With the worst of the cold weather behind us, I hope the animals that usually live outdoors are warm and safe.
For many years we had a wonderful Alaskan husky. He was named Attu after one of the Aleutian Islands, and he was convinced he was a member of our family.
In 1971 after some bad storms, I wrote that Attu enjoyed them thoroughly. He was out in the snow pushing his nose through the drifts and rolling and barking to encourage his favorite playmates to come out and join him. Before long, Jeff and Craig were bundled up and rolling in the drifts along with their dog.
During that particular storm, Jeff and Craig had helped their father carry in some extra firewood. If the power went out, we could build a fire in the fireplace and stay warm.
Attu would bound to the top of the wood pile and survey the surrounding territory. After awhile he would choose the topmost log and leap down with it from his high perch. He would carry the log around the yard, tossing it in front of himself, grabbing it again, and lugging it to another part of the yard. He would drop the log and return to the top of the log pile to repeat the entire process.
Robert told me he was trying to figure out how to get Attu to bring the logs to the back door rather than leaving them scattered around the yard.
Attu came to us as a gift from friends in Nebraska who heard we had lost our previous dog. In fact, we had a series of wonderful dogs dating back to our earliest years on the farm. First had been Sparkle, a friendly barnyard dog who kept Robert company when he was milking cows.
Sparkle was followed by Silver, a white dog picked out by our four-year-old son Bob. After Silver passed away we had a brown collie named Bonnie and then a black collie named Wheels.
Next came Attu.
At first Robert was not excited about having another dog, especially one that he didn’t have a chance to help pick out. Attu needed some attention from the vet, and for awhile Robert called the new pet his hundred dollar dog, because that’s how much he calculated we spent on vaccinations and other treatments.
Before long, though, Robert and Attu were inseparable. Our boys were going off to college, and that left a big void in the house. Attu stepped in to fill it admirably. When Robert was working in the garden, Attu was right there with him. When Robert went for hikes in the bluffs, Attu came along.
Attu was always an outdoor dog. In cold weather we would let him come into the house to warm up, but he soon let us know he was ready to go back outside.
Robert had built a sturdy dog house that was lined with fresh hay. One time Robert went into the dog house with his tools to make some repairs. To fit inside, he lay on the floor. Some neighbors saw just his feet sticking out.
“Looks like Evelyn has Robert in the doghouse again,” they said to one another.
Even with the warm interior as a retreat, Attu was often happiest sitting on the roof of the doghouse with his nose pointed north, as if he could smell Alaska in the wind.
Sometimes he would nap in a snow drift. He would burrow in and, because of his white fur, completely disappear. Then he would suddenly spring into action, digging into the snow bank in search of something he thought he heard. My sons said Attu was chasing imaginary snow gophers.
For the rest of us, deep winter weather can be a hardship. It can also be a calm time of year after all the excitement of the holidays. Nature knows this. The earth lies dormant. Trees are bare of leaves. Seeds and roots are motionless beneath the frozen soil. The creeks and ponds are covered with ice.
Soon, though, all will return with renewed strength as the sun shines more hours each day and the cycle of growth turns again toward activity. For animals that have enjoyed the cold and for the rest of us, too, spring will soon be here with plenty of warmth and light to go around.
When he was in college, my son Jeff wrote a guest column. He included a recipe just in case Attu someday caught an imaginary gopher in a snow drift.
Attu’s Imaginary Snow Gopher Stew
by Jeff Birkby
3 medium snow gophers, freshly caught
1 large handful dog chow
1 cup of French dressing
1 cup beef gravy
1 bay leaf
Place snow gophers in large bowl. Cover with dog chow and French dressing. Add gravy. Throw away bay leaf. Serve in well-used, cracked dog dish. If expecting guests, add another gopher.