June 21, 2024

Ellie Mae Returns


Benzonia, our little town of 500 in northwest Michigan’s Benzie County, is abuzz with the story of Ellie Mae, the little black, nearly 18-year-old dog that turned up alive and well after wandering in the woods here for two weeks. Ellie Mae, of course, is the canine matriarch of my family. I reported in an April 12 post that she’d walked off the back porch in half a foot of snow and never returned. She’s back, is in good health, lost some weight, but otherwise is nosing around just like she’s always done.

For years, ever since I picked her up as a stray puppy off a highway in southern Virginia, she’s been my shadow. Ellie Mae’s attended public meetings, run road races, followed me around concerts and parties and gatherings of every sort. She’s spent nights in the car while I attended conferences. She’s run for eight or ten miles on forest trails, ahead of my mountain bike, and logged thousands of miles jogging with me. We’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail in several states. She posed with me in a picture in the Los Angeles Times. After we opened the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 in a historic house up the road, she spent years being the first to greet visitors at the door.

The last couple of years she hasn’t seen too well and doesn’t hear much and waddles around the house on legs that aren’t nearly as springy as they once were. None of us anticipated, though, that she’d trudge off into the snow, so far that we couldn’t find her. For two days after April 10 we looked in the neighborhood, spread the search to surrounding fields and woods, and when we didn’t find any sign, determined that she’d gone off to the great dog hunting ground. 

The day that we ended the search it really struck me.  She was four months shy of her 18th birthday and lived a long and joyous dog life  — full of romps and nose-scharfling in stuff that smelled deliciously foul. She didn’t have a sick day in her life so far as I could tell. I’d finished work that night in my home office and headed upstairs to go to bed. Ellie Mae always followed me, her nails clicking on the wood floor in the hall, and then into the bedroom where she curled up on her bed at the foot of ours. That night, though, she wasn’t there. No shadow. No padding past the bath. No curled up black form, sleek as a seal. No head raised and ears pressed forward when I entered the room.

Ellie Mae has always been independent, so I just figured she’d had enough and didn’t want to make a mess or a fuss about it. Time to go. She went.

Turns out she’d just gotten lost and couldn’t find her way back home, though in this small town there is plenty of evidence emerging now that she tried. So here’s what happened.

On April 24, two weeks to the day after Ellie Mae disappeared, Barbara Stow, a friend who owns a nice piece of ground above the Betsie River (see pix) more than a mile west of me, was walking along the bluff near her house. She heard a plaintive wailing below her, near the bank of the Betsie, and saw a black form, an animal, maybe a dog. It was making quite the scene. Barbara said she wasn’t sure right away what to do since the river bottom was muddy and it wasn’t clear whether the animal was injured, tied up, or caught in a trap. The animal was far enough away and the ground leading up to the river was tangled and soft. She put on her boots, called some friends to help, and when they arrived at her house went down to investigate. As they closed in on the animal they realized it was a dog, that it wasn’t hurt or restrained. And when Barbara took a second look, she turned to her companion and exclaimed, “That’s Ellie Mae!” They gathered her in their arms, walked her up the bluff and Barbara fed her a raw egg and some Rescue Remedy. Meanwhile her neice called my house to let my wife know Ellie Mae was alive. Like everybody who’s heard this story, Pam just cracked up. She called me at the office in Traverse City. “You have to come home. You’ll never guess what’s happened.”

The way she said it, I knew. “Ellie Mae’s back,” I said. “She’s alive.” Then I cracked up. “She’s been out there two weeks,” I laughed. “Two weeks. What did she eat?” 

I was surprised how good she looked. She’s thin and needed a bath, sort of how she looked when she was coaxed out of a drain pipe in the median of US 29 near Blacksburg where I found her in the early fall of 1989. She was about 7 weeks old and was standing along the highway’s edge, trying to cross. But the backdraft from the big trucks kept blowing her back into the median. I saw her for the the first time through the windshield, a little black ball tumbling backwards. I stopped and when she saw a person coming her way, she dove into the drain pipe, just far enough beyond my outstretched hand to remain free. It took an hour to coax her out. I scooped her up in a towel, put her on the floor of the passenger seat. She didn’t move in the car, or in the house, for a full day. After that, she never stopped moving.

You knew right away she was feral, born and raised in the woods. She scratched at the trees for grubs to eat and buried each morsel of food I gave her. Even as a puppy she hunted insects and chipmunks. Once as a three year old she flushed a rabbit from an old stump behind my house in Manistee County, tracked it down with her speed and quickness, and ate it with blood lust in her dark eyes. I figure it was that wild instinct that kept Ellie Mae alive for one week of fairly heavy April snows, and a second week of cold nightime temperatures. 

She tried to let people know she was in trouble. As she slowly made her way down a network of gullies to the Betsie River, about 1.5 miles from here, she howled. We learned that over the last two days. People heard her but figured it was a coyote. She didn’t quit, though. Two days ago she howled and someone heard.

As I write this, Ellie Mae is sleeping by my desk, just like she always does. When I get up, so will she. We’ll head upstairs. It’s a gift. Somehow Ellie Mae was guided to safety and then came back home. 

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