KASILOF — It's tough to sneak up on a musher, and the eruption of explosive barking from 40 sled dogs in my front yard was the first indication an intruder was on the property. Living with so many huskies for so long, my wife, Colleen, and I have learned to distinguish the subtle differences in their vocal repertoire, and this cacophony signaled more than a car pulling up our long driveway. The hysterical sounds they emitted were typically reserved for wild animals, and I thought a moose might have meandered into the yard.
I quickly suited up in my winter gear and sprinted outside. Realizing I was on the case, the dogs quieted down, and I looked to them to show me what was there. All 40 pairs of eyes were looking in the same direction, tracking something near our dog truck, but I didn't detect anything out of the ordinary.
This was before a recent snowfall, and my ice cleats jangled like spurs against the pan of smooth, hard ice underfoot as I made several laps around the vehicle. Kneeling to look underneath the vehicle revealed no lumbering porcupine or lost neighbor dogs, both of which sometimes pass through. I was about to give up when my wife shouted from the porch.
"There it is! Look on the tire!" she said.
My eyes darted to the rear radial where I saw a small flash of white fur, but it disappeared too quickly to identify the creature. Seconds later it popped out between the tailgate and bumper, but vanished again, just as swiftly. Next we noticed a tiny head poke out of the holes in the hubcap.
We never actually saw the creature move. It seemed like it was teleporting to each new location, that's how fast it ran.
Only when it finally dashed to our winter woodpile did we glimpse the full body of the fleet-footed visitor, and figured we were in the company of a short-tailed weasel.
Also known as ermines, short-tailed weasels are the smallest members of the fur-bearing family of animals known as Mustelidae, which includes minks, martens, river and sea otters, and wolverines. Our high-strung weasel studied us as much as we did it. Its tiny wet nose and whiskers working hard to distinguish our scent as friend or foe, diminutive round ears fixed forward.
My heart rate doubled at the discovery. It may sound strange, but for years I've suffered a terrible case of weasel envy; seemingly, every neighbor had a resident rodent. One spring, my friend across the street had a weasel give birth and raise a litter in the silverware drawer of his commercial fishing camp's kitchen before the structure took on its seasonal human inhabitants. Another neighbor two doors down had a weasel sneak into his coop and kill and cache more than a dozen young broiler chickens he had intended to raise and eat himself.
I also saw a picture sequence on the internet this summer of a stoat — as they are known in the United Kingdom — that attempted to take down a much-larger woodpecker. The fearless weasel had clenched down on the neck of the bird, which immediately took flight. The rash rodent rode the bird like a flying carpet for several seconds only yielding its meal when the bird finally landed too close to human spectators. This led me to an internet search where I watched a video of another weasel taking down a rabbit that was 10 times its own size.
Yes, weasels are killers, albeit adorable ones, but it is not their cuteness that attracts me. It is the bold tenacity of these carnivores that draws my admiration, and the one that I had come eye to beady eye with in my yard was no exception.
At our winter woodpile, the weasel seamlessly worked through the labyrinth of gaps between foot-long lengths of log as if it had its path memorized. As soon as I sensed white at the periphery of my field of vision and turned to see him, he'd be gone and frustratingly reappear just to my left or right again.
Weasels, like ptarmigan and snowshoe hare, turn white in winter as a response to the decreasing daylight, not snowfall, which had been absent again so far this winter. In a world of gray and brown hues that make up the colors of my yard, the weasel must be disadvantaged by his bright pelage. No doubt that's what allowed the dogs — and eventually me — to notice the movement.
Eventually, our furry new friend scurried several yards to a band saw I'd set up to cut blocks of frozen meat and salmon-sicles into more bite-sized pieces for my dogs. Watching how fast its tiny little legs fluttered in the open was impressive, yet at the same time there was something comical about it. I could easily envision the weasel's movement paired with the high-pitched tone of a musical triangle, much like the matching of instruments and animals in Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
At my meat saw, I thought I had the upper hand. I stooped to take a gander around the knee-high engine, but he got the drop on me. Undetected, the weasel had climbed into the upper wheel assembly, and now, deeply annoyed and dangling down to menace me, it chattered in a scolding manner inches from my face.
Here was a creature that — as I learned after calling the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — has a home range of 40 acres, yet this individual critter was audacious enough to attempt running me off my own land, while also brazenly trespassing on the periphery of a yard clearly belonging to 40 much larger canines, all conspicuously intolerant of a tiny interloper.
My wife and daughter got a kick out of the tongue lashing the weasel dished out, although they received their fair share of its scorn too when they came over to get a closer look. Still, my 3-year-old giggled endlessly at tracking the small weasel that popped its head up and down from various nooks and crannies in the saw.
Knowing there is still far more winter ahead than behind, and that this weasel will face many more months of below-freezing temperatures as well as dodging the owls, coyotes and lynx that make their home in the spruce forest surrounding my home, we all thought it best to let him alone to forage on whatever meat shavings he could fill his belly on while hiding in the saw.
Sometimes humans see in animals qualities we wish we had, from the strength of a bear to the security of a pack of wolves to the freedom of a soaring eagle. As a husband, father, musher and writer, my daily schedule is a hectic one, but this little weasel's life seemed even more harried. Something about that I found endearing. I coveted his ability to seemingly be in two places at once and briefly delighted in all I could get accomplished if I could do the same.
We haven't seen him since that day, but I'm always keeping an eye out, and I think about him often and fondly. His potential wanderings fill my mind with wonder.
I figured out at an early age that I learn so much about what it means to be human by watching things that aren't, and knowing that our little weasel went back to searching for his place in the world somehow made it more enjoyable for me to do the same.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof, where he and his wife operate Rogues Gallery Kennel. Joseph's first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, is due out in April.