“Me and my arrow Straighter than narrow Wherever we go, everyone knows It’s me and my arrow” Harry Nilsson, The Point, 1970
By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Dogs don’t stay with us nearly long enough. Athena was our last dog standing — and the oldest living dog of the four, four-legged family members Joe and I had the fortune and blessing to have lived with. Few experiences match the magical, unconditional love that our pets give us.
Joe likes to remind me that dog is God backwards.
Athena was 14 years, seven months young. Her goal in life, besides sniffing for anything edible on the floor we might have dropped, was to be with me. Whether at home in Chugiak, or the news office in Skagway, she had me in her sights. If I got up to get water from the kitchen, she got up from her bed and followed me. She might have been hoping I was going to bring out a tasty snack, but I’m going with her constant radar of knowing where I was and making sure she was there.
She and I started our 800 mile each way adventures from Chugiak to Skagway in 2020. We took a few practice runs to Kasilof to get her ready, but she caught on quickly. Mom was going on a trip and she got to ride co-pilot. She knew the signs, often getting in the car and refusing to get out while we packed it.
She rarely laid down. Her focus was on the road, the colors and shapes moving by. I liked having her in constant reach for an ear scratch. When the car stopped, there were two options: wait for me to snap on her leash and get out of the car, or curl up on the bed and wait to move again.
She enjoyed my playlist and even endured a few audio books. I like to think we had the same taste in music and literature.
We camped in the car, and as the pandemic became more avoidable, we stayed the night in hotels.
On one trip I was sick with an intestinal issue. I tried to sleep in the car in Glenallen, but with 10,000 visitor’s guides in the back, it was near impossible. So I decided to drive through the night to Tok and at 6 a.m., a hotel owner allowed me to check in. I only needed the room for a nap, but she gave me a check out time the next day. Athena and I crashed on one of the beds and 10 hours later when I woke up, she was still there.
Athena loved watching the tourist activity from the upstairs window of the newspaper office. Her favorite pastime was joining me at the bottom of the stairs next to the bookstore where Denise would visit her with treats and people would ask to pet her.
Our granddaughter was Athena’s litter mate, so Athena had been trained to stay away from babies and to be gentle when they petted her or kissed her nose. She was so gentle with the tourists. Many missed their pets who had to stay home and Athena granted them unlimited ear scratches and touches of the smooth, soft hair dogs have on their heads.
I always kept Athena on a short leash. She could get her nose close to the sidewalk and visitors would come to her. Most were familiar with asking first, approaching slowly. I wasn’t worried, but I still kept her on a short leash.
The day before we headed home to Chugiak, a young boy with autism and his parents walked by. The boy loved dogs and his parents took the time to practice approaching dogs and being gentle. Athena obliged and the boy was tickled.
Her death was traumatic. It is not what she deserved. We were in the last 30 seconds of getting in our vehicles to head home. Joe was helping her in the car. I had just filled my water bottle for the trip. She saw me, walked away from Joe then around the car. In less than three seconds we heard a scuffle and a whelp. We ran around the car to see her laying on the ground with a Bull Terrier gripping her head in his mouth. The owner was struggling to pull the dog off her, but he had no control. Joe was on the ground trying to help Athena, but she was trapped. I emptied my water bottle on the terrier’s nose and he finally let go.
Athena was alert as we tried to locate any wounds. She had some punctures near her collar and a lot of hair was missing. She seemed fine, but four hours later she started to decline quickly.
The next 24 hours were brutal. I am forever grateful to members of Skagway Swap who offered me ideas, advice and encouragement. We tried to get to a vet in Whitehorse, but most were closed and the emergency clinic said she would have to wait a day or so. We moved on to Haines Junction, calling phone numbers that were disconnected. I called the people clinic – could they help? I was told I should head back to Whitehorse. That night didn’t involve much sleep. I was up with her, repositioning her, talking to her and petting her. Her tongue and gums were becoming pale. She was losing blood somewhere — we think it was from a mouth cavity wound — the terrier had gripped her with his lower jaw holding her upper jaw captive. We didn’t have anything to stop her suffering. We hoped we could reach a musher.
About an hour out of Haines Junction, lying on her co-pilot bed next to me as I petted her and sang to her, she passed away.
I pulled over when it started and Joe, following in our truck, was also able to be with her as she passed. She was not alone.
The next 550 miles were quiet. I chose no music, no radio, no audio books. I wanted to process the moment without any other words or distractions. Athena was still with me, but it was quiet.
She was behind me on her big bed. I talked to her. I cried. I know Joe was dealing with the same emotions in the other vehicle. I questioned life and death; losing a pet this way, raising a child to become an adult, never planning on a tragic death from fentanyl. I thought of the parents of victims of school shootings who never imagined anything so heinous could happen to their angels. Where is hope for a beautiful life when tragedy strikes with such permanency?
We made it home after finding a 24-hour animal hospital in Palmer whose staff cried with me as they let me sit in a room with Athena to say goodbye.
The next day I called the terrier owner. I was kind, reasonable. He was sorry our dog died. But he didn’t cry.
I called him again the next morning and asked him what his plans were to make sure it didn’t happen again. While he was still polite, I wasn’t satisfied that he understood he didn’t have control of his dog.
I knew that if anything happened to another pet or, even worse, a child, and I didn’t say something, I would regret my complicitness forever. I called Skagway Police and told them what happened.
That doesn’t make me feel good.
In addition to all the other stuff we teach our dogs, Joe and I taught all four dogs two concepts to save their lives: don’t jump on people and never bite anything that wasn’t a toy or dog bone. Either of those events could cause harm, and potentially, destine them to be euthanized.
There is a dog in Skagway who didn’t learn those lessons.
And that makes me sad.