meant, recognizing no commands or even words. All the fear and anxiety in Rol seemed to ebb as he imagined what his father would do, were he here.

“We will not withdraw!” Rol now shouted to the trail, the dogs, the sky, the snow, the three-quarter sun, and the Ice Queen. “Today may be a good day to die, but we have other plans.”

He realized he was cut from the same stock as his father, and trained by one of the best for life in this frozen wilderness. Fire or no fire.

“Mush! Go! Mush you dogs!”

Finally, words the team could comprehend. They began again to pull up the long hill.

“Starting on a hill…” Larik grumbled.

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.

 

Mothers

Sasha’s mind was racing, taking in the events of this singular morning. Things moved so quickly, she felt she had no time to react as she was hitched to Tun’s sled with her brother, Anchu. They were heading to the East Trail, pulling Tun’s sled, part of a new team, before she realized she would not be returning. Mother and the Pack gave her, and Anchu, a warm and hopeful sendoff, and just like that, their lives moved on in a literal sense as well as a figurative one.

So many things went through her mind as the team cruised along the trail. She was still recovering from the suddenness, the unexpected nature of this event. She’d always known she might someday move on to a home of her own, this Mother had told her. Yet having earned a place on the team and having her own name on her doghouse led her to believe she might stay at the Homestead with her favorite person, Jiak. There, the home in which she was born. The only home she’d ever known.

This day was bright with sun, reflecting off the melting snow, the occasional puddle. Sasha inhaled the cool, clean air, smelled the melting snow and the warming Earth. The beauty of the day overwhelmed her senses. The five dogs she’d joined on the team were strong and experienced. They were happiest working and moving, and the new recruits helped share the load. The whole team already worked well together, and they moved swiftly and smoothly up the East Trail and into the spruce forest.

Sasha’s mind wandered again. She thought of her former home, Mother, her people, and the other dogs she’d left behind. She missed them intensely, though she’d been gone only a matter of hours. At the same time, she couldn’t help herself from being excited and curious about the new frontiers she was bound to experience. She was familiar with Tun, and knew by his aura and his close friendship with Bek, Nina and Jiak, that he was a good person to be teamed with. She wondered where they were going, wondered where Tun lived. She reframed the last thought; she wondered where she would now live with him.

“Oh my goodness,” she suddenly said aloud to the new team, “Where are my manners? I should have introduced myself. I’m Sasha, and this is my brother, Anchu.” Anchu, less experienced at mushing, was a little winded, and distracted by his concentration on pulling the sled. He looked up and about, making eye contact with each dog and nodding a breathless acknowledgement.

“That’s okay, Miss,” a big tan and white Husky responded, “leaving home and joining a new team is bound to be a tough thing to do. Tun calls me Rocky, though my name is Stone. Up at the lead is Dak. Ahead of you Alexei, and this is Umka and Larik.” Except for Dak at the lead, who was too busy concentrating on the trail, the other dogs nodded and barked hellos.

“We’ve been together a very long time,” Stone continued, “and we’re glad to have a full team again. We’ve been struggling along since… well…since we lost our mother, Willow, and brother Rika, this winter.”

“You lost your mother?” Sasha replied incredulously, “Can’t you go look for her?”

Larik was next to join the conversation. “He means they’re dead. I hate polar bears.” His voice sounded a bit funny, as if his nose was stuffed up, and he bore the last scabs of a wound healing on his snout, leaving a scar to remind them all, forever, of the bear attack.

“Oh my goodness, that’s so sad.” Sasha answered, “I’m sad for you.”

“Haw! Haw! Det! Eik! Eik!” the driver called to the team as they approached the intersection of the Tunkan Trail. “Haw! Come on now, boys! Up you go!” Tun’s language was lively and prone to make you smile just by the ring of its tone.

“Coldward.” Sasha identified the ordinal direction.

“Yep.” said Stone, “Heading home.”

“So, you are all brothers from the same litter?”

Umka burst out laughing. “Good gracious, no!” he said, the laughter still in his voice. “He means our Pack Mother, Willow.”

“Willow?”

“That was her name. She was the only mother we had.”

“I’m not sure I understand. How can she be Mother if she’s not really your mother?”

“Well, Miss,” Stone replied, “we all need a mother.”

“But everyone has a mother. I mean a mother you were born from.”

“Oh yes, of course. Your birth mother. Still, every pack needs a mother, even if it’s an honorary title.”

“Mothers are good at being nice.” one of the dogs behind Sasha offered.

“Mothers are always brave.” said Alexei.

“Mothers keep us together as a pack. Not just for working or hunting but also when we’re not doing anything.” added Umka.

“Mother.” The simple word, all alone, floated forward from Larik, at the wheel position. “Mother.” he repeated, followed by a small cry.

“Mother.” Sasha heard from Anchu.

The remaining three dogs said it simultaneously, as their countenance became long and forlorn, “Mother.”

Anchu now began to whimper. “I miss Mother.” he said, “I miss home.”

Now the entire team had changed its mood. From a happy, energetic team of dogs they had transformed into a line of sad sacks, hanging their heads, beginning to lose speed.

“Det! Det! Pick it up!” Tun called.

“I’m sure she was a fine mother.” Sasha addressed the team. “I’ve recently left my own mother behind, too.”

The team trod along in silence. The occasional whimper or cry betrayed their thoughts, deeply mourning and recalling their losses.

“I’ll tell you what my Mother would say.” Sasha volunteered in a cheery tone, “She’d say ‘Sadness begets sadness, Joy begets joy’.” She’d hoped it might pick them up a little, encourage them to shake off the blue mood. It had the opposite effect, making them long more for a mother that would dispense such advice.

“Come on now you boys.” Sasha continued brightly, “Another thing she told me was to hold my head high. Make her proud.” She had to catch a lump that climbed into her throat, steady her voice, “Let’s make all our mothers proud.”

All seven on the team, Anchu included, lifted their heads at the sound of this heartfelt admonition. The day seemed to whisper to the team. The familiar and ever-present spruce forest surrounded them, protected them. The bright sun shined down upon them, warming them, lighting their way. The blue sky showed not a cloud, nothing but bright promise, and the silent wood seemed to pay solemn homage to all mothers, now, past and future. Indeed, our Mother Earth seemed to caress the tiny microcosm and its eight inhabitants.

“That’s a fine sentiment, Sasha.” Stone said, “Proud for Mother.”

“Proud for Mother.” another dog said, then another, as they lifted their eyes to the beautiful world.

Another minute of silence passed, as the mood shifted. As they entered the Tunkan Trail, their heads and hearts steadily rising, their pace picked up a little.

“Proud for Mother!” called Dak from the lead.

“Proud for Mother!” his four longtime teammates echoed.

Sasha looked behind her to check on brother Anchu. His face was pulled into a grimace, a precursor to tears. He swallowed hard, twice, and in a tremulous voice said to his brave sister “Proud for Mother.”

They trotted along in silence for quite some time, each individual deep within their own thoughts of Mother and mothers. Smiles slowly came to them, as the brief sadness of parting was overwhelmed by the lifetime of joy and love mothers had imparted on each.

One by one, each looked to Sasha. They were warmed by her true and valiant heart.

Alexei turned to her.

“Will you be our Mother now?”