After seven months hiking across the Brooks Range in Alaska, I lose my dog on the second to last day,
As I’m cresting the back side of Crow Mountain and entering a wide spruce grove, Will runs off chasing a moose. Since I’m so close to Old Crow –about three miles - I keep walking and figure he will catch up with no problem. But I’m dead wrong. After about fifteen minutes I slow up to wait for him in a different place than where I lost him. Being so heavily forested with some brush underneath, it makes the terrain look all the same, and I can’t find the point where I lost him.
After about thirty minutes of waiting around, pacing and looking through the trees, I get concerned. Then I hear Will howling far off in the distance near the edge of the steep slope we’ve just come up. His voice is barely perceptible above the wind and the rattling trees. I start shouting as loud as I can, knowing that when he howls like this, it means he’s lost and can’t find my scent. I don’t fully expect him to be able to hear my voice since it’s not as strong as his. I run through the woods toward his voice, shouting for him all the way, but when I get near where I thought it had been coming from, it has stopped. In his confusion and likely desperation to find me, he has moved on to look for me somewhere else. I’m afraid of losing him so far from home and deep in the Canadian wilderness.
I have to signal him somehow before he runs too far in the wrong direction, and when he’s desperate he can really cover some ground in a hurry and get so far away that I might never hear him. Quickly, I yank out my shotgun and fire two shots in the air – my last two shells. Since he has heard my gun before, I figure he will associate it with me and come charging my way. I wait about ten minutes for him, but he doesn’t come and I hear nothing over the swaying trees but rushing wind. I still can’t find the place where I lost him. I get jerky with panic and change directions several times trying to make up my mind what to do. Finally, I run back to the place I had originally waited for him, hoping and listening.
“He should have showed up by now,” I say for no one to hear but myself. I don’t know what to do. Another forty minutes passes and still nothing, just the cold wind. “I can’t fucking believe it.” I’ve lost my dog on the second to the last day after we’ve spent months together. It just doesn’t make any sense. I can wait here for a few days at most, but since I’m almost out of food, I will have to go on to Old Crow soon without him. There I could get more food and come back. But by then he could be in a far different region, possibly going days all the way back to Alaska searching for me in such wild regions that there would be no person to help him, just marauding wolves.
For the next thirty minutes I wait and blow my whistle over and over. I brought it just for this occasion, hoping it would never arise. Will is so thin that he wouldn’t last more than a week on his own. I pace back and forth, listening and looking, hoping for some clue to where he went. I can’t accept him being gone, not like Jimmy who died, tormented with body spasms and soft, rapid shrieks. All I could do for him was hold his fitful head in my arms while he suffered, stroke his skin and tell him it was going to be okay. “It’s okay Jimmy, it’s okay buddy, just let go, just let go,” I said to him. But it wasn’t going to be okay for him and I didn’t want him to die; I didn’t want him to leave me. He didn’t want to die, not at five years of age, strong and in the prime of his life. Stubbornly loving his life, he fought the tweaks and body convulsions for two hours as the cancerous cells invaded his nervous system. He died just before midnight in one last, drawn out breath, his body tight with contractions, which told me he was still fighting for air. Another breath never came, and a minute later his body relaxed and became still, and he passed into my memory forever – the finest dog I ever had.
I don’t want Will to suffer an uncertain outcome, or death. I contemplate running down the valley where he took off after the moose, but it’s so dense that I’m not even sure how far that way he went. Will is known for running off in one direction and showing up twenty minutes later from the opposite direction, so it’s best to stay put. I need to stay close to where I lost him. I have trees for shelter and pools of water in the spongy soil to drink from. I will wait here looking for him for a year if I have to.
After another hour of walking around, he comes trotting up through the brush from the original area where I lost him. He’s wagging his tail like crazy when he sees me, but he’s obviously winded and tired. “You crazy knucklehead,” I say merrily while stroking his fur over and over. “Sorry I lost you buddy, sorry I lost you.”