Caught Napping at the Finish Line

ON winter mornings in the far north where I once lived I sometimes went down to the lake to watch the sunrise. Winter sunrises were always so spectacular; there was never anything subtle or hesitant about them. They burst upon the world in such a glory of fire and ice I sometimes could never quite believe there had ever been any darkness there at all.

Out across the bay I could see the Indian village sitting in the sun. Sometimes I could hear a dog barking over there or the sound of an ax thudding, simple sounds that always made me feel a little sad. There was something so cloistered about them. But sometimes on Sundays I could hear a church bell chiming, a bright sound coming so unexpectedly across the ice.

In March, our town held a carnival out there on the bay. It was three days of fun and games, and the people from the village came over with their dogs - thin, restless creatures with white eyes and yelping barks. There were other dog teams, too, some from as far away as Alaska.

Our race was not as famous as the Alaska races but it was a lot of fun and the prize money wasn't bad. A man called Joe from across the bay usually won it.

The course was 50 miles, starting down on the ice road and running out past the Indian village and then cutting across the lake and coming back down our side of the bay. It was run in three-day heats, Friday until Sunday, and the winner was the team that finished the three days with the shortest cumulative times.

One year Joe brought his nephew, Richard, over for the race. Richard was 16 and he had a team of young dogs that he was training. His lead dog, Lucy, was big with gray markings and she held her tail curled like a plume. Richard's sister had crocheted red pompoms for her harness.

Lucy impressed everyone on that morning. She was so big and there was so much quiet energy about her. When the gun went off she took the team out of the chutes in a straight line without so much as a turn of the head. It was as neat a start to a race as anyone could ever hope to see.

A little ripple ran around the crowd. ``Nice dog.... handles good ... be a good lead dog someday!'' A little balloon of delight went up and hovered above us all.

I was in the supermarket later when a man came in terribly excited and announced that Richard had just crossed the finish line, clipping 20 minutes off Joe's record time of last year. Wasn't that marvelous for a 16-year-old kid? He had a grin on his face that ran from ear to ear.

The second day Richard did it again and the little balloon grew bigger and bigger until it stretched across the bay.

Now by the morning of the third day there was not a soul left in town. Everyone was down on the ice, happy, expectant; it was amazing what that boy had done to us all. The mayor was there and the dentist, the town clerk, the city engineer, the safety inspector from the mine over the hill, and the entire population from across the bay. Even Richard's great-aunt, a tiny woman who seldom left the village anymore, had come across on the back of a snowmobile.

Could there ever have been a prettier scene than the one that lay before me then? The skies filled with snow, the dogs sprinting out of the chutes, the carnival tents with their colored lights, the people in their bright parkas. Could there ever have been more joy, more hope, more sharing? The air was as light as thistledown.

And then Richard fell asleep.

It happened late in the afternoon, just two miles from the finish line. He was standing on the runners, leaning on the drivebar and he was very tired. The new snow had made the running slow and it had been push and shove all day to keep the team on the trail.

But now Richard was home free. He had come through the last checkpoint with a comfortable lead and Joe was somewhere back in the swirling snow and up ahead Lucy was running well. In the last half hour she had settled down to an easy, confident gait.

It was getting dark. The snow was coming down in soft flakes, as big as summer moths. Although it was heavy snow and not much good for running, it made him happy. Pretty soon now the lake ice would break and go rushing out to sea. Then the land would turn all muddy and flowers would bloom out of the rocks and the days would get so long they would stretch from one end to the other. He would go out fishing. He would take his dogs out in the canoe and catch fish for them.

He put his head down for a second, and the next thing he knew he was upended in the snow.

He chased the dogs for perhaps half a mile and then, seeing the gap widen and knowing that Lucy would not now stop until she had run all the way home, he sat down exhausted in the snow. Joe found him there a few minutes later.

Richard couldn't understand why he couldn't still win. To fall off a sled was no shame. People did it all the time. Sometimes you tied yourself on but if you hadn't remembered to do that, well, then you just had to walk back or wait until someone found you. The dogs always made it home.

So how come he couldn't win? He had led for three days, hadn't he? And his dogs had come back in on their own, hadn't they? And so what if he had hitched a ride home? You'd be silly not to do that if your dogs had dumped you in the snow.

Something had gone wrong. We had been expecting a victory and now all we had was disappointment and a confusion over priorities. Nobody knew what to say. The silence was awkward.

One man tried to rationalize; Richard would take some good out of it, he said. He would go home and learn the all-important lesson of the finish line and come back next year and be all the stronger for it.

But I wondered. Is that what we really wanted? Is that what it all came down to up here in this unending land of ice and snow, the narrow margin of a finish line?

Joe helped Richard feed his dogs and put them back in the truck. Then he told him to get in the front, he would drive him back home. As they went down the ice road together, Richard's great-aunt watched them go. Then she turned to me with a sad half-smile and said something in a language which I presume she thought I would understand.

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