Contest #232 shortlist ⭐️

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Adventure Contemporary Indigenous

Zack Kaudjak was crossing the open snow laced fields of the Yukon River with his fourteen dog Iditarod sled team as the sun began to set below the birch tree line at three in the afternoon.  The days were short during the first week of March which meant the temperature would be dropping nearly forty degrees below zero.  He was prodding the team hoping to make it to the Galena rest stop by dinner time. Wrapped in a thermal body wrap, seal skin gloves, mukluks, his extremities still felt the impact of the cruel wind as his sled dipped and dodged his way along the frozen trail.  

Born in the small Inuit village of White Mountain on the Seward Peninsula, Zack was a citizen of two worlds, that of his mother’s side of the Inuit and that of his fur trapping father from a Scandinavian heritage.  When Zack was just seven years old, his father Bjork fled the village for greener pastures leaving him alone with her mother Ahnah in the small isolated village.  While still attending mission school, Zack began raising malamutes and  Siberian Huskies.  

Burt Zymuski, his history teacher with a thick Russian accent told Zack, “Do not waste your time with them Huskies.  They are strong, but they do not have the temperament for Iditarod.”

“I do not agree.” He told his teacher even though Bert had run the great race eight times before settling in White Mountain.  

“Hmmph.” He nodded at the veracity of his young student. “Prove me wrong, malchik.”

“I have a team with six Husky pups.” His brazen bravado impressed the older man.

“Oh I see.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Do you want some help?”

“Sure.” He smiled up at Burt.

“I will get them ready.” He winked as Zack walked out of his classroom. 

True to his word, Burt Zymuski knocked at Zack’s cabin door on an early Saturday morning as the summer slipped away to the equinox and the Fireweed began to go to seed.  The wind from the Bering Sea blew the seeds into the air, covering the land like the snow that would follow in a few weeks.  

Ahnah answered the door when he knocked, smiling, she replied, “You must be Mr. Zymuski.”

“I am and your Russian is well polished.” He bowed his head.

“He is waiting for you.  So excited.” She ushered him inside as the wind already had a harsh bite to it. 

Zack took his teacher to his kennel behind the small cabin he and his mother lived in.  The dogs were already baying and yelping when they saw both of them enter the crudely built shelter.

“They do appear to be well-cared for.” He squatted down to pet an affectionate malamute pup.  

When his runner hit some ice, it broke away from the sled.  Applying the brake, he called out to his team, “Whoa.  We have to take a break.” 

He knew that none of them wanted to stop.  The wind was beyond frigid.  He pulled his sled into a wide culvert that would shield them from the harshness of the deadly Arctic wind. Retrieving his missing runner, he found it where it had broken off, but he would have to remove his gloves so he could reattach it.  Two of the dogs surrounded him so he could do this task without feeling the bite of frostbite which was with them at every bend in the trail.  He knew as he reattached his runner that three sled teams were already just hours away from Nome, the red lantern and prize money.  Most likely he would not finish the race in the money, but his goal was just to finish.  He could brag that a twenty year old was capable of enduring the thousand mile marathon. 

He managed to run his naked hand across Amak, his lead dog’s mane.  “We may have to spend the night here, girl.” 

He would remove the netting from his sled where he had packed his tarp and sleeping bag.  As the temperature dropped to forty below, he would make sure his team and he were sheltered enough to survive the blistering cold wind.  

“Gonna be a really cold one gang.” He began to put up his tarp. “You guys better dig into the snow.”

Most of his team of a dozen dogs had already dug into the ice to shelter them from the night wind.  Without his head lantern, the wilderness would be so dark, he would not be able to see his gloved hand in front of his face.  In Galena, which was still about thirty miles due west beyond the mountain pass slowly disappearing in the darkness, he would have a warm place to spend the night and a hot meal and some chow for his team. 

It did not take long for Zack to fall into a deep sleep.

He was sitting in a kayak close to the shore.  His head slowly moved to his right.  Alka was sitting in his kayak. He had the stock of his Springfield rifle resting on his shoulder with his finger on  the trigger.  When his grandfather aimed his army issued rifle, he never missed.  

His grandfather told him that he was issued the rifle when the United States Army was afraid the Japanese were planning to invade Alaska.  As it turned out the Japanese did invade Attu and took a whole village prisoners of war before the army sent troops that included some Inuit volunteers like Alta to repel them from Attu in June 1942.  The Imperial Japanese Army would never return.  

A few yards ahead was his target, a full grown male seal bobbing in the icy water.  

“Two.” Alta whispered as he took aim.  The seal submerged into the brackish slushy water.  Zack sat as still as a statue as he had been taught to do by his grandfather.

“Three.” He said as the seal reappeared.  The rifle sounded.  There was a splash of water.  The seal had been shot right between his black eyes, a quick instant death.  “Tulok, get the seal.” 

Using his Inuit name that means god of the warriors, he pointed to the carcass of the seal now floating in the waves.  Always quick to obey his grandfather’s instructions, Zack grabbed the lifeless animal behind the flippers, wrapping his hands around the seal’s corpulent chest and pulled him into his kayak.  His Alta removed his knife from his belt and sliced down the center of the seal’s body.  White blubber flowed from the opening.

“Good, plenty of good meat.” He smiled, running his fingers through the warm blubber. “You always count to three before pulling the trigger, because his lungs are full of air. I waited and now we have plenty to eat.” 

His eyes fluttered open.  He had to relieve himself as the wind continued to blow whistling through the dwarf birch trees. The snow had piled up on his tarp making it difficult for him to exit his warm shelter.  Three of his dogs had curled up nearby while the rest of them had tunneled in the snow.  It was well below zero Zack calculated as he emerged to relieve himself.  Cold did not seem adequate enough to describe the biting Arctic wind.  

It took him about an hour to get his sled packed, but the granola bar did not seem to fill his growling stomach.  He scanned the faces of his dog team. “Guys, we will be in Galena in about an hour.  They will have breakfast for you.” 

Ahead was the mountain pass.  The trail through the pass was well known as the difficult part of the trail.  But he knew once they got through it, Zack knew the trail would be a lot smoother for the rest of the way even though Nome was still a couple of days away. 

Known as the Heartbreak Pass, Zack noticed Lusa, one of the team, was struggling to catch her breath.  He slowed the team to a stop.  Lusa lay immobile in the snow.  

“What’s the matter, girl?” He asked as if she could answer him.  He gently ran his hand over her panting chest.  Slowly he undid her harness and lifted the female Husky from the snow.  Placing her comfortably into the sled would slow them down even more, but at this point it did not matter to him. Tears filled Zack’s eyes.  His tears froze to the skin on his cheeks. Lusa panted as he started the team once again. The sled jerked to a start as they began a slow steady climb up Heartbreak Pass. 

His team was hungry, but Galena was still over an hour away as they climbed the steep pass. 

“If you wish to run your team in The Last Great Race, you must be ready to have your heart broken many times.” Alta told his grandson after Zack told him of his intentions to enter the race.  

“Yes grandfather, I want to enter the race next month.” He answered. 

Zack had no idea that his grandfather would pass away just two weeks later.  In his grief and mourning for his grandfather, Zack decided to wait a year before entering the Iditarod.  Deeply affected by his loss, Zack got out his sled and took Alta to his village according to Inuit tradition.  While he was staying with his aunt, the Aurora Borealis appeared above the village. As he watched the emerald green wave overhead, Zack knew that his grandfather had made it to the next world. His aunt affirmed his observation.  Even with her gentle assurances, Zack still felt the empty space in his heart his grandfather had left him with. 

Shadows were already long when he got to the end of Heartbreak Pass.  Stunted birch and pine trees greeted him when they appeared through the mountain pass.  Lusa was still struggling.  Zack cursed himself for not making it to Galena where he could get care for his young Husky pup.  As the darkness began to swallow the scenery, Lusa breathed her last.  Zack could not shed any tears at her passing since his tears would freeze to his face.  The rest of the team sensed the loss as Amak started to howl.  The rest of the surviving team joined in howling, mourning their fallen teammate.  

 The wind picked up as its icy grip covered the land.  Bursting across the sky, the Northern Lights illuminated the sky.  Soon the souls of the dead would dance across the sky like his grandfather used to tell him when he was a boy. 

“Tulok.” He heard someone call him.  The voice was familiar to him as he rolled from his sleeping bag, “Tulok!” 

“Grandfather.” Zack’s voice was thick with sleep.

“I am here.” 

“I need you.” Zack sat up.

“I am with you always.” 

“I need you.  I lost one of my dogs.” Zack felt his eyes gloss over with tears. 

“Do not cry, Tulok.  These things happen.” 

“I miss you.” Zack could not stop the flow of tears.

“Step outside.  You will see me.” 

“Alright.” Zack found his way out of his encasement.  When he looked to the sky, he saw the familiar emerald wave swirling in the night sky. “Grandfather, are you there?”

“I am.” 

“I need your help.” He bowed his head.

“I will guide you.” 

“To Nome?”

“Is that where you really wish to go? You can end it at Galena.  Your team is hungry and exhausted.  You too, are in need of some rest.” 

“I did not come here to quit.” He said defiantly.

“You are not quitting, you are doing what’s best for you and your team.  A good leader knows when that time has come to pass.” 

“I want to get to Nome.” Zack stamped his foot into the ice as he used to do as a child.

“At what cost? You will have other chances to prove yourself.” His voice began to fade with the wind rushing through the canopy of trees. The sky turned emerald green. 

At what cost?  Lusa was one of his favorite pups.  He had fed her from the bottle when she still had her eyes closed.  She would run through their small house and his mother would tell him to take her outside.

“It’s too cold.” He would whine.

“And let you two ruin what little we have here.” She would shake her head.

“So how is your pups?” Mr. Zymuski asked Zack after class.

“They are great.” He nodded.  Mr.Zymuski helped him acquire some of the pups in his team including Lusa.  

“I knew you’d be a good pack leader.” The teacher clasped Zack on his wide shoulders. “One day you will make me proud.” 

Mr. Zymuski was the closest Zack had to a real father and so when the “Mad Russian” as he was known among the rest of the mission school passed away a few months later, Zack vowed to complete the race. 

“I am a failure.” He thought to himself as he got ready for the final leg of the trail to Galena.  He sighed deeply since he knew Galena was roughly the halfway point of the Iditarod, but it was apparent that he would not make it to the finish line.  As the town of Galena came into view, Zack could not fight this overwhelming feeling of failure.  He had let his grandfather down.  He had let Mr. Zymuski down as well. 

“Hey kid, I hate to tell you, but three teams have already crossed the finish line.” One of the men from the checkpoint greeted him, “I’m Mr. Tanner from the checkpoint.  What is your name?” 

“I’m Zack Kaudjak.” He answered.

“Got it.” He checked it off on his clipboard. “Well, are you going to continue?”

“No sir.  I lost one of my dog team in the pass.” He shook his head.

“Happens.” Mr. Tanner put his clipboard down on the table next to him.  The small cabin was warm and comfortable, “Does your team need some grub?” 

“Yessir.” Zack nodded.

“Coming right up.” Mr. Tanner walked into the kitchen area where they stored the dog chow. 

“So you lost one of your dogs, eh?” A woman dressed like one of the men in overalls and flannel shirt, “My name is Marge.  I scratched this morning for the same reason.” 

“Sorry.” Zack bowed his head.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed about, kid.” She sat in one of the chairs at a table.  Zack noted she was just about his mother’s age, “Join me.” 

He sat down in the chair next to hers.

“What did you learn out there?” She smiled as she sipped her coffee.

“That it’s harder than I thought it’d be.” He confessed.

“There are mushers a lot more experienced than you, who still find this one of the most difficult things they’ve ever done.” She laughed. “Including me. I’ve never quit anything.  First time for everything.” 

“I’ve let everyone down.” He frowned. 

“No such a thing.” She shook her head, “When you’re out on the trail it’s just you, your team and God. No one else.”

She was right.  Zack knew it for a fact. When he was burying Lusa in the frozen solid ground in the pass, he said several prayers as he interred her in the earth.  He felt a hand on each shoulder.  When he looked up he saw his grandfather. “Tulok, I am so very proud of you.” He turned his head and saw Mr. Cyzewski smiling down at him, “You done good, da.”  

“Well, I have to get ready for a flight home to Wyoming.” She sighed. “I’ll give it a shot next year.  Whadda about you?” 

“We’ll be here.” He smiled.  He couldn’t help it.  She made him feel much better about not making it to Nome. “I’ve had a rough time on the trail. I’ll be wiser next time.”

“Me too.” She stood up, “Gotta go.” 

Mr. Tanner said so long to Marge as she walked out and then approached Zack, “Hey kid, we got a transport leaving to White Mountain in the morning.”

“Sounds great.” He nodded.

“Good, I’ll put you down for it.” He checked his clipboard as he walked away.

“Zack, you’re home.” His mother greeted him when he walked in the door, “Did you see that Aurora Borealis last night?”

“Yes, I did.” He put his bag down.

“I prayed for you every night.” She hugged him. 

“I know.” He choked back some tears as he felt the warmth, “I lost Lusa.” 

“I heard.” She held him out at arm’s length.

“I felt horrible about scratching.” He confessed.

“No one will blame you for what you did out there, no matter what.” She had tears in her eyes. “We are so proud of you.  So proud.” 

“”I love you mama.” He kissed her on the cheek, “I have to get my dogs settled in.” 

“You do what you have to, Zack.” She watched him as he walked out the door.  

“Be back in a shake.” He waved as she closed the door.  It was really cold out there. 

He skipped to the kennel in the back of his house.  He was greeted warmly by his team with tongues and tails wagging. 

January 07, 2024 21:33

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14 comments

Story Time
17:46 Jan 25, 2024

This has so many great homage moments to Jack London. Well done.

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00:21 Jan 28, 2024

Story Time, Jack London certainly comes to mind. Thank you.

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Philip Ebuluofor
18:54 Jan 20, 2024

You are serious. Congrats.

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00:21 Jan 28, 2024

Thank you, Phillip

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Philip Ebuluofor
19:01 Jan 28, 2024

Welcome.

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Joseph Ellis
10:49 Jan 20, 2024

So wholesome yet so sad. Great story George.

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00:22 Jan 28, 2024

Thank you, Joseph

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22:36 Jan 16, 2024

This was a story I put together from conversations I had with some dog sled mushers. Their stories are fascinating. George

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Marty B
05:33 Jan 15, 2024

Great story! I really liked the imagery of the cold, and the close relationship between Zack and his dogs. He has learned well from his teacher and his Grandfather about priorities. Good luck in the contest!

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22:33 Jan 16, 2024

Thank you Marty. This story was gathered from some of the mushers I talked to up in Eagle River.

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Patricia Casey
03:35 Jan 15, 2024

George, Excellent opening sentence with your descriptive setting made me interested in your story right away. You delivered all the way through to a satisfying ending. "as the summer slipped away to the equinox and the Fireweed began to go to seed." (I love your descriptions) " “They do appear to be well-cared for.” He squatted down to pet an affectionate malamute pup. When his runner hit some ice, it broke away from the sled. Applying the brake, he called out to his team, “Whoa." (these sentences seem to switch scenes from behind th...

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22:35 Jan 16, 2024

Patricia, I must apologize. Sometimes I write these stories in under two hours. This story flowed without much cognitive consideration. George

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Mary Bendickson
23:47 Jan 07, 2024

Blistering blizzards. Some name changes happen. Congrats on the shortlist very well deserved. Another story that made me feel the cold to my bones.

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02:46 Jan 14, 2024

Spell check plays havoc with foreign names, sorry. Was in a hurry as well

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