Teamwork

Through her first spring, Sasha and Jiak were rarely apart. Whether he was tending to the other dogs, training Sasha’s siblings or harnessing up the team for the trail, the young dog followed him everywhere. The puppy pack grew in size quite quickly, and began to train for their important jobs; pulling the sled.

Jiak was a gentle and patient teacher. He’d repeat the same command, often accompanied by a hand gesture, until a dog could understand his meaning. Sasha donned leather boots, and Jiak fitted her with her very first X-harness. The X-harness crosses at the breast bone, and again on the dog’s back, shifting the load rearward on the dog, distributing the weight and pulling from the top of the back.

For starter training, a dog would have the drag bag attached, a leather bag filled with rocks to accustom the dogs to the feeling and commands of pulling, and build the needed muscles. Jiak would call “Hike” or “Mush it up!”, “Go” or “On boys!” to pull. He’d call “Whoa!” and “Hold up!” to stop. Pulls across the yard would be rewarded with bits of jerky. This was fun, and Huskies love to run and pull. It is in their nature, and they enjoyed working for Jiak.

After some practice, the day finally came to pull a sled, though not a full-size one. Jiak hooked up the sprinter sled, a short and light dogsled designed for a single driver and no cargo. Then the most exciting part, the youngsters would be paired in a two-dog harness with an experienced sled dog. A dog named Spring was one of the best tandem teachers. He was quiet but energetic, and knew every command, including a few in other local dialects. He also seemed to understand the newbies, and rarely ran too fast or turned too quickly for a trainee to respond and follow his lead.

Now the important commands were taught. “Line out” to tighten the lines, “Haw” to turn left and “Gee” to turn right. “Easy” for rough spots, and “Everybody Down” to lie still and await the next command. Jiak had trained many sled dogs, and used a constant mixing-up of commands dogs might hear from other drivers. Some said “Mush” to go, others called “On” or “Hike”, sometimes “Go” or “Pull”.  Most used “Whoa” to stop, some would call “Ho!”, some “Hold up”.

Learning to turn was mastered fairly quickly working with an experienced dog. At the sound of a “gee” or “haw”, the older dogs, like Spring, would commence the turn immediately. If the trainee turned away from Spring in the opposite direction, they’d feel the pull of their harness to correct them. If they turned wrong and ran into the larger dog, they would sometimes be knocked down and the sled would stop. After being stepped on several times, it became easier to get the commands right.

During this time, Sasha continued to learn from Mother, and sometimes Kotka,  a real master at pulling the sled, and an enthusiastic teacher. She learned about working in the harness, pulling the sled. The joy of work and camaraderie with the team and driver, praise from Jiak, Bek and Nina.

“When we’re in harness, we are a true team and must work as one.” Mother espoused. “You can’t stop where you want or go where you please or the whole team will be held up. Perseverance, stamina, patience and cooperation with the team are your goals. At times it can be difficult work, but we must carry on. We all rely on each other out on the trail. We’re in this together, and on the taiga, failure can mean pain and death.” Mother cautioned her litter about life in the elements.

The Arctic is narcissistic, in love with her own beauty. To keep it from being over-run by the growing, climbing and crawling things of this Earth, she maintains a frigid and frozen home, unwelcoming and inhospitable to most living things. A very few, those who bow to her superiority and ultimate power, are granted some quarter. Perhaps these things, too, thinks The Ice Queen, wish to repel the takers and destroyers of this world.

Mother taught her children well. A healthy respect and a touch of fear will bear you up in this wilderness. The little pack must learn these important things, for the Arctic is a merciless teacher.

Any lesson from The Ice Queen could be your last.

 

Jiak

The Arctic Hare specializes in running fast, and zig-zagged its way to escape, Sasha a breath behind. A gee, a haw, and gee again. Doubling back, right-angle turns in a single step. The snow was fresh, deep powder, and the dog sank to her shoulders in it. Like swimming and running simultaneously, she pressed all muscles to their limits.  Sasha could feel the gap closing. One more thrust, one more turn. She could smell the dander now, and snow kicked up by the hare spattered her face.

Suddenly, a great commotion woke the sleeping dog, interrupting the dream, just as she was about to strike, leap forward with teeth and jaws, to catch a bunny. There was a team of dogs barking as they approached the homestead, and a man’s voice called out “Whoa! Whoa. Down boys. Everybody down.” Mother was at the door, barking excitedly, tail waving like a flag in the wind. She bounced on her forepaws, threw glances at Bek and Nina.

“Woof!Woof! Somebody’s here, and I know who it is!”

Nina leaped from her chair, fairly flew to the door with a shriek and a smile across her whole face. “It’s Jiak!” Nina called to Bek, as she flung the door open, snow wafting in. “Jiak! Jiak!” she hollered, as if the sled had not stopped three meters from the door.

Mother burst through the door, sprinted to the fur-clad man called Jiak, and leaped- her entire body in the air- onto his chest. He reached out with both arms and grabbed her, unable to slow the momentum, and fell backward into the snow, grinning. He rubbed the dog’s head, laughing aloud, making his way to his feet. “Sneezer!” he called Mother by his pet name for her, then Jiak quickly made for the door, and his own mother.

“Jiak! Jiak!” Nina repeated. It seemed she’d forgotten all other words. She threw her arms around her son’s neck, pressed her face into his chest, and snuzzled. “Jiak” she said again.

“Mama! It’s so good to be home.” answered Jiak, stooping slightly to move through the door, snow dropping from his hood, “Where’s Dad?”

“Here I am!” Bek called, slowly making his way to the door with his walking stick. He tossed the stick down as he threw his arms around Jiak, and they bear-hugged, banging on each other’s backs as if each was trying to burp a giant baby. “I was just starting to…” a “W” formed on his lips, then was arrested, and restarted, “…wonder…when you’d arrive. We thought we’d see you two days ago.”

“The blizzard hung us up a bit, and we’re down a dog, so the drive took a little longer than I expected. We drove hard all morning. I think the team wanted to get home as badly as I did. Gosh, it’s great to be back.”

Sasha peeked out from beneath a chair. So much noise and commotion, and a stranger. After Jiak took care of his team, he came in and removed his big coat, his gloves and his boots, brushed the ice crystals out of his eyebrows, and warmed his hands over the wood stove.

Nina had flown around the house like a tern. Putting on a pot of coffee to brew, pulling food from the pantry and pans from the cupboard. By the time Jiak sat down at the table, a hot meal awaited him, along with huge grins and admiring eyes. Bek stared at Jiak with a beaming smile across his face. “Gosh, you look great!” he said, “How’d you do?”

“Not bad,” Jiak replied between bites of food, long drinks of water and sips of boiling-hot coffee. “We were first in the heats, but halfway through the race, Tklat lost a boot and cut a pad. We had to go on with five, carrying Tklat in the sled. We finished, but placed seventh, out of the money.”

“Bad luck.” Bek responded, still gazing at the boy with a fixed stare, as if he was watching a beautiful sunrise. “Six weeks before the Ukliat, she should be in good shape by then. You’ve got a great team, this is your year!”

“You bet, dad.” Jiak placed his knife on the table, reached across and put his hand on his father’s. “We’ll win the next one. For you.”

“You’ll win it for yourself, son. You’re making a good name for yourself. I’m very proud of you.”

After observing from beneath the chair, Sasha cautiously ventured out to where Mother was sitting, right beside Jiak and leaning on his leg.

“Who’s Jiak?” Sasha asked Mother, but before any response a great hand reached beneath her belly and swooped her into the air.

“Well, what’s this? A puppy?” Jiak squeaked out in high-pitched tones. In a moment, they were nose-to-nose. They stared, they sniffed.

And it was love at first sight.

The Killing Cold

The wind was louder than Sasha had ever heard in her short life. It roared through the spruces surrounding the homestead, shook and rattled the door as if demanding to be let in. To escape from the cold, escape from itself. Window sashes would thump as the wind swelled and ebbed, the panes painted with frost making intricate patterns on the glass. Where unobstructed, outside could be seen only snow. Fat flakes driven horizontally by the wind. A never-ending flock of Snow Geese. A non-stop river of down, smothering the world, blocking out the sun.

Bek threw two logs into the wood stove, banged the door closed and latched the handle. A sparkle could be seen in his eyes, and as he pressed his face to the window, a smile stretched across it as he watched the snow fly. He loved everything about this place. The stark, breathtaking grandeur, vast silent vistas, the deep, brutal cold, even the raging blizzards. Others would scowl with worry, wring their hands and share their fears of the Williwaw, The Great Storm.

Not Bek. He was born for this. He lived for this. Nature and life pressed to the limit, on collision course, the Battle Royale. As more snow accumulates, temperatures plunge deeper, and winds grow gustier, so Bek’s excitement and exhilaration grows like a piling snowdrift.

Any man can live in the convenience of the city. A safe vocation in town; a shopkeeper or banker, appeals to many. Others do well on the outskirts of the villages. Plying their trades, making pilgrimages to town to barter for the supplies they need. The resolute few, like Bek, would have none of that.

They take to the boondocks and the mountains. The farthest-flung extents of the range of their species, and sometimes beyond. Out at the wild, living edge of existence. Away from all that is constructed and unnatural. Away from the illusions of order and control.

Here, deep within Northern forests, where the crowd is as small as it gets: you and nature. Here, folks rely on themselves, their stamina, their wits, their instincts and intellect. Here is a place that will not pick you up if you fall, where no neighbor exists to call upon. Here, across the limitless taiga, seemingly unending tracts of spruce forest, barren wastelands of ice and snow. In grand, white, captivating starkness. In this austere and unforgiving place, a man may place his hand on the very heart of nature.

Herein trek the bold and the strong. Nature does not discriminate in the land of perpetual ice. All who will brave it are welcome, and all who are unprepared or inattentive are equally welcome to die. Some say death is the great equalizer. Long before death, all are equal in the face of The Killing Cold.

Nina returned from feeding the dogs. As she opened the door, buckets of snow flew in with her. She had to lean her weight against the door, fighting the buffeting wind, in order to latch it. She shook an inch of snow off her fur hood, and another inch off the shoulders of her parka. By the time she had removed her boots, there was a tiny snowbank on the floor beneath the pegs where the coats were hung, adjacent to the fire.

Sasha looked out the tiny opening in the center of the window pane, onto the dogs’ yard. They were gone. Everything was gone, save the occasional peak of a dog house roof, poking up through the drifting snow. She was happy, for now, being in the warm house. Still, like Bek, she longed for the day when she could be out there. Pulling a sled through a blinding snowstorm, making a bed afield in a snowbank. Or here in the yard, toughing it out through the williwaw, showing her true and proud Chukchi heritage.

She thought of herself, in the harness, pulling Bek’s sled, scoffing at the snow. She imagined herself, big as Kotka, laughing at the wind and the Killing Cold, as she drifted off to sleep.

An Unlikely Pair

Sasha practiced walking in her boots, one step at a time, on the trail behind the dogs’ yard. She kept her head down, watching her feet to keep them from hitting one another wearing the floppy leather bags. She was just getting to the point where she started trying to run a little, when a rather loud voice startled her.

“Don’t touch my dish. Stay away from my food.” She looked up to discover she had blindly wandered, of all places, right up to Kotka’s dog house. “Don’t touch my dish.” he repeated.

“Gosh, I’m sorry.” Sasha answered. She was surprised that she was not fearful, that the Beast appeared to have manners after all. “I didn’t mean to go by your dish. I don’t want to take your food.”

“Sorry about the other day. Barking at you and all. You surprised me when you came around the corner. It was a gut reaction.”

“Oh.” Sasha matter-of-factly replied, frankly dumbfounded that she was having a cordial conversation with the Monster. “Mother says a mean dog has a reason to be so.”

“Don’t touch my dish, okay?”

“I’m not touching your dish. Why do you have that thing on your leg?” She referred to the splint on his right hind leg, mending a broken bone.

“Got hurt in a crash. Now I have to wear this stick on my leg. Don’t touch my food.”

“Again, I’m not touching your food, or your dish. I’m just trying to learn to run in these bags, and I wandered over here. I’ll stay on the trail.”

“Hey, as long as you don’t touch my dish, you’re okay. Don’t think about the boots.”

“What do you mean ‘Don’t think about’ them? How can I forget I have bags on my feet?”

“Just run, and don’t look down. And don’t go by my food.”

“If I don’t look down I can’t see where the bags are.”

“They’re boots, even though they look like bags. Do you look at your feet when you’re not wearing bags…I mean boots?”

“What? Why would I do that?”

“Of course you don’t.” Kotka stated flatly, trying to scratch an itch, unreachable with the stick tied to his leg, “Same with the boots. Don’t think about them, look up and just run.”

Sasha raised her eyes to the tops of the evergreens, imagined herself running like this. She started to lift a paw.

“No. No.” The Husky stopped her, “I don’t mean look at the sky! Just look straight ahead to where you’re going. Like you would normally do. Just run.”

The puppy looked ahead at the trail before her, stood still a moment as if concentrating on picking a target. With a start, she began running as quickly as she could move her feet. She kept her eyes on her goal and was gleefully surprised that she was running as fast as ever! She got so excited she tried to turn, crossed up her front legs and fell chin-first into the snow.

Kotka burst out in laughter. “That’s okay!” he said, “That was a good run!”

Sasha turned around, paused again to concentrate and set her mark, and sprinted back to Kotka.

“I can do it!” she beamed, “I’m ready for the team!” She hopped and turned circles until she stepped on her own boot bag and fell over.

Kotka laughed again, and Sasha joined in. “You have a lot more to learn before you can run with a team, but by golly I think you have what it takes!”

“Gosh, you really think so?” Sasha could not contain her enthusiasm, ran up to the giant Husky and jumped up, her forepaws almost reaching his shoulder.

“Yes,” laughed Kotka, “I really do.” and gave the pup a good snout nudge, sending her rolling over and laughing.

Then she was off, to tell Mother her whole tale.

Boot Camp

This was a gloriously beautiful day. The sun peeked out from behind passing clouds, illuminating the crystals floating down from the sky. This was Ice Air, where the very humidity in the air freezes, sparkling diamonds fluttering earthward wherever the sun strikes them.

After a fine fish breakfast, Sasha and her siblings were free to roam the yard. She kept a watchful eye on Kotka, and kept a respectable distance. Nina moved through the yard to each dog’s dish, heaping a big portion of hot chow into each. The dogs looked at Nina affectionately, swung their tails side to side in a relaxed, happy wag. She called each dog by name, reached down for scratches behind ears, scratches on backs, and left each one with a kiss on the head.

Even Kotka seemed to soften as Nina drew near. Maybe it was for food or maybe because Nina was a woman. Or maybe he was starting to believe life could be good again. Nina leaned in to give him a kiss, and he instinctively recoiled, closed one eye, laid his ears back flat on his head.

“Oh, you’re not so much.” Nina said, reaching under the dog’s chin, sneaking in a couple of scratches before he turned to his dish.  After feeding the dogs, Nina came out of the shed with a bag in her hands, and walked over to where Mother lay, her litter gathered around her. “Time for boots!” Nina exclaimed, grinning eagerly. The puppies milled around her feet, anticipating treats and kisses.

She squatted beside the group and picked a puppy. She lifted one paw at a time and placed a leather bag over it, cinched the strap around the ankle, and turned the top down over the knot. The boots were a bit big for mid-sized puppies, but it was just a short session to introduce them to the young dogs. Sasha’s turn came, and she was excited to be next in line for Nina’s undivided attention and handling.

At first, the boots just felt funny. It was as if each paw was caked with mud. It was strange to not feel the cold under pads, snow between the toes. She started to walk and stumbled a bit, one boot striking another as she moved. Most of the puppies were in a similar state, or worse. Some could not move, and stood frozen and confused, whimpering for Mother. Others pulled at the boots with their teeth, trying to liberate their paws from the bags. A few seemed to not notice at all. They went about their scampering and wrestling as if nothing was different.

Sasha had seen the team pulling sleds wearing boots like these. She knew if she was to make the team, she must become accustomed to such things. Slowly, one foot in front of the other, stumbling, righting, starting again, she made her way to the trail to practice.

“Every journey begins with a single step.” thought Mother to herself, as she watched her brood accomplish their lessons. “Off you go, precious ones.”

Release

Kotka laid on his side in the snow, pain radiating from his right hind leg. He listened to Krug barking and growling, stomping his way up the line, whipping the whip, throwing a dog. Finally, he stood over Kotka, his face bright red, the heat of his head rising as vapor in the air, each breath creating a misty cloud, filled with angry cries.

“I wish I had died in the crash. I wish you had broken your neck.” Kotka growled at the man. He was beyond lost and desperate and in pain. He’d reached a point where he’d rather give up. That most basic instinct to survive beaten back by fear and pain, anger and loss, longing and hopelessness.

Krug pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the dog, pulling back the hammer.

“I hate you.” Kotka growled, “I hate that you’ve made me hate you.”

The man was barking words to another man, still on the trail, at the top of the hill. Kotka would not look into the muzzle of the pistol, but instead stared straight into the man’s eyes. “Go ahead.” he growled, “I’d rather die than go back with you.”.

The man looked to the hill, barked and growled more angry rantings as he waved his hands about. He reached his hand down to the dog, and Kotka prepared for the end, waited for the gunshot. Instead, Krug unhooked his line, snarled between his teeth at the Husky as he kicked him in the ribs.

“Everybody up!” Kotka heard the command, and laid there, unable to move without intense pain.

The rattled remnants of a team leaped to their feet, fearing the whip. “Pull! Pull!” came the orders, and the team walked past Kotka, dragging the sled through the deep snow, the man pushing and all the while ranting. He heard the whip crack again, and the sled moved past, continued toward the trail.

Kotka laid still, trying to be invisible, listening to the sound of the man and team move away. After a minute, he looked up to see the sled near the far edge of the meadow, reaching the crest. The sled and the team and Krug and the whip and the pistol hastened off, their sounds fading in the distance, until all was silent.

Kotka lay there, a soft snow falling. He could feel the flakes landing on his nose. The grey sky was silent except for the sound of the falling snow. “So this is where I shall die.” he thought to himself. Free. Free from the man and the leash and the harness. Free, out here with his wolf cousins. Free, at least, to die on his own terms, in peace and solitude. He closed his eyes. He listened to the sound of another team, still on the trail, continuing the race.

Then something different. A driver calling “Slow ahead. Easy, easy. Haw. Haw. Slow, easy.” The sound was drawing nearer. A musher had lost his mind apparently, and was descending the hill with his team, making s-turn switchbacks as they came down the steep grade in the deep snow.

“Hold up!” the man called, his team now right beside Kotka, as he lay dying.

“Get away!” Kotka barked and growled, “At least let me die before you feed me to your team.”

The man knelt in the snow before the dog. “Okay, boy. Okay now.” His tone was soft, the way children speak until you unleash a bone-jarring bark. The man put his arms under Kotka, and began to lift him. The pains in his leg and chest were agonizing, and he let out a yelp. He growled at the man and bared his teeth: “Let me die in peace. Get away!” The man laid him in his sled, continuing his mantra, “Okay now. You’ll be alright.”

“Team up!” Kotka heard the call as the team tightened the lines. “Let’s go! Pull!” The strange man called the strange dogs by name, and had no whip. The hill was steep and the man pushed with one leg at the back of the sled as the team struggled to climb in the snow. “Come on! You can do it! Pull! Pull! Good boys! Pull, gee, pull!”

Without a whip or an angry word, Kotka could feel the team responding, feel them pulling as if they wanted to. As they settled back onto the trail, the man leaned his head over the handle. “Are you okay boy?” The dog could not understand the words, but the soft tones allayed his fears somewhat. The man threw back his fur-lined hood to reveal his face, and Kotka looked him in the eye.

He was about to reassert how mean and tough he is, not to be toyed with. He was about to growl out another warning, his preference to be left here on the trail to die. Something deep in his mind stopped him as he stared into the eyes of this man. There was something there, something recognizable. From deep within, a lost memory, or perhaps it was another life. A spark, a glow grew in his mind.

It had been a very, very long time since he had been spoken to so gently, to be looked at with eyes filled with caring. And he remembered.

There was a time he did not know how to hate. A time when he did not hope to die. Something in these soft tones, this look. Something familiar.

With that thought, Kotka’s world went black.

 

 

Kotka

Kotka leaned into his harness, “Come on, guys, pull!” he barked to the team behind him as they skirted the edge of a precipice that dropped away steeply, a hundred meters to the bottom of the valley. He felt the urge to speed up, to throw all his muscles into dragging this sled to the top of the rise, after which the going would become easier.

He drew in deep breaths of the cold, clean air. It smelled of snow and pines, and helped to cool him from the inside. It was very cold, far below freezing, and this made for good running. The ground was firm and the snow held together, made for good traction underfoot, and the frigid air helped keep cool the working dogs.

Here at the lead, Kotka felt free to run. Nothing but open trail ahead of him. Out of sight, he could forget about being bound to a team, forget about the man who controlled everything, never without a harsh word. To run, the purpose for which he was built.

Out here, out in front, Kotka could imagine he was free. Running to chase a rabbit, not to win a race. Running for the sheer joy of running. Legs pumping their natural gait, wind whistling by his ears. Out here, Kotka could dream that one day his line would break, at just the right time, on a turn on a hill. When the man would be off the sled, running in the snow, pushing, climbing the hill, unable to reach for his gun.

The line would give way, and Kotka would waste not a second, but sprint as fast as he could, willing to risk rifle fire. He would leave the sled trail and take to the natural one. He’d climb higher and higher, almost to the tree line, leaving behind all of this. All of life with humans, all of life on a leash. He would move up into the mountains, find a pack of wolf cousins, and join them in their wild and free lives.

“SNAP!” The crack of the whip broke Kotka’s train of thought. Brought him back from days on the hunt, nights under the stars, and freedom. Back to the world of man. “CRACK!” The whip sounded again, though Kotka knew that here, in the lead, he was out of reach. Uma and Ungma and Zev and Tiak were not. Their yelps could be heard between the calls of the booming, demanding voice.

“Haw over! Haw over!” Krug repeated, hugging the trail’s edge to the right, the left side deeply drifted in places. “Haw over!” The man’s voice bounced off the surrounding hills, along with the crack of the whip, cries of the dogs.

In the next step, something jerked back on Kotka’s harness, as if a dog had fallen or a runner had struck a rock. He looked over his right shoulder to see the snow giving way, three dogs clawing at the air, pulling at their restraints as the team began to slide off the trail down a hill pitched thirty degrees, though thankfully free of trees. In the next instant, the harness pulled Kotka off the trail backwards and sidewards, over onto his right shoulder.

The tangled heap of dogs and lines and sled rolled over and over again. With each twist came a new pain, pulling sideways on legs without bony sockets, lines wrapped around necks and bellies and ankles, eighty pound dogs and a hundred pound sled rolling over one another down the hill in the deep snow.

After tumbling thirty meters, the heaving, crying wreckage came to rest, leaving a trail down the hill of lost gloves, dog boots, bits of sled and supplies. Kotka scrambled to get to his feet, but an intense pain in his right hind leg caused him to cry out, fall back into the snow on his side, panting.

Krug was up the hill a few meters, picked himself up out of the knee-deep snow and made his way to the sled. He was running in second place and gaining on the race leader with Kotka out front, strong and experienced. Now the race was lost, without enough time to regain a winning position. He knew nothing but anger, and the focus of his frustration lay crying in the snow in front of him.

The man lifted his whip and commenced to walk down the line, slashing away at each dog on the team, picking one up and throwing her into the snow. His rage seemed to grow ever greater, until at last he came to the lead.