So many of the best stories I hear in the Yukon feature a dog as the main character.
There was the dog that ran a truck into a building downtown, the dog that started a fire in the cab of a truck, the dog that rescued lynx kittens, and on and on.
This latest dog storytelling was prompted by the threat of winter’s arrival; any day now the snow will be here for good and we will all be hunkering down for six months of cold and dark.
Rose, a woman who left the Yukon years ago for the kinder climate of Vancouver Island, is the original teller of this tale and one of the three principal players. I heard it courtesy of Cee, who knew her and her dog.
This happened many years ago when winter traffic on the Alaska Highway was scarce and a vehicle breakdown could mean death by freezing. In fact, many people did die on the highway back then in just that manner and, though it is said freezing to death is not as unpleasant a way to exit as most others, I cannot help but imagine those long hours before one is claimed by the deep sleep.
Rose managed the minimum security prison in Teslin at the time our story unfolds.
Rose had a little dog named Gerry; she loved this dog and he loved her and they went everywhere together, including the frequent trips to Whitehorse that were part of her job.
On this particular winter morning it was 45 degrees below zero, but Rose headed off in her new Trans Am with her animal companion in the passenger seat, both anticipating the drive for the beauty of the scenery and the promise of butter tarts from their favourite bakery.
The car was the latest in automobile technology at the time, and Rose had been assured that it was impossible to break into, having state-of-the-art locks. It also featured a very efficient heater; Rose rode in comfort in slip-on shoes and a light sweater. She was no cheechako, however; in the back seat was full Yukon winter regalia, with the full-length parka, heavy winter boots, toque, mitts and a long scarf.
At some point about halfway between Teslin and Whitehorse, Rose stopped to pour some coffee from her thermos and admire a spectacular view. The scene was so gorgeous she decided it warranted a photograph and so she got out of the car with her camera to record the moment.
Gerry was not accustomed to being left in the vehicle at these stops; he began to jump up at the windows, barking and whining and otherwise expressing canine dissatisfaction. Somehow, in doing so, he locked the car.
Rose realized this fresh state of affairs when she tried to reenter the vehicle; she knew immediately she was in mortal danger and her first thought was, “This will be such an embarrassingly stupid way to die.”
As she stood there, beginning to feel the deep chill settling into her body, she thought about how little there was she could do to alter her circumstances. There were no rocks on the road large enough to break a window on the car, and the snow was too deep to wade through to the distant trees and attempt to build a fire. Her most realistic hope was for someone to come along, and she knew the time of day and day of the week made it the least likely time for a vehicle to come along.
She began to think about Gerry; would the gas last long enough to keep the heater warming the car until someone did come along?
It was about that time she realized there was a vehicle coming; she could hear a clanking and a chuffing. It may not be a healthy vehicle but it represented a ride into Whitehorse. The old truck that came into sight was known to Rose; it belonged to Old Johnny in the village, and the driver was Little Johnny, his ne’er-do-well nephew.
The last time Rose had seen Little Johnny was in the jail, stretched on his bunk watching TV and eating fistfuls of sour-cream-and-dill potato chips. He was enjoying the hospitality of the jail for a couple of months after stealing his uncle’s pickup truck; the very truck he was now parking in front of her car.
He showed not the slightest surprise or chagrin at seeing her, greeting her with a cheery smile and a clear willingness to help.
When Rose described her predicament and asked for a ride into Whitehorse, Little Johnny’s response was to reach behind the seat of the truck and pull out a misshapen coat hanger.
“I’ll just open her up for you, Miss, and you can carry on,” he said, entirely disregarding her assurances that the car could not be broken into, which was just as well, as he had the driver’s door open and was gesturing her in before she could complete the sentence.
He then offered to follow her into the city, in case she had any more trouble. She humbly accepted his gesture and drove the rest of the way seeing the beat-up truck in her rearview mirror.
This true tale gets better: a few weeks later, Rose and Gerry were in Whitehorse again, and again it was a day of bitter cold, made worse by Whitehorse’s perpetual wind.
Rose was once again outside her warm car, once again the car was running and, once again, Gerry was distraught at being left in it while Rose was not.
Once again, the dog succeeded in locking the car. This time Rose had to call a locksmith. This time it cost her $250 and it took the highly qualified workman more than an hour to get the car open.
If there is a moral to this story, I have not discovered it, but it is amusing, as are all the northern dog stories I have heard in the last couple of years, except perhaps the one about the man who ate dogs.
I find I look forward to another winter. The cold provides the perfect excuse to stay indoors, cook up nice things to eat and read all day.
The Invention of the Jewish People is my tome of choice for the first of my seasonal reads. Critics have promised me “a new understanding of the contemporary Middle East” and I desperately need an understanding – I don’t even have an old understanding of the contemporary Middle East.
The Middle East, I believe, may be easier to understand than the workings of this little town in this Yukon territory where, every week, some new government scandal unfolds and leaders refuse to answer legitimate questions.
Read the October 23 issue of the Yukon News, page 2 about Affordable Housing Money Lined Politicos’ Pockets – with no one responding to queries about where millions of taxpayer dollars have gone. The Middle East has nothing on our territory, but I like the distance. If I am to be indignant and helpless with it, somehow it is easier when it is on the other side of the world, when it is more of an abstraction.
Besides, I am still dealing with the upset of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Heather Bennett is a writer
who lives in Watson Lake.