My husky, Keishísh, is 94 dog years old. She has been my constant companion, through all my years of harvesting devil’s club, spruce tips and watermelon berries. Harvesting with an old dog means I walk on flat places and take it slow, often stopping to look around or inhale the scent of spring. Keishísh wasn’t’ always this slow, though. She used to love to swim and hike through the wilderness, perhaps like the dog that was found in a cave across from Wrangell Island on the mainland. Specimen PP-00128 is the oldest dog bone discovered in North America. The dog bone was excavated from Lawyer’s Cave on the mainland behind Wrangell and is 10,150 years old. Even in human years, that’s an old bone.
Today, my dog and I walk the edge of the parking area at Heritage Harbor in Wrangell. All winter, my dog and I spent lazy mornings listening to the rain wash away the snow. Now that it’s warmer for old dogs to be out-and-about, Keishísh sniffs the new grass beside the rocks. She looks up at the squawking gulls. I stop and sit on a large boulder. She lies down at my feet, and as I pet her head, I see the puppy inside of her. I recall her days of bounding across bridges and jumping into my car for a ride. I can also sense there’s an ancient dog inside of her, like the dog who walked the shoreline of Back Channel with her human and stopped to spend the night or perhaps days curled up in the cave.
This old dog is an ancient soul. Where there are dog bones, sometimes human bones are nearby. At first, researchers who found the Wrangell dog bone, thought it was a bear bone, but it turned out to be a fragment of a dog’s femur. In the same cave, fragments of human hand bones were found too, and have since been repatriated to Wrangell’s tribal agency.
Like the ancient dog walker, I’m thankful for my companion, grateful to give Keishísh flat, short walks. It’s been this way for a few years because the discs in her back are degenerating. For years, now, I’ve managed her illnesses with devil’s club, chaga and veterinarian prescribed meds. Now, I get up from the rock and Keishísh and I amble along toward the trail leading through the woods. In the Lingít language Keishísh means “alder.” She’s named for the Tlingit Aaní that I love. Around us the alder are still bare, but you can see the buds are getting plumper. The lichen hangs like hair in the spruce trees and beyond is the old Native graveyard. Simple and ornate headstones are leaning and overgrown with moss. Everything gets older: stones, spruce trees, dogs and even me. Keishísh has given me almost 14 years of love. I miss her brother, Gomer, too. Gomer was a Karelian bear dog mix. I don’t know when Keishísh will be crossing the rainbow bridge to see her buddy Gomer, but the time grows closer every day. Yes, there are many things I should do today, but not at this moment. This morning is just about the dog.
This old dog is a good dog. I had thought Keishísh was going to move on before Gomer. But dog time and dog plans are different from ours. After Gomer died, Keishísh was sad and slept a lot. Gomer was the happiest one out of all of us. I wish I could have told Keishísh what was happening to Gomer beforehand. I tried. She knew something had happened, though, because that day was the first time, in nine years, she’d been alone in the house. These days, she gets lots of sleep, treats, short walks, and she knows I’m a sucker and will give her anything she wants. Dogs are my favorite beings on the planet and dealing with a dog’s end of life is devastating. It’s hard to do all the things that life requires of you when you’re mourning a dog whose gone and another who’s about to die. I know, Dear Reader and Dog Lover, you’ve felt these things too. But here’s some advice: take a billion pictures and videos. Make sure you’re in the photos and videos loving your dogs, and of course, just love them lots while they are here.
This old dog is a young soul. I’m pretty sure my Tlingit ancestors had dogs and they too held puppies in their arms and fell in love. This yearning to have a furry best friend is in our DNA. Our life with dogs was meant to be. As we held that fuzzy puppy in our arms, inhaling her puppy breath, we did not imagine all that the dog would teach us. Life with an old dog is not easy. All throughout her life stages, Keishísh taught me to love. She taught me that love isn’t all happy and joyous times. For dogs, love is about showing up and being consistent. And for humans, love is also about showing up and being consistent. Love is about stopping and enjoying the little things: a squirrel in the tree, ravens chasing each other in the wind, the sun breaking through just in time for a walk. Love is about witnessing everything this life throws at you and still getting up the next day and saying to your loved one, “I’m here. I see you. Through all the good times and hard times, I love you.”
This old dog is an old friend. It sure is a complicated world we live in now as we are in our third year of dealing with this pandemic. The kindness of dogs and friends is essential for our wellbeing. Without our dogs, many of us couldn’t have gone through these last couple of years.
An old dog is a good healer. Like my dog, I need slow moments: watching for spring greens to come up, good food, walks, and sharing stories. It’s all healing. My dog Keishísh and I enjoy places and spaces where we can just be. I know that soon I’ll have to make the decision to transition her, but for now I take it month to month and moment to moment. And for now, she loves treats, playing with a puppy friend, taking strolls around the house and yard, and she’s an avid bird watcher too. Moments with Keishísh are healing. As I walk slowly with Keishísh, I realize I’m bound and determined to use this summer for healing and that means paying attention to the little things. You want to take a walk, do it. You want to learn to harvest chocolate lilies, go learn it. You want sit by a beach bonfire, do it. You want to talk story and eat some smoked salmon and berries somewhere beautiful, do it. If you want to sit with your dog on the couch and scratch their ears, do it.
My little heart loves the simple moments in life, more so now with how this pandemic has affected us. I make time to be grateful for small moments, like sitting with this gentle soul, watching the rain pelt my window and blue jays squawking in the tree. Keishísh is among my most favorite beings to have walked this earth. We never know how long we get with those we love, and I’m grateful for this old dog and the journey she and I have been on. So just sit somewhere beautiful for a moment together, just you and your dog. Watch a raven hop on a log, or the sealion move through the water. Take your dog on a slow walk to pick a few spring greens and inhale the gift of our days.
• Yéilk’ Vivian Mork writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska appears twice monthly in the Capital City Weekly.