Unbroken

 

“Down to five again.” Stone said to Dak. They trotted side by side at the front of the group as they started down the mountain trail, Umka, Anchu and Sasha close behind. Dak gave a long and knowing look at Stone, and made no reply.

“Maybe we can catch up with Alexei.” Stone accompanied the statement with a quickening step, and encouragement for Dak and the others to follow suit.

“Wait! Wait!” Sasha stopped in her tracks and called to the rest. “I need to go back and tell Kotka where I’ve gone.” The group stopped in response and looked back, still facing down the hill. “I’ll be right back. You go ahead and I’ll catch up.”

With little more than nods of acknowledgement, the panting dogs resumed their trot, and disappeared into the woods. Sasha galloped near top speed back up the draw, and crossed the meadow to the Lodge Village. When she arrived at the shed, she found it empty. Wishing to avoid delay, she began a circle around the perimeter of the occupied spaces, calling Kotka. Near the Lodge she heard his deep voice answer her call, and she found him lying on the porch of the Dogs’ House.

“What’s going on?” Kotka asked, rising to his feet and sounding genuinely concerned at the sight of his hurried and winded friend.

“The pack…” she started, and was struck by the fact that she considered him a part of it, yet somehow separate. In the same way Tun stood out as one among many. There was something about both of them that made you feel you were in the presence of greatness. Awe and reverence filled those fortunate enough to know them. “Some of us…” she started again, “The team…”. Any words she chose seemed inadequate. Somehow excluding Kotka, bordering on insult.

“Sosh.” he interrupted, sensing her plight. “You don’t need to mince words with me. With a bum leg, I’m never going to be on a team again. But you’re young and strong. You run for both of us.”

“Gosh, I..I” she stuttered.

“I heard your team is going to look for Tun. You go, and I’ll see you when you return, okay?”

“No. Change of plans.” Still winded, she spoke in bursts, “We’re going down the mountain. To get Larik. Back to Tunkan.”

“A much better idea!” he exclaimed, “When are you leaving?”

“They’re on the trail already. I came back to tell you.” She went to the water dish on the ground beside the porch. She licked at the clear surface but discovered it was frozen. She gave it a few more licks.

“Gee, that was thoughtful. I would have been sick with worry. But you better get going, to catch up with your team!”

“I need to say goodbye to Rol.”

“That will be some trick!” Kotka laughed, “Have you learned to speak human?”

“Well, I need to see him, at least, before I go.” She was already searching intently the faces of those that filled her field of view, anxious to keep moving. Anxious to catch up with her comrades on the trail.

“You’d better not spend too much time looking for him or you’ll be alone on the trail!” He took a step to imply urgency, with a bright encouraging gleam in his eye.

She spun and darted off. “We won’t be long.” she barked over her shoulder, her parting words fading as she raced out of sight.

She made a complete circle again, all around the grounds, but could find no sign or scent of Rol anywhere. She thought perhaps he may be in the Lodge or another building with doors. Running up to the front entrance of the Lodge, she began barking repeatedly. A loud “Pay Attention!” bark, repeated twice for every breath, a non-stop stream of resonating calls. The door opened, and a woman stuck her head out, waved her hand at Sasha and bade her away. Sasha took advantage of the open door and bolted through it, running down the hall of the building, looking and smelling for Rol.

“Sasha!” she heard called from behind her, a room she’d just passed, and in an instant, Rol was in the hall running toward her. She ran to him, panting and tail wagging as he knelt to wrap his arms around her. She enjoyed the hug for one luxurious moment, and returned the gesture, pressing her face to his.

Then she stood, took a step, and faced the door. She looked back at Rol with another bark, “Come on!”

“Whoa! Whoa! Where are you going? You just got here.” the boy’s heart quickened. He was glad she had returned to him, somehow his favorite among the team he’d joined briefly. At least it was a living thing known and akin to him in some way. He had hoped to set out again with a team, cobbled together as best he could, to head north to search for his family. When he saw the team running away, his heart nearly burst. Not only did they leave him stranded for a dog team, he felt they were as fond of him as he was of them. Then, like Alexei, in a village full of people, he somehow felt alone.

Sasha repeated the step, stop and bark message. “Come on, Rol. We’re going to get Larik!”

“You want to go out?” Rol followed her to the door, his heart aching in his chest. He didn’t want her to run away again, but wouldn’t think of leashing her. He could only hope she wanted to stay here with him. This voluntary act made by every dog he has ever loved and who loved him. The freedom to leave answered by the desire to remain. It was a loving bond of trust. Rol was truly a dog person. He felt dogs were a special species among all. To be able to live with us as family. If she wanted to leave, Rol would not deny her liberty. He opened the door and trailed her outside.

She took two steps and let out two barks this time, trying to look impatient, trying to imply the direction of the trail.

“Where are you going?” he called to her. She ran back to him and barked again, took two steps.

“What do you want? Food? Water?”

She repeated the barking and stepping and pointing toward the trail, but Rol did not recognize any of the clues. She trotted a distance from him, toward the trail that beckoned to her to hasten.

“Okay. You want to go, don’t you?” Rol was resigned, but joy filled his heart that she had tried to bring him along. He looked on the beautiful dog with a great grin. “Okay. I can’t go with you, but you go ahead.”

She barked again, each unable to fully understand the other. Somehow, it seemed, a certain communication was still to be had between them. Rol smiled and waved his hand.

“Yes! Go!” he said cheerily, as one giving permission to a child to do as she pleased.

Sasha heard the word “Go”, yet saw Rol made no move to follow. A smile on the young man’s face was the final clue she needed. It seemed he was unable or unwilling to join her, but embraced her determination, trusting that she knew what she wanted, and reconciling himself to acceptance. She knew he would not be so sad after this exchange. She hadn’t really taken Rol to her heart until she saw how disappointed and melancholy he was as the team ran off. Barely a man, still half-child, she could not have gone knowing this, and knowing that he, too, seemed one apart from the other villagers. As if his pack, too, was scattered across the frozen plains.

Rol raised a hand and held it as Sasha sprinted for the mountain trail. He watched, this time baring a smile, until she again disappeared over the hill.

She’d gone just a short distance, to the first turn, where the trail curved sharply around the back of a large rock outcropping before a plunging descent. As she came around the turn she had to quickly side step to keep from running face first into Anchu. There the four members of the party were gathered. Umka lying on the ground licking at his foreleg, Stone pacing at the edge of the drop off.

“We had to wait for you.” Dak greeted her. “All set?”

She smiled and nodded in breathless, enthusiastic agreement.

Stone caught her eye as they got underway, “A pack needs to stick together.”

Spirit Guide

 

“Great,” Larik growled sarcastically, “some fool has burnt down the village. I hope there’s still food left.”

“But where is everyone?” Sasha queried, “Tun, and the other teams? All the teams. All the people and all the reindeer?”

The smell of the burnt buildings and yarangas hung heavily in the air. An overpowering, sickening smell. Not only wood, but fur, leather and fabrics, food, even metals, had burned and scorched in the conflagration.

“Easy. Easy. Slow now, slow.” Rol urged the team, cautiously approaching the village. He watched in every direction for signs of his people, signs of the invaders, signs of anything that could be of a threat, or of salvation. As he and the team drove toward the fur-clad heap in the center of the destroyed settlement, the sound of singing met their ears.

 

Guide us, Iluk-ener, take us home.

Remain steadfast, unmovable, however far we roam.

 

Watch over us, Oh Spirit Lights, with those of us who passed before,

And welcome us into the sky when we breathe the air no more.

 

Oh, Great Spirit, we have wept, our tears the great wide sea would fill,

When one is called aloft to you. Though they are free, we mourn them still.

 

We are Lygoravetlyan. From tundra wide to Enmitahin.

Iluk-ener, Spirit Lights, guide me home, and all my kin.

 

The dogs of the village spotted Sasha and the team, and immediately barked their “Intruder!” warning as they sped to meet the new arrivals. The moment they recognized the group as one of their own, they all began simultaneously to tell of the events in Tunkan, and to pepper them with questions.

“Woolgreen people ransacked the village!”

“They took everything with them!”

“Do you have any food?”

“Where have you come from?”

“Did you see the woolgreen men?”

“They set fire to everything.”

“They took all the food.”

Larik barked out brusquely “We don’t have any food!”.

“Well, maybe there is some left.” Stone stated encouragingly, throwing a displeased sideways glance at Larik. “We’ve come from the tundra, skyward. The soldiers, that is, the woolgreen men, were there already, and we had just left Tunkan two days ago, so they’re moving seaward.”

The team continued into the center of the settlement with Rol, the village dogs trotting alongside and barking excitedly. He stopped the sled beside the bulge and stepped from the runners. Walking around the pile of fur blankets, he found an opening. Within, aged eyes as blue as ice caught Rol’s gaze. It was Chimlik, Donat of Tunkan.

“Grandfather!” Rol addressed Chimlik with the customary title for any elder man, conveying reverence and respect. “Are you alright? What has happened here?”

“Yes.” Chimlik answered calmly, as if it were just an ordinary day. “I am well. The village has been raided by a war party. Everyone has gone.” He spoke as if telling a story of the hunt.

“A war party?” Rol’s eyes widened. “Who was it? Where did everyone go? Are they coming back?” Tears welled in his eyes, and his throat tightened around the words. Spoken aloud, even in his own voice, they reeked with terror. “Do you know where my family has gone?”

The old man waited patiently for the rattled boy to finish his string of questions.

“Who are you?” he asked with a relaxed air, as if pouring tea for a guest.

“I am Rol, son of Evgenii of the Chavchu.” His father’s name, and that of his clan, brought another lump to his throat, but Rol held up his chin with pride as the tears streaked down his face.

“Evgenii has gone with the rest.” Chimlik stated, as if there were no special significance to the fact.

“Did the war party take him?”

“No, child. Your father and a number of others fled just before the soldiers arrived. There was a girl, a Kamchadal, who came ahead of them with a warning.”

“Soldiers?” Rol was barely familiar with the term, and had never seen a soldier. He recalled stories of decades ago, how soldiers broke up the villages, tried to drive off the incongruous and inconvenient society at the far-flung reaches of a dawning empire.

“Yes. Army men from the west, in uniforms, riding horses.”

“Army soldiers? Horses?”

“Many people were still here when they came. The soldiers said they had to go with them.”

“Go to where, grandfather?” Rol tried desperately to appear manly before the revered leader, but could not help the tears running down his cheeks, his voice cracking. He tried to sound calm and oriented, brave and persistent, grownup and fearless. “Where have they taken my…”

The boy again burst out sobbing. “What will happen to them?” he squeaked out between gasping breaths.

“I wish I could answer your questions, boy, but I don’t know the answers. They are probably taken to be slave laborers.” Chimlik once again stated this quite matter-of-factly. As if they were not sitting amid the devastation of the burnt-out village. As if they were not speaking of people they know, loved ones and family. As if they were discussing things happening far away to unknown people.

“Slaves?” Rol sobbed, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“But your father went with Tun and Ilja, and Nachic.” He paused, trying to recall the others that fled before the invasion. “There were a number of them. Dorik and Tulaen. And Evgy. They went east, and took the children with them.”

“Went where? Where did they go?”

“I wish I knew, child. I wish I could tell you.” Chimlik was without pretense or stoicism, and tears flowed down his round cheeks. The many streaks in the dirt on his face gave evidence they were not the first. He placed his hand on Rol’s shoulder and held it there. He made several futile attempts to return to the song of his life. The song he had learned before he was old enough to remember the occasion. Its verses sung with his parents, his brothers and sister, friends, aunts and uncles, cousins. On the trail, moving the herds, in the warm yaranga, or on a hilltop, alone with the universe.

As fixed as the North Star, Polaris- Iluk-ener- the unmoveable star, Chimlik and his people were as much a part of the Chukchi peninsula as the glacier and the trees, the volcano and the snow, the wolves and the reindeer. The one and only original man- Lygoravetlyan- and Chimlik was confident his life and fate had been created, directed and known to the Spirit Lights of his ancestors always. One will never know the circumstance of one’s death beforehand. This is a great secret to the Spirits, and that in itself is a gift to mankind. That one may move through one’s days with the understanding that you will arise each day until the day comes when you rise no more, and therefore, live with no worry of it.

Several attempts to start the song met with resistance in Chimlik’s throat. A lump choking him, causing him to breathe in rattling gasps. He was surprised, and compelled to tears of joy, at the accuracy of his recollection of his mother’s voice.

“Guide us Iluk-ener. Show us the way.

Show us the way…” he trailed off, looking to the top of the volcano.

Show us the way, Rol thought. His mind had gone blank, unable to see past the shock and loss, the devastation and horror, the black pall of grief. Chimlik sang between sobs.

“From tundra wide to Enmitahin.”

Immediately, Rol felt this was his answer to his unspoken prayer to the Spirit Lights for guidance. This was the way!

“Enmitahin!” Rol shouted out, startling Chimlik enough to halt his singing. “That’s where they’ve gone!” He felt an impulse to begin running without hesitation to find his family. Again, his father’s lessons came to the forefront of his mind: “First, we don’t panic.” He repeated the sentence over and over in his head but the words seemed to have no meaning. Try as he might, the thought could not take hold. “They have gone to The End of The Cliff. I will take you there.” Rol suddenly had a task for his reeling mind to focus on.

“No, boy. I stay here.”

“But grandfather, you’ll die if I leave you here alone.” Rol said, “What will you eat?”

“I am on my Spirit Journey already. It began when the soldiers burned the village. I am Donat of Tunkan. Without Tunkan, I am nothing.”

“I will leave you the food I have.” Rol pulled out a small sack containing the rest of the jerky Tun had packed for him. “It’s not much.”.

“No.” Chimlik spoke resolutely and raised the palm of his hand. “No thank you. I have all I need.”

In Chukchi culture, when a man reaches an age where he can no longer leave the yaranga and go out to contribute to the constant work of living in this extreme environment, his time is spent. One fortunate enough to have a son would call for the ritual of death: a knife plunged quickly into the heart. Rol would do nothing to interfere with Chimlik’s Spirit Journey, one’s last journey, into the heavens to join his ancestors among the stars.

“Good journey.” was all Rol could think of to say, as he shook the ice-cold hand of the old man.

“So, there’s no food I guess.” Larik observed, disappointed but not surprised.

Sasha was more concerned with all the inhabitants of the village than her stomach. She added these to the list including Bek’s family and all the dogs of the old homestead, including her own Mother.

Rol felt lost. He wasn’t really sure how to get where he was going, and realized he was completely unprepared for an extended trek. This was shadowed by an overpowering sense that he must leave here, escape this place, and search for his family.

“Up!Up! Let’s go!” Rol leaned against the back bow to push.

“Is this kid crazy?” Larik snarled, “I’m tired. And I’m hungry. I’m not going.” He laid in his traces, refusing to stand.

“Come on! Let’s go! Mush!” Rol cajoled and coaxed the team.

“We’re all tired.” Dak said with some compassion. “Let’s do the best we can.”

“I already have. I’m not going.” Larik laid his head on his forepaws.

Rol walked over and unceremoniously unhitched Larik’s tug line and neck line, leaving the wheel position empty, and returned to the back bow.

“Come on you guys,” Rol pleaded with the team, “I need to find my family. Up! Mush!”

“Let’s go.” Stone stated in a tone that sounded saddened and frustrated, but resigned to the task before them.

“Without Larik?” Alexei was beside himself with astonishment.

Dak began to move, and with him the harness that bound them as a team.

“Can’t we rest here?” Umka offered, “With Chimlik?” The sled was already moving, and Rol stepped onto the runners.

“But Larik!” Alexei was panicked now. Resisted the tug line, whipped his head around to all the team and back to where Larik lay, his chin on his forepaws, only his eyes moving as he watched the group recede. Alexei let out several loud whimpers.

“He’ll be alright.” Sasha tried to console Alexei, “He’s with all those other dogs.”

The words seemed to fly over Alexei’s head as he continued looking over his shoulder, repeating his cries.

“Leave him to his heartache.” Stone said, meeting Sasha’s eye, “Larik is his brother.”

“Yes. I know what it’s like to leave your pack behind.” she replied soberly.

“No. I mean birth brother. They have never been apart.” Stone looked down as he spoke, “Until today.”

“Wait!” Chimlik shouted at the sight of the ornate racing sled, previously hidden from view. “How do you come to be driving that sled?”

“Whoa! Whoa!” Rol stopped the team and looked back. “It’s Tun’s. He had me take it to Bek’s”

“You are the boy whose coming was foretold. I am to tell you they went to the castle of the giant until freeze-up. Then they will go to the Mountain In The Sea.”

“I don’t understand.” Rol had Chimlik repeat the directions.

“I only remembered when I saw the sled.” the old man stated. He could be of no more help, he said. That was what he was told to say to the boy returning from the tundra with the racing sled.

Rol added this to the jumble of thoughts and emotions racing through his mind, in which he was already on his journey, picking the trails he would take to reach Enmitahin while avoiding the soldiers.

Without rest or food, the team was again underway, plying the trail eastward. Each in turn would take just one look over their shoulder, save Alexei, who could not take his eyes from his brother. The bright sun beamed down on them, and sparkling snowflakes began to dance earthward, as Rol, Sasha and what remained of the team left Tunkan for the last time.

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.

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.

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.