After a deaf hiker fell 600 feet down a mountain, a rescue helicopter finally spotted her wrapped in a sleeping bag. As they got closer, they realized she wasn’t alone.
Undeterred by her disability, Amelia Milling, a deaf 21-year-old Rochester Institute of Technology student, planned a 3-day solo hike on Crow Pass, a 23-mile trail in the Chugach mountain range of Alaska. On the second day of the hike, the deaf Tennessee college student hit some snow, fell, and broke her trekking poles. Then, one wrong step caused her to fall over 300 feet down a hill, crashing into a large boulder before she was launched another few hundred feet down the mountain.
“I felt like I was flying,” Amelia recalled. When she landed, she was bleeding and bruised. Her first thought was that her dream vacation was over, but she’d soon realize that her situation was much worse than that. Amelia had plummeted 600 feet down an icy mountain, and although she had somehow managed not to break a single bone, it would still be a challenge for her to find the path by herself. Then, she realized she wasn’t alone.
“He showed up suddenly out of nowhere. I thought he was a wolf at first until I saw the bone tag,” Amelia said, recalling the moment a white dog appeared. The 7-year-old husky, who she would later learn was named Nanook and affectionately called “Nookie,” was wearing a silver bone-shaped tag that read, “Crow Pass Guide, Return to …” with his owner’s address. But, the dog would help return the human to where she belonged, not the other way around.
For the next day and a half, Nookie refused to leave Amelia’s side. “He gave me the motivation to get up and walk another seven miles,” Amelia said. “If he didn’t show up, I probably wouldn’t have gotten back up and kept walking that much,” she added, referring to “Alaska’s version of Lassie” after Nookie helped rescue her.
Nookie led Amelia back to the trail and continued hiking with her until nightfall. Amelia set up her tent and invited Nookie inside, but he seemed to prefer the great outdoors to the small tent. Amelia expected Nookie to be gone in the morning, but when she woke, the faithful husky was still there. “I realized he really was sticking with me when he greeted me in the morning when I unzipped my tent. He had stayed the entire night next to me,” Amelia recalled.
It’s a good thing he did because the hiker was about to get in big trouble at the Eagle River crossing, a freezing, fast-moving river fed by a glacier. “I attempted to cross it twice with no success. On the second time, I fell and the water really pulled me,” Amelia said. “I was stuck in the water for more than 15 minutes until Nookie bit my backpack and pulled,” she recalled. Although Nookie managed to get Amelia out of the icy water, she wasn’t out of danger.
Hypothermic and dazed, Amelia jumped in her sleeping bag to stay warm. It was dry since she had put it in a garbage bag in her backpack before attempting to cross the river, but Amelia wasn’t safe, and Nanook knew it. “She thought she was going to lie there until she recovered and then she would sit up and kind of gauge where she was at. She just wasn’t recovering. The dog kept licking her,” Amelia’s mother, Sharon Milling, explained.
Amelia wanted to warm up and try crossing again, but Nookie wouldn’t leave her alone. Luckily, his persistence paid off. “After a while, I took the SPOT (satellite messenger) out of my pocket and then put it on the ground next to my head. When I did that, Nanook went into circles. That’s when I realized that I really was not OK and that he was telling me to press it,” Amelia recalled. “I’m telling you, the moment I finally pressed it, (he) stopped acting crazy, walked a few feet away, and took a nap. I don’t know how but he knew.”
Amelia stayed huddled on the side of that river for several hours after the “SOS” button on her SPOT device alerted Alaska State Troopers and sent a message to her mother and sister in Tennessee. She struggled to stay awake, but numbness and tiredness eventually overcame her. Finally, troopers in a helicopter spotted her wrapped in her red sleeping bag. As they shook Amelia awake, Nookie was curled up beside her.
Amelia was checked out at a medical center in Anchorage, and Nookie was taken home. “I was definitely pretty floored. It sends chills up my spine when I think about it. I certainly didn’t train him to do anything like this,” Scott Swift, Nookie’s owner, admitted. “It’s a pretty powerful feeling that this dog had this instinctual ability to want to go help people.”
Amelia Milling spent time with Scott and the dog she credits with saving her life as she recovered. Nookie was spoiled with lots of treats and named an honorary Alaska State Trooper for his heroic efforts, but little did they know, this wasn’t a first for the free-spirited husky. According to Scott, Nanook often disappeared for days at a time and returned home with hikers or skiers he met and traveled with along the trail, hence the reason he engraved the dog’s collar with the title “Crow Pass Guide Dog.”
After Amelia’s rescue, however, Scott realized his pet was doing much more than keeping hikers company. The dog, who Scott had rescued at an adopt-a-pet event in a local Walmart parking lot, had made it his life’s mission to rescue others. Nookie had saved three other hikers, and Scott said he “kinda wouldn’t doubt if there’s more out there,” so he started a Facebook page to find out.
Within days, he heard dozens of stories. And, there’s sure to be more as Nanook continues to take solo adventures on Crow Pass. Just in case he’s presented with the opportunity to rescue another hiker, the husky has been fitted with a GPS beacon on his collar. “With a free spirit like that … I feel like I’d be keeping him in jail if I kept him tied up,” Scott said.
With such a heroic instinct, Nookie’s ability to roam free isn’t just a benefit to him but to all those he encounters. If there’s any doubt how lucky Amelia Milling was, the rescue crew had been on two other search and rescue missions in the previous 24 hours, but both of those hikers had been killed by bears. Amelia’s still undeterred, however. She wants to finish hiking Crow Pass, but next time she hopes to do it with other people as well as Nanook.