Our Christmas Miracle

This is a story of a Christmas Miracle about our precious little dog, Julian.

For those of you who do not celebrate Christmas, either because it is not consistent with your culture or belief system, or because you for other reasons simply choose not to participate in this holiday, please bear with me. I actually believe Christmas can be a time for giving and connection and feeling good about fellow humans. The more cheesy me also likes the bright lights on houses at a dark time of year, shiny ornaments, and the surprises lurking under colorful and cheerful wrapping paper. I remember as a child that, no matter what might be happening in my life (insert references to physical abuse, poverty, alcoholism, police, chaos, etc.), really cool stuff sometimes happened at Christmas.  My great aunt Delores used her 100-year old foot-powered sewing machine to make us stuffed animals with used clothes that looked unrecognizable as anything other than the very sweet gifts of an elderly woman who cared. Or the St. Vincent De Paul society bringing to us new and shiny gifts we would never have seen without its help.  So, even now, Christmas brings me smiles, fond memories and hope each year, as I look back on and forward to the possibility of good things happening in otherwise dark days. This year, the Holiday Season brought something of a miracle to me and my family.  It’s a great story, with all the right (and true) ingredients: a small, helpless furry little puppy, a bitter cold night with snow and wind, wolves, foxes, cars rushing by, danger, new friends, an outpouring of support, lost hope and sadness, and in the end, something that seemed impossible but true.

Julian in my office in November 2011

Julian in my office in November 2011

I have a puppy named Julian.  Julian is a red long-haired, miniature Dachshund.  He was born on July 12, 2011.  So, he is about 5 months old.  As far as dogs go, even puppies for that matter, Julian is about as helpless as they come, or so we thought.

Enter the cabin. A few weeks ago, we bought ourselves a place in the woods up near the North Shore of Lake Superior. It’s nothing extravagant, but it is a special place for us; small, old, a fixer-upper, no lake, no river, a solid little log cabin on a small piece of land near hiking and cross-country ski trails.  On a cold and windy Friday night in early December, I took Julian to our “new” cabin for the first time. When we arrived, I let him out of his kennel to relieve himself after a long drive (with only one stop) from the Cities.  He did so with great satisfaction, and then looked around for a bit at his new surroundings.  I picked him up and brought him inside.  All seemed okay at first, so I set him down so he could familiarize himself with his home-away-from-home.  Something spooked him.  I am still not sure what it was.  Maybe the smell of a dog that lived there before we bought it, a desire to be at home, with his friends, my other two dogs (Collies: Sophie and Caesar). I had too much to bring with me to bring the collies this time, which was probably a mistake. Whatever it was, it sent him tearing out of the cabin, out the door, under the car, where he looked out, barking at me and the cabin.  I left him there for a moment to haul in some sleeping bags.  Big mistake.  When I went back out 30 seconds later, he wasn’t there.  Looking under the car, no Julian. Gone.

It was nearly dark. I put on my headlamp, which is bright, but couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere near the cabin.  There was no snow (yet) so no footprints to follow.  I walked around the yard for a long time, laying out bits of dog treats, hoping he’d come back.  He did not.  A few hours later, coming back from a walk pretty far down the main road in front of the cabin, a car pulled in.  A woman hopped out of her car, asked if I had been on the road looking for a lost dog.  I said “yes.”  She asked if it was a little red dog.  I said “yes,” hoping she had him in the car.  She saw my tears of relief, told me she did not have him, but had seen him, about a mile further up the road. She told me she’d stopped and tried to coax him to come to her, but he had run off into the woods. Without being asked, she offered to take me to where she’d seen him.  I jumped in and off we went.  Sharon and I introduced ourselves, and she took me to where she’d seen him.  It was snowing a little now, and the wind had picked up.  It was also getting colder, dropping to about 12 degrees.  I was sick to my stomach with worry for him.  I could see his little footprints in the snow, so I knew he couldn’t be far.  I called to him, offered him his favorite treats, but he did not come out from wherever he may have been.  Either he was too far off now to hear me, or he was spooked and no longer cared to be around anyone.

After nearly half an hour, with Sharon driving behind me as I walked up and down the road, Sharon said she really needed to get home, and offered to drive me back to my cabin.  I drove back in my car up and down the road for several more hours, with my wife helping to look after she arrived later in the evening.  We were out for 6 hours, calling to him continuously, and had lost all signs of him (due to the snow and the wind), several times thinking we spotted his tracks on the side of the road giving rise to hope, only realizing later they were too large or were not even dog tracks at all, dashing the hope we had begun to feel.  Bitterly cold, with numb fingers, hoarse throats, and lots of tears, we resigned ourselves to having to go home to the cabin for the night, knowing this likely meant we might never see him our little Julian again. We were wretched with the thought of him being all alone, scared, hungry, in the dark, and freezing. The temperature was now 8 degrees. The last person who’d seen Julian saw him running very fast, in the opposite direction of our cabin, and the only thing in front of him was the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and thousands and thousands of miles of forest and frozen lakes.

The next morning, after a night of fitful sleep and nightmares about what might be happening to our little baby dog at that moment, we drearily got back out onto the road, hoping we could find him, and not as road kill or the remains of a predator.  While looking up and down that road, a young couple driving by, Travis and Molly, stopped to tell us they’d seen our dog the previous evening, even further up the road than we’d been looking, further than we had believed he could travel on his short legs so fast and so far. Without being asked, they said they’d spend some time that day driving back and forth up and down the road to help us find him. We drove up the road to where they’d seen him.  No tracks in the fresh snow.

We stopped at a nearby house, where a car sat outside the door, signs of life in this increasingly sparsely populated wilderness. Mark answered the door. When we told him about Julian being lost the night before, he kindly warned us to keep our expectations low for his survival, especially because he had heard a pack of wolves come through last night, howling as they moved through the area Julian had last been seen.  Without being asked, Mark offered to spend his day off with his dogs to track Julian and find him.

On and off all day that long Saturday we looked. We called the local radio station, and they agreed to put out an announcement that there was lost a little baby puppy in the winter woods.  We called the Sheriff’s office—they offered to keep an eye out for him and call us if anyone saw him. We called the local animal rescue, and a woman named Gay told us she’d put the word out. Gay called back a few hours later, telling us she and three other volunteers had been out looking for Julian but hadn’t seen any sign of him. Later that night, with no sign of Julian, our hopes all but gone, Karen called us. She was a volunteer with the local animal rescue and a friend of Gay. She told me she intended to make an announcement to the Church congregation the next morning at Sunday Services, and would ask for volunteers to search for our puppy.

As a last-ditch effort, on Saturday night, after the sun went down and the forest returned to an ominous darkness, we threw treats and bologna scraps onto the road, hoping to create a trail for him to find his way back to us. No such luck.  Late into the night, we called to Julian.  No response.  No footprints. Silence, except for the howling wind through the trees.  Hope had fallen to a new low with the setting sun. At one point, we glimpsed what we thought might be our little buddy off in the snow.  A flash of red fur and the gleam of little eyes peeked just barely above the hill leading down into a ditch.  I slammed the breaks, put the car into reverse and revved back down the road about 40 feet.  The tuft of fur was gone, and then it reappeared.  It was not Julian.  It was cute, and furry, and dangerous… for Julian.  It was a red fox, eating something, walking nonchalantly past us, through the glare of our headlights, still chomping, across the road and down into the ditch on the other side.  This was our sign to return to the cabin and wait out another night of bad dreams about our puppy freezing or being attacked by that red fox or his cousin the grey wolf.

Prior to the weekend, we had planned to leave Sunday morning.  With Julian missing, we could not tear ourselves away from the place, so we stayed well into the afternoon, still with some glimmer of hope for the impossible: that Julian would miraculously survive the bitter cold, the wolves, the fox, and all other manner of danger to a small puppy who’d never been more than a few yards from the feet of his family, that not only surviving, he would be found by some unknown volunteer, or a neighbor spotting him under their porch, or that he would be seen running down the road, hungry enough to come to the call of a stranger, despite his fears.  The weather had turned for the better.  It was a bright, clear Sunday morning, with temperatures rising into the 30’s. Unseasonably warm.  It had not been as cold the night before, staying above 20.  If Julian had survived Friday nights low temperature, maybe he survived last night.

I woke up Sunday morning with the dream that I had heard his demanding and assertive high-pitched yelping off in the distance. Fully awake, I knew it could only have been a dream.  Putting some dishes away, I realized I’d woken our daughter, sleeping on the futon in the living room.  I apologized. She said she was already awake, having dreamed she heard Julian barking. I just about ran to the door, threw it open and called and called to Julian, a tiny glimmer of hope having come back to me after my dark mood the night before.

There had been no sign of Julian now for nearly 48 hours. Until now, I hadn’t told anyone other than the townspeople and my mother that we had lost Julian.  I had been waiting, not wanting to cause unnecessary concern, in case we found him.  It was time.  We had given up. The chances of his still being alive were clearly slim to none at this point.  So, I texted a few friends, including those who had encouraged me to buy a mini-dachshund.  Of course they cried, like I did. Without being asked, they offered to drive all the way from the cities to help search. When I told them there was no point, that he was already gone, they agreed that was almost certainly true.

Sunday afternoon, we decided to take one last walk around the property where our cabin sits.  This was not intended to even be a search for Julian. We merely wanted to take a last look at the property we would be returning to on other weekends, in winter and summer, for many years to come.  We had given up all hope of finding Julian, and only prayed that, if he were still alive, which at this point seemed all but impossible, he might approach a house, looking for scraps of food, and we would get a call later in the week.

A few hundred feet from the cabin, on the edge of a little cedar wood, our daughter heard a clinking of metal, she looked over, and saw him, saw his orange sweater, his red fur, his wild eyes, he was running, not toward us, but away from her, terrified, she said.  Our daughter cried out, “it’s him!  It’s Julian!  It’s him, he’s back! It’s Julian!”  Running to catch up to her, my wife found him in a little bush, hiding from us. She slowly sank to the ground on her knees, afraid to frighten him further.  “Is it really him?” I yelled, bringing up the rear.  My wife said “yes,” in a hushed tone.  “Don’t scare him.  Try to get behind him in case he runs.”  So I did.  She sat there with him in the bush for nearly five minutes, gently calling to him. She took of her hat, gloves, and jacket so she would be smaller and more familiar to him. Eventually, the wild animal left his eyes, he seemed then to finally recognize her, and step by step slowly crawled out from under the bush toward her, until he was close enough to grab him, and when she did, she cried, “I have him, I have him, it is him.”  We all burst into tears of joy and relief.  He was thinner, scared out of his wits, disoriented, very thirsty, but okay, no scars, no bleeding, no bite marks, no frostbite.  Julian was back with us, whole, and healthy.

Less than a half an hour after we found Julian, and before she had time to even listen to the voicemail I’d left telling her we’d found him, Gay from animal rescue pulled into our driveway, so we got to tell her and show her in person that we’d been the recipient of a gift, a miracle, really of a puppy that could not have survived two days of winter by himself in the vast wilderness, and yet he did, here he was, a miracle.  When I called my friends in the cities back, they cried again (we cried together).  Without being asked, they had sent out a prayer chain message, and within 15 minutes 0ver 100 people were praying for Julian’s safe return.  Karen told me over the phone that,  when the pastor had made an announcement to the congregation at church that morning, there was both silence and audible gasps of concern, and that many people had told her they’d be on the lookout for him.

I want to be able to tell you I never gave up hope. That is not true though.  I had given up hope.  Late on Saturday night, I went out one last time to look for him.  I went by myself.  I had lost him, and felt a guilt for it that seemed to punch me in the stomach every couple of minutes.  I needed some time on the road to accept that I would never see him  again.  I drove for a couple of hours, looking up and down roads he could not possibly have reached, some of them 10 miles from the cabin. I wasn’t ready to come back, though, until I had given up all hope. And I did.  I sat in the driveway outside the cabin to finish my crying, walking in with dry, but puffy eyes, to a dark house, where everyone was already in bed.

This is a story of a miracle.  By nearly every rational and reasonable calculation, there is simply no way Julian could have avoided the wolves, the fox, the cold, the wind, the snow, the miles of wilderness between where he had run and our cabin. There is no chance that he could have found his way back after venturing so far in unfamiliar territory, a little (6 pounds) puppy with the survival skills of a pampered city lapdog.  It seems now almost as if he had been planted there, right there, where we would see him, when we weren’t even looking anymore, having given up the search, ready to leave, to go home without him, to admit a final defeat.

Julian at the dog park on Novbember 17, 2011

Julian at the dog park on December 17, 2011

This is also a story of generosity and kindness, of so many people, so many strangers, who took our concern for Julian as their own concern, who offered me a ride in their car late at night, without a moment’s hesitation, who offered again and again without being asked to spend their precious time and energy to look for a dog they’d never met, for people (us) they’d never met, who gasped in church when they imagined what it might be like for a little tiny puppy to be off in the woods all by himself scared out of his wits, lost, hungry, cold.

Finally, this is a story of survival, and fortitude, and love.  I have no idea how Julian found his way home. Was it the prayers, or God, or instinct?  All three?  I do not know.  What I do know is that, somehow, he did find his way back, all on his own, and I choose to believe he somehow could feel our love, and our loss at the thought of not seeing him again.  Like a warm glow on a cold winter night, maybe in his heart there lies a beacon, telling him how to find his way back to those who love him so much, and who felt so much pain when he went away.

Copyright, 2011, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.