Natural Observations–Darby!

Natural Observations writer, host and producer Robin Song shares her first weeks with a new puppy. Text follows audio.


 How do you introduce a puppy to the Alaskan way of life? That was the question before me as I drove to Soldotna on October 5th to go get my newest family member. She is an English Shepherd, who was born on August 5th. My Australian Shepherd, Lyra, has been awaiting a partner for almost three years, now, and this little puppy will hopefully become her heart’s companion.

The drive to Soldotna was an adventure all on its own. I stayed with my friend Pat in Anchorage on the 4th, and leaving town early the next morning I was pleased to see several pairs of Trumpeter Swans feeding in Potter Marsh. Turnagain Arm was at the peak of autumn colors, and swans dotted the lakes paralleling the inlet. Four pairs of swans were feeding in Summit Lake as I drove through the Pass, but none of the swans I saw had cygnets with them. Finally, at Tern Lake, one of the three pairs of swans there had cygnets- five of them. A small flock of ducks was also keeping company with the swans.


After the details of procuring the puppy were accomplished, the three of us headed back to Anchorage. Initially the puppy had howled when placed in the crate as we drove away from her parents and the two remaining siblings (of ten puppies!), but after about fifteen minutes she settled in and went to sleep. She awoke two hours later as I was coming up on the Hope turnoff, so I pulled off and took her for her first walk with Lyra. I decided to see how she would do outside the crate and to my relief she laid quietly between Lyra and me and went to sleep and slept all the way to Anchorage.


The next day we headed for Birch Creek Ranch and the puppy’s new life with us. While Lyra is very out-going and loves meeting new people, the puppy is cautious and quiet, choosing to hold back and assess new situations before deciding how to react. Because the puppy’s breed has an English heritage, I spent a few hours on the internet researching Old English female names while the puppy settled in to her new home. After reviewing several lists, the name “Darby” struck me as a good one for her. In Old English, it means “free from envy”- which I think dogs are, anyway.


Because Darby comes from a herding dog breed, I was curious to see how she would react to Jody the mare, and brought her out to the barn with me the next morning. The 1,000 pound horse intimidated the 10-pound puppy, understandably, and it took her a few days not to run back to the cabin and sit on the porch whenever I headed for the barn. Jody is loose, and roams the ranch, so it was inevitable that she would be grazing by the cabin when I opened the door one morning. Darby felt much braver up on the porch, looking out at Jody, and she sat watching the mare for awhile. She decided Jody was perhaps an animal not to fear, for Darby followed me out to the barn that night.


We took our first walk in the hayfields our second day together and she and Lyra ran through the golden grass, tails held high. Each day I take her for a little longer walk, as her strength and stamina improve. On our fifth outing she discovered dried leaves and romped and rolled in these new delightful ‘toys’.


On October 21st the rain let up long enough that I decided to take Darby for her first canoe trip. I went to a lake where I have permission to use a small canoe stashed there. Lyra climbed in and sat down, having taken this trip many times. Darby sat on the cushion in the center of the canoe and watched the paddle as we set out into the water. She soon was enthralled by the water droplets falling off the paddle, and crossed the canoe to watch the drops each time I raised the paddle from the water. She leaned out and pawed at the paddle as I photographed her and then….she fell overboard. My heart skipped a beat as I immediately backed the canoe around while she bobbed to the surface like a cork. She dog-paddled in a circle, heading for the canoe as I called to her and when she got close enough, I reached out and grabbed her by the scruff and popped her back into the canoe. She’d been in the water about ten seconds, Lyra watching her intently. Back on the cushion, she sat shivering. I paddled us quickly to the northwest shoreline and soon the dogs and I were heading into the forest. Lyra and Darby ran across the forest floor, Darby dropping and rolling in the soft lichens. In about fifteen minutes she was almost dry again. I lead us to a point of land where we could look out over two other lakes. Lyra and Darby chased each other, leaping over logs and grabbing dried leaves while I looked for birds. Other than a distant raven, I didn’t see anything, and we soon headed back. To my relief, Darby only took a few moments of hesitation before she came to the canoe and let me lift her in. She dozed as I paddled us back across the lake. So ended her first canoe adventure.


On October 23rd I introduced her to her Alaskan life farther by taking her on her first hike. My friend DD joined Lyra, Darby and me as I took us to a salmon creek. As we climbed the third ridge, I was surprised to spot an adult bald eagle perched on a birch, which bows out over the creek. I knew the salmon had spawned-out by this time, and I wasn’t expecting to find any predators still in the area. The eagle, surprised no doubt by the sight of two dogs and two people, soon took flight and headed on across the valley.


We made our way down to the creek and the dogs leaned out from the shore, Darby watching the water rushing by. And then…she tumbled in. She quickly dog-paddled back to the shore and climbed out. I got a quick photo of my wet little dog before she took off running across the forest floor with Lyra, getting dry, dog-style. My goodness- I will need to keep an eye on this little dynamo when I am around water!


The hike lasted two hours, and Darby ran and played with Lyra and explored the forest, trailing through water-filled bear tracks winding alongside the creek where a bruin had come to dine on salmon. A few fish bones were all that remained of the salmon run. It other years there would still be live fish in the creek, so it had been a meager run, this year. A pair of dippers called from somewhere farther downstream, and a magpie kept us company on our hike back out.


Back at the ranch, when I headed out to the barn that night, the dogs and I were stopped by the sound of a coyote pack yapping and calling from the edge of the hayfield just north of us. I watched Darby as she listened to her first coyotes. Almost everything is a “first” in her life, right now, and I am pleased to share in her experiences. With Lyra as her partner and me as her guide, I wish for Darby a long life full of Alaskan adventures.


By Robin Song for KTNA


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