FAIRBANKS - I love the pattering of tiny puppy feet on the floor. In May our baby turkeys got to scamper around every day to blow off steam before returning to their incubator, but it just wasn’t the same. Now we hope to see puppies born here for the first time in 10 years. Ever since 2002, each of our planned litters were born in another dog yard because we split the pups with the mother’s owner. Not this time. With our sled dogs aging and few options beyond our own dogs, my sister Miki decided to breed her Spoí with sweet little Calico. By late June we may hear the pattering of tiny puppy feet instead of the thundering of weanlings brought in from another dog yard.
Every bunch of puppies comes with fond memories, regardless of their birth home. Our new mom Calico and her brother Kandik arrived as pups from a Yukon River musher. At a tender age of six weeks old they had to travel by bush plane to Eagle, where the litter was split, then to Fairbanks, where the remaining pups were divided again. Calico and Kandik then flew out here on the mail plane, arriving a bit shell-shocked, and traveled the final distance to their new home in a kennel perched on the dog sled. The pair was inseparable after seeing their littermates disappear one after another, but they grew up affectionate and happy despite their tumultuous start.
In 2008, my leader Jiles sired a litter born in Fairbanks and we obtained three eight-week old pups. Miki flew them out to the bush in our plane, and as it was summer they traveled the last distance home in the motorboat. Fiji in particular wanted to nose into the wind and even tried to climb onto the bow to see the sights.
These pups were mostly mine because they inherited Jiles’ tendency toward hysterical excitement, which I liked and Miki didn’t. She preferred the previous litter, from of her own leader Clarence, who worked without going crazy. Born three miles away in our neighbor’s yard, the pups from that litter were independent-minded right from the start. When we brought six pups home at two months old, on the half-mile hike home from the boat landing they kept disappearing on their own explorations.
Unlike most young puppies, they paid little attention to us or where we were going. For awhile we weren’t even sure the group would get home intact, especially when they kept tipping downhill where the trail side-hilled above a steep slope. We passed three on to new homes, with urgent warnings about their wandering tendencies.
The three we kept — Kraki, Kría and Spoí — are turning seven and are still quite capable of rambling off. (We recently got a GPS tracking collar and found they rarely ranged more than a mile away.) This independent streak helps all three dogs be good trail leaders and problem-solvers.
We kept three pups from the 2001 litter too — because that’s all there were. Until this month, that was the last litter to be born here at home. Our main leaders Clarence and Jiles came from this group, and the last puppy was our little darling Quigley. Born a runt, in considerable pain with a cleft palate, Quigley should have been put down, but she appeared happy despite her miserable defect. Seeing this combined with her impressive strength and drive, we decided to let nature take its course.
Quigley managed to survive and grow into an energetic young dog with the same quivering intensity as her brother Jiles. Too small to work in harness with our big trapline dogs, she remains a pet, a good mouser, watchful bear dog and joyful companion.
The Millennium Litter, another memorable group, was born in November 1999. This batch of 15 babies showed up right before the mom developed a life-threatening infection. Miki had gone off trapping so I was up at all hours nursing Olive and feeding her puppies supplemental milk with a stomach tube.
In her misery, Olive accidentally squashed a little black male, but she and the 14 remaining pups survived. Being winter, the whole family lived inside for weeks. The pups soon began leaving the nest, which made it dangerous to walk around barefoot except after potty patrols. A pancake turner and a mop provided maximum efficiency.
The little guys were barely old enough to move outside when it went to 50 below and they had to stay inside another two weeks. The pounding of their little paws on the floor grew so loud we called them Thunder-Puppies. Other times, until they finally moved to the outside pen, we called them our poopies.
Every litter has it own remarkable characters and alarming stories, going all the way back to our first litter when little Comet walked right into the open hole going to the stone basement. Miki just happened to be climbing up the ladder at the time and somehow caught the falling puppy in mid air with a downward thrust of her hand.
The next litter is sure to arrive with high hopes and grand adventures in the years to come.
Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.