Nanook is known to disappear for days at a time in the wilderness. He's got a good reason.
- Posted on Mar 20, 2019
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Amelia Milling, a twenty-one-year-old college student from Tennessee, was on Day Two of a three-day solo hike of the Crow Pass Trail, in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. Following part of the historic Iditarod route, it runs 23 miles from the town of Girdwood to the Eagle River Nature Center. To finish the trail, she would have to negotiate snowy slopes, scree and mine ruins, as well as ford the Eagle River.
Amelia is deaf, and her mother worried about her hiking alone in such rugged terrain. To appease her, Amelia had stuffed a SPOT, an emergency satellite location and communication device, into her backpack. Trekking poles had helped her make the uphill climb to Crow Pass on Day One of her hike. Surprised by the amount of snow, even in summer, she camped overnight.
Tuesday was bright and clear. Amelia could see the lush green Eagle River Valley below. She packed up her tent and began her descent. She leaned on one of her trekking poles, and it snapped. Amelia crashed to the ground and tumbled down the snow-covered mountainside.
Tuesday evening, and I had no idea where my dog was. We live in Girdwood, a small ski community in the heart of Alaska backcountry. Ours is the last house on a dirt road, at the foot of Crow Pass. This wasn’t the first time that Nookie, my seven-year-old husky mix, had wandered off. Still, I couldn’t help worrying.
Dogs have been part of my life since I grew up in Waldoboro, Maine. My wife, Jennifer, and I initially moved to Alaska 20 years ago, then back to Maine so she could to go to school to be a nurse practitioner. When she got a job at the health clinic in Girdwood, we headed back to Alaska. The trip was made more stressful because both our dogs died of old age.
Our family, especially our young kids, Sofie and Alden, needed another dog to love. One day, Jennifer spotted an animal rescue group holding an adoption event in a Walmart parking lot. She didn’t hesitate. “I’ll take this one,” she said, scooping up the smallest puppy.
The pup was snowy white. We named him Nanook, Inuktitut for “polar bear.” The kids took to calling him Nookie. What a roly-poly ball of fluff he was! Whether snuggling on our laps, tripping over his own paws or running away with a stolen sock, he made us smile a hundred times a day.
Now he’d disappeared. Again.
Faster and faster Amelia tumbled. Unable to stop herself, she slammed into a boulder rising like a granite monster out of the snow, well off the trail. The impact flung her sideways and sent her downhill another 300 to 400 feet.
Finally she slid to a stop. Amelia scanned the wilderness for another hiker, anyone who might help. But there was no one. No one except a white dog who seemed to appear out of thin air. He wagged his tail. No sign of his owner, though.
Battered and bruised, Amelia managed to set up her tent and crawl inside. The dog lay down outside, and she shared some beef jerky with him. She fell asleep thinking he would soon be on his way.
From his spot on our porch, Nookie can see hikers drive by and park at the Crow Pass trailhead. Our first summer in Girdwood, he disappeared five times. I nailed “missing dog” signs to evergreen trees and sent a notice to our local radio station. Each time, it turned out he’d met up with hikers and walked the length of the trail, arriving safely at the other end, at the Eagle River Nature Center. So every time he went missing after that summer, I figured he was following some hikers.
“Why not just keep him tied?” people asked. I do tie him all winter, because of the danger of avalanches on the trail. But Nookie is like me—he lives for adventure—so we let him run free in the summer. I did put a tag on his collar. It reads “Crow Pass Guide” and includes my cell phone number and Jennifer’s. People called, saying they’d run into him. Sometimes they told me how they had gotten lost and Nookie led them back to the trail. Apparently, our dog wasn’t just playing on his long treks in the mountains. He was helping people.
I would also hike up to Crow Pass and ask people if they’d seen a white husky. “Yeah,” they’d say. “I saw him yesterday heading north.” Or “He was hanging with a group of hikers by the Eagle River crossing.” I would call the nature center and ask them to let me know when he arrived. Then I’d hop in my truck and pick him up. That’s a 126-mile round trip!
The nature center’s workers got to know my dog so well that they set up a tie-out station for him. “Your dog saved a little girl,” a worker told me one day.
“A family was hiking with their eight-year-old daughter,” she said. “The little girl fell in Eagle River and was swept downstream. Nookie pulled her out!”
Chills ran up my spine. Was there more to our dog than we knew?
Wednesday, June 20
Come morning, the dog was still there. Amelia checked the tag on his collar. “Crow Pass Guide,” it read. Sure enough, he walked ahead of her, leading her back to the trail.
Eight miles later, they reached the Eagle River, a glacier-fed waterway and the biggest water crossing along the trail. Handouts and signs warn hikers to ford it early in the day, when the water runs at its lowest, and to cross only at designated spots. Even then, it’s suggested that hikers unbuckle their packs before entering the water, so they can be easily shed if people fall in, and that hikers cross in a group, each person holding on to the one in front of them for stability. Amelia unbuckled the hip belt and sternum strap of her pack and stepped into the water. The rocks were slick, and the current was swifter and stronger than she expected. Her foot slipped. The next thing she knew, she fell into the water.
It was freezing! She fought to keep her head above the surface. For 15 minutes, she tried to swim to shore—only 10 feet away—but the icy current and the weight of her pack pulled her down. Her whole body went numb.
The dog came running. Splashing through the water, he grabbed Amelia’s backpack straps with his teeth and pulled her to safety. Amelia shivered uncontrollably. She changed out of her soaked clothes and crawled inside her sleeping bag. She would warm up and then try to cross again, she decided. She was nodding off when she felt something wet on her face. The dog was licking her and wouldn’t stop. Was he trying to tell her something? Woozy as she was, Amelia knew she was in trouble. She pulled out her SPOT, the emergency locator her mother had insisted she carry, and pushed the button. A digital SOS went out. This was the third search and rescue operation the Alaska State Troopers air rescue crew had responded to in less than 24 hours. “Headwaters of the Eagle River,” the radio crackled. “Injured hiker, hearing impaired, needs help.”
The troopers’ helicopter launched from Anchorage. They spotted Amelia’s makeshift campsite by the Eagle River and landed just before 7 p.m. They found a young woman in a sleeping bag, dazed, hypothermic and bruised. A white dog lay on the riverbank beside her.
Amelia told the troopers what had happened by writing in a notebook. They loaded her and the dog into the helicopter. Partway back to base in Anchorage, they checked the dog’s tag and realized he wasn’t hers.
Thursday, June 21
Nookie had been missing for two long days when my cell phone rang. “This is Lieutenant Olsen of the Alaska State Troopers. Do you own a white husky?”
I tensed. Had Nookie been attacked by a bear? Hit by a car?
“Your dog saved a hiker,” the trooper told me.
Of course, the media picked up the story. My phone buzzed night and day with calls from TV networks, movie production companies, and magazine and newspaper writers. Nookie and I were in my pickup, driving to an interview, when my neighbor flagged me down. “Guess who’s staying at our bed-and-breakfast?” he asked.
I must have looked blank. “A friend of another person who was rescued by your dog!” he said. A woman came up and told me that a couple years earlier, she and Lindsey Honemann had been hiking the Crow Pass Trail with friends. Nookie joined their group. Where the path curved, high above roaring Twin Falls, Lindsey slipped on a rock. She slid toward the treacherous gorge below. Until Nookie grabbed her jacket and stopped her. That makes it three lives he has saved so far—that we know of. I no longer panic when Nookie disappears for days at a time. Nor do I post “missing dog” signs. I have added a GPS beacon to his collar. But otherwise, I’ve learned just to let him go and not to worry. Nanook was put on this earth for a reason, and my job is to let him fulfill that mission.
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