Mandy Iworrigan’s dog was gone. Not lost, exactly. But nowhere anyone could find him.
Iworrigan, who lives in Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, had already been through a bit of a saga with one of her family’s other dogs a few weeks before. While she was visiting Savoonga in March with her kids, two of the family’s three dogs, Starlight and Nanuq, disappeared, along with her uncle’s dog Ghost.
“They were gone,” Iworrigan said. “So I had my other half come look around town.”
No luck. Her uncle said Ghost did this all the time — disappeared for a ramble out on the tundra for a week or two.
“‘But he always finds his way back,’” Iworrigan’s uncle assured her.
Still, it was worrisome not to know where two of her family’s beloved animals were. Each of her three kids has a dog of their own, treated more like a little sibling than a pet.
So it was a shock when in Savoonga, 37 miles as the crow flies from Gambell, a canine doppelgänger appeared.
“My girls went to go play out, and they said, ‘mom, mom, mom -- there’s a dog that looks like Starlight,’” Iworrigan said. She didn’t think much of it, but the dog kept following her youngest daughter Zoe around, even trotting alongside a sled to stay close.
“I was like, ‘Stop the snowmachine! Starlight! What are you doing in Savoonga?’ ” Iworrigan recounted in an interview Monday. It was not, in fact, a doppelgänger: Their dog had somehow gotten herself three dozen miles to the next town over, 2 1/2 weeks since disappearing.
But Starlight’s brother Nanuq, a 1-year-old Australian shepherd belonging to her 8-year-old daughter Brooklyn, was nowhere to be found. Iworrigan looked around town the next day, to no avail, so she left to go back home with some friends keeping an eye out.
It was about a week later when word came back that Nanuq might have gone a good deal farther than Savoonga.
“My dad texted me and said, ‘There’s a dog that looks like Nanuq in Wales,’ ” Iworrigan said.
The tiny town at the far western edge of the Seward Peninsula is a 166-mile straight shot from Gambell over plates of sea ice feeding into the choke point of the Bering Strait. People there had posted images of a dog nobody recognized to a Facebook group used by people in Nome and the surrounding communities for trading news, goods and gossip. Iworrigan had been off Facebook but reactivated her account to try to verify whether or not the interloping hound might be Nanuq.
“I was like, ‘No freakin’ way! That’s our dog! What is he doing in Wales?’ ” she said.
She still isn’t sure about the particulars of Nanuq’s trip across the sea ice.
“I have no idea why he ended up in Wales. Maybe the ice shifted while he was hunting,” Iworrigan said. “I’m pretty sure he ate leftovers of seal or caught a seal. Probably birds, too. He eats our Native foods. He’s smart.”
A young man and his sister in Wales watched out for Nanuq for a few days while Iworrigan figured out how to get Nanuq home. There are no direct flights from Wales to St. Lawrence Island, but there was a charter bringing some school kids from there through Nome and out to Gambell for the Bering Strait School District’s Native Youth Olympics tournament.
Iworrigan managed to get Nanuq onboard in a crate lent to her by a teacher, and used her airline points on a regional carrier to cover the expense of freighting the dog all the way back home. He arrived last Thursday. A video posted to Facebook shows Brooklyn sprinting to the plane’s cargo keep to greet Nanuq between periodic shrieks of excitement.
In spite of being gone from home a month during the tail-end of winter, from early March until April, Nanuq is in good health, Iworrigan said — save for a swollen leg with two large bite marks from an animal she can’t quite identify.
“Wolverine, seal, small nanuq, we don’t know, because it’s like a really big bite,” she said, using the Siberian Yupik word for a polar bear, as well as the dog’s namesake.
She and her daughter have been cleaning the wounds and were waiting on antibiotics to arrive, but are mostly just relieved that their family’s most adventurous 1-year-old member is back home safe.
Iworrigan said she has never heard of a Gambell dog ever walking across the sea ice to the Seward Peninsula. News of Starlight and Nanuq’s adventures ricocheted around the internet, granting them a bit of fame on Alaska Facebook.
“If dogs could talk, both of them would have one heck of a story,” Iworrigan said.
Alongside them is a neighbor’s dog, which was photographed dragging a seal it caught away from a lead in the sea ice last month, the picture included in social media posts as more evidence that St. Lawrence Island dogs are a bit heartier than the average Alaska poodle or malamute.
“Three dogs that are famous here in Gambell,” Iworrigan chuckled. “They can hunt and catch their own seal. So I’m laughing about that.”
She added that if it hadn’t been for kindly good Samaritans looking out for an unfamiliar dog and taking the time to put the information online, she and her family might never have gotten their dog back.
“Alaska has caring people, and I’m happy for that. I’m blessed and fortunate,” she said. “There’s people that actually care out there.”