NINILCHIK -- Oil companies hire gun-toting bear guards to protect crews from attack, but a new wildlife problem arose a few years ago -- animals were snatching seismic nodes used in the search for oil and gas.
That's when now-retired bear guard Mark Chihuly -- who never went anywhere without his four-legged friend, Zipper -- decided to put the golden Lab on the case.
Chihuly had the idea a few years ago because Zipper could find pretty much anything after a few minutes of training, even long-lost items buried deep in snow.
At 8 years old, the pooch also has an excellent grasp of English.
That comes in handy when, say, Chihuly is working on a project on his 50-acre spread on the Kenai Peninsula and can't reach tools.
Hammer? Zipper's got it. A bucket with screws? No problem.
Zipper can make life too easy. She retrieves cellphones, TV remotes, even his hat each morning.
"My wife gets mad because I never bend over to pick stuff up anymore," Chihuly said.
Chihuly was working at his quail pen this summer when he called his wife and asked her to bring him some water. Instead, Zipper made the half-mile delivery after Susan outfitted the Lab with a doggy pack and said, "Go see Mark."
"Give no credit to me," Chihuly said. "She'll do anything you teach her in about 15 minutes. She just loves to work and she's in heaven when you're paying attention to her."
Chihuly, a former state wildlife technician who once dealt with problem bears in the Anchorage area, said he started the first bear-guard business in the state about 15 years ago to protect industry workers.
He retired from Professional Wilderness Services this year, giving the company to former employees but retaining a tiny stake.
Bear-guide training tools such as pop-up targets still occupy his land in Ninilchik. There's a cutout of a bear ready to fly down a zip line here, a bruin jumping out from behind a worker there.
Many of the props are designed to test judgment as much as aim, with failure coming for trainees who fire when they shouldn't.
Being a bear guard "is not so much knowing how to shoot a bear, it's about being comfortable around them and knowing when they're dangerous and when they're not," he says.
Chihuly launched the company not long after a brown bear in 1998 fatally mauled a seismic worker on the Kenai Peninsula, sparking the oil industry to begin hiring bear guards.
Over the years, Chihuly's bear guards have kept bruins and crews safely apart dozens of times, he said. They've scouted out wilderness areas, created large buffers around known dens and waved back workers at signs of danger.
The service was especially important in spring 2004, when a big-game guide working for the company was mauled by a bear. The guide suffered some injuries but protected the crew.
Zipper came into Chihuly's life a few years after that, after the pup's original owner died in a plane crash. Once an adult, Zipper -- named for her boundless energy -- was heading to remote work camps with Chihuly when he'd check up on his crews.
That meant getting into helicopters that kicked up dust and twigs. So Chihuly trained Zipper to wear a pair of ski goggles when entering choppers.
Something of a company mascot, Zipper also wore an orange safety vest for visibility. And Chihuly created a miniature hard hat for Zipper from a plastic toy, with two holes for ears, a humorous example for the hunters and trappers he employed who scoffed at wearing the required gear.
Work crews love seeing Zipper, said Patrick Wheeler, a co-owner of the company.
"She's always a big hit," he said. "The standout thing in my mind is that she responds to voice commands like no other dog I've ever seen. She's quite amazing."
Extremely obedient, Zipper would stay in the field for a day or two with Chihuly, on bear patrol and growling if something rustled in the brush, Wheeler said.
She took on a more serious role in the winter of 2011-12, when so much snow fell that seismic nodes staked into the ground were getting buried and couldn't be found, Wheeler said.
Bears were also snatching some of the nodes, which were about the size of flower pots. Teeth marks proved it. In addition, moose occasionally stomped down survey sticks marking the gear, said Wheeler.
It all added up to a costly inconvenience for seismic crews that had to find the lost equipment.
Zipper's nose came in handy in the winter of 2013, at Hilcorp's 3D seismic project at Deep Creek. The Lab helped find two nodes that had been buried in snow and lost, Chihuly said.
"A couple of guys could have found it but it would have taken quite a while," he said. "Those things get covered with snow and it's hard to see, but she can find them real fast."
For helping on that project, Zipper got a shout-out at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association's annual luncheon in May, with president Kara Moriarty showing the audience photos of Zipper on a huge screen, sporting her safety gear, of course.
Zipper's bear patrol had helped crews focus on their jobs, she said.
"The seismic work was successful, and Zipper really is the cutest dog on the planet," Moriarty said.
These days, both Chihuly and Zipper are happily enjoying their recent retirement, Chihuly said.
He's hung Zipper's hard hat on a tree near one of the handmade ski trails on his land. Like other dogs Chihuly has owned, Zipper has a trail named after her.
One sunny day, after introducing a reporter to Zipper -- the dog retrieved a hat, a bucket and a hammer, grabbing each separately when asked -- Chihuly asked for a kiss.
Zipper leaped up twice and gave him two.