When Alaska was young and known for its rugged frontier lifestyle most folks that lived in the bush worked summer jobs as lumberjacks, gold miners, or road construction workers. In winter they lived off the land in subsistence, self reliance lifestyles. During those early Alaskan years we lived in a small log cabin without electricity or running water and our only transportation in winter was a dog team. Life revolved around our dogs and we depended on them as much as they relied on us to survive. It worked both ways. One couldn’t survive without the other.
There were a few small villages and gold mining communities in our area, and people locally knew me for my knack in training dogs, especially the dogs that were “untrainable.” Mushers from many miles around the region brought me their unwanted dogs that were either too large, slow, mean, or just couldn’t be trained. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to turn the dogs away, knowing that their other options were bleak, so I adopted and rescued the dogs and eventually integrated them into my team.
I remember one dog that I adopted was named “Man-eater”. He stood eye to eye to me while on his hind legs and voiced a rumbling growl that made the hairs on back of my neck stand up. Man-eater was renamed Bandit and soon he became one of the friendliest, harmless, powerful giant malamute-husky mixes I’ve ever had. And he pulled like an ox, too. Then there was Bruiser. He was another large malamute mix that had the softest brown eyes you’d have ever seen. If you looked closely into them you’d see someone starving for attention. And that’s all it took for the big Bruiser, just lots of attention and he quickly transformed from an outright aggressive, 140 lb. brute, into a cuddly fella that loved nothing more than a belly rub.
However, there’s one dog that I’ll forever hold and adore deep in my heart as the miracle dog. He came to me unexpectedly while I was away on an enduring cold and strenuous dogsled journey in search of caribou for our family larder. When I arrived home with a heavily loaded sled I noticed a small black pup tethered to a tree next to the cabin door. As I approached him he frantically fought the chain’s hold on his collar and attempted to hide behind the small spruce tree that held the chain. He shook like a leaf as I calmly whispered and talked to him. After a few minutes of coaxing, he allowed a soft pet and stroke on his muzzle and soon I was holding and running my fingers over his bony ribs and hips.
“You’ve had a tough life little fella. Let’s go inside and I’ll cook you a big, juicy, caribou steak,’ I said as I cradled him in my arms and carried him through the doorway where my wife was waiting inside.
My wife immediately told the story about the small dog. Apparently, a local dog musher had heard that I was adopting unwanted dogs. He had a disastrous gold mining season and couldn’t afford to keep many of his dogs so he mushed 30 miles, enduring high winds, and -50F temperatures to deliver the pup in hopes that I could give him a better life than he could.
I was thankful for the dog musher’s care and perseverance in risking his own health for the pup’s sake and promised the little guy he would become a member of our family.
As time passed, the black puppy with deep brown wanting eyes became handsomely broad shouldered with a deep chest, thick bones, and large feet. All held together with a thick layer of dense muscle. But he had one unique marking that stood out prominently. It was a small white tuft of fur on his chest that resembled the marking of a black bear. So I named him Bear. Bear settled comfortably into our home and became a member of our family. His shyness melted away revealing one of the most unique and intelligent dogs that I’ve ever had. It seemed that he knew our daily routine and what we had planned before we planned it. He studied my body language intensely and anticipated every move I made, whether it was chores inside or outside the cabin, hauling water from the river, or loading my rifle to go hunting. He was there to follow me wherever I went, or whatever I did.
The following winter it was time for Bear to prove himself in the team. When I slipped a harness on him, attached the neck and tug lines, he dug his claws into the hard packed snow, lunged forward, and snapped that tug line so tight that it sang. He was certainly born to pull and eager to go.
Instinctively, I knew some day he’d become a great leader and guide me and the team across the continental divide and into territories where few dog teams have ever stood. I also knew his bloodline would flow in my dogs for many, many generations to come. He was certainly a godsend.
Now, Bear lives in our hearts and memories. And every time I see his off spring take command in lead, or sing an ancient tune to the stars, I’m reminded of my dear old friend Bear.
However, there is something that I neglected to mention about Bear. Aside from being a tough and enduring Arctic lead dog, additionally Bear had the golden opportunity to play a major role in the 1990 Walt Disney movie White Fang. He was the leader of the dog team in the story. So, in a sense he continues to live for all of us to see.