savage hunger on the frontier

Dear Uma; It’s cold! With this sort of cold in this sort of place comes a quiet that is a presence of its own.

Dear Uma;

It’s cold! With this sort of cold in this sort of place comes a quiet that is a presence of its own.

I go outdoors to have very short walks in the bush; it is so silent I can hear myself smile.

A dog, I tell myself, would change the nature of these walks, and then I waffle between how sorry I would be to lose the silence and how happy I would be to lose the silence.

I haven’t entirely given up the idea of getting a dog, as you may have guessed.

Speaking of dogs, I have finally met one of our neighbours.

No, he’s not a dog, but he has two lovely big mutts that he is being extra careful with these days, keeping them in the house at night and only allowing them out of the yard when he walks them.

Before this, I often saw them around; never far from their yard, but not always in it. 

This is true of many dogs I see around town; although they are not tied up or confined, they don’t seem to wander far from their homes, and they’re polite to passersby.

Heading out for a walk, I saw the neighbour in the yard splitting firewood with his dogs keeping him company.

I’ve met his dogs many times as I’ve walked by and we’ve exchanged pleasantries in the form of pats on the head and tail wagging. I’ll leave you to figure who is doing what, but this was the first time I’d had an opportunity to speak to their owner, which of course, I did, introducing myself and asking him about the dogs; names, ages, breed, etc.

He’s a shaggy-haired, bearded old guy, wiry and tough-looking, dressed in what seems to be the Yukon working man’s winter uniform where everything is padded and says “Carhartts” on it.

While not exhibiting any tremendous enthusiasm for conversation, he did quit chopping when I stopped to chat.  I asked him why the dogs weren’t allowed out of the yard any more.

“Wolves,” he said. “The goddamned things have already killed five dogs in town.”

Thrilled and horrified, I said “Right in the town? The wolves come into the town to kill the dogs? Why do they kill the dogs?”

He looked directly at me for the first time, his faded blue eyes expressing disbelief at my ignorance.

“They’re hungry. They eat the dogs.”  Hefting his axe, he turned to his woodpile, a clear signal he’d had enough of this neighbourly exchange.

But I needed one more piece of information about him

“Do you have a wife? Maybe she would like to come and have tea with me sometime?”

He didn’t turn around as he grabbed a piece of wood and set it on the chopping block. 

“What do I want a woman for, messing up my sheets?”

That very day I picked up the Yukon News (free in the communities, must be bought in Whitehorse) and there was a cartoon featuring a dog-eating wolf, and a letter from someone in Whitehorse talking about the packs of dogs roaming the streets of Watson Lake and seen to be devouring one another when one was killed or injured. 

Here I am, living in the very heart of this savage scene, out walking almost every day and seeing none of this Nature being red of tooth and claw.

I asked a fellow driving a Watson Lake municipal truck about the wild dogs.

He asked me if I’d seen any packs or had any trouble and when I said no, he laughed and drove on.

When the Yukon Electric man came to read the meter we chatted about the wolves killing dogs.

Happens every winter, he told me, people just learn to be careful of their dogs.

I mentioned my neighbour, and how careful he was being with his dogs.

Meter man told me my new acquaintance used to have three dogs but had eaten one last year.

Before I could close my gaping mouth, he had gotten into his truck, preparing to drive away.

People here do that a lot; tell me something mind-boggling and then try to leave.

I ran after him, grabbing the door of his truck and banging on the window until, grinning, he rolled it part way down.

“Are you kidding?” I gasped. “Did that man really eat one of his dogs? He seems to like them so much; why would he ever do that?”

“Oh, he likes his dogs all right; hasn’t got much use for people, that’s for sure.”

To my relief and gratitude, he lit a cigarette, indicating he was going to tell me the story.

“Yeah, well, he’d been out in the bush all summer, prospecting, and the plane that was supposed to pick him up couldn’t get there on the day they’d arranged.  Some bad weather socked in for about five days or so.  That happens up here. I think it was late fall; it was starting to get cold, anyway.”

He took a deep drag of smoke, reminding me of how much I used to enjoy tobacco, many years ago.

“Your new buddy had hurt his leg — he’d fallen and cut it, or something, and got an infection. Anyway, it was bad and getting worse. He’d run out of food, couldn’t hunt, and no plane. So he ate one of his dogs. The pilot said it looked like he’d made a stew.  He shared it with the other two dogs.”

He grinned at me, flipped his cigarette butt into the snow, rolled the window up past my stunned face, and left.

I went into the trailer and promptly telephoned a long-time resident; I had to know if the Yukon Electric guy was having fun at the expense of a newcomer or if indeed my neighbour was known to have dined on one of his pets.

Had he developed a taste for dog from the experience? I wondered. Maybe it isn’t wolves eating the town pets, but the grumpy man living down the street from me.

Could a diet that included dog meat be responsible for a somewhat less than sunny disposition?

Did the man have a taste for uncommon dishes?

What else was featured on his menu?

She assured me this is not rural legend – it’s the truth.

She seemed amused at my incredulity.

“Jeez,” she said, “it’s not an unreasonable thing to do in the circumstances; years ago there was a plane went down in the NWT and the pilot ate one of his three passengers.”

One of his passengers, I thought after hanging up.

One of his passengers.

One of his three dogs.

Uma! I’m obsessing. My mind will not let go of the burning question:

How, oh how, did the guy decide WHICH dog?

How did the pilot decide which passenger?

You’d better call me; I’m going to need some help here.

Heather

Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.