The husky who became a hero
BY KAYLENE JOHNSON-SULLIVAN
When the phone rang from the Eagle River Nature Center for the eighth time in a single summer, Scott Swift had a moment. Sometimes you wonder about things.
Like whether the dog you rescued was worth the trouble. Once again, the dog had hiked 23 miles with strangers only to flop down at the nature center, seemingly confident of getting a lift back home. By now though, Nanook (also known as Nookie), had the grownups pretty well trained. They would meet halfway in Anchorage to split the three-hour trip from Swift’s home near the Girdwood trailhead to the end of the route in Eagle River.
It was all in a day’s work for the Alaska husky, and Scott Swift was an easy-going guy. He recognized that, like himself, Nanook was a bit of a free spirit.
They often took to the hills together where Swift skied fresh powder on slopes in view of his kitchen window. At the time, Swift had no idea that Nookie was also becoming a self-appointed trail guide. That all changed last summer, when a call came— not from the nature center this time—but from the Alaska State Troopers. As it turned out, Nookie had taken a helicopter ride along with a young hiker who had gotten into considerable trouble along the trail.
Amelia Milling, a 21-year-old student from Tennessee, set a challenge for herself to trek solo over Crow Pass. The trail is a segment of the historic Iditarod network of trails that was used to deliver supplies to gold miners in Alaska’s interior more than 100 years ago. Considering most of those supplies were freighted in by dog team, Nookie was right at home on the trail.
Known for its steep terrain, a healthy population of bears, and a sketchy glacial river crossing, Crow Pass is often underestimated for its challenges. But Amelia, who is deaf, was no stranger to challenges. Amelia made it to the pass, a three-mile climb past waterfalls, a steep gorge, and rusted old mining ruins.
On the descent from the pass, with snow still on the trail, Amelia’s hiking pole broke and she fell, sliding several hundred feet before a large boulder brought her to a painful stop. Suddenly she realized she wasn’t alone. Nookie appeared out of nowhere and then stayed with her. Bruised but not defeated, Amelia decided to set up camp and regroup. The next morning Nookie was there to greet her.
The toughest part of the trail still lay ahead for Amelia. Even on a good day, fording the glacially fed Eagle River is a brutally cold ordeal. Still hurting from her accident the day before, Amelia fell into the river. As she struggled to regain her footing, Nookie began tugging at her backpack. It was all the help and encouragement she needed to get to shore. Shivering uncontrollably, Amelia climbed into a sleeping bag to warm up. She just wanted to sleep, which was perhaps a dangerous sign of hypothermia. “Nookie was really going crazy and licking my face,” Amelia said. Realizing she needed serious help, Amelia pushed the button on her emergency locator device. It wasn’t long before an Alaska State Trooper helicopter showed up and whisked her and Nookie to safety. Troopers quickly learned Nookie wasn’t Amelia’s dog. His tag had Swift’s phone number, and Swift got the call. After making front page news in Anchorage, the story about Nookie’s help rescuing Amelia went viral. The next thing Swift knew, he and his dog were guests on Good Morning America.
Suddenly, other people began to come forward with their own stories of how Nookie had helped them on the trail; Nookie already had a lot of fans. Lindsey Honemann, of Anchorage, credited Nookie with saving her life after she took a bad fall while snowshoeing on the treacherous trail. Swift started a Facebook page (search “Nanook “nookie” swift”) so that others could post their photos and share their experiences. Before long, Nanook was an honorary Alaska State Trooper and an honorary member of Alaska Solstice Search Dogs. The dog received a “Shining World Hero Award” and $2,000 for dog treats.
A crew from Sony Pictures came from Los Angeles to Alaska for a week to make a short film about his story. “I’m just floored by it all,” Swift said. “I’ve never taught him a damn thing.”
Not too shabby for a rescued little sled dog. Seven years ago, when the Swift family gathered up their bright-eyed pup and brought him home, Scott thought he’d make a nice dog for skijoring. When the skijoring harness came out, however, Nookie scooted under the bed.
He had no interest. It turned out, he was destined for a different kind of job.
Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a frequent contributor to Alaska
magazine and makes her home in Palmer. She and her husband are
avid hikers and had the privilege of hiking with Nookie along the
Crow Pass trail. www.kaylene.us