He Wasn’t Our Dog – a Tribute to Our Friend, Buster

If there was ever a more naturally contented being, we’ve not met. But there was often a lot going on inside that big, lovable head.

 He wasn’t our dog.

Shortly after we moved to The Lake, he began showing up, handsome with his barrel chest, slim hips and soft brown coat. Instantly lovable with those floppy, puppyish ears, sparkling brown eyes and that big head he liked to push into a hand to be petted. We didn’t know his name. So we called him Friendly. He seemed to always have a smile in his eyes, his bushy tail swishing back and forth hopefully whenever he saw us. We’d seen it before, a semi-feral village dog making the rounds, looking for a scrap of meat here, a bone there, maybe a dog biscuit or a bowl of last night’s leftovers.

But there was something different about this dog. In fact, there was a lot different about him. For starters, he traveled alone, doing his best to assume a live and let live attitude toward other dogs. He didn’t slink or skulk, bark or yip without good reason, beg or cower. He presented himself as a perfectly happy, intelligent, calm, confident being, and yet no one really seemed to own him. The backstory, we found out later, is that he had spent part of his early life as a truly feral “dump” dog, getting by on whatever he could scrounge. We were told that someone had eventually adopted him, but although he had places where he could often count on getting a meal, no one seemed to consistently take care of him.

It turned out that his name was Buster. When we began addressing him as such, it was apparent that he knew his name.

“We’re not going to start feeding him,” we reminded ourselves.

After all, he wasn’t our dog.

Hurts to look at. With the closest vet two bush flights and hundreds of miles away, removing these quills was difficult for the people involved and excruciatingly painful for Buster. This was his second such “lesson.” What is it with dogs and porcupines?

Even without the incentive of food, Buster began hanging out with us. On my daily birding walks, I could usually count on him to show up, seemingly out of nowhere, and falling into step. It seemed that he recognized the cadence of my stride and, as sometimes happens between two beings, that he’d taken a liking to me. When I arrived at wherever I was going to set up my tripod and camera for the morning – looking for ducks out on the river or lake, or songbirds at the White Spruce Grove – he’d position himself as closely to me as he reasonably could and then quietly, patiently and faithful watch alongside. Buster loved to be petted, and he had an endearing habit of pushing his head into my leg to remind me how much he loved being petted. For my part I couldn’t have asked for a better fellow birder. He had the capacity to remain still for a very long time and his alertness probably helped keep me more watchful. And so we spent mornings like that, enjoying sunshine, enduring rain and snow, staying low against the wind, documenting birds that in some instances had never before been recorded on this remote peninsula.

As I packed up and slung my tripod over my shoulder at the end of those birding sessions, Buster would spring to his feet, jog ahead of me a few paces, look back and give his head a little jerk in the direction we were heading, back to my house. It was as if he was saying, “C’mon, Jack! Let’s go get something to eat!”

There are bird dogs and there are bird dogs. Buster had the kind of toughness about him common to village dogs. Weather? What weather?

That’s how it started. A friend comes along and keeps you company for hours on end like that, both of us heading home hungry… You can’t not fix your buddy something to eat.

At first I’d dig around in the fridge for whatever leftovers might be on hand – a piece of salmon, gristly scraps of moose, or bones I’d left a little extra meat on for him. But before long dog biscuits and a quality dog food became part of our regular grocery orders. And of course a good friend like Buster needed a proper bowl. And a brush.

Between the good food and the regular brushings, which he loved, our already handsome friend was soon sporting a beautiful coat. His visits to our house became more regular and lasted longer until at some point we realized he was showing up almost without fail for breakfast each morning.  In fact, quite often he was spending the entire night sleeping below our bedroom window.

We, who had vowed “No dogs, no pets,” were being adopted.

Buster, the quintessential outdoors dog, never did get used to coming into our home. Although he was always welcome, he usually would only stay for awhile, and only as long as he could sit or lie next to one of us. Indoors seemed to be too warm for him. So he was content to lie outside our windows, all the better if his vantage point provided him with a view of one of us working at a desk or cooking in the kitchen. As far as I could tell, he’d never been trained, not even to sit. But he was one of the most well-mannered dogs we’ve ever known. Every so often he might give out a single, throaty bark – Buster’s way of mentioning that he might be ready for a snack.

And so it went for two years. The three of us hiked together up to Clarks River and along other trails for miles in all weather. He accompanied me out onto the ice that first year when the lake froze hard and ducks gathered in a small area of remaining open water. There were no trappers in the village that year, and so along with lots of birds, many of which were new to us, a number of foxes regularly showed up in the village and a family of river otters patrolled the lake and river. Every other dog in the village went dog-bonkers anytime one of these wild mammals was present.

That first winter when the lake froze, the wildlife viewing was enthralling. I spent hours on the frozen lake almost every day while it lasted. But on this morning out on the ice, I was collecting landscape pictures. Buster had his eye on a group of ducks milling around in open water.

Not Buster. In the spirit of full disclosure, the first time we encountered otters together, he did run off toward them… And promptly found himself sliding off a ledge of thick ice along the bone-chilling Chignik River, his eyes wide with panic as he looked to me for help and tried to scramble out. I guided him downriver to a break in the ice, asked him if he’d learned anything about ice while he shook himself off, and then we went home where I dried him with a warm towel and we both got something to eat. We saw otters after that, but he never again chased after them – at least not in my presence.

And the foxes? He was curled up in the snow outside our window one evening when a certain fox came by. Buster barely looked up. Instead, the fox started barking at him!

Bears and wolves were a different story though, and we came to appreciate Buster’s selective vigilance. When he let loose with his deep-throated bark, you could bet one of these two predators was around – and that Buster was doing his duty to keep them moving along.

Toward the end, when the mere act of standing was painful, a wolf – probably a pack scout – had been showing up in the village fairly regularly. An enduring memory is of Buster one evening pulling himself to his feet, propping himself against our house, and letting loose a barrage of fierce barking. The courageous old General, still on duty.

It was those slim hips that ultimately were his demise. When we returned to The Lake late this last summer, it was clear he was beginning to have mobility difficulties. He still had that optimistic smile in his eyes and an expression of sheer joy upon seeing us, and he was still getting around pretty well, but he was beginning to walk sideways. We knew our friend might not see another spring.

Through fall, Buster continued to be a constant companion. But as winter settled in, I had to begin discouraging him from trying to accompany me out into the field. It hurt us both, made worse by the fact that I’m sure Buster didn’t understand why his pal wouldn’t let him come along anymore.

He was losing control of his hind legs. He began falling down. Eventually he stopped trying to follow.

I am indebted to Barbra for taking pictures of me and my friend. A Tufted Duck – an uncommon to rare visitor from Asia to parts of Alaska – had mixed itself in with a few scaup, and I was spending a lot of time at The Bend on the Chignik River attempting to get photos. That’s where Barbra found us when she finished teaching on this snowy January day one year. 

But he still came by our house nearly every day. One especially nasty winter night Buster showed up at our front door quite ill. His nose was dry and hot to the touch, his eyes watery and listless. Fearing the worst, we had him come inside. I rolled out a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor so I could stay with him while he slept on the cool linoleum. The next morning he was greatly improved… for the time being.

Buster’s final days were difficult. In his last weeks, a small dog became his constant companion, watching over Buster as he hobbled around. Little Rex would chase magpies and other dogs away from Buster’s food dish, reach out with his paw to touch Buster and then curl up and sleep next to the old man. For Buster’s part, he showed enormous courage. He was in pain, and I have to imagine beyond frustration with his inability to get around as he once had. But there was still the brightness and optimism in his eyes that had drawn us to him the first time we met.

All the time we had known Buster, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a big bowl of food or a couple of biscuits. He was, after all, a dog, though perhaps much like many of us, food presented by a friend or loved one carries with it the additional pleasure of conveying a sense of being appreciated, loved and cared for. But toward the end, he wouldn’t begin eating until we petted him and talked to him for awhile.

He wasn’t our dog.

We had to keep reminding ourselves of that, and that decisions about how his last days should be handled had to be left to his owners. What we could do was help Buster be as comfortable and as loved as possible any time he came to our house, which he was still somehow managing to do almost every day.

What a wonderful friend. I don’t think we’ve ever known a being with a greater heart or a more optimistic outlook toward life.

He wasn’t our dog. He was our friend. And he is missed.

In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.

Black-Veined White Butterfly

Black-veined white (Aporia crataegi), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

For a few days in late June, maybe a week, these black-veined whites (that’s their name) were everywhere. In the air, in the bills of birds, sipping on purple flowers. And then they were gone. In that one week, they were beautiful…

November Light: Old Tikigaq and Project Chariot – 160 Hiroshimas in the Arctic

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November 29, 12:46 p.m.: Framed below a seal skin umiak whaling boat, the sun edged itself above the southern horizon and lingered for just two hours and 24 minutes. On December 7, the sun will stay below the horizon and remain there for 28 days.

In 1958, under the direction of Edward Teller, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) devised a plan to detonate a series of nuclear devices 160 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. These bombs were to be exploded just 30 miles southwest of the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Teller’s plan – if an action so dangerous and misguided can even be called such – was to blast out a harbor in this far north coastline. The United States government didn’t bother to tell the local residents of this scheme. Nor did they take into consideration that the land in question dId not belong to the United States government; it was and still is sovereign Inupiat territory.

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Whale bones mark a sod igloo buried in snow in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq, which was abandoned in the mid 1970’s. Although the sun is only in the sky briefly in November, it is a glorious time of year. This is the November light we have been waiting for.

A caribou hunting party stumbled across AEC engineers and para-military personnel encamped at the mouth of Ogoturuk Creek, near Cape Thompson. That’s when the questions and the lies began.

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Grass silhouetted against the southern sky just before dawn, the frozen sea stretching to the horizon near Point Hope, Alaska.

In the end, Teller’s heartless plan was stopped. The bombs were never detonated. The experiment to determine how much radiation local flora, fauna and humans could survive was never carried out.

This is a story of heroes. There was Howard Rock, the co-founder of the Tundra Times, a highly educated, literate Inupiat leader who wrote the first, insistent letters to the United States government demanding that this plan be immediately halted. There were the white scientists from the University of Fairbanks, Pruitt and Viereck, who raised their voices against the project, and in standing up for the Inupiat people and standing against the government were fired by University President, William Wood, who played a less noble role in this story. There were the millions of citizens in the United States and all over the world who were in the streets, protesting nuclear tests of this kind. And there are the people of Point Hope who stood up to the government then and who are still fighting to force the United States government to tell the whole story of Project Chariot.

Because this story is not over.

old tikigaq house winter n

Over time, as erosion steadily ate away the finger of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea, the old town had to be abandoned. This fall, the entire area was inundated with water when high winds and hurricane force gusts pushed sea water over the rock sea wall protecting the north side of the point.

Although Teller lost his bid to detonate the world’s most destructive arms, in what feels like a tit-for-tat payback, under his direction, in secret, another group of engineers and military personnel were dispatched to the Project Chariot site. This time, they spread radioactive waste on the ground and in the stream. And they buried something there. Something in large, sealed drums.

To this day, the United States government has refused to divulge what was buried.

Since that time, the incidence of cancer has been higher than the national norm among the people of Point Hope. Higher than it should be, even taking into consideration other factors. These are some of the best people we’ve ever had the honor to be associated with. Kind, generous, resourceful, resilient, tough. Their government owes them answers.

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Tell-tale tracks leave evidence that an Arctic fox was patrolling Old Tikigaq just before we hiked out. These whale bone jaws located near the airstrip a mile and a half from town welcome visitors to Point Hope. The area around Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Americas – maybe the oldest. While many Inupiat (Eskimo) cultures were nomadic, here the animals came to the people. The point of Point Hope formerly extended far to the west out into the Chukchi sea, bringing the land in close proximity to migratory paths of seals, whales, walruses, char, salmon and other fish. Two impressive capes, Thompson to the south, Lisburne to the north, are home to tens of thousands of sea birds. To the east, Point Hope is situated near the migratory route of thousands of caribou. The sea and the land are the garden that has sustained people here for thousands of years.

For more about Project Chariot, see the book The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill. And although it is difficult to obtain a copy, there is an excellent, 73-minute documentary film titled Project Chariot, copyrighted 2013 NSBSD & Naninaaq Productions: UNCIVILIZED FILMS.

First Sea Ice, Point Hope 2013

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Wind and cold sculpted this mixture of sea spray and snow into a delicate arch. The sea ice has been late in coming to the Chukchi Sea this year. This photo was taken at 3:00 p.m. with the winter sun already skimming low on the horizon. Our month of day-long darkness will begin December 6.

The thick, slushy sea ice hisses and softly moans as it moves with the current past ice already frozen fast to shore. The hissing is vaguely reminiscent of a soft autumn breeze filtering through the dry leaves of oaks and maples in my native Pennsylvania. The moans sound like the muted voices of whales deep below the sea. All else is still, the ice stretching out as far as one can see. There is no wind, and there is no other sound.

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This sea jelly, entombed in shore ice, is about the size of a polar bear’s paw.

We searched for signs of life, perhaps a seal out on the ice or a snowy owl coursing the shoreline, or even the tracks of an Arctic fox. There is nothing, just the steady hiss of the ice as it flows before us. We walk along the pebbled beach for maybe a mile and finally spot a small group of ravens. Tough birds, making a living up here during the winter.

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If you look closely among the rocks along the Point Hope Beach, it’s common to find jade. Less common are fragments of mastodon tusks.

first sea ice 2013 n

Thick ice prevents the shore from eroding during winter storms. Polar bears depend on the ice to hunt seals. Things are changing up here. The ice seems to be coming later, and there is less of it. Red foxes are becoming more common, pushing out their smaller Arctic cousins. Once winter truly locks up the sea and the sun sinks below the horizon, there is no place on earth that is quieter. It is cold and stark but beautiful. 

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We don’t always take our big cameras along on walks. Today we relied on “Little Blue,” our Cannon PowerShot D10, our trusty point and shoot.

Plastic Seas: From Water Bottles to Cigarette Butts, It All Becomes Tiny Particles, and It’s the Tiny Particles that are Most Deadly

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This tiny jellyfish and the octopus behind it are about the size of a pencil led, translucent, and barely visible to the naked eye. Key species near the base of the food web such as herring, sardines, menhaden and mullet routinely ingest plastic fragments as they filter the water for the nutritious plankton they feed on. 

herring pacific sealife center n

Pacific herring feed by facing into the current, hanging their jaws open, and sifting out tiny plants and animals. As plastics break down into fragments – as all plastics from discarded shopping bags to cigarette butts eventually do – the fragments mix in with the rest of the planktonic drift and are consumed by small fish… which are in turn consumed by larger fish, whales, sea lions and us.

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The tethered balloon that slipped from a child’s hand

The monofilament net the fisherman left hanging on a reef

The cigarette butt that doesn’t matter

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and shopping bags,

and Christmas ribbons,

and cups used only once

and the plastic packaging

inside the shopping bags,

the throw-away toys

inside the Christmas package

the straws and the lids on the used-once cups

are smothering our oceans

and everything in our oceans

and us.

These photos were taken at the Seward Sea Life Center in Seward, Alaska. Visit an aquarium today to learn more about what you can do to help keep our oceans clean and healthy.

jelly fish n squid micro a n

Ghost Trees and Ghost Birds: Video and a Poem

At some point during my youth in western Pennsylvania, I read about a magnificent bird – the ivory bill woodpecker, the Lord God Bird. I wanted badly to see one and I knew that my dad – a naturalist – would know where to look. “They’re gone,” he said. I looked at him quizzically. “They’re extinct. They need big, old forests, and the big, old forests have all been cut down.” My dad was right. You should know that going into this film – a feature-length documentary that is powerful and sad and very much worth seeing.

.

Ghosts of Trees, Ghosts of Birds

People imagine they see them still,

ivory bills,

in remnant stands of virgin forests

too small to sustain these great birds.

In that way God Lord Birds are everywhere –

an image in burnt toast, a shadow pulling itself

into a triangular head,

a flash of red

as the late sun slants through the canopy,

or a fractured rock on a hillside gathering the feathered light

and darkness like a black and white diamond on a water oak trunk.

Ghosts of trees, ghosts of birds

Their nesting holes,

five inches across, 50 feet up –

hewn into hardwood with bone-chisel bill –

gone, too,

vanished with the ancient forests

into the humid air

above the endless spread of soy bean fields

Ghosts of trees, ghosts of birds

And so we pause

in the late morning

and set our paddles across the canoe’s gunwales

amidst the cypress knees, black gum and snags

as the mist lifts from this swamp

far enough away from all that

that it could be

the last place on earth

these birds exist

and strain our ears

and listen for double knocks

that rose and died 60 years ago.