Lodge

Strangers

“Oh, I know where we are now.” Umka said, “We’re almost to the place where we picked up the new dogs.”

Sasha was eager to see her former home, pack and people. It had been nearly two moons since she and Anchu had left the Homestead to join Tun’s team. She recalled how she could have sworn she’d smelled Jiak at Festival in Tunkan. That just couldn’t be, or the scent of their passing here would linger on the trail.

The team was beginning to grow weary, having been on the trail most of a day, immediately following the strenuous race. Rol had not stopped for a break the whole trip. He was eager to get to Bek and Nina’s, and didn’t think like a musher. Experienced drivers know a team could not be pushed too hard, or one might find oneself unexpectedly without transportation. The team sensed a certain urgency from Tun and Rol, and forgave the young man’s errors, pressing on without complaint in spite of tired, aching muscles.

As the group topped the next rise, Rol was overjoyed to see the dense, near-black spruce forest not too far distant. Tun had said there would be just a single trail henceforth to the moraine. Sasha yipped with excitement, and did a little hop. Anchu, too, wiggled and barked, anxious to see Mother and all the dogs of the old Homestead.

The sun remained a quarter set as the team transited the forest. Its golden glow illuminated the snow and woods, a deep amber cast thrown on everything. The cloud cover continued to move off to the east, and temperatures plummeted as the unblanketed Earth was now exposed to deep space. The Spirit Lights danced and fluttered through the heavens, green and gold, red and purple, their great fingers of light arching over Sasha and the team. Behind the fluid atmospheric light show could be seen stars, welcoming the return of night to Kamchatka, the steppes, the Katmai and the Chukchi Sea. The sun refused to dip more than a quarter of itself below the horizon. It would be a dozen more days or so before it would set in totality.

Soon the team emerged from the forest and beheld the vast moraine, their destination in sight. Sasha was beside herself with anticipation as they reached the sidecut trail descending the valley wall. She half-expected to see Mother still standing in the place on the trail from which she bade her offspring farewell. No such vision welcomed her, and though she knew it seemed unlikely, she felt some disappointment nonetheless. Sasha began to notice some peculiarities, some things that just seemed irregular, which started her thinking.

“There’s no scent on this trail from any recent passing. This is the East Trapline trail, and would be run at least once a week.” The trail itself was dusted with the day’s snow, and otherwise looked untrod. No runner marks or paw prints in the soft earth. Once at the bottom of the sidecut, the team pulled Rol across the flat expanse of the valley floor, now less than a mile from the island of Spruce Trees encircling the Homestead.

Then a strange scent met the noses of the team. So unusual was it that they all took notice. Aside from the smells of a large group of people that were unfamiliar, came an animal scent none on the team had hitherto known. It was a strong scent, indicating a likelihood that a number of these mysterious animals accompanied the party. There was a similarity to moose, maybe a little like reindeer, yet it differed enough to eliminate those species.

“Something strange here.” Sasha spoke aloud, more to herself than another. “What odd new animals could have been here? Why can’t I smell Bek, Nina or Jiak? Or even Nona the Cat?”

“And there’s no smoke.” added Anchu.

Now Sasha looked to the spruce stand and sniffed the air in rapidly repeated short bursts. There was no smell of the ever-present Home fire, no plume of smoke rising from the center of the grove.

“Who are these people? And what is that animal?” Dak posed the questions to his team, especially the oldest, Stone. “These are not people of our peninsula. I’ve never smelled some of these things.” His nose was almost touching the snow as he pulled the sled.

“Strangers.” Stone stated, with a tone expressing concern. Caution was in order.

“It’s so fun to meet new people!” Umka added, with inflections of excitement and welcome wonder.

As they entered the spruce stand, there were more signs on the trail, here where the wind did not obfuscate all with drifting snow. Two furrows could be seen, the tracks of a sledge. They were immediately recognizable as foreign due to their extreme width.

“Nobody from here to the End of the Cliff would use a sled that wide. It won’t even fit on some trails.” Stone shared his observations as the team rounded the last turn leading to the Homestead, and the buildings came into view.

Sasha and Anchu simultaneously barked out calls to Mother, Lema, Kotka and their people. They were all, Rol included, struck by the silence. No barks pealed forth welcomes or warnings, no people walked to the edge of the yard to greet the visitors.

Dak passed the door of the cabin and stopped, the rest of the team following suit without direction from Rol. Sasha’s heart nearly stopped as she looked to the cabin and saw the door standing wide open, snow covering the floor, drifted into piles around the wood stove, the table legs, the woodbox and the pantry door.

An eerie stillness hung in the air and over the team. All barking had ceased, all eight of them dumbstruck in consternation. As they looked around, they beheld one unsettling thing after another. Every dog house was empty. The primary team and secondary team were gone, as well as the other dozen dogs; the retirees, breeding stock, those on the mend, adopted orphans. Both Bek and Jiak’s sleds were gone. The smells of the strangers were strongest here. They had gathered, lingered, rested, conducted business.

“Hello?” Rol called tentatively, remaining on the runners of the sled. He peered into the empty cabin, and the shed where the door also stood open wide. “Hello!” he called more loudly. At this, Sasha, Anchu and Dak were compelled to bark a reinforcement to Rol’s voice. In the orange glow of the late summer night, the silent homestead seemed surreal.

“Am I dreaming?” Sasha asked aloud.

“If this is your dream I hope you wake up soon. I’m tired.” Larik replied.

Rol hesitantly disembarked and walked to the cabin. He leaned a hand against the doorframe and poked his head inside, and again called “Hello?”. The two tiny rooms could be seen in entirety from the door. “Bek? Jiak?” Rol called into the empty dwelling. He looked more closely into the home. It appeared as though the occupants vanished in the midst of an ordinary day. A few items remained on the table from a meal. A sewing kit laid open, the thread of the needle drawn through a new sole being attached to an old boot hung off the side of the table. A full bucket of dog chow waited to be served, now frozen solid beside the door.

“They’re gone.” Rol spoke aloud again. Perhaps to the team, perhaps making notes. Perhaps some human sound to fill the disconcerting void. He should be having energetic conversations now with Bek and Nina, petting the cat as they plied the welcome guest with hot food and beverages.

To say Sasha was disappointed would be a gross understatement. She felt she missed Jiak, Bek, Nina, even Nona the Cat, more now than she ever had. With this also came a nervousness, an anxiousness, bordering on fright. There were just so many odd circumstances here. Everyone, all the people, all the dogs, had simply vanished without reason or trace.

Then in the woods behind the dogs’ yard she saw movement. Low, and black and white, it was a dog. He was carefully placing trees between himself and these newcomers. Cautiously eyeing and assessing them. Suddenly, the head lifted.

“Sasha?” the black and white husky called out.

“Kotka!” Sasha barked in a joyous reply, repeated it as she hopped on her forelegs and whipped her tail in a wag of elation. The fugitive residents had returned, and Kotka was first to have arrived!

Kotka remained where he was, in the woods, behind a tree.

“Who is here with you? People, I mean.” He spoke in low tones, stared at the racing sled, his ears folded back on his head.

“It’s Rol. Tun sent us with him from Tunkan to fetch Bek and Jiak to Festival.”

“They’re all gone.” Kotka continued, slowly walking forward, scanning his horizons as one under threat, watching Rol for suspicious motives. “Strangers came and took them all. Many strangers. Rude, loud, shouting and shoving people.” Now Sasha noticed how disheveled Kotka appeared, and he was visibly shaking, trembling with fear. “Bek called them ‘Soldiers’.”

Duty Bound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa! Whoa team! Whoa!”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mush! Go! Mush you dogs!”

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

“Starting on a hill…” Larik grumbled.

Circles Expanding

When Sasha awoke, the camp was devoid of people. Dak was gone, too, presumably with Tun. The rest of the dogs remained, tethered by their leads. Most were sleeping, although Umka was up, looking eagerly into the village and the hubbub of activity. His tail swung side to side slowly, an unconscious action as he watched people and dogs and reindeer going about the business of Festival.

Unbeknownst to the dogs, Tun had found the best doctor he could, a grandmother called Vetna, from Ogrut, a tiny village far to the north.  He took Tati to Vetna’s camp to be cared for. Through the long, sunlit night, the young woman slept, all the while shivering, her teeth chattering. Tun sat the whole time beside Tati, and continued to remain by her side as Vetna prepared herbal infusions and poultices to apply to the patient.

A runner was sent to deliver word to Tati’s father, Sarut. He had received word that his wife, at home in Kantuc, had taken ill. He had left Tunkan while Tati was running the race, asking Tun to look after her, and to bring her home to Kantuc if he was unable to return. Tun assured Sarut that he would care for Tatiana as if she were his own, to which he replied “I know you will. Thank you, Tun.”

Tun headed back to his camp, summoning Rol and beginning to pack provisions in a sled bag. When the young man arrived, Tun had a serious look on his face, and addressed Rol in a low voice. His speech was slow, metered, as it is when one is thinking deeply and simultaneously composing sentences. His hands moved, not quickly but steadily as he continued loading the bag onto the racing sled.

“I am concerned about my friend Bek and his family. I would have gone to their home today but for Tati taking ill. Now Sarut has been called to Kantuc, and I am responsible for caring for her, and therefore cannot leave. Will you go to Bek’s in my stead? Will you check that they are alright, or find out if they are not?”

“Surely there must be a simple reason for their delay.” Rol expressed in comforting tones to the big man. He had never seen Tun vexed by anxiety. It was a little unsettling to think the situation was so worrisome that Tun could be shaken by it. What tragedy must have passed to affect the ever-smiling giant so? “Perhaps Nina’s had a baby. Or a dog a litter of pups.” he said encouragingly.

“Perhaps the latter!” Tun managed a giggle, briefly unfurrowing his brow. “Still, Jiak would have come with a team. For the race.”

The young man grew uncomfortable, unaccustomed to dealing with such weighty, grown-up matters. He was, however, coming of age, and understood that he would need to learn to navigate such things. He would need to be bold and brave and decisive as men like Tun, Bek, and his own father.

“I’ll go as quickly as I can. I can leave now.” While Tun did not smile, his stern face relaxed a little at the welcome assistance. “But the racing sled…”. Rol placed his hand on the back bow, and could swear he could feel the energy of years of racing, countless dogs, the many drivers.

“It will be much faster than the cargo sled.” Tun answered his unspoken query. “This is more important than keepsakes.”

Without further conversation, Tun and Rol harnessed the team, each man deep within his own thoughts. In silence, they hitched them to the ornate sled. The dogs sensed something odd. Tun packed a sled but didn’t break camp. Now he was hitching them up to race when there were no other signs of racing in the entire village. Where was Tati? Why did Tun seem so forlorn? Why is Rol readying to board the racing sled? As they finished preparations for departure, they again addressed one another.

“Do you know the way to Bek’s? The homestead in the moraine, west of the Dezhnevo trail?

“I know of the place, though I’ve never been there.” Rol replied.

“West from Silver Creek crossing, through the forest and down into the valley. There’s only one trail once you reach the forest.” Tun spoke as he checked tug lines and the condition of the dogs’ paws. “It will take most of a day to get there, so I hope to see you at the end of tomorrow or the day after. I’ll stay here in Tunkan.” He paused, and looked across the village to Vetna’s camp.

“Or I may need to go to Kantuc.” he thought aloud. “I’ll leave a sign for you if I do.” his eyes wandered from the sled to Rol to Vetna’s camp as he spoke, focusing on none of them. “Find Chimlik. He’ll know if I’ve gone, and where.” Tun referred Rol to the person that amounted to Chief in Tunkan, the Donat. This was really more of a mayoral position, being selected by the village populace for leadership.

“I’ve packed three days’ provisions for you and the dogs.” the wheels turned behind Tun’s eyes as he spoke in a level tone. “But I have no more bread. Only salmon and jerky. You should have some biscuits…” the big man spoke almost unconsciously. Meandering and repeating thoughts as he added Rol to the list of those who would consume his waking and sleeping hours with his worry for their safety.

Rol felt himself growing, aging, maturing with each passing minute. No longer the boy fulfilling demands of adults. No longer the young man without skills or means. Now a revered leader, a hero, called on him, entrusting him with the most valuable things in his life; his dog team, his racing sled, and most importantly, the security of those he loved.

“I’ll be just fine, Tun.” he heard himself say. Or rather, he heard a man that sounded not unlike his own father and this mentor before him. A man that understood community and loyalty and commitment. “You take care of Tati,” he continued emboldened by this hitherto unknown sense of duty that filled his entire being now, to every corner of his soul. “and yourself. Thank you for calling on me Tun. Rest assured, I will not fail you.”

“You can never fail me, Rol.” Tun looked into his eyes, “so long as your heart is true. Do your best.”

Suddenly, Rol, who had felt a little taller, a little stronger, sensed the child within. A flash of fear struck him in the gut, charged with such an important duty. Self-doubt rocked him, leaving him uncertain about his ability to do all of this.

“Thank you, Rol. Your father should be very proud of you.” Tun stood, towering over the youth, removed his mitt, and held out his hand. As the glow of the low sun and the flickering fire illuminated the big man’s face, Rol could see in it the anguish he carried as he held Rol’s hand in his own. In the next moment, he saw this soften with relief that here was someone whom he could trust to care for such delicate things, our loved ones. And in that moment, Rol began the lifelong internal dialogue known to all men.

The man here standing addressed the child within. To share joys and laughter with child-like wonder. To reassure the child that there was now a grownup to care for it, always. Grown Rol grabbed Tun’s hand with a strong grip, reminding child Rol that all the teaching and learning and growing has led to this moment, and many more grownup moments that lay ahead.

“It’s what we do.” Rol commanded the finish to the conversation. The time for talk had passed. “Get up, dogs. Let’s go! Hike!” The team rose, but paused, confused. Alexei and Umka took a couple of steps at the command, but Dak simply looked to Tun, his mouth hanging half-open in a dog smile.

“Go! Go with Rol, go!” Tun gestured and clapped his mitted hands together. Dak took two steps and the line behind him tightened, unmoving. Stone and Larik shifted their weight between paws, looked at Rol, then at Tun. “Yes! Yes!” continued the giant, “Go to Bek’s with Rol!”

Sasha heard Bek’s name among the human words. In a moment, it came to her; Tun wanted the team to take Rol to the Homestead. She swung her head rapidly addressing the team, and barked her “Let’s go!” bark.

“What are we supposed to be doing?” asked Anchu.

“We’re going to Bek and Nina’s.” Sasha replied in an excited but businesslike tone.

“We’re going Home? Now? But what about Tun?”

“I don’t know, brother. I’m not certain what the plan is, but I know this is what Tun is asking of us. That’s enough for me.”

“Me, too!” Dak called from the lead with an edge in his voice, and implied impatience.

“Me, too.” Anchu replied to his sister, Dak and the team, resolving himself to duty and abandoning questions.

“Me, too!” said Stone, and then Umka, followed by the remaining three.

“Come on you dogs, mush!” newly-minted grownup Rol took his responsibility seriously, “Hike! Let’s go!”

Now the team burst from the start, snow and mud flying as they raced their way across the village, and away from Tun. The gray sky hung silently over them, as a few small snowflakes began to fall. He stood and watched the team disappear, and remained until their barks and calls could no longer be heard.

Tun looked skyward, stretched his arms as wide as he could.

“Great Spirit, watch over these innocents.”

Around The Fire

“There they go.” Alexei referred to the string of people that flowed through Tun’s camp after the race, congratulating him and Tati. “First they all try to beat each other in the race, and now they’re all hugging. I don’t get it.”

“Is there anything people won’t take credit for?” Larik interjected. “After all, we did all the running.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” added Dak, “Tati runs as fast as you!”. Larik was not amused by this, but the rest of the team snickered at the remark.

“Well, we are Tun’s team. We wouldn’t be here without him, or have a sled or a driver.” Sasha felt compelled to defend Tun.

“I could run a lot faster if I wasn’t dragging this dogsled, you know.” Larik replied.

“I think they just want to know what it feels like to be us.” Anchu added, looking at the people gathered around the camp. “They only have two legs, like birds, but they can’t fly. Their wings or forelegs or whatever you call them are deformed. No pads, no feathers. It must be a little frustrating. With us, they can feel what it’s like to run down a trail, to have the wind whistle past your ears.” He laid down and placed his snout on his forepaws, contemplatively shifting his gaze from one musher to another.

“I’ve never thought of that.” Stone now joined the conversation, “People envying dogs.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Alexei continued. “Someone makes our meals for us, someone makes our beds. We don’t need to do anything but pull a sled, which is really just walking and running anyway.”

“Maybe that’s why they keep so many dogs around.” Anchu added, “Maybe they know they’re inferior.”

Inferior?” Umka interjected, shocked, even insulted on behalf of humans. “They get us food and houses and boots for the ice. We would have none of these things without Tun.”

“And we’d be free as the wolves to do as we please.” Added Larik, cleaning the mud from his legs.

“Yes,” Stone added, “free to starve and die in the wilderness.”

“If you were a wolf you wouldn’t be afraid of the wilderness.” Larik countered.

“True. I guess you’re right about that.” Stone conceded, his eyes wandering to the top of the glacier and the mountain beyond, imagining what it might be like to be out there on his own.

“Do wolves really live all by themselves?” Anchu asked his more worldly teammates. “Where do they sleep? How do they eat?”

“They sleep wherever they please!” Larik replied, “They eat when they feel like eating.”

“But where do they get the chow?”

“Come on! You know animals in the wild hunt for other animals or eat trees and things like that. They don’t need people.”

“Sounds like a lonely life.” Umka chimed in, unable to imagine a world without people. He really loved people, all people. The way some people love all dogs. “No one to pet you or talk to you or make you a fancy harness.”

“You don’t need a harness if you’re free and wild.” Larik’s tone became contentious with no one following on his line of thought. “They talk to each other. They pet each other.

“I think people are confused.” Alexei continued, still staring at each person that passed. “I’m not sure they understand what kind of animals they are. You really must pity them.”

“Right about that.” Umka added. “I feel sorry for them. They’re lousy at building nests. They’re all way too big and far from warm. They need to get their fur from other animals. How sad is that? The only fur they have is on the top of their head. They have very delicate feet. Notice they can never go anywhere without boots.”

“That’s why they need us so much.” Dak stated flatly. “They need us to keep them warm, to pull them where they need to go on their sleds. To protect them from real wild animals that would kill and eat them.”

At the west end of the village, the crowd could again be heard cheering and congratulating another team crossing the finish line.

“And there they go again!” Alexei mused. “It’s like it doesn’t matter if you won.”

Dak, more caught up in the lives of humans and their world responded. “It matters to me!”

Tati approached the team with Akej at her side. They were involved in intense conversations as they walked.

“Here he is!” Tati stopped in front of Dak and gestured, “The fastest lead dog of the day!” She reached out with both hands behind his ears and fluffed them, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.

Dak wagged. “But it was Anchu who…” he began to say, but unable to understand, Tati and Akej continued.

“Yes, you’re excited to be the star, eh boy?” Akej addressed the dog, and petted his head to express his admiration.

“It takes a whole team.” Dak barked out, looking to Anchu with a nod.

Oblivious to the dogs’ comments, the people continued their conversations. Tun greeted Tatiana with open arms, a long hug, and gentle pats on the back.

“Fine job young lady!” Tun’s eyes sparkled, “That was an amazing finish.”

“That was the greatest ride I’ve had in a long, long time.” Tati replied, pulling her mackinaw over her head, bits of sticks falling from her hair.

Two children ran up to Akej, one grabbing each hand. He bade Tun and Tati “Good race” and farewell, as he was hauled away to the next excited group of Festival attendees.

“Sasha acted up a little, not sure what that was about. Smelled a wolverine maybe.” She pulled more sticks and debris from her hair. “Then Anchu!” she continued, removing her muddy pants and pulling on a dry pair, “Anchu was faster than the rest of the team. That dog can sure run! He really set our pace.”

Her mukluks were soaked through, and she laid them on the hot stones of the fire ring to dry, walking barefoot in the muddy camp. She continued to relate the events of the race to Tun; falling on the hill climb, cutting her forehead; getting snagged in the bog; the team’s racing spirit, the thrill of passing Akej and Ilja. A cheer could be heard at the finish line, not far off, as another team completed the course.

Tun poured hot water on a wash cloth, wrung it out, and began gently to wash the dried blood from the girl’s face and neck. She paused her tale long enough to purse her lips and close her eyes, turning her face upwards, a child trained to anticipate the grownups’ propensity for such preening. He listened intently to her account, watching her eyes widen and shine at the glorious parts, watching her brow furrow as she described the team’s struggles. As Tati continued to talk excitedly, her lips lost their color and began to look bluish. A rosey flush showed on her cheeks, but the rest of her face grew pale. Without realizing it, she began to shiver and hunch toward the fire.

“You need boots.” Tun interrupted the narrative. “Put this parka on, you’re chilled to the bone.”

Her shivers turned to pronounced shakes as she reached for the parka, holding her elbows close to her sides. Tun took the parka back from her and helped her to don it. He pulled the hood up over her head and drew it close under her chin. He then took a pair of sealskin mittens from the tent, and pulled them over her feet. Next, he steeped a cup of hot tea, then stood behind the girl, vigorously rubbing her upper arms. Tun threw several pieces of wood on the fire and stirred it. The man who always was smiling and gay bore a solemn countenance. He worried about Tati, that she might be taking ill. One at a time he removed her mittens and rubbed her hands to warm them. He borrowed a fur and a blanket, and made a bed beside the fire.

“Lie down, child, and warm yourself by the fire.”

Tatiana, still chilled and shivering, was also exhausted from the rigors of the race. Within a few minutes, she was fast asleep. Tun placed his giant hand on her forehead to check for fever. He tucked the blanket in around her, and again pulled her hood close. The big man lowered himself to the ground and sat by Tati’s head, placing his great arm across the sleeping girl.

Few things could make Tun fret. Tatiana was one of them. Now, in the quiet camp, he also worried about his dear friend Bek and his family. It was most unusual for them to miss Summer Festival. He knew Tati would be looking forward to seeing Jiak, as was he. He would make a fine son-in-law, Tun thought.

As he caught himself thinking this, a lump climbed into his throat. He stared at the sleeping girl’s face, deep in thought. Thoughts of long ago, unavoidable, undeniable. He smiled as tears filled his eyes, imagining what might have been. Tun lowered his face to his hands, and, for just a minute, allowed himself to cry, quietly.

Dak was instantly beside him, cocked his head, whimpered, placed his paw on Tun’s.

“Yes, thank you.” Tun smiled as his eyes met with the dog’s. “Oh, Dak.” he said, putting his arms around the Husky, hugging him as his tears subsided.

“My Anka-Ny would have been this age by now.”

Finish Line

Ilja was quite surprised, his senses momentarily bewildered at being overtaken by Tati’s team. An odds-on favorite to win, the only other competitor likely capable of beating Ilja’s team was Bek’s. Jiak had piloted his team to several victories over Ilja’s, and it seemed the two men almost took turns winning over the course of this past season.

Tati looked closely at Ilja’s dogs as she passed them with her own. They didn’t look particularly weary, and their eyes shined with the thrill of running and racing. She hunched low to reduce wind drag and urged the team onward, though it seemed they couldn’t possibly move faster. Over her shoulder, Tatiana could see Ilja’s head jerk upright. He renewed his grip on the handle and reset his feet on the runners as if demonstrating his conviction to correct this unexpected and unacceptable encroachment. As he called out, the dogs eagerly responded, and one could see the entire team redouble their efforts, their quarry in their sights.

There were several heaves of the glacial base that ran perpendicular to the course, like a long, stretched-out set of ice stairs, sized for a giant, the cracked edge a foot above the step below. Dogs would jump one after the other in a line, giving a flowing effect, like water over a fall. The sled would glide off the stair, its whooshing sound of the rails through the soft snow suddenly silencing, a breath held,  then in a second beginning again as they struck down on the firm snow-covered glacier.

Tatiana used her knees as hinges, her leg muscles as springs, anticipating each jump of the ice stairs. She’d feel the sled drop away below her, and, pulling upwards on the back bow, would apply just enough pressure to keep her feet from coming off the runners. As the sled returned to Earth, she would bend her knees and gently lower her weight onto the sled. Behind her, Ilja, so large he carried just one handicap stone, could not navigate the jumps as gracefully and delicately as Tati. His weight fell full force with the sled as it banged down each step, jarring his knees, elbows, back and neck. This was not without effect on the sled, as its momentum slowed incrementally from the dogs’ speed. Lines would tighten, the weights jerking on the team. Step by step, Tatiana opened the gap between her sled and Ilja’s.

Tunkan once again came into view. People could be seen gathered at the west end of the village, the end of the race course. Now could be seen another team ahead of Tati’s, and it cruised into the settlement greeted by cheers and hand clapping. Several people ran to the sled, shook the driver’s hand and congratulated him. Many folks were still looking up the hill. Supporters, friends and family members strained their eyes, each searching for their own party.

“Isn’t that Ilja?” comments rose.

“But who is ahead of him?”

“Wasn’t Akej after Ilja? Who’s that?”

“Is that Tun’s team? It is! There’s Dak!”

The major upset in the race and the record-setting pace of Tun’s team drew the attention of the crowd. Now, any who knew her were calling out Tati’s name, encouraging her onward. Tati saw the finish approaching, and looked over her shoulder to see Ilja and his team slamming down the last ice step, still a considerable distance behind her. She laughed out loud, a kind of giggle erupting from deep within her belly, the thrill and excitement overwhelming her.

Within the village, Tun was amazed as any at the early arrival of Tati and the team. This was not the first win for Tun. In these recent years with young, energetic and light Tatiana as a driver, the team had scored several victories. This, however, was quite an upset, quite the turn of events, as the Summer Festival drew the stiffest of competition. Akej and Ilja were two of the top competitors in the area, and elsewhere in the race were two more teams that frequently took wins and second-place finishes. If Bek was here with Jiak, they would rank among these successful racers.

The cheers of the crowd reached a crescendo as Tun’s team crossed the finish line. Tati drove the team further a bit, leading them to an area away from the throngs of race watchers. Here, a watering trough had been filled for the benefit of exhausted teams and drivers finishing the race. Each team had their own special fans, and Tun’s was no exception. Typically, a half-dozen people would have followed Tatiana, helping cool and water the dogs, fetching a drink for the driver, reveling in all that is the racing spirit, congratulating musher and team. On this occasion, more than a dozen people, some unknown to Tati, approached the finely decorated sled and team, petting dogs and patting backs.

Their conversation was an energized buzz, marveling at the incredible time the team had made, the upset of it, and the victorious finish. Sasha and her team were exhausted yet still excited and exhilarated by their first race experience together. Certainly it was Anchu that was the subject of many exchanges between humans and dogs alike. His eagerness and high level of racing spirit, his indefatigable stamina, and of course, his amazing speed.

The attention was a bit overwhelming, and despite his elation at the race results and his own newly discovered talent for speed and endurance, Anchu eschewed the praise. For the first time in his life he felt truly a part of something meaningful, and this meant more to him than winning. He looked with love and great admiration at the other dogs, and addressed them

“It takes a whole team to win a race.”

Proud For Tun!

The solid frozen foot of the glacier was topped with a thin layer of wet snow, and it angled downward slightly, making the last leg of the race almost a downhill run.

“Let’s Go! Go! Go!” Anchu barked, eagerly pressing muscles to action, his stamina and energy unwavering. Immediately behind him, Alexei was not to be outdone by such an inexperienced youngster, and he, too, pushed himself to maximum speed.

Sasha’s line slacked with the acceleration of the dogs behind her. Even Larik, at the wheel position, was meeting the pace of Anchu and Alexei. Now she clenched her paws and dug her claws into the solid ice beneath the snow, and worked her legs as hard and fast as she could. She felt the line gently tension behind her, as Umka, ahead, sensed the increasing speed as well, and picked up his pace.

Dak looked over his shoulder at the team and saw they were all gleefully striding flat-out, challenging one another to go faster still. While the pitch of the terrain lent its advantage equally to all the teams, the gap between Tati’s and the one ahead could be seen to be closing.

Anchu was still pulling a little faster than the rest of the team, Sasha’s line slacking behind her occasionally. “Dig!Dig!Dig!” he barked as all the dogs were dumbstruck to see he could move even faster. Still, he hardly seemed strained or winded, his breath and step coming easily and naturally.

The other dogs were astounded by his energy and agility. Each pressed their muscles to the extreme, sailing across the slick glacier at a speed that was nothing short of phenomenal. Within just a few minutes, they closed on the team ahead, and trailed them now by only ten meters.

Seeing this, the driver, Akej, commanded his dogs to full speed. His team now noticed the competitor gaining, and this inspired them to increase their efforts. Incrementally, Tati’s team gained on the second-place leader. Now they were alongside, and could see they’d outpaced a veteran musher, and his strong and well-trained nine dog team.

Then, as if Akej had conceded and slowed, Sasha and the sled passed them, and began to pull away. Akej was in disbelief at the speed of Tati’s team, and his mouth fell open, speechless.

Tatiana’s team was running flat-out, except for Anchu. He kept a constant tension on his tugline, yet was not in the least winded, nor going as fast as he wanted to. If not for this team and dogsled anchoring him, he would have streaked across the glacier at twice this speed. He’d never known such enthusiasm and exhilaration. He’d always been quiet Brother Anchu. Middle of the pack. A little smaller than most, perhaps. A bit less likely to win at wrestling in the yard. Not likely to be first to smell an intruder or bark an alarm. Last in line when it came to tearing up a carcass and sharing with the pack.

But now, he had found something he loved, and it was running. He found something that he was especially good at. Something that made other dogs look to him with some admiration, perhaps even envy. From the moment Tun had placed the racing harness on him, he felt a change. His was not the last or the least of the harnesses. And now he, quiet Brother Anchu, was far from the least or last on this team of dogs. This was not only the thrill of running and racing, but the thrill of being the best.

“Come on! Go! Go!” he called out to his teammates, his smile a mile wide, tongue flapping about.

“Where did we get this guy?” Larik barked out, catching Anchu’s racing fever, and driving harder to faster and faster gaits. Likewise, each member of the group was thrilled tremendously to be on such a fast and winning team. Just one musher still ran ahead of them. In all, they’d passed six dog teams over the length of the course, one of which never saw them, overtaken sight unseen during the switchback shortcut maneuver.

Tati realized she was smiling with such effort her cheeks began to hurt. She’d been on a number of sleds and ran her share of races, but never experienced a team this fast. They were rapidly gaining on the race leader, and likely setting a new record time for the course.

Sasha regarded the team they’d just passed. There was no hint of Jiak scent anywhere on Akej’s sled. The scent trail of the leading team also revealed no Jiak. Now she wondered if she’d just imagined it. Wishful thinking, perhaps. Within that moment, another face and name appeared at the forefront of her thoughts. It was Tun. Suddenly she was stricken with a little guilt. She didn’t mean to place Jiak on a pedestal. She couldn’t help but to love and miss him.

Still, she was here with Tun. Part of Tun’s team now. A part of his life, and he a part of hers. She thought of his smiling face and gentle hands. She thought of the comfort and freedom he provided his dogs, remembered her thrill and surprise when he produced the ornate, personalized racing harness, even for the new and untested recruits. She had nearly derailed the team during a race with her selfish insistence on seeing Jiak. But it was Tun that had brought her here. Tun that made all of this possible. The exquisite sled, the team’s matching harnesses, Tati for a driver, the trip to Tunkan and the Summer Festival.

As much as she loved Jiak, and he would always be precious to her, she realized how much she was now part of something bigger than herself. Tun and her new team were now her family. She didn’t feel she owed Tun her loyalty, as much as she felt deeply indebted to him.

“Proud For Tun!” She barked out between gasps of the mild air.

The rest of the team, still running flat-out, could hardly gather enough breath to return the rallying cry.

“Proud for..” some barked in one breath, followed by “…Tun!” in the next. Some could only manage “Tun!”

Anchu, looking like he was trotting at a relaxed pace, sang out all of Dak’s greeting to Tunkan.

“Here we come!

Second to none!

Ready to race!

Proud for Tun!”

And with that, this phenomenal team running top speed accelerated further, and overtook the next musher, becoming the race leader.

Eik! Eik! Eik!

Sasha and the team waged their battle against the spruce forest, slogging through ankle-deep water and dragging the ornate racing sled over rocks and logs. In several places, the water was so deep that brush was laid across it like a straw bed, serving as a bridge of sorts.

Tatiana began to feel the discomfort of wet clothing. Between the drag up the hill, marching through bog water, and falling into it, she was soaked from the waist down. Her upper body was wet with mud and the perspiration under her coat, the results of the strenuous work required of the bog. Her legs were beginning to tire and ache, and she was relieved to see the meadow beyond the spruce trees as they banged their way through the last arduous stretch of swampy trail.

When they had finally cleared the bog and were once again on firm ground, Tati stopped the team for inspection. She flipped the sled onto its side to check for any signs of trouble; sticks or debris, damage to the frame or runners. “One thing this sled is not,” she said aloud to the team, “and that’s delicate!” She proceeded forward, and starting with the safety line, continued up the gang line, checking every connection. She fussed a little over each dog as she made her way up the line, checked their harness and neck line, then took a look at their paws. This continued at a rapid but unhurried pace until she reached Dak. Tati was pleased to find all the gear and dogs to be in good condition.

“Good job, you guys!” she smiled and fluffed the top of each dog’s head as she passed. In return, they lifted their heads to welcome her hand, and wagged their happy wags. Tati looked up to the grey sky, then to the Spruce Bog behind them. She looked at the trail before them, over the top of seven heads eager to get underway, eyeing her, ready for instant response to her command.

It was a beautiful place to be, Tati thought to herself, and made a brief account of the richness before her. The panorama of spruces and the mountains beyond. The healthy and strong team. The smell of the summer air, infused with evergreen and mud.  Here on the trail, running the race. “No place I would rather be.” she said as she grabbed the back bow.

“Eik! Eik! Eik!” she shouted rapidly, and pushed hard up the slight grade covered with a thin layer of snow. “We have a race to win!”

In spite of the rigors of the bog, the dogs were somewhat rested from the near-walking pace of it. They broke into a fast gallop, and were relieved and reinvigorated to return to open trail. The excitement and exhilaration of running the race once again consumed their consciousness. Sasha’s thoughts of Jiak went out of her head for a while, as the team worked smoothly together, swiftly reaching the top of the rise.

From the crest of the ridge, the descent was steep. A sharp, near-vertical drop through a harrowing conglomeration of huge boulders and ancient spruce trees. The trail cut into the side of the hill snaked its way down through four switchbacks to accommodate the elevation. Tatiana sprinted the team into the turns, slowing just enough to make it around one hundred eighty degrees on the wet layer of snow. She’d lean off to the side, raising the outboard runner, leaning into the turn like a downhill skier. Exiting the turn, she’d shout her repeating commands to go as she jumped to the ground and pushed until the dogs were moving faster than she.

Between the third and fourth turns, on the straight stretch, Tati saw an opening between a boulder and a tree, and noted it was a clear shortcut to the last stretch of switchbacks, below them. She thought the narrow racing sled could just squeeze through. “Haw! Haw!” she called out to the team, dragging her right foot.

Dak couldn’t understand the command, nor how or why the team would quit a straight trail and drive into trees. After a few metered steps, he came to a stop, looking over his shoulder at Tati, with a bark and whine that conveyed his consternation. She jumped from the runners and ran the length of the sled and the team to place her hand on Dak’s neck.

“This way. Come on!” she led the dogs to the gap. “Hold up, now. Hold up!” she said to Dak and the team, raising her mitted hand, reinforcing the command to stay. She didn’t want the team to begin the descent without her on the sled to hold the brake down. Without braking, lines would slack and bunch up, and the sled would run over the dogs. If they fell and rolled on the steep hill, it would surely mean injury and mangled gear, a gauntlet of rocks and trees bordering the narrow cut. Once she had a hand hold on the back bow, Tatiana called for the team to go “Ahead Easy”, and as the sled started down the bank she jumped onto the runners.

The grade was so steep, the team more or less fell down it on their feet, making footholds and movements more to slow themselves than propel a sled.  The randomness of each individual dog’s reactions and interpretations of the speed and terrain caused them to bunch here and there, to bump one another, or cause a jerk on the gang line for the one ahead. At one point, the sled crowding him, Larik actually jumped up onto Alexei, who was blocking the path. This caused Alexei to lose footing and stumble, which caused the gang line to tighten and yank on Umka’s harness. Several similar chain reactions occurred up and down the gang line, the sticky snow and an occasional stick flying upwards and outwards from the scrambling team.

Tati was now standing on the mat brake, placing her other foot on the ground, fighting gravity to maintain control of the sled. In some places she hopped her free foot over entanglements, and in others she let it slide along the surface like a ski. It was the hill itself that called the pace now, and the team and driver could only react and respond as quickly as possible to manage it.

Down, down, down the steep grade they rapidly fell until at last they broke out of the brush and onto the trail. “Haw! Haw!” Tati tried to get the team to make the right-angle turn onto the switchback, and she leaned hard, but the momentum of the sled would not be slowed. The runner dug into the ground and the sled rolled over, all the way around until the runners slammed down onto the trail, the sled upright. Tati was still clinging to the back bow, standing on the runners, when it came to rest. The look on her face of surprise and bewilderment was accented with a big smile. Her dangerous and daring gamble had cut off a considerable length of trail. Now two teams could be seen ahead, and the trail once again traversed the foot of the great glacier for the last leg.

Sasha remembered her longing and eagerness to see Jiak, and the teams on the trail ahead helped reassure her they would all gather together at the end. It made her think of the last thing Kotka said to her, as she left the Homestead for the last time. She called it out now, to Jiak, and all of her old team, and the other dogs back in the moraine.

“See you at the finish line!”