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The Whale Heist

As we motor across the choppy Alaskan water on our way to Clark’s point to shower, my dog Roy neurotically bites at the icy cold spray kicked up by the boat, and it occurs to me that bringing him commercial fishing that summer had been a questionable call. I’d rescued Roy as a puppy in Costa Rica a year earlier, and the increasingly lanky part-Greyhound, part-Ridgeback mutt had been by my side ever since. However, his proclivity for biting at moving water and tires (including speeding truck tires) and emitting throaty yowling sounds whenever some aspect of life met his disapproval, were wearing thin on the crew. To make matters worse, he’d learned to climb ladders. Specifically, he’d learned to climb the steep wooden ladder leading up to the loft in the cabin where our crew slept. For reasons unbeknownst to us, Roy would only lie down on my captain Greg’s sleeping bag and, in the process, successfully smear the carnivorous mud and dead fish goop he enjoyed rolling in on the banks of the slough. Unlike his bizarre vocalizations, this move actually made Roy popular with the crew who'd watch with glee every time Greg found a rancid, mud-covered dog on his bedding. Greg, despite his gentle disposition, would yell, “Gosh darn it Roy! Get the heck off my stuff!” as the cabin erupted into laughter. Clearly insulted by Greg’s tone, Roy would direct a look of insolence his way and then step down three rungs before leaping to the ground. I was surprised, therefore, when Greg had suggested bringing Roy on our shower mission to Clark’s point, the little fishing community primarily inhabited by natives and a few industry workers. His reasoning had been, “If Roy gets a bit of socialization and exercise, maybe he’ll chill out and stay the hell off my bed.” At the time, this rationale had seemed highly unrealistic, but now, as I watch Roy poised at the bow of the boat like a proud general, I find myself smiling and decide it might be good for him to run with some other dogs as long as he doesn’t start any problems.

It takes us twenty-minutes to get to Clark’s Point thanks to slightly rough waters and, as we motor up to the pier, I notice a large group of people gathered on the pebble-strewn shore. Greg, after brushing a strand of long hair aside and peering toward the group, exclaims, “Wow, cool! It’s an annual Beluga subsistence catch. Only natives are allowed to hunt whales, but they’ve shared meat with us in the past. It’s pretty tasty—almost like beef.” I find myself hoping that we get to try some if only for the sake of adding another unusual experience to my list of adventures, particularly one I couldn’t ethically justify in any other circumstance. However, desire for the weekly shower to rid ourselves of fish stink overrides curiosity and, after securing the boat and leashing Roy, Greg and I head toward the public showers where we’ll burn through handfuls of quarters in order to stretch out the heavenly experience. He asks, “Aren’t you gonna let Roy run free? I’ll keep an eye on him if you want to shower first.”

I’m pleased with this generous offer, but I’m also wary of letting Roy loose. It’s not that he would bite someone or anything like that, but Roy seems to have an uncanny ability to find trouble. Greg, noticing my hesitation, adds, “He’ll be fine. The dogs around here are really friendly, and I’ll keep Roy in sight.”

I nod, my will to shower overriding worry, and unclip Roy’s leash. Up until that moment, Roy had been calmly trotting beside me, seemingly indifferent to the whole experience. He’d even ignored a local dog following behind a thickly-bearded man. However, his disinterest had been a trick! The moment after I unleash him, he bursts into motion, lets out a primal bay, and is around the corner of the building before we can blink, his grey-hound butt disappearing in a cloud of dust. Greg, arching his eye-brows, says “Whoops. I guess that was the wrong call.”

“C’mon!” I shout. “You’re helping me find him Greg! This was your dumb idea!” He grudgingly agrees and we begin running in the direction Roy had disappeared. Anyone who has ever had an unpredictable dog suddenly dash away into a public space knows the array of potentially disastrous outcomes that flood through one’s mind while in pursuit. However, as we clear the buildings and arrive back to the shore, what I see is not what I expect. Greg, who'd pulled up beside me out of breath, wheezes a simple, “Holy crap!”

Instead of Roy disappearing off into the distance like I'd feared, he is barreling toward us with what appears to be a giant piece of whale blubber clamped in his jaws. A few months earlier, I’d run Roy beside my truck on a deserted frontage road, and he’d gotten up to thirty-miles an hour before losing steam. Now, it appears as though he is clocking about the same speed and, even more impressive, trying to simultaneously gobble down the meat by tilting his head upward with each massive bite. A solid thirty-feet behind him a pack of furious, howling dogs give chase as they try to catch the thieving interloper. They are, however, too slow and, before they can close the distance, Roy manages to reach Greg and I while chomping down the last of his stolen prize. His arrival is nearly like a cartoon as he scrambles to shift from 30mph to a dead stop in a few feet and kicks up clouds of dust all over us. For a second, I am unable to see through the dust and I fear that the furious pack of dogs will descend upon Greg and I. However, although they continue their accusatory barking, they stop short of us seemingly uncertain as to how to proceed now that two strange humans have entered the picture. Roy, licking the last of the blubber off of his snout, flops down beside my feet in the parody of an obedient dog. Scowling, I quickly leash him and offer a few expletives his direction, all of which he ignores.

The standoff continues for what feels like an eternity. I’m about to turn and attempt an escape, when I notice a man break away from the group of locals and head our direction. Before reaching us, he emits a single shrill whistle and the pack of dogs cease their barking. Even more impressive, they tuck their tails and slink off in a variety of directions. Greg, chuckling, says, “Too bad that guy didn’t train Roy.” I glare at him in response.

The man, who has a kind, weathered look about him, approaches us and asks in a gentle Yupik accent, “Your dog?”

I’m internally preparing to be chewed out and respond with sigh, “Yeah, I’m so sorry.” Then, somewhat lying, add, “It’s not like him to dash away from me like that.”

The man nods. “The smell of fresh meat will do that.”

Fearing the answer, I ask, “Did he steal that meat from you guys?”

Shaking his head, the man replies, “No. Just from the scraps we give our dogs, though he did manage to grab the biggest piece before he ran.” A second later, after looking down at Roy with an appraising glance, he adds, “That is a fast dog . . . and even a faster eater.”

That evening the locals share BBQ whale with us despite the afternoon's incident. As a result, Greg is in a jovial mood on the boat ride home until Roy throws up half-digested pieces of whale blubber right beside his captain's chair, at which point Greg yells, "Gosh darn it Roy!!"

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