It is hard to sleep while dreaming of wolves killing, tearing apart and eating your dog. This grim possibility and that dream kept me restless and sad for three nights after my great Inuit sled dog, Jasper, went missing from The Steger Wilderness Center last week. IMG_8396 Will told me Jasper would head North. He was right.

Two months earlier I adopted Jasper from Ely Outward Bound. He was being retired at age ten after attaining lead dog status for the last six years. He has been all over Quetico, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Hudson Bay. On March 22, 2016 Jasper arrived back at Outward Bound’s Homeplace from his last winter sled dog expedition. The next day I picked him up and our relationship together began.

My daughter Gracie and her guy Ed are veteran mushers at Outward Bound who know Jasper well. When Gracie learned Jasper was being retired she told me he was a smart, sweet and funny Husky. IMG_3948 She also told me I was spending far too much time alone. She was right and I knew it.

Jasper had never been off a leash or a lead in his entire life. He had never been in a car or climbed a set of stairs. Our learning curve was steep. I had no idea what to expect from him if I were to simply let him go to experience the freedom of self-determination for the first time in his life.

When we arrived at The Center, Will suggested we bring Jasper, on leash, to the various construction sites IMG_4911 IMG_4534 going on at the time, to give him a sense boundaries — where he would receive tons of affection and attention from the work crews. IMG_5329 IMG_5337 This routine we followed for two weeks.

Then one early Sunday morning while Will and I were drinking hot tea down in Hobo
Village (where I am Mayor), IMG_5284 Will said, “Let’s let Jasper go and see what he does.” I agreed and set him free to go where no one else would decide his path for the first time in his entire life.

Freedom made Jasper euphoric. He wandered, ran and pranced while walking the residents back to their tents in the woods. In the morning he would go up to the apprentices’ tent campIMG_4840-2 to wake them up in time for breakfast. One afternoon he even crossed the immense bog below the cliff near the edge of the rim where Big Jake’s tent is pitched. IMG_5538 Each night Jasper returned from his travels down to the lake and Hobo Village to find a place to sleep close by my tent. IMG_4255 All was hunky dory like this for four days and nights.

The sky on the fourth night was as clear as I have ever seen. The Milky Way showed billions of stars. Awe was in the air. Jasper and I were sitting side by side on the newly built floating barge IMG_4875 used to haul tons and tons mined stone from the quarry on the west end of Will’s lake over to the outskirts of Hobo Village, where it could be transported to the three masonry projects currently under way IMG_5386 IMG_4504. We had been sitting together star gazing for about an hour when, far to the East end of Pickett Lake, a pack of wolves began howling their lonely, lonely chorus. Jasper perked up, cocked an ear towards the sound and listened. Next, on the other end of the lake a second pack cranked up their howling response. Jasper tilted his head so far backwards he could see behind himself and added his deep voice to the wolf packs’ choir. I was only a foot away from him. The sound was thrilling. I remember feeling blessed to simply exist on such a night and in such a spectacular Universe sitting with my great howling Husky.

The next morning Jasper was nowhere to be found.

Around noon two days later I called the Ely police to report my missing dog. The woman who answered told me someone had called to report a stray Husky somewhere up the Echo Trail. But the Echo Trail runs all the way up to Orr, so the information was of little use except to help raise my sagging hope I would ever see Jasper again. Meanwhile Will was calling WELY radio with daily reminders to get the word out and ask listeners to help find and return Jasper. I called the Ely Veterinary Clinic to advise them of the situation and posted an 8×10 photo of Jasper on their bulletin board that afternoon. IMG_3406

Now my own schedule became a problem. An important photo assignment and wedding in Minneapolis required me to leave the Center for several days. I was heartsick. At home, two days later, I received a phone call from the Ely Vet Clinic; they had Jasper, safe and sound.

Jasper had wandered twenty miles North, all the way up to Angleworm Lake, where he walked into the camp of a man and woman just as they had finished eating their evening meal. They spotted his dog tag, welcomed him to their camp, tied him to a tree, cooked him a meal and went to bed. The next morning they shared their bacon and eggs with him, broke camp, returned to their car, put Jasper in the back seat and delivered him the clinic. I was overjoyed at the news.

People are good.

Written by John Ratzloff

Photos by John Ratzloff and Leah Nordquist

John (Johnny Ray) Ratzloff has been a professional photographer for 30 years and photographing the center for over nine years. Before doing photography for Will, Johnny Ray worked at the White Earth Indian Reservation.
Johnny Ray’s hometown is in Ramsey, Minnesota on a farm which was certified organic in 1977. His lifelong friend Peter Wahlstrom has been canoeing with him for 25 years. He was with Peter when he first heard about the center at a fundraiser which Will was speaking at. Jerry Stinger, Will’s videographer, invited Johnny ray and Peter to Iceball at the Steger Wilderness Center a decade ago. “We went to Ice Ball and we haven’t stopped coming back since,” Johnny Ray said.
“First time I drove here it was astonishing. The more I learned about it, the more fantastic it became,” Johnny Ray said.
“Will was hauling a million pounds of sand by dogsled in the beginning from Ely. He’s expanded the notion of what I believe is possible, because the dream of this place needs to be completed, Johnny Ray said. “This is a place for inspiration and it’s going to take inspired people to get us out of this mess we’ve made,” Johnny Ray said.
“I think (The castle) is one of the most important buildings in Minnesota, possibly internationally for its design, quality, beauty and purpose.
Johnny Ray believes that he’s gotten younger in spirit when he spends his summers up here. “I have real severe back problems,” he said. After getting a surgery and physical therapy, his doctor prescribed walking on uneven ground, which describes the terrain of this place very well.
Johnny Ray loves millennials for their wisdom. “They don’t care as much about cars, like my generation did,” Johnny Ray said. “I failed as a businessman in New York. I was working with very little satisfaction. Then when my first child was born, I started to care about the environment and clean water, so I grabbed my camera and got to work,” he said.
Johnny Ray’s first impression of Will was largely disbelief. “He has such an array of talents. He’s quirky, funny and tough,” he said. “He’s got dog stories that will pin your ears back. Luckily, Will’s writing a book about his dog stories. I also think he’s a perfect candidate for AARP because he’s a cancer survivor who’s doing solo expeditions still,” Johnny Ray said.
As the mayor of Hobo Village, Johnny Ray brings wisdom, fairness and plenty of captivating stories to the community. The last 3 years of interns have impressed Johnny Ray. “Each group has worked hard while being harmonious with each other,” he said.
“I discovered my purpose here, and my purpose is to get this story out,” Johnny Ray said.