Karen Clyde was in Alaska looking for an easy, on-the go family adventure. She hadn’t expected to return to the family home in Whitehorse, Canada, her eyes full of tears, her young boys detecting her pain while trying to console her. Two dogs piled into the Clyde’s Toyota Tundra truck, but they were making the return trip to the Yukon Territory one family member short.
Missing from their human-canine pack was Mazzy Star, a 15-year-old husky she'd named after a California band and a loyal companion who predated any of the other important relationships in Clyde's life. Before her husband, there was Mazzy. Before her 13-year-old and 7-year old boys were born, there was Mazzy. But on this long drive home, after days and days spent searching and hoping that Mazzy would show up, Clyde's caravan was incomplete.
"Mom, we'll find her. We'll find her," 13-year-old Matthias, her eldest son, kept telling Clyde, words from an optimistic boy still young enough not to be jaded by harsh truths the world sometimes delivers. Where Matthias offered words of comfort, 7-year-old Daniel offered hugs.
The truth here was that Mazzy was old and deaf, with only three legs. She had wandered off at a campground along Alaska's Russian River, an abundant and immensely popular salmon and trout corridor in prime bear country on the Kenai Peninsula, a three-hour drive south of Alaska’s largest city. And she'd been gone without a trace for nearly a week.
Black bears were trashing tents in the campground. Grizzly sows and their cubs were wandering the banks. And Clyde feared Mazzy was out there somewhere, ambling and hopping her way through a silent world thick with apex predators. After days of waiting, the family could wait no more. There were jobs to get back to. School for the kids. Karen had a newborn to care for. It was time to move on.
"Leaving a dog who you think had a horrible ending, who was expecting you to save her somehow, was just terrible," Clyde said, in an interview from Whitehorse, still heavy with the gut wrench and guilt she had carried home. "I just had to say bye to her and realize that I wasn't going to see her. Chances are she'd been eaten. I had this horrible feeling in my stomach the whole way."
A dog goes missing
The family had pulled into the Russian River campground on a Sunday night on something of a whim. Bound for Homer, they'd heard about the Russian’s excellent fishing for salmon. They thought it would be worth a look and decided on a brief stay. Long enough to explore and do a little fishing.
Self-described "river traveler tent people," the family was experiencing their first summer of outings with a travel trailer. With a 3-month-old daughter to care for, they thought it would be easier on everyone. All three dogs, Mazzy and two others, had kennels to sleep in, set up under the trailer's awning to avoid the rain.
But on Monday morning when everyone awoke, Mazzy was gone, the result of an inadvertently unlatched kennel door, Clyde believes. The search began.
"It was an impossible task,” Clyde said. “You can't call her because she's deaf."
She would drive with the baby in the car, talking to anyone who would listen and putting up "lost dog" posters. They walked "all over the place" hoping to catch sight of Mazzy, including a trail leading to Russian River Falls, an overlook from which salmon can be viewed teeming in the waters below. Along the way, the couple couldn't help but notice what looked like dozens of bear pathways laced throughout the area. Even Tom Jung, Clyde's wildlife biologist husband, was nervous.
With not much more to do but wait, Jung, an avid fly fisherman, managed to catch one sockeye salmon Monday night before the season closed. The next day, he took the boys fishing for silvers. For everyone, the vigil for Mazzy continued.
Campground employees helped search the thick, brush-filled woods. Four of them even scrambled down a steep 100 foot ravine from the campground to the river below, climbing through cottonwood and spruce trees and withstanding scrapes delivered by thorny plants.
"It was pretty wild down there," described Sean Kedzie, a member of the bush-whacking campground search party. Kedzie had a theory that Mazzy may have wandered down the steep hill, but didn't have the strength -- with only one back leg -- to power herself back up. But despite an extensive search, they found no trace of the dog. It was growing increasingly likely, the most they might find would be her collar or bones.
"If we found anything, we were expecting to find a body," said Dianne Owen, Kedzie's boss and the campground's general manager.
Someone to watch over her
Mazzy entered the world in 1996, one of what Clyde calls a "spooky" litter of sled dog pups. Every one of them was somewhat off. But Clyde was drawn to one shy, white husky, who back then still had four legs. In this group of dogs named after Clyde's CD collection -- Sprocket, for the band Toad the Wet Sprocket; Hiatt, for John Hiatt; Vega, for Suzanne Vega -- Clyde chose Mazzy, named for Mazzy Star, the band from California. Or maybe, Mazzy chose her. However it happened, they bonded, and were in for what was to become one wild ride after another.
"You are the dog that I am going to work with," Clyde remember thinking to herself when she chose which pup she'd keep. "I am going to give you the best life I can."
When Mazzy turned 3, Clyde had just returned to Whitehorse after living in Fairbanks to get a graduate degree at UAF. When they moved into a new house, Mazzy vanished. Matthias was just 6 months old. After about two weeks a neighbor about a mile away called Clyde to say Mazzy had shown up. She was living outside but coming to the same house every night for dinner. But on this night, the homeowner noticed Mazzy was injured, possibly hit by a car. Clyde scrambled to get there in what she calls a "hysterical Lassie come home" moment. When Mazzy saw Clyde, the dog smiled, hopped over and Clyde scooped her up.
Clyde cashed in her retirement savings to fund three surgeries to try to save the leg. But $5,000 later it had to come off. Even some family members wondered why she was going to such great lengths over one dog. "You know, we shoot three-legged dogs," her grandfather once said during the dog's ordeal.
Nearly a decade later, Mazzy again went missing during a move to yet another new house. Clyde got the call while visiting friends in Fairbanks, and she cut her trip short to go try to lure her home. Mazzy had a habit of not coming when called by anyone other than Clyde. What ensued was two weeks of chasing Mazzy across the property surrounding their home. But the dog was so shy, she just ran more whenever anyone got close. Clyde was so desperate to get the dog back, she baited a dog trap with pork souvlaki hoping it would be too tempting to resist. When she went to check the trap one rainy morning, she'd caught a fox. But Mazzy remained on the run. Clyde set the fox free, and climbed back up on her ATV to keep searching.
On the way, she passed a bear. Then, curled on a trail, she spotted Mazzy. But instead of coming when called, Mazzy ran up a bank. Clyde literally had to tackle the dog to stop her. Clyde took off her rain gear and looked the dog in the face. "It's me you idiot. Stop running," Clyde remembers thinking.
When Clyde made Mazzy look at her, an “Oh, where have you been?" look came over the dog.
The humans in Mazzy's life, including Clyde, hadn't yet realized yet that Mazzy wasn't hearing well. But the frantic chases for days on end to try and capture her -- and the final tackle -- clued them in. At age 12, Mazzy had gone deaf.
Mazzy would spend the rest of her days under a version of house arrest, closely watched to keep the beloved "crazy, sweet dog" safe and sound.
Which made this third-in-a-lifetime disappearance so troubling. Clyde had always, somehow, come back to Mazzy. But now, from this scenic riverside pit stop in Alaska, she would have to abandon her.
"It was so hard to leave the campground. She's expecting that I'm going to find her. That's the game we play," Clyde said. "I swear in her little doggie brain she was thinking, 'Where's Karen?'"
On Tuesday, one day after arriving back in Whitehorse, Clyde was driving in her car with Matthias and her infant daughter, Sarah, when her iPhone started ringing. The number showed someone from the United States was calling. "Answer it! Answer it!" Clyde pleaded as she threw the phone to her son.
On the other end was a guy named Wally with a thick Mississippi accent. "You won't believe what I have in the back of the car right now," he told Clyde, who had pulled over to take the call and was already in tears before Wally Kinsey, the Russian River campground manager, could finish the sentence. Mazzy had been found.
Twenty-one-year-old Sean Kedzie, a campground employee from Wisconsin, had just finished making his rounds Tuesday when he noticed a few cars backed up, and then, after spotting something in the corner of his eye, thought to himself, "You have got to be kidding me."
There, hobbling down the road, eight days after she went missing, was Mazzy. "When I got out of the truck she hopped right over and looked at me with 'Wow, I am safe now' eyes," he said in an interview Thursday. "You could tell she had been giving it her all. It seemed like she hadn't stopped to rest the whole time she had been gone."
Mazzy was tired, dirty, had burrs in her fur, was missing fur on her tail, and had lost enough weight for her bones to show. "She needed us," Kedzie said. "When I poured water into my hands for her to drink, she went nuts."
While Clyde, Jung and their kids reeled in joy and disbelief, Kedzie and crew brought Mazzy back to their bunkhouse and made her a place to sleep out of their own bed rolls. She ate and drank well, took a long nap, and bounced back quickly, happy to lend her head to anyone interested in giving her a scratch behind the ears.
That Mazzy, who didn't have much body fat to begin with, had made it through was remarkable. That she had somehow also avoided bears seemed even more so. Just this week, the campground closed to tents by emergency order. Only hard shell campers are currently allowed, thanks to a black bear that shredded at least one tent, maybe more.
But a bear expert in the area wasn't surprised to hear Mazzy survived her solo adventure in the woods. "I don't imagine that dog got that old by being dumb," said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Plus, he said, bears don’t prey on dogs. They're much more interested in berries and fish, and even when they do kill a dog, they tend not to eat them or drag them off. They just get rid of threat and move on. For Mazzy, a deaf dog that easily could have stumbled across and surprised a bear, Lewis thinks the animals' sensitive noses may have allowed them to avoid each other.
And, she may have been using her nose to try to find her way home.
Mazzy, it turns out, was found at the very campground where Clyde and her family had watched and waited for days.
"She was looking for us, and she didn't find us," Clyde said, after learning Mazzy was safe, a twinge of heartache still lingering amid the otherwise good news.
Jung, Clyde's husband, drove straight through -- a 15 hour drive -- back to the Russian River to collect Mazzy and bring her home. They were reunited Wednesday night. When Mazzy realized it was Jung and not another campground staffer coming in the door, her ears perked, tail wagged, and she walked over to his side.
In all the searching for her, this troublesome girl managed to give the people nearby something special. For the crew at the campground, it was a little slice of home -- a pet to watch over, care for and play with.
For Clyde, it was relief from the grief of not knowing what had become of the dog she loved and more time with the special animal who will one day soon die of old age.
And for Cooper Landing, the town closest to the Russian River, it was a deep sense of gratitude. People there, complete strangers, showed so much compassion for the family during its desperate search for their three-legged, deaf, old dog that Clyde developed a "soft spot" for the place. Cooper Landing displayed "humanity in full tilt."
Finally, there is Matthias, Clyde's 13-year-old son, who offered the same, calm observation upon hearing “Mazzy the wonder dog" was found as he did when she went missing: "You know, Mom, I don't know why you worried because I knew she would come back."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com
CORRECTION: An earlier verision of this story misspelled the name of Karen Clyde, and a headline incorrectly said Mazzy was blind.