A stray dog named Nanook is today the most famous animal in Alaska since Stubbs the cat, the alleged mayor of an Alaska town with no mayor.
What a difference the right spin makes.
A dog you can’t name worked his tail off to pull a Norwegian you probably don’t remember to victory in the laborious, 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race just months ago and barely got noticed.
And Nanook – nickname Nookie – is a global, internet hero.
Fantasy news. Simple fantasy news.
What did Nookie do? He did what some dogs are wont to do. He befriended a human.
In this case it was a young, hearing-impaired young woman on a hike along a well-traveled, 23-mile-long trail through wild Chugach State Park adjacent to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.
It might actually have been better for everyone (and saved the state of Alaska money) if Nookie hadn’t been on the trail, but he was and thus begins the story.
The Tale of Nookie
For better or worse, the arrival of the stray, husky mix encouraged 21-year-old Amelia Milling, a vacationing college student from Tennessee studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, to continue a trouble-plagued hike along the Crow Pass Trail between the ski community of Girdwood just southeast of Anchorage to the suburb of Eagle River just north of Anchorage.
As Milling tells it, she had just endured a scary, unplanned, 700-foot slide down a snowfield a short distance north of the 3,550-foot top of the pass. Such missteps regularly end badly, as this one did for Milling.
She bounced off a rock during the slide and was bruised and bloodied when she finally came to a stop. The state’s Crow Creek trail brochure strangely does not warn of the potential danger of the snowfields, which make for fine hiking if the day is warm and sunny, and the snow is soft.
They are something else, however, if the day is cool, and the snow is hard or frozen. Milling discovered in a painful way how treacherous they can be in such conditions.
She was then only about four miles from the trailhead. Bruised, battered and alone in the wild, Milling might well have turned around and gone back at that point, but when she looked around there was a tail-wagging Nookie.
“My first response was, where’s the owner?” Milling, who is deaf, later told Anchorage Daily News reporter Matt Tunseth through an interpreter. “Then I saw the collar and it said (the dog) was a Crow Pass guide, and I realized that he was there to help me.”
Upon that realization, any thought of self-rescue was abandoned and Milling pressed on for another 8 miles or so through the bear-filled wilderness. Nookie was happy to guide her to the ford across the glacial Eagle River where Milling this time got in serious trouble, setting the stage for Nookie to become, with some help from Alaska State Trooper Lt. Eric Olsen, “Alaska’s version of Lassie.”
Olsen gets credit for the turn of phrase the media just couldn’t resist.
“‘He’s Alaska’s version of Lassie’: Nanook the husky helps rescue injured hiker near Anchorage,” Canada’s CBC headlined in parroting the trooper. “Dog pulls woman from freezing water after she falls while crossing Eagle River.”
A growing story
The water was indeed cold, and Nookie did in some way help. But the pulling part was a stretch.
On trying to cross the river, Milling got knocked off her feet by the fast current. She struggled to make the shore. Nookie crossed and recrossed the river while she struggled back to where she started.
Eventually, Milling made it within about a foot of the riverbank, she said in a Facebook text, and there was Nookie. Milling said she saw him while kneeling in cold water up to her chin.
Nanook then grabbed at her backpack and pulled. Given the weight of the wet woman and the backpack full of gear, there was no way the dog alone was going to pull Milling anywhere, but Nanook’s effort did inspire Milling to get moving.
“Nanook helped Milling get out of the water,” Tunseth wrote. The help grew to be a lot more, however, fueled in part by Scott Swift, the man who feeds Nanook when the dog is not out roaming the Alaska wilds, and the troopers.
But that’s getting a bit ahead of the actual facts, the reality of which ended with a wet, cold Milling crawling out of the river and into her sleeping bag to try to warm up. Experienced, back-country Alaska hikers carry an emergency fire starting kit in a waterproof pouch so they can start a fire after an accident like this, but Milling was not experienced.
Wet and cold, she shivered in the bag for several hours before deciding that she was now in a predicament from which she might not get out alive. With Nanook licking her face, she said, she pushed the button on an emergency locator beacon.
Its signal was picked up by an orbiting satellite. Milling’s location was radioed to an earth station in the Lower 48. Troopers were called and notified. And as they duly noted in their daily dispatches the next day, “a Department of Public Safety helicopter was dispatched to the GPS (global positioning system) location. Amelia Milling (age 21 of Chattanooga, TN) was hiking the Crow Creek Trail alone from Girdwood to Eagle River. While trying to make a river crossing Milling became wet and ill. Milling was uninjured.”
Tunseth tracked Milling down after reading the dispatch, wrote his story and then the Tale of Nookie went viral, as they say. Milling summarizes things from there on pretty well:
“Some of the reporters got my story wrong or left out very important details,” she messaged. “And then (and) now other news reporters/journalists are just copying each other. Nookie didn’t entirely pull me out. He bit my backpack and dragged. That helped me to get on my knees to push. It was a pull and push.”
The journalistic shenanigans, however, went way beyond copying. More than a few journalists realized they had a feel-good story in their hands, and there has always been a troublesome tendency among some journalists to ignore the golden rule to just tell the truth after encountering a feel-good story.
It wasn’t enough for some that Nanook provided some assistance to Milling in getting out of the river. They could easily ignore the physics of trying to pull the dead weight of a water-logged swimmer out of a river (go try it; it’s not easy) in favor of the better version of the story:
“Dog pulls woman from freezing water.”
And their exaggerations were only buttressed by the trooper declaration that Nookie saved the young woman’s life.
As for what a dog can actually pull while in Eagle River, well, there’s a video here that at about 3:57 shows what happens to dogs in the water of the river: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J91GUh7EPCo
But what journalist in these days of internet traffic wants to question a feel-good story? The goal is only to advance it into even more of a feel-good story to generate more traffic.
The names of the others coming forward? The evidence for this claim?
A vague statement in the trooper’s “news” story that said “approximately two years ago, a family was hiking the Crow Pass Trail. While attempting to cross the river, a little girl in the group fell just as Milling had. Nookie got ahold of the girl and brought her safely to shore. The family credited Nookie with saving the little girl from drowning.”
KTVA-TV Anchorage jumped on that with no apparent effort to find the unnamed family and added to it with a claim that “then, just a few days ago, (Swift) got a phone call from a woman saying that Nookie saved her friend who was caught in an avalanche a few years ago.
“Swift believes there’s more stories about there (sic), and it’s the reason that he started a Facebook page for Nookie. He wants to know if you’ve hiked with his dog, and in just a few days says he’s heard all kinds of stories from dozens of people.”
Oddly enough, none of these “dozens of people” posted any actual rescue stories on the Facebook page where Swift himself raised questions about the reported avalanche rescue:
“He has saved three folks actually, the third was a woman caught in an avalanche when Nanook stopped from her from sliding to her death… haven’t heard the full report on that one yet tho (sic)”
So what Swift appears to have heard is a rumor of a story.
Has the lack of actual eye witnesses to any of Nookies other rescues stopped journalists from reporting them as if they were fact? Hardly. Many, too many, have been happy to run with whatever they’ve got.
“This isn’t the first time that the dog has done something heroic, Swift says. About two years ago, a family was hiking the Crow Pass Trail when a little girl lost her footing and fell in the river just like Milling did,” wrote Mary Jo Dilonardo at Mother Nature Network. “Swift says he heard that Nanook grabbed her and brought her to shore, staying with her until the family caught up with her.”
Is some reporter really gullible enough to believe a dog went after a small child floating down the river like a wounded tundra swan, retrieved the child, dragged it up on the shore, and then babysat it until the parents arrived? That would have to be a reporter who has never seen a retriever struggling to haul a tundra swan back to shore even in still water.
“With Nanook’s recent fame, other people have come forward saying they’ve hiked the trail with the self-appointed canine trail guide,” Dilonardo added. “A neighbor said a guest at his bed-and-breakfast said she was showshoeing when there was an avalanche and Nanook stopped her from sliding down the mountain.”
The name of the neighbor or the B&B? Why check.
If Swift said this, it must be true, right? People caught in “avalanches” and being pushed down mountains are easily grabbed and stopped by dogs, aren’t they? And lots of parents take their “little girl” on an arduous, 23-mile hike on a marginal trail in the middle of which is a required crossing of a cold, glacial river often thigh-deep on adults, right?
The stories could be true. It’s not impossible these things or some version of these things happened. The problem is that there’s just no evidence that they did. None.
They are rumors which even if based in some fact, as with the rescue of Milling, could be exaggerations.
Nookie didn’t save Milling’s life. Milling’s will to survive saved her life. She got herself to shore, crawled out of the river with whatever limited help (real or imagined) Nookie might have been able to provide. And she pushed the button on a GPS locator to call for the helicopter that delivered her from trouble.
Nookie’s actual role? He was there. He might even have tried to help; good dog. But what a dog can do to save you in fast water is limited.
If you want someone to save you from an Alaska glacial river, take a human partner. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer would be ideal.
Healthy skepticism used to be a key component of journalism. It’s sadly been dying for years to be replaced by the “he/she said it” standard of accuracy.
If someone said Nookie rescued Milling, that’s good enough. If Milling believes Nookie rescued her (even if only by the mere fact of his existence on the scene providing emotional support), he did. If a law enforcement officer compares the dog to “Lassie,” a fictional TV hero, and says Nookie pulled a woman out of a river and saved her life, whose to argue?
Not to mention, it’s a feel-good story. And if the rules are bent to make a feel-good story feel even better, what’s the problem?
We are in the age of Trumpian reality where facts have been redefined to a simpler standard; they are what you want to believe. Objective standards for determining true from false are unnecessary. If it feels good to believe Nookie is a hero, Nookie is a hero.
It’s the joy of fantasy news.