John Blakiston Grey with two Tahltan Bear Dogs
John Blakiston Grey served with the BC Provincial Police in Telegraph Creek, British Columbia between 1938 and 1941. He recorded and compiled birth records for various Tahltan dogs including “Koachan, granddaughter of Kicks and Boots, daughter of Laddie and Fly born 1937, sister of Tippi at Tahltan Village.” Grey was instrumental in having these unique dogs declared a distinct breed.
This is a fictional story.
John Blakiston Grey inspected the small two room cabin at the edge of Telegraph Creek and decided he had cleaned up the official residence of the BC Provincial Police as much as he could.
Grey paced back and forth and finally ventured outside, looking for any sign of the visitors he was expecting. It was his second week living here and still he was unused to the harsh cold compared to the southern part of British Columbia. His superior officer had told him that they would send an additional officer as soon as as possible. For now though, it was just him upholding the law.
Grey had been waiting anxiously to meet the Chief of the Tahltan people, a large tribe that lived in the land surrounding the Stikine River. The cabin was at the edge of town which itself could be pinpointed on the map where the much smaller Telegraph Creek joined up to the mighty Stikine River.
He was outside, rearranging the pile of firewood, when he saw Chief Quock.
Grey invited him inside from the cold and Quock graciously accepted, taking off a large moose hide front sack and placing it beside his snowshoes before stepping inside. Grey served some lunch in the spartan cabin while asking Quock as many questions as he felt he was able without coming across as too naive or nosy.
Quock seemed pleased enough with Grey and afterward they shared a pipe by the fire.
“I think you will be good here.” Quock said as he stood up. “I brought you a dog,” he said.
Grey put on his coat and boots and followed Quock outside just as Quock lifted a small black dog with fox like ears out of the moose hide sack. It was a small lap dog, barely 40 centimetres tall at the shoulder. Grey tried to mask his disappointment. Perhaps, the Chief thought he needed a pet, not a working dog.
“She’s a bear dog,” Quock said.
Grey looked at the small dog with the dark brown eyes. She had a peculiar upturned tail which curved towards her ears and two patches of white on her front paws, almost like a cat.
“It looks like an alert little fellow, what’s its name?”
“Koachan. She’s just a year old but you’ll find her useful as any large dog. She’s a good working dog. The Bear dog, we call them because we used to have them around to get bears and lynx. They’re good trackers too. In the old days when our guns weren’t so good we couldn’t kill the bears or lynx so easily, we used to bring these dogs along to bite them if the bear didn’t stay still. The bear would try to slap the bear dog but the dog was too quick. As my grandfather used to say, ‘he just got to sit or he get bit.'”
Grey knelt down and petted Koachan. He was good with dogs but this one didn’t want to lick his hand or wag her tail. She merely stood still and looked at him.
“When you’re done here, you can give Koachan back to me. She stays with her people.”
Grey stood up, “I will do everything to look after Koachan. Tell me though, does it prefer to be carried about?”
“It’s an old custom. When I was on my way to a hunt, I would carry the bear dog otherwise he would be too tired to do his job when needed. No sense bringing her here looking tired and worn out.”
Afterward, Grey settled into his chair by the fire and puffed methodically on his pipe while the bear dog sat ramrod still by the door. Interestingly enough, no amount of coaxing could bring the dog any closer to be petted and despite the wind outside Grey suspected that is where it preferred to be.
Over the next week or so, Grey became used to Koachan’s habit of sleeping outside in all kinds of weather and in the morning it would be waiting near the front door with nary a sound. It was sometimes hard to remember he even had a dog.
Then early one morning Grey woke from a deep slumber beneath his heavy wool blanket to the sound of howling. At first he thought he must be dreaming but as he pulled back the blanket, he realized the sound was coming from the door. Jumping out of bed, Grey opened the door to see Koachan sitting in her usual spot.
“What’ve you been up to?” Grey said and then he noticed the drops of blood on the snow behind the dog as far as he could see.
“You’ve cut yourself,” he said as if the dog understood.
He carried Koachan inside and put her near the still warm fireplace while he retrieved an old handkerchief and examined her paws, brushed them off and tied it around the one that was injured. Then he offered Koachan some scraps of meat while he got changed.
Koachan didn’t eat anything though, instead she stood facing the door as if wanting to be outside again.
Grey put on his coat and woolen hat and trudged outside, to split some firewood so he could start cooking some breakfast, when Koachan surprised him by tugging on his pant leg and jumping around in circles.
“What is it? You’re acting out of sorts today.”
The dog unleashed a howl that nearly made his hairs stand on end. Grey looked around, almost half wondering if some lynx or other creatures were now going to venture out of the woods. This was only his second week being up in this desolate cabin, as far north as he ever wanted to be.
Grey strapped on his snowshoes as Koachan trotted off in front, carefully planting her feet in the same tracks as before, pausing every so often to turn around and wait for Grey.
Suddenly, the dog halted.
Grey opened his mouth to say something but the words didn’t come. He looked at the dog and then at the body lying face down in the snow, his arms and legs splayed out. The man was dressed in well worn clothes, his head partially obscured by a heavy red scarf.
Turning him over, Grey wondered what it was that had killed the man and what was he doing over here. He recognized him immediately. It was McCleough, one of the trappers Grey had come across when he first arrived at Telegraph Creek. He’d been shot through the back of his coat by the looks of things.
After looking around, Grey noticed the lack of footprints. Someone had taken McCleough’s snowshoes in the process and his gun too. About ten feet away, Grey saw an empty sack with a few contents still strewn about, a plug of chewing tobacco and some playing cards.
Koachan approached the sack, sniffing as she did so. Then without warning, she started off in the direction of the bluffs that rose up from the Stikine River and onto a well worn trail.
As they kept climbing upwards, Grey grew increasingly concerned. He hadn’t brought adequate provisions for a hike like this and the sky was omniously dark with large inky clouds hanging overhead. With every step, the trail seemed to shrink in width to the point where it was barely wide enough for his snowshoe. In the distance, he could see Stone sheep on the other side of the river; white dots against the grey stone of the canyon walls.
Koachan slowed down until she was just a few feet ahead, all black except for the red handkerchief that stood out like a dot against the snow as she plod along as confidentally as a pack horse.
Just when it looked as though the trail was going to disappear into the sky beyond, the trail curved to the right and there was a plateau.
Here Koachan stayed perfectly still and Grey could see the footprints in the snow, some more deep than others. Another set of footprints came from the bush and seemed to collide with the first. At this point it was difficult to discern which footprints belonged to which person.
A few feet away, Koachan started digging at something in the snow.
“What do you have there?” Grey said as he walked over. Nudging the dog aside, he could see that someone had uncovered a leather sack that looked as though it had been partially buried. A cache.
Koachan whined until Grey pulled it out all the way. “There’s nothing left – oh wait, there is something.”
Grey felt the pouch and saw that it contained a set of keys, the kind that would be used for safes. This was both troubling and unusual. What would someone be doing with a set of keys like this?
He was debating what to do when snow began to fall. In a short time, all the tracks would be obliterated.
Grey picked up the leather pouch with the keys and put it in his pocket and looked carefully at the footprints that came from the bush.
Koachan stayed at his side as Grey followed the footprints towards the bush and around a boulder. Suddenly, Koachan tugged on his pantleg.
Around the corner came a man outfitted like a trapper with a thick coat and gloves wrapped around a gun. Grey crouched behind the rock, looking around the side and waited. His own service revolver was of no use from such a distance and he’d rather not alarm someone who looked so volatile.
The trapper kicked the ground as if in frustration. After a few minutes of loitering around, he left in the opposite direction. It was starting to snow now and Grey was getting cold.
Koachan held back as they made their way back along the trail from where they had come. Just as they were on flat ground again, less than a mile from the cabin, Koachan yelped. Grey turned around and saw the trapper coming up behind.
The man waved a friendly hello as he approached.
“I hear you’re the new constable,” he said.
Grey nodded, “Constable Grey.”
“Bad day to be heading out, the snow storm is coming on faster than I thought. Figured I could get the next sternwheeler to Wrangel.”
“The sternwheeler won’t be coming for another day or two. You could always try the inn. What’s your business here?”
“Just checking my lines.”
Grey stomped his feet. “I’d best be heading back. Good to meet you, Mister – ?”
Koachan’s tail was shaking like a squirrel’s and Grey wondered if she was just getting cold.
Grey started on his way again and Martin followed, asking him questions about the provincial police.
“I’ve got a cousin named Smithy in the force. Do you know him? Used to be in the Chilcotin for a while.”
Grey shook his head, they were almost at the door to the cabin and he was too famished to think of a better reply. Koachan, who had stayed at his side the whole time, promptly disappeared.
It was against policy to let in visitors, but Grey didn’t feel like eating by himself again so he invited the man inside.
Grey took off his coat and boots and was putting them aside when Martin hit him in the side of the head and he crashed to the floor.
Dazed, he saw through blurred vision that Martin was ripping through his coat and packsack. What did he want? The keys! He remembered suddenly.
Just as he was about to get up, Martin grabbed the leather pouch and ran out the door, leaving it wide open behind him.
A flash of black fur appeared suddenly from around the cabin and chased after Martin, climbing up his back and biting him until the man yelled and staggered.
Grey grabbed his truncheon and headed out with only his boots on, his feet sinking into the snow up to his knees with every step.
Martin wasn’t going anywhere. “Get that dog off me!” he yelled almost plaintively.
“You’re under arrest!” Grey replied and brought his truncheon down hard on the man’s head.
Days later, Grey learned that Martin had been wanted in Alaska for the robbery of a sternwheeler’s safe which was eventually found hidden along the Telegraph Trail. Both Martin and McCleough had been aboard that fateful journey.
Later that Spring, Grey made the trip to Fort Fraser and met the post commander who presented Grey with a letter of commendation and with it came a new job offer that held the promise of more money and prestige. Grey was reluctant to leave so soon though to the surprise of the commander.
“Think about it Grey,” he told the younger man as he stepped outside and onto the cool sunlit ground just beginning to thaw.
Grey lifted the moosehide sack and two black fox like ears poked up above the top as Koachan raised her head and looked dreamily around.