Keiku was a dog, recently descended from wolves, who was full of wisdom and howls and a bit of savagery and magic, and she was our companion for fifteen years. This is how she found us.
My husband Iain’s research organization, Ocean Alliance, had been working in Alaska with a film crew to make the IMAX film “Whales,” which featured their research vessel, Odyssey. The trip was a revelation for his non-swimming, constantly seasick then-girlfriend (me). The water was smooth enough that I wasn’t bedridden, and it was cold enough that no one was going to ask me to jump into it.
The next group to come aboard was a Japanese film crew making a high-definition documentary about whales. By this point Iain and the crew knew all of the hot spots in southwestern Alaska to hit for filming, and one of the regular stops was Kake. A small Tlingit community centered around a salmon cannery, the area was a favorite stop for photographers hoping to film black bears in the salmon run.
As soon as we went ashore we noticed the packs of dogs that roamed the docks, checking out the visitors. Coming from a childhood where the most exciting pet in the house was a gerbil, I was thrilled to be surrounded by these wild-looking dogs who were very adept at charming humans. They didn’t seem to share this affection with each other, though, and it became clear that there was a hierarchy that was enforced, with violence, if necessary. On that first day ashore, as I was walking through the parking lot with Iain, a quieter member of the pack approached me, and without hesitation she gently jumped on me and wrapped her paws around my waist. A wild dog was hugging me and Iain was there to capture the moment.
So yes, the loves in my life are fast and furious. She was wild and dirty and obviously my (other) soulmate.
I didn’t waste any time announcing this new relationship to Iain and the crew. I stood over the chart table scanning the local geography while Iain scoffed at my ignorance. “She’s a wild dog, for Christ’s sake. We’re on a boat, in ALASKA, and we live in a chicken coop in BOSTON.”
“It’s too late,” I said. “I’ve already named her. ‘Keiku,’ after the Keku peninsula,” as if naming her made her mine.
The next few days were the part in the rom-com with the happy background music as the couple gets to know each other in new and goofy ways, except in our case it was a threesome. I dragged Iain to the one and only store to buy the one and only dog treats. We sat on the steps of a trailer feeding the pack of dogs, and wondering where Keiku had gone, when her snout appeared between our legs through the gap in the steps and she looked up at us with those eyes. Iain pretended to scowl. I sucked on a straw and she cocked her head to one side and then the other. Iain tried not to laugh.
On one of the last of our daily visits to see her, our driver–a very large and silent Tlingit, watched us as he leaned against the car. “They’re going to shoot her at the end of the season.” We turned to look at him. “She won’t survive the winter, so they’ll put her out of her misery.” They were the only words he had spoken to me.
That night on the boat Iain had his hands full with his hysterical girlfriend. Taking the dog home was impossible, no matter how much we wanted to, he said. “I’ll make sure she finds a home, I promise.”
I left the Odyssey and Alaska alone and miserable. The calls from Iain were more frequent than usual, as he led another expedition. “Don’t worry,” he said, “She’s so special, she’s guaranteed to find a home.” The next time he pulled in to Kake she wasn’t among the pack. “See,” he said, “I knew someone would take her.” And yet, the next time the Odyssey pulled in, there she was. To the amusement and enthusiasm of his guests on the boat, he went on a mission to find an owner for Keiku, even enlisting the mayor of Kake in the effort.
The next time he called from a landline he had changed. “I’ve spent some time with her,” he explained. “We’re going to Kake one more time, and if she’s there, I’m bringing her home.”
A month later, after her first bath on the Odyssey, a vet checkup, two planes and her first car ride, Keiku gave birth to seven puppies in our tiny chicken coop home. She ended up outliving all of them. She stood with us as we gave our marriage vows, she welcomed Dylan home from the hospital, and commuted to work with Iain every day. In the end, she was never my girl. She was his.
[Featured artwork: Keiku 1995-2011, graphite on cardboard]