I still remember that Alaska evening air, which smelled of wildflowers and musk of high bush cranberries. How the trail through the valley turned from uneven gravel to dirt. How the river gurgled and squirrels chattered above my dog and me in an otherwise unnatural silence.
I also remember the moment I heard the snap of a stick behind me, turned to see two wolves tracking me: one about four yards to the rear, the other six yards to my right. I could see their eyes fixed on me, but I didn’t dare look at them eye-to-eye for fear they’d think it a challenge.
I threw a rock, hearing it clack, clack, clack along other rocks as I yelled, “Get out of here.” Fear rose to terror and adrenaline kicked in, making me so clear-headed I could feel my mind quiet to concentrated thought.
I’ve got to get out of here. God don’t let these wolves get me. They’re NOT going to get my dog. I’ll die before I let them. But I knew danger was near even before I saw them.
There had been the fresh scat all over. I didn’t know it was wolf scat, but something was there, too small to be bears, too big to be dog. Then there was Toby—a field spaniel—usually wanting to run in circles around me, staying by my side.
He didn’t even leave me when we got to the open riverbank, where he usually ran with freedom, jumping in the water with joy, prancing like he was in a dance with nature, happy and secure. He knew something was up before I did. I felt the forest enclose around me at his fear and started back toward my car long before I wanted to.
Then we saw them. Toby first. He tugged the chain, nose down, as focused as I was.
The wolves were thin. It’s odd I don’t remember their color. I do remember their ratty fur and their pace mirroring mine: I slowed, they slowed. My gait quickened, so did theirs. I stopped, they did as well.
We had been to Echo Bend, three miles into the Chugach National Park from the Eagle River side. I knew every twist and turn of that part of the trail, past Echo Bend, past the Perch, past the campground. I walked it every weekend.
As the wolves trailed me, I thought, go to the hill, it’s just around the corner, then it’s less than a mile to Big Rock. I didn’t want to think I was still two miles from the safety of the Eagle River Nature Center. I took one curve, one hill, one benchmark, one step at a time, knowing each brought me closer to my destination.
I paced myself: too slow, too fast. I didn’t want the wolves to see or feel my fear. Their presence was overwhelming. I shook, even though I tried hard not to. Be strong. Be authoritative. Save yourself. Save Toby!
“Please, “ I muttered. “Let someone come this way.” I hadn’t seen anyone for at least an hour. I was without weapon or whistle. I turned to throw another rock and stopped mid-throw. They were gone. I looked to my left and right, as Toby pulled on the chain to continue. My mind turned from clarity to confusion.
The trail had deepened into thick spruce and birch trees, lined with devil’s club and tall grass. They could easily hide. Were there more? Were they gathering to kill my dog? Were they circling? While I knew wolf attacks on humans were rare, I felt threatened.
Seconds felt like hours. I was helpless except for wit and stamina, which kept me from running like a crazed animal through the wilderness.
Each step I took with effort. Each minute ticked in my mind. I felt their presence. I felt them surrounding me. I felt their jaws on my dog’s throat, me screaming, screaming, screaming as they pulled him off to feed on.
But they didn’t come. Step after terror-filled step past slowly, each second filled with trepidation. Toby never stopped to smell the ground, the grass, the surroundings. He never walked slow enough to loosen the tight chain.
Finally, near the end of the trail I ran into a man. “There are wolves out there. They followed my dog and me for miles. Be careful.” I wanted desperately for him to walk me back to my car, but didn’t ask. I feared for him as he went in, feared for me as I exited.
Even when I reached my car I felt unsafe. Well past 7 p.m. the visitors center had closed and there was only one car besides mine in the parking lot. It wasn’t until the doors clicked close, myself buckled in and the engine started could I breath.
But I was shaken. So was Toby. He didn’t hold his head out the window enjoying summer’s breeze. He just sat still, watching out the window in eerie stillness.
When we reached our home, 10 miles down a windy, mountainous country road, Toby jumped out of the car and before I could stop him he ran fast up the hill barking in a fury. I chased after him and stopped when I saw what he was after. At a nearby house, a large moose with heavy antlers was chomping lazily on a tree. I watched as the moose stopped feeding as he watched Toby close in in a rush toward him.
Toby never chased moose. Barked at, yes. But never chased. He jumped at the moose, its feet kicking. Toby’s going to be killed. He’s going to get stomped to death. Oh, God, please stop him.
I stopped for a second not sure what to do, then stepped into the war zone. I yanked the chain, still dangling from my dog, and drug him away from danger. The moose stopped its kicking but stared toward us.
I didn’t like turning my back on the mammoth, but Toby and I headed home anyway, me afraid to turn back, Toby walking with pride, head held high and with dignity. He had to show me he was not afraid. He had to show me he was still brave, still my protector.
Toby and I returned to Echo Bend the next week with friends, determined not to let one experience ruin my fun. But it did. The place still had that feel of lurking danger. Even my friends felt it. We got to the river, and, again, turned back quickly.
I’ve never since hiked alone. Never since experienced the woods at my pace, my way, praising its creator with bubbling enthusiasm as I walked in fresh air through God’s country.
BIO: Debbie Cutler lived in Alaska for 29 years. She loved hiking and exploring the great state. She was editor of Alaska Business and Alaska magazine.