Thanks to the kindness of their Canadian neighbors, the Hayes family of North Pole, Alaska, received an unexpected early Christmas present this year: the return of their beloved family dog, Yukon.
Owner Jeff Hayes, a helicopter pilot in the United States military, was on a 7,000-kilometre road trip from Alabama, where he had been previously stationed, to his new post at North Pole. His wife and three children had flown up at the end of summer, he says, so the kids would have time to adjust, which left Hayes and Yukon to drive up at the end of October. About 4,500 km into the trip, Hayes stopped at the 80 Mile rest area outside of Fort St. John to stretch his legs — which is when things took an unexpected turn.
Hayes adopted Yukon in 2015 from the local animal shelter when he was stationed previously in North Pole. Yukon had been neglected and abandoned by his previous owners. The dog has trouble trusting strangers and gets frightened if someone pulls on his leash too hard or too suddenly. Hayes knew this, but his brother-in-law, who was travelling with him, did not. When it was time to get back into the car, his brother-in-law gave Yukon a tug to direct him. Yukon panicked, slipped his collar, and just “took off” Hayes says.
“Somehow, Yukon just slipped right out of his collar and left my brother-in-law holding an empty leash,” Hayes says.
“We called and called, but he didn’t come back.”
Hayes and his brother-in-law searched for the dog for several hours but could find no trace of him. The weather was starting to turn bad, and, concerned about the long drive still ahead, Hayes made the difficult decision to go on without Yukon. Before he left, he put his name and contact information on a brief note explaining what happened and left it at the rest stop.
The two men stopped at Toad River — another six hours from the rest stop — for the night, where Hayes received word that his dog had been spotted back at 80 Mile. A winter storm had blown in, he says, and Hayes was on a tight schedule to start back to work with the military. Turning around for him would mean another 1,000 km and another two days lost.
Hayes had no choice but to leave his dog behind.
“It broke my heart,” he says. “But I just couldn’t go back to get him.”
Compounding matters, Yukon wouldn’t let anyone come close enough to catch him. Over the course of the next few weeks, Yukon became a familiar sight to people frequenting the rest stop. People took to leaving food, but he wouldn’t let anyone touch him. Someone even tried to live-trap him, but Yukon figured out how to get the food without tripping the mechanism which would trigger the trap.
“He’s really, really shy,” Hayes says. “He just wouldn’t let anyone get within touching distance.”
Towards the end of November, with winter closing in and the weather turning truly cold, Hayes says he was approached by Fort St. John veterinarian Justin Sewell for permission to tranquilize Yukon so he could be caught. Hayes readily agreed.
It wasn’t quite that simple, however, says Sewell. Volunteers with the North Peace BC Branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (SPCA) went out with an oral tranquilizer, provided by the vet, that was cleverly hidden in a tasty meatball. Yukon gobbled up the bait, but it only made him groggy, not approachable.
“He got sleepy,” says Sewell. “But he would still avoid (the volunteers).”
Seeing no other option, Sewell went out himself and “darted” Yukon twice with a tranquilizer gun.
“Within 15 to 20 minutes Yukon started to get groggy…. We actually had to stop traffic for a little bit, because he staggered out onto the road and passed out on the yellow line,” he says.
Despite his skittish behaviour and his resistance to being captured, Sewell says Yukon was not truly aggressive, only scared.
“As soon as we got a leash on him, he climbed right up into the truck. Once in awhile you see a dog who is terrified, but would never think about using their mouth as a weapon,” he says. “I’d put Yukon in that category.”
Sewell and the volunteers got Yukon safely into a truck and took him to the shelter for a meal and a warm place to sleep.
“I felt very badly for (Hayes),” Sewell says. “It wasn’t like an abandoned animal — he couldn’t turn back, he had to go. It couldn’t have been an easy decision. There’s a lot of traffic in that area… for (Yukon) to hang out on that stretch of highway for two weeks without being hit is a miracle.”
Now that Yukon was safely at shelter there was still the problem of how how to get him back to his family, Hayes says. The North Peace SPCA and the Watson Lake-based Yukon Animal Rescue Network (YARN) put their heads together and eventually got in touch with Edmonton-based Capital Trucking, who asked driver Nick Stoneburgh if he would let Yukon come up with him on his next Alaska Highway run.
“I’ve always tried to help people out — especially to do something like help kids get their dog home,” he says. “Most truckers have a really big heart.”
On Nov. 28, Stoneburgh picked up Yukon from the shelter in Fort St. John in his shiny red Western Star rig. Yukon rode shotgun in the cab for two and half days with Stoneburgh, mostly sleeping curled up on his blanket and occasionally putting his two front paws up on the dash to look out the window at the road. It took him a while, Stoneburgh says, but towards the end of the trip Yukon warmed up to him a little, and even lay his head in his lap while he drove.
“He was very well behaved — better than some human passengers I’ve had,” he said with a laugh.
“I’ve been doing this route for years and early on (the other truckers) nick-named me ‘The Yukon Kid’ because I was always so in love with the Yukon,” Stoneburgh adds, “And here I am, delivering Yukon the dog home for Christmas.”
On Nov. 30, at 5:30 p.m., Hayes met Stoneburgh at the U.S.-Canada border in Beaver Creek for the handoff. Hayes says that, on top of the sleigh-red truck, Stoneburg even looked a little bit like Santa.
“Nick was just fantastic. It’s hard enough doing that route without a dog,” Hayes says.
Hayes then drove home to North Pole with Yukon, where he was reunited with the rest of the family, where his “very excited kids” were waiting.
“Our youngest is 15 months … he was the most excited out of all the kids,” Hayes says. “Yukon is doing great.”
“I still cannot believe this whole adventure and how many people came together to help my dog,” Hayes says, adding that, on top of returning his dog to his family, the SPCA also sent Yukon home with a new dog tag, complete with a Canadian flag on one side.
During the time Yukon was away, Hayes says his family started a crowdfunding page, which has raised $1,700 for the North Peace SPCA and YARN.
“I can’t believe all the good people in British Columbia and the Yukon,” he says.
“We’re just so moved and touched.”
Contact Lori Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org