At 2 1/2 weeks old, Junebug’s puppies snuggle with their mother during the long trip home. Photo by Julie Collins

Lake Minchumina — In 2016 I decided it was time to get some pups from Junebug.

Weighing just over 80 pounds, Junebug has proved a strong worker on my dog team, a nice leader and all-around good gal. Her dense charcoal-brown coat keeps her warm in cold weather, and her strong tough feet never need boots. Her laughing eyes and joyful but laid-back approach to life always made me smile.

With the Denali Park sled dog kennel interested in splitting a litter, I shipped her into Fairbanks ($100 per round trip) and drove her to the park for breeding to Lucky, a handsome hard-driving leader by Brent Sass’s famous leader, Silver.

Junebug liked Lucky, but not that much. Ditto with two alternate males.

2017 rolled around. This time I brought Junebug to a veterinarian who diagnosed strictures, making breeding too painful. After a brief procedure under sedation the vet felt she should be able to breed.

Junebug begged to differ. She refused the same three males, and three other males I found from another team.

2018 would be the year! We would go straight to artificial insemination. I couldn’t get away, so I shipped Junebug to Fairbanks with a trusted visiting park kennel worker. After my gal again refused all suitors, she was carted off to the vet’s for hormone testing. We lucked out: her timing was perfect. Or not, because the vet could not collect from Lucky.

By 2019, Junebug was turning seven. I had dogs aging out of my team and needed replacements. I brought her to Fairbanks myself (again, $100) to endure several rounds of progesterone testing ($120 each) at Dr. May’s Golden Heart clinic before the eventual hormone surge indicated perfect timing.

In the interim, I spent days evaluating dogs, finally deciding upon Higgins, a cute older male from a familiar proven line. Then, because of Lucky’s failure, I backed him up with Aquila, an impressive jet-black dog, and as further back-up, Glacier, a Hedlund husky with bloodlines tracing clear back to the old-time working sled dogs of the Illiamna area.

After his long drive from Healy, Higgins freaked out in the vet’s office, and even a cute flirtatious dog like Junebug failed to elicit any amorous behavior. Aquilla, already shy, wanted nothing to do with any of it. Finally Glacier, with his handsome reddish-orange marking, happily obliged. Dr. May, and especially I, sighed in relief.

As the established canine reproduction expert in the Interior, Dr May made short work of Junebug’s procedure. “I see no reason why it won’t work,” he reported. However, he advised Junebug give birth where she had veterinary access instead of at a remote location where reaching professional medical care might require a torturous trip across a lake in the throes of break-up to catch a Mondays-or-Thursdays-only mail plane.

Junebug and I flew home. I promptly headed out to close up the trapline, broke my leg, and spent the next two months recuperating in Fairbanks, leaving my sister Julie to ship Junebug in as soon as break-up threatened. For weeks all I looked forward to was getting home with Junebug and her puppies. Junebug didn’t have puppies.

“Time to move on,” the vet advised.

I tried. I tried hard. I located three different potential mates for Junebug’s brother Cricket, a magnificent dog in his own right although, like Junebug, not without his faults. But if my favored female ever came into season I never heard about it, and the other two who were actually shipped out for a tryst refused to breed.

Desperate, in March I called Dr. May. At nearly nine, Junebug had not regretting missing her 2020 annual trip to Fairbanks, and I hated doing it to her again. But dogs were retiring off my team now, and with the temperament I needed, Junebug offered my best hope of getting our rare type of trapline dogs big and strong yet quiet enough for my aging body to handle.

“I’m always ready to try for a miracle,” Dr. May cheerfully conceded.

Junebug and I spent 10 days in Fairbanks, with four more of those fertility tests. Glacier cheerfully performed, and this time Junebug was surgically inseminated to give her the best possible chance ($500).

After a month at home I was startled to note that Junebug seemed a bit ... solid. Back in Fairbanks, as Dr. May ran his ultrasound over Junebug’s tummy, twitching fetal skeletons flashed across the screen. Puppies! With happy regret I left my pal in the caring hands of the park kennel staff. This would be our first litter in years, and I’d miss the whole thing.

It was a good call. On May 6, after nearly 12 hours of early labor, Junebug seemed in distress without progressing to full contractions. Leaving at 10:30 p.m., her watcher Ashley drove her the 130 miles to the After Hours clinic in Fairbanks. Blood tests and an appropriate fetal heart rate suggested she was just progressing very slowly.

By morning, at Dr. May’s once more, additional tests indicated slow progress. Rather than opting to either leave my much-harried dog with yet another stranger in Fairbanks or sending her back to the park, I settled via long distance phone on a Cesarean section.

In a remarkably short time the metamorphosis was complete. Junebug had become six: one tired dog, still dopey from anesthetic, and five big, strong, squirming, fat, very expensive little puppies. Puppies! By evening, six years (and nine weeks) after our first attempt, mother and youngsters were safely ensconced back at their temporary home, doing well in spite of their peri-natal adventures.

Two and a half weeks later I saw them for the first time when I picked up the little family, driving them to Fairbanks and catching the mail plane followed by a six-mile boat ride and one-mile canoe trip home. Puppies and mother behaved impeccably.

Drumlin, the big male looking like his masked dark gray great-grandfather Clarence. Moulin, taking after his pale gray grandma, and Moraine a slightly darker gray. Tiny little Till, the only female, sporting Junebug’s cute mask. And Esker, displaying the pretty reddish-brown of his father Glacier.

Puppies at last.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.