I was easing the boat up to the offshore end of our fish net when Karen called from the bow. “There’s a dog!”
When I glanced up, expecting to see that Spruce or perhaps Cricket had strolled the two miles from home, a little shock of dismay shot through me. “That’s a puppy!” I cried, spotting not a confident adult but Tilly, one of our five 11-week-old husky pups.
Our niece Karen, her friend Iris, and I had just flown out from Fairbanks so the teenagers could spend a week with my sister, Julie, and me to help socialize our pups. Now this little one had shown up, alone, far from home. I could believe Tilly might follow a wayward adult for two miles, but no other canines seemed around. The little brown and white youngster sat staring worriedly across the water at us.
“Puppy-puppy-puppy!” I called reassuringly, only to be once again shocked as the little gal immediately rushed into the water, swimming strongly toward us. She’d never swum before, yet here she paddled, smooth as a muskrat, covering the 70 yards with grim determination. As she neared our small craft I reached down and plucked her up, dripping and whining with relief, into the small outboard.
This could be bad, I thought. Normally, all five rascals stuck together and Tilly never would have come this far by herself. But if she trailed an adult on a ramble, surely the other four would have come along too.
Julie’s response when contacted by sat phone reflected my own: “Oh, no!” she gasped. The five pups had been loose in the yard and, as we often do, she had let one of the adults — the pups’ uncle, Cricket — off his chain to cool off.
Fussing and clingy, Tilly rode in the boat to the landing a half-mile away while I anxiously scanned the rocky beach. Iris and I loaded the canoe with our gear for the two-mile paddle along the shallow lake shore and shallower stream home, but I sent Karen short-cutting on foot with Tilly. They might find the other pups, or at least leave a scent trail back home.
Hiking a different route, Julie met us where the stream hit the lakeshore to report. “Drumlin is at home, but Cricket and the other three pups are missing.”
Converging at home, we spotted Cricket and Esker-pup there. Still missing: sensitive, emotional, sweet little Moulin, with his dark tragi-comic eyes, and my favorite, big, confident, quiet Moraine with his calm steady gaze.
After a quick supper and evening chores, Julie and I left the girls at home while we returned to the boat landing with a couple loose dogs to motor the four-mile lakeshore around part of the large hill we live on.
“Puppy-puppy-puppy!” Desperately, we called until hoarse.
Projecting two miles out into the lake, the hill forms a broad peninsula. By the time Julie hiked the two-mile shortcut trail home with the dogs and I had returned by boat and canoe, we had encircled a large area around home, leaving a scent track for wayward pups to follow.
Arriving at 11 p.m., we hopefully scanned the yard and puppy pen for the missing pair. Only six puppy eyes followed our movements.
We’ve raised litters of pups in the bush for forty years and, except for the inevitable occasional neonatal death, had never lost a one. But we’d also never had any go missing for more than a few hours.
Bleak, fretful reality settled in by morning. If the missing duo could have reached home, they would have returned long since.
I envisioned several scenarios. Probably the pups trailed Cricket out of the yard. Perhaps he outpaced them and they turned back one at a time, with the last two either unable to find their way home or perhaps stuck on the wrong side of one of the many surrounding swamps, lakes and waterways. Even then, if in earshot they likely would have answered the howls of our dogs in the yard.
Was our pair together or separated? Huddled alone, hungry, confused? Feeling frightened and abandoned? I didn’t like to think about two other possibilities: drowning, or a wolf snatching an easy dinner. Yet, was that better than puppies slowly starving to death?
We both figured our little ones could last about three days.
Julie grimly returned to the fishnet each of the next three days, once by herself, once with the girls, and once with all of us including the three remaining pups for a picnic. Each time, loose dogs ran along the beach to re-set a scent track. A mile-long trip farther upriver, also with dogs running the bank as we called “Puppy-puppy-puppy” at frequent intervals, achieved the same goal — and the same results: No puppies.
After the first day I didn’t give up all hope — just most of it. We kept the dogs noisy, encouraging frequent barking or howling, and the girls made short local hikes with the remaining three pups. Still, after three days, as resignation settled in a subdued depression crept over me.
On the fourth day Karen called to Esker, Tilly, and Drumlin as they played in the yard. But something was different. Karen was gasping with amazement and joy as she reported to Julie: There were four puppies playing in the yard. Moraine had joined them, wet to his belly and about as skinny as a pup could be without actually being emaciated but calm as ever as he scampered right to Karen.
I almost cried in joy and relief when Iris sprinted to tell me: “We have four puppies!”
Everyone converged on the missing youngster, rushing him inside for a bowl of milk and dog food. As the 30-pound puppy spilled his belated breakfast-lunch-and-dinner across the floor, I turned abruptly to Karen and Iris.
“Go out and see if Moulin is around too,” I prompted.
They found the little pale-gray puppy strolling cheerfully through the dog yard.
We lucked out. Our youngsters survived four days and nights in the wilderness, dodging predators, drowning and hypothermia. We’ll never know if they lost their way, out of scent and earshot of the home yard, or if they looped around some body of water that prevented them from returning home, or if something else waylaid them.
Nothing sounds quite as joyously musical as 20 little paws thundering across the ground. Suffice to say, as both pups regain their weight and romp with siblings and teenagers, we will not be letting any adults dogs loose unless the pups are safely secured in their pen.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.