by Windy Color
I wrote this for school. Alaskan boy goes on dog sledding adventure. Critique requested!
| F R ❅ S T
I was thankful for the silence, and let out a relieved sigh after holding my breath in wait for a bark or a howl. Nothing. The day can wait an hour. The team is very intelligent, but one thing they don’t know how to do is to be quiet. It was then that I heard a noise. Above the wind chimes, the rustling of birches, and the murmur of icy water running beneath planks of thin, elevated frost. It was the water-droplet-like, trumpet sounds of ravens.
The ravens! I heard the ravens fly overhead and towards the kennels. A single bold bark began to whip at the cold silence. Dad, who was in the yurt, knew what was going on. He yelled, “The dogs are awake, so the rider’s awake!” This was said when only one obvious dog was awake (no husky I know on this property can wake up unheard), but in seconds I could hear twenty-five Alaskan huskies barking at the birds. This obnoxious ensemble carried on and then they all howled for at least fifteen minutes straight. After that it was quiet again. The ringing in my ears subsided and the mute button of the world was released.
I sat there and looked at my father in desperation, who was standing by the diamond-crossed support wood beams around the heavy tarp walls. The stove heater hummed briefly and fell silent.
“Up and at ‘em, Caspar.”
“But they’re all-”
“Then keep your feet silent and your mouth shut, and you’ll get the minimum husky assault.”
“And I’m sure that’s no guarantee.”
“On the right track, son.”
“AAUUUUGGGHH!” I moaned. I got off the mat on the floor and walked across the cold floorboards to the shelves, bundled in my pajamas. I pulled down the heavy tub and lifted off the blue lid, then dumped out the compartments. I took out what I needed- sweaters, sweatpants, a scarf, gloves, boots, and a hat. I put the rest away and took out my real clothes in the other tub. I started to undress.
“I’m going back to the house,” dad started to say. “Take the ‘problem dogs’ out on an 80-mile and then we can go out for, like, lunch or something.” I told him Okay. The house is where my mom and I used to live, while my dad had the yurt with the dogs. Dad told me that the yurt is a privilege you get when you are the dog sled driver. To be the driver you have lots of responsibility, so to practice that trait you have an entire house to take care of and live in. I think it’s a bit much. My dad is training me to own a sled dog team, so I live in the yurt while my parents live a half-mile away. Of course they visit frequently to help me with things, and to teach me more, even just to go on fun, short routes. After a few mandatory weeks, I have permission to go live with them, and to go back to the yurt when I need to. But I like it here. It is serene and beautiful. I am so lucky to be able to regularly experience the incredible majesty of the Alaskan wilderness.
My dad walked down the wooden steps snaking down the hill and went on home. I was alone with my thoughts. Who are the problem dogs that didn’t run yesterday? I came up with my twelve-dog team for today, who I will split into groups of six. I wrote down the names of the dogs on each team so that I could combine the six in different ways each day to see if some dogs work better or worse with others. My first morning run will be with Paco, Neptune, Tally, Red, Snicker and Moose.
In the average dog team, you have a fair amount of obedient dogs. They will keep a fantastic pace and an on-going rhythm, work well in pairs and match pace, as well as keep great focus. Then there are the okay-working dogs, who may lose rhythm to eat snow or occasionally nip a dog. Then there are the problem dogs, who will often fight, bark at pine martens and squirrels, or stop to see what the driver is doing. I took my first team out to get a better understanding of how they work, and to strengthen a bond.
The dogs were peaceful and quiet, until I left the yurt. They began to scream and howl and bark and tug at their chains. I reached the bottom of the hill and walked over to the rack of harnesses in the shed. I took six and put them over my shoulder.
As I made way to Neptune, he began jumping around and barking like he has never been off of his chain. Once I got up close, he stood up and put his paws on my shoulders and started to lick my face. I harnessed him and walked him over to the gangline where I hooked him up as lead. My other lead dog was Tally. The lead help to pull the team along and set the rhythm, and Neptune and Tally’s are very good. The swing/team were Red and Paco. The swing help out the lead, and can be lead-in-training. Snicker and Moose were my wheel. Wheel dogs are very smart. They keep the gangline tight and make turns that are wide enough to keep the sled from crashing into anything.
I took the collars of Neptune and Tally, then marched along with them through the snow. We came to the start of the trail. I got on the sled, positioned myself on the runners, hoisted up the snow hook and held tightly on the handle. “HIKE!”
The dogs ran down the hill at lightning speed. Neptune and Tally’s brown and black forms tugged along at the line, while the others tried to keep up. My heart was beating swiftly then, which wasn’t good based on the fact that it was only seconds in. My dogs are good runners. I shouldn’t be worried. I started hollering commands and got the team as organized as I could, then cheered the dogs on to catch up with the lead.
I am not worried about my noise. I am not worried about the tundra here. The acres of land we own are criss-crossed with trails that fork out into others that can lengthen the route and be practice for commands. No snow is virgin or dangerous.
As we ran, the rhythm all together was great. The first command went well. “Straight ahead,” I said, and the first path was missed. Well done, huskies.
The narrow trees were racing past and the snow was bursting out from under the sled. The few turns we encountered were not very synchronized- Moose and Snicker make dainty turns and the sled jumped up on the powdery snow. I swayed from side to side and got myself on the flat trail again. This happened over and over, and though these dogs have a history of being out of sync, I was worried.
I had remembered that it is spring. The thaw is upon Alaska, and at that time the number of routes to take was limited. There was a fork. Tally was biting Neptune. Neptune was trying to get away, jerking at the line. “Stop it, Tally. Straight ahead,” I yelled, trying not to sound piqued. She looked back at me. Then she was pulled along by Neptune, and the team slowed. I nearly bumped into my wheel but I stomped on the snowmobile track (sled break) and we slowed gradually. Another lurch, another chomp, another howl. The sled nearly tipped, and we came very close to missing a path. Then, we did. We entered the icy part. “Easy.” I noticed where we were. We cannot go across the lake, though the ice is regularly thick. The temperature is unusually high this season and I did not want to take risks. “Gee! Gee! Geegeegeegee!” (right). They go left. That is a problem. A big problem.
My first instinct was to stomp on the brake, but I didn’t want to break the melting ice. The snow was sparse and I could see mostly thin ice all around rather than the niveous fluff. In some places, water ran freely beneath heated ice.
“Woah! Woah!” I tried to say calmly as I stepped on the pad. They slowed a bit but the lead were still quarreling, and they ran forward. The sled lurched violently and I lost my balance as the sled bumped into Moose, who yelped in pain and ducked away. Moose pulled the sled off to the side and I stumbled. “WOAH!” The rest of the team stopped, but the lead tugged them along, and exasperated dogs obeyed the two dumb ones up front. I had to get off this ice. My heart raced. “WOAH! Tally, stop it!” they pulled us out onto the ice further. The snow behind receded. I have never prepared for this. I didn’t know what to do. Time slowed. The sled continued to lurch, and my grip tightened. I continued to try and calm them, but it was no use. The sled sprang forward after a lunge from a team dog, and I bumped once again into Moose, who yanked the sled fourth in fear. My feet slipped and I continued to clutch the sled, heart beating so fast that the beats I heard in my ears faded to a blur. Then, I fell onto the ice. I heard a crack and then a howl of dogs. Before I knew it the clear water, so cold that it burnt like fire, splashed over me and spilled into my mouth. I could vaguely hear the ice around me cracking and the sled falling in. I saw Snickers in the water and the swing entirely under as well. I panicked. My dogs are going to die.
This is how I ended up under freezing water. The future is all that is left, and there is no way that I can imagine that could save ours.
Tally and Neptune, who fall in last and still have a bit of slack on the gangline, swim over to me weakly. My lungs start to wheeze and begin to scream for air. The two dogs get on top of me and scratch me in the process of using me for support. They push me under a bit, and in a complete spastic, panicky motion I swat them off, then undo their harnesses. The water begins to feel like billions of sharp, hot knives, until it amplifies into the feeling of being branded all over. To undo their harness I try to bend my fingers and weakly unclip them. I shed my gloves and push. The cold is unbearable. They wrestle against their harnesses and stand on the ice, shivering. It cracks around them. More dogs flood over to me, and all I can do is unclip their harnesses. I breathe fast, unable to stay afloat. I almost sink and have to pause unclipping a harness. It’s hard to do anything at all.
I panic again and try to swim. I start to feel more numb. The water shouldn’t be this numbing at this spring temperature. I can’t feel the dogs scratch me anymore. I am numb. I can’t swim. I can’t move. I can’t move. I can’t move. I can’t move. I can’t move.
I scream under the water and my lungs begin to ache. Blackness surrounds my vision and a horrible pain begins to finger it’s way into existence in the middle of my brain. I thrash inside my body and sink. My dogs are going to die. I am going to die.
I move my head and nod upwards in attempt to get air. I can’t hear the dogs anymore. In my few seconds of movement, I try to get my body out of paralysis, but it is too late. The frozen water laps at me painfully and I go under some more. The only pain is in my entire inner system, no oxygen fueling their work. Then the pain shrinks and shrinks. Before it is gone, I lose all my instincts, my knowledge. Now, I cannot see. Then I cannot hear anything. Suddenly, I simply cannot think at all.
“Caspar? Are you alright?” It is a woman. She strokes my side, her fingers making contact with my bare skin. Am I naked? Why am I naked? Oh my, I am so cold. So cold it hurts. I start to squirm and try to open my eyes but it is hard to move them. “Shh, shh. Dad is getting the tub full and then you can get warm. See? It’s ready. I’ll help you in.” The woman is my mother. Boy, am I glad to hear her. But why am I so cold? I had thought I fell in the lake, but it all seems like a weird dream, and far too scary to be true. She picks me up with effort and sets me inside. The relief is otherworldly. My limbs tingle and I am familiar with movement, but I just want to lie here.
A few minutes pass and I sit up and look at my parents. I smile, and feel comfortable. Revived. Then a worry strikes me and my stomach sinks with fear. “The dogs! Are the dogs okay?” My dad answers first. “Yes. I gave them a warm bath a minute ago and they are at the vet now. I was going to take you all to the appropriate hospitals for your species, but it seemed like an emergency that the emergency room wouldn’t be quick enough to handle. I was going out to clean the hay for you, when I luckily saw your trail. It was a miracle that I had noticed it! The sled looked like it slid to the side and didn’t show up in the snow down the hill, like it had been bouncing and sliding and stuff. I was worried. It was a ride that no riders could handle safely, so I took Klondike, Artemis, Clara and Darby out after you. I saw the broken ice just as I was going to go right, because though I couldn’t see the trail, I was sure that you would not go that way, because I thought you knew the thaw is here. I managed to get all of you in my sled in a wet heap. The wheel and swing was impossible to save. I managed to pull them out with help of your neighbor Kris. He’s a nice man. Caspar? Are you sure you’re okay? You’re zoning out and your skin is nearly blue still. You look like a smurf. Is the water warm enough?” I look at him blankly for a second, then shake it off. “Yes. It’s fine. Thank you.”
My parents have kept me in the house for a while, but one day I set out for the yurt. My parents come with me, of course. They sit inside with me and we talk and read for a while. Finally I get dressed in outdoor clothes, and go right outside wordlessly while my parents sit in horror. “Caspar!” It is my mom. “Caspar! Surely you aren’t going dogsledding right now?” I look back at her horrified face and smile. “Dear, is he really?” My dad looks at me with a grin. “Well, he is our son.” I smile at him too and turn to leave. “Hey! I wasn’t giving you permission. Get back here.” My dad pats his hand on a rocking chair next to him. “Talk to me. Read. Do anything but risk your life again. Please.” My mom stares at me. “What on earth would make you want to come so close to fate again?”
This requires an appropriate answer. I wait a moment before I come up with the right explanation. “Well, mom, dog sledding is just like the tundra itself. When you fall through frozen ice, the best choice is to get out, and then to keep on moving forward to get warm again.”