The Seventh Spirit -- Ramon Gandia 7-7-2006

{Chapter 1} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Lake Lucille, Wasilla, Alaska

"!" With the report of the starting gun, Rick and Klein are off. The adventure of a lifetime: a snowmachine race from Wasilla, through Nome and then Fairbanks. Both are confident that they have a chance at the $40,000 prize.

Rick is an older fellow, but still tough and experienced in Alaska and on Snowmachines, yet he has never been on this race. Klein is a younger, well built, and confident snowmachiner, but also a rookie in this race. They had both lived in Nome for years, met by chance and decided to enter this race to pit their mettle against other racers and the vast Alaskan outdoors.

Preparations had taken them months. Their snowmachines were new, light, powerful and fitted with the most compact of survival equipment. Good stuff, but not camping gear as such; mostly stuff to keep them alive on the trail until help came along. Race headquarters commanded search and rescue planes, and a group of ardent volunteers and supporters could be dispatched to help any team in distress. In 25 years of the Iron Sled Race, there had never been a fatality.

Thus, team 39 was off.

The skies over the Wasilla were leaden, snow threatening, but it wasn't here yet. The majestic Alaska Range, including 20,000 foot Denali, was not visible. Nevertheless the teams made good time out of Wasilla, to the first checkpoint at Skwentna.

"Enjoy it boys, these are the last flush toilets for the next 400 miles!" exclaimed Mitch, the Skwentna lodge operator manning the gas pumps there. "Not to worry" said Klein, "we didn't even have breakfast.... can't spare the time. Hear anything on the weather?"

"Not very good. Snowing in Puntilla, but not too hard. The trail is well marked. You have 11 teams ahead of you, and maybe 20-something behind you. Just be careful, and good luck."

With a pull of the handle, the machines start, and Klein and Rick are off to Puntilla Lake, their next checkpoint...

{Chapter 2} NOVEMBER 1927 -- South of McGrath, Alaska

The open cockpit biplane droned on, the vast Alaskan interior spread below. The pilot, Albert McGinnis was not very worried. He could see the mountains ahead, towards Anchorage, and there seemed to be clouds here and there, but for the most part the flight from Nome had been uneventful.

He wondered about his two passengers. Usually, passengers went out of Nome by ship, but in this case the money had been wired to him at McGinnis Airplane Company in Nome. Three thousand dollars!

In the front cockpit huddled his two passengers. And old eskimo grandma and a teenage girl, maybe 13 or so, although it was hard to tell with all the bundles of clothing they wore. The younger girl had lost her parents ten years earlier in the flu epidemic, but she had been lucky that grandma had survived and was able to take care of her. Only ... as it was discovered later, although she was a grandma, she was not this particular girl's grandma. The BIA had learned of this; it was mentioned in the right circles, and the wheels of government turned.

Sometime in the fall, the BIA agent in Nome had visited the woman and informed her that a white couple in Cleveland, Ohio was to adopt the girl. There was no appeal, its the way the BIA worked, and the grandma would not have done anything anyway because it was not in her culture to argue.

Thus, arrangements had been made... and Albert ended up with a wire sending him the money, and instructions. The girl, and escort, were to be flown forthwith to Seward, where the young girl was to be put on a ship and on to Seattle and Cleveland. The grandma would return to Nome with McGinnis on this or a later flight.

{Chapter 3} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Puntilla Lake, Alaska 8 pm

"Man, its getting cold!" cried Rick. "I'm getting another layer of clothing on!"

"Me too. I heard it is 30 below ahead in Nikolai and no telling at Rohn."

"Windy too, looks like. Do you think we ought to wait here at the Roadhouse?"

"No way," the ever impatient Klein said. "Some of the other racers already left, we are now in 6th place with those two we passed back there stuck on the steps."

"Yeah, man, that was something the way that one guy hit the tree. He's gonna have a time getting that Polaris moving again."

"He might, but by the time he gets parts and makes repairs, he will be too far back. I bet he scratches from the race."

"Well, that's his problem. Lets go, just don't hit a tree!"

"Next checkpoint, the Rohn cabin!"

And on they went, uphill to the infamous Puntilla Pass. The snow worsened, but our guys could still faintly see the trail left by the race leaders.

"I hope those leaders don't get lost, or we'll be lost with them" thought Rick, as he pressed on in the decreasing visibility. He could see maybe half a mile, and the breeze this side of the Alaska Range was starting to pick up.

Ahead, some trees appeared. "At last," thought Rick, "we are out of the plateau. It should get easier now." Sure enough, about the first tree they came to had the reflective trail marker, so he knew he was on course. He gave Klein the thumbs up.

Behind him by only 30 yards, Klein saw the thumbs up....and the marker. "Piece of cake." The trail started to descend the Hell Gate towards the Kuskowim River.

{Chapter 4} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Approaching the Alaska Range

The clouds were thicker than expected. But, yet, it did not look too bad. The thermometer on his cabane strut indicated +10 degrees, but Albert knew that at lower altitudes, the temperature would be much colder. A quick brush with a cloud instantly put a thin coat of rough ice on his flying wires; Albert immediately swerved to get out of the cloud. OK now, but I have to go a bit lower to avoid these clouds. "I wonder what the two women are thinking?"

"Gram, can you hear me?"

"Yes, paniiq, I hear you, but talk loud. This motor is noisy."

"Gram, I am getting cold. When do you think we get to the next landing field?"

"Not sure, child. Maybe two or three hours. Are you too cold?"

"No, I'll be okay, but pull up that bear hide up some more, ok?"

As the sun neared the horizon, the plane flew into the entrance of the mountains. Ahead, darker clouds threatened passage ...

{Chapter 5} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Iron Sled Race HQ, Wasilla, Alaska

"Hey Maureen, what do you hear?"

Maureen was an energetic young woman, and she was the executive director of the Iron Sled. A veteran of the race herself, she always fretted about the boys doing the race. "I hear ... I hear the weather is getting real bad. Rohn called in on the Sat phone over three hours ago saying the winds were high, and snow was blowing down on them. Temperature was -25. Then we lost the connection. You know how those darn Sat phones are when there is thick weather."

"Yeah. You'd think that they could do something, but its always like that," replied Walt, "As soon as the weather gets bad, and you really need that satellite phone, it doesn't work anymore." Walt was the Race Marshal. On his shoulders rested the responsibility of monitoring conditions and halting the race if warranted.

Maureen shifted in her seat, and said "Nikolai called. Their landline works fine. They say it is -20, but windy. Usually it doesn't get cold and windy at the same time. Do you think we ought to halt the race?"

"Well .... I don't know. Just about all the teams are out of Puntilla Lake. Rohn is cut off or I would hold things there. What do you think we declare a hold in Nikolai or McGrath? Those boys can make the run from Nikolai to McGrath in an hour, or maybe two if the weather is bad. Or they can use their rest time in Rohn or Nikolai if they want. I just hate to stop the race now. We should have issued a stop at Puntilla! Dang it!"

"Well, too late now. They should be ok once they get into the trees. They'll be out of the wind then."

"But not in the Kuskowim. That river course is wide and open to the wind. It will be terrible, and the river may have open water."

"It always does" said Maureen glumly.

{Chapter 6} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

Something was not right. There definetely was a vibration. He really could not say exactly when it had started, but now, looking at his watch, Albert thought, there was no doubt. Something was awry with the motor. Still, with 8 cylinders, if one was developed trouble, the Hisso V8 would run fine on 7. Maybe even 6. Probably just a spark plug. Yet ... "should I turn back to McGrath?," he thought.

It was still daylight, gloomy, but this time of the year the twilight was long. If he kept going he could be on the other side and land in Anchorage before it got pitch black. In McGrath.... well, it wouldn't be too dark, but still there was no real airfield there with lights. was better to continue.

In the front cockpit, Grandma Aahka was thoughtful. Why did this have to happen to her? She had got the letter from the BIA, and she had lit her tallow candles to the gods. She had prayed and meditated. But no anwer came to her. The girl, well, the girl thought it was great adventure. But she knew the girl was scared deep down. A new life, new parents, and a long journey laid ahead for her. And she did not know who to pray to. The teachers at the BIA Native school forbade the Eskimo kids to speak their language, and she was forced to pray to that fellow that died on a cross. How could he help if he couldn't even help himself?

"Gram, what is wrong?"

"What do you mean?"

"Can't you feel it? There is a shaking in the plane."

"Just the wind, child, just the wind."

"No Gram, not the wind. It didn't start all of a sudden. It came on real slow. You have to think about it to feel it. Its there. I know."

"You are right, Paniiq, I can feel it. Something is wrong. But we are in the mountains now, I don't know what the pilot is going to do."

Grandma thought about the pilot. He was not old. In fact, he was in his late 30's. A rough-hewn man, with wild blue eyes like only white folk can get. He was clean shaven, though; but she understood that you couldn't have a beard and wear a face mask and goggles in this cold weather. Back in Nome, most white men were bearded in the winter, but not the pilots.

"This plane is old" she thought. "Built during the Great War." It was old time machinery, with fabric covered wings, lots of wires, and a huge, black motor in front. Yet, for its ungainly appearance, the old bird was tough.

Back in the rear cockpit, Albert was apprehensive. "I hope is just a spark plug or two, " he thought. Just then, the first droplet of oil hit his windscreen.

{Chapter 7} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Hell Gate, Alaska. Middle of the Alaska Range

"Damn this friggiing weather" thought Klein. The path through the trees was easy to follow, but the snow swirled over them in a maelstrom. Trees swayed in the wind, visibility was scarcely enough to see Rick up ahead. "We have to stop and talk. There has to be open water around here somewhere,"

In the lead snowmachine, Rick was having similar thoughts. "I am slowing down, if I go into the river I am a dead duck." Just then, a darkness appeared ahead! Rick let go the throttle and slowed to a crawl. Ahead was the riverbank .... and open water! The trail they were following went right into the water.

Pulling alongside, Klein exclaimed "Do you think those boys went into the drink?"

"No, look carefully when the snow eases. You can see the trail on the other side. Probably this open water formed after they passed."

"Well, we got to find a way around it."

"OK, lets go to the right and see."

With that they were off following the edge of the bank. Above them the trees gyrated in the wind. Snow piled on. Soon they came to more open water blocking the way.

"Turn around" said Klein, "there is no way through here!"

Another half hour brought them back to the first spot. "Lets go left and see." Soon they came to the bank and followed it. The snow was getting deeper, but the machines still moved ok. "Man, if it gets deeper, these short tracked racing rigs are going to get stuck." Already the traces behind them were being obliterated by fresh snow. "At least ten below," thought Rick. This is definitely not a place to stop!"

{Chapter 8} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

"This....this is definitely not good." With dismay, Albert watched what started as a few splattered droplets of oil become a film. And now it seemed that there was some red coolant dye also hitting his windscreen. "A cylinder head must have cracked."

He peered over the side, and there was a valley below. If he could just make it to the main Kuskowim River, he'd turn around and follow it back to McGrath. But the clouds were in the way. "Engine trouble, weather closing in, darkness falling, and two females in front! Things could not possibly get worse!" he shouted to himself.

Only.... they did get worse.

{Chapter 9} FEBRUARY 2007 -- South Fork, Kuskowim River

"How long have we been since Puntilla?" Rick glanced at his fuel gage, it was below 1/4, and now, he was sure, they were not on the trail or anywhere close to it. For one thing, the valley looked narrower. When there was a let up in the wind, you could see both sides. And the river! The river! Dangerous! One time Klein went into the water, luckily only a couple of yards and they were able to get the machine back out without water damaging the engine.

Now, Rick was trailing Klein. Younger and with better eyes, Klein was threading his way forward. Out of the corner of his eye, Rick saw open water. Was that water going with them or against them? "Stop!" he yelled mentally, "I need to check that." But Klein forged ahead, only the red glow of his tail light showing in the dark. To lose sight of that light was unthinkable.

But also, the lower speed they were doing due to the snow and the visibility meant that their bodies were getting less of a workout. A shudder went through Rick. In fact, this was not the first shudder, and Rick now realized that he had been shaking for a while. "I'm getting cold. The weather is getting cold. We are low on gas...."

{Chapter 10} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Iron Sled HQ, Wasilla, Alaska

"What did they say?"

"OK, Rohn's phone worked for about 30 seconds," said Walt, "Billy said that 5 teams are in, and they are all going to hole up there due to weather. He did not say which teams. I told him to hold all teams there until they hear from us. Then we lost the connection again."

"Well, they are getting into Rohn, but I am getting worried about that weather and the river." After a thoughtful pause, Maureen continued: "We have 19 teams still out towards Rohn, and 5 turned around and are back in Puntilla. They say the weather is just absolutely terrible up there. Walt, make sure they stay put in Puntilla until we give them the go. We don't need any more boys heading for Rohn."

"You got it, Maureen. I am thinking the same way. Let me call Puntilla now and tell them to hold all racers there no matter which way they are going."

{Chapter 11} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

"Man, this is BAD." Fear gripped Albert as he watched a pilot's worse nightmare unfold. Thick oil poured along the fuselage, and the engine was clattering. Albert eased the throttle, but it just would not smooth out. And the plane was losing altitude. He lined up with a small valley, but there was nothing there but trees.

With a sudden, violent shudder, the motor stopped. Just dead, the propeller stilled, the blades up and down. The only noise that of the wind in the wires, its gentle wail the death song of the Plane. Nine years it had flown. With soldiers, then the mail in Montana, now in Alaska. But here, in the heart of Alaska, it was going to die. The plane knew it... and it wailed.

Ahead the valley was mostly obscured by clouds and the approaching twilight of the Alaskan night. Albert handled the controls with care, and looked for a place to set it down. There! "A small glade! If I can just get this baby in there maybe I can slow it down before I hit the trees." Albert had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. In France, during the war, he had come down several times. It was never pretty, but most times you could set it down just so and the wreck would not be too bad. That last time had busted his pelvis, and he spent the rest of the war in a German hospital. And then the French hospital. And then the British hospital. After a few months he was given a medical discharge from the Amerian military hospital. The Army Air Corps had no use for a broken man.

Six years in Kansas helping out in the family farm, but that was no life. He longed for the sky, and he had come to Alaska. Seeing an opportunity to fly out of Nome, he had bought the war surplus Hisso Standard biplane in Seattle and had it shipped to Nome by steamship.

Scarcely three months into his venture, he knew his investment was for naught. The trees were coming up, and that little glade looked so small, and maybe just out of reach. In fact, he was not going to reach it. He thought regretfully, "If I was only 100 feet higher, even just 50, I could...." but then, with a slam the plane went into the trees. All went black and dark and silent, and the last cry of the dying plane echoed in the lost valley.

{Chapter 12} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Iron Sled HQ, Wasilla, Alaska

"OK, what we have so far is one team unnacounted for. As of 6 pm one team is neither back in Puntilla, nor is it reported into Rohn."

"But we haven't heard from Rohn in several hours."

"That's right," said Walt, "Rohn is cut off. We only had that brief phone call saying they had 5 teams in. Phone into Puntilla is working ok, and they have a bunch of teams. Those, plus Rohn's add up one short. We know the team numbers from Puntilla .... they are on the blackboard there, but we do not know which ones are into Rohn."

An exasperated Maureen looked at the board, and glumly noted the weather. "And we probably won't know till later. Maybe they got in 5 minutes after they last called in."

"And maybe they didn't."

{Chapter 13} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

The girl moaned and whimpered, and her eyes rolled up in her head.

"OK, you folks, let me take a look."

Albert peeled back the girls parka, and underneath he could see a sharp object poking up inside her tights. It was laced with blood. A bone, no doubt. Using his knife, he cut away the tight and sure enough, a bone protruded through the skin. It oozed blood, but it did not appear arterial.

"Let me bandage this up, I don't want you to move." The girl and grandma had been thrown clear of the cockpit. The old lady came through it without injury, but the girl's leg was broken. Albert had remained in his seat, and had to climb out. The plane was totalled. What had once been a strong, proud, silver and yellow plane was now a tangled mass of sticks, cloth and metal pieces. The oil soaked motor lay hissing in the snow, the cracked cylinder head attesting to the misfortune.

Albert tore some fabric strips from the plane, and using a spare shirt as a pad, bound it against the girl's wound. That taken care of, he went about to see to a fire. Experienced in the cold, Albert soon had a good fire going. The old lady moved about collecting dry sticks, but the girl looked lethargic. He suspected that she had a head injury as well, but other than a bit of blood on her scalp, he couldn't really say.

"Where we at?" The old lady said.

"I don't know exactly. This valley is too small to be the Kuskowim, so it must be one of its feeders. Or maybe we are on the other side of the divide and this one doesn't drain into the South Fork."

The old lady, who had never been outside her home region, had no idea what he was talking about, but she was apprehensive because the pilot did not really seem know where he was either.

"See, I was paying too much attention to this engine trouble. I didn't really look to see where we were at. If the engine kept running, it wouldn't matter. I knew which way to go. There were lots of landmarks.... but from down here in this valley, I can't see them. In fact, I can't see much at all because of these damn trees!"

"Nilaqmiut, you do not have to curse the trees. They did not do this to you. They have their own life and troubles. We are here because we are here, and soon we will find out more if there is more to find out."

{Chapter 14} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Kuskowim River, Alaska

"I'm glad you stopped."

"Yeah ... should have stopped earlier." said Klein. "I just....just couldn't change what I was doing. I thought, just ahead, there had to be some sort of marker or trace."

"I haven't seen a thing. The last marker I saw was in the Hell Gate coming down the hill. I don't think the river itself is marked."

"How do you feel?"

"I am really cold, I've been shaking for a long time, we ought to stop and build a fire."

"To build a fire is going to take gas. We have very little. The wind is so strong, it probably won't work."

"What about the sleeping bags?" He then turned to his machine, and to his horror saw that the entire pack was missing! "Mine's missing! Do you have yours?"

"Yeah, mine's still here. But we can't both fit, and it's wet from the river dunk. Lets go a bit more and see if we see anything or find a better spot."

"OK, after you."

{Chapter 15} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

"How is the girl?"

"No good. She sleep now, but she no good."

"I've decided. I am going to walk downstream and try to find some help. There is no way we're gonna be found here. If we stay here we will starve. The girl is really hurt."

"We need to set bone. I know how. Need help."

Albert cried "Set a bone? That thing?!" pause.... "OK, you show me what to do."

The two of them went about the grisly task of setting the leg. First, and foremost, the fire had to be built up to provide warmth for the girl. Things had to be gathered, spruce splints fashioned .... but after several hours, the task was done. Above, the trees swayed to the ocassional breezes and bore witness to their efforts.

"Trees talk about us," said the elderly woman. "They say we good people, they say, they take care of us."

Albert just squatted in front of the fire and brooded.

{Chapter 16} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Kuskowim River, Alaska

Meanwhile, Rick was in trouble. Bad trouble. He looked at his gas gauge, and it said empty. They had turned around some time back, but now, they could not even see their old tracks. Fresh snow kept falling. And he was so cold.... so very cold.

Ahead, Klein was not faring much better. But, this definetely looked like some sort of trail. The trees were only 5 feet apart, but there was a definite path. He could tell that they had not been here before. His gas gauge also said empty, but he knew, he just KNEW they had to be close to the Rohn cabin.

Both men were suffering hypothermia. They had already lost a lot of feeling in the body. Because of the heated handlebars and arctic boots, their hands and feet were not getting frostbitten, but yet the body had lost a lot of heat. Their heads and faces were cold, but mostly their torsos and legs. They were shivering violently, yet they had this compulsion to go on ... and on ...

Klein slowed and stopped. Rick pulled alongside him. "What?"

"Light, up ahead, I think. Look, there!" he said, pointing.

"I don't see anything. Maybe its Rohn."

"Yeah, I don't see it now either, but it was there a minute ago. We gotta be close!"

And overhead, the swaying trees noted their passing.

{Chapter 17} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Iron Sled HQ, Wasilla, Alaska

Walt hung up the phone. "At last, got a short call from Rohn. They have teams 4, 14, 26, 33 and 34."

Maureen quickly checked the board ...."OK, that leaves number 39 unnacounted for.

"Dang it! It had to be those two rookies! They've never seen that trail."

"Do you think they know what they are doing?"

Walt paced about a bit, "I really don't know. The older guy has been in Alaska a long time, I know that, but he is kinda old for this sort of thing, you know." He looked at the board some more, then said "The younger one, Klein, he seemed more in touch with things. I just don't know. I just don't know. They'll probably be okay, they have bags and stuff."

"Yah, but you know, a sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere in a Blizzard like this, it may not work so well. What if they got wet in the river?"

{Chapter 18} NOVEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

"That's it, my mind is made up." Albert kept gathering his stuff, not that there was much. He had a pack, the women had brought almost nothing, only what they wore.

"Look," he continued, "its like this. I have a bit more pemmican left, and a bag of coffee grounds, and some matches. Other than the tools, that's it. The girl is in a bad way and she can't travel. If we stay here we are going to die. There is very little chance of rescue."

"Other planes?" asked the old woman.

"Well, out of Nome, I am the only one. The Wien boys are out of Fairbanks, but they only come to McGrath twice a month, if that. Out of Anchorage, I really have no idea, but this time of the year maybe two or three planes, and the guys may even be south for the winter. And where would they look? Could they even see us?"

"Dog teams?"

"You gotta be kidding. We are not on any trail. They could pass a quarter mile away and in these thick trees they would neither see us or hear us."

"So, what you mean to do?"

"I am going to walk downhill, along this valley. Maybe I'll find the main trail down there. If so, I can wait for a dog team to pass by. Or walk along the trail until I see a landmark. Maybe I can find the Rohn cabin. I will leave everything here with you. The gun, the knife, the axe, the rest of the tools. Even that great big extra parka I have. I swear to you I will be back! I swear!"

That said, Albert trod off. He had made some decent snowshoes out of pieces of the plane, and he had his aviator hat, goggles and mitts. He had a good chance, he knew. But he was not hopeful for the woman and girl. "Still," he thought, "they are just native women."

{Chapter 19} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Kuskowim River, Alaska

"What's wrong?" Rick pulled up.

"I'm out of gas," said Klein with desperation in his voice. "But I swear I saw that light."

"Well, my gas gage has been on empty for a while, but I also saw that light." Get in the back of my machine, we'll make it, you'll see!"

But a few hundred yards later, Rick's machine also stopped. Out of gas! They were in the middle of nowhere, in severe weather, and on foot!

"There, you see it?"

"Yes, I see it. Definetely a light. Lets walk, it can't be far." And they started trudging through the deepening snow in the Alaskan night.

After a while, both men stopped, and rested against a tree. "Lets take 5 here, and then we go on. How are you doing?"

"I've never been so cold in my life. I don't even want to get up. Why don't you go ahead to the cabin and get some help?"

"No way, Klein, get up and lets go. Its less than a mile, maybe less."

Both men arose, and guided by the light, walked up the narrow valley.

{Chapter 20} DECEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

"Whoa, whoa there you dogs, whoa!"

Hilmar Gunnersson was a tough swede. He had been doing mail runs for years, but this was not a busy trail. He only did it three times a winter, and mostly nothing remarkable happened. This was his first run of the winter. The day was bright, clear and warm. It was a crispy 10 below. Up ahead, a fur bundle laid on the trail.

Gunnersson halted his team, and lowered his anchor. He did not want his dogs to take off without him. It had happened to him once before, just a mile from McGrath. He had stopped to relieve himself, and the dogs just took off. They went straight into McGrath and he came in on foot an hour later. Everyone in the tavern laughed at him. At him! He was furious and mortified, this was not going to happen to him again. But today, this was different. There was definitely a man lying on the trail.

Mail runs were soon to be a thing of the past. These new airplanes, they would take over. Except on the runs no airline wanted. Gunnersson loved the outdoors, the cold, the open country, the lack of people. He'd find a way to stay on the mail runs..

Gunnersson approached. The man was laying face down. Gunnersson bent over him and shook him, but got no response. He rolled the man over, and immediately Gunnersson saw that he was dead. Not only dead, but dead for a while. The face was gray and white, and the body completely stiff and cold. The man was not too well dressed. He had some strips of fur over his boot, and unkempt whiskers and mustache. Stepping back, Gunnersson saw the aviator's fur cap with flaps, and the goggles. "Ah, flyboy from the looks of it."

Looking around, he could see only unbroken snow and the mute mountains around him. There were no footprints; whatever had happened here happened before the last blizzard and obliterated any prints. He just had this dead flyboy in the middle of the trail.

"By Thor, guess me pack him back to McGrath. Them guys can look for mailplane later." Gunnersson rolled the body on his sled, rearranged his load, pulled his anchor up and continued for McGrath, figuring on four or five days.

{Chapter 21} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Kuskowim River

"What is this place, Rick?"

"I don't know!"

As they walked towards the brightening light, the wind started to die down. Up ahed they could see a small glade, and a crude, skin covered cabin. Smoke rose from a vent hole in the roof. The glade was warm! Real warm!

Most of the snow was melted, and the men could see that a hot spring bubbled from the rocks, next to the cabin. Some green grass even showed. The warm water flowed into a tiny stream, and after a couple of hundred yards, the water disappeared under the snow.

"This is like an oasis in the winter."

"Yes, Klein, and lookie here, two girls coming out of the cabin."

Indeed, as the two men looked, two girls parted the skin door and came out. They were dressed mostly in skins, carefully made, and both girls were very pretty. Rick guessed them as teenagers. "What in tarnation are two girls doing in the middle of nowhere?" he remarked.

"Hi. You guys look cold, better come in and warm up," said the taller of the two. Rick and Klein followed them into the hut. Inside, all was shipshape. Wooden shelves held an assortment of belongings, a clock, a couple of books, A metal pot of some kind bubbled over a low fire, and a delicious aroma rose from it. Stew!

The girls produced some wood stumps, and the two weary men sat down. They took off their damp coats and mitts, and relaxed near the fire. The taller girl produced a tin can cup for each man, and laddled some stew into it.

"I am Sally" she said, "and this is Becky. We heard your machine coming up and then the motor stopped."

Klein, the more talkative of the two, said "Yes, we had two machines, one ran out of gas further downriver, and we rode double in the other one for a while. We saw your light, and when the second machine ran out of gas we walked here. It couldn't have been a mile."

"Lucky you did, that weather looks pretty bad out there. Where were you going?"

"We are in a snowmachine race, got lost, wet and ran out of gas. We'd be dead if it wasn't for you."

"Last winter, we also heard some machines, but far away. Never too close." Said Sally.

"Now, what is this place? What are you doing here?"

Becky looked at Sally and Klein, but said nothing. Sally answered, "We are sisters. Our plane crashed just over there a couple of years ago and we've been stuck here. This is a wonderful place. Its warm, hardly need a fire except to cook; and we have plenty to eat. The water from upstream is delicious."

"Two years!"

"Well, maybe two and a half. We've never been able to leave."

Becky, the quiet, shorter one had been paying close attention to Rick. "We have some extra skins and blankets, why don't you guys bed down and get some rest?"

After eating supper and some more idle talk, the two men made space on both sides of the fire, and lay down to sleep.

{Chapter 22} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Iron Sled HQ, Wasilla, Alaska

"I have Rohn on the phone, Walt!" Said Corky, Maureen's assistant. "Here, talk to the guy and I'll go get Maureen." Maureen was bunked down in a sofa. She had been up all night and all the next day.

She burst into the room and cried "What's new? Whats up?!"

Walt briefed her. "Rohn said that team number 39 never made it in. The weather cleared there about an hour ago and two of the teams went south to look for them. The other three teams are just waiting. Rohn's phone came alive a short time ago, and they called here."

"What about Puntilla?"

"Weather's clear there also, and calm. The teams there want to race."

"No! Its dangerous!"

"No Maureen, its not. The weather broke. McGrath and Anchorage are clear. We are clear. There is no real wind. The teams from Puntilla would help us search for #39. We should wait until those two teams out searching out of Rohn get back, and then we ought to resume the race."

Maureen went over to the counter, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Her hair was sticking straight out, Walt observed, from sleeping on it. "Sofas are hell on perms," he thought. Corky, on the corner of the room, looked on expectantly.

"OK, Walt. Resume the race one hour after the two teams are back into Rohn. Call Puntilla and Rohn. Let them know. Set it all up." And she sat down to her coffee, while Walt went on the phones to make the calls.

{Chapter 23} DECEMBER 1927 -- Alaska Mountain Range

"Gram, Gram, wake up! Wake up!" But Gram would not wake up. She had passed away during the night. The girl, at the end of her endurance, had outlasted her even in spite of her injury. Her leg looked bad. Most of the time she had been in a feverish torpor. She was cold, and there was nothing to eat. The last of the food had been eaten several days ago. It had gotten real cold now, and the fire was out. Firewood had run out, and she could not get up to gather any more. Even most of the fabric covering of the plane had been burnt, and its bare frame lay crumpled next to her.

"Gram, please wake up! We need firewood," Paniq sobbed.

The girl thought about the things that Gram had told her. About the spirits of the land, and the forest, and the rivers. She head told Paniiq about the Sun and the Moon. And the Raven, the wisest of them all. "Paniiq, the Moon is the spirit of Women. She comes to you once a month and she watches over you the rest of the time."

She had told Paniiq how the Sun and the Raven were playing one day, and got bored, and decided to create the world as a playground! "What you see around you, the creeks, the valleys, the Sun, the moon, the Ravens, the trees, the alders.... those are spirits that came to the playground..."

But now, Gram was silent, and Paniiq was so tired. And with those thoughts, she also went to sleep.

{Chapter 24} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Iron Sled HQ, Wasilla, AK

"OK, lets summarize this for you press and the search and rescue people." Walt looked around the room noting the people in attendance.

"Two days ago an intense storm broke upon the Alaska Range, and hit our racers square. Five teams made it from Puntilla to Rohn, and of the remaining teams, all but one returned to Puntilla where they weathered out the storm. One team is unaccounted for, and as of this moment, has not been located. The race resumed earlier this afternoon at 2 PM. The teams that left Puntilla have checked thru Rohn, and none reported seeing any sign of the two missing snowmachiners, team 39, or any tracks. They say the snow is deep and fresh, and there are lots of treacherous places on the river."

"What can you tell us about the missing team?"

"Team 39 is two guys from Nome. Rick is older, and Klein is in his 30's. Both had a full pack of emergency gear and good machines. We figure they are holed up somewhere near the trail, and we hope to find them soon. They may be out of gas ... their machines got clogged with blowing snow ... any number of things. There are helicopters on the way to look for them, and 3 of our planes are looking as we speak."

{Chapter 25} FEBRUARY 2007 -- Kuskowim River, AK

Holding hands, Becky and Rick walked along the creek. They sat down on some rocks. Rick felt young and vigorous. The previous evening, the Stew had been magical. When he woke up up the next morning, he felt much better. He also noticed that Becky followed him with her eyes wherever he went.

"Becky, why don't we just walk out of here?"

"You can't Rick, there is no way out."

"Aw, come on Becky, there's always a way out."

"No, we have guardian spirits here. They won't let you out."

"What do you mean?"

"Look upriver; you can go for a few miles and you'll come to this glacial wall." Becky nodded in the upstream direction. "There is a spirit there guarding it. If you venture on the glacier, the winds will blow hard and you can't go on."

"Well, I wouldn't want to go that way anyway. I'd go downriver."

"There is no way out. In the winter, there's open water and freezing winds. We've tried, but on foot you can't go out. The spirit there, the spirit of the east there guards that way. In the summer, there is an impenetrable bog, with sticky quicksand, mud and more."

Rick pointed at the mountains.

"To the north and south are the spirits of the mountain. They have made the rock walls unclimbable. We tried, we got almost all the way up a few times, but then couldn't quite get to the top. Too steep, and the winds could knock you down."

Rick was unconvinced, but he did not want to argue with this serious girl. Of course he could go out - and he would do so downstream. The weather was perfect, sunny, clear and warm. While he was attracted to Becky, he needed to get out of here and on the main trail. He knew the race crews would be out searching for them. He had even heard planes overhead, but what with the dense trees had never actually seen them. Still, they were out there flying.

Getting back to the hut, he addressed the group: "Look, I intend to leave first thing in the morning. This weather's nice, and I am sure we can make it to the valley entrance. We should come across the search teams then."

"Rick, I am with you. What about you girls?"

Sally, as usual the first to talk, said, "I notice you'd been yearning to go. I don't think you'll make it. Don't push it ... come back here before you freeze to death. Becky and I will be waiting."

"Well, if we make it, we'll bring help. Or a helicopter. And then we'll ALL get out of here."

Next morning, at sunrise, the two men were off. The weather looked fine as they left, but as soon as they were outside the glade, the temperature plummeted. "It's that hot spring," remarked Klein, "it keeps that glade warm. It's sure a lot colder than I thought it'd be."

"Well, in two or three miles we should be on the main trail." But a breeze was his only answer.

Soon, the two men encountered wind. It blew between the trees and pitted their faces with snow. The trees overhead swayed to the wind, and the gale moaned like a thousand wolves. The men slowed down. "How far you think we've come?" asked Rick.

"I've been counting paces," said Klein, "maybe a mile since we left the girls."

"Less than a mile, I think. We don't take big steps in this snow."

"What do you think?"

"My face is freezing, and for some reason, the trees here don't seem to protect us from the wind."

"I agree, but lets go a bit more. We should see our machines soon."

So the two men, Rick and Klein, faced the gale and marched off down the valley towards the rising sun.

{Chapter 26} JANUARY 1928 -- McGrath, Alaska

"That body is definitely Albert McGinnis." The U.S. Army sergeant that spoke was lean and tall like a stringbean. "From the looks of his whiskers, I'd say he lived about two weeks after the crash."

"Yeah, I agree. He was clean shaven when he went through here and gassed up. I spoke to him. Those two gals, what do you think?"

"They are goners. Its been two months now. We have no idea where they are. Figure a two week walking radius from where Gunnersson found the body. Guy like that, strong, on snowshoes, it could be fifty or sixty miles."

"Probably less," exclaimed the storekeeper, "but still a lot of country. What's the Army going to do?"

"This is it. I came to identify and claim the body. Don't bury it, we will have it sent out on the first spring boat. St. Michael, then Kansas. His family wired us and wants to bury him on the family farm."

"You mean you are not going to search?"

"Nah, not for two native women. But tell the trappers and the rest to keep their eyes open for anything. That plane could be anywhere in those mountains."

{Chapter 27} MARCH 2007 -- Kuskowim River, AK

"Tell me more, Becky."

"Well, like I told you. We have guardian spirits. They protect us, but they also won't let us leave."


"Four spirits guard us. In the west with the glacier, in the north and the south with cliffs, and downriver to the east, that strong spirit with his winds and bog."

"I know about that one. We almost walked too far, lucky we turned back when we did, we almost died out there. But you know, its funny, but when we turned our back to the wind, and started coming back here, it didn't seem to be bad at all. The weather seemed to ease up at every step. Even so, we almost croaked on that path."

"The same thing happened to Sally and Me, every time we tried. We even tried in the summer, and couldn't make it. The winds come out of nowhere, or the mud is too deep. Even bears show up and block us!"

"So you are prisoners here."

"No, we don't feel like prisoners. We feel protected. We have the spirit of the Sky over us. The sun gives us warmth, the moon goddess watches over us at night, and the Northern Lights dance for us. And below us, the spirit of the green earth provides for us. He provides us with hot water, berries, and a variety of animals we can eat, things. I feel, Rick, that those spirits watch over us and protect us from what which is out there; that which is harmful and evil."

At this, Rick put his arm around Becky and kissed her. She responded to him, and kissed him back. Rick wondered how a teenager like Becky could like an older guy like him, but then.... he didn't feel old. He hadn't told Becky or Sally how old he was, and although there were no mirrors anywhere to check, he didn't FEEL old. His skin was smoother than before. He felt young and strong again, and Becky was a smart, lovely and interesting girl.

That night, when they were eating, Klein announced, "Sally and I want to build a second hut."

And so they did. In a few days it was done, and the four of them got gathered in the center of the glade and conversed around the fire. Then Sally stood up and said, "We are here together because the spirits have willed it so. The guardian spirits guard us from outside things ... from corruption and harm, and provide our sustenance. They have led Rick and Klein here, to be with me and Becky We longed companionship, and we have it. We longed for Love, and we also have it. We are fulfilled."

Rick and Becky also stood up, then did Klein. They joined hands. Becky, the quiet one, spoke out "We are joined by Love, and we call on the Seventh Spirit, the spirit of within, that which is within us and within this place, to bind us together in Love and Joy, forever it be."

"So be it." Exclaimed Rick.

"So be it," Exclaimed Klein

"So be it," Exclaimed the girls in unison.

{Chapter 28} AUGUST 2007 -- Alaska State Troopers HQ, McGrath, Alaska

Report, Dated August 27, 2007

The search for the two lost snowmachiners, Rick Blevins, and Klein Homestead ended today with the discovery of one of the snowmachines on a narrow ravine, on an unnamed creek emptying into the South Fork of the Kuskowin River, about 10 miles from the Rohn cabin.

The second snowmachine was found about a quarter mile farther up the ravine. Both machines had run out of fuel.

Just a bit further, the skeletonized remains of the men were found at the base of a tree, where they had been somewhat scattered by small animals. The remains were identified by their clothing, bearing bib number 39. It is surmised that the two men rode piggyback to the site of the second machine, tried to walk and rested there where they fell asleep and froze to death.

As an unanticipated coincidence, when the search team walked a short distance upstream, they found a small glade. At the head of this glade, visible only from the ground but not from the air, were the remnants of an old biplane, and two further skeletons, one with a broken leg. It is almost certain that this was a plane that dissapeared in 1927 while taking two native women from Nome to Seward. While the pilot's body was found some miles from the crash site in 1927, the plane itself and the fate of the two women was unknown until now.

Signed, Sgt. Ronald A. Higgins, Alaska State Troopers, McGrath, Alaska Post.

[Author's note] There is a race, and all geographic places are real, except for the mysterious valley and glade. Who knows about that one! The aircraft, snowmachines and technology exist today. Artistic license was taken with the story. The main characters are fictitious. The first Alaskan air fatality did not occur until the next year, 1928. The extremely strong and durable Hisso Standard biplane was a staple of the early days of Alaskan aviation. The trail described was used by dog mushing mail carriers until 1926.

The Author is a retired Alaskan bush pilot with over 14,000 hours, virtually all in Alaska.

Copyright © 2005, Ramon Gandia