It was sort of a mutual curiosity society: The wolves were watching us from perches on hillsides, and we were watching them from our canoes as we passed. We lads of the Geriatric Adventure Society’s Arctic Division were a long way from anywhere, on the Hayes River in Nunavut; coordinates roughly 67 degrees 30 minutes north, 94 degrees west. Nobody else had been there for a long time, and the few animals we saw — there wasn’t a stick of anything you could call wood, or anything green — were shy, but not panicked. Then we began to see the wolves. They were big, mostly white, scrawny-looking, and, it seemed, everywhere.
I’m sure they were following us, probably out of curiosity. Paddling along, scanning the hills on either side as we went, one or another of us would call out, “Wolf!” and point; and no matter how far off the wolf might be, it knew it had been spotted. It’d get up, wag its tail, move a little, and sit back down to watch us out of immediate sight.
At the end of the paddling day, when we had set up our tents and cooked our supper, we often sat around on the ground in our Crazy Creek loungers, chatting. There were no bugs at all. It was the worst summer for weather there in years: snow, sleet and freezing northwest wind almost every day. As we sat immobile, the scents of our bodies and our cooking streamed downwind, and the wolves began to pop up here and there, walking wary circles around us. Poor things! They were on scant rations; the scat we found was full of tiny shards of caribou bones, like broken china. They weren’t wasting anything. It was easy to see how some sympathetic soul among a group of humans might leave out a few scraps for them, and within a few days have a devoted following. Or he might find a den of orphaned puppies and choose to share his own short commons with them. Scientists argue over this, but I’m certain that’s how our relationship started. Wolves, domesticated and selectively bred for a thousand years and a thousand human purposes, are now all around us. We call them dogs, and live together with them intimately.
The last of my childhood reading was the Lad series of heroic collie stories by Albert Payson Terhune. My wife’s favorite was “Prince Jan, St. Bernard,” an improbable 1946 tear-jerker, even more heroic, by one Forrestine C. Hooker. Those are but a drop in the bucket of books, songs, stories, and films about the creatures aptly called man’s best friends. There are statues to them everywhere: Greyfriars Bobby (who guarded his dead master’s grave for 14 years) in Edinburgh; Balto (the lead dog of the team that brought the diphtheria serum into Nome in 1925) in Central Park; Old Drum (a famous hound famously murdered and famously memorialized in a speech to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1869; look it up) in Warrensburg, Missouri. I suspect we love them for the virtues we frequently wish we had ourselves. And we’re often embarrassed that, for all our shortcomings and mistakes, they love us unreservedly.
We even give them afterlives — at the so-called Rainbow Bridge where they wait for us; in Heaven, where, like Old Blue, they wait for the sound of our hunting horns. They figure in our politics, as when Republicans falsely accused Franklin Roosevelt of sending a U.S. Navy destroyer to the Aleutians to pick up his scotty, Fala, who allegedly had been left behind; or when then-vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon defended himself against corruption charges in a famous 1952 speech celebrating his humble origins, his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth coat,” and the family’s one gift, a cocker spaniel their daughter, Tricia, had named Checkers. To this day, a maudlin political effusion is called a Checkers speech.
Our own family was without a dog for about 15 years, until our daughter, Martha, brought home from college a rescued puppy who introduced life and happiness into a household poisoned by a business failure and bankruptcy. Their photo, which I call “Two Puppies,” is right beside me as I write. We buried Tucker in the front yard about 10 years ago, and I’ve been lonesome for her ever since. But Martha found me another rescue on the internet, this one a terrier from Texas. Kiki is sleeping in a basket behind me, a basket she occasionally tries to eat. I don’t think my frowning disapprobation is getting through.
Meanwhile, our nation’s capital is without a presidential dog for the first time in memory. Those of us who love them are happy for the dog the president doesn’t have, while he, questioned about it, says, “I’d love to own a dog. ... but I don’t have the time. Wouldn’t I look foolish walking a dog on the South Lawn?”
He just doesn’t get it, and never will. Like many people, I think, he’s afraid of dealing with the uncontrollable impulses of a puppy, of letting tenderness show just a little, and risking the inevitable heartbreak of losing a furry friend who has loved his whole life without restraint or qualification. I look over my shoulder at the little ginger snap snoozing away the afternoon — but always alert for the slightest threat anywhere in our perimeter — and thank my lucky stars her ancestors came in from the cold.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.