the calm before the storm

Lil' Bastard

With his pup in the background, begging for leftovers

These fox were as domesticated as they come. They ate stale Chex Mix left out for them in a bowl on the stoop; they slipped through the front door and climbed up on the couch, like the royalty of the wild; and they relished, like any decent-minded canine, in a good belly rub. They lived near the Fortymile DOT maintenance station along the Elliot Highway, and the workers, likely lonely during long stints away from their families, and in want of some stimuli in the middle of nowhere, welcomed them. They named the reynard, or male fox, Little Bastard.

Let me be clear. I did not pet or feed or invite these foxes into the trailer while I was staying there. I’m pretty sure foxes carry myriad diseases, ranging from rabies, to mites, to tapeworm. Whenever I was outside and they were near, I watched them like…a fox.

While they did provide entertainment, and while I did marvel at how cute the kits were, I worried for the well-being of these wild animals. What if a new wave of workers came in and refused to feed them? What if the station shut down? I know foxes are cunning animals, but would they have the know-how to hunt their own food after relying so regularly on humans?

The day after we left the Elliot, a rainstorm ensued that didn’t stop for months. The first day, three inches of rain fell, making the Fortymile River rise a record 20 feet. Mudslides and floods ran rampant. The highway, which stretches 160 miles (100 of which are dirt) from the Yukon River in Eagle to Tetlin Junction, just east of Tok, became impassable. It was plagued, in places, with 20-foot deep holes that stretched 50 feet wide. Dozens of motorists were stranded, and one man–a customs agent at the Top of the World Highway–was reported missing. Search and rescue workers found his truck in a flooded creek, bobbing above the water’s surface. His fate didn’t look good.

With permafrost exposed from the open wounds in the road, repair work became a nightmare. And the rain didn’t let up. By fall, when the DOT shut down work on the road because of the impending winter, there was still much to be done. Charles Collins, the border patrol agent, was eventually found in the Yukon River by an Eagle fisherman checking his nets. The fisherman said he instantly recognized the agent for the handcuffs and uniform still in tact.

I know human lives were at stake during this disaster, as well as the economic livelihood for those who live along the Elliot and rely on tourism traffic for business, but I couldn’t help but wonder about that dog and his kits. Even if they did survive the flooding, did their innate hunting skills eventually kick in? For all I know, animal instincts are like riding a bike. They’re never forgotten. I kind of hope that the wilds of the storm reminded them of their natural instincts, though, and that they went back to rodents and berries and the fish flooding the roads.

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2 responses to “the calm before the storm

  • Ann

    Love this one, Kate.

    • Kate

      There’s this book, Wolfer: A Memoir, that I should send you (I think I’ve already told you about it, and I know you’re not crazy about memoirs)–but it’s about a guy from Iowa who worked as a federal trapper in Montana and then spearheaded the reintroduction of gray wolves from Canada in the Northern Rockies. Wolves are such a controversial issue in Idaho (and Montana) right now, that it makes a fascinating read.

      I’m glad you liked this post! I pitched a story idea to Alaska magazine on the history of the Taylor Highway, and the recent turmoil surrounding it, but they didn’t take it. Killjoys. (Actually, I really like their magazine.)

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