At first there was only warm Mother.
In the darkness was safety, warm caresses, suckling. Sweet milk filling the belly. This seemed a long time, but what is time? It had yet no meaning.
Then it happened. An urge, an instinct a compulsion to pull up on these things, whatever they are. Pull. Pull hard!
Snap! Sasha’s eyes opened for the first time. Bright light. Painfully bright. Eyes adjusting.
There is blurry motion. What’s happening? What is that? Reddish-yellow fur, and white. A pink bare belly, smells like…
It is Mother!
In that first vision, the most beautiful sight Sasha would ever behold.
As those early days progressed, Sasha learned to use her eyes. This item is related to this smell, this taste.
Around her squirmed other warm bodies, small, like her own. She feels instant attraction. These are like me. These are kin.
Sasha and her puppy siblings eat and sleep together always. Mother would leave temporarily, but enough crying would make her return.
The puppies grew quickly, and became very active, learning from one another. Here’s how to play. Here’s how to bite. Here’s how to fall down and get up again. This is joy. This is pain. Eat, play sleep. Eat, play, sleep. Sleep more. And so this continued.
“So this is what life is.” Sasha observed.
“It is warm and secure, and surrounded by those whom I trust to care for me.”
Sasha and siblings slept, feeling comfortable and safe, these many days, which in sum, make up the total of her life.
“This is Home,” Mother explained to Sasha, “your siblings, these people.”
Sasha felt a happiness, a warmness. This Home thing is wonderful.
“But this is only your home for now. Soon you will be able to go out to your new home.”
“Why don’t we just stay here?” Sasha asked.
“I will stay here, child.”, answered Mother, looking deeply into her daughter’s eyes. A look that could buoy a heart for a lifetime. A look of limitless, unwavering unconditional love.
“I don’t understand,” Sasha began, “how can we go to a new home if we stay here?”
“You are so young, and this is just the tiniest slice of your life. Just a puppy.” Mother preened, brushing back the fur on Sasha’s face, pressing her nose into her belly, a soft nose nudge. “Look into the yard, little one. What do you see?”
“I see the shed, the doghouses. The food barrel, the fish rack, snow. The teams, same things that are always there.”
“And the dogs?”
“Yes, I see the dogs. Except for the team that’s out on the trail.”
“Do you see any puppies?” Mother asked.
“No.” Sasha replied, “We’re in here.”
“Everyone starts as a puppy.” Mother continued, “When we grow, we will each find our own home and family, in our time.”
“All those dogs were puppies?” Sasha’s eyes widened, incredulous.
“Yes. Yes of course. And me, too. So many years ago I had the same talk with my own mother.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know, little one.” Mother answered. Then she was quiet for a moment, stared out the window at the yard, thoughts consumed. “Like all puppies, I had to leave when it was my time, to come here, and live with Bek and Nina.”
“What happened to your mother?”
“She stayed where she belonged, in her own home. The same for all dogs.”
Suddenly, Sasha realized that Mother was trying to tell her that one day it would be her time to go, to find her own home. To leave Mother behind, just as she had done with her own mother.
“What if I don’t want to go?” Sasha whined.
“We’re never ready for such things, little one. There are many things in life that simply must be done, and there is no changing it. You will see one day, and it will be alright. Sleep now, the time is not at hand.”
A Halcyon Time
Sasha’s days came and went without enumeration. She and her sibling puppies grew quickly and became very active, exploring their surroundings and learning how to be dogs.
One day, without fanfare, Nina took down the gate that corralled the puppies in the single room, which had hitherto been their entire world. While outside the snow fell, and the wind howled overhead, sometimes shaking the door, the puppies explored the warm and safe home.
Sasha soon came to find her second-favorite place. That is, whenever her mother was not cuddling and nursing her furry charges. That place was in front of Bek, who was never without a smile and a warm greeting, followed by scratches behind the ears and softly-muttered “Hello there”s.
“People are nice.” Sasha told her mother, “Bek and Nina love us almost as much as you do. They give us love and treats. People are wonderful!”
“Bek and Nina are fine humans,” Mother replied, “as most are. But be careful. Like any other animal, occasionally you’ll find one that’s not so nice.”
“How will I know the difference? Who to greet and who to growl at?” Sasha asked.
“Well, little one, it’s rarely that simple. People can be tough to figure out. Sometimes a human seems grumpy and rough at first, but when you get them alone you find they’re as soft as bunnies. Other times, people will act nice when they aren’t, and when others are not around they let their true nature show.”
“Maybe we should just avoid all people…besides Bek and Nina.”
“The world does not want you to hide from anything, little one, and there are many joys we can share with others, even with people. We must treat every person as a good person unless they give us a reason to treat them otherwise. This holds true for other dogs, horses, even cats.”
“Cats?!” Sasha’s eyes opened wide. “But cats are the enemy, to be chased and nipped!”
Mother laughed at the youngster. “Cats are just shaped differently than dogs and people. Inside, all animals are the same. Did you notice how Nona the Cat has never bitten you, or any of your brothers or sisters?”
“Yes! She’s a gutless coward!”
“No, dear one. She is a Mother, as old as I am. She has seen her fair share of puppies and kittens. At first, we all see the differences between us. As you grow older, you see how much we are the same, and how much we mean to one another.”
Sasha looked over at the kitchen table where Nona lay asleep. All akimbo, her hind quarters on a kitchen towel, her head almost upside down, one leg hanging off the edge of the table, snoring. Somehow she suddenly looked different to her. Softer, gentler, wiser.
“A pack does not need to be all of the same animal.” Mother concluded her lesson. “We are all of us a pack, and a pack is a forever love.”
A New World
“Okay! Out you go!” Nina said, opening the door through which Mother and several puppies passed, into the new world: outside.
The familiar smell of snow met Sasha’s nose, and a dozen perfumes; pines, the wood pile, the fish rack, hides on the stretcher, the dogs in the yard. Right behind her siblings, she stepped into the real world. A floor of earth, no walls or ceilings, but open sky and vistas as far as one could see.
Yikes! Snow is cold! Still, it felt good under the pads, between the toes. Sasha sniffed the snow, and flakes went right up her nose, resulting in a body-quaking sneeze. She thrust her snout into the snow without inhaling, picked up a mouthful, tasted its icy-watery goodness.
The sky was the biggest thing Sasha had ever seen, and bright and blue. There were so many directions to go she made several circles before deciding to go this way, good as any other. She was heading for the dogs yard when something grabbed her attention. It was a smell, and she instinctively needed to find it. She toddered along, zig-zagging across the yard, her nose nearly pressed to the ground at all times. Another turn and she arrives at a small snowbank- and there it is! A few round pellets and a pinkish stain in the snow: a bunny!
This made her so excited she barked twice, calling to her kin “Look here!”. Her whole body wiggled with joy, culminating at a tail swinging as fast as it could. She climbed the snowbank until she tumbled back down, rolling and coating herself with snow. She got back to her feet, shook the snow off, and headed around the edge of the snowbank, by the shed, the scent growing stronger with each meter of ground she covered. Her nose pulled her around the other corner of the shed.
Suddenly, a thunderous barking filled Sasha’s ears. A bad bark, a danger bark, so loud it made her head hurt. This was not the greeting-of-friends or notification-of-company bark, but an aggressive one. Sasha stopped in her tracks, lost her footing, rolled her fat puppy self over in the snow and came to rest in a half-sitting position.
As she looked up, a giant of a black and white Husky leaped toward her, a fierce growl emanating from deep within a dense chest. Saliva drooled and flew from lips and tongue as the dog barked another booming bark, and snapped its fearsome jaws at the puppy. The lunge was so close Sasha could feel the hot breath on her ears, and spittle splashed onto her face, just as the lead tightened, arresting the attacker’s motion, inches from the pup.
The monster barked repeatedly. Loud, vicious barks, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” is what it sounded like to Sasha. Every muscle in her body shook, and she ran as fast as her stubby puppy legs could carry her, slipping on the snow, face-planting on the ice. “Mother! Mother!” yipped the puppy in a tremulous, high-pitched tone.
Mother sprang to her feet, covered two meters in her first leap towards the commotion and cries. She came around the corner of the shed at breakneck speed, snow flying in every direction. Mother had taken on a look Sasha had never seen. Her eyes were squinting tightly, daggers flying from them. Her teeth were bared all the way to the gums, and a guttural sound came from deep within her which would stir fear in the heart of any animal.
Half his size, the black & white was startled by this dog flying around the corner, ready to tear his throat out. Mother placed herself between Sasha and the beast, teeth still showing, and barked a warning.
“If you ever harm one of mine, you will not live long enough to regret it.” she growled, and added one more bark, the kind where you suck your breath in at the end, to show how serious you are.
She picked up Sasha by the scruff of the neck, and carried her back to the front yard. All the while, Sasha could feel the trembling of her mother’s body. Mother dropped her beside a brother, did a quick scamper as she made her way around the yard for a head count of her offspring. All safe, she sat, half-threw herself, onto the ground beside her litter. One heavy sigh, and she laid down, as her brood gathered around her.
The huge black & white Husky continued to bark, the loudest, most resonant bark imaginable. His jaws snapped at the air as he yanked repeatedly on his lead. He pulled so hard his doghouse moved, and he began to drag it across the yard, his eyes fixed on Sasha, as one possessed. With another yank, he pulled the board off the doghouse where his lead was attached. Freed, he bounded across the yard in two steps, and towered over the trembling puppy. Its huge jaws opened, even bigger and blacker than Sasha remembered, and lowered over the puppy. In one bite, she was gone.
“Hey, hey.” Mother’s gentle voice cut through the darkness, and Sasha awoke. “You were dreaming. Was it a good one? Did you catch a bunny?”
Sasha looked around the yard with half-opened eyes. The black & white was sleeping in the door of his doghouse. The yard was undisturbed. Siblings alternately nursed and napped by Mother, lying in the yard in front of the house. “I thought that monster had eaten me.”
“Oh, that’s a bad dream. But you’re okay now.” Mother cleaned Sasha’s face and ears.
“Why are grown dogs so mean?”
“That’s Kotka. The only dog here that’s angry and aggressive. He wasn’t always like that. He started out like the rest of us, but he ended up with a man called Krug. Remember when we talked about “bad” people? Krug is one. Some people think the way to get work out of a team is to whip them, drive them hard, make them live in fear of punishment, instead of being motivated by kindness, achievement and reward.”
Kotka was a strong lead dog, and won races, even at Krug’s cruel hand. He came from a long, unbroken line of Chukchi dogs. Strong and faithful animals, the best partners to have when traversing the wilderness.
“Why did Krug leave Kotka here?” Sasha asked, still eyeing the animal, still unsure he hadn’t dragged his doghouse and broken the lead.
“Kotka came here after the race in Nuokan. Bek and his team came upon Krug on the trail. He’d driven his team too close to the edge on a switchback. The snow gave way beneath them, and the sled and teamed rolled over and over, down a big hill.”
As Bek and his dogs rounded a turn, he saw Krug at the bottom of the hill, furious at his team. He’d flown into a rage and walked down the line slashing at each dog with the whip. The cries of the dogs rose above Krug’s angry rantings, blasphemies and expletives, echoing across the pristine valley. He unhooked and picked up a young girl dog, lifted her over his head, and threw her three meters into the deep snow. As he reached the lead, Kotka, his fury peaked. He drew a pistol from his belt and pointed it at Kotka’s head.
“No! Wait! Don’t!” called Bek from the top of the hill.
“This dog has made his last mistake!” Krug fumed. “He’s not worth his weight in food.” The hammer of the pistol drew back with an ominous click. Kotka was scared, and angry at the same time. He looked up at Krug, still baring his teeth and growling. “Go ahead. I’d rather die than go back with you.”
“I’ll buy him!” Bek blurted out. This froze Krug’s actions immediately.
“Well, he’s cost me this race, I may as well be rid of him, and profit by it.” With that, he reached out a big booted foot and kicked the dog in the side, hard enough to break a rib.
He unhooked the dog from the harness, righted his sled and yelled “Everybody up!” The team rose to the command, and a crack of the whip accompanied the order, “Hike”.
Kotka laid in the snow, panting, shaking, a terrible pain in his chest and his right hind leg. A new man approached, and Kotka growled a toothy warning.
“Okay, boy.” the man said, walking slowly and kneeling beside the dog without reaching out. “Okay now.”
Kotka paused but briefly. Gentle tones and no whip in his hand, this man did not seem too tough.
Bek drew his sled alongside the fallen dog, reached two strong arms beneath him, and lifted him into the sled despite growling protests and bared teeth. “Okay now. Okay. Alright.” Bek repeated in the same calming tones. Kotka didn’t trust anything about any human, but at least he was away from Krug.
As he watched his former team disappear over the ridge, the angry cries and cracking of the whip faded away, and with them, the greatest portion of darkness and fear in Kotka’s heart.
“You see, you must remember,” Mother told Sasha, a tear welling in her eye, “A mean dog has a reason to be so.”
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, sixty 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.
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. “Hike! 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! Hike!” 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! On now. Hike! Hike! 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 mushing 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.
It was still dark outside as Sasha awoke, stirred by the sounds of folks rising, breakfasting and bustling about, launching the day. Jiak was out the door before sunrise, calling to dogs, stepping in and out of the shed. A lot of excited barking was going on, and the general sounds and words meant a team was being harnessed to the sled. Sasha, though curious about the early activity, was considering a return to slumber. Jiak opened the door a few inches and called into the house “Sasha. Come on!”, and she was out the door in a flash.
He held her by the collar and walked her straight to the sled team, where she noticed the number five position, at the back and closest to the sled, was vacant. The harness lay in the snow beside five mature dogs, barking and hopping, calling to Jiak to get going. As Jiak walked her over, he said “Well, little miss, this is your big Graduation Day!”, and with that, hitched her up as part of the six-dog team.
Spring was immediately in front of her, and threw her a “Hey, kid.” glance. Beside him was Vasa, and beside Sasha, in position six, was Lema, a female she had admired for her beautiful red coat. She could hardly believe her great fortune. Finally, she was to join a full team, and pull a full-sized dogsled. She was very excited, and she wiggled and wagged with anticipation.
The dogs were anxious. They wanted to run, and every minute standing still was like torture. They barked, they hopped on their forepaws, they pulled on the harness, ready to go, the sled held in place only by the firmly-planted snow hook. Sasha was ready, too, and joined in the commotion. She waited and waited, the sled remaining anchored, as Jiak spoke to Nina at the door, stowed some things in his pack, checked the tie-downs, placed his rifle in the scabbard on the side of the sled. Just when she thought she was ready to burst with impatience, the call came.
“Everybody up!” Jiak called to the team, one hand on the back bow. He pulled the snow hook, coiled the rope and stowed it. “Line out now. Line out”. The team stood at attention, moved forward to tighten the lines until there was no slack. Some stared fixedly ahead, like a racer in the starting blocks. Some looked over their shoulders at Jiak, ready for the call to go. Sasha concentrated on listening to the words. She was so nervous and distracted by the team that she forgot what “Line out” meant, but quickly picked up the cue from the other dogs’ actions. “On team! Let’s go!”
Jiak was halfway through the sentence when five eager dogs leaped forward, digging their paws into the packed snow, straining at the harnesses, and the sled burst from its starting position. They moved much faster than during sprint sled training, and the sled nearly ran over the backs of Sasha’s legs before she, too, dug in and leaned into her harness, off on her first real run.
She felt as if she was running as fast as she could, listening for commands and watching the other dogs. At first it was disconcerting and confusing. The sled was much heavier than the empty sprinter, weighted down with a full load. Her timing wasn’t quite right yet, and the powerful team would get a step ahead, her line going slack. She’d pour on the muscle power and her line would tighten, and she felt the weight with a jerk, the harness yanking on her shoulders, pulling her slightly to the right.
“Mush it up! Let’s GO!” Jiak called, and Sasha was unpleasantly surprised to feel the team accelerating. “Haw! Haw!” came the command as they entered the trail. Sasha was already panting from the work, and forgot what “haw” was for a second. The team moved to the left and she quickly followed, trying to keep in step, trying to keep her line from going slack. She was concentrating on form now. Watching the legs of the other dogs to help her keep the pace. She began to hear the commands and respond to them at the same time as the rest of the team.
Sasha looked to her right, where Lema was trotting along, tongue hanging out, a smile stretched across her face. She looked ahead at Spring, who was pulling hard and throwing sideways glances at Vasa, some friendly competition, a challenge. The sled and team were moving fast. Sasha was running flat out, as fast as she could move her legs, breathing hard, her muscles beginning to ache. Snow from the dogs ahead kicked up, and hit her in the face. She post-holed one paw in a soft spot, stumbled a bit, and it seemed the sled would run right over her if she fell.
“How long does this lesson last?” she called to Spring, “I’m getting tired!”
“Lesson?” Spring replied. Sasha swore she could hear the dogs up front laugh at the exchange.
“Buck up, kid.” Vasa chimed in. “You’re working now, and we’re bound for the Trading Post at Dezhnevo.”
The Great Wide World
Jiak and his team were making good time on the Dezhnevo Trail. Weather was clear at the start, and as the day unfolded, a steady snow began to fall. It had been a while since this team had been out for an excursion. They were full of energy and glad to be on the trail, moving and running. Even the newest recruit, Sasha, the trainee, seemed to be keeping up with the team quite well, and responding to commands. She was eager to be part of the team, run with the pack. Clearly it was a challenge for her to keep up with the older, experienced dogs, and she was learning to be aware of a slack line.
After a fairly easy hillclimb, Jiak and the team had some easy going as they skated the ridgetop on level ground. Here he let the team set their own pace. There was no time constraint, and this was not a race, so it wasn’t necessary to push the dogs for speed. A moderate pace also took it easy on the newbie, and granted her time in the harness to get accustomed to the teamwork.
As they traversed the trail at an easy gallop, Sasha began to feel less strained, and more energetic. As the sun rose higher and lit the snow-filled sky, aching muscles seemed to warm up, and she felt a steady burning energy in her legs rather than any physical exhaustion. She found her breathing, too, had become quite regular, in a rhythm with her step. The excitement and exhilaration of running with the team, on a trail with the sled, added motivation.
“Getting your second wind, honey?” Lema asked from the position beside Sasha, her head held high and tongue wagging about. “You’re doing alright for a first-timer. Watch that slack now.”
“My second wind?” Sasha queried, unfamiliar with the term. She doubled her efforts to keep her line from slacking, looking straight ahead at the trail as she conversed.
“Yeah, yeah! You know, after you start getting tired but then you keep going, then along comes this ‘second wind’, and you feel like you could run all day!”
“You know, I think I did get a second wind! I was really getting tired but now I feel great! Yes, I could run all day and all night at this speed.” Sasha tried to let her tongue loll out of her mouth, like the other dogs, but felt awkward, and she only managed to look like she was spitting something out.
“That’s great, hon.” Lema continued, artfully flapping her tongue from one side to the other, showing off for the undergraduate. “I must say, you’re doing better than most newbies. They’re usually starting to slow down before we reach the river.”
Sasha had been watching the other dogs, listening for commands. Trying to keep in step, trying to keep her line from slacking, trying to keep from being run over by the sled. She hadn’t looked up and looked around at the landscape, which she now did after mention of the river. Off to her left, tall hills were covered in snow, dotted with Spruce and Dwarf Birch. To her right, a valley stretched out as far as she could see, at the bottom of which was the long, flat ribbon of the river, wider than ten sleds. A steep hill with brushy thickets stood between the team and the river, twenty meters below them.
At that time, Jiak called for the team to take the right fork in the trail, a long sidecut that led to the riverbed. As they sledded down the hill, Jiak would brake when needed to keep the lines tight, to keep the sled from overtaking the dogs. Parts of the descent trail were drifted over, piles of snow two meters deep in places. The team would bust through smaller drifts, slowed as they dragged the sled through the deep, soft powder. In other places, the base was packed and the team would climb up and over, the sled chasing them down the slope.
Sasha was surprised to see just how much time Jiak spent off the back of the sled, running behind, sometimes pushing, as the team encountered hills and drifts. At the base of the trail, the team arrived at the river’s edge, nearly indiscernible from the surrounding landscape, save for its perfect flatness and absence of any trees.
“Haw! Haw!” Jiak called, pulling the team off the trail beside a stand of Spruce interspersed with low shrubs. “Everybody down.” he said, and the dogs laid down for a well-deserved rest. Jiak took a hatchet and walked to the river, chopped through the thinnest ice at the edge, and filled a water bag for the dogs. They drank down the clean, near-freezing water until they were satisfied or their heads started to hurt from the cold. Jiak took a long drink for himself, and puttered about the sled as the dogs rested, stowing the hatchet and water bag, tightening the tie-downs, checking the harness.
“How far is the trading post?” Sasha asked Lema, “When will we be home?”
“If we make good time we’ll be home the day after tomorrow.” Lema replied casually, pulling at the ice clinging to her foot, between pads.
Sasha had never been this far from Mother, and to learn it would be three days on the trail made her suddenly homesick. She hadn’t known the world was so large, and the trails led so far from home. She wondered what Bek and Nina and Kotka were doing now. She closed her eyes to rest, seeing Mother and Nona the Cat curled up at Bek’s feet. The exhausted dog was asleep before she knew it.
A Shared Dream
Sasha lay at Bek’s feet with Mother and Nona the Cat. They were warm and comfortable in the homestead. Mother turned to Sasha and said “Okay, little miss, up you go.”, but her voice came out sounding like Jiak’s! Then Mother reached out and touched Sasha’s paw, and she awoke from her nap with a start to find Jiak stooping over her, with boots in his hands.
As Jiak shod the dog, she blinked her eyes in a half-dream state. Now she remembered. She was on the trail to Dezhnevo, pulling the sled, part of the team, and they had stopped for a rest. For a moment, she felt as if she missed Mother more now than ever, having been beside her a minute ago. She stood and stretched as Lema was the last to get her boots on. These were not floppy bags of leather like the training boots had been. These were the genuine adult dog article, with two holes in the center through which two claws could extend, for traction on the ice.
The dogs knew they were about to get underway, and they barked and shifted about within the confines of the harness. Vasa was so excited he leaped over Spring’s line, and the two dogs jumped about, trying to get back in place, tangling their lines further. “Hold up. Hold up!” Jiak called to them, and the rest of the team, as he walked to Vasa and untangled the lines.
Then a curious sound filtered in through the cold air and falling snow. A sort of metallic sound, quite distant at first. As the team finalized their readiness for the trail, the sound drew nearer, and could now be heard to be a cowbell. Sasha looked down the trail ahead, from which the sound was approaching. Around the next turn in the trail came a sight completely new and strange to her. Two reindeer were in harness and pulling a sled. She had seen reindeer browsing in the woods around the homestead, but she had never seen them used as dogs!
The driver of the reindeer sled pulled on reins and called “Whoa!” to his team, and they halted right alongside Jiak and his sled. The man spoke to Jiak for a minute or two, then reached into his sled bag and pulled out a parcel, about the size of a big salmon. In turn, Jiak pulled a loosely-wrapped slab of dried meat from his provisions, and the two exchanged these ordinary things as gifts to one another. The man spoke a little differently than Jiak, but they communicated well. The stranger returned to his sled, picked up the reins and snapped them across the flanks of the reindeer, and they moved off in the direction from which Sasha had just traveled. The cowbell clanging occasionally, until they were nearly out of sight.
“Everybody up!” called Jiak, and the team stood at attention. “Line out!”. Sasha felt a little weary in her legs, as one might expect after her first big excursion on the trail. “Hike! Let’s go, hike!” came the command, and the team rode onto the smooth, flat, featureless river.
Now the going was easy and fast. Drifts piled up at the leeward side of the river, leaving much of the surface bare ice, sometimes with a thin covering of snow. In the bare spots, the ice was hard as rock, and the team needed the boots to protect paws from jagged edges. As the afternoon passed, the snow let up and the sky began to clear. The sled flew across open patches of ice, and Jiak had to stand on the claw brake to keep the sled straight. It would sometimes fish-tail behind the team, and the last thing he wanted was to catch a patch of snow or a crack in the ice while sliding sideways, as it would surely overturn the sled.
Sasha’s head was filled with many thoughts, and her heart many feelings. She felt far from home and Mother, yet here were Jiak and Spring and Lema close at hand. Her pack, her family. She worried she would be away so long, and if she would really have the strength and stamina for the rest of the trip.
“Mush it up! Let’s go! Hike! Hike!” Jiak rallied the team to pick up the pace on the wide open river. The dogs redoubled their efforts, this time, Sasha included, as she did her best to sprint and keep her line taut. There was a great feeling of exhilaration in running flat-out, and there were no turns to take or drifts to break, so the team streaked down the river at top speed. Sasha felt better than she had all day, her legs felt like feathers, the wind whistled past her ears. The sounds of the claws on the ice, the runners of the sled, the panting of the dogs were even more exciting than the way she’d imagined them.
As the blanket of clouds receded over the horizon, the last of the day’s sun shone brightly, illuminating a million diamonds on the freshly fallen snow, and the temperature began to fall. Sasha breathed in the smells of this place. The deep waters of the river, despite being sealed beneath solid ice, lent its scent powerfully to the mix. The hardwoods and brush along the bank had their own scent, too, and they wafted to her stronger than the ever-present spruces.
The dogs were now running in rhythm, cohesively, a true team. They ran for several hours at this pace, and seemingly could keep running forever. They covered as much distance as they could before the light of day began to wane. On a long and familiar bend, Jiak again pulled the team off the trail. They pulled off the river and into a dense stand of trees on the windward side.
Here, Jiak put out a tie line, unhooked the dogs from the sled, and moved them to the line. He pulled out some straw from the sled, and scattered it in a shallow layer along the tie line. He then donned snowshoes and went about gathering wood for a fire, which he had going in short order. Jiak cooked up a hot meal of Chukchi chow and fed the dogs, again fetching water from the river.
As twilight faded into darkness, the team, exhausted and well-fed, began one-by-one to curl up in their distinctive ball shape to get some badly needed sleep. Jiak put an oilcloth down on the snow, beside the fire, and pulled his bedroll from the sled. He then unhooked Spring, Lema, and finally Sasha. “Time for bed.” he said, as the dogs curled beside him on either side of the bedroll. Sasha had stayed out all night before, a number of times, back in the comfort of the homestead yard, curled up at Mother’s belly. Now, out here in the dark and cold, she felt she was far, far from home. In a strange place, where the trail is flat and hard, with strange smells, and strangers who speak oddly and use deer for dogs.
Jiak seemed to sense her anxiety, and reached out a mitted hand, rubbing the dog’s head. “Well, it’s a big day for you. Or night, I guess.”. He stroked the dog’s fur just a minute or two, before he, too, fell fast asleep. Sasha thought about being homesick and scared, until she remembered Kotka’s dream, and her own.
“I’m really here.” she thought, “making a bed on a snowbank on the trail. The wind has whistled past my ears, and I’m sleeping under the stars.” The thrill of it warmed her so, she lost all track of thoughts of home, and drifted off to sleep.
“Who cooks for you?”
The call awakened Sasha, curled up beside Jiak, Lema and Spring. “Who cooks for you?” it sounded like, or perhaps “Hoo-hoo. Hoo hoo.” A Snowy Owl, out on nightly rounds, was perched in a tree very near the camp.
Sasha looked around to discover all the rest were still fast asleep. A three-quarter moon hung low in the sky to the south, illuminating the landscape like twilight. Something caught her eye, and across the river, along the ridgetop, she could see her larger and hungrier cousins, the wolves, moving down the riverside in search of game. One stopped and sat, facing the river and the camp, and raised her head to the moon. She then sang out a long and mournful cry. They sound so sad and lonely, Sasha thought, yet there were more wolves in this pack than there were dogs on her own team.
Jiak awoke quickly at the wolf howling so near. He sat bolt upright, swinging his rifle into shooting position before he stopped moving. Lema, beside Jiak, and Yura, on the tie line, also awoke to the howl and the stirring in camp. Jiak leaned over and threw a couple of Larch logs onto the dwindling embers of the fire, and within a minute they flared up.
Now on the ridge across the river could be seen four wolves. They sat, and each raised their voice into the night. A chorus of long howls sung to the moon, the stars, the snow, each other. This woke the other three sleeping dogs, and Lema leaped to her feet and began pacing, parallel to the river, between her team and the wolves. A fifth and then sixth wolf trotted into view. They stood on all fours beside the chorus, staring intently at the musher’s camp. The sitting group launched into another four-part howl. Lema looked at Jiak, a little nervously. Along the river bank she curled her lips back, emitting a low growl of disdain and warning, continuing to pace up and back, up and back.
Then, as quickly as they’d arrived, the six wolves trotted off to the south, disappearing behind the ridge, and the night grew silent, save the sound of Lema’s pacing, footfalls in the snow. “Okay, come on now. Back to bed.” Jiak urged the dogs.
“Who cooks for you?” the owl asked again, the sound so close it made all the dogs jump and look to the trees.
One-on-one, dog versus wolf is little contest. Only the largest dogs, St.Bernards and Mastiffs, were equal in size. But the wolf is like a super-dog. Not only are these real wild animals fending for themselves, but they’re also the “perfect dog”, before millenia of evolution and breeding took something out of those that would be domesticated. Even if equal in size, the instincts and athleticism of the wolf tops the dog. It would be like pitting a seasoned prize-fighter against the local ruffian. Equal, perhaps, in size, but skill and experience would lend an edge to the professional.
Still, Jiak was not concerned with the wolf pack. Three wolves on one dog would be a good bet for the wolves. Six against six, even given their size and strength, are odds any wolf would pass up. Too much work and risk of injury. Much better to track down a reindeer, weakened by winter, struggling through the snow in the open.
“Who cooks for you?” the owl asked again from the cover of the trees, apparently determined to have an answer to his question. Now Lema, already riled, began to walk beneath the evergreen boughs, looking for the bird. “You can’t catch an owl.” Jiak called to her. “Come on, lay down now, time for bed.”. Lema stared into the trees, pricked up her ears to locate the bird, walked a few more steps away from Jiak, ignoring him. Jiak pulled his blanket up over his head, closed his eyes, trying to return to slumber. They still had quite a distance to cover to reach Dezhnevo, and would need to be rested.
The cloudless sky was filled with countless stars, shining brightly and vividly through the crystal clear frigid air. The low moon sank below the ridge to the southwest, but the glow of a million stars still cast a faint soft light on the Earth below. Lema finally gave up on the owl. Little did she know it had flown off, in absolute silence, a little while ago. As Lema again curled beside Jiak, Sasha closed her eyes to sleep.
Then there was a new noise from beneath the trees. Shruk, shruk, shruk. Something walking in the snow, then halting. Lema looked up when she heard the sound, cocked her head for triangulation, sniffed air in through her nostrils in short bursts, exhaling through her mouth. Shruk, shruk, shruk, they heard again. Lema stared into the darkness beneath the trees, tilting her head side to side, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. Then shuk-shuk, shuk-shuk, shuk-shuk, shuk-shuk. The sound faded as the maker of the night noise apparently ran off in another direction. Lema stood a long time, listening, her exhalations forming misty clouds from her mouth, suspended briefly in the frozen air. Her ears were perked up, turning, searching.
“I’d always thought the woods at night would be silent and still.” Sasha thought as she wriggled closer to Jiak, as much for protection as warmth. She looked to the eastern horizon, and saw the deep indigo of the night sky begin to lighten at the edge to a pale blue, soon to greet the sun. As Sasha closed her eyes and slept, the Concert of Night Music took its bows, and drew its curtain.
Last Leg To Dezhnevo
The first light of day beamed into camp from the eastern horizon. Jiak arose with the sun, stowed his bedroll and the tie line, and struck camp. He harnessed the dogs after fetching water from the river, warmed over the last coals of the fire. As the steeply angled morning sun cast long shadows and illuminated secret holds deep in the forest, Jiak and the team rode onto the river to run the last leg to Dezhnevo. It was bitterly cold, and Jiak pulled his balaclava up over his nose and mouth. He’d booted the dogs for the icy river, and the boots helped keep the cold at bay.
Jiak stood on the runners as the team coursed its way down the frozen river at a fast but comfortable gait. He looked out at all that was before him, and let out a sigh of satisfaction. He watched the team of beautiful, well-trained dogs advancing down the river without need for commands. Looking straight down, he could see through the ice where it was crystal clear. There was not much to see besides the blackness of the deep water, save for an occasional large rock or two just beneath the surface.
Sasha was tremendously invigorated this morning after a night in camp on the trail following her first excursion with a whole team, pulling a loaded sled. Today there was no aching in her muscles, no timidity about being part of the team and keeping her line taut. After the first five minutes on the river, she felt she’d already received her second wind, and thought she could outrun all the rest given the opportunity. Even her tongue-lolling went better this morning, and she made a respectable showing of flopping her tongue back and forth, like Lema. She was excited knowing that they would be arriving today at their destination, the Trading Post at Dezhnevo. She’d seen so much already on her maiden trip, and could only imagine what new things awaited her there.
At the back of the sled, Jiak began singing his river song to the dogs, the sky, the trees and the snow. He loved this life, and these trails never grew old to him. He was as excited as Sasha on her first sojourn, though he couldn’t even venture a guess as to how many times he’d made this same journey. Something in the sun bouncing from the ice below reminded him of his first trip down the river and on to the settlement with his father, Bek.
Bek had wrapped him in buntings and lashed him to the sled so he couldn’t be thrown out. Jiak was just four years old, and the world was all new, and much bigger than he could have imagined. A musher’s son, four-year-old Jiak eagerly assisted whenever he could. Fetching water, feeding the dogs, spreading the straw for beds, donning boots. On the river, Bek would get the team going top speed, then look for a fluffy snowdrift about a meter high. He’d guide the dogs right into it, and they’d practically leap over the drift, followed by the sled. First the snow kicked up by the dogs would spatter little Jiak, then the sled would bust through the drift, throwing up a shower of snowflakes which inundated the sled, driver and passenger, as the two squealed with delight.
Bek made a game of the fish-tailing sled on the open ice, sliding first to the right, then the left, yelling like a man in fear for his life. “Ahh! Lost the brake! We’re going to crash!”, Bek feigned. Somehow, Jiak never really feared they would crash, and he’d giggle and laugh and scream as the sled careened its way down the river.
Jiak recalled the first time he saw the settlement at Dezhnevo. So many new and strange things. Dog teams and reindeer teams seemed like they were everywhere, over-running the Trading Post. In the meadow beyond, three yarangas were erected, housing the nomadic herders, the Chavchu, their large reindeer herds browsing the sedges and lichens. In the mercantile, little Jiak was mesmerized. He’d never seen so many things in one place. A shelf of glass jars held sticks of candy in bright colors of green, red, yellow and white. Bek bought one of every color for his boy, whose eyes sparkled with two hands full of sweet, sticky treats.
Jiak’s voice cracked a little, singing his river song, and he felt a tear well up, then freeze to his cheek. The overwhelming joy he felt that day with his father, the team, the Trading Post, the candy and the Chavchu was as real and strong now, these many years later. Jiak dreamed of a day when he would have a little one of his own. He would wrap him, or her, in buntings, lash them to the sled, and careen down the river fish-tailing and busting snowdrifts.
It was near mid-day when Jiak again drove the team off of the flat river, and onto the well-traveled last leg into the Trading Post. At the edge of town, teams were tied off and resting. A musher was harnessing his dogs, preparing to head out, his sled loaded with provisions. Sasha had never met dogs that were not her own, nor seen any buildings besides the homestead. The sights and smells came at her from every direction. There were dog teams and reindeer teams, and more people than she’d ever seen. Two at the fur trader’s, unloading a sled, and two more at the mercantile having a lively conversation. These, along with the musher harnessing up and a woman leading two reindeer made a total of six people, plus Jiak.
From the settlement beyond, smells of food and pelts, fish and wood smoke wafted forth. Jiak stopped at the fur trader’s, and seated the snow hook firmly. “Everybody down now.” he said, as the team laid down with the exception of Sasha. She stood, her tail wagging, her head swinging around every which way, her nostrils flaring as she took in the plethora of scents. “I remember my first trip to Dezhnevo, too!” Jiak said to her as he rubbed her ears and sides of her face. This got Lema and Yura back up, looking for similar attention. He fussed over them, too, and finally all six dogs were up and crowding around Jiak, excited to be in this unique and busy place.
“Alright! Alright!” Jiak laughed as he peeled himself from the pack and encouraged them to lie down again. “I need to go in here for a bit, so sit tight. Down now. Stay. Stay down.”. Reluctantly, the well-trained and reasonably obedient team obeyed. With Jiak in the trader’s, Sasha felt suddenly alone. She looked at the door and barked twice. It was a “Hey! Hey! Did you forget me?” bark. This had the effect of making an adjacent team begin barking at Jiak’s team. The other team strained at their harnesses in the cacophony, to move closer to Jiak’s, but were securely anchored. The driver of the other team stuck his head out through the door of the trader’s, calling rather calmly to the dogs to hush, and they immediately did so.
Sasha stood, her tail moving slowly and rhythmically side to side, staring at the door through which Jiak had disappeared, anxious for his return. The driver harnessing his team finally got underway. It was a large team, eight dogs in pairs plus a single lead out front. “Hup!” the driver called, and the single word caused the team to stand as one, and they bounced and hopped as the sled started. With a chorus of barks to one another, they lent every effort to the task, picking up the pace by the time the long, heavily laden sled cruised past Sasha and her team. Nine beautiful and graceful Huskies raised their heads looking proud, perhaps boastful. Their well-made harnesses fit and looked perfect. The driver, tall and rugged, clad head to toe in skins, headed eastward out of the settlement.
“Aren’t they going the wrong way?” Sasha asked of the other dogs, thinking there was only one direction to home.
“Enmitahin.” Vasa volunteered.
“Yeah,” Lema added, “An’ kalyn.”
“They’re headed for the east cape, Vostochny.” Spring explained to the newcomer. “Ankalyn are people of the cape. They live on the coast, the end of the cliff.”
All these things were new and foreign to Sasha. The coast? The cape? Coastal people? Two days ago she believed the whole world was just slightly larger than the homestead. She believed Bek and Nina and Jiak were all the people in the world. Now here before her were a hundred things she’d never experienced. Then a new scent came across the peninsula. The slightest whiff, carried many miles by the Arctic wind. From the east she could smell something pungent and salty.
For the first time, she smelled the fertile, living waters of the Chukchi Sea.
A bright corona encircled the sun, guarded on the left and the right by the red-gold shields of sun dogs. The portentous atmospheric phenomena warned of the impending storm as Jiak emerged from the fur trader’s. He rounded the corner of the building, and within a few minutes returned with two pails of water for the dogs. They drank their fill as a man from the trader’s helped Jiak to unload the bundles of pelts from the sled. Another man opened the bundles and flipped through the pelts like pages in a book, making notes of the species, sizes and quality. Jiak returned the pails to the well house, picked up his payout from the fur trader, and thanked him for his hospitality.
Descending the hill from the north of the settlement came a pack train. Five pairs of reindeer pulled five sleds, one with a rectangular box like a litter. They trotted into the trading post, their feet making their distinctive clicking noises with each step. As the pack train moved past Sasha and the team, she was awestruck by the elaborate and beautiful decorations of the harnesses, and even the drivers. There was not a place on the harness that was not adorned with colored beads, feathers, knotted leather tassels, and carved bone embellishments. The drivers wore similarly decorated clothes, bearing painted symbols on smooth leather in red, black, and blue. Depictions of reindeer and polar bears, yarangas and reindeer sleds, hunters, mountains, a bright yellow sun.
Their sleds were heaped with the bounty of their hunt. Two sleds were mounded with pelts of every kind. Another was loaded down with meat from the harvest. Another was loaded with antlers and cleaned bones. The fifth sled carried a family. A woman with three children rode beneath a polar bear skin, their heads the only thing showing, protruding like fingers from the fur-covered sled. As the pack train rode through the settlement and beyond, the children’s eyes were wide with excitement. The littlest one, near age two, grinned and giggled at the sight of all the dogs, and the others were pointing this way and that, chatting enthusiastically with their mother. Curiously, they did not stop, but continued south bound, the sounds of the reindeer feet, the drivers’ calls and the chatty children fading in the distance.
Jiak moved on to the mercantile, eager to be back on the trail to home before the storm overtook him and his team. As he cinched down the load preparing to depart, a deep voice called out.
“Jiak? Is that Jiak? Bek’s boy?” The man approached Jiak and the sled, and as he did, cast a shadow over the entire team. He was the biggest man any of them had ever seen, a mountain, blocking out the sun.
“Tun!” Jiak shouted, a big grin showing snowy white teeth. The two rapidly moved toward one another with arms held wide. They collided with an audible thump, and bear-hugged one another with peals of hearty laughter.
“How’ve you been?” Tun asked, “How is your family? How is your father?”
“Things are good at the Homestead, Tun. All is well. And how about you? Where have you been?”
“Oh, wandering in all the usual places and a few unusual ones!” Tun answered. “It’s been a long, busy winter. I’m actually on my way to see you guys about a couple of dogs.” He paused a moment, looking as if he was searching for something to say. “I…”, he began and stopped, looked away from Jiak at the shining corona of the sun, took a breath, and continued.
“I lost Willow.” he said softly, and paused again, reached out a giant fur mitt to brush the head of Yura, closest to where he stood.
“Oh.” was all Jiak could muster. He wasn’t quite sure what else to say, hearing of Tun’s loss of one of his favorite dogs, which had been with him more than a decade.
“Tangled with a bear in the Oloy.” Tun continued in choppy sentences, referring to the valley to the north. “Lost Rika, too.”
Again, the giant of a man was quiet. The two men stood, fully understanding the silence they shared.
The relationship of man and dog is unique in the world. Many millennia ago they chose one another, for reasons we may never fully comprehend. Perhaps a mutual benefit was at the core of this relationship. I, Man, will feed you scraps of our food if you, Dog, will be a faithful companion. Warning of danger with your bark, helping with the hunt, keeping us warm.
Yet there is no denying that there is a bond of emotion between these two species. From toddlers to the elderly, humans smile at dogs, are compelled to reach out and touch them as one does a parent, a sibling, a child or a dear friend.
And dogs love people. They stay because they choose to. They wag their bodies and their tails and occasionally a dog will actually learn how to smile, bearing its top teeth just as humans do, and for the same reasons.
To some, sled dogs may seem like little more than livestock, beasts of burden. But to those that have loved them, dogs are four-legged, fur-covered members of our family.
Death In The Oloy
“This was to be her last winter on the trail.” Tun said of his recently lost beloved Willow. “She was lead on the team. We had some great hunting and trapping in the Oloy. We were heading south, checking the last trapline. We came over a big rise and as soon as we crested the hill there was this Mama Bear and her two cubs. They were right below the edge of the drift cap, and we practically came down on top of them. I called to the team to go, hoping we might outrun the bear enough for her to give up the chase and stay to guard her cubs.
Rika wanted to take her down and he headed right for her, barking and teeth showing. I couldn’t get the sled to stop on the hill and it rolled over onto its right side which is where my scabbard is. Had to reach under the sled to pull the rifle out. Before I could do that, that bear reached out with a paw and slashed Rika to ribbons with one swipe.” The giant man paused, looked at his feet for a moment. Then he looked away from Jiak again, and spent quite a long minute looking off into the distance, his eyes making little darts back and forth as he remembered the scene vividly. He took a deep breath, exhaling through his mouth in a long sigh, and continued. “Pulled the trigger and the rifle didn’t fire. Firing pin had seized up, frozen.”
The confrontation was like a nightmare in slow motion. As Tun saw Rika slashed from hip to shoulder, his heart leaped into his throat. He reached for the rifle scabbard pinned beneath the sled and buried under a foot of snow. He hurriedly pulled the mitten from his right hand, always a dangerous thing to do in the Arctic. He groped under the heavy, loaded sled for the opening of the scabbard. Meanwhile, all nine dogs, save the one already dead, growled, barked and leaped, alternately trying to attack the bear or conversely, trying to escape it. The bear was in a frenzied panic, startled by the sudden appearance of a pack of mini-wolves nearly running over her cubs.
Tun found the scabbard as his fingers began to go numb from the cold, and pulled the rifle from it so hurriedly that it slipped through his hands, falling into the snow. As he snatched it up and swung it into position, he was shocked at the amount of blood spattered on the snow and across the chest of the bear. His hands began to shake as he pointed the rifle, not accurately, but roughly at the middle of the beast. As he pulled the trigger, he heard the firing pin fall against the primer of the cartridge with a dull “click”.
The bear charged into the team, pinned down by their harnesses, unable to flee. It seemed an eternity as Tun chambered another round in the rifle. Bolt up. Bolt back. Eject the shell. Bolt forward. Chamber another round. Bolt down. He pulled the trigger as quickly as he could. The shot caught the bear on the shoulder, blood spray filling the air and freezing instantly, forming a shower of pink-red snowflakes that might be considered beautiful under different circumstances. The bear didn’t seem to notice the bullet strike, all her Mother’s instinct and bear hormones bent on destroying the interlopers, protecting her offspring with total disregard for her own safety.
Larik, beside Rika, leaped over his dead comrade’s body, gnashing teeth and managing to grab only a mouthful of fur as the bear moved. Larik charged again, but was arrested by the harness binding him to the dead dog. Tun chambered another round as quickly as he could work the action. He tried for a split second to think about making his shot count, as the bear swung at Larik, slicing horizontally through both nostrils, just inches from a fatal blow. Tun fired the second round, and it struck the bear at the base of the neck. She was shoved back slightly by the impact, but was undeterred in her fury.
Willow was next, as the hands of time seemed to move ever more slowly as Tun reloaded. Willow tried to run to escape the bear, but was immediately halted by the harness tying her to the tumult. The bear pulled back a huge claw-laden paw at the end of a hundred-pound foreleg, and began to swing at Willow just as Tun fired the rifle, aiming at the bear’s head. The claws raked across Willow’s back, tearing open wounds as deep as one’s hands and breaking her hip bone. The bullet struck the bear in the face, right below the left eye, tore out a chunk of flesh, bounced off a cheek bone, sailed beneath the skin and exited with another shower of flash-frozen blood behind the sow’s left ear. This served only to infuriate her further, and she now lifted both front feet, and brought them down, leveraging a thousand pounds of weight as she stomped the dead and dying dogs before her.
Every part of Tun’s body was now shaking, beads of sweat freezing to his forehead. His stomach turned as his gut told him he was about to die. It took conscious will to keep from getting up and running to save his own life. He repeated again the process of working the bolt-action. It seemed slower each time he did so. All the dogs were screaming now, injured, dead or in fear of either. They pulled at their harnesses, hobbled in place, and it seemed the harness compelled them back into the razor-filled arms of the attacker.
Finally, the last shot met its mark, entering through the bear’s left eye socket, spinning two circles inside the skull like a bead rolled around the edge of a pie pan. The sow collapsed into the snow, a crimson circle beneath her head growing as she huffed her last breaths.
Her final thoughts were as fragmented as her brain itself was.
My babies. I’ve lost my babies. What has happened here? I am at the top of the food chain, nothing can kill me. My babies. Where are my babies?
We were happy and peaceful, taking in the warm sun on this snowy hill, feeding on an abandoned reindeer carcass. My babies. Then evil incarnate flew out of the sky. Nine mini-wolves trying to kill my babies. Must kill! Must kill! That my babies may live. And then, suddenly…
Circles In Snow
The big bear had been wandering almost aimlessly for the past two days. While she could never be lost in her own country in a physical sense, she was lost in heart, mind and spirit. The two cubs she bore in the depth of winter emerged with her from their den, already weak from hunger. The autumn before was not the best for the sow, and she hadn’t stored as much fat and food energy as most years. Come spring, she was weakened and drained, and had trouble producing milk to sustain her offspring.
She desperately needed food, and ventured out from the safety of their lair much earlier than she would normally, her very young cubs trailing behind her into the frigid Arctic world. She walked in a weary stupor, smelling for life beneath the snow, or its successor, death, in the form of life-giving carrion. It was many miles to her summer feeding grounds at the edges of the Chukchi Sea. If only they could manage to make it there, she’d find seals, and whale carcasses on the beach, free for the taking without the exertion of the hunt. There, she could raise her tiny charges through the easy summer, until they could learn to hunt for themselves.
Nature’s primary goal is preservation of the species. She is allowed no heart. Cannot be influenced by emotions; fondness, fairness, protections from pain and suffering. Emotions don’t fuel the outcome, only actions do. If the sow lives, without her cubs, she will have another chance next season to procreate. If the cubs live but the mother dies, it is but a brief and pointless victory. Mere days will starve the cubs, if they are not eaten by predators before that. Predators driven by their own undeniable instincts, for the Law of Nature applies equally to all.
The bear plodded along, barely able to walk, put one paw in front of the other. Something made her stop and lay down. It was instinct again. Feed her cubs. They nuzzled at her teats. They pulled away dry-mouthed, and cried to her. She was torn between laying still, letting her cubs nurse, and moving on in search of food before she collapsed, and they would all three starve and freeze. She lifted herself with great effort, and walked onward following years of habit and a faint smell of the sea. Her mind was getting cloudy. Even her vision seemed to be weakening. One more step. One more step. One more step.
Then she caught a scent. A smell buried beneath the snow. Something dead and frozen and maybe a little rotted. She put all her effort into digging. After a half-dozen swipes of a shovel-sized paw, she made contact, and pulled up half a rib cage with tatters of meat and fur falling away. She ravenously picked up the whole thing, crunching through bones, hastily chewing, swallowing, returning for more. It wasn’t much, but it was salvation from starvation. Energy and momentum to propel her onward. She hoped her cubs could begin to feed on the carcass, or perhaps her milk would return.
She turned to her backtrail and called out for her litter. She strained her weakened eyes in the bright sun and white landscape, searching for tiny bobbing black dots, the noses of her cubs. She stared, and called again, this time raising herself with some difficulty on her hind legs, to see farther. No bleating cries replied to her calls. No bobbing black dots could be seen across the desolate, windswept ground. She sniffed the still and frozen air for their scents. She called out again, breathlessly listening for a reply.
Mother’s instinct compelled her to go search for her progeny. She walked a short distance from the carcass until her own mother, Nature, called her back to the life-sustaining carrion. She turned back toward the food, and turned again toward her cubs. She was briefly frozen in indecision, both instincts fighting a tug-of-war within her weakened brain. She needed to eat to live. She couldn’t save her cubs any other way. She returned to the carcass and ate as much as she could retrieve, raising her head frequently to listen for the call of her offspring. When she’d consumed all the scraps she could find, she hastened to retrace her steps, to find her cubs.
After just a mile, she came upon the first one. She called to it from forty meters away. It lay still in the snow. She quickened her pace as best she could until she stood over the cub, a ball of white fur covered with a dusting of snow. It was lifeless and frozen. She nuzzled it to awaken it, and immediately understood the cold, hard feeling of death. She let out a low moan, jostled the lifeless cub with her huge paw. She knew it was gone. She looked all around as if searching for something besides her other cub. She lowered her head and sniffed the tiny white ball for the last time. There was another cub to find, and she had no time to linger here with any sense of loss or finality. With another moan, she walked away from the cub, calling out to the trail ahead of her.
She walked across the frozen plain for two days, searching and calling, never to find a clue as to where her other hope for the season had gone. Then she heard a call. She thought she heard her lost cub ahead, beyond a hill. She followed the sound of a cub, though not her own. At the top of the hill, she looked below and saw a huge sow, covered in snow, obviously dead. Beside her lifeless body, two cubs struggled to get her up, or at least to roll over so they could nurse. The remains of two mutilated dogs lay in the snow, one half-beneath the bear. The whole scene was underscored by a pinkish hue, snow covering bloody ground.
As the orphans saw the weak and wandering bear, they immediately ran to her. The instinct of babies of all creatures, to know a mother when they see one. She knew these were not her cubs, but they were cubs, and she a mother. The cubs knew this was not their mother, but knew she was a mother. Near starving and feeling the cold, the two cubs cleaved to their foster parent. Pressed their snouts into her belly. The few scraps of food she’d eaten during two days of wandering, since losing her own cubs, had been enough to produce some milk. The orphans drank greedily. Filling empty bellies, bringing some warmth to this coldest of worlds.
It is not uncommon in the animal kingdom for orphans to be adopted by others. It seems an instinct most animals share, to care for the young. Occasionally, animals of different species are brought together this way. Often defying natural logic.
In a day, the three would move on, leaving behind only tracks that would soon fill with snow.
Chapter Twenty One
Past The Third Moon
Jiak kept looking over his shoulder like a thief fleeing justice, as the team rode onto the frozen river, bound for home. Light flakes had already begun falling, and he could see the storm stalking him up the valley, a wall of snow blotting out everything within and beyond it. The gray sky grew darker still, and the wind began to pick up, though thankfully it was at their backs.
It was late in the season for a snow storm, past the moon of the third joint, and these were the ones to be most wary of. Increasing moisture in the atmosphere would fall as gentle spring rain if not for the breath of The Ice Queen upon the storm clouds. Now huge, fluffy flakes fell, so thick they reduced visibility to twenty meters or less, and the air looked as if a hundred down pillows had burst right over the river, Jiak, and the sled team. Snow piled on fur-covered dogs and man alike, each shaking off the wet coating from time to time. The downfall piled quickly on the river, making footing treacherous where slick, bare ice was concealed beneath.
Jiak began to doubt his decision to flee the trading post and attempt to beat the storm across the Arctic miles to home. He had every confidence in his ability to survive the challenges Nature would throw at him. However, the dogs and sled were added burdens he must bear, the safety of his team the utmost concern. If they found themselves snowbound, there was little Jiak could do for the dogs besides feeding them. If precipitation piled deep enough, the dogs would be swimming in snow up to their shoulders, not running, or even walking. Little progress could be made this way, and would only serve to excessively stress and exhaust the animals.
Jiak was not without good cause for his growing concern. More than once he, sometimes with his father, had to surrender to the overwhelming snow. Had to quit the trail and pitch camp, fend for themselves, and shelter in place. If they were fortunate, they might make it to a lean-to or wayside cabin, which infrequently dotted the landscape, usually in the middle of the longest and most rigorous stretches of trail.
On one such occasion, four years prior, a late storm piled snow as high as a man. Bek, Jiak and the dog team were lucky enough to make the lean-to at Half-High before their progress was completely halted. They’d make camp here and stay, of necessity, until the winds blew and the time passed for the snow to compact under its own weight, until they could set out breaking trail as they go. The first day and the second were but routine to men who knew no other country, no other kind of life. By the third day, the father grew concerned and the son grew anxious. On the fourth day, more snow fell on that which had not yet blown away or settled down.
The two were now pressed to don snowshoes and hunt for game to feed the camp, themselves included. It was a full day by dogsled to home. Striking out on snowshoes at this point would be foolhardy, and the dogs would need to be let to run, making it all the more difficult to care for and feed them. Food and fire remained in good supply as the troupe waited for the weather to clear. The only thing to fear now was a Killing Cold. Though late in the season, it would not be unheard of for the temperatures to plunge again far below freezing. Pinned down and unable to move about normally for exercise added to the danger of the situation, exposing them all to the ever-present risk of frostbite.
Finally, on day six at the Half-High lean-to, rescue came in the form of neighbors. A Chavchu herder and two reindeer teams plied their way slowly up the trail, the cloven-foot beasts muscling their way through snow that sometimes reached their shoulders. Built for life in the snow, the reindeer and their sleds could break trail for the mushers under conditions in which dogs would flounder.
Bek hailed the driver as he drew near, inviting him into camp for a meal and hot tea. The herder introduced himself as Matvey, and welcomed the hot meal of hare and the warming beverage. He said he was traveling west to the Tunkan trail, on which he would head north to his summer grazing grounds. His wife, son and daughter would be moving the herds overland, and he was to travel in advance to find the best route for the large herd through the late season snow.
After the meal, Bek and Jiak concealed their anxiousness to leave this place as they struck camp. Here in this place where humans infrequently encounter one another, hospitality is prized above all else. It is said “A stranger should never take leave while hungry”. Without further conversation, Matvey proceeded to his teams, slapped the reins a couple of times and made a sound like “Chik. Chik.”, and the teams set forth through the deep and drifting snow, their new traveling companions close behind.
Chapter Twenty Two
Racing The Storm
Sasha was thrilled to be out on the trail during the williwaw, snow piling on her back, wind whipping past. She remembered the day, not so long ago, when she watched the blizzard from the comfort of the homestead and dreamed of being here at this very place.
The river was now covered with a foot of snow, and beneath that was the glass-smooth ice. Pulling the sled was becoming a challenge. The dogs would spread their toes to increase the size of their footprint, to provide buoyancy in the soft snow, like snowshoes. Then, in places, their feet would sink through to the slick river, and the dogs would tighten their toes together, which had the effect of presenting their non-retractable claws to the ice. After several hours of steady snowfall, all the dogs were beginning to tire, and each made some misstep, some sliding falter as the conditions worsened.
The smell of burnt wood and chow scraps caught Sasha’a attention, and observations of other scents told her they were passing the big bend where they’d camped overnight on their sojourn to Dezhnevo. Now they pressed onward, even as night began to fall, the menacing gray sky dimming to near black, the winds continuing to blow fiercely. On they trod, mostly in silence, as little could be heard above the din of the Arctic blow, howling through the spruce forest in the darkness. Jiak called out only when necessary, the dogs saving their breath as they struggled to continue through the piling snow.
Visibility, already diminished by the blizzard, now dropped to near zero. Jiak relied on the team’s familiarity with the course, their senses of place and smell, their experience on the trail, as he strained his vision to watch for the sidecut that would lead them off of the river, and onto the Homestead Trail.
He would have missed it entirely in the snow-ridden blackness, if not for Yura. Yura pulled hard to the right, though the team resisted, until he stopped moving. Jiak could not quite see to the end of the gangline, where Yura was, out front. He called out to the team to go, and they looked back at him as if to say “We can’t. Yura’s just sitting.”. Jiak walked to the front of the sled through the knee-deep snow, fearing a dog had suffered an injury, or perhaps was simply too exhausted to continue the trek.
“What’s the matter?” Jiak said to Yura in concerned and comforting tones, spoken rather loudly to be heard above the roar of the wind. “What’s going on up here?”. Yura planted four feet, pointed himself off to the right, and barked repeatedly, bouncing on his forelegs. Jiak ventured in the direction Yura indicated, unsure of the cause for the signal. After a short walk, he came close enough to see the fallen tree that marked the entrance to the sidecut. A large X was made of limbs and lashed to the tree as a marker. From the X hung adornments of every kind, placed by passers-by, so they might recognize this place when they returned or passed again. Animal tails, feathers, antlers and strips of leather formed an unmistakable marker, for which Jiak was thankful.
“Okay! Good job Yura!” Jiak exclaimed as he made his way back to the team. “Okay, this way.” he said as he grabbed Yura’s harness, leading the dogs to the trail entrance in the darkness. As they made the transition from the river to the trail, the snow continued to fall heavily, and the winds seemed only to increase as the night and the miles wore on. The sled sank deep into the snow, and the dogs struggled with the incline of the sidecut. As they inched their way up the hill, progress became slower with each step. A little more than half way up the slope, Spring stopped, and sat down. Jiak, at the back of the sled, pushing to help the team, could not see why the team had stalled.
He walked past the sled in the blinding blizzard to discover the veteran sitting down in the middle of the team. Vasa took the cue to mean it was a rest stop, and went beyond sitting, laying down in the snow, panting heavily. The other dogs stood, similarly weary and breathing hard, and looked at Jiak as he approached Spring. “So, that’s it, eh?” Jiak spoke aloud into the roaring wind. “Okay. We can rest a bit. You guys must be pretty tired. Me, too. Everybody down.”
“Down where?” Sasha thought, the snow so deep her rib cage dragged through it. She stood in place, the wind blowing up her back, snow swirling around her. She was glad Spring had managed to get Jiak to stop for a rest. It seemed they’d been on the move for what must be a full day, and now into the night. She didn’t expect anything nearly as difficult as this hillclimb, and was hoping Jiak would decide to pitch camp here so they could warm themselves by a fire, get some badly needed sleep, and get some chow.
Jiak proceeded to unload the sled. It was the only way they could continue, now just twelve miles from home. He stowed the bundles of provisions at the base of a tree, and broke a limb off as high as he could reach. He then wrapped a rope around the tree, tying it, and hanging from it a spare dog boot and a strip of yellow-dyed leather, a flag to help him locate his cache upon his return. Lastly, he removed his oilskin from the sled bag, covered his stock pile, and laid branches over it to keep it all in place.
Sasha watched as Jiak again walked to the front of the team. He began unhooking the tug lines and moving the lead dogs, Yura and Nib, and hooked them to the sled. He then took Spring and Vasa and moved them to the front of the gangline and hooked them there. He moved Sasha and Lema to the center position and hooked Yura and Nib into positions five and six. While the snow continued to accumulate, Jiak and the team returned to the ascent after a brief rest. “On Spring!” called Jiak over the raging wind.
“When will we camp?” Sasha asked Lema as they settled onto the flat trail at the top of the hill.
“Moving us to the swing position is not a good sign. That means Jiak figures the leads are too tired to break trail, so we need to change up. If he was going to pitch camp, it would have been now.”
“What do you mean “If”?” Sasha countered, exhausted and a little scared by the extreme conditions, the deep snow, howling winds, and traveling at night. The wind blew up her back, sneaking under the top layer of her coat like icicle fingers. The snow whipped all about, filling ears and stinging eyes. Now behind her, she could hear Yura and Nib still breathing heavily, starting to sound hoarse.
“If I’m reading this right, it looks like Jiak is going to push on to the homestead without stopping.”
There would be no reprieve from the storm tonight. No tie line dressed with straw. No fire or hot meal. No night visitors or singing wolves. It was a race now. A different kind of race than that which this group was accustomed to.
Jiak and the team versus the Arctic.
Chapter Twenty Three
Forward Into Darkness
Sasha had never worked so hard, nor been so exhausted in her short life. Somewhere on the river, the ache in her right forepaw began, and it grew greater as she continued to press onward with the team through the deep snow of the blizzard. After they left the river and Jiak unloaded the sled, caching its contents beside the trail, the sled was lighter, but the footing no better. The snow was as deep as her legs were long, her rib cage dragging as she walked. They were on the ridgeline and the ground was flat, but now the team was exposed to the full force of the wind, as it swept its way up the draft of the river. The wind struck them from behind, quartering on, and lifted the top layer of their coats, against the grain. Snow whipped about in every direction, getting in her ears, blowing in her eyes. She shook snow off and squinted her eyes, but could see nothing beyond Spring’s backside in the darkness.
The move to the swing position was a welcome change. The wheel dogs, closest to the sled, often did more than their share of the actual pulling, the rest of the dogs pitching in on the gangline. There was also the nagging sled immediately behind, giving the impression one could be run over if the sled was not braked correctly. In the swing, Sasha had other dogs breaking trail ahead, and the wheel dogs behind her, pulling hard.
The whole team was walking now, unable to progress more quickly as Spring and Vasa broke trail, and the sled dragged through the ever-deepening snow. Traveling along the ridgeline, the trail slowly wound its way farther from the river, and soon they were in the spruce stands. Now the wind harried them less, and the trees slowed the drifting snows. The snow continued to fall so heavily the trees could not be discerned in the darkness, but their presence was felt. Some familiarity and comfort as friends shielded them from the howling winds, and guarded them on either side.
Spring, the oldest dog on the team, had already tired on the sidecut hillclimb. He plodded along, trooper that he is, in spite of the cold and exhaustion, the deep snow on the trail, and the biting wind. He’d seen this kind of weather before, and knew the only options were to keep walking or stop altogether. Vasa, beside Spring and a bit younger, was in peak condition, and he eagerly leaned into the harness to drag the sled through the blizzard.
From her position, Sasha saw Spring beginning to limp a little. Beside him, Vasa tried to help reduce the load, sensing the older dog’s discomfort. After two miles in the lead, walking through chest-deep snow, Spring finally hit his limit. He stopped, which meant the team stopped.
“I’m sorry guys.” Spring addressed the team, “That’s all I have. I need to change up or rest.”
Jiak again walked through the darkness to the front of the sled to determine the reason for stopping. Without words, he pulled a gangline extension from the sled bag. He proceeded to connect it to the existing gangline, and began to rearrange the dogs to travel single file. Pairs were separated, resulting in a line twice as long, with dogs alternating on the left and right sides. He pulled Spring back to the position just ahead of Nib, and behind Yura. He pulled Lema to the lead, placing Vasa behind her, and Sasha third in the line.
The entire party, Jiak included, had now been awake and about since sunrise the day before. They’d been on the trail from Dezhnevo, mushing and moving, for nearly fourteen hours. Jiak’s stomach reminded him the dogs hadn’t eaten since supper the evening before, and he had had just a few bites in Dezhnevo. There was jerky in the sled bag, but Jiak would not eat in front of the hungry team, which could not be fed until they stopped moving and working. Like the dogs, Jiak picked up half a mouthful of snow from time to time for thirst-quenching hydration.
Jiak went about the rearranging of the team without haste. Time was of the essence, as snow continued to fall and blow across the trail, but the dogs would benefit from the few minutes rest. He double-checked the line connections, and stopped beside each dog for a hands-on, one-on-one praise and pep talk, and to check the condition of their paws. He returned to the back of the sled, working his fingers inside his sealskin gloves, trying to circulate some blood and get feeling back in them after the exposure necessitated by the re-rigging. He hopped back and forth on his feet as if running in place, and pulled his hood tightly over his face, leaving just a small opening through which he could exhale. He could see virtually nothing in the blizzard, in the night, and so left the hood over his eyes.
“Okay guys. Hike! Let’s go!”
With a new lead dog, the group was once again underway, still slowly but steadily walking on, following a trail that could not be seen. A long caravan of individuals in a line. Each one, in silence, moving forward, into the darkness.
Chapter Twenty Four
A Case Of Arctic Fever
Mother’s words kept coming into Sasha’s mind as she plodded along, third in a single-file line behind Lema and Vasa in the roaring, snow-beleaguered night.
“When we’re on the trail, in harness, we must work together.” Sasha tried to remember word-for-word, imagined Mother’s face and the day in the warm homestead when the puppy received these lessons. She walked ahead slowly, hypnotically. “Cooperation and teamwork” She thought. “Out on the taiga, failure can mean pain and death.”
With that thought came many emotions. She missed the security of days at the homestead, when all the world was contained in the cabin and the yard. There were treats and kisses, affections and lessons, big bowls filled with hot chow. She grew anxious to see home again, for this odyssey to end, yet took to heart Mother’s admonitions.
“Teamwork” Sasha thought, trying to will away the pain in her right foreleg. “Failure, pain, death.”
“How’s that?” Vasa asked over his shoulder of the dog he couldn’t quite see in the dark.
“Just talking to myself.” Sasha answered, adding some degree of concerted effort, pitching in with the work of dragging the nearly empty sled through the deep and drifting snow.
“Arctic fever!” Yura offered from behind her.
“Who has the fever?” Spring queried, though he wasn’t heard all the way up front over the relentless, whipping winds.
“Sasha! She’s talking to herself!” Yura replied with a half-smirk.
“Who can blame her?” came Nib’s contribution.
“What’s going on back there?” Lema now chimed in, unable to hear the exchanges.
“What comes after ‘second wind’?”Sasha exclaimed loud enough for Lema to hear all the way out at the lead.
“Third wind? Fourth wind?” came the reply, “Right now we have more winds than we need.”
They all, with exception of Sasha, got a good chuckle out of that, and barked calls up and down the long string of dogs. Aside from the lead, the progress was a bit easier in single file, and in spite of the fact that they were now into their sixteenth hour on the non-stop trek, the dogs apparently remained in good spirits.
“This will be a good story to tell back at the homestead.” Lema shouted over her shoulder.
“If we get there!” Yura quickly added with some sarcasm, and they all had another good laugh, defiantly dismissing the danger that still lay ahead.
The team was getting punchy, maybe a bit delirious, slogging on slowly as the heavy snow continued to fall. Humor relieved the stress, and the relief was welcome.
“What’s Arctic Fever? Is it bad?” Sasha was concerned that she had taken ill, though she felt fine.
“Oh, it can be pretty bad.” Yura kept the gag going. “It’s been known to be fatal. Of course that’s rare. Usually you just go crazy. You know, you start talking to yourself. Next thing you know you’re talking to your imaginary cat.”
All the dogs, again excepting Sasha, snickered at Yura’s discourse.
“Fatal?!” Sasha asked, beginning to feel a bit panicked by her condition.
“It’s not always fatal.” Vasa added, “Sometimes you just go nuts and spend the whole day chasing your own tail, thinking it’s a rabbit.”
“Oh my goodness!” Sasha said aloud. She rather suddenly felt weaker, felt that maybe she would collapse on the trail from the dreaded illness.
The snow was now so deep that routine walking was no longer possible. Lema was forced to leap forward with each step, springing upwards and jumping onto the snow’s surface, hopping forward one dog-length at a time. This made mushing more difficult, and it took the team a little while to get the timing right. They’d catch up to Lema and give her slack line so she could jump forward, Lema reaching the end of the slack with each leap. Sometimes she would jerk the line when it became taut, and the other dogs all concentrated their efforts to help Lema continue their forward progress.
As the team marched slowly onward, Sasha worried about her fever. Perhaps the pain in her paw was a symptom. She felt breathless, winded, exhausted. Maybe she was on the brink of death, she thought. Her mind raced forward to the worst places. What if she died here on the trail? Never to see Mother and the Homestead again. She began to whimper a bit, crying for Mother, and felt suddenly frightened. She had not been this frightened since the day she thought she would be eaten by Kotka, at their first meeting. It was Mother who came to her rescue that day, and Sasha felt safe and secure, believed no harm could possibly befall her, as long as she remained under the watchful eyes of Mother.
And it was Mother who saved her now. Who made her feel safe and secure even these many miles from home. “We’re a pack. And a pack is a forever love.” Mother’s words comforted her. Again Sasha returned to remembering her lessons. “Cooperation and teamwork…we rely on one another.” She was suddenly filled with a sense of purpose. A sense of self. How will she conduct herself now, when the going is at its toughest? Who can know how long we will live? We all must die someday, and this was really as good a place as any. In the harness, braving the williwaw, dedicated to the team to her very last breath.
“Okay you mutts!” She blurted out, uncontrollably, holding back a tear, and not letting her worries show to the team. “Let’s get this train moving. I want to get home before I die, and I will.”
The team was speechless in response. The quiet rookie now speaking up, stepping up, and throwing all of her effort into the task at hand. They weren’t quite sure if it was insanity or bravery, but it was motivating to hear, and soon they all chimed in, echoing Sasha’s rallying cry. They made up a song and began to sing between gasping gulps of frigid air. A breathless chorus, shouted into the bitter night, so loud it could be heard above the roaring winds.
“Damn the cold! Damn the trail!
Damn the snow that falls from the sky!
We’re a pack, and come what may,
We shall see home before we die.”
They called it “Sasha’s Arctic Fever Song”, and it would be repeated for all the taiga to hear, mile upon mile, as they mushed along, now employing their strongest muscle.
The heart of the Chukchi dog.
Chapter Twenty Five
Light Of Day
“I can see Lema!” Sasha exclaimed excitedly, “I can see the trees!”
“Oh boy.” Yura remarked, “Maybe she really did go crazy. Is she foaming?”
“Hey. She’s right.” Spring observed.
Indeed, the team had marched through the night, eight hours long at this time of year. While the blizzard still blocked the sun, and five-mile-high clouds further filtered the light, dawn had broken, and the formerly black night yielded to the umbrageous morning.
After three miles in the lead, hopping one dog length at a time through the wind-ridden, stormy night, Lema was spent. She tried to leap forward again, one more pull, one more hop, but her hind legs simply refused to obey the command. She stopped where she was, half-vaulted onto the unbroken, neck-deep snow of the trail, panting hard.
The team behind her didn’t even notice for the first minute, their minds foggy with weariness. They stood, their heads hanging, staring at the snow beneath them, waiting for the jerk of the line to tell them to move forward one length. Incrementally, each dog caught wind of Sasha’s observations and noticed they had halted, lifting their heads and looking around as if just arising from a winter night’s peaceful slumber.
“Daylight.” interjected wise-cracking Yura, “Great. Now at least we can see where we’re going to die.”
They stood still for a few minutes, reveling in the relief for their tired, aching legs. The new dawn filled them with feelings of accomplishment, victory, and hope for the day to come. They had faced the worst of their Arctic challenge and emerged intact, truly a testament to their strength, stamina, teamwork and loyalty. After several minutes arrested in place, they became anxious and inquisitive. Why had Jiak not yet set forth to find the reason for delay?
The answer came as Spring finally spotted Jiak. Through the thick, falling snow he could be seen snowshoeing up the trail to the sled. At some point near the end of night he had given up trying to push due to the impossibility of it. Deep snow, the black night, and the jerky stop-and-go movements rendered the musher helpless. He thought briefly of climbing onto the sled, but the added weight would only make an already difficult task even more so. When Jiak reached the sled, he placed both forearms on the handle, the top of the backbow, crossed them, and laid his forehead on them. He stood for a long minute, perhaps two, breathing hard, catching his wind, sounding not unlike the dogs. He then moved past the sled in the deep, fluffy snow. Even with snowshoes, he sank almost to his knees, requiring over-sized movements, lifting his snowshoe-clad foot nearly as high as he could to take the next step. He reached the end of the long line, beside Lema, and stopped, dropping, his knees on the fronts of the snowshoes.
“How are we doing young lady?” he addressed Lema, who lay on her belly, more or less, panting in the snow. She lifted one paw in a gesture toward Jiak, and lifted it again, laying it on his forearm.
“Alright. Yes, you did a good job. I think you’re done with the lead, don’t you?”
The snow showed no signs of ebbing. Fat flakes fell as heavily as they did the evening before on the river. Visibility remained low, and from the front of the gangline, the sled was nearly indiscernible. Jiak unhooked Lema without further conversation. He picked her up and carried her, wobbling on his snowshoes, back to the sled. He set her down on it, though it, too, was covered with snow. She laid on her side, still panting rapidly. Jiak walked the line again, and paused at the third position, beside Sasha. He looked at her somewhat intensely, as if trying to assess her condition. He looked ahead at the trail, or at least what he could see of it through the wind-driven snowfall. He looked back down the line, making notations at each dog.
Nib, in the wheel position, had pulled some of the toughest parts of the trail, in the lead position beside Yura. Spring had done his duty, senior member that he is, and probably did not have a lot left to give. Vasa had pulled doubly hard assisting Spring in the lead, and now Lema had exhausted herself with her hopping, loping trailbreaking. Jiak unhooked Yura and moved to the front of the line. “Well boy, I think you’re next in rotation. Let’s do what we can, and take it from there.”
Yura began to limp, then lifted a paw, holding it suspended as he walked forward on three legs. He let out a little whimper.
“Oh, gosh. You’re in no shape to take the lead.” Jiak said, unhooking Vasa from the second position, placing Yura in it. Now Vasa began to cry as he walked, looking like he was about to collapse. Sasha could hardly believe their misfortune. Two of their strongest dogs wearing out now, of all times, so close to home. As she watched the movements, she noticed Yura, now behind Jiak, suddenly stand straight and take a couple of steps with no limping or crying. He then looked at Sasha with a twinkle in his eye.
Jiak saw that now Vasa, too, was limping and suffering from exhaustion. “Well, I guess you’re not up to this either. We may just be stuck here.” Jiak’s brow furrowed as he turned back toward the team. Catching her eye, and making a miraculous mini-recovery as Yura had, Vasa winked at Sasha as he walked by, practically high-stepping with glee.
“I guess you’re up, little miss.” Jiak spoke to Sasha. So young and new, on her first trip, he would never had intended to charge her with the duties of Lead Dog. Two days ago, she could barely keep up with the team. A lead dog required a couple of important skills, including an ability to pick out the trail from a seemingly featureless landscape. It may not be the best choice, Jiak thought. It may be our only one.
Without further ado, he clipped Vasa’s tug line to the third ring, and unhooked Sasha. She could hardly believe this was happening. Yura and Vasa had feigned weakness, knowing Jiak would not place them in the lead. Sasha was unsure if it was a challenge, a gauntlet, or if it was meant to be a prank, to set her up for failure. She looked down the line through the blowing snow at the veterans in the harness. She felt a twinge of self-doubt until she realized they were all smiling at her, gesturing with nods of their heads.
“Let’s get moving.” Nib called out.
“Knock ’em dead. Well, maybe not dead…” Yura shouted.
“You can do it!” added Vasa.
“Come on, honey,” Lema barked from the sled, “It’s a tough break, but we need you now.”
“Go get ’em, kid.” came the last comment, from Spring, “You’re as ready as you’ll ever be.”
And just like that, without pomp or ceremony, on her first trail run, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, in neck-deep snow, miles from home, Sasha took the lead.
Chapter Twenty Six
From its perch two hundred thirty thousand miles above the equator, to the Moon the Earth looked the same as any given day.
The atomic heart of the solar system warmed the atmosphere, creating breezes welcomed on tropical islands dotting the aquamarine seas like warm eggs in a nest. Rain forests boiled with thunderstorms. Deserts baked, stretching out mile upon mile of parched sand in the Gobi, the Sahara, the Sonora. Middle latitude seacoasts and inlands alike welcomed the blooms of spring in the northern hemisphere, and warm autumn colors in the southern. Vast blankets of clouds, whole storm systems, crawled slowly over the planet’s surface. The ice-capped poles tilted, taking turns at the seasons. As days grow shorter in Antarctica, so they grew longer at the opposite end of the globe.
In the Australian Outback, summer was drawing to a close. The arid desert showed no signs of life, no hint of water or greenery. It would be a place bereft of activity until the spring rains. Along the banks of the Amazon River, rain fell again, as it had the day before, and would the next. There was a rainy season, a more-rainy season, and a slightly less rainy season, but between the lines of latitude that delineate the Tropics, little more change could be seen, year-in, year-out. In North America, the sun day-by-day climbed further north, warming its way up the Appalachian Mountains, the length of the Mississippi River, and up the Rockies, on its way over the muskeg and taiga, and onward toward the tundra.
Far north of the deserts and rain forests, blooms and autumns, the warming atmosphere pressed from the Pacific northward into the Bering and Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Clouds stretched hundreds of miles across the area, blanketing both peninsulas here, one of North America, and the other Asia. The storm picked up water from the ocean and raised it higher and higher on the updraft of the supercell. Near the edge of the Arctic Circle, the high pressure front hit a wall of frigid air, the stubborn, year-round resident of the Polar Ice Cap. Unable to move further, the clouds piled atop one another like a log jam. Forward progress ceased, and the fronts were occluded. Two great giants, large as some continents, battled for supremacy. The Ice Queen rarely loses.
Stalled, the storm unloaded its moisture by the millions of gallons, falling as rain on the Katmai and the Chukchi coastline. To the north, winter had not loosed its grip on the land. Here, life-bringing gentle rains froze and crystallized, were swept skyward by the updraft to re-form in layers and fall again, eventually building enough weight to escape the clouds, and fall to Earth as light-as-air snowflakes.
A hundred miles west, the storm stood still over tiny specks, entirely indiscernible by the Moon. The specks moved in awkward, plodding stops and starts. Six dogs, a sled and a man versus a thousand mile long storm front standing six miles high, weighing as much as a million dogs, a million men. The storm dumped acres upon acres of snow on the specks. Took deep breaths as large as the sea, and blew with the strength of a gale across the stark plains, as if trying to blow the speck away like dust.
Similar specks beneath similar storms dotted the globe. In the Sea of Japan, a ship flounders in swells as high as mountains. On the two-mile-high plains of The Andes, a speck draws close his coat and corrals animals as snows announce the coming winter. On the west coast of Africa, specks shutter windows and lash down anything that can move as the Monsoon makes landfall. On the plains of North America, tornadoes wantonly lift and throw anything in their path; animals, trees, lodgings, and even the specks themselves.
The Black Forest thaws, while to the west, the seacoast blooms with tulips. In Iceland and in the Yellowstone Valley, ice and snow piles alongside geothermal vents that heat the water and the air and the specks, keeping them warm throughout the rolling year. Far below the surface, specks deep in mines have no idea if it is hot or cold, rainy or snowy, calm or windy, nor even day or night. High in the Himalayas, specks decorate with colorful prayer flags festooned up the valleys, flapping in the mountain wind. In Antarctica, penguins fatten up for the long, oppressive winter and breeding season to follow. In the Arctic, hungry Polar Bears emerge from winter dens, cubs in tow, to greet the spring.
In the South Pacific, nearly naked specks ply the waters in dugouts and outrigger canoes, accompanied by their aquatic cousins, the playful, leaping dolphins. In the North Atlantic, a wool-clad crew of specks chips ice from the rigging as they hunt and harvest another cousin, the whale. High in the Arctic, on the Chukchi Peninsula, a stalled storm passes time, in no hurry to move on, by painting the surface below with a thick layer of white snow.
Still, from the Moon, the sun is shining. Clouds move slowly over the globe, in silence. No winds disturb the moon. No rain falls. No snow accumulates. Same as the last ten thousand years, and the next ten thousand. For the moon, just another perfect day.
Far below, out of the view of the Moon, seven weary specks are banded together, bound by loyalty, buoyed by spirit, as they fight to survive.
Chapter Twenty Seven
Sasha could hardly believe her great fortune. Here was her dream coming true. To be braving the williwaw, breaking trail, in the lead position. She pulled ice balls from the bottoms of her paws. She shifted back and forth in place, keeping her muscles warm as Jiak took Lema out of the sled and connected her tug line to the long gang line.
“Everybody up!” Jiak shouted to be heard above the relentless raging winds of the storm. “Hike! On Sasha! Let’s go!”
Immediately ahead of her, the ground was trammelled, flattened by Jiak’s snowshoes and the activity around the gang line. Sasha leaped forward as the harness snugged around her shoulders with a jerk. The sled did not move. The other dogs met with the same results, the sled’s rails frozen to the snow.
“Hold up.” Jiak called, and he stood at the back of the sled, resting his snowshoes on the runners. He grabbed the back bow and threw his body weight to one side. The sled didn’t budge. He threw his weight again with no luck, then threw himself to the opposite side. Jiak’s actions stirred the dogs. They strained against their harnesses to help, dug in hind paws and hopped on forepaws, yanking on the mired sled. Jiak moved around to the side, crouched, and threw his shoulder against the sled’s frame. He repeated the action, and the runner broke free, the sled tipping up on its side, breaking lose the other runner. “Okay, let’s try again. Hike! Pull!Pull!”
Sasha leaped forward again at the command, and this time the sled pulled out of its rut, and the team moved forward. This lasted about two meters, after which Sasha found herself nearly face-to-face with the same neck-deep snow through which Lema had struggled valiantly. I know how to do this, she thought, having watched Lema for a couple of hours. But where? She was ready to start leaping forward, blindly moving in the direction Lema was before she stopped. She remembered a part of Mother’s lessons, about teamwork. “You can’t just go where you please…”
“Let’s go!” Jiak called out.
“Go where?” Sasha answered aloud. “I don’t know where to go!” The simplest things, sometimes, are so easily overlooked. In response, all five dogs offered their helpful advice. Simultaneously. She listened to the cacophony of barks and heard:
“Make sure-don’t-you need to-keep your head-feet-up-lean-push-down-back-your harness until-forward, but don’t-you’ll get it soon enough-straight ahead-you can-smell it-watch over-your-don’t look down.”
“With a stick.” Yura added in a moment of silence.
“I have no idea where the trail is.” Sasha called to the barking veterans. Again they clamored:
“You’ll-don’t-feel of it-the scent-sort of-sixth sense-the impression-on the sides-’cause you can feel it-off the trail-packed base-if it’s drifting-too deep-in this wind?”
“Come on Sasha! You can do it!” Jiak added to the din, “Pull! Hike! Go!”
AWOAF! WOOfwah! Came Spring’s commanding voice, which brought welcome silence.
“She can’t understand you. You’re all talking at once and barking orders at her. Cut her some slack.”
“Cut her slack? I don’t want to die out here just so she can be molly-coddled.” Yura gruffed.
“This is no time for your joking.” Spring replied.
“It’s always time for joking.” Yura snapped back.
“Come on guys,” Nib piped up, “Knock it off and let’s get moving.”
“We don’t have time for arguing.” said Vasa.
“We have plenty of time to die here. Guess I’ll just lay down and wait.” quipped Yura.
“Hey, guys.” Sasha called out, “What am I supposed to do here?”
Again, all the dogs barked at once, another blast of random words, every third one making sense.
“I don’t know where to go. Tell me what to do!” Sasha added to the uproar.
Vasa and Yura and Nib were at the end of their patience, near the end of their wits, exhausted and still bogged down on the trail, miles from home. They snipped at one another, arguing about the best course to take, what advice to give to the youngster, whether or not she could do it at all.
“Hey! Hey! Alright. Alright.” Jiak sought to calm the tense team. “Okay now. Alright.”
“You boneheads shut your traps and let me handle this.” The mother in Lema came to the fore. All the males on the team had a gut reaction, an instinct borne deep within their spirits: DO AS MOTHER SAYS.
“Okay, honey,” Lema addressed Sasha as quietly as she could, yet loud enough to be heard over the roaring wind. “There’s a certain sense about where the trail is, and you’ll get used to it. First you need to smell for it. It’s there, under all that snow. And then you need to feel for it. You’ll know right away if you step off the trail, ’cause the base is packed.” Sasha listened intently to Lema’s teachings, all the while looking ahead and smelling, trying to pick out the trail in the blowing snow. There was a “sixth sense”. She felt the trail more than saw it. She knew it was there ahead of her, yet she wasn’t confident, wasn’t sure she could trust this sense.
She heard Kotka’s voice in the back of her head. The first lesson he ever gave her. “Just look up, and walk like you would normally do.” She took a deep breath, and took two steps forward. A wall of snow up to her chin greeted her. Well, Kotka, she thought, I can’t “just run” now. “Don’t think about it.” a paraphrased Kotka quote answered her dismay. Her brain signalled her body to move forward. Without excess thinking, she leaped onto the surface of the snow. Her feet were suspended from the ground, as if she was in water. She worked her legs in a walking-swimming motion, and they quickly found the packed base of the trail.
She pressed her muscles into service and started the motion again. Then repeated it over and over and over. Hop after hop, the sled began its stop and go movement along the windswept trail. She kept up her nearly feverish pace for more than an hour. Every muscle in her body ached from the leaping-swimming action breaking trail.
“Hold up!” Jiak called from the trail behind the sled. “Whoa now.” All six dogs laid down without hesitation or command to do so. They’d been up for twenty-eight hours straight, mushing twenty-six of them. Since leaving Dezhnevo, they’d now been mushing over twenty consecutive hours. The storm appeared to be unchanging, as if it was following them purposely. Stopping when they stopped. Inching ahead at a slow, steady pace. Lurking over them.
Jiak had moved the gang line hook lower on the front of the sled, so it would ride higher, almost toboggan-like, on the deep, soft snow. He had rigged the dogs in tandem. He had walked on snowshoes the last four miles. He was spent, and had only a few tricks left. Traveling light, he hadn’t brought his hoks, wide skis with fur on the bottoms. These worked as snowshoes to provide buoyancy, but also worked as skis that could glide on downhill portions of the trail. If he had the hoks, he thought, he could abandon the sled and ski-jor, pulled by the team. He didn’t have the hoks.
If he still had his oilskin he could attach it to the bottom of the sled in front, rendering it somewhat boat-like, which might travel more easily. He’d used the oilskin to cover his provisions, cached on the trail. The next trick was really no trick at all, but a choice. They could stop here, huddle together, and wait for the worst of the storm to pass. They could rest, but there would be no fire. The driving winds would make it nearly impossible to get a fire going. Even without wind, it would be a long exhausting trip for Jiak to venture into the spruce stand for firewood.
His next-to-last option, the one he favored least, was to set out on foot. This would be an easy choice if he had his hoks. The team would walk, best they could, and he would ski-shoe and be pulled by the dogs. Without the hoks, the dogs would need to be let loose. He wouldn’t be able to hold onto three hundred sixty pounds of powerful Chukchi dogs just walking on snowshoes. They’d pull him over on his face.
If only he could determine where he was, it might make the decision easier. Through the pitch black night and now in the driving snow, the trail looked the same mile after mile. Jiak strained to see landmarks that were familiar. There was a huge deadfall that stubbed out into the trail, the rest of which was cut and cleared by Jiak and his father the summer before. There was an outcropping of rock that had a profile resembling a cat’s head, onto which someone had painted two large black eyes many years ago. There was the end of the spruce forest, where the trail opened onto the ridge overlooking the vast plain of the moraine which held their destination. Down the slope, half a mile to a thick stand of trees, and they’d be at the homestead.
Around him stood ten thousand spruce trees, each identical to the next. The snow falling from the sky was so thick that visibility was limited to fifteen or twenty meters, the driving wind further obscured their view, and generally harassed the group. Jiak stood long, resting the dogs and pondering their situation, weighing their options. He knew he didn’t have much time to decide, and if they continued to be buried by the blizzard, the list of options would grow shorter by the hour.
Sasha barked and bounced on her forelegs.
“I’ve found my third wind!” she exclaimed, louder than the winds that beleaguered the team.
Without waiting for commands, the team rose to its feet. They pulled forward to “line out”, and tensioned the long gang line, awaiting Jiak’s readiness. They all began to bark and hop.
“Well,” Jiak observed, “it looks like a decision has been made.”
Chapter Twenty Eight
Ghosts On The Trail
The merciless Arctic sky remained gray through late morning, painting the landscape with an eerie twilight as the blizzard snows continued to fall. In this last hour, the high pressure front that formed the massive storm began to cool, and otherwise settle into its occlusion. Slowly, the badgering winds began to wane, down to a variable breeze, and finally, to stillness. Without the winds, the fat flakes fell vertically, still so thick that visibility remained below twenty meters.
Sasha, the team, and Jiak felt great relief at the ebbing of the winds that had harassed them since Dezhnevo. The blizzard and exhaustion of the team, even the slow going, were more tolerable, less uncomfortable, in calm air. Sasha, on her first opportunity to lead the team, was continuing the leaping, one-dog-length-at-a-time breaking of the trail, in snow approaching a meter in depth. It was incredibly tiresome, like running a marathon and swimming an Olympic event simultaneously. Near the end of her second hour, her legs were trembling and every muscle in her body ached as she panted hard and gulped down the freezing air. She had managed to move the team and sled nearly a mile in her turn at the lead, and she didn’t know how much strength she had left to continue. “One more step.” she’d think to herself, and upon completing it, “Just one more.”, and one more, and one more.
“Whoa team! Hold up!” Jiak called out, walking on snowshoes behind the sled. “Well, we’ve hit the wall, kids.” he spoke aloud to the team. Aside from giving orders, Jiak, like most mushers, talked out loud about all manner of things to his dogs. On a solo journey, that is, one without other humans, such as this sojourn, the dogs were the only company, friends, companions and conversation partners to be had. Jiak estimated that it had been about four hours since sunrise, and this meant he’d hit the “24 hour rule”. He, his father Bek, and a number of other team owners considered this to be the absolute limit for non-stop mushing, after which one was placing undue stresses on the dogs. Regardless of circumstances, they required a mandatory break, to last a minimum of one hour and be accompanied by water, preferably warmed.
Now that the constant pestering winds had ceased, the resting could actually be comfortable as well as welcomed and well deserved. “If only I could rest, sleep for a few minutes…” Jiak heard himself say, which quickly raised alarms within his own brain. “Oh, no!” Jiak said aloud to the team, louder than necessary, shouting himself awake, “No final sleep for me!”
One of the effects of hypothermia, a lowered body temperature, after some suffering the brain emits endorphins to kill the pain. This is followed by a strong desire to sleep. The last mistake many would make was to give in to the overwhelming need to close one’s eyes and rest. More often than not, under such circumstances, one never wakes, freezing to death in their hormone-induced stupor.
“I think we’re done.” Jiak again spoke loudly to the team, as if they understood what he was saying. “You guys can’t keep going, and the snow isn’t stopping. We’ll make the best of it, I guess. I’ll go scare up some fire wood.”
Sasha laid where she was, where she had stopped when Jiak called for the team to do so. She felt like she couldn’t move even if she wanted to, and panted rapidly, catching her breath. Then something startled her. A presence, a movement, a shadow through the falling snow, twenty meters away. She stared intensely through the wall of flakes at the place she had seen the dark shape. Now there was nothing. Nothing but more snow. “I must be seeing things,” she thought, “maybe hallucination is part of Arctic Fever.”
“INTRUDER!” came the barking alert from Vasa, “What’s that? Who’s there?”
“INTRUDER! INTRUDER!” next came the warnings from Nib and Yura simultaneously. “Something’s out there, maybe a bear.” Now all the dogs were up on their feet and barking their warning and notification bark. Jiak immediately recognized that something out there, something beyond his vision, had triggered this. They’d smelled something or sensed it or saw it. He pulled the rifle from the scabbard, opened the bolt to be sure it was loaded, ready for action.
He walked to the front of the sled, his head swinging around like an owl’s, watching all three hundred sixty degrees of blinding snow. He moved to the middle of the long gang line, beside Vasa, then crouched. “Come on guys.” he spoke in a low voice to the dogs, and from Sasha back, they came to Jiak and he led them to the sled, gathering all the dogs in a close group, the gang line coiling beneath them. Jiak immediately thought of Tun’s story of his bear encounter. How the Polar Bear charged into the team that had no escape, tethered to the other dogs and the sled. He reached down and unhooked the gang line from the sled. At least they would not be anchored like Willow and Rika.
“That’s no bear.” Spring said rather calmly. “Look. There’s another. And another.”
All seven members of the party now strained to see the elusive beings, nearly holding their breath, their brains unable to believe Spring’s assessment after the big alert word BEAR crossed their brains.
“Spirits!” Lema cried out in terror, “Ghosts! They’ve come to take us to the sky! We’re dead!”
Click-click, click-click, click-click, click-click.
They all breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief at the innocuous sounds of reindeer hooves, their clicking noise emanating with each step.
“There’s another. And more behind us.” said Yura.
Some moving through the woods, some following up the trail, as they drew nearer, soon the group could see dozens of reindeer, passing on either side, walking steadily along in the same direction Jiak and the team were traveling. Reindeer had wandered these lands for several thousand years before man was ever present here. When humans came along, in most cases they simply began using trails that already existed. Trails well-worn by the countless reindeer, bears, wolves, the rare but occasional moose, and all manner of creatures.
Jiak could not have been more delighted. He knew the sled trail was primarily a wildlife trail, and it led to the edge of the forest, to the ridge overlooking the valley where the homestead lay waiting. He had spent the last half hour mentally preparing himself to pitch a desperate and hungry camp, the sled as a lean-to, their only shelter. With reindeer breaking trail, they now stood a good chance of making it home today.
While not a spiritual man, Jiak felt appreciation for such gifts from the cosmos, and felt it was only right to express his thankfulness.
“Thank you, reindeer.” he said cheerily, as if addressing a neighbor, which, indeed, he was. “Thank you, Great Spirit,” he shouted for all the woods to hear, ” for these ghosts in the storm.”
Chapter Twenty Nine
With a herd of reindeer breaking trail through the meter-deep snow, Jiak and the team were again underway. With Nib taking a turn at the lead they had fair going, and came within a half mile of the stand of trees in which the homestead awaited before the reindeer herd continued on to the west. This last half mile, Jiak broke the trail himself on snowshoes.
“We’re a team, after all, you guys. Time for me to take a turn at the lead.” The dogs followed along, single file behind Jiak, slowly marching those last steps to home and food, warmth and rest. When at last the homestead came into view, Jiak let out a sigh of relief, and the “constant on” condition of his mind was allowed to relax. He turned to the team and walked down the line, stopping at each dog. “Thank you.”, he’d say, “Good job.”, followed by a brief hug and kiss on the head. Then he unhooked the tug lines, and the neck lines for those that had them, and bade them “Go!”.
While typically these energetic and athletic dogs would relish an opportunity to run off-leash, they were all quite worn out by their battle with the blizzard, whose snows continued to fall as heavily as ever. Now, in this case, the dogs continued to follow the trail of Jiak’s snowshoes, still walking in a single file, as if they were still hitched to the gang line.
All but Sasha. She could hardly contain her excitement and was eager to tell Mother the whole story of her sojourn, to regale Kotka with her tales. Leading the team, fighting the blizzard, seeing ghosts in the snow. In spite of aching, tired muscles, she ran with her hopping-loping-swimming action ahead of the rest through the drifting snow, and was the first of the party to reach the homestead.
Their arrival was heralded as if they were royalty, by barking dogs and chatty parents. Dedicated to a fault, Jiak would not enter the cabin until his dogs were fed and given a dry straw bed. When that was done, he sat for a supper with his mother and father, swearing it was the best food he’d ever tasted. Finally, he headed for bed, where he would sleep nearly twelve hours. The dogs, too, slept long, now fed and safe at home.
Sasha slept, and dreamed of her adventure. The wolves in the night, the giant man Tun. The reindeer pack train and the trading post. The river song, the blinding blizzard, and of course, her own turn at the lead. In her dreams these things spoke to her aloud. The river called her by name and wished her well, to return again soon. The wolves sang from the riverside ridge, and repeated the words to Sasha’s Arctic Fever Song. The ghosts in the snow, the trees of the trail, even the blizzard itself, ushered Sasha and her team along their way with words of encouragement and praise.
“It’s Jiak.” Sasha spoke aloud in her sleep, finally answering the owl’s question “Who cooks for you?”
In days to come the word spread among the other dogs of the odyssey, the oldest dog and the youngest, paired on a team that would carve out a place in the pack’s history. In the retellings, Jiak was the bold and brave leader that carried them through the storm. Spring the noble elder, leading by example, giving all he had. Yura the hero, picking the sidecut trail entrance out of the pitch black, snow-filled night.
Each had their own place in the tale. Lema’s tutoring of the newbie, Vasa’s joking nature, humor never failing him, even at the worst. Nib’s quiet contributions beside the elder statesman, at the wheel, huddled in anticipation during the “attack of the ghosts”, his turn at the lead.
And Sasha. Sasha’s name had new meaning in the yard, in the pack. The skinny, young girl dog on her first excursion, bravely facing a pack of wolves, staring down the spirits of the williwaw, taking over the exhausting job of lead after Lema. Her siblings would listen, agape, at the feet of their heroic sister. They’d ask to have this moment or that repeated, that they might live it again. Streaking down the river, wind whistling in her ears. The night chorus, camping beneath the moon. Racing the storm, the blizzard overtaking them. Stashing the provisions, marching blindly through the woods. The dogs of Dezhnevo, sun dogs in the sky, the storm dogging them the entire trip home.
Spring’s retelling always centered on a single action. One brief moment out of the three-day journey. He’d swell with pride as he spoke of his protege. How, in the midst of the biggest blizzard of the year, believing she might die at any moment from “Arctic Fever”, how the youngest and smallest dog struck the bravest pose, rallied the entire team at their lowest point, and kept the promise made deep in the night; to see home before they die. From this day on, this team would feel a certain brotherhood, a kindredness born of shared experience. They would be devoted to each other until the end.
And then, six dogs would break into song, to prove it.
The Unruly Sun
Sasha watched the sun from the porch of her very own doghouse, complete with her name painted above the door.
“Looks like you’re a keeper!” Nina told her as she introduced her to her new quarters. Sasha had become a regular and strong member of the mushing pack, and remained one of Jiak’s favorites. She joined teams and took her turns at the lead as Jiak and Bek went about the business of running the trap lines. She’d become quite familiar with the trap line trails, and eagerly looked forward to the trips.
The line to the east was the shortest. The run could be completed in less than a day, and allowed extra time for scouting, siting new traps, or even a bit of joy riding. To the south, the line stretched many miles down the moraine, and included a couple of creeks and a section of the river. This was a two-day affair by the time all the traps were checked and the team could head home. To the west, the line was barely longer than the eastern one, but trail conditions were much more challenging. This, too, was generally a two-day trip, though occasionally trail conditions could shorten or lengthen that.
The trap line to the north was the longest and contained the largest number of trap sets. It wound its way across the plain, through spruce stands, along ravines and creek beds, past serene valleys. It was invariably a three-day run that could take longer in the throes of serious winter weather. This was Sasha’s favorite trip, and she enjoyed the trail and the environs even more than the trips to the Trading Post. The trail was fairly easy, not a cross-country, mountain-climbing ordeal like the west line. There were a couple of moderate hill climbs, but nothing excessively rigorous, and the trip was a welcome mix of forest and open taiga.
All the way at the top of the run, the northernmost reaches of the team’s range, they’d ride the narrow and winding Silver Creek for several miles, at the end of which sat the tiny village of Kantuc. This destination held particular interest for Jiak. Herein lived a young Chavchu woman about Jiak’s age, named Tatiana, who was usually referred to as Tati. She and Jiak had met at the last Summer Festival, and they spent time together whenever Jiak ran the north line.
On this particular day, Sasha was trying to figure out what time of day it was. The sun was doing funny things these days, riding all the way around the sky in a big circle before dipping below the southern horizon. Today, the sun was in an odd place, and she wondered why it moved so.
“I can’t believe how tired I am,” Sasha confided to Lema, her doghouse neighbor, “Maybe it’s the Arctic Fever. It’s not even sunset yet and I’m ready for bed!”.
“I forgot, honey,” Lema answered, basking in the sun, laying on the roof of her doghouse, preening her perfect-looking coat, “this is your first summer. The sun does a funny thing in summer. It gets stuck because it’s not frozen, and it bounces off the horizon. It gets to this place where it just won’t set. People call it “Day without a Night”, and that’s when they have the big summer festival.”
“So we never have night any more?” Sasha asked.
“We will. It comes back. It’s a cycle. After summer, it gets cold again and we can go back to normal.”
Sasha had indeed noticed the days become milder, and on the run to Kantuc, she saw, for the first time, parts of Silver Creek were no longer frozen, and sparkling splashing moving waters plied its course. All around her she noticed the warming of her world. The snow had melted on the roofs of the cabin, the shed and the doghouses. It seemed strange to have liquid water dripping onto the ground, and in places it made the yard muddy. Mud was a new experience. It tasted good, and felt great when you laid your belly and chest in it. The Dwarf Birches showed their own signs, tiny yellow buds growing into delicate green leaves. The Larch, too, now grew new needles on its branches. Willows fairly glowed a golden green. Alder and Aspen burst to life.
Around the homestead and on trips afield could be seen the annual and ancient occurrence of birthing season. Bears, reindeer, wolverines and wolves could all be seen with miniature copies following them around. Learning, nursing, playing, napping. It was a time of year when particular caution was warranted. Distance must be kept to avoid rousing the instincts of protective mothers.
Across the yard, Bek was at Kotka’s doghouse. By now, the dog looked to Bek with the same affection as the others, and his spirit had recovered enough for him to wag his tail as Bek worked at removing the splint from Kotka’s leg.
“All better now.” Bek told him, “But you’ll need to take it easy for a while.”
Sasha smelled something curious wafting in on the fresh, gentle spring breeze. In a moment, Vasa hopped to his feet and flung his nose in the air, pointing toward the eastern trail. He stared intently as he sniffed in short bursts of the scented air. Several other dogs perked up, and joined in the sniffing and staring. Mother, the only dog with free reign, walked to the east edge of the yard and barked a couple of “Company!” barks.
Now dogs could be heard, a team, barking casual calls to one another. Around the turn of the trail came a musher with a team of five dogs on a tandem line. The man at the back of the sled towered over the back bow, his shoulders nearly twice as wide as the sled. The dogs struggled a bit with the load, and the man pushed off with one foot to help keep the sled moving. As the barking team approached, Jiak and Bek stood and walked to the end of the yard to greet the visitor. From the cabin, Nina stepped forth, her apron covered in blood from the butchering she’d been doing. Any company at the homestead was cause for excitement, and visitors were eagerly welcomed.
As the sled drew near, Bek was the first to recognize his old friend.
“Tun!” Bek raised both hands into the air as his face stretched in a huge smile, a smile worthy of a giant.
“Well. Look here!” Tun called out, “Looks like I found some life out here in the wilderness!” He jumped off the sled as it sailed past the cabin door, and without even looking at his team he said “Whoa boys. Dogs down.”. The dogs casually but immediately obliged the driver, and laid down in the half-snow, half-mud yard, welcoming the rest stop.
Tun made the rounds; hugs for everyone, and pulled from a sack a gift for each. To Nina, he handed a bag filled to overflowing with colored feathers of all kinds to use as adornments and decorations. Bek received a long and heavy hemp rope. “And for the man courting…” he said as he pulled a wrapped parcel from his sled bag and handed it to Jiak, “a little gift for Tati.”
Jiak opened the parcel wrapped in blue checkered fabric, and beheld two hair combs, crafted from whale bone, and decorated with delicate scrimshaw, inked in cobalt blue. Jiak blushed a little, and the three thanked Tun with their smiles, handshakes and hugs. Jiak’s mind raced ahead to tomorrow, when he would again set off on the north trap line, and wind his way to Kantuc with a special surprise.
As the sun refused to set on the Arctic dominion, the little family welcomed the giant man into their home. They would sit long together for a meal, made longer by the ever-flowing conversation of close company. Tales would be shared, catching up on all the news since last they’d met. There were roars of belly shaking laughter, a few tears during the tender parts, and the plans and dreams for the days to come.
Sasha’s eyes were heavy, and ready to close. Night or no night, she was tired. She laid atop her doghouse, listening to Lema snore, and the sounds spilling out of the happy home. Then there was singing. Songs of the hunt and the Great Spirit, songs of the history of their people, songs of young love. The laughter and the singing would continue long after the little girl dog gave in to slumber. The sounds were as good as a lullaby, and as she dozed off, she was reminded of something Mother had told her on a similar occasion.
“Linger long with those you love.
Then, a little longer.”
Chapter Thirty One
The sound of the cabin door closing awoke Sasha, asleep on the roof of her doghouse. It was early morning. Or maybe not. Maybe it was afternoon, or perhaps the middle of the night. Who could tell by the crazy sun that sets for only a couple of hours each day?
Jiak was the first out the door, and he headed right to the shed. He returned with a couple of dog harnesses, one of which Sasha recognized as her own. She wiggled and wagged as soon as she saw it, always eager to go wherever Jiak led. Tun was next to emerge from the house, and he went straight to the tie lines and his team. He went about the business of harnessing the dogs and hooking up his sled. Jiak tossed Sasha’s harness into the doorway of her doghouse, and walked across the yard to Anchu, one of her siblings. As he put the harness on Anchu, Jiak displayed his usual hands-on affections for the dog, yet he bore a solemn countenance. He left Anchu on his lead and approached Sasha.
Tun had finished harnessing his five-dog team, and drove the sled around to the front yard. Bek next exited the cabin, and began talking with Tun. Bek called to Jiak to bring Anchu to Tun’s sled, and Jiak turned to do so. He knelt beside Anchu, threw his arms around his neck, whispered something to him, and fluffed both ears with his mitted hands. Then he paused and looked the dog squarely in the eye. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead to the dog’s, and they each stood still for a minute, savoring their closeness. Jiak led the young dog to Tun, and the big man dropped to one knee, reached out with both huge hands and placed them on the dog’s shoulders. He spoke briefly and softly to Anchu, bearing a toothy grin, and moved him to the swing position on his gang line.
Jiak again walked to Sasha’s doghouse. He stopped and looked long at the beautiful girl dog, a slim smile spreading across his lips. He knelt beside her and went about the process of putting her harness on her, as they’d done many times before. This time was somehow different. Jiak moved slowly and deliberately through the task, not the excited and hurried behavior normally accompanying the hitching of the team. His faint smile quickly faded, and he placed both hands around Sasha’s neck, scratching her chest, as he spoke words to her which she could not understand. As he leaned down and kissed the top of her snout, a tear fell from his eye and landed on the black flesh of her nose.
She was happy to be going out on the trail, and she wanted Jiak to be happy, too. She held her mouth open in a dog smile, wagged her tail energetically, spoke a short bark and hopped on her front feet. Jiak threw himself onto the dog, his arms reaching all the way around both sides of her rib cage. He opened his hands and filled them with the soft, warm fur. Then, Sasha was astonished to hear a sob burst from the young man. Just one breath full, quickly arrested and subdued. He spoke a lot of words to her in succession, all the while gripping handfuls of fur. At last he loosed her and stood, disconnected the lead to her doghouse, and led her to Tun’s sled.
“Well, this is a new experience.” Sasha said to Anchu. She made eye contact and gave nods to the other dogs, all of whom eagerly welcomed the newcomers, leaned in to sniff them. Nina emerged from the cabin with a sack for Tun, and handed it to him before going to Sasha and Anchu. She, too, said some words and looked solemn as she kissed them on the head. Then she showed her teeth in a brave and bright smile, and turned, retreating to the cabin.
Bek and Tun and Jiak stood together at the harness where Anchu and Sasha were tethered. They spoke in level, casual tones, looking at the dogs, looking away at the trail. Then their tone picked up. Words of well-wishing and departing were exchanged, each man bear-hugging the other. Holding on for just those few extra seconds. Just enough to silently acknowledge that they really never did know when they would meet again. Indeed, in the harshest place the world has to offer, for those living these hard lives, each parting could well be their last, and they bore this in mind always. The unspoken thought shared.
Tun moved to the back of the sled. He took a minute to look around, as if it was his last look. As if he was trying to imprint all of this moment into his memory. The bright blue morning sky, the warm and welcoming homestead. The yard filled with beautiful, happy dogs. His oldest and dearest friend, with his son, whom Tun had known since the day he was born.
“Dogs line up!” he shouted to the team. They stood at attention, pulled the slack from the gang line. By habit and training, Anchu and Sasha followed suit. Tun paused. He looked all the way around himself once more. Looked Bek in the eye and nodded. Rather suddenly, Jiak went to Sasha, threw his arms around her, again on his knees. His voice cracked a little as he leaned close and whispered into a little yellow ear.
“You be a good puppy for Tun, now.” With that, he quickly rose, spun on one heel, and walked briskly into the shed and out of sight.
“Eik!” Tun called out, “Det! Det!” he ordered the team in his native dialect. Trained for nothing else, all seven dogs lived for this, knew their roles almost instinctively. The new team, Sasha and Anchu included, hopped and barked the sled into motion, and started for the east trail.
“Wait! What about Jiak? Something’s wrong with him.” Sasha barked.
Out of nowhere, of a sudden, Mother was beside her. She ran alongside the team as she took leave of her daughter and son.
“You’ll have a fine life with Tun,” she said, “I couldn’t have wished for a better home for you.”
“HOME?” Sasha exclaimed.
“Yes, little one, you’re on your way, off to your own home. I’m very proud of you, and you should be proud of your new team and driver. They are well-revered.”
Now all the dogs barked and called from the yard.
“Good luck Sasha, take care Anchu.”
“Knock ’em dead! Like the ghosts!” said Vasa.
“Show them what you’re made of, kid.” came the salute from Spring.
“See you in Tunkan!” called Lema. “Clear trails.”
“Wait!” Sasha said to Mother, still running alongside. “I’m not ready. I haven’t said goodbye to everyone. I’m not ready.”
“I know, little one. It’s okay. The good thing about going with Tun is we’ll see you often.”
“I’m not ready.” Sasha repeated. Her stomach was turning a little and her mind was racing. “Mother…” she half-cried.
“There are so many things in life we think we’re not ready for. There are things we can never be ready for. ‘Ready or not’ they say.”
“Mother!” Sasha repeated, a little panicked, a little scared.
“You’re more ready than you know, precious one. You’re a strong, beautiful and proud Chukchi dog of Bek and Nina’s breeding. Hold your head high wherever you go. We expect you to make us proud.”
“Hup! Hup!” Tun commanded the team to pick up speed as they settled onto the trail.
“But the pack…” Sasha began to say to Mother, and as she turned, saw she was not there. She looked back over her shoulder to where Mother had stopped, standing in the trail, watching the team leave.
“We are all of us a pack.” Mother shouted out.
Sasha answered, “And a pack is a forever love.”
“Clear trails!” another dog barked. Then it seemed every dog in the yard was barking their parting wish, “Clear trails!”.
As Sasha looked back toward the yard, trying to drink it in, memorize it so it would never fade from her heart or mind, she saw Kotka. He was standing atop his doghouse, looking larger and stronger than ever. He lifted a paw in a wave. “See you at the finish line!”
Sasha looked over her shoulder to where Mother had been standing, and there she remained. The harness pulled at Sasha’s shoulders, snow was kicked up, showered her with flakes. Training and instinct forced her to pay attention to the team and the trail. She looked back again, and still there stood Mother in the same place, the same stance. A confident and loving face conveyed all positive hopes for her little one, as pleasant as a sendoff can be.
The trail commanded Sasha’s attention again as they started to climb the slope, up and out of the moraine which had always been her home. She looked again back toward the homestead, and saw that Mother still stood watching, becoming smaller and smaller as the team scaled the valley wall. Between steps on the trail and watching her harness and getting into rhythm with the other dogs, she looked back again and again, always finding Mother, patiently standing in the same place.
It was this vision she would plant firmly in her mind. And it was this vision that would carry her through all the trials and triumphs of her life. The barks and howls of her first home faded behind her, as she leaned into her harness, and fixed her eyes on the trail ahead.
The only constant is change.
It is true throughout the Great Cosmos. Nothing remains unchanged, even for the briefest moment. Around the nucleus of the atom spin the protons and neutrons. Bonded as molecules, their tiny orbital systems never cease motion. From the microscopic electron to Star Nebulae, even that which seems most solid is constantly moving. The very elements that make up the great granite mountains are always spinning, whirling to the beat of the universe.
Changes come when it is time for change. “Ready or not”, as Mother said.
And so draws to a close this tome of tales, of Sasha of The Chukchi Sea’s time at the Homestead with Bek, Nina and Jiak.
Now our heroine is off to new places, on new trails and old, with Tun and her new team.
I hope we shall meet again.
You, me, and all the characters of this story. Perhaps some new ones, too.
We can rest assured that Sasha’s days to follow will continue to be filled with exciting journeys of adventure and discovery, from the most remote trails to her own back yard.
Here’s hoping yours are, too.
Clear trails, my friend.