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Worf was a tough dog to love -- but boy, was he worth it

Seth Kantner
Photo by SETH KANTNER

Last night the door burst open and my wife and daughter bustled in. When the cloud of cold air dissipated I saw they had a stray dog with them.

The dog was big, lanky, his ribs showing. His waist was as small as a roll of paper towels, his balls frozen black and his big square ugly head splotched with pink areas around his lips that had frozen, a lot.

He stood not wagging, not growling, definitely not handsome. Outside was -44, and it's been windy -- cold for months -- bitter for humans and worse for him, hungry and in that thin coat and bare pads. Probably the warmth stunned him. I was a little stunned too.

This boy looked like he could bite, really hard.

"Hi, ah, Junior," I said. "You starving to death?" I cut him a piece off the caribou shoulder on the counter. His eyes watched. He didn't move a muscle. One of my muscles sure moved -- in my heart. I missed our dog, Worf.

Worf slipped into our lives in similar style. Worf was a black and white husky, owned by a woman named Erika and, after her landlord didn't allow dogs, by our friends Joe and Kelley.

Joe's half Korean. After I got a brown bear one spring, he agreed to show me how to make medicine out of the gall bladder. It's not what you think -- the medicine was for back pain. We tore up soft bread and poured the gall over it and rolled greenish pills onto a floured cookie sheet. Joe put the pan on the Monitor to dry. About then he let Kelley's husky in. Worf let out a roar, got down low and prepared to defend us from that cookie tray. I was impressed.

Worf was handsome as heck. That didn't mean I liked him much -- he was too powerful, too rambunctious, wild and wily. And around other canines he had one thing in mind:

KILL.

Joe and Kelley moved in next door. Worf ended up in a steel fenced area. Whenever I came ashore in my fishing boat his brown eyes followed my every move. His eyes were weird, they made you wonder -- like there was an old man or a shaman in there, peering out. I heard he was from Noatak, so maybe there was some truth to that.

Each day I had unsalable, seal-bit fish. "You thinking about a salmon head?" I asked him through the steel mesh. He patted the ground with his white front paws, unblinking.

"Me, too," I said. "I'm going to cook mine. You can have yours raw."

China [Kantner's daughter] and Worf were a year apart, and when she was 5 we started "borrowing" him -- taking him upriver in the fall, for company and to scare off bears.

That first trip, China and Worf and I crossed Kobuk Lake and camped inside the river mouth. We slept in the boat. I made Worf sleep in the willows. He was a dog; I'd never had a pet, only sled dogs. I didn't know him -- I didn't want him sneaking into my grub box or crapping in my boat.

After we got there, up home, friends showed up -- Nick Jans and Tom Walker -- taking photos of caribou. Nick quickly pointed out some stuff I hadn't noticed yet: Worf wasn't running off, didn't get into my meat and he seldom took his eyes off me.

If anyone got between us, Worf got up and shifted, so he could watch me. Anybody else was just in the way. And his stare was like a wolf, eyes almost slightly crossed they were so intent, nose down, looking up at me. It was kind of cool.

Less cool was when you called him -- he got wily and stayed out of reach. He chased off caribou when we needed meat, even chased a wolf when I tried to get a photo. When caribou were beside the boat, he'd leap overboard and attack animals I shot. He barreled after sounds in the dark, even chewed up a whole Coke can to get the mouse that had crawled inside. He was his own dog, responsible for his own health care.

When Joe and Kelley moved to Hawaii, for one reason or another Worf didn't end up with a ticket. China and I cornered Stacey [Kantner's wife]; we pled Worf's case. I wouldn't have done it but the troublemaker needed a place to stay and I wanted China to have a pet or two in her life.

"He'll be yours," Stacey finally relinquished. "I won't have one thing to do with that dog." She was wrong, but didn't know that then. She didn't like him. (I think there were a few other words she used, also.)

The years went by. Most winters Worf lived out in his house, facing the worst storms imaginable. He didn't want to come inside unless it was crazy cold. China and I would pound his snap open in the morning, walk to school together, making up stories from his perspective.

We camped a lot. He went fishing, and berry picking with the family. We had our thousand trials -- him leaping overboard when I was setting the net; him nosing me in the eye when I was wrestling with a burglar, him leading a charging bull moose to where I stood half asleep in my boxers.

He about did himself in too, falling through ice and leaping out of the truck while tied in and sneaking out of the boat while I was sleeping in floating sea ice. Basically, I beat him when he fought, left him when I was busy, took him to amazing country and gave him the finest bones a dog could ever want. A pretty good dog's life, I guess.

China has her stories -- Worf dragging her like a doll, knocking her down, but chasing off a bear too. And Stacey grew to love him as he mellowed. Worf was a professional at making friends -- a two-timer, maybe because of abandonment -- and Wayne Hogue, who lived downstairs, even took to cooking a turkey on Thanksgiving and splitting it with him.

We joked that he was Worf's ticket out of here.

I'd never had a pet. I started noticing that this boy had a slew of the same highs and lows I deal with. He was optimistic, always wanted to go. He never thought it was too cold or too buggy. He got grumpy when I left him home. Later, he'd follow my trail for miles on the tundra, nose down, to see what he'd missed. He kept to himself, not wanting to be petted much, not needing to lick hands. He wouldn't drink soup; he liked to be clean. He loved to slide down the sledding hill with all the kids. He even started fetching waterfowl for me, out in the water and ice -- as if that old man was behind his eyes, paying attention.

This past spring we spent breakup upriver, just him and me. Each day we went out on the tundra and he'd act as a wolf decoy for me -- keeping the attention of geese and swans -- while I photographed.

After spring, he pretty much never ate again. I think it was cancer. We tried a lot of things, even a trip to a vet in Anchorage. There, in a car, I tried to keep him alive by asking, "Want to go hunt caribou?" He raised his white eyebrows. Finally, I had to shoot him, out here on the tundra. That was when I really found out what a companion he'd become.

Anyway, Junior -- he doesn't know any of this. He's got his own deal, I'm sure. His own story.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.


SETH KANTNER
AROUND ALASKA