LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - Bombing toward home after a quick jaunt out the trail, my six-dog team suddenly paused in mid-air.
I could almost hear them gasp before they quickly recovered and scooted on.
At the same time, from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed fresh wolf tracks cutting away from the sled trail and up an overgrown sand bar.
I suddenly wondered where Ellie was. I last saw the little Lab-husky mix a mile back, happily scouting for rabbits. While it was a joy to watch the athletic, young dog coursing through the snow, I sure didn’t want her independent streak to land the 35-pound dog in a pack of wolves. Those tracks hadn’t been there on the outbound run less than two hours ago. Once in the shade of an alder thicket, I stopped the dog team so they could cool down. My little pet husky, Quigley, running loose behind the sled, had stopped to check the tracks but soon rushed up. Her dark, seallike eyes met mine and I could hear the stress in her voice as she moaned with anxiety.
I met Quigley’s concern with a worry of my own.
“Where’s Ellie?” I asked her. Quigley looked around quivering, then whined that she didn’t know.
The youngster could easily have been either ahead or behind me. When she didn’t catch up, I mushed the last two miles home.
Not seeing Ellie in the yard, I was debating whether to backtrack with the snow machine when I spotted her scampering up the trail to the cabin. Ellie had given trouble the slip for a change.
When we adopted Ellie from the Fairbanks Animal Shelter in June, the staff estimated her age at about six months. She must be over a year old now and is definitely showing more maturity and common sense. However, the last eight months have been full of laughs and grievances.
As soon as we began leaving Ellie alone in the house, she began collecting things while we were away.
She picked ripening tomatoes from the window sill last fall. She pulled scraps of fur, cloth, rope and yarn from boxes and bags. She dragged paper, plastic and tin cans from the trash. She reached onto the kitchen shelf (but never the table) and stole the ever-present boiled potatoes, canned milk and pots of scrap food collected for the chickens.
The empty cans and bowls always ended up on the rug with all the other treasures in her collection.
Every time we came home, Ellie rushed to the door, only to wilt guiltily when she saw us. Knowing that she would outgrow most of this behavior, we would merely give her a reproachful “Oh, Ellie!” and spend five minutes cleaning up. Instead of punishment, we did our best to divert her attention by scattering chew toys, moose bones, rawhide and mostly-empty peanut butter jars around the floor before we left.
We blocked off the stairs, secured the trash, covered the storage containers and moved food from the shelf up to the windowsill. We booby-trapped her favorite chicken-scrap pot by filling it with water instead of potato peels.
This helped a lot, but all too often we rushed out, forgetting to Ellie-proof the house. Once, I was amazed to see she had resisted a big pile of potatoes on the shelf and only later realized that instead she’d stolen and gobbled up a big bag of deep-fried whitefish that was thawing for our supper.
Once she gnawed up an extension cord. Another time she destroyed a 12-volt adapter. Lucky for her, we turn the power off whenever we leave home.
When Miki’s almost-new beaver mitts fell from the wall hook to the floor, Ellie happily chewed off a thumb. When I accidentally left my fur sewing accessible, she picked out a bunch of half-done little beaver toys, gathering them together on her rug like so many puppies, and masticated them thoroughly without actually eating them. Twice, I saw her with something shiny between her teeth and pulled out a long pearl-headed pin that she’d picked from the sofa arm that (no longer) serves as our pin-cushion.
One evening, she slipped outside unnoticed while 10 gallons of cooked fish and rice sat cooling in the dog yard. She slurped up a gallon of food from the bucket with melting chicken fat in it. Waddling back inside, she soon redeposited a hideous mass of melted fat and fish on the floor. The oil soaked into the pores of the worn hardwood, staining it a lovely golden shade of grease that will repel all attempts at refinishing.
A couple of weeks later, she helped herself to a frozen beaver carcass, gnawing off the thick layer of rich fat. This time when she threw up, she laid the revolting pile of greasy meat at the feet of a visitor eating his own lunch. (“Oh well, that’s pretty!” Miki said.) Fortunately, our friend Justin had already grown quite fond of Ellie’s big ears and playful cheeriness, and he didn’t hold it against her.
These days, we’ve grown rather lax about Ellie-proofing the house. Her gathering sprees and potato stealing have died down considerably. Meanwhile, she’s become less suspicious of strangers and more willing to play with friendly people. She also shows good potential for grouse-hunting which could serve us well in the future.
We’ll have to wait until summer to see if she’s outgrown her habits of digging up garden carrots and gobbling up the biggest raspberries in the patch. Meanwhile, we continue to enjoy our mischievous youngster just the way she is.
Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.