“Back to the Shirley Ann


Early the next morning there was a knock. The elder, Tukkuttok, opened the door, it was Cheryl. He motioned her in. She looked at the boys, “Mark’s going be OK, he will have to be in the hospital for a few weeks, but he’ll be fine.” She walked straight to Ben, wrapped her arms around him, gave him a bear hug, then kissed him on the cheek. She did the same with Willy and Jold. “You boys saved my husband’s life. He would have died without your help.”

“We’re glad he’s okay,” said Willy. “Yeah,” said Jold.   

“So, when do you want to head back to the cabin?” asked Ben. “I’m a little worried about Tali, Kate and your girls.”

“Me too, so if you’re ready, I would like to leave immediately.”

“We’re ready,” said Ben. “Let’s go”

Cheryl turned to Tukkuttok and spoke to him in his native language. They talked for a couple of minutes, which included lots of hand gestures. Then he slipped his polar bear fur coat over his head. No zippers, no buttons, a fur lined hood and it went all the way to his knees. How warm is that? He left the cabin like a man on a mission.

Cheryl turned to the boys. “Tukkuttok wants to help us get back to my cabin. He went to get his best musher, Nukilik, and the fastest dog team in the village. He says they’ll have us back to the cabin in time for lunch. For them, twelve miles isn’t much more than a warmup run.”

Thirty minutes later barking dogs could be heard coming down the road. Ben opened the door as a super long sled pulled up. He counted aloud, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten dogs. Wow!” Tukkuttok, whose name means he who is generous, climbed off the sled and walked back in the cabin. “Qamutik, Qimmiq here, you go now,” he said.

“What did he say?” asked Ben.

“He said the sled and dogs are ready; we should go.”

The boys didn’t hesitate, they grabbed their backpacks and coats and made for the door. They each acknowledged the elder with a thank you and handshake as they walked out and waited by the sled. Cheryl was like family to the natives and said goodbye the traditional way by touching her nose to Tukkuttok’s cheek. He returned the gesture.

They piled on, kind of by size. Ben, then Willy, Jold was next and Cheryl up front. Nukilik stood on the runners in back, gripped the bar tight, then gave the command. Ten powerful, well-trained dogs are a force to be reckoned with. Pulling the sled with five aboard didn’t strain them at all. Cheryl’s dog team, at its best, moved in slow motion compared to the pace this team was setting.

Nukilik was an awesome musher. He knew exactly when and how to shift his weight. Around sharp corners he stepped to the inside runner and leaned, helping the sled to turn more easily. “Yee haw!” said Jold. “This is awesome,” said Willy. Ben smiled, but his thoughts were on Tali and Kate. And they still had to cross the river. He was hoping Nukilik had an idea that didn’t include swimming in that ice-cold water again.

When they reached the place they had crossed the day before, Nukilik surprised them. He kept the dogs running parallel to the river. About a mile further the river slowed and widened to over one hundred feet across. He commanded the dogs to stop there. To Cheryl and the boys, it appeared uncrossable, but Nukilik knew something they did not. Like an underwater bridge, the gravel was only about six inches beneath the ripples.

He motioned for everyone to get off the sled. Then he turned the dogs directly at the river and gave the command to go. He wasn’t riding on the runners this time. He ran between them splashing wildly as he ran. The dogs fearlessly charged across like they did this every day; maybe they did. When he got to the other side, he waved for the gang to follow.

“Wish I would have known about this yesterday,” said Cheryl.

“Me too,” said Ben.

The river crossing marked the halfway point. With this awesome team the cabin came into view two hours later. The boys started shouting, “Tali, Kate, we’re coming!”

The door on the cabin flew open as the sled came to a stop. Bandit sprinted for Jold, jumped in his lap and licked his face. April and Autumn ran for their mom, landing on top of her before she could get off the sled. The gang ended up in one huge pile, laughing and crying all at the same time. Nukilik wasn’t sure what to think. Tali hugged Ben and whispered in ear, “I was so scared, don’t ever leave me again.” “I won’t,” he said.

That’s when the boys noticed the bear. “Is it dead?” asked Jold. “Absolutely,” said Kate. They walked over to take a closer look at the giant carnivore. Bandit sniffed at his blood-soaked nose and teeth. “What happened?” asked Willy. “Come in the cabin, we’ll tell you the story.” When Kate finished, they all just looked at each other. Cheryl wrapped one arm around Kate and the other around Tali. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for keeping my girls safe. I’ll never forget what you have done for us. And thank you boys for getting me to the village. All I can say is that you all must have been sent by God.”

Nukilik stood to his feet, “I go back now, take bear with me,” he said.

Kate was first to say it. “We need to get back to the Shirley Ann, can he take us?”

“You mean the plane, right?” asked Cheryl. “Yeah.” She turned to Nukilik and spoke in his language. After a short conversation he shook his head yes. He knew the land and rivers like the back of his hand, so when Cheryl described the location of the plane, he agreed to take the gang there. But they would have to leave now. Nukilik wasn’t waiting till morning, he was heading back to the village with the bear tonight. Even if the meat was spoiled, the villagers would make good use of the carcass and hide.

After some warm goodbyes and long hugs, the gang climbed aboard the sled. “Thank you,” said Cheryl as they pulled away, Bandit running along beside. “No problem,” hollered Kate, “we love your girls.” Thirty minutes later they were standing next to the Shirley Ann. It felt like coming home.

“Tahvowvooteet,” said Nukilik. The gang didn’t know it, but that meant goodbye in the Intuit language when speaking to more than one person. They just smiled and waved as sled disappeared in the trees. Aside from the rippling water, all was quiet.

“Let’s hop in the Shirley Ann, I’m hungry,” said Jold. “Me too,” said Willy. Willy opened the hatch and they climbed in. “Bottled water and energy bars for everyone,” said Kate. They ate and talked about their adventure for hours. “This wasn’t a dream, was it?” asked Tali. “Nope, this was real,” said Ben.

They were ready for a good night sleep. And there was something about the Shirley Ann that always made them feel safe. Ben stepped to the door, closed it, and pushed the locking handle down. He was headed back to his seat when they heard and felt the  left engine start, then the right. Willy and Ben rushed to the cockpit and jumped in the seats. Jold, Tali and Kate squished in up front. “What’s happening, it’s too dark to fly,” said Willy. “Yeah, well, I don’t think the Shirley Ann knows that,” said Ben.

The landing light on the right wing switched on. The Shirley Ann powered up her right engine, held the left wheel brake and pivoted around until her nose pointed back down the gravel bar. Flaps down, throttles full forward, they were rolling, like it or not. Within a few seconds they were flying. Gear and flaps up. The Shirley Ann climbed fast in the perfectly smooth air as the mountains disappeared below. A moonlit night, the sky filled with stars and no city lights to dim their beauty. The most beautiful shades of green and blue light were flashing across the northern skies above the horizon. “I think that’s the Aurora Borealis, you know, the Northern Lights,” said Willy. “I’ve read about them.”

“You’re right,” said Kate. “They look exactly like that on TV.”

“I have a question,” said Tali. “This is all very beautiful, but where do you think we’re going?” As if any of them would know.

“I think she’s taking us home, the compass says we’re headed south, and that’s the way home.”  said Ben. “He’s right,” said Willy. “I guess we’ll know soon.”

Jold, Tali and Kate went back to their seats. One by one, despite their best efforts, all five fell asleep. The early morning sun flickering through the windshield woke them. Strangely, the windows were not iced over this time. These mountains and valleys looked familiar, but they had not seen them from the air before. The Shirley Ann was descending toward a runway. Flaps down, gear down, throttles back, she flared her nose at just the right moment, touching down without the slightest bounce.

“We’re back in Buena Vista,” yelled Ben. The Shirley Ann taxied to the hangar, swung around, and shut her engines down. This had never happened before. Kate opened the door and stepped out. There was the hangar with sliding doors wide open and there was Grandpa Jimmy’s old truck sitting out front. But wait, the truck didn’t look old at all. In fact, it looked brand new.

The other four climbed out and stood on the tarmac next to Kate staring at the hangar. “I guess Grandpa Jimmy must have painted the hangar while we were gone,” said Jold. “Looks nice, huh?”

“Yeah, too nice,” said Ben. Then a skinny young man in a flight suit came walking out of the hangar. “Howdy, how was Alaska?”

“Who are you and what makes you think we were in Alaska?” asked Ben.

He chuckled, “Think, Ben, you know who I am.”

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