Russel Susskit lives in Alaska at a time when the old ways of the Eskimo have almost disappeared. His mother ran away with a white trapper and has been gone for many years. Russel now lives alone with his father, who embraces many of the influences from "Outside," including snowmachines, cigarettes, and the white man's religion. Russel has just turned fourteen and has been wrestling with a deep sense of discontent within himself. Overwhelmed, but unable to articulate his feelings, he tells his father that something is bothering him. His father, understanding, suggests that he go to Oogruk for help.
Oogruk is "old and sometimes wise and he also tells good stories." He is virtually the only one in the village who has not given up the old ways, and he owns the only dog team in the vicinity, which he keeps "for memories." Oogruk has a song, which very few people have anymore. Songs are "private and belong only to the person who own[s] them," and, unlike words, they are always true. Russel hopes that Oogruk will help him find his song.
Oogruk resides in a small, box-like government unit like everyone else in the village, but inside his house, he continues to live in the old way. He does not have electricity; he keeps animal skins on the floor and hunting implements on the walls. When Russel arrives, he finds the old man, clothed only in a breechclout, sitting on the floor in a room filled with smoke from a seal-oil lamp. Oogruk is tanned and white-haired, and he is blind. Russel has brought Oogruk a gift of deer eyes, and as the old man prepares and eats the delicacy, he talks about the whales, quietly lamenting that they are gone now, perhaps because of the proliferation of snowmachines, or perhaps because no one has songs anymore.
Russel has long felt that there is "something wrong with the way things [are] now," and he is surprised when Oogruk discerns immediately that this is the source of his discontent. Oogruk tells Russel about the way things were before the missionaries came, when the Eskimos lived in harmony with the land and all that was in it. He says that when the people gave up their songs, they gave up "[their] insides as well." After thinking for a while, Oogruk clarifies this concept by adding, "You don't get songs, you are a song." Russel decides that, more than anything, he wants to be a song, and Oogruk will do his best to show him the way.
Oogruk talks long into the night about the past and the land. As he listens, Russel falls into a trance-like state, then drifts into sleep. When he awakens, Russel knows what he must do. From the walls of Oogruk's house, he takes lances and bows and arrows. After dressing himself in the hardy, animal-skin clothing also found in the house, Russel goes outside and prepares the dogs, who are secured by chains. He finds that he instinctively knows what to do to gain the respect of the lead dog, demonstrating knowledge that he can only have learned from Oogruk while under the trance. Russel hitches the animals to the sled and takes them on a practice run. Although the going is rough at first, by the end of the run, he experiences the exhilarating feeling of being alive and one with the dogs, the sled, and the ice and snow.
Russel stays with Oogruk for many nights and days. The old man teaches him how to direct his weapon into "the center of the center" of his prey, and tells him that when he kills an animal, he must express gratitude that it has allowed itself to be taken by leaving the head with food or fresh water in the mouth. With the dogs and sled, Russel goes hunting, catching first a ptarmigan, then a caribou, in the old way, using the bow and arrows. As he rides the sled back after killing and butchering the caribou, Russel feels his being "go out to the dogs, out ahead." Russel thinks this might be the beginning of his song.
Four days later, Russel takes the team again. This time he goes out to hunt seals. As he is traveling over the ice, a storm hits, but Russel takes shelter in the small space under an ice ledge, and, safely buried, rides out the storm with the dogs "in the same way dogs and wolves have ridden storms out forever." When the inclement weather abates, Russel hitches up the dogs and pushes them to move on in what he believes is their original direction, even though the animals are reluctant. Indeed, the storm has changed the appearance of the icy landscape, and Russel soon realizes that they are lost. Forcing himself to remain calm, he evaluates his options, and the idea comes to him that he can trust the instincts of the dogs. Russel allows his team to run in the direction they want to go, and they bring him home.
Understanding that he is "working toward something in his mind," Russel distances himself from life in the village and moves in with Oogruk. He continues to hunt and learns more about the old ways from the sage. Finally, Russel decides it is time for him to go out on the ice again to hunt seals. Oogruk agrees and, surprisingly, says he will go too. Russel prepares the sled and settles the old man comfortably in it. When the two reach the edge of the ice, Oogruk says that they must talk one more time, and then it will be time for the sage to die. He urges Russel to leave with the dogs and sled to "run long and find [him]self]." It is in this way that the boy will become a man.
Russel protests, but Oogruk is immovable. He says calmly but authoritatively, "An old man knows when death is coming," and insists that Russel leave him there, alone on the ice. There is such strength in his command that Russel has no choice but to go. He travels with the dogs for many miles, but ultimately returns to find Oogruk...