I didn’t see the two black bears until they were 30 feet away...
If Sherrie and I had been alone on our mountain bikes, the sighting would have been nothing more than a bonus on a perfect October afternoon. Even the presence of our two unleashed blue heelers, Chase and Brisa, wasn’t a huge deal; with 18 years of Southeast Alaska trail experience between them, they were pros around wildlife. And even the bears themselves weren’t a big worry. They were almost certainly local guys, polite and people-wise. They’d step back, we’d take the wide way around, and all would go back to minding their own.
Problem was, there was a wild card in our deck.
A knee-high, bat-eared, straw-colored streak rocketed past, trailing Sherrie’s panic-tinged cry of “Loki heeeere!” Loki, all 29 pounds of him, skidded to a stop practically nose-to-nose with the nearest nonplussed bruin. And just as fast as he’d gone in, our dog came flying back—with an irate bear two feet off his rump. I was half off my bike, ready to chuck it at the bear, when our old girl, Chase, kicked into motion with a herd-defending rush. All bluff, maybe, but the bear swapped ends and bounded off into the scrub, with the smaller bear breaking trail ahead. The world settled to normal, except for our pulse rates. The whole thing might have taken four seconds.
You couldn’t blame the bear. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly Loki’s fault either. Truth is, he couldn’t have been expected to know any better. He’d been in Alaska for all of five months, and was a long way from home.
If you’d scrolled back a year-and-a-half, you’d never have guessed Loki’s improbable future as an Alaska dog—or that he’d have a future at all. He was being raised for pit bull bait in a crack house in rural central Florida when a homeless woman seeking a guard dog for her camp bought him for five bucks. She ended up in jail, and Loki (who at the time went by the name Shithead) was abandoned, tied to a tree in the woods, sick and starving. A resident of the camp was going to end his misery with a bullet when a wiry ex-con with a soft heart named Brad stepped in, stuffed him in a backpack, and delivered the half-dead little dog to a friend named Pam.
Pam nursed him back to health and gave the scrawny animal things he’d never had—regular meals, a sense of security, and a big dollop of love. Pam also happened to share Sherrie’s passion for AKC agility trials, and it was at one of these timed obstacle course competitions in Florida last winter where we first met the dog she’d renamed Casper. Pam (whom we knew just slightly at the time) informed us she had a beautiful, wonderful dog we needed, and a dog that needed us. Sherrie and I peered dubiously at the scrawny, gremlin-eared, pink-nosed creature, and figured Pam needed an eye exam. We politely shook our heads and backed away. Yeah, we’d lost our good black Lab, Gus, to cancer a few months earlier, but we weren’t looking for a replacement. And we sure as hell didn’t want some funny-looking little mutt like that. But Pam wouldn’t give up. Take him for a couple of weeks, she urged. This was meant to be our dog. We’d see.
Well, damned if we didn’t end up keeping him. Much to our amazement, Chase, who loathed all strange canines, decided right off that this new thing was fine, even when it crowded her off the couch. We suspected she didn’t recognize him as a dog. As for Brisa, she and the newcomer started right in tussling nonstop, and joining in games of chase-me at breakneck speed. When Pam had told us that little dog was fast, she wasn’t joshing. He left Brisa—a muscle-ripped speedster—snapping at air. He also proved to be a quicker learner than any dog we’d known. But the most amazing thing about this new guy was his attitude: a good-humored, playful exuberance coupled with a soft, affectionate side that stole our hearts. By all rights, he should have been an emotionally mangled mess. Instead, about the only remnant of his abuse-riddled past was a profound dislike of menacing men wearing hoodies—go figure. After careful thought, we gave him the third name of his short life: Loki, after the shape-shifting Norse god of mischief--apt enough, considering this dog’s infectious sense of humor and the way he managed to look pure-bred noble and downright odd just eye-blinks apart.
So it was that Loki, just eighteen months old, stepped out of his airline crate into a strange, new world, a chilly, brooding land of mountains and dark forest, heavy with the scent of unknown creatures. Being himself, he hit the ground running and never looked back. You’d think that a Florida-raised dog encountering his first patch of snow or meeting his first sea lion might freak. Instead, that little dog went barreling out front down unknown trails and along rocky shores, as if he were showing us the way.
Though a bit too fearless around porcupines and bears--three of the former, seven of the latter, all up close—he’s shown remarkable restraint and a sharp learning curve that’s so far left him unscathed by quill or claw. That said, the poor guy bears a continually morphing patchwork of welts and scratches, thanks to his insistence on racing through life, devils club and all, at damn-the-torpedoes full throttle. Our worst fear is that by the time he’s gained enough sense to slow down, he’ll be a solid mass of scar tissue.
Actually, the toughest part about owning this dog has been fielding people’s reactions. I’ve never been around a canine that attracts so much attention—and utterly divided, at that. Either people comment on how beautiful he is, or they snicker. A few weeks ago, out near the glacier, Loki came flying around the corner through a bunch of tourists, who burst into laughter. One of them sputtered, “We thought you had a pig!” I had to concede the resemblance. Another time, someone told Sherrie he looked like something out of Star Wars. Everyone wants to know what kind of dog he is; we say we’re wondering the same damn thing. Meanwhile, Loki rushes on through the world, an object lesson in joyful resiliency, out front, showing us all the way.