Roughly 15 years ago I was hanging around at the West Rib Pub in Talkeetna one evening after work. I was somewhat of a wannabe climber at that point in my life. I had done a fair bit of rock climbing and a bit of light mountaineering, but nothing on the scale of what the Alaska Range had to offer. That said, my ultimate dream (for it never materialized enough to be a goal per se) was to ascend the northeast (or Sultana) ridge of Sultana. Now, for those of you unaware, Sultana is the Americanized version of the Tanaina Athapascan name for Mt. Foraker, the second tallest mountain in the Alaska Range. Much like Mt. McKinley is also known as Denali. Denali means variously “the chief” or “the high one”, or something like that. Sultana is Denali’s wife.
Sultana is relatively rarely climbed (for example in 2012 it saw 6 attempts and no successful summits, whereas Denali saw 1223 attempts and 498 successful summits). I will not go into why this is. Rather, I will say that I find it to be a strikingly beautiful mountain, and from Talkeetna the Sultana Ridge is an elegant, sinuous ridgeline that is draped against the horizon amidst a land of jagged rock and ice. I sort of fell in love with that view and with the idea to experience it from within; not to “conquer” the mountain but to learn about her, to get to know her. But I never did. Never even really got closer than a brief stop at Kahiltna International… which does not really count at all. That would be like saying I have been to London or to Perth, just because I hung out in both respective airports once.
Anyway, on this particular evening I was enjoying my “Friday” as in I had the next two days off of work. No idea what day it actually was, but it was early summer. The West Rib, for those of you who have not been there – to the pub I mean – is named after a climbing route on Denali and as such fancies itself a climbers hang out. I suppose it does fairly well at that, or has at least. It has been awhile since I visited. So there I am drinking beer and not climbing, nor planning to climb, anything. Chances are I was playing pool. Misspent youth and all that.
So, in walk four guys. Two rather burly and full of energy; two others trailing behind looking a bit bedraggled. The former, it turns out, were Scottish military on leave, the latter American something-or-others. I do not mean any offense, but I can only relay what I learned. All had just returned from a successful ascent (and subsequent descent) of the Sultana ridge. Me being who I was at the time, I latched on to them in an effort to live vicariously through their recent adventure. And so we drank… until the pub closed. Then we sauntered across the street to the Fairview and drank some more… until it closed. And so we ambled on down the road to the Tee Pee and drank some more… until it finally closed. By this time it was well into the next morning. Somewhere along the line we lost the two bedraggled americans, but the scots and I were raging on into to the sunrise.
Thankfully, the Roadhouse (where I worked as a baker, as some of you may recall) opened early for breakfast and so, on an adventure such as this, one could while away the remaining hour or so between being cast out of the bar and ordering a much needed, at this point, breakfast. The river is right nearby and what better thing than to go look for sunrise on the mountains. I will admit I have no recollection if that is how that morning played out.
I do however remember that I was able to more or less enjoy a hearty (as always) Roadhouse breakfast on their wee veranda overlooking Main Street. I recall that there were a couple of my friends there, starting their day in a more sensible fashion… I do not recall the Scots still being involved. And then, there was Carl, walking down Main Street with a ball of fur in his arms asking if anyone wanted a puppy. It was the last of a litter of four, the daughter of his lead dog. I named her Sultana.
The ensuing 15 years have been a grand adventure with her, my best and truest friend. She has, as one of my friends sagely predicted on that auspicious morning, made me “happier and angrier than anything else” I have known. We have traveled and hiked together in Maine, Idaho, and California. We have driven the Alcan together twice. We have hiked and backpacked and skied easily hundreds of miles throughout Alaska. From arduous multi day pack trips when she carried her own supplies, to short berry picking adventures where she learned to eat berries right off the bushes. She has been fishing with me on the Copper River near Chitina, has explored an archaeological site with me near Central, and climbed Mount Baldy with me near Talkeetna. I carried her in my arms both ways across a swinging rope bridge spanning the angry waters which flowed from a nearby glacier that on that day claimed the life of a coworker. I carried her down off of the northern slopes of Mount Healy, near Denali NP after she sustained some sort of fall and shredded the pads of her feet on loose scree and could no longer walk (I did not see the event, only the result). I have been accused of being more likely to rescue her from a burning building than I would my significant other.
I do not think that I have called her by name in any previous posts, but rather referred to her by her “pet name”; Dogface. The dogface is in the late autumn of her years. She does not move around very fast anymore and only goes with me on sporadic walks. She eats even less. She does not even like her cookies anymore, which previously she would demand from me numerous times a day. We used to have a deal that in the morning when it was time for me to go to work or school, she would come to the front door and wait patiently while I hooked her up to her run and then she would get her morning cookie. Many have told me she is not your typical sled dog.
I do not know when she will go, but I do know that one day she will saunter out of my life. I do not look forward to that day. Yet, when it comes I will thank her for being my good friend and for giving me the privilege of sharing this life with her.