The giant foam hot dog in a bun that Luc Mehl and friends stumbled across this spring on the edge of Alaska nowhere left him haunted.
Here his group was on the vast, undeveloped and little-visited Susitna River tidal flats returning from an epic crossing of three Aleutian Range volcanoes -- mounts Iliamna, Redoubt and Spurr -- when this hot dog-like mirage appeared on the horizon.
From a distance, Mehl said, no one could quite believe their eyes, but as they drew closer it became obvious that yes, indeed, there was a 9-foot-long hot dog on a 7-foot-long bun beached like a dead whale on the shore of Cook Inlet.
Being an environmentally minded group of hikers, Mehl and friends decided they should get rid of the litter. So they tried to burn it up. That was a mistake.
"It produced such a massive plume of black smoke, and there was so much air traffic, that I was nervous a plane would think we were signaling for help,'' he later reported. "We didn't want to draw any attention, especially because we would be crossing Cook Inlet soon and thought the Coast Guard might not be psyched about our vessels.
"So we turned it over to put out the fire. Now there is a huge hot dog on the flats, flame-broiled to perfection.''
Search for hot dog origins
Upon returning safely to civilization, Mehl couldn't put the mystery of the traveling hot dog out of his head. So began a search for its origins.
As word of his discovery rippled through a community of Internet-savvy Alaska trekkers and fans of outdoor adventure, other reports of the hot dog started to trickle in.
Evergreen Helicopters pilot Ryan Skorecki reported spotting it along the east bank of the Matanuska River near the community of Butte. Skorecki was eventually able to uncover a 2011 Google Earth satellite image with the hot dog plainly visible about 15 miles from where Mehl stumbled on it west of Point MacKenzie three years later.
The hot dog had clearly slipped unnoticed down the river, under the busy Glenn Highway bridge between Wasilla and Alaska's largest city, along Knik Arm past Anchorage itself, and finally headed west in the Inlet.
Skorecki's sighting helped narrow the origins of the dog to the Palmer-Wasilla area, and some Matanuska-Susitna Borough residents seemed to recall there was once a giant hot dog along with the giant ice cream cones outside Little Miller's Ice Cream in Wasilla.
Hot dog looks familiar
Further digging revealed varied accounts as to how that hot dog might have been stolen as a high school prank, but there the story ended until this week, when 2005 Colony High School graduate Allan Spangler reluctantly confessed knowledge of the hot dog's migration from Miller's to Cook Inlet.
"Oh God,'' he said. "Maybe I know where it came from.''
Spangler first learned of the hot dog on the beach about 8 miles west of Point MacKenzie when he stumbled upon Mehl's outdoor adventure blog. A former track athlete turned mountain runner, Spangler has some interests in common with Mehl.
Spangler looked at a photo on Mehl's blog, he said, and thought, "That hot dog looks awfully familiar.''
Spangler tipped Mehl that he might know its origins. Word of that got around, and the next thing Spangler knew he was talking to a reporter by telephone from where he now works at a remote radar site in Tin City, outside of Nome on the Seward Peninsula in Northwest Alaska.
"It was the hot dog off Miller's Ice Cream,'' Spangler admitted under intense questioning.
Spangler's memory is that Miller's store was for a time out of business and some high school students thought they'd liberate the hot dog. He claimed not to remember who was involved, but he did remember the group took the dog on a "joyride'' that ended with them "tying it up with some rope under the Old Glenn Highway bridge.''
The year was 2004. How long the hot dog hung beneath the bridge is unclear.
"I never went back to look at it,'' Spangler said. "I wonder if anyone took a photo of it while it was hanging under the bridge.''
Whether someone cut the dog loose or the ropes eventually deteriorated and broke is unknown, but the photo provided by Skorecki makes it clear the dog ended up in the river and started downstream on a journey of its own.
Where it will end up is anyone's guess, but so far it has been working its way west and south maybe hoping for warmer buns.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com